Devizes

Borough

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

Elections

DateCandidate
1386Richard Gobet
 William Salter
1388 (Feb.)Richard Cardmaker
 William Salter
1388 (Sept.)Richard Cardmaker
 William Spicer
1390 (Jan.)Richard Gobet
 William Spicer
1390 (Nov.)
1391
1393William Coventre I
 William Spicer
1394John Tapener
 Richard Brunker
1395Richard Cardmaker
 William Spicer
1397 (Jan.)William Salter
 Henry Webbe
1397 (Sept.)William Salter
 John Peyntour
1399Richard Cardmaker
 William Salter
1401
1402Simon Skinner
 Richard Smith I
1404 (Jan.)
1404 (Oct.)
1406John Huwet
 John Kingston
1407John Peyntour
 Simon Skinner
1410
1411
1413 (Feb.)
1413 (May)John Coventre I
 Simon Skinner
1414 (Apr.)Thomas Coventre II
 Robert Smith I
1414 (Nov.)William Coventre III
 Thomas Coventre II
1415William Coventre III
 Roger Barbour
1416 (Mar.)Richard Litelcote
 John Peyntour 1
1416 (Oct.)
1417William Coventre III
 Robert Tyndale
1419Robert Tyndale
 William Hendelove
1420John Coventre I
 Robert Chandler II
1421 (May)William Coventre III
 Robert Smith I
1421 (Dec.)John Baker V
 John Fauconer

Main Article

Devizes, or The Vies as it was sometimes known, is in the middle of Wiltshire, about equidistant from Chippenham, Marlborough, Bradford-on-Avon and Warminster. During the period under consideration it was among neither the largest nor the smallest of the Wiltshire boroughs: those of its people who paid poll tax in 1377 numbered just over 300—fewer than at Marlborough or nearby Melksham, more than at Chippenham or Calne. Despite a temporary decline in importance in the early 14th century, Devizes remained still fairly prosperous, and it is worth noting that, at the levy of the poll tax of 1379, almost half the inhabitants were assessed at above the minimum rate of 4d., 21 of them contributing over 1s. each. While a considerable number of the townsmen whose occupations are given in the tax lists were employed as leather-workers or victuallers, the largest single group (including many of the richest burgesses) was involved in the manufacture or sale of woollen cloth.2 Indeed, the economic well-being of Devizes was, throughout our period, based on the trade in cloth produced in either the borough itself or in the surrounding towns and villages. The high-quality white material called ‘western blankett of the Vies’ was well known, being particularly favoured for export, and by 1415 the borough was apparently producing more cloths a year subjected to alnage than any other town in Wiltshire except Salisbury. Trade continued to grow: in 1427, for instance, John Coventre I is known to have sold textiles worth at least £300 in London, and in 1441 and 1442 two other members of the same Devizes family sold fabric valued at nearly £1,000 to Italian merchants alone.3

Devizes is not mentioned as a borough in Domesday Book, and it seems unlikely that a sizeable town existed there until the late 11th or early 12th century, when a castle vitas built on the site by the bishop of Salisbury. During the anarchy of Stephen’s reign both castle and town came into the hands of the Crown, and thenceforward were a royal possession. By our period it had become customary for the lordship of Devizes, together with the appurtenant manor of Rowde and custody of the forest of Chippenham and Melksham, to be granted to successive queens as part of their dower. So, between 1382 and her death in 1394 the lordship pertained to Anne of Bohemia, and from 1405 to 1437 to Joan of Navarre. It was administered by the constable of Devizes castle, assisted by the porter of the castle and the parker of the royal parks. The constable levied for the queen an annual fee farm of £85, derived from various rents in the liberty. Holders of the office during this period included John, Lord Lovell (1381-1408), Edward, duke of York (1408-15), and Sir William Sturmy* (1415-17).4

Despite the official presence of the constable, the borough of Devizes had developed its own privileges and institutions. In 1141, the Empress Matilda had granted the burgesses freedom from toll and passage throughout England, and her charter was subsequently confirmed by Henry II, John and Henry III. However, by the beginning of Edward III’s reign the local people seem to have lost some of their liberties, and in 1330 they petitioned Parliament, complaining that they were ‘empouvrez et destruitz par Fermours et Estraungeres’. Moreover, these ‘farmers’ (presumably the constables of the castle), had usurped the right to elect the town’s bailiffs and to return royal writs, two important privileges which the burgesses claimed as theirs. Nevertheless, it was not until 1371 that Edward confirmed the borough’s charters, conceding to the burgesses in addition the right to possess a guild merchant, to farm the town, and to be free of service at the county and hundred courts. Even then the constables retained the privilege of return of writs, which the inhabitants did not secure for themselves until Richard II’s charter of 1381, which also awarded them the right to appoint their own coroner. In return for these concessions, however, the townsmen were required to muster themselves under arms annually, at the demand of the constable of the castle.5 Richard II’s charter was confirmed by each of the Lancastrian kings in turn.

Possessing its own mayor and the privilege of return of writs, Devizes plainly enjoyed a fair measure of independence during our period. Its corporate identity was comparable with that of Wilton or Marlborough, and clearly superior to that of such smaller Wiltshire boroughs as Chippenham or Cricklade. Nevertheless, because of the paucity of local records surviving from this period, little is known in detail of how the town was administered, although we may assume that the mayor, two or more bailiffs and the coroner, were all chosen by the burgesses.6 Relations between townsmen and the royal officials of the liberty would appear to have been generally amicable and, indeed, it was quite usual for the mayors of Devizes to act ex officio as overseers of the repairs which were occasionally carried out at the castle. There is no indication of direct interference in the burgesses’ choice of MPs, although the election to the consecutive Parliaments of 1417 and 1419 of Robert Tyndale, yeoman of the robes to Queen Joan and parker at Devizes, raises the possibility of electoral management from outside.

Devizes was first represented in Parliament in 1295, and thereafter is known to have been required to send Members to almost half the Parliaments meeting before 1332. For the next 30 years no returns survive, even though the borough was instructed on at least five occasions in that period to furnish representatives. It was not until the reign of Richard II that burgesses from Devizes made appearances in the Commons with much regularity; certainly in eight of the 13 Parliaments which met between 1377 (Oct.) and 1386 the borough was fully represented.7 Very little is known about the conduct of the elections, although the formalities adopted by the other Wiltshire boroughs were in use. According to the earliest surviving indenture, that of 1453, the electors were the mayor and burgesses, but whether this had always been the case remains unclear.8

As many as 23 returns survive for the 32 Parliaments of this period. The number of burgesses known to have been elected is 24, of whom ten apparently sat just once, four twice, and four more three times. The remaining six MPs came to be fairly experienced in the ways of the Commons: even allowing for the gaps in the returns, Richard Gobet was elected no less than four times, and Salter, William Spicer and Richard Cardmaker on six occasions each. Two members of the Coventre family, John I and William III, were returned to six and nine Parliaments respectively, even being sent as companions to the Commons of 1422, 1423, 1426 and 1427. It might be said that Devizes preferred, when possible, to elect men with some experience already gained: in eight of the 23 Parliaments an apparent novice was accompanied by someone who had sat on an earlier occasion, and in ten more both Members had been tried before. Moreover, re-election to consecutive Parliaments was not at all uncommon: Richard Gobet was returned to those of 1385 and 1386, and Richard Cardmaker to both Parliaments of 1388; William Salter served in the Parliaments of 1386 and 1388 (Feb.) and then in three running from 1397 (Jan.) to 1399; Thomas Coventre II was elected twice in 1414, and Robert Tyndale in 1417 and 1419; and William Coventre III was re-elected in 1415, 1423 and 1427. Unlike some of the Members for the smaller Wiltshire boroughs, not one of the representatives for Devizes during this period is known to have been returned from elsewhere at any stage in his career.

Two local families established something of a tradition in parliamentary service for the borough. Richard Smith I was probably a relation of Robert Smith I, and also of the William Smith who was to sit in 1431. As will already have been appreciated, far more remarkable a record (and one paralleled in Wiltshire only by the Cricklades of Cricklade and Calne) was that of the Coventre family, five members of which—William I, John I, John junior, Thomas II and William III—represented Devizes on at least 21 occasions between 1383 and 1435. Of the 21 MPs who can be identified with reasonable certainty, all but one were resident burgesses, even though Simon Skinner came originally from Chew Magna in Somerset. Of course, the outsider Robert Tyndale is very likely to have stayed at the castle for prolonged periods while discharging his office as Queen Joan’s parker of Devizes, even if his other duties in her household prevented him from being permanently resident. A full list of borough officials cannot now be compiled for this period, but it is known that at least seven of the MPs served as mayors: Richard Cardmaker doing so for four annual terms, William Spicer and John Coventre I for three, Robert Smith I twice, and Simon Skinner, Thomas Coventre II and William Coventre III once. So far as we can tell, all of these save Cardmaker and Smith only occupied the mayoralty after representing the borough in the Commons for the first time.

As might be expected in a town which was largely dependent on the production and sale of cloth, many of the 12 MPs whose occupations are recorded dealt in this commodity: William Coventre I, Robert Chandler II, Henry Webbe and William Salter were all weavers; John Peyntour was a dyer, and John Coventre I and William Coventre III were wealthy clothiers. The Coventres were enterprising enough to establish regular trading links with London and Southampton. Richard Cardmaker and William Spicer, known to us only as ‘merchants’, also probably sold cloth. Of the remaining townsmen, Richard Gobet was a butcher and general victualler, and John Tapener a shoemaker. Robert Tyndale was out of the ordinary: a servant in one or other of the royal households, he apparently specialized in the care of bedding and clothing, for at the time of his elections for Devizes he was employed as yeoman of Queen Joan’s beds and robes. His connexion with Devizes as keeper of the royal park there incidentally involved him in occasional work of repair at the castle, and, of course, he had to look to the park’s enclosures. Besides Tyndale, only four Members served the Crown beyond the confines of the borough. John Coventre I, Thomas Coventre II and Robert Chandler II all officiated as collectors of parliamentary subsidies in the county at large, but not until after they had each made at least one appearance in the Lower House. On the other hand, Henry Webbe was appointed deputy alnager in Wiltshire some five years before his earliest election to Parliament. Few of the Devizes MPs owned land outside the borough or beyond its surrounding villages. One exception, however, was Richard Litelcote who acquired holdings at Orcheston and Homington, and Robert Tyndale derived an income from crown estates as far away as Yorkshire and Essex.

During the period under consideration, then, Devizes was all but exclusively represented in Parliament by resident burgesses. Such men sat on at least 41 of a possible 46 occasions. Unlike most of the other Wiltshire boroughs, not counting Salisbury and Wilton, Devizes evidently chose not to return members of the shire gentry and local lawyers. In fact, most of those elected in the early part of the period were tradesmen of no more than local importance. However, as will have been gathered, when the town grew richer with the expansion of the cloth trade, its representatives came to be men of greater consequence, certainly more well to do. This development is exemplified in the rise of the Coventre family: in 1379 William Coventre I, a weaver, paid no more than 6d. towards the poll tax; by 1427 his son, John I, was able to dispose of 300 lengths of cloth in one sale, and between 1440 a