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 Grey I
 Richard Bosom
1388 (Feb.)Peter Hadley
 Thomas Raymond 1
1388 (Sept.)Peter Hadley
 Adam Creedy
1390 (Jan.)Adam Golde
 William Frye
1390 (Nov.)
1391John Grey I
 William Frye
1393John Grey I
 Robert Cobbley
1394John Grey I
 Richard Bosom
1395John Grey I
 William Wilford
1397 (Jan.)John Grey I
 William Wilford
1397 (Sept.)William Frye
 William Wilford 2
1399Roger Golde
 Robert Cobbley 3
1401Adam Scut
 John Coscombe
1402Roger Golde
 William Morehay
1404 (Jan.)William Wilford
 Thomas Raymond 4
1404 (Oct.)John Nywaman
 John Lake 5
1406Roger Golde
 William Dimmock
1407Nicholas Clerk
 William Morehay
1410Richard Raymond
 John Shaplegh I
1411William Wilford
 John Lake
1413 (Feb.)Thomas Eston
 Peter Sturt 6
1413 (May)Richard Bosom
 John Pollow
1414 (Apr.)John Wilford
 John Shaplegh II 7
1414 (Nov.)Roger Golde
 John Wilford
1415Richard Crese
 John Pollow 8
1416 (Mar.)Roger Golde
 Robert Vessy 9
1416 (Oct.)Roger Golde
 John Pollow 10
1417John Shaplegh II
 Thomas Cook II
1419John Shaplegh II
 John Pollow
1420John Shaplegh II
 Richard Crese
1421 (May)John Cutler alias Carwithan
 Roger Shillingford
1421 (Dec.)John Shaplegh II
 John Shillingford 11

Main Article

In the late 14th century Exeter was a city of modest proportions; its estimated population of about 3,000 suggests that it was only a quarter the size of York or Bristol, half the size of Salisbury, and outstripped by some 20 other provincial towns. Nevertheless, it contained a castle which for centuries had been the centre for royal government in Devon, it was a diocesan centre for ecclesiastical administration, it clearly served as the chief town of the south-western peninsula, and its geographical location at the meeting point of inland communications with sea routes to the continent ensured its participation in the economic activity of a large hinterland. Exeter’s overseas trade was carried on from four miles down-river, through the earl of Devon’s port of Topsham; cargoes from ships unloaded there were brought to the city by road or up the Exe in small craft. In this period the usual amount of shipping, carrying consignments of cloth, hides, tin, wine and fish to and from the Exe, could not make Exeter a serious rival to the great ports of Bristol, Southampton or Sandwich. But the 15th century did at least see a growth in the city’s overseas trade as a consequence of an increasing demand for moderately priced English cloth, and within the city the manufacture of Devon kerseys entered a phase of expansion. A growing prosperity is suggested, too, by the development of guilds and trades in Exeter at this time; according to the city’s own historian, John Hooker, the cordwainers and curriers were first recognized by the local authorities in 1387, and many other craft guilds had organized themselves before 1413. Merchants were attracted to Exeter as one of the Staple towns and for the summer fair held at Southernhay. The community could afford to extend lavish hospitality to such visitors as the dukes of Lancaster and Exeter, the earl of Derby and Lord Bryan. The only hint of contradiction to the overall impression of expanding trade and increasing prosperity was the award made in 1436 of an allowance of £6 13s.4d. on the sum due from Exeter for parliamentary tenths, such awards being made in most other cases on the ground of impoverishment.12

Since the time of Henry I the citizens of Exeter had enjoyed the same privileges as those of London, such rights receiving confirmation and fresh definition in their charter of 1320. In the 12th and 13th centuries the citizens had acted in a corporate capacity in making or receiving gifts or grants, and evidently enjoyed a large measure of independence. From 1332 onwards the fee farm amounted to as much as £45 12s.5d., of which all but £20 was traditionally payable to the Holy Trinity priory, London, and the remainder to the Crown. In the 13th century Richard, earl of Cornwall, had received the Crown’s share by grant of his brother, Henry III, and in the 14th century it came to be a regular part of the income enjoyed by the princes of Wales as dukes of Cornwall. The royal heirs apparent, however, are not known to have taken much interest in the affairs of the city, and the Black Prince even assigned his share of the fee farm to Sir John Sully for life.13 It is possible that one of the Members of this period, Thomas Raymond, was connected in some way with the household of the Black Prince, but there are no signs of interference by the prince or any of his officers in the parliamentary representation of Exeter. The same applies to Henry of Monmouth in the years from 1399 to 1413 when he held the farm of the city. But the Courtenay earls of Devon were a more immediate force to be reckoned with. In earlier times, especially in the first half of the 14th century, there had been considerable antagonism between the commonalty and the Courtenays over such matters as rights to the profits taken at the ‘Crulditch’ fair and also over the erection of weirs across the Exe at Topsham, which resulted in frequent floods and disruption of the salmon fisheries.14 Although echoes of the quarrels still resounded during the period under review, and the removal of the weirs long remained the ambition of the citizens, relations with the earls had by this time mellowed somewhat. The weirs had set a permanent seal on Exeter’s dependence on Topsham as a head port, and the Courtenays’ good will was essential to the city’s well-being. As the events of 1455-6 were to show, the inhabitants were defenceless against the armed resources of the earls. At least five of the MPs of the late 14th and early 15th centuries came into close contact with the Courtenays. Earl Edward’s livery roll of 1384-5 named, among the members of his retinue, Thomas Creedy, Robert Wilford, John Grey I and Thomas Raymond, who all represented Exeter in the 1380s. Raymond is known to have sat in at least four Parliaments (in 1381 for Plympton Erle, 1384 (Nov.) for Tavistock, and 1382 (May) and 1388 (Feb.) for Exeter) while serving as the earl’s attorney, a post he was already holding by 1379 and continued to occupy for the next 20 years, in the course of which he was actively involved in the Courtenays’ affairs as a feoffee, mainpernor and estate administrator. William Frye’s services to the comital family led to his being granted land in Dorset by Master Richard Courtenay (a close friend of Henry V and later bishop of Norwich), the earl’s cousin. To what extent the citizens choice of parliamentary representatives might have been influenced by such considerations can only be guessed; certainly the qualities which attracted the Courtenays were no doubt appreciated by the citizens too. Endemic quarrels with the cathedral authorities arising from the existence of precincts located within the city, and yet exempt from its jurisdiction, and culminating in the defeat of the pretensions of the civic authorities, first with regards to St. Sidwell’s fee (in 1436) and then in St. Stephen’s (1449), ensured that the citizens remained determinedly independent of any interference in their affairs by the bishop or the dean and chapter.15

A person might be admitted to the freedom of Exeter by four basic means: by free gift of the mayor, by patrimony, by apprenticeship to an enfranchised man for seven years, and by redemption, the amount of the fine being assessed by the mayor and city council. Judging by the number of recorded admissions the citizens proper must have formed only a small percentage of the inhabitants of Exeter. The mayor’s court, the main instrument of civic government, showed several features similar to those of the husting court of London: its business included the admission of new freemen, the enrolment of deeds and the probate of wills concerning property in the city, the swearing in of local officials, and the trial of real and personal actions. The court assembled every week, on a Monday, but the most important meeting of the year was that held on the Monday immediately after Michaelmas when the officials were elected. The most important of these, the mayor, the chief steward or receiver, three lesser stewards (from the mid 15th century known as bailiffs), and the city council were all elected by a body of 36 freemen. This panel had itself been chosen a week previously by a complicated system of indirect election by co-option, which began with four men undertaking on oath to ‘well and trewely electe on to us xxxvi of the most worshipfull, habelyste cetezeynes inhabitantes of the same etc., for a number sufficiaunt for the election of a new mair for the yer foloying’. Membership of the electoral panel did not exclude a freeman from nomination; in fact it was a common occurrence for members of the 36 to be appointed to office. Another group, one of 12 freemen, elected the less important officials, such as the serjeants and the keepers of Exebridge and the gates. The earliest mention of a mayor dates from 1205, and in the 13th and early 14th centuries the administration seems to have been largely in his hands. Councils had then been appointed only irregularly. In 1345, following a period when the mayor overreached his powers by excessive condonation of fines and amercements and of the arrears owed by officials, his jurisdiction was curtailed by regulations setting up a permanent council of 12 members with power over administration and finance. The council, from then on elected annually, represented the wealthier group of citizens, from whom the chief officials were usually selected. Without the assent of the council, chosen ‘de melioribus et discretioribus’, few disbursements from communal funds might be made and no one admitted to the freedom. During the period under review the council on occasion numbered 13 (as in 1404, 1406 and July 1413) or even 15 (as in 1403), but it remained essentially the same sort of body, the instrument of an influential few, until 1435, when for the next three years, and again after 1450, the number of councillors was increased to 24, the 12 new members being chosen ‘pro communitate’, evidently with the intention of introducing a more democratic element.16

Exeter had been one of the 27 towns selected to send representatives before the royal council in 1268 to discuss matters concerning the kingdom, and also one of the 21 invited to send to the Shrewsbury Parliament of 1283. Thereafter, hardly surprisingly, the city regularly sent representatives to Parliament.17 The returns for the period under review provide few clues as to the electoral procedure used at Exeter. In Richard II’s reign the returns for the shire and boroughs of Devon were listed in a composite schedule sent back to Chancery with the writ of summons. In 1407 the sheriff noted in an endorsement to the writ that the return had been completed in the presence of the stewards of the bishop of Exeter, the earl of Devon, the dean and chapter of Exeter, the abbots of Tavistock, Buckland and Forde, and the prior of Plympton, who with the consent of the whole community of the shire had together elected both the knights of the shire and the burgesses. In 1411 and 1413 (May) and on later occasions indentures were drawn up in the county court held at Exeter castle, but these related only to the election of the Members for the county. It is clear, however, from the endorsement of the writ of 1411, that the usual procedure in the case of Exeter was for the sheriff to send a precept to the citizens, whose mayor and bailiffs enjoyed the franchise of return of writs, and for them to notify the sheriff of the results of elections held locally. It may be that the mechanism so long in use for the election of civic officials was found applicable in the choosing of parliamentary representatives. In 1420 and in subsequent years the electoral indentures drawn up in the shire court related to the burgesses as well as the knights, some 60 persons usually being named as party to the election.18 Although the implication is that elections for the boroughs were held in the shire court at the same time as those for the county and by the same body of men, it seems likely that in fact the borough elections were held elsewhere and the results merely reported and documented in the shire court.

Formal returns have not survived for as many as 11 of the 32 Parliaments summoned between 1386 and 1421 (inclusive), but the local receivers’ accounts frequently supply the names of the citizens-elect and so fill all but one of the gaps (November 1390). Furthermore, in two cases they correct the official record. Thus, the list of Members is unusually full for this period, and an analysis of the returns may be undertaken with some degree of confidence. Thirty men sat in the 31 Parliaments. Although 11 were selected only once, the majority sat much more often. Indeed, Roger Golde sat in six Parliaments, and John Grey I and John Shaplegh II in eight. There can be no doubt that the citizens of Exeter preferred to return men with some previous parliamentary experience: in 25 of the 31 Parliaments at least one Member had entered the Commons before, and in as many as 13 neither representative was a stranger to the House. On the other hand, it is probable that in no fewer than six Parliaments (January 1390, October 1404, 1410, February 1413, April 1414, and May 1421) both of the Exeter Members were newcomers to the parliamentary scene. Re-election occurred 12 times in this period; indeed, John Grey I sat in five successive Parliaments (1391 to 1397), and William Wilford and John Shaplegh II were both re-elected twice running (sitting from 1395 to 1397 and from 1417 to 1420, respectively). In Exeter it often happened, too, that knowledge of the workings of the House was passed from father to son: from John to Thomas Cook II, from Adam to Roger Golde, from Thomas to Richard Raymond, from John Shaplegh I to John II and from Robert to William and John Wilford. Then again, a few of the Exeter representatives acquired experience of Parliament by sitting for other Devonshire boroughs: Robert Cobbley had sat for Barnstaple in 1391 before his first return for Exeter; John Grey I represented Barnstaple in 1385 and Totnes in 1391; Peter Hadley appeared for Plympton Erle in 1378 and 1388 (Sept.), and for Tavistock in 1381; and Thomas Raymond was elected three times for Barnstaple, twice for Tavistock and once each for Plympton and Dartmouth, as well as three times for Exeter. Indeed, in the second half of the 14th century it was not unusual for an individual to represent more than one Devonshire borough in the same Parliament: thus, for example, in October 1377 Raymond was returned by three boroughs at once; in 1378 and 1388 Hadley represented Plympton as well as Exeter; and in 1385 and 1391 Grey was elected by Exeter and Barnstaple and by Exeter and Totnes, respectively. Plural returns such as these became much rarer occurrences in the 15th century. The towns’ intention was most likely to reduce expenditure by sharing it. Certainly there was need for economy. In comparison with some other boroughs, even Exeter was niggardly when it came to rewarding parliamentary representatives.19 Payment of its MPs often fell short of the officially prescribed rate of 2s. a day; indeed at the beginning of Henry V’s reign they were paid at the daily rate of 1s.4d. Yet at times the city was prepared to pay more for men of outstanding calibre: William Wilford and William Frye were each given as much as 4s. a day for their services in the September 1397 Parliament. Inconsistency in this matter suggests that Exeter simply paid her representatives whatever could be afforded at the time, or, indeed, the lowest sum they were prepared to accept, and if the cost might be shared with another borough so much the better.

All but six of the 30 Exeter Members are known to have been freemen of the city and resident there. Certain of the 24 resident citizens held land outside the walls, and two (Thomas Cook II and Adam Scut) even came into possession of property beyond the boundaries of the shire, in Somerset and Dorset, respectively. Two others might easily be classed among the landowning gentry of Devon: William Wilford’s estate provided him with an annual income of £22, and John Shillingford’s £30. Although five of the six who were not freemen of Exeter did own property in the city or its suburbs, they were in reality outsiders who had little or nothing to do with its internal affairs. Adam Creedy’s lands were situated to the north of Crediton; Thomas Raymond came from Holsworthy in north Devon and his son, Richard, held land in Cornwall; William Dimmock’s estates were in the eastern part of the shire; and William Frye’s holdings in three counties (Cornwall, Devon and Dorset) gave him an income of more than £50 a year.

All but seven of the 30 MPs filled an office of some sort in Exeter; and two-thirds of the representatives were for part of their careers members of the council of 12. Eighteen were elected as stewards, in several instances (ten) before their earliest returns to Parliament. Normally citizens held office as a steward before attaining the receivership, but John Shillingford and John Shaplegh I never occupied the lower position, and Adam Golde and John Lake held the offices in reverse order. Sixteen parliamentary citizens were sometime receivers, nine of them before their first appearance in the Commons. The receiver was responsible for all receipts and disbursements of civic funds, and although his was an onerous office it was attractive in being the recognized steppingstone to senior rank and prospective mayoralty. Ten MPs served as mayor, and in every case their service in Parliament preceded election to the mayoralty. Clearly the position of mayor was regarded as the highest honour that the city could bestow. Indeed it was restricted by ordinances made in 1340, and confined in 1379 to citizens owning property worth £5 a year or more.20 It was not uncommon for men holding the lesser offices to be returned to Parliament while serving their term: stewards were returned in 1378 (Peter Hadley), 1397 (William Wilford), 1414 (John Wilford), 1416 (Robert Vessy), and 1421 (John Cutler), and receivers in 1381 (Richard Bosom), 1390 (Adam Golde), 1397 (William Wilford), 1410 (John Shaplegh I), 1413 (John Pollow), and 1416 (Roger Golde). But no one currently acting as mayor was ever elected to Parliament during this period, although Thomas Cook II was to sit in the Commons later, in 1435 and 1442, during his mayoralties.

Three of the Members were employed to transact the legal business of the city: Thomas Raymond served as recorder of Exeter from 1383 to 1418, during which period he was twice returned to Parliament (in 1388 and 1404); John Lake held the subordinate office of town clerk for much of the same period, but was not elected to Parliament until after his resignation; and William Morehay was the city’s attorney in the courts at Westminster at the time of his return in 1402. As well as the civic officials the officers of the Staple were also elected locally, their appointments being formally ratified in Chancery. As many as 14 Members are known to have served as constables of the Staple and 12 as mayors, promotion to both kinds of office usually coming after service in at least one Parliament. One of the constables of the Staple was returned to Parliament in 1388, 1391, 1394, 1410, 1414 and 1421, perhaps indicating a wish on the citizens’ part for their mercantile interests to be well represented. From all this evidence it becomes apparent that in all but five Parliaments (those of 1395, 1399, 1406, 1407 and 1417) the city was represented by at least one active member of its council, or else by someone currently serving in the administration of the city or its Staple.

Over half of the citizens returned to Parliament for Exeter were merchants. But although in ten of the 31 Parliaments both Members were engaged in trade, it is clear that the merchant oligarchy did not always choose to be represented by men of its own type. Certainly eight and possibly nine of the representatives of the period were lawyers, and in fact at least one member of this profession was returned to 17 Parliaments. Unlike the situation in such mercantile strongholds as Bristol or Bishop’s Lynn, in Exeter the merchants did not completely dominate the representation of the city. They did recognize, however, that their interests might be served well by men currently holding offices in the Crown’s appointment concerned with the collection of customs and subsidies in the Exe estuary. Six MPs were engaged as collectors and three as controllers of customs in the area; and Peter Hadley was returned to Parliament in 1377, 1378, 1384 and 1388, and John Pollow in 1413, 1415, 1416 and 1419 when so employed. Richard Bosom, the occupant of the posts of deputy to the chief butler and joint deputy havener in Devon, was elected to the Parliament of 1386. It may be that the reason behind this was yet again to reduce expenditure; such royal officers would in any case have had to travel to Westminster for the audit of their accounts at the Exchequer. The lawyers among the parliamentary citizens were appointed to different kinds of royal office: Thomas Raymond and John Lake both served as clerks of the peace in Devon; Raymond was made escheator in the shire; William Frye was one of the apprentices-at-law retained by the duchy of Lancaster, and both he and Raymond, lawyers of considerable ability, were appointed as justices of oyer and terminer, of the peace and of assize. Frye occupied a place on the Devonshire bench for as long as 14 years. In all of these cases, however, service of this nature never coincided with election to Parliament. Some of the Members were well connected with the important landed families of Devon: John Lake, Adam Scut and Thomas Raymond were all associates of Sir John Hill j.KB; Richard Bosom and Thomas Raymond were both engaged as feoffees by William, Lord Botreaux; Adam Creedy’s sister was married first to Sir John Raleigh and then to Sir John Paulet; and among the clients of Thomas Raymond and William Frye were the abbots of Tavistock, Buckland, Forde and Dunkeswell, John Holand, duke of Exeter, and Queen Joan, Henry IV’s consort.

Author: L. S. Woodger


  • 1. Exeter City RO, receivers’ accts. 12-13 Ric. II.
  • 2. Ibid. 21-22 Ric. II.
  • 3. Ibid.
  • 4. Ibid. 2-3 Hen. IV. Richard Bosom was evidently elected to the Parliament summoned to Coventry in Dec. 1403, and received 26s. expenses even though the Parliament never met: ibid. 5-6 Hen. IV.
  • 5. Trans. Devon Assoc. lxviii. 106.