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


1386Roger Trewythenick
 John Urban
1388 (Feb.)Thomas Tregadereth
 Roger Trewythenick
1388 (Sept.)Thomas Bray I
 John Symon
1390 (Jan.)Roger Trewythenick
 John Urban
1390 (Nov.)
1391Roger Trewythenick
 William Glasen
1393John Trereise
 Michael Trereise
1395Roger Trewythenick
 Roger Skewys 1
1397 (Jan.)Thomas Beville I
 John Urban
1397 (Sept.)John Pengersick
 John Skewys
1399Roger Trewythenick
 John Pengersick
1402Roger Trewythenick
 John Masselegh
1404 (Jan.)
1404 (Oct.)
1406Walter Bodrygy
 William Penalewy
1407John Pengersick
 Matthew Skewys
1411John Glasen
 Thomas Pellour
1413 (Feb.)
1413 (May)Thomas Treffridowe
 Thomas Polglas
1414 (Apr.)
1414 (Nov.)John Clink
 John Baker IV
1415 or 1416 (Mar.)John Glasen
 Robert Treage 2
1416 (Oct.)
1417John Glasen
 Thomas Gurtaboys
1419Robert Treage
 John Cork
1420William Richard
 William Trethake II
1421 (May)Thomas Carathyn
 John Treffridowe
1421 (Dec.)William Penpons
 Adam Vivian

Main Article

The town of Helston was the focal point of the manor of Helston-in-Kerrier, the most westerly of the assessionable manors of the duchy of Cornwall, and also the biggest. Before the Black Death approximately 5,000 areas were leased to the tenants of the manor, with perhaps an additional 2,500 acres held in free tenancies. But the manor contained large tracks of barren land suitable for use only as rough pasture, which would only be leased in response to an exceptional demand for foodstuffs and land, such as that created by extensive mining activity. Therefore, although between 1300 and 1333 the manor had grown in area, incorporating great tracts of moorland (for at that time the stannary of Penwith and Kerrier was the foremost mining district of Cornwall), the decline in tin production of the late 1330s resulted in a fall in demand for land, growing insolvency of the reeves of the manor and widespread inability on the part of the tenants to pay the rents and assession fines stipulated in their contracts. As a consequence of the Black Death and a further slump in mining, Helston’s problems were intensified: over half of the total charge on the manor was lost. Some measure of recovery is evident before 1356, but the second severe outbreak of plague in 1360-2 provoked another agrarian depression. Although the manor experienced a resurgence in demand for land in the opening decades of the 15th century, and between 1399 and 1406 receipts from Helston were at their highest recorded level since the Black Death, this seems to have been a short-lived recovery. By 1465 almost half of the lands of the manor lay uncultivated, and nearly 1,000 acres had lain vacant for so long that it was said of them: ‘jacent in foresta’.3

The changing fortunes of the manor naturally had an effect on the economy of the town. Although at this time Helston was little more than a village (in 1377 the poll tax assessments recorded only 188 men and women aged over 14 living there), its weekly markets and its four annual fairs made it the trading centre for much of west Cornwall. The inhabitants earned a living from farming or trading in tin from the nearby stannary of Penwith and Kerrier. But although useful as coinage town for the tin of the local stannary, Helston had no harbour of its own. It had long ceased to be a port owing to the silting up of the river Cober and the formation of Looe Bar, so all the tin and other merchandise from the area must have gone overland, either to Gweek on the Helford river, where the burgesses of Helston had certain privileges, or to the little ports of Marazion and St. Erth.4

Both the manor and the town had been royal demesne since the early 11th century. In the 13th century they came into the possession of the earls of Cornwall, and remained part of the estates of the earldom (afterwards the duchy) throughout the Middle Ages. On occasion, in the periods when the duchy reverted to the Crown, both the manor and borough of Helston were granted to others either rent-free for life or on a lease. So, following after a period from 1376 to 1385 when Helston was held as part of her dower by the widow of the Black Prince, in September 1385 Richard II granted it to his standard-bearer, Sir Nicholas Sarnesfield, for life; and four years later added the concession that he and his wife, Margaret, could hold the place in survivorship. But although in 1399 Henry IV confirmed the grant to Margaret Sarnesfield, by then a widow, Henry of Monmouth, on becoming duke of Cornwall, contested her right to the property in the King’s bench, and, judgement being given in his favour, it then returned to the duchy. In 1415 Margaret’s claim was allowed a second hearing and she was reinstated, only for the premises to be let nine years later to Robert Treage* and Richard Penpons, apparently after false evidence had been sent to Chancery by Treage’s brother-in-law, Sir John Arundell of Trerice. In 1431 Margaret surrendered annuities of £40 in order to regain Helston, then keeping possession until her death 13 years later.5 During the period under review Helston was, therefore, administered directly by duchy officials only from about 1404 until 1415, but the influence of the duchy nevertheless continued to be felt there from 1415 to 1422, for in those years Margaret Sarnesfield let it at farm to the duchy receiver, John Wilcotes*. The Sarnesfields were absentee landlords who seem to have had no interest in the place, still less in its parliamentary representation. Only one of Helston’s Members, John Urban, is known to have had personal contact with them, and that was several years after his first return to Parliament. On the other hand, connexions between the parliamentary burgesses and the ministers of the duchy were quite common, and several Members even held minor offices on the duchy staff. John Symon occupied the post of bailiff of the hundred of Kerrier, William Penalewy that of bailiff of the hundred of Powder, and Thomas Gurtaboys that of sub-bailiff of the hundred of Pyder. Thomas Pellour, a kinsman of the deputy steward of Cornwall, served for a year as under sheriff; Thomas Carathyn was steward of the maritime courts of the duchy, and John Treffridowe was joint havener of the western ports. More important, Robert Treage held office as havener of Cornwall, and John Cork was placed on the panel holding an assession court and on other occasions audited the duchy accounts. But of these eight only one, Penalewy, was so occupied at the time of his return to Parliament for Helston, and there is no evidence that the ministers of the duchy interfered with the borough’s elections. Nevertheless, there is room for speculation about how one of Helston’s MPs came to be chosen. John Clink, who sat for Helston in 1414 (Nov.), had been for the previous 12 years in the service of the prince of Wales (Henry of Monmouth); he had already represented two other duchy boroughs (Liskeard and Lostwithiel), and by the prince’s grant held the offices of parker of Liskeard, water bailiff of Dartmouth, and havener of the duchy ports. Whether the initiative for his election came from the duchy is uncertain, but clearly such a man who enjoyed access to the new King would have been a most acceptable candidate from the burgesses’ point of view. Interest in the parliamentary elections for Helston may have also been shown in a less obvious quarter: although the Beauchamp earls of Warwick rarely visited Cornwall, they held three large manors there (Blisland, Carnanton and Helston Tony), which provided an income of up to £135 a year, and they are known to have taken an interest in local affairs. How far this went with regard to parliamentary representation as uncertain, but there is evidence that Helston’s most active Member, Roger Trewythenick, not only farmed all three of the Beauchamp manors in Cornwall but served as steward in the shire for Thomas, earl of Warwick (d.1401). It would appear that his stewardship dated from before his tenth Parliament (in 1395), and he was still farming the estate at the time of his last two returns in 1399 and 1402.

The inhabitants of Helston had long enjoyed considerable liberties and privileges. In the late 12th century they had been given 33 acres of land from the manor, and their vill was elevated to a mesne borough before 1181. King John’s first charter to Helston, dated April 1201, conferred on the town the status of liber burgus, allowed the burgesses the right to have a guild merchant, and granted them exemption from tolls throughout England and from pleading outside their own borough. They were to have all the liberties which the men of Launceston enjoyed by grant of Henry II. By a second charter, issued in the same month and year, the burgesses secured the right of farming the town. Earl Richard of Cornwall, Henry III’s brother, gave the townspeople more property, increasing the fee farm accordingly from £12 to £13 6s.8d. (20 marks), and granted them two more charters, the second of which (1260) specified the area that they were to hold: the town itself, the mills on the outskirts, the 33 acres from the manor and ‘our meadow below the town’. In the following century John of Eltham, earl of Cornwall, doubled the fee farm of Helston, having been, so the burgesses thought, ‘moved thereto by untrue suggestions’. Perhaps for this reason, in 1336 they asked the earl’s brother, Edward III, to confirm earlier charters, which specified the lower charge. The King did so, but when, shortly afterwards, he converted the earldom into a dukedom and conferred it on his young son Edward, later known as the Black Prince, the new officials of the duchy ignored Helston’s charters so far as the financial arrangements were concerned, and demanded 40 marks a year. Although the burgesses soon fell deeply into debt, it was not until 1352 that some relief was obtained, the receiver of the duchy then being instructed to cease demands for the arrears and the extra farm. In 1354, when the prince was staying at Restormel castle, the burgesses appealed to him personally, saying that the borough was already impoverished and, because of the burden of the fee farm, would soon be deserted, whereupon Prince Edward granted them a new charter renouncing all claim to the additional 20 marks. The situation remained unchanged thereafter throughout the period under review. Helston’s charters were confirmed by successive holders of the duchy of Cornwall in 1378, 1400, 1415 and 1423.6

The chief officer of the manor of Helston-in-Kerrier, the reeve or bailiff, was appointed, usually for life, by the duke of Cornwall. Shortly before our period begins this office had been held by Henry Nanfan, who during his term sat in Parliament for Helston in 1363, but none of the bailiffs of the later 14th and early 15th centuries are known to have so represented the borough. The principal officers of the town itself were the two portreeves, of whom the more important rendered account at the duchy exchequer for the fee farm. In 1414-15 Henry Richer, the senior portreeve, adopted the title of ‘mayor’, and several of his predecessors, noted in the duchy accounts of that year as owing various sums of money, were retrospectively accorded the same status. The bailiff of the manor assumed his duties at Michaelmas, but it seems unlikely that the portreeves did likewise. There is evidence, for example, that one pair, Robert Bret and Benedict Bray, were portreeves in October 1389, but another, William Glasen and Ralph Restales, were portreeves in June 1390, which suggests that the local elections were held at some point in the winter or spring. The most likely date was either New Year’s Day (25 Mar.) or the anniversary of Helston’s first charter (15 Apr.).7

Helston had first made returns to Parliament in 1298, and thereafter regularly elected representatives throughout the 14th and 15th centuries. The elections were recorded in the same way as those for the other boroughs of Cornwall, on a composite schedule or indenture serving for the whole shire. The names of Helston’s representatives are known for only 22 of the 32 Parliaments which met between 1386 and 1421, missing or damaged returns leaving gaps for the rest. In the Parliaments for which we have evidence the borough was represented by as many as 31 men, of whom all but seven were returned only once (so far as is known), and five no more than twice or three times. The other two were outstanding for their parliamentary service for Helston: John Urban sat in eight Parliaments between 1381 and 1397, and Roger Trewythenick in no fewer than 12 between 1381 and 1402. Nine of the parliamentary burgesses for Helston, almost a third of the total, also represented other Cornish boroughs at some time in their careers, thereby adding to their otherwise limited experience of the Commons. Thus John Clink, John Pengersick and John Treffridowe each sat in three Parliaments all told, while John Trereise, John Cork and William Richard appeared in four, William Trethake II in seven (only one for Helston, but six for Truro), Robert Treage in nine (two each for Helston, Bodmin, Lostwithiel and Truro, and one for Liskeard), and John Urban in ten (eight for Helston, one for Truro, and one as a knight of the shire for Cornwall). Even so, the burgesses of Helston do not appear to have been unduly concerned whether their representatives had any parliamentary experience at all. In only 14 Parliaments, so far as is known, did one of Helston’s Members have any previous experience of the workings of the Commons, and in only four of those (1386, 1390 (Jan.), 1399 and 1415 or 1416 (Mar.)) were both representatives qualified in this way. Then again, re-election apparently occurred only four times: both Roger Trewythenick and John Urban were re-elected in 1386; Trewythenick was returned to his third consecutive Parliament in 1388 (Feb.), and John Pengersick was re-elected in 1399. But in perhaps as many as eight Parliaments both parliamentary burgesses were newcomers to the Commons (although the number of gaps in the returns makes it almost certain that this was not, in fact, the case in all eight instances).

That so many parliamentary burgesses (24) represented Helston in only one Parliament each may well point to a general reluctance to undertake the long journey from west Cornwall to Westminster. The majority of Helston’s MPs, 20 out of 31, are known to have lived in the most westerly part of the shire, though there is evidence for the ownership of property in Helston itself by less than a third of the total. The whereabouts of the homes of six Members has not been discovered, but all six were certainly Cornishmen. Four of the remaining five lived further east, but within the shire boundaries. So, although comparatively few of Helston’s representatives lived in the town itself, all but one were natives of Cornwall and usually resided there. The solitary outsider was John Clink, a yeoman of the prince of Wales, who owned a house in Westminster but seems to have led an itinerant life as a member of one or other of the royal households. Even so, Clink did discharge offices in Cornwall, and it is by no means certain that he was not living somewhere in the shire at the time of his return to Parliament for Helston.

The surviving assession rolls of the duchy of Cornwall mention only two MPs (John Symon and John Pengersick) as tenants of land on the manor of Helston-in-Kerrier, and it is unclear whether they derived all their income from farming or, like other burgesses of Helston, were also engaged in trade on a small scale. Only one of Helston’s Members is known to have been a merchant of any importance: he, John Urban, exported tin to the continent and made a success of trading ventures to Calais and beyond. Indeed, his fellow merchants of the Staple of Calais saw fit to elect him as their lieutenant. Seven parliamentary burgesses were described as ‘gentlemen’ or ‘esquires’, and they and a number of the rest probably made a living from the land. At least seven more were lawyers, for the most part men trying to establish practices in the central courts, but only two (John Cork and Roger Trewythenick) deserve special notice for their ability. One member of this profession (usually Trewythenick) was returned to nearly all of the Parliaments convened between 1385 and 1402 and between 1417 and 1421; but in the years 1404 to 1415, when Helston was in the direct control of the duchy, lawyers were generally not favoured as parliamentary candidates.

Some, but by no means all, of the names of the medieval portreeves and mayors of Helston are recorded in surviving duchy accounts and local deeds. Only three parliamentary burgesses are known to have occupied the post of portreeve: John and William Glasen and John Pengersick, and in no case did a term of office coincide with parliamentary service. Very few, in fact only four, of the Members for Helston ever filled offices directly in the Crown’s appointment (as compared with the nine, already mentioned, who held duchy posts): John Clink served as a messenger in the King’s household and in the Exchequer, held the parkership of Petworth and the bailiwick of the port of Caen, and spent the last 15 years of his life as a royal serjeant-at-arms; John Cork served a term as escheator of Devon and Cornwall; and Robert Treage acted as customer of Plymouth and Fowey. But the most outstanding of them all in this regard was John Urban, who served for about 15 years as lieutenant to one or other of the admirals and, mainly in the years from 1402 to 1408, was often assigned to diplomatic missions to Burgundy and Flanders. Clink was holding the parkership when he was elected for Helston in 1414, and Treage was customer when elected in 1416 and 1419. Rather more of the MPs for Helston, seven in all, were named on various royal commissions dealing with Cornish affairs. Of these the most outstanding were John Clink (who as a serjeant-at-arms was often required to requisition vessels for the King’s service), John Cork (who by virtue of his profession as a lawyer was often placed on the quorum of commissions of a judicial nature), Roger Trewythenick (who was appointed to commissions of array), and John Urban (who discharged commissions in Kent and Calais as well as in his native Cornwall). Urban, Trewythenick and Cork all served as j.p.s in Cornwall, the last named, Cork, for as long as 20 years. Urban was a member of the bench when returned to Parliament in 1397, and Trewythenick when returned in 1399 and 1402, but, as both men had been elected to several Parliaments before, their new status was probably not an important factor in their selection.

Author: L. S. Woodger


  • 1. W. Prynne, Brevia Parliamentaria Rediviva, iv. 995 (the return C219/9/11, is now torn).
  • 2. Ibid.
  • 3. J. Hatcher, Rural Economy Duchy of Cornw. 27-28, 93-97, 111-12, 125-6, 129, 188; SC6/817/8.
  • 4. E179/87/32; R. Inst. Cornw. Jnl. iv. 131.
  • 5. M.W. Beresford, New Towns, 400; H.S. Toy, Helston, 1; CPR, 1374-7, p. 375; 1385-9, pp. 18, 279; 1388-92, p. 121, 1391-6 p. 600; 1399-1401, p. 39; 1422-9, p. 33; 1429-36, p. 107; 1436-41, p. 476; 1441-6, p. 322; CCR, 1399-1402, p. 23; 1402-5, pp. 454, 461; 1413-19, p. 247; CFR, xv. 72; RP, iv. 384, 396.
  • 6. L. Elliot-Binns, Med. Cornw. 199; R. Inst. Cornw. Jnl. ii. 205; Toy, 19, 36-37, 40, 43-45, 48, 50-51, 62, 73, 80-81, 85, 90, 438-41, 447-53; Reg. Black Prince, ii. 29, 38, 47, 60, 63; CPR, 1377-81, p. 113; 1399-1401, p. 388; 1413-16, p. 279; 1422-9, p. 178.
  • 7. Duchy of Cornw. RO, ministers’ acct. 42; Toy, 134, 139, 140; Reg. Black Prince, ii. 95; CAD, iv. A9915, 9962, 10313, 10341; v. 12061.