Totnes

Borough

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1509-1558, ed. S.T. Bindoff, 1982
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Background Information

No names known for 1510-23

Elections

DateCandidate
1529JOHN GILES
 ADAM RALEGH
1536(not known)
1539(not known)
1542(not known)
1545ROGER PRIDEAUX
 JOHN GALE
1547ROGER PRIDEAUX 1
 EDMUND STURE 2
1553 (Mar.)JOHN WOTTON
 CHRISTOPHER SAVERY
1553 (Oct.)JOHN WOTTON
 CHRISTOPHER SAVERY
1554 (Apr.)JOHN EVELEGH
 HENRY GILDON
1554 (Nov.)RICHARD SAVERY
 CHRISTOPHER SAVERY
1555PETER EDGECOMBE
 LEONARD YEO
1558BERNARD SMITH
 LEONARD YEO

Main Article

An ‘ancient little town, situated ... upon the side of a hill’, Totnes ranked second in wealth to Exeter in the Devon of the period. In 1523, 30 of its inhabitants were assessed for subsidy on property totalling nearly £3,000 in value, whereas the much larger Plymouth had less than half as many taxpayers of comparable wealth. By 1509 the old ‘straits’, the coarse Devon cloths which sold well in Brittany, were still being produced in the north of the county and exported through Totnes, but the town itself and its neighbourhood were making the more valuable kerseys. As one of the four stannary towns in Devon, Totnes also profited from the continuing demand for tin although that industry was blamed for the silting of its harbour and of the river Dart, with a consequent reduction in waterborne trade. The ‘water of Dart’ belonged to the duchy of Cornwall, but by this time Totnes had freed itself from duchy interference with its traffic.3

After the attainder of the 7th Lord Zouche in 1485 the manor and castle of Totnes were granted to the Edgecombe family. By then the castle, which lay outside the town walls, was dilapidated and its constableship fell into abeyance. The lord of the manor had the right of presentation to the priory until its suppression in 1536. The prior was rector of Totnes, where the duties were performed by a vicar. In 1536 Sir Peter Edgecombe, describing himself as the ‘founder’ of the priory, unsuccessfully asked Cromwell to allow the deposed prior to have the ‘spiritual promotions’ and he himself the ‘temporal possessions’. It was the Champernons who obtained the priory, but in 1542 they sold the site to the wealthy townsman Walter Smith, who formally conveyed it to the crown so that it could form part of the borough: although within the walls, the priory property had previously been outside municipal jurisdiction.4

The charter of 1505 incorporating Totnes as ‘the mayor and burgesses’, with a saving clause for the rights of the lord of the borough, was confirmed at the accession of Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary. The mayor presided over both the borough court and the manor court, where the lord’s steward sat with him. He was assisted by a town clerk and a receiver who also collected the manorial dues. By 1509 the borough had a recorder and was also retaining a number of Devon lawyers as counsel. All that survive of the municipal records for the period are the receivers’ accounts for 1554-5 and a rental of the same year.5

Three election indentures remain, for the first, third and fourth Marian Parliaments. All are in English and the contracting parties are the sheriff of Devon and ‘the mayor, burgesses and commonalty’; no names or numbers of electors are given. The receivers’ accounts for 1554-5 include three payments for expenses incurred during the two elections held during that year, 12d. for making of indentures and 4d. each for sealing them and ‘for the two serjeants’ fees ... for the return of an indenture from the sheriff for the last election’.6

Of the 13 Members sitting in nine Parliaments, just over half (John Giles, Henry Gildon, Christopher Savery and his brother Richard, Bernard Smith, John Wotton and Leonard Yeo) were townsmen and Roger Prideaux of Soldon had local ancestry; six of the townsmen Members were merchants, four were former mayors when first elected, Wotton was returned twice during his mayoralty and Yeo became mayor after he had twice sat in Parliament. The remaining Members were all from the south-west. The young Peter Edgecombe was the heir to the manor and castle and Adam Ralegh a kinsman of the Edgecombes. The lawyers Edmund Sture and John Evelegh were probably retained by the town when elected, but Sture could have owed both this seat and his earlier one to the Edgecombe family and Evelegh his to Sir John Russell, 1st Earl of Bedford. John Gale, whose name is inserted over an erasure on the county indenture and on the sheriff’s schedule, almost certainly owed his return to Russell.

Author: N. M. Fuidge

Notes

  • 1. C219/282/2; Hatfield 207.
  • 2. Ibid.
  • 3. Camden, Britannia (1695), col. 28; W. Cotton, Antiqs. Totnes, 30; W. G. Hoskins, Devon, 108, 125-6; W. G. Hoskins and H. P. R. Finberg, Devonshire Studies, 225; P. Russell, Totnes, 33-34, 46-47; J. E. Kew, ‘The land market in Devon 1536-58’ (Exeter Univ. Ph.D. thesis, 1967), 70; B. P. Wolffe, The R. Demesne in Eng. Hist. 240.
  • 4. Russell, 10, 34-37, 45, 48-49; Cotton, 7-9; Hoskins, 275, 504-6; Leland, Itin. ed. Smith, i. 218; S. E. Rigold, Totnes Castle, Devon, 5-6; H. R. Watkin, Totnes Priory and Med. Town, 500, 573-5.
  • 5. Devon RO, 1579/AIV, 25 r. 1555(2).
  • 6. C219/21/43, 23/41, 24/48.

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