Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1558-1603, ed. P.W. Hasler, 1981
Available from Boydell and Brewer


13 Nov 1584JOHN PERYAM

Main Article

Elizabethan Barnstaple, dependent for its wealth on the enterprise of its merchants and seamen, was a prosperous and fast-growing town. An ancient borough, it was first incorporated in 1557, when Queen Mary’s charter placed the government of the town in the hands of the mayor and a common council of 24 capital burgesses, two of whom were to be called aldermen. This body was dominated by the wealthier merchants. There was also a recorder, an honorary official whose duties were performed by deputy. A set of local government regulations, drawn up in 1585, enjoined all free burgesses to be present at municipal elections in the guildhall, but the choice was made by the council alone. The main feature of a cumbersome voting system, of which full details have survived, was the placing of balls into containers upon which the names of the candidates were written. The winning name was reached by a process of elimination. This method, ‘an ancient custom within the town of Barnstaple, used time out of mind’, may have applied to parliamentary elections: there is no evidence prior to the reign of Charles I to suggest that a wider body of burgesses took part. The four surviving election returns from the Elizabethan period—for the Parliaments of 1584, 1589, 1597 and 1601—are all made between the sheriff of Devon and the mayor, aldermen and burgesses of Barnstaple.

As the only parliamentary borough in north-west Devon, Barnstaple experienced strong pressure on the choice of its Members from leading county magnates and from local country gentlemen. But at the same time it had a long tradition of sending townsmen to Parliament and seems to have been better able than many boroughs to pay wages: it was still paying large sums to its MPs well into the seventeenth century. Throughout Elizabeth’s reign, therefore, the corporation adopted, whenever possible, the compromise policy of choosing one townsman and surrendering the other seat to outside patronage.

One of the important families living in the immediate neighbourhood was the Chichesters of Raleigh. In 1559 Sir John Chichester, who had occupied the county seat twice in earlier Parliaments, was chosen as senior Member for Barnstaple, where he was recorder. A leading west country protestant, he was one of the and Earl of Bedford’s deputy lieutenants for Devon. His son-in-law Arthur Bassett, later to be the Earl’s deputy warden of the stannaries and one of his closest supporters in the county, was returned in 1563. In 1566 Chichester bought the manor and borough of Barnstaple, but in the same year sold much of the property to the corporation with the proviso that he and his heirs, when they came of age, were to have nomination of one burgess of Barnstaple at Parliament, who is not to take any wages for his services, and is to save the town harmless for not returning one of that town as a burgess. Chichester was dead before the next Parliament and it is not clear how often the right was exercised. Probably his son, also Sir John, or Bassett, made the nominations on the advice of the Earl of Bedford. Peter Wentworth (1571), the noted puritan, and John Peryam (1584), from a leading Exeter family, were certainly well known to the Earl, while Vincent Skinner (1572) may have been suggested to him by Lord Burghley, whose secretary he was shortly to become.

Following Bedford’s death in 1585 much of his influence in Devon descended to his son-in-law the 3rd Earl of Bath, whose family seat at Tawstock was only a couple of miles from Barnstaple. Bath, who was recorder by 1588, seems to have displayed little of his father-in-law’s political skill in his dealings with the town authorities, and before long a strong faction had grown up against him. He could, nevertheless, rely on one seat for every Parliament. Thomas Hinson, his tutor and later land agent in Devon, occupied it four times between 1586 and 1604, even though he was particularly unpopular in the town. In 1593 the town clerk noted that ‘Mr. George Chittinge, a gentleman of my Lord of Bath’ had been elected, while in 1601 the Earl nominated Edward Hancock, clerk of assize in the west, and follower of (Sir) Walter Ralegh. For this Parliament the corporation was obliged to surrender both seats to outside patronage, since Robert Chichester, grandson of the 1559 Member, had come of age and now demanded his right to nominate one of the Members. His choice fell on Richard Martin, a London lawyer originally from Exeter, who made a name for himself in this Parliament by his spirited attack on monopolies.

Most of the men who occupied the junior seat during the reign belonged to leading merchant families. These included John Darte (1559) and his son Lewis (1586), Robert Apley, who sat in several Marian and Elizabethan Parliaments and was perhaps the most influential member of the common council during the period, Robert Prowse (1584) and John Doddridge (1589). Doddridge’s family later had some connexions with the Earl of Bath, but as a native of the town and one of its legal advisers it hardly seems likely that he required an outside patron to secure his election. There is record of the payment of wages to Apley in 1566—at the rate of 2s. 8d. a day—to Prowse and to Doddridge.

Some doubt attaches to the identity of Richard Leye, who was returned in 1593. Though he may have been a Barnstaple man and was certainly of counsel to the town, it seems likely from later evidence that he spent part of his career in the Earl of Bath’s service. It is therefore possible, though unlikely, that the Earl chose him in 1593 and thus secured both seats for his nominees. That his influence on elections was strong is again indicated by the town clerk’s diary in 1597. The authorities chose Bartholomew Harris, a merchant, to accompany Hinson to Westminster, but ‘afterwards there was some misliking by the Earl of Bath’ of the choice of Harris, evidently one of his opponents in the town. A new election was held, ‘with the consent of the whole burgesses’, and George Peard, townsman and lawyer, was chosen to fill the gap.3

Author: M.R.P.


  • 1. E371/402(1).
  • 2. Ibid.
  • 3. J. Gribble, Barnstaple Mems. 378; Hoskins, Devon, 108; Barnstaple Recs. i. 45-46, 88-93, 174, 227-8, 239-41, 244, 245; ii. 103, 165, 166, 167-9, 255-7; C219/29/40; 31/48; 33/60; 34/251; CPR, 1563-6, p. 369; Chanter, Lit. Hist. Barnstaple, 105.