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Sutton Coldfield (Royal Status)

Volume 582: debated on Thursday 12 June 2014

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Gyimah.)

I am grateful for having been granted this Adjournment debate—my first for at least 10 years—on the subject of the re-assertion of the royal status of the town of Sutton Coldfield. The debate is particularly timely because last Friday Mr Speaker visited my constituency and the royal town, when he addressed my constituents in our historic town hall.

Over the last year there has been a tremendous campaign throughout Sutton Coldfield to validate, prove and reassert our status as a royal town—not a royal borough, for that is a local government structure, but as the royal town of Sutton Coldfield. We were granted this status many centuries ago during the reign of King Henry VIII.

Since 1974 Sutton Coldfield has been part of Birmingham for local government purposes. This is greatly resented, particularly by my elder constituents who at the time marched and petitioned against the loss of our borough council. Indeed, the late Edward Heath, Prime Minister at the time, told me that his office received more letters on this matter, in opposition to the change, in the month before it took place than on all other national and international matters.

This change of status inevitably led to a perceived diminution in our individual identity in Sutton Coldfield, and the emergence of a “North Birmingham” entity with which Sutton has never concurred and has never accepted. Of course, in Sutton Coldfield we understand that local government arrangements are but a small part of what we are. We remain, in our view, an ancient royal town deeply proud of our heritage and history, and conscious of the fact that local government arrangements, while important, are a relatively modest part of the fabric, nature and activity of Sutton Coldfield. Within the town, there is a society, an organisation or a charity for almost every enthusiasm and activity one can imagine, and many of them continue proudly to sport the royal connection.

Over the last year or so, I have led the campaign to reassert our royal status and royal heritage. Of course, we are not seeking something new, nor are we seeking any legal change. We wish merely to reassert something that we claim never to have lost and which we have enjoyed down the centuries: that the royal town of Sutton Coldfield bears this title in perpetuity, as clearly documented throughout our history.

The campaign to reassert our royal status has been supported extensively throughout Sutton Coldfield and hundreds of people have come forward with evidence to support our claim. This campaign has been given terrific support by the award-winning and much admired local newspaper, the Sutton Coldfield Observer, under its experienced and respected editor, Gary Phelps, with the support of one of his journalists, Elise Chamberlain, a rising journalistic star who has spent many hours sorting through evidence and has braved many a dusty archive in diligently carrying out her investigation.

The Sutton Coldfield Observer energised the search for historical precedent, with local residents of Sutton Coldfield searching through heirlooms and attics and discovering a mounting cohort of evidence which earlier this year we were able to lay before the Cabinet Office Minister responsible for this matter, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark).

The senior councillors, including Councillor Anne Underwood and Councillor Margaret Waddington, alongside honorary alderman David Roy OBE, former lord mayor of the city of Birmingham, and members of the Sutton Coldfield Civic Society, led by Elizabeth Allison BEM, have spent much time and effort researching and investigating our case. My distinguished predecessor Lord Fowler of Sutton Coldfield has given his vigorous support, as has the Lord-Lieutenant of the West Midlands, Paul Sabapathy CBE, another distinguished local resident. Prior to the delegation from Sutton Coldfield that visited the Minister earlier this year, I held a series of meetings with the Garter King of Arms, the College of Arms, the Crown Office, the Cabinet Office and officials at Buckingham palace. I would like to record my thanks to them all for the sympathetic hearing, and the helpful advice and guidance they offered. These matters are both more complicated and more labyrinthine than they may appear, steeped in history and precedent as they are.

Throughout this joint investigation into the history of Sutton Coldfield’s royal town status we have found no evidence to prove that our royal title has been either lost or repealed. Instead we have uncovered a great deal of evidence that shows that Sutton Coldfield was granted royal status in 1528 in perpetuity. Although this fact has been taken for granted locally until comparatively recently, documents show that Sutton Coldfield was referred to as the royal town of Sutton Coldfield in an official capacity up until 1974. However, under the Local Government Act 1972, to which I referred earlier and which heaved Sutton Coldfield into Birmingham for local government purposes, that point was not addressed. We believe we have now found precedents, not least precedents governing Scottish royal towns, which put this right and which I hope my right hon. Friend will address in his response.

In 1528, Bishop Vesey obtained a charter from King Henry VIII which referred to Sutton Coldfield as

“the royal town and village of Sutton Coldfield”.

Born at Moor Hall farm, Vesey became a confidant of the King, a status he managed to maintain throughout his life, in sharp contrast to many of the King’s other confidants, who came to a grisly end, as devotees of “The Tudors”, the brilliant television series, will attest. As a young priest, Vesey was appointed chaplain to Henry VIII's mother, Elizabeth of York, and when the King acceded to the throne he became a close adviser to him and was rewarded for his loyalty with the bishopric of Exeter in 1519. He was one of the six bishops to accompany Henry VIII to the famous meeting with Francis I of France at the field of the cloth of gold in northern France, which at the time, of course, was part of England. For much of the rest of his life Bishop Vesey endowed and supported his home town of Sutton Coldfield by plundering his bishopric of Exeter to our very great advantage—an advantage that still benefits us today in Sutton Coldfield through the work of the Sutton Coldfield Charitable Trust, which dispenses largesse to many worthy and brilliant organisations throughout the town.

In the charter granted in 1528 the following statement is made:

“And that the same town and village shall for ever hereafter be accounted, named and called, The Royal Town of Sutton Coldfield, in our County of Warwick”.

Bishop Vesey, who still rests in Sutton Coldfield parish church, gave the town Sutton park, the biggest municipal park in Europe. He oversaw the regeneration of the town centre, much as we are seeking to do today on the back of Britain’s rescued and newly vibrant economy. He also built our town hall, in which Mr Speaker spoke last Friday, and founded one of our two grammar schools, which still proudly bears his name. He rebuilt the marketplace to encourage trade, with paved streets, new roads and bridges constructed to promote it.

Sutton Coldfield today abounds with signs of royal association. Our royal status is proclaimed in the arms of Sutton Coldfield. The gold greyhound and red dragon derive from the coat of arms of early Tudor kings and were incorporated as a direct result of King Henry VIII’s decision to grant Sutton Coldfield the charter of incorporation as a royal town.

From that point on, Sutton Coldfield had secured its place in our national history. Shakespeare sent one of his best-loved characters, Falstaff, to Sutton Coldfield on the way to the battle of Shrewsbury in Henry IV Part I. Falstaff says:

“Bardolph, get thee before to Coventry; fill me a bottle of sack: our soldiers shall march through: we’ll to Sutton-Co’fil’ to-night”.

I feel the warm approbation of the Secretary of State for Education upon me at this point. It is believed that this mention was a result of the Bard’s family connections with Sutton Coldfield, where it is claimed he had well-to-do relatives residing at Peddimore Hall, a later version of which still stands and was originally owned by the Arden family, relatives of Shakespeare’s mother. The farmhouse has “Deus noster refugium”—God is our refuge—inscribed above the doorway. Given the constant threat to our green belt in Peddimore, it is probably quite apt.

A second charter was granted to Sutton Coldfield by Charles II in 1662, which simply restored those powers bestowed by Henry VIII 134 years earlier, and confirmed all the privileges previously granted.

A third charter, granted by Queen Victoria on 31 December 1885, saw the ancient and royal town of Sutton Coldfield become a modern municipal borough. Importantly, there is no mention of the royal status being withdrawn.

The royal town status of Sutton Coldfield was recognised again in July 1928 when, on the 400th anniversary of the granting of the charter by Henry VIII, the town celebrated by holding a pageant. Thanks to diligent local research, we have located a printed programme of festivities, which includes a letter from Buckingham palace after His Majesty King George V had received a copy of a book of the pageant. The letter reads:

“In thanking you I am commanded to express His Majesty’s best wishes for the success of the Pageant which has been organised to commemorate the four hundredth year of the granting to the Town of a Royal Charter by King Henry VIII.”

Once again, in 1957, the royal town status was recognised when Her Majesty the Queen visited the town for the world scout jubilee jamboree. Similarly, we have located an official programme of the event, which refers to Sutton Coldfield as both the royal town of Sutton Coldfield and the borough of Sutton Coldfield, which we contend refers both to our status of royal in perpetuity and to our local government arrangements.

Although such programmes and details bear no legal status, they do, I think, indicate what was a clear popular understanding at the time and, significantly, one not contradicted or gainsaid by the authorities. Nor are we seeking any legal instrument affirming all that I have said.

Our conclusions at the end of this long campaign, based on extensive research and evidence and on a case supported overwhelmingly throughout Sutton Coldfield by many thousands of local residents, are that in spite of the vast changes our town has seen over more than four centuries, since Henry VIII granted the royal charter in perpetuity, there is no evidence to suggest that that royal town status has ever been revoked, and we therefore seek reassurance tonight that we can proudly rely on that and use it in a sober and appropriate way forthwith.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), who has represented Sutton Coldfield so ably for more than 13 years now, on securing this important Adjournment debate and on the campaign that he has led which has been so trenchantly, supported throughout Sutton Coldfield by his constituents.

My right hon. Friend thought that the Secretary of State for Education might approve of his references to Shakespeare, but I think that our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport ought also to approve of the theatrical rendition he gave. As his constituency is not far from the home of the Royal Shakespeare Company, David Tennant, Sir Ian McKellen and various other luminaries should watch out now that we have seen the talents of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield.

I have followed this campaign with close interest. This interest is, of course, bolstered by the fact that I represent the town of Royal Tunbridge Wells where we too are proud of our royal connections. As my right hon. Friend mentioned, I had the great pleasure of receiving his delegation in Whitehall earlier this year. On that occasion he brought with him others involved in his campaign and it is clear that the partnership between my right hon. Friend and the editor and journalists on the Sutton Coldfield Observer has developed into a strong and sustained effort throughout Sutton Coldfield that has captured both the enthusiasm and support of local residents.

The evidence that the Sutton Coldfield Observer has collected—as well as how it was presented to me and my officials in a formidable dossier that has pride of place in my office—was of deep historical interest and would be to anyone who looked closely at these matters. It also showed the importance that citizens attach to their local heritage and the interest in and commitment to the history of their local surroundings that people feel.

My right hon. Friend set out the long relationship that Sutton Coldfield has had with the Crown. This began when the manor of Sutton passed into the hands of the King during the reign of William the Conqueror. The royal manor of Sutone gets a mention in the Domesday Book. For reasons that are not recorded, the Crown gave away its royal manor in Sutton Coldfield in 1135, but the fortunes of Sutton Coldfield were revived, as my right hon. Friend has said, by John Harman, better known as Bishop Vesey, after lying dormant for some years. Returning from his bishopric in Exeter to Sutton Coldfield in 1524 to attend his mother’s funeral, it is recorded that Bishop Vesey decided that something needed to be done to regenerate the town.

He obtained the charter of incorporation from the King in 1528 that bestowed on Sutton Coldfield the status of royal town. That charter reads, as my right hon. Friend said:

“the same town and village shall forever hereafter be accounted, named and called the Royal Town of Sutton Coldfield in our county of Warwick”.

As my right hon. Friend set out in his speech, Bishop Vesey, having secured this royal recognition, went on to regenerate the town and gave people access to Sutton park by making it a royal forest, allowing Suttonians to use its resources.

Indeed, Sutton Coldfield’s emblem of the Tudor rose also finds its roots in Bishop Vesey’s association with Henry VIII. According to folklore, King Henry VIII was hunting in Sutton Park as the guest of Bishop Vesey when he was charged by a wild boar. Before the boar could reach the King, it fell dead with an arrow through its heart. The King’s saviour emerged from the woods and turned out to be in the form of a beautiful young woman. When she told the King her family had been dispossessed of their property, he ordered that restitution should be made to them. To the young woman he personally presented the Tudor rose, which he decreed should henceforth be the emblem of Sutton Coldfield.

Having looked carefully at all these matters, I fully understand the pride people in Sutton Coldfield feel in their royal heritage and the history of their town. As my right hon. Friend said, the local government reorganisation of 1974 incorporated—I think he used the word “heaved”—Sutton Coldfield into the city of Birmingham for administrative purposes. I am a great admirer of that city, and as my right hon. Friend said, many Sutton Coldfield residents have served with distinction in the city of Birmingham. I am looking forward to attending a conference there next month on one of our great civic heroes, Joseph Chamberlain, organised by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart).

That was not the first local government change to affect Sutton Coldfield. The town became a municipal borough in 1885, and although it was not designated a royal borough, the title of royal town continued to be used, as my right hon. Friend has demonstrated. In that respect, there are some similarities with my own town of Royal Tunbridge Wells. Since 1974, there has not been any local government authority called Royal Tunbridge Wells, the newly formed borough having taken in several adjoining urban and rural district councils. Nevertheless, the use of the town’s royal title continues.

Our two towns have other things in common, too. We have had more than our fair share of celebrated residents over the years. I note with interest that Sutton Coldfield has been home to much-loved national figures including Sir Roger Moore and—perhaps she is in that category—the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy). Tunbridge Wells boasts many pillars of the establishment, too, such as Sid Vicious and the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown).

The case that my right hon. Friend and his colleagues have made is clear and simple: while there is no corporation or similar legal entity that carries the royal title, there is no reason why the lack of a local council should prohibit the continued reference to Sutton Coldfield as a royal town. I am very sympathetic to his argument, but he will understand that I must be guided by established precedent in an area that is often complex. I am pleased to tell him that in my researches I have become aware of a clear and helpful precedent. A number of Scottish towns are in an analogous position to Sutton Coldfield, in that local government reorganisations did not carry forward their royal titles into the names of the new authorities. In 1977, the Government of the day clarified that, notwithstanding the absence of a local government body containing the royal title,

“There is no statutory ban to the continuance of historic titles for other purposes.”—[Official Report, 6 December 1977; Vol. 940, c. 694W.]

There being no statutory ban, I am not surprised that my right hon. Friend and his constituents should wish to use the title. In other words, I am pleased to be able to confirm today to him and his constituents that there is no statutory prohibition on the use of this historic title. I can therefore confirm also that there is nothing to prevent the people of Sutton Coldfield making use of their historic royal title.

Mr Deputy Speaker, you will know that Mr Speaker had the pleasure of visiting Sutton Coldfield just a few days ago, to speak to Suttonians from the university of the Third Age in the historic setting of Sutton Coldfield’s town hall. While neither he nor you will have known the contents of this Adjournment debate, it had already been granted.

The results of this long campaign in the town will appear in the Hansard record of our proceedings, which will no doubt be read with considerable interest across Sutton Coldfield. The debate also brings to a close uncertainty on the matter, which I know will be hugely welcomed by my right hon. Friend, Sutton Coldfield’s tenacious and invincible Member of Parliament, its much respected newspaper, the Sutton Coldfield Observer, and all in the town. I warmly commend him and all those involved in his campaign and I look forward to visiting Sutton Coldfield in due course, not least to deliver my own greetings from Tunbridge Wells to its residents.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.