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


1566SIR PETER CAREW vice Williams, deceased
1576EDWARD AMEREDITH vice Tothill, deceased
11 Oct. 1586EDWARD DREW
7 Oct. 1597JOHN HELE I
Oct. 1601JOHN HELE I

Main Article

Tudor Exeter, a prosperous city with a population rising to perhaps eight or nine thousand, was the economic and political centre of the south-west. The grant of county status in 1537 meant that it had its own sheriff and, by the Elizabethan period, its own lord lieutenant. The government of the city was in the hands of the chamber, a self-perpetuating body of 24 councilmen, recruited for the most part from the wealthiest merchant families. The chamber provided the mayor and the sheriff each year, while eight of their number, together with the recorder, enjoyed the rank of alderman. There were also four bailiffs, the senior of whom was the receiver of revenues. Promotion through these offices followed a set pattern.5

Election writs were sent to the sheriff of the city, who conducted elections in the guildhall. Candidates had to be resident freemen. The electors, in theory, were the freeholders and they are so described in the act book of the chamber in 1588. On other occasions, however, they are called simply the commons or (as on the surviving returns) the citizens of Exeter. It is clear that they were expected to approve the two names presented to them by the chamber. For example in 1588 the chamber, ‘having thought and considered what persons should be most fit to be proposed to the freeholders at the next county day’, suggested Edward Drew and John Peryam as ‘the fittest persons’ to be elected, ‘if the said freeholders ... shall so like or think it good’. But by the early Stuart period, if not earlier, the freeholders were objecting to the formal nature of their role in the procedure. As early as 1593, when the chamber put forward two names as usual, it was agreed that the electors might nominate others and choose ‘whom they like better’.6

The Exeter MPs in this period were either leading merchants or legal advisers to the city. Among the former were Richard Prestwood (1559), Simon Knight (1572), Thomas Bruarton (1584), Richard Prowse (1584), John Peryam (1588, 1593), William Martin (1597) and John Howell (1601): each save Prestwood, who died prematurely, served his turn as mayor. Geoffrey Tothill, the son of a former mayor, and John Hele I both represented Exeter in three Parliaments while holding the office of recorder (Tothill from 1563, Hele from 1593); Thomas Williams (1563) was of counsel to the city, and Edward Drew (1589), legal adviser, held the recordership for a short time. Another lawyer was Edward Ameredith, the son of a former mayor, returned at a by-election following Tothill’s death in 1574. His legal work for a number of courtiers may have been an additional factor recommending him to the Exeter authorities. It is noticeable, in fact, that several of these Members, particularly Peryam, Hele, Williams and Ameredith, had family or business relationships in London. Many of them were puritans. John Hookeralias Vowell, chamberlain for many years, kept a journal of the 1571 Parliament.

Occasionally the chamber elected outsiders who were friendly towards the city. In 1559, when there were many ‘suitors to be burgesses of the city’, Sir John Pollard was returned in the senior place. He had already represented Exeter in 1555 and did good work for it over a number of years. Sir Peter Carew, another Devon protestant with court connexions, was returned at a by-election in 1566. Like Pollard, he was first made a freeman of the city, and had to promise to occupy the seat himself, rather than act merely as a patron for someone else.7 That the chamber saw the danger that electing an outside magnate might lead eventually to the loss of their independence may be seen in their refusal to grant a nomination to the find Earl of Bedford, lord lieutenant of Exeter and the owner of a large mansion there. ‘I thought’, he wrote in November 1562, ‘I had for my goodwill towards you somewhat better deserved than in so trifling a matter to have such a repulse’. A Mr Mallett (probably John Malet), whom Bedford suggested as an alternative to the unknown original choice, was also rejected.8

Exeter usually paid wages to its Members. In 1558 the rate was 3s.4d. a day, rising to 4 s. in 571 and to 5s. by 1589, but in 1597 it was reduced to 4s. ‘after the old rule’. Hooker carefully worked out his own payment in 1571 including eight days’ travelling expenses. Occasionally, if the Members had served well, they received cash bonuses or gifts as a reward. The instructions they received concerning business to be done for the city have survived for a number of Parliaments, including 1563 when Williams’s appointment as Speaker must have improved the chances of success, and 584 when the MPs were to attend to matters concerning the salmon fishery, wine, the mustering of horses in Exeter, and a lease of the fee farm of the manor of Ottery. In 1601 the chamber told John Howell to consult with Sir Robert Cecil about the city’s business. Both Cecil, who was the first high steward, and his father received pensions from the corporation. In 1585 the Exeter merchants’ guild paid Richard Prowse £3 4s. ‘which he hath laid out at the said Parliament time about the suit of the company’, and in 1593 the governor of the company urged action in Parliament on a cloth measure. Whereupon the whole company agreed that Mr. Recorder and Mr. Peryam, burgesses for this city, shall prosecute the same, and that the charges of this company shall be rated and set down by the said burgesses.9

Author: M.R.P.


  • 1. E371/402 m. 1; Exeter chamber acct. bk. 2, f. 352.
  • 2. Ibid.
  • 3. Add. 38823; Browne Willis.
  • 4. Ibid.
  • 5. W. MacCaffrey, Exeter 1540-1640; J. Hooker, Desc. Exeter (Devon and Cornw. Rec. Soc.) 326-71; E. A. Freeman, Exeter, 145, 150-1.
  • 6. J.J. Alexander, ‘Exeter MPs’ (Trans. Dev. Assoc. lxi) 194, 195; act bk. 5, ff. 96, 240; C219/28/170, 171; 31/218; 33/246; 34/255; 284/14.
  • 7. Act bk. 2, f. 286; 3, f. 181.
  • 8. HMC Exeter, 43.
  • 9. Act bk. 2. ff. 212, 219, 323; 3, ff. 101, 267, 279; 4, f. 458; 5, ff. 123, 250, 410; HMC Exeter, 377; Alexander, 201; Trans. Dev. Assoc. xliv. 212; xlv. 409; MacCaffrey, 226-7; HMC Hatfield, xi. 499; W. Cotton, Elizabethan Guild of Exeter, 74, 132, 160.