Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1386-1421, ed. J.S. Roskell, L. Clark, C. Rawcliffe., 1993
Available from Boydell and Brewer


1386John Bidewell
 Jocelin Antony
1388 (Feb.)Thomas Norris II
 William Long I
1388 (Sept.)John Sampford
 Roger Rede
1390 (Jan.)Thomas Norris II
 Robert Crook
1390 (Nov.)
1391John Aston I
 Robert Cobbley
1393Richard Colecote
 John Herberd
1394Thomas Norris II
 John Bidewell
1395Thomas Norris II
 John Bidewell
1397 (Jan.)Robert Napton
 Thomas Holman
1397 (Sept.)
1399Thomas Hoper
 Walter Spencer
1402Robert Napton
 John But
1404 (Jan.)
1404 (Oct.)
1406Thomas Holman alias Pyers
 John Luttrell
1407John Bakwell
 John Hunt II
1410Alfred Wonston
 John Foxley
1411Nicholas Broomford
 Alfred Wonston
1413 (Feb.)
1413 (May)Thomas Haseley
 John Broomford
1414 (Apr.)
1414 (Nov.)John Pyne
 John Walwyn
1416 (Mar.)
1416 (Oct.)
1420William Weldo
 Walter Prideaux
1421 (May)John More II
 Richard Wood
1421 (Dec.)John Cokeworthy II
 John Trebell

Main Article

The poll tax returns of 1377, which noted Barnstaple’s adult population as no more than 680, suggest that the town was then only about one third the size of Exeter and a seventh that of Plymouth. But in the assessments for taxation made in Devon in 1334 Barnstaple had come next after these two places in economic importance, and seems to have held that position for the rest of the century. Standing by the tidal waters of the Taw, Barnstaple was the only port of any consequence in north Devon, it had the largest annual fair, and it was the market centre for one of the most fertile and populous parts of the county. Barnstaple’s importance rested chiefly on its export of cloth, in which it excelled Exeter, and this no doubt contributed to the apparent prosperity of the burgesses in this period, as indicated by their loan of 40 marks to Richard II in 1397 (when Plymouth contributed £20 but the other Devonshire towns lent nothing), and reflected in their exertions to win independence from the lords of the borough.1

Since the 11th century Barnstaple had been the centre of the honour or barony of the same name. It was a mesne borough, held from 1343 by James, Lord Audley of Heleigh (d.1386), and from 1388 by John Holand, earl of Huntingdon. Shortly after the latter’s rebellion against Henry IV in 1400 and his consequent forfeitures it was granted with other estates to his widow Elizabeth, the King’s sister, and her second husband, Sir John Cornwall.2 None of the lords of the borough ever resided there, and this circumstance doubtless assisted the townsmen in their moves towards self-government. Tradition has it that the first charter was granted to the people of Barnstaple by King Athelstan. In fact, it seems clear that this charter never existed, and, moreover, that all subsequent charters purporting to have been conceded by Henry II, John, Henry III, Edward I and Edward III were fabricated in the 15th century by the ingenious method of copying charters granted to Exeter and securing an exemplification of them from Chancery.3 However, Barnstaple certainly had a mayor by 1210, and copies of court rolls of the early 14th century show him presiding over ‘the guild of the borough of Barnstaple’. It seems reasonable to assume that, as happened elsewhere, the guild provided a focus for corporate activity in a borough whose lord retained most of the powers of local government. Certainly, the earliest mayor’s roll, which dates from 1328, shows the mayoral jurisdiction to have been very limited compared with the powers alleged to have been granted by Edward II, and compared too with the contemporary powers of the mayor of Exeter, which Barnstaple sought to emulate. In 1340 the inhabitants made their first recorded effort to achieve self-government: they petitioned Edward III to grant them a charter confirming the liberties they said they had always enjoyed by Athelstan’s command, describing these as all the liberties pertaining to a free borough (namely, the right to bequeath tenements, elect a mayor before whom all pleas concerning the borough should be held, send burgesses to Parliament, assess themselves for taxation, be quit of pontage, and exact fines for breaches of assize of bread and ale); and they asked the King to add the franchise of return of writs and the right to appoint their own coroner and hold a four day annual fair. The inquisition ad quod damnum held in response found that, although Barnstaple was a borough and was wont to send Members to Parliament, the burgesses had no right to bequeath their property by testament and only elected their mayor by permission of the lord, that pleas were held before the lord’s steward and not the mayor, that the borough was taxed by the county assessors, and that the lord held the various assizes which the burgesses claimed. Temporarily defeated, the townspeople next pursued their aims by more indirect means: they imposed a penalty of £2 on any of their number who brought a case against a fellow burgess before a lord or other magnate who was not of their community, and between 1379 and 1406 such penalties are known to have been imposed by the mayor. Moreover, in 1394 they requested from Chancery an exemplification of the extract from Domesday Book relating to the town, and as ‘ancient demesne’ of the Crown claimed their right to exemption from tolls throughout England. But their powers remained limited: the lord’s steward continued to preside at the Michaelmas court, and it was to him that the mayor continued to present the bailiffs when sworn into office. In 1408 Sir John Cornwall and the Countess Elizabeth presented a petition in Chancery against the mayor and burgesses alleging that they had hindered and restricted their rights on ten different counts, notably by usurping the assize of bread and ale and detaining the profits, and by holding their own courts; and on 20 Oct. that year they confirmed to the burgesses only such liberties as had been allowed them in the time of Elizabeth’s former husband, the earl of Huntingdon.4 The burgesses eventually resorted to forging royal charters.

Certain of the Members for Barnstaple in the period under review came into close contact with the lords of the borough on quite a friendly basis, but there is no evidence to suggest that the latter sought to influence the outcome of parliamentary elections. John Sampford officiated as steward at Dartmouth to the earl of Huntingdon, but not until four years after his return to Parliament for Barnstaple, and John Cokeworthy II held a wardship by Sir John Cornwall’s grant and became a feoffee of the estates of his stepson, John Holand, the 2nd earl of Huntingdon (later duke of Exeter), but this, too, was not until long after his four Parliaments for the borough. The closest association discovered between a parliamentary burgess of this period and the lord of the borough was that between Nicholas Broomford and the 1st earl, for Broomford was not only a trustee of Holand’s London property, but also followed him in his rebellion against Henry IV. But whether Broomford’s continued connexion with the dowager countess influenced his election for Barnstaple in 1411 remains conjectural. The ‘castle manor’ of Barnstaple belonged to the earls of Devon,5 and there are some signs that they showed an interest in the parliamentary representation of the borough: Thomas Norris II, the attorney for Edward Courtenay, earl of Devon, was returned for Barnstaple to four Parliaments between 1388 and 1395, and it is quite likely that his standing with the Courtenay family had in some way influenced the choice of the burgesses. Similarly, John Sampford acted as attorney for the earl’s uncles, Sir Peter and Sir Philip Courtenay*, possibly doing so as early as 1388 when he was elected to Parliament. John But served in France in the retinue of Hugh Courtenay, earl of Devon, but not until several years had elapsed after his single return for Barnstaple in 1402. The previously mentioned John Cokeworthy was closely associated with Bishop Lacy of Exeter, who held property across the river from Barnstaple, and this may have been a factor in his selection in 1421, 1423, 1429 and 1435. John Luttrell and John Bakwell, who were returned in 1406 and 1407, respectively, were connected with Sir Hugh Luttrell* of Dunster, the former as a kinsman and later constable of Dunster castle, the latter as steward of his household. Sir Hugh himself sat in the same Parliaments as a knight of the shire for Devon, and must have welcomed the support of Luttrell and Bakwell in the Commons at a time when his suit over the ownership of Dunster was being debated. John But and Thomas Haseley formed part of the ‘circle’ of the chief butler of England, Thomas Chaucer* of Ewelme, the former serving as his deputy in the Taw estuary from 1402 (when he represented Barnstaple) and in the Cornish ports at the time of his subsequent elections to Parliament for Bodmin and Liskeard, the latter, Haseley, having established a close friendship with Chaucer by the time of his election for Lyme Regis in 1410 and for Barnstaple in 1413.

There is no evidence to suggest that Luttrell, Chaucer or any of the magnates mentioned went so far as actively to interfere with the Barnstaple elections. But such outside interference could, and did, take place: in reply to royal writs dated September 1386 and February 1387 ordering the burgesses of Barnstaple to pay £6 8s. as the expenses incurred by John Henrys in going to the Parliament of 1385 as one of the representatives of the borough, the bailiffs stated that they were unable to do so as Henrys was an inhabitant of the county of Somerset, not of Devon, and they denied responsibility on the ground that at the time of the election the sheriff of Devon, Sir James Chudleigh*, had returned Henrys without their knowledge or assent, at the instance of Henrys himself and his friends and for the sake of personal gain.6 No such objections were raised following elections to later Parliaments, but as the burgesses’ motives in making the appeal seem to have been rather to avoid expense than to assert their electoral rights, they may not have minded ‘outsiders’ being returned to Parliament for the borough so long as they were not expected to foot the fill. This is what may have happened in 1394 and 1395: the town paid one of the burgesses proper, John Bidewell, £3 as his expenses for attendance in the Commons, but there is no record of any payment to his colleague, Thomas Norris II, the earl of Devon’s attorney, who had nothing to do with the town or its affairs.7

Barnstaple was one of 32 boroughs known to have made elections to all seven of Edward I’s Parliaments for which returns have survived, and it continued to elect regularly throughout the 14th and 15th centuries. The elections were recorded in the same way as those of the other Devonshire boroughs, and whether they were held at the shire court at Exeter castle or, which is more likely, at Barnstaple itself, evidently there was room for the sheriff to return his friends instead of the burgesses’ candidates if he chose to do so. Returns are extant for only 20 of the 32 Parliaments convened between 1386 and 1421 (inclusive), providing the names of as many as 33 MPs. The abnormally large number of gaps in the returns make any attempt at analysis a matter of conjecture, and the impression that an unusually large number of untried men were sent to the Lower House by Barnstaple may well be misleading. The evidence as it stands suggests that all but eight of the 33 were only returned to one Parliament each for Barnstaple; that in half the Parliaments for which returns have survived both representatives had no previous experience of the workings of the Commons, and that in six more only one of the Members had been tried before. In only four Parliaments (1394, 1395, 1410 and 1411) are both men known to have had previous parliamentary experience, and only three cases of re-election (both Members of 1395 and one of those of 1411) have been found. In as many as six instances such previous parliamentary experience as there was had been acquired in the service of other constituencies: John Sampford had been a Member for Tavistock, John Aston I for Great Torrington and Dartmouth, Alfred Wonston for Totnes, John Foxley for Dartmouth, Thomas Haseley for Lyme Regis, and Nicholas Broomford for Cornwall, all before their elections for Barnstaple. Altogether as many as nine of the Members for Barnstaple sat for other constituencies: in addition to the six already mentioned, Robert Cobbley sat for Exeter, Thomas Norris II for Totnes and Plympton Erle, and John But for Bodmin, Liskeard and Truro. Taking the representation of other constituencies into account the record of some of the Barnstaple MPs looks more impressive: Norris and But each sat in no fewer than six Parliaments. Three more of the representatives should be singled out for notice in other respects: it was unusual for a knight of the shire to sit for a borough after his return as a knight, but Nicholas Broomford did so by representing Barnstaple after his election for Cornwall; and in this period it was also a rare occurrence for a burgess to be returned for a borough outside his own county, but this happened in the cases of both John But and Thomas Haseley.

The impression that the burgesses of Barnstaple showed little interest in Parliaments is borne out by an examination of the places of residence of the elected Members. Only ten of the 33 (less than one third) were unquestionably local men. Twelve more came from elsewhere in the shire, but by no means all of them from the immediate vicinity of the borough. As many as five were not even Devonshire men: John Sampford, John Bakwell and John Luttrell came from Somerset (although the first did have some land in Devon); John But was a Cornishman, and Thomas Haseley came from Oxfordshire and later acquired substantial properties as far away as London, Middlesex, Berkshire and Surrey. Between 1386 and 1421 in only two Parliaments (1386 and 1399) were both representatives burgesses proper of Barnstaple, whereas in five (1391, 1410, 1411, 1413 (May) and 1421 (Dec.)) both were ‘outsiders’. Similarly, it was not the local merchant or clothier who dominated the representation of the borough: only eight MPs were merchants (including two of the ‘outsiders’, Robert Cobbley and John Foxley), and only in the Parliaments of 1386 and 1399 were both representatives men whose principal interest was in trade. The rest of the parliamentary burgesses were either lawyers or members of the landed gentry; indeed, no fewer than ten were men of law and nine were accorded the status of either ‘gentleman’ or ‘esquire’. One of the last, Thomas Haseley, later even achieved knighthood, although he is best described as a royal servant. Men of Haseley’s sort, though not of his stature, were to be returned to Parliament for Barnstaple more frequently as the 15th century progressed.

The mayor of Barnstaple may have been always elected every year on the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin (15 Aug.), as happened in 1403 (the earliest record of such an election), and always by a jury of 12. Borough ordinances drawn up in the 1420s stipulated that anyone so chosen must be permanently resident in the town and have previously served as a bailiff.8 The lists of officers are incomplete and the ambiguous status of the borough resulted in some confusion of nomenclature: the Crown evidently did not recognize the mayor, so, for example, when the holder of that office, Jocelin Antony, replied to the writ requiring the payment of expenses to the Members of 1385, he was called ‘bailiff’. Leaving this ambiguity aside, it would appear that only five of the known MPs for Barnstaple ever served as mayor, and that a mayoralty coincided with parliamentary service on only one occasion (in 1386 when Antony was returned). Thomas Holman alias Pyers was town clerk in 1406 when he represented Barnstaple for the only time.

Nine of the parliamentary burgesses (all but one of them ‘outsiders’) held office by appointment of the Crown, or by one or other of the duchies of Cornwall and Lancaster. John Aston I and John But served as feodary in Devon for the duchy of Lancaster, and John Luttrell was steward of the duchy lordship of Kidwelly. Alfred Wonston was bailiff of the duchy of Cornwall stannary of Chagford and forester of west Dartmoor, John Aston feodary of Trematon castle, and John But deputy havener of the ports of the duchy. The last named also served under the Crown for about 30 years as deputy butler in Tawmouth, Ilfracombe, Plymouth and the Cornish ports; John Hunt II filled the same post successively in Tawmouth, Ilfracombe and Dartmouth, and John Cokeworthy II served as customer in Plymouth, Fowey, Exeter and Dartmouth. At one time or another no fewer than five MPs were royal escheators: Aston (for four terms), Nicholas Broomford (twice), Cokeworthy (twice), and Thomas Norris 11 in Devon and Cornwall, and Thomas Haseley in the home counties. Cokeworthy ended his career as sheriff of Devon, and Broomford served for a while as a coroner in Cornwall. The most outstanding of this group was Haseley, who had been a clerk in Chancery for at least six years before his first return and was probably acting as deputy to the under clerk of the Parliaments (the Commons’ clerk) in 1410 and 1413 when he sat for Lyme Regis and Barnstaple, respectively. But his successive appointments as clerk of the Commons, keeper of the Exchange, steward of Kennington and Byfleet and under marshal of England, owed nothing to his brief occupation of a seat in the Lower House. Tenure of royal offices coincided with parliamentary service for Barnstaple five times: But was feodary of Devon when returned to the Parliament of 1402; Hunt was appointed deputy butler a week before Parliament met at Gloucester in 1407; Wonston was bailiff of Chagford when elected in 1410; Broomford was appointed escheator when attending the Parliament of 1411; and Cokeworthy was serving as customs collector when elected in 1429. Ten parliamentary burgesses were at some time in their careers appointed to serve on royal commissions, but only Haseley was ever made a j.p., and that was far away in Surrey and Middlesex and long after his single return for Barnstaple.

Author: L. S. Woodger


  • 1. J.C. Russell, Brit. Med. Pop. 141; Devon Studies ed. Hoskins and Finberg, 218, 223-4; North Devon Athenaeum, Barnstaple deed 434; CPR, 1396-9, pp. 178-82.
  • 2. CPR, 1381-5, p. 515; 1385-9, pp. 115, 495; 1399-1401, p. 483.
  • 3. S. Reynolds, ‘Forged Chs. Barnstaple’, EHR, lxxxiv. 699-720.
  • 4. Reprint of Barnstaple Recs. ed. Chanter and Wainwright, ii. 21-24; C143/255/22; CPR, 1338-40, pp. 497-8; 1343-5, pp. 90, 290; 1391-6, pp. 364, 370; North Devon Athenaeum, Barnstaple deeds 1980, 1982, 1984.
  • 5. O.J. Reichel, Hundreds of Devon, 416.
  • 6. C219/8/13.
  • 7. Reprint of Barnstaple Recs. ii. 103.
  • 8. Ibid. i. 83-87, 160.