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 Wyndout
 John Tryll
1388 (Feb.)Ranulph Hunt
 John Atte Pole
1388 (Sept.)John Ford I
 William Walreddon
1390 (Jan.)Walter Milemead
 John Bithewater
1390 (Nov.)
1391Ranulph Hunt
 John Whitham
1393Ranulph Hunt
 Matthew Row
1394Ranulph Hunt
 John Crocker
1395Ranulph Hunt
 Walter Dimmock
1397 (Jan.)William Whitham
 John Plenty
1397 (Sept.)
1402Ranulph Hunt
 John Kene
1404 (Jan.)
1404 (Oct.)
1406John Plenty
 Roger Baker
1407John Godfrey
 William Brit
1411John Lopynford
 Richard Secheville 1
1413 (Feb.)
1413 (May)William May
 John Julkin
1414 (Apr.)
1414 (Nov.)William May
 John Julkin
1416 (Mar.)
1416 (Oct.)
1419Richard Secheville 2
1420Richard Secheville
 William Bentley
1421 (May)John Fortescue
 William May
1421 (Dec.)John Fortescue
 Nicholas Fitzherbert

Main Article

A small settlement existed at Tavistock even before the Benedictine abbey was founded there in c.974, but the borough as such owed its existence to the abbots. At some date between 1105 and 1185 one of them deliberately created a town on the right bank of the Tavy, detaching an area from the extensive rural manor of Hurdwick for this purpose. By 1291 the place contained 120 messuages and tenements (55 of them with gardens) and 35 plots separately held, all owing rent to the abbey. The annual revenue from the town then amounted to £7 8s.d., and it remained almost stationary at this figure for the next two centuries. When the quotas of taxable capacity were fixed in 1334, Tavistock was placed fifth among the Devon boroughs, after Exeter, Plymouth, Barnstaple and Dartmouth. By 1445 when the quotas were revised it had changed places with Dartmouth. Its status owed something to the weekly market, granted by the abbot in 1105, and to the three day fair, at the feast of St. Rumon, granted in 1116. But the chief impetus to economic growth had been supplied by the 12th-century ‘tin rush’. It was this, in fact, which led to the first recognition of the town as a borough.3 The deposits found on the south-west edge of Dartmoor proved to be the largest single European source of tin, and from the very beginning Tavistock was one of the very few places where all the tin mined within the county of Devon was to be weighed, stamped and sold. In 1305 a charter fixed Tavistock, Ashburton and Chagford as the stannary towns where the ‘coinage duty’ charged on the finished metal was to be levied, and although in 1327 the burgesses of Plympton Erle sought the removal of the privileges of the stannary from Tavistock to their town, and indeed secured royal letters patent to this effect, Tavistock, as a result of petitions from the tinners, was allowed to retain its former position, and Plympton Erle became merely a subsidiary within the organization. The record of the Tavistock tin industry in the later Middle Ages was one of steady growth. Furthermore, in the 15th century Tavistock was the centre of a thriving woollen trade, being then noted for the production of a certain type of cloth, known as ‘Tavistocks’, which was shipped overseas through Plymouth. There had been a tucking mill there at least by 1388, and subsequently not only were some old buildings adapted to the process of fulling, but new mills also went up apace, so that by 1500 no fewer than 16 of these mills were in operation within a radius of two miles of the abbey.4

The abbot had continued to be lord of the borough of Tavistock, and in this period there was no notable relaxation of seignorial control. It was the abbot’s steward who presided over local courts and appointed the portreeve at the Michaelmas law day, as a rule making his choice from between two or more candidates put forward by the jury of ‘portmen’. The portreeve served for 12 months and rarely held office for a second term. He was given an allowance of 2s. by the abbot, and a garden was reserved for his use, but his only responsibility was to see that the lord’s burghal dues were paid. The only recorded clash between the burgesses and their lord had taken place much earlier, in 1258. To what extent the abbots took an interest in parliamentary elections is unclear. Certainly they themselves no longer received an individual summons to the Upper House, and the matters discussed at Westminster probably did not excite their concern. It is not surprising to find that more than half of the parliamentary representatives of our period were tenants of the abbey either in Tavistock itself or in the surrounding manor of Hurdwick. John Crocker and John Plenty were portreeves when returned to Parliament in 1394 and 1406, respectively; John Ford I served as the abbot’s bailiff of the hundred of Tavistock; John Julkin acted as his attorney at the Exeter assizes; and Ranulph Hunt once provided securities in Chancery on his behalf. More significantly, Thomas Raymond*, steward of the abbey, had been returned twice for the borough (in 1377 and 1384), and William May, brother of Abbot John May (d.1422), sat in three Parliaments (in 1413, 1414 and 1421) during his brother’s abbacy. Even so, it is debatable how much weight should be attached to these facts. All of the Members mentioned were men of standing in the locality, worthy to be elected to Parliament on their own merits; no overt interference from the abbot need have been necessary. The problem is not clarified by the parliamentary returns, which, like those for the other boroughs of Devon, tend to obscure local electoral procedures.

Tavistock sent representatives to the Commons regularly after 1295. But returns have survived for no more than 19 of the 32 Parliaments convened between 1386 and 1421, and the names of only 25 of the Members are known. To judge from the available evidence, no fewer than 17 MPs sat only once, yet it would seem to have been usual to elect at least one man with previous experience of the House: there is no doubt that in 14 of the 19 Parliaments for which we have evidence, a Member qualified in this way accompanied an apparent newcomer; and that neither of the representatives in the second Parliament of 1414 was a novice. A few of the Members even became well acquainted with the workings of the Commons: Richard Secheville attended five Parliaments between 1411 and 1433, as also did John Julkin between 1413 and 1425 (although one was as a representative for Plympton Erle); Ranulph Hunt sat in seven between 1383 and 1402; and John Fortescue was to make eight appearances, all told, between 1421 and 1437, sitting four times for Tavistock, once for Plympton, twice for Totnes, and once as a knight of the shire for Wiltshire, before he took his place in the Lords as head of the judiciary. Re-election is known to have occurred five times in this period: Hunt sat in four consecutive Parliaments (1391-5), while Secheville was re-elected in 1420, and Fortescue in 1421 (Dec.). Then, too, knowledge of the proceedings of the House might be passed down from father to son: there was something of a tradition of parliamentary service in the families of Whitham, Secheville and Crocker; and John Ford I, John Plenty, John Wyndout and John Julkin were all related to other MPs.

The question of qualification by residence has not been resolved in the cases of six of the 25 Members for Tavistock. But 13 were certainly residents of the town or lived within a few miles of it, and three more, although themselves unidentified, are known to have come from local families. Only three MPs were unquestionably ‘outsiders’, and not even one of them came from beyond the borders of the shire. William Bentley, a sea captain and merchant, lived at Plymouth (where he held office as mayor four times); John Lopynford, a successful lawyer, owned land in east Devon and Somerset; and John Fortescue, the future chief justice, came from south Devon. It is interesting to find Fortescue, of all people, failing to observe the statute of 1413 which required that MPs should be resident in the shires or boroughs which they represented. By no means all of the occupations of the Tavistock burgesses have been discovered, but it seems likely that most of them were tradesmen or farmers, and some had an interest in the tin or cloth industries. Although members of the legal profession had frequently been returned for Tavistock in the years between 1350 and 1385, none of the representatives in the Parliaments held between 1386 and 1411 are known to have been similarly qualified. There would seem, then, to have been in that respect a further change in the character of the representation of the borough, for at least one lawyer was elected to five of the seven Parliaments convened between 1411 and the end of our period. They included men of quite high calibre, like John Lopynford, who had previously acted as an attorney in Chancery for the earl of Ormond and the countess of Salisbury, and John Fortescue, who although only just commencing what was to be a most distinguished career as a judge and jurist, was already a member of Lincoln’s Inn. Seven MPs were appointed to royal commissions, all, however, save for Lopynford and Fortescue, within the confines of the shire; but only one, Fortescue, was ever made a j.p. (and not until long after his parliamentary service for Tavistock was over). Leaving Fortescue aside, only three other Members ever held office by royal appointment: William Bentley served as lieutenant to the admiral of England and as searcher in four west country ports several years before his only return to Parliament in 1420, although at the time of his election he was occupying the post of customer of Plymouth and Fowey; Ranulph Hunt served for at least six years in the duchy of Cornwall as a forester of Dartmoor, and was so employed when elected to at least one of his seven Parliaments (1388); and Nicholas Fitzherbert had acted from 1386 to 1397 as controller of the stannaries of Cornwall, and from 1392 to 1399 as an auditor of the accounts of the duchy, but this was many years before he sought election to Parliament for Tavistock.

Author: L. S. Woodger


  • 1. C219/10/6 (erroneously given as John Secheville in OR, i. 276).
  • 2. The other name has been torn off the return.
  • 3. H.P.R. Finberg, Tavistock Abbey, 72-74, 197-205; Trans. Devon Assoc. xlvi. 156-64; lxxix. 129-152.
  • 4. Finberg, 169, 153-4, 174-5, 178, 180-1, 188-90.