Nottinghamshire’s Bitter 1593 Election | History Today - 6 minutes read

In 1593 the threat of Spanish invasion was still rife, even five years after the failed Armada. Queen Elizabeth required money to cover the expenses of defending England and a Parliament was called. The 1593 election to choose the two MPs who would represent Nottinghamshire in that Parliament forced the county’s powerful families to take sides. The election would become a violent and bitter farce.

In 1590, upon the death of his father, Gilbert Talbot became earl of Shrewsbury. As lord lieutenants of Derbyshire the Talbots were the main authority in the county. However, Shrewsbury was ambitious and aimed to expand his influence into the neighbouring counties. Nottinghamshire was vulnerable as two successive earls of Rutland had recently died, leaving the 11-year-old Roger Manners as earl. Due to his age he was not appointed Lord Lieutenant of Nottinghamshire and the office remained vacant. Shrewsbury coveted this office which would have cemented his influence in Nottinghamshire. To achieve this, he needed the support of the local gentry, but he faced a determined resistance from Sir Thomas Stanhope, nominally on behalf of the young Rutland.

The Stanhopes were a wealthy and influential family in Nottinghamshire, but Thomas was a factious man who clashed with other Nottinghamshire families over land, politics and, especially, religion. A forceful Protestant, he wrote a letter to Sir Gervais Clifton when he heard Clifton’s wife Winifred Thwaites refused to attend church. Clifton complained that Stanhope had threatened to ‘Come to Clifton armed with men’ to personally drag him, his wife and their young children to church ‘in chains if needed’. Stanhope had previously tied another Nottinghamshire Catholic to a chair and had him carried to church. However, Clifton was one of the most powerful men in Nottinghamshire and Stanhope’s threat of violence turned him, and his many local allies, against Stanhope and, later, into an alliance with Shrewsbury.

Stanhope and Shrewsbury repeatedly clashed over religion. While outwardly a Protestant, Shrewsbury was lenient to Derbyshire Catholics and under his lieutenancy many Catholics were returned to power. In 1592 Stanhope wrote to his many allies at Court that Shrewsbury’s leniency was proof of his Catholicism. He furthermore claimed that Shrewsbury’s Catholic wife Mary Cavendish ‘whispered her treasons’ into Shrewsbury’s ear and had made Derbyshire a ‘bastion for heresy and papalism’. Shrewsbury demanded retribution for these false claims, but the queen personally intervened to defend her ‘old friend’ Stanhope, ordering an end to their hostilities. The 1593 Nottinghamshire election reignited the conflict.

In the 16th century the electorate were restricted to wealthy landowners, and each election was heavily influenced by local magnates. Shrewsbury’s influence was well established in Derbyshire, where both his chosen candidates were elected, including Henry Cavendish, who was both Shrewsbury’s step-brother and brother-in-law. His influence was weaker in Nottinghamshire, however, where he was opposed by Stanhope and his allies.

In Nottinghamshire Shrewsbury chose as his candidates his step-brother Sir Charles Cavendish (brother of Henry) and Phillip Strelley. Strelley was a local gentleman of middling wealth, but he had many allies in Nottinghamshire through marriage, including the Willoughbys of Wollaton. While Strelley was widely liked, Cavendish was despised; Stanhope claimed he was not even eligible for election as he owned no land in Nottinghamshire. Stanhope, meanwhile, chose himself as a candidate, a bad choice given how many Nottinghamshire landowners he had alienated. As his second he chose Thomas Markham, another powerful Nottinghamshire gentleman and long-standing ally of the earls of Rutland, whose honour Stanhope claimed to be defending.

The gentlemen of Nottinghamshire were bitterly divided. Roughly a third supported Stanhope and Markham, including the remaining allies of the earls of Rutland, and local Protestants. Shrewsbury, meanwhile, gathered an alliance of lesser landowners who owed their appointments as Justices of the Peace for Nottinghamshire to his influence. Most important to his campaign, however, was the support of a faction of religiously conservative gentlemen. This faction included the Cliftons, whom Stanhope had previously threatened with violence, alongside Clifton’s allies Sir John Byron and Sir Henry Pierrepont. Pierrepont was not only Shrewsbury’s brother-in-law, but also despised Stanhope after he had lobbied for Pierrepont’s removal as a Justice of the Peace for his Catholicism. The support of these powerful conservatives, alongside those Shrewsbury had elevated to power, gave him influence over about a third of the Nottinghamshire electorate. The final third remained neutral, but would have to choose sides between the religiously conservative, ambitious and famously short-tempered Shrewsbury, or the forcefully Protestant, factious and widely disliked Stanhope.

No sooner had the election been called than tensions were enflamed, resulting in several armed confrontations and widespread vandalism. The results were a farce. Elections for Nottinghamshire were usually held at Shire Hall, where Stanhope gathered his supporters. But, according to the account Shrewsbury wrote to the Privy Council to justify the election, Stanhope’s men were armed. Shrewsbury used this as an excuse to order the High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, Sir Francis Willoughby (Strelley’s brother-in-law), to move the election to Nottingham Castle for safety, without informing Stanhope. With Stanhope and his supporters absent the election was an overwhelming victory for Shrewsbury. When Stanhope realised what had transpired, he furiously wrote to the queen to demand ‘retribution’ for this ‘affront to justice’. However, tired of this dispute, she ordered both men to ‘cease their petty squabbling’ and threatened fines for any who did not help ‘return the county to peace’. Her pleas were ignored.

The ironic result of this dispute was that despite this violence and chicanery, little was achieved. Shrewsbury’s candidates Strelley and Cavendish would serve as MPs, but did nothing of note in Parliament and, despite his candidates winning, Shrewsbury was never appointed Lord Lieutenant of Nottinghamshire, likely due to his conflict with Stanhope. The office would remain vacant until 1626. Stanhope continued his opposition to Shrewsbury with legal suits and armed violence, but he was consistently defeated and only saved from prosecution because of the queen’s intervention. Stanhope died in 1596, aged 56, but, even after his death, his son-in-law Sir John Holles continued the dispute for another decade.


James Kendrick is a PhD student at Nottingham Trent University.

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