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 burgesses

Number of voters:



29 Dec. 1620(SIR) HENRY LEY
7 Jan. 16262(SIR) HENRY LEY
17 Mar. 1626ROBERT LONG vice Ley, called to the Upper House
7 Mar. 1628ROBERT LONG

Main Article

Situated on a rocky outcrop in the centre of Wiltshire, Devizes was described by Thomas Fuller in the mid-seventeenth century as ‘the best and biggest town for trading’ in the county next to Salisbury.3 The town was celebrated for its twice-weekly markets, at which corn, wool, yarn, fish, butter and cheese were sold,4 but its principal industry, since at least the late thirteenth century, was the manufacture of textiles. An important source of white broadcloths under the Tudors, it responded to the trade depression of the 1620s by turning to the manufacture of serge and felt, though in the short term many of its spinners and weavers were forced to rely on handouts from the corporation to subsist.5 The town was also an important judicial centre. Quarter sessions had been held there since 1383, and until about 1631 the town held the only bridewell in Wiltshire.6

First styled a borough by charter in 1141, Devizes enjoyed the parliamentary franchise intermittently from 1295 and almost without a break from 1459.7 By the late fourteenth century a distinct form of government had emerged, consisting of a mayor and three grades of burgess – the common councillors (who were generally former mayors), the Twelve, or capital burgesses, and the inferior burgesses. The size of each tier was inconsistent: in 1584 there were 12 councillors, 13 capital and 35 inferior burgesses, whereas in 1630 there were 21, 30 and 42 respectively.8 Parliamentary elections were held in the guildhall.9 The mayor and around half a dozen of the burgesses were party to the indentures (in Latin), as was the sheriff of Wiltshire, who acted as returning officer. Outsiders chosen to represent the borough were sworn in as members of the corporation on the day of their election.10

Before 1606 the corporation enjoyed only a modest annual income of less than £100, most of which derived from rents.11 However, for reasons that remain unclear, its receipts increased sharply thereafter, rising to £190 in 1608 and increasing to £481 two years later before settling down to an average £200 p.a. This sudden prosperity encouraged the corporation to design a new seal and purchase other emblems of municipal identity, including richly decorated copies of its charter and constitutions.12 It also enabled it to clear its debts, increase the salary of its principal officials,13 and embark upon ambitious building projects. A new Market House, for instance, became the meeting place for the quarter sessions, which had previously met in the ruins of the town’s castle.14 Municipal election dinners, too, became more elaborate and expensive, increasing from £3 6d. in 1604 to £5 1s. 6d. in 1613.15

Devizes’ new-found prosperity did not go unnoticed. In 1613 James I paid the first of three visits to the town, on which occasion the fees payable to the officers of the royal Household alone cost more than £20.16 The following year the borough was one of just three Wiltshire towns to which the Crown appealed for a benevolence following the failure of the Addled Parliament, and in 1622 the town contributed £21 towards the recovery of the Palatinate.17 A threat to the borough’s continued prosperity emerged in 1609, when the Exchequer official (Sir) Edward Wardour* obtained from the Crown a lease in reversion of the profits to the borough’s markets for 40 years. Although this grant would not fall in for another 18 years, the corporation was so alarmed that by the end of 1610 it had bought out Wardour’s reversion for £300.18 It may have been to prevent the Crown from making any further grants of this nature that in July 1624 the corporation obtained from the king a charter granting it the fee-farm of the profits arising from its courts, fairs and markets in return for an annual rent of £5. In theory the new charter cost just £120, but the true amount, taking into account the fees payable to various royal officials, was actually around £400.19 Though the corporation was wealthy, this sum was more than it could easily afford, and consequently it had to offer longer leases to its tenants to raise the money.20

During this period the corporation generally returned one prominent townsman and one member of the local gentry to Parliament. In 1604 the corporation initially tried to keep both seats for its own members, just as it had in 1597, for on 25 Feb. it originally agreed to return both Robert Drewe and John Kent.21 However, a member of the local gentry, Sir Henry Bayntun, chose this moment to reassert his family’s interest, which had been in abeyance since 1593, and Kent was forced to step aside. In 1614, most unusually, two outsiders were returned. However, the man chosen for the junior seat, William Kent, who helped manage the estates of William Herbert, 3rd earl of Pembroke, may have been regarded as an honorary townsman, as it seems likely that he was a kinsman of the town clerk, John Kent, and possibly also an associate of another key corporation member, Robert Drewe.

Members of the Kent and the Drewe families supplied all of the townsmen-MPs during this period. John Kent, who sat in 1597, 1621 and 1624 (and was almost elected in 1604), had trained as an attorney and often carried out legal work for the town. He held several key offices in the borough, most notably that of town clerk, which he held from 1592 until his death. His son and heir Thomas, chosen mayor in 1626, was elected in 1628. Like John Kent, Robert Drewe also enjoyed a legal training, and though never called to the bar he occupied chambers in the Middle Temple. He represented the borough in 1597-8, 1601 and 1604-10, and may have gone on to do so again in 1625. However, there is a strong possibility that the Member on this occasion was actually Drewe’s third son, also named Robert, who had just turned 21 and was then studying at the Middle Temple. Certainly the elder Robert Drewe’s second son, John, did a stint as the borough Member in 1626.

The senior seat was habitually reserved for prominent local landowners, the most conspicuous of whom were the Bayntuns, whose seat at Bromham lay four miles from Devizes. The family had long enjoyed ties with Devizes, an ancestor, Sir Edward Bayntun†, having been steward of the castle in the 1520s. In 1604, when he caused the corporation to abandon its original plan of returning John Kent, Sir Henry Bayntun seems to have been particularly keen to secure election, having been overlooked by the borough before the previous two parliaments. Following the Parliament he retained close links with the town, and in his will he left the corporation £30 as a stock to support several apprentices.22 At the following election Bayntun waived his interest in favour of his eldest son, Sir Edward Bayntun, who was technically under-age. Sir Edward, who entered into his inheritance in 1616, lent money to the corporation on at least one occasion, and even though he chose to sit for the county in 1621 the corporation offered him a bottle of ‘Muscadyn’ wine.23

The temporary removal from the scene of Sir Edward Bayntun in December 1620 allowed (Sir) Henry Ley to establish an interest at Devizes. Although Ley had no property in the town, his father, Sir James Ley*, was a major Wiltshire landowner, whose seats at Westbury and Heywood lay about ten miles distant. It had been to Sir James that the borough had turned for legal advice in 1609 after Edward Wardour had secured a reversion to the lease of the profits arising from the town’s courts, markets and fairs.24 Bayntun reasserted his interest in 1624 and 1625, but in 1626 he transferred to Chippenham, thereby freeing up the senior seat again for Ley. The latter was called to the Upper House on 2 Mar. 1626, and at the ensuing by-election the corporation chose instead Ley’s brother-in-law, Robert Long, who, then training to be a barrister, was secretary to Ley’s father, by now lord treasurer Marlborough.25 Long was re-elected in 1628, as Bayntun evidently showed no interest in returning to Parliament that year.

Given the local economic and administrative importance of Devizes it is surprising that there were no parliamentary matters of direct concern to the town in this period. However, John Kent and both Bayntuns were named to committees concerned with the sale of gentlemen’s estates in the area.26 Payments were occasionally made by the borough to its Members. Following the 1621 assembly John Kent received £19 in expenses, while in 1624 he and Sir Edward Bayntun shared £28 between them.27 In 1628-9 Thomas Kent, who made no recorded impact on the Parliament in which he sat, was paid a total of £15.28

Authors: Henry Lancaster / Andrew Thrush


  • 1. Wilts. RO, G20/1/16, f. 272.
  • 2. Wilts. RO, G20/1/17, f. 39v.
  • 3. VCH Wilts. x. 225; T. Fuller, Worthies of Eng. ed. J. Freeman, 609-10.
  • 4. VCH Wilts. x. 264; E. Bradby, Bk. of Devizes, 51; Wilts. Arch. Mag. i. 180.
  • 5. E. Kerridge, Textile Manufacturers in Early Modern Eng. 15, 115, 156; Wilts. Arch. Mag. i. 180; Wilts. RO, G20/1/17, f. 48.
  • 6. VCH Wilts. x. 251.
  • 7. Ibid. 238, 268; Bradby, 41.
  • 8. Wilts. RO, G20/1/16, f. 69; G20/1/17, f. 72v.
  • 9. C219/39/235.
  • 10. Wilts. RO, G20/1/16, ff. 272, 275, 324v.
  • 11. Ibid. ff. 185v, 190, 198, 201, 206, 266, 218, 224v.
  • 12. Ibid. ff. 237, 211-12v; G20/6/1.
  • 13. Wilts. RO, G20/1/16, ff. 263, 274v.
  • 14. VCH Wilts. x. 245; Bradby, 59.
  • 15. Wilts. RO, G20/1/16, ff. 206v, 270.
  • 16. B.H. Cunnington, Some Annals of Bor. of Devizes, i. pt. 2, p. 49.
  • 17. E351/1950; SP14/156/14.
  • 18. Cunnington, i. pt. 2, pp. 45-6; ii. 142.
  • 19. Ibid. i. pt. 2, pp. 64-5, 76-7; Add. 15663, ff. 188-94; VCH Wilts. x. 270-1.
  • 20. Wilts. RO, G20/1/17, f. 31.
  • 21. Wilts. RO, G20/1/16, f. 203.
  • 22. Ibid. f. 293v.
  • 23. Ibid. ff. 18v, 323.
  • 24. Cunnington, i. pt. 2, p. 45.
  • 25. Ibid. G20/1/17, f. 40.
  • 26. CJ, i. 281b, 291b, 438b, 688b.
  • 27. Wilts. RO, G20/1/17, ff. 4, 11v, 29.
  • 28. Ibid. ff. 60, 69v.