The Royal Town of Sutton Coldfield

Speech To The House by Andrew Mitchell MP - June 2014

Mr Speaker, I would like to thank you for granting me 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. This debate is particularly timely, Mr Speaker, in view of your own visit to the Royal Town just last Friday when you 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. This is a status we were granted 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 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, a charity for almost every enthusiasm and activity one can imagine and many of them continue to proudly sport the Royal connection.

Over the last year or so, Mr Speaker, 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 which 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 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 Honourable Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells.

The Senior Councillors, including Councillor Ann 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 West Midlands Paul Sabapathy CBE, another distinguished local resident.

Prior to the delegation from Sutton Coldfield which visited the Minister earlier this year I held a series of meeting 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 helpful advice and guidance which 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 which 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, this 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 Honourable 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 grizzly end, as devotees of “The Tudors” – the brilliant television series – will attest.

As a young priest he was appointed Chaplain to Henry VIII’s mother Elizabeth of York, and when the King acceded to the throne he became a close advisor 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 which 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 you, 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, when 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, Mr Speaker). It is believed that this mention was a result of the Bard’s family connections to 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 DEVS NOSTER REFVGVM, meaning 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 of 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, and 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.

Whilst of course 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.

So, Mr Speaker, our conclusions at the end of this long campaign, based on extensive research and evidence, based 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 that we can proudly rely on that and use it in a sober and appropriate way forthwith.

Historical Newspapers

'The Old Photographs of Sutton Coldfield' Compiled by Marion Baxter Ken Miles Lee Vale-Onslow - Friends of New Hall Mill Sutton Coldfield Observer