Francis Little, or Brooke, for he used both names interchangeably, was one of the most significant figures in Abingdon’s political life about the turn of the seventeenth century. Originally from Henley, he became a freeman of the town in 1587, and within five years was serving the first of four terms as mayor. He would also be twice master of Christ’s Hospital, the local charity that was of at least equal importance and probably of greater prestige for its governors than the Corporation; he was once the town’s member of parliament; and several times a churchwarden of St Helen’s.
Little is unique in his time, for his actions and writings give us a reasonably clear picture of his character and beliefs, which is not the case for any of his contemporaries. We see that he was always ready to take on any civic task that might need doing, such as auditing the Hospital accounts or travelling to London to negotiate a new charter. He was responsible for the refurbishing of the Hospital hall in the years after 1605, and the acquisition of the portraits of donors and benefactors that grace it to this day. He was equally involved in a major project in 1605 to repair, re-gild and repaint the market cross, an imposing structure of which Abingdon was proud, and he contributed generously towards the cost. In local politics, he met intense opposition, but fought his corner and usually won. His great achievement was the new ‘chapters’ which, starting in 1599, revised and modernised the rules by which the town governed itself. He must have been an able politician and a formidable committee man. In old age, he became the first serious historian of Abingdon; his manuscript of 1627 describes the development of the Holy Cross Fraternity and of the Hospital, and praises their benefactors down to his own times.
The tradition that Little personified and that underlay the ‘chapters’ and his other activities was a venerable one: the holistic idea of a harmonious urban society where all men counted, each according to his degree, but where it was wealth and experience that carried the responsibility of working for the good of the community and equally the duty and privilege of ruling it. Such principles were the reverse of democratic, but were neither cynical nor necessarily self-serving. They would last, although increasingly contested, until the Civil War, a decade or so after Little’s death.
© AAAHS and contributors 2013