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The manor of Ashburton became ecclesiastical property in the early 11th century, and from 1050 onwards it belonged to the bishops of Exeter. At some date before 1238 most of the inhabited portion of the manor was constituted as a borough. The bishops were represented in Ashburton by their stewards, who visited the town only to hold courts, leaving the day-to-day administration and rent collection in the hands of the portreeve of the borough, the reeve of the manor and the bailiff. The town owed much to its situation in the midst of good arable land, but being at the margin of the rich mineral wealth of Dartmoor, it also became the natural collecting centre for tin from the south-east side of the moor, and in 1305 it was made an official stannary town, along with Tavistock and Chagford. Ashburton’s cloth industry, its Saturday market for cloth, tin, corn and cattle, and its two fairs, obtained from Edward II by the bishop, gave the inhabitants the means to build one of the finest parish churches in the diocese. That the tin and woollen workers of Ashburton were able to undertake the rebuilding of the church on such a lavish scale suggests that at that time, between 1405 and 1449, the community was quite prosperous. Even so, Ashburton was by far the smallest and probably also the poorest of the parliamentary boroughs of Devon in our period.
Ashburton sent representatives to only two Parliaments before the 17th century: those of 1295 and 1407. The reasons behind the decision to hold elections in 1407 are obscure, and the choice of Walter Denys and Richard Hurston as representatives is even more of a mystery, for neither lived in the town. The former possessed a small farm not far away at ‘Bovyngton’ on the river Bovy, and the latter, who owned various properties scattered throughout the shire, dwelt at Bradford. So far as is known, they had no connexion at all with the borough, its inhabitants, or its lord, who at that time was Edmund Stafford, bishop of Exeter; nor did they display any outstanding qualities which might have commended them to their electors. It may be that Hurston, who was returned to the same Parliament for Plympton Erle, was a person of higher calibre and greater means than the surviving records suggest; and in the case of Denys there is a strong possibility that the initiative came from the man himself, who wanted to go to the Parliament in order to press a suit then pending in the court of Chancery.
Trans. Devon Assoc. xci. 45, 48; xciv. 440-3; Devon Studies ed. Hoskins and Finberg, 172, 223; CChR, iii. 133, 224.