LIKE some other aspects of its history, Morpeth’s elevation to a parliamentary borough was the result of Royal policy.
It sprang directly, however, from two earlier events. One was William de Merley’s choice of Morpeth as the centre of his barony. What he chose was not a town. It was a hillock near a strategic river crossing where he could put up a timber castle, giving him total control of the ford and a high degree of security for the least effort.
The other was Roger de Merley II’s decision to establish a town, borough and market late in the 12th Century. This was of critical importance. Even where a place was already a town, there was no necessity for the lord of the manor to make it into a borough.
Bedlington had its own law officers and courts, but the Bishop of Durham never raised it to borough status; and he only made Gateshead one on the most miserly of terms.
The Greystokes followed the de Merleys as lords of the manor. Thomas, Lord Dacre of Gilsland, fought at Bosworth Field when he was only 18. His fortune was modest. His estates of Gilsland and Burgh-by-Sands were constantly under threat from the Scots, and worth no more than £300 a year. But his marriage to Elizabeth Greystock, Baroness Greystock and Wemme, increased his revenues by £850. Good management raised the total to £1,500, making him one of the richest men in England.
He was Warden-General of the English marches from 1511 to 1525, and frequently resided at Morpeth Castle. Alec Tweddle’s Town Trail No. 4 shows how suitable Morpeth was for the purpose, being centrally placed and well supplied with provisions for both men and horses.
Dacre could only carry out the duties of his post by having good relations with his Scottish counterparts. In 1504 he and James IV of Scotland joined forces against the thieves of Eskdale and played cards together during lulls in the action. This quietly effective way of keeping peace on the border had Henry VII’s approval. Twenty years later it was seen as fraternising with the enemy.
Worn out in his 50s, Dacre begged to be relieved of office, but had to soldier on as best he could. In 1525 his parleying with lawless borderers brought him before Star Chamber accused of ‘bearing of thieves’. He was imprisoned and dismissed, released soon after, but died in October from falling from his horse.
His son, William Lord Dacre, served under his father as Captain of the castles of Norham and Carlisle, and as Deputy Warden. But in 1525 Henry VIII appointed others to positions that Dacre regarded as his by right. He gave so much trouble that in the end Henry reluctantly made him Warden of the west march. Despite his insubordinate behaviour he remained a loyal servant of the crown under four successive monarchs: Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary, and Elizabeth.
In 1534 he was accused of treason for holding cross-border talks in time of war, and tried in Westminster Hall. The chief witness against him was a former servant, Sir William Musgrave. The judges found Musgrave’s evidence malicious and Dacre was acquitted to cheers. But Henry VIII still fined him £10,000 as the price of his pardon. And as Steven G Ellis says in ODNB, Dacre practised ‘studious loyalty’ thereafter.
Obstreperousness apart, Dacre’s fortunes depended much on religious affairs. He himself stood by the old religion. In Edward VI’s reign he spoke in the Lords against the Book of Common Prayer, and opposed the Bill permitting clergy to marry. Reform was moderate under Protector Somerset and Dacre’s military service in Scotland stood him well. But after Somerset’s disgrace, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland (not to be confused with the Percies, whose title was in abeyance) made peace with Scotland, and the young king wanted radical change. For both reasons, and because the Tudors didn’t like border barons becoming too strong, Dacre lost his wardenship in 1551. He was again imprisoned, this time for feuding with the Musgraves.
As Edward VI, the founder of our school, lay dying in June 1553, he and Dudley agreed that his cousin, Lady Jane Grey, should succeed him, and not his sister Mary. Dacre supported Mary Tudor. Queen Mary restored his wardenship; and since she needed the support of Parliament for her policy of reinstating Roman Catholicism, she also made his borough of Morpeth into a parliamentary borough returning two members.
The choice of Morpeth had little to do with the peculiar merits of its burgesses, only that they should elect Dacre’s preferred candidates. Morpeth was not, however, the only place he could have chosen. Brampton and Wem must have been possibilities, and there may have been others. Brampton is an ancient town with a market dating from 1252, but I cannot find that it ever had a corporation.
Like Morpeth, Wem in Shropshire was owned by the Greystokes. Its market charter was granted by King John in 1202 and Ralph Lord Greystock gave them a burgess charter in 1459. It was governed by two bailiffs, one appointed by the lord and the other by the burgesses. Samuel Garbet, in his History of Wem, describes how in 1561 Lord Dacre launched an inquiry into its customs. To the surprise and consternation of the burgesses, the charter of 1459 was found to have been erased and rewritten by persons unknown. A new charter was only issued in 1564, after Dacre’s death.
This gives us our best clue as to why Morpeth was chosen. The burgesses of Morpeth being the sole electors, it was important to know who was a burgess and who not. The customs of Wem were uncodified and therefore open to dispute, whereas Thomas Lord Dacre had thoroughly reorganised those of Morpeth in 1523 in a charter known as the Dacre Rules.
Fear of attack by the Scots was real in 1553, and even after the union of the crowns in 1604 was not easily forgotten. As long as that was so, the burgesses willingly elected whoever had Lord Dacre’s support. In the long run, however, although in theory the burgesses were the sole electors of two Members of Parliament, it was Lord Dacre and his successors who controlled the electors.
Read more about the Dacres in ODNB, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. You can access it online with your NCC library card.