Bere Alston


Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1604-1629, ed. Andrew Thrush and John P. Ferris, 2010
Available from Cambridge University Press

Background Information

Right of Election:

in the mayor or portreeve and burgesses

Number of voters:

15 in 1626


22 Oct. 1605HUMPHREY MAY vice Atye, deceased
28 Feb. 1624THOMAS JERMYN vice Cheke, chose to sit for Essex

Main Article

Bere Alston originated in the late thirteenth century as a small mining settlement within the manor of Bere Ferrers. Granted a market in 1295, and established as a borough shortly afterwards, it passed with the manor into the possession of the lords Willoughby de Broke, and, in 1522, descended to the 2nd lord’s coheirs. Still barely more than a large village, Bere Alston was enfranchised in 1584 ‘at the request of William, marquess of Winchester and William, Lord Mountjoy, chief lords of the town and borough’, who initially divided the electoral patronage between them. From 1588, however, in a move that foreshadowed the formal partition of the Willoughby lands in the following decade, Mountjoy became the borough’s sole patron. This role was duly inherited in 1594 by his brother, Charles Blount†, 8th Lord Mountjoy, the distinguished lord deputy of Ireland whose services were rewarded in 1603 with the earldom of Devonshire.2

Bere Alston’s vulnerability to external pressure manifested itself clearly in the borough’s early seventeenth-century election indentures. Returns were normally made in the name of the mayor and burgesses, but the use in 1605 of the alternative term ‘portreeve’ for the chief officer reflected the absence of the formal structures enjoyed by incorporated boroughs. The character of the indentures was also markedly inconsistent from one election to the next, in both the layout of the text and the choice of language. In 1624 the original indenture was made out in Latin, but at the ensuing election English was employed. Comparatively few of the electors, including the mayors, were able to sign their own names.3

For reasons which are unclear, the Blount family generally proved unable to enforce its monopoly over Bere Alston’s seats during this period. In 1604 Devonshire successfully nominated his client, Sir Arthur Atye, but the other place went to Sir Richard Strode, eldest son of a prominent local landowner, Sir William Strode*. Atye died at the end of the year. On 3 Oct. 1605 the earl of Salisbury (Robert Cecil†) wrote to the borough, requesting that the vacancy be filled by the newly appointed lieutenant of the Tower, Sir William Waad, whom he described as ‘a gentleman of very good experience and sufficiency in His Majesty’s service, and capable to further anything that may tend to the particular good of your town’. Salisbury added: ‘if otherwise you have disposed of your election, my desire is that you will send me word by this bearer, that I may in time provide for some other place for him’. The burgesses evidently replied that they had already made their choice, for Waad was returned at West Looe on 21 Oct., while the next day Bere Alston’s seat went to Humphrey May, Devonshire’s former gentleman usher.4

In the following year, Devonshire died, having placed his estates in trust for the benefit of his eldest illegitimate son, Mountjoy Blount. May himself was one of the trustees, while the overseers of Devonshire’s will included the 3rd earl of Southampton. Both men exploited these connections to put forward candidates at Bere Alston.5 In 1614 Blount secured the election of Sir Richard White, a longstanding member of Southampton’s circle. The other burgess-ship went to Thomas Crewe, a notable government critic who conceivably also enjoyed the earl’s backing.6 However, from this point on, the borough’s patronage was once again divided. Although Blount provided a seat in 1621 for Thomas Keightley, one of Southampton’s colleagues on the Virginia Company’s board, the other place went to Sir Thomas Wise, a Devon gentleman who had probably quite recently acquired property in Bere Alston. Although both elections were held on the same day, Keightley and Wise were returned on separate, albeit matching indentures. As this was the only time that the borough adopted this practice, which was uncommon in Devon, it may indicate uncertainty on the part of the electors over how to respond to Wise’s arrival on the scene.7

The 1624 general election saw the revival of the Strode interest, with Sir William’s younger son William returned at Bere Alston for the first time. Thereafter William represented the borough in every succeeding Parliament until his death in 1645. The senior seat in 1624 initially went to Blount’s brother-in-law, Sir Thomas Cheke, but when he opted to sit for Essex he was replaced by Humphrey May’s kinsman, Thomas Jermyn.8 In the first Caroline Parliament Cheke was again returned, and this time he served alongside Strode, but thereafter the Blount interest failed. The 1626 indenture indicates that a show of strength was mounted at the election by the local gentry, as, contrary to the usual pattern, it was signed by Sir Thomas Wise, Sir William Strode and the latter’s son-in-law, Sir Francis Drake*. The outcome was the return of William Strode and Wise’s son William. The same Members were elected in 1628. Curiously, Strode’s name was inserted on the indenture over an erasure. While it is possible that this points to the existence of a third, unidentified candidate and a contested election, the more likely explanation is a tussle over which man took the senior seat, Wise being socially superior but the Strode family enjoying greater local prestige. If the order of the names on the indenture was simply reversed, then it was certainly to Strode’s advantage that his sister’s father-in-law, Walter Yonge†, was the presiding sheriff.9

Authors: John. P. Ferris / Paul Hunneyball


  • 1. OR
  • 2. W.G. Hoskins, Devon, 332; J.J. Alexander, ‘Bere Alston as a Parl. Borough’, Reps. and Trans. Devon Assoc. xli. 153; HP Commons, 1558-1603, i. 144-5.
  • 3. C219/35/1/128, 137; 219/38/65, 72; 219/41B/112.
  • 4. E214/243; Vivian, Vis. Devon, 719; The Gen. n.s. ix. 177; Hatfield House, ms 112.101; OR; CSP Ire. 1603-6, p. 49.
  • 5. PROB 11/108, f. 2v.
  • 6. Oglander Mems. ed. W.H. Long, 187; Letters and Life of Francis Bacon ed. J. Spedding, iv. 365.
  • 7. Recs. Virg. Co. ed. S.M. Kingsbury, i. 213; C219/37/13-14; 219/40/150.
  • 8. Vivian, 719; CP, ix. 549; xii. 405-6; Vis. Essex (Harl. Soc. xiii), 177; Vis. Suffolk ed. Howard, i. 295-6.
  • 9. C219/40/150; 219/41B/112; Vivian, 299, 719, 791, 840.