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

Number of voters:



27 Jan. 1607SIR JOHN ACLAND vice Ridgeway, vacated his seat
12 Dec. 1620SIR EDWARD SEYMOUR , (bt.)
21 Jan. 1626JOHN DRAKE

Main Article

Devon, England’s third largest county, was noted in the early seventeenth century both for the wildness of its upland moors and the enterprise of its inhabitants. The population at this time has been estimated at around 234,000. At least 5,000 of the adult males engaged in fishing, the fleets bringing in rich catches of pilchards and herrings from coastal waters, and regularly venturing as far as Newfoundland. Arable farming was concentrated on the southern lowland region, with great efforts made to maximize yield through enclosure and the intensive use of fertilizers. Northern and eastern parts were largely given over to cattle and sheep, the latter producing the wool which fed Devon’s flourishing cloth industry.3 The county was particularly noted for its fine baize and kerseys, mostly produced in the north and around Exeter, though coarser cloths were also manufactured at such centres as Tavistock, Totnes and Okehampton. Much of this material was shipped to France and Spain, via the major south coast ports of Plymouth, Dartmouth and Exeter. Indeed, Thomas Westcote claimed that Devon’s local dominance in this trade had encouraged a great population increase, which left the county barely able to feed its own inhabitants.4

In administrative terms, Devon was remarkably unified considering its size. Except in times of plague, quarter sessions and assizes were always held at Exeter Castle, which was also the setting for the county’s parliamentary elections. This cohesiveness also extended to religion. Recusancy was an insignificant problem, largely confined to a handful of gentry families such as the Courtenays. Puritans were much more numerous, and while still a small minority of the total population, they were similarly prevalent at gentry level, and probably dominated the county bench. Neither of Devon’s lords lieutenant during this period, the 3rd earl of Bath and the 4th earl of Bedford (Sir Francis Russell*), showed much interest in local politics, so the choice of shire knights lay with the gentry. There were apparently no contests during this period, and nominations were probably agreed ahead of the elections, a common practice in neighbouring counties.5

Considered as a group, the shire knights were highly representative of Devon’s gentry leadership. They were all resident in the south of the county, where the bulk of the major seats were located, and many of them were closely related. Sir Francis Drake (1628) was both the son-in-law of Sir William Strode (1624), and the brother-in-law of John Bampfield (1628), who was in turn the first cousin of Sir Francis Fulford (1625). Again, Francis Courtenay (1625) was the brother-in-law of John Pole (1626), and son-in-law of Sir Edward Seymour (1621), himself the son of the 1604 shire knight Edward Seymour. Many of them belonged to Devon’s oldest families. Fulford and Sir John Acland could trace their forebears back to the twelfth century, the Poles and Bampfields had been locally prominent since the fourteenth century, while the Courtenays were descended from the medieval earls of Devon.6 Those who could not boast such a long pedigree were generally distinguished by wealth or active service in county government. Edward Seymour, who had already twice served as a shire knight under Elizabeth, was the grandson of Protector Somerset, and owned more than 16,000 acres. John Drake and Sir Edward Giles were considerably less affluent, but both men were mainstays of local administration, and were also noted for their puritan leanings, another factor common to many of these Members.7

In 1604 the senior seat was taken by Sir Thomas Ridgeway, who had recently been appointed to Anne of Denmark’s Council, and whose brother-in-law, Sir John Stanhope I*, was vice-chamberlain of the Household. His partner was the more experienced and equally well-connected Edward Seymour. The latter undoubtedly hoped to use this platform to help push through a private estate bill, but the two Members also had urgent county business to attend to in London. Around the time of the Commons’ Easter recess, Ridgeway and Seymour appeared before the Board of Greencloth to explain why Devon had fallen behind with its purveyance composition payments, thereby pre-empting government intervention.8 However, Ridgeway’s Court ties worked both ways, and during the same session he was recruited by Stanhope to help rally support for a measure favoured by Lord (Robert) Cecil†, probably the bill to confirm the Crown’s grant of Berwick-upon-Tweed castle to the chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir George Home. Stanhope duly reported to Cecil that Ridgeway and another kinsman, Sir John Holles*, would ‘use their best endeavours’ during a vital debate, noting that ‘Ridgeway, who is strong with his Devonshire crew, assures me of a good party’.9

In June 1606 Ridgeway became Irish treasurer-at-wars, and in the following November the Commons resolved that his seat was now vacant. He was replaced by Sir John Acland who, like Seymour, had private business to promote. His 1607 bill to appropriate the revenues of a Devon prebend to other charitable purposes failed to complete its passage, but in 1610 he won approval for an alternative measure to encourage Devon husbandry by establishing 200 apprenticeships in the county.10

Acland was the last Member during this period to make private legislation his priority, and for the next three Parliaments the shire knights more conspicuously pursued issues of general interest to the county. John Drake sat in all of these sessions, presumably a sign that he was viewed locally as an effective spokesman, though his local standing must also have benefited from the 1616 marriage of his son, Sir John*, to a kinswoman of the royal favourite, Buckingham. Drake was accompanied in 1614 by Giles, who had recently completed a successful shrieval term, in 1621 by Sir Edward Seymour, who was now head of his family, and in 1624 by Sir William Strode, who had first sat for the county in 1597, and had since established a formidable Commons’ reputation as a borough Member.11 In the Addled Parliament, Giles proved the more vocal spokesman on local matters. He apparently combined forces with Sir William Strode (then sitting as a Plymouth burgess) to attack the French Company, whose patent posed a threat to Devon’s cross-Channel trade. He also highlighted the impact of the disastrous Cockayne Project on the county’s cloth industry, and firmly opposed impositions. Drake was presumably reflecting his fellow magistrates’ concerns when he emphasized the need for local supervision of alehouses, and criticized the procurement from superior courts of bonds to keep the peace.12 In the next two Parliaments Drake twice commented at length on the impact of low corn prices on his poorer constituents, and attacked Devon recusants, singling out Sir William Courtenay†. Still a keen advocate of local autonomy, in 1621 he provided damaging evidence of (Sir) Giles Mompesson’s efforts to undermine magistrates’ jurisdiction over alehouses, while three years later he delivered a letter of complaint from Devon about the number charitable briefs being directed to the high constables.13 Seymour in 1621 denounced the local grievance of tithes imposed on fishermen, which had allegedly caused ‘a great decay of mariners’. Strode, whose participation in the final Jacobean Parliament was apparently cut short by illness, spoke strongly in favour of an anti-Catholic war, but seems not to have raised any specific West Country grievances.14

Drake may have alienated local opinion by his sustained criticism of Sir William Courtenay, whose Protestant son Francis replaced him as Devon’s junior knight in 1625. The senior seat on that occasion went to Sir Francis Fulford, an active figure in local government. Neither man had previously entered the Commons, and perhaps for this reason they made little impact on the first Caroline Parliament. In the following year Devon was gripped by the plague, and the shire election was poorly attended by the county elite, judging from the signatures on the return. Drake, whose ties to Buckingham were by now a mixed blessing, represented his county for the last time in 1626, but he barely touched on local matters, merely confirming that another Devon gentleman, Sir Thomas Monck, had been improperly elected. Drake’s junior partner was a near neighbour, John Pole, who had not yet had much impact on local affairs, and was similarly inactive in the Commons.15

In the later 1620s Devon was seriously burdened by the billeting associated with the military expeditions to Cadiz and the Ile de RĂ©, and in 1628 the county returned as its junior Member Sir Francis Drake, who was at the forefront of efforts to tackle this crisis. He was accompanied by his brother-in-law, John Bampfield, a deputy lieutenant who had recently succeeded to one of Devon’s largest estates. Surprisingly, it was Bampfield who was appointed in the Commons to help draft a petition to the king about the payment of outstanding billeting debts, whereas Drake is not known to have commented directly on his county’s problems.16

Authors: Tim Venning / Paul Hunneyball


  • 1. SP14/7/82.II.
  • 2. OR.
  • 3. T. Risdon, Survey of Devon, 3, 8, 11; M. Wolffe, Gentry Leaders in Peace and War, 3-4; M. Stoyle, Loyalty and Locality, 14; Agrarian Hist. of Eng. and Wales ed. J. Thirsk, iv. 72, 75-6.
  • 4. E. Kerridge, Textile Manufactures in Early Modern Eng. 18, 25, 27, 103; Agrarian Hist. iv. 73; T. Westcote, View of Devonshire in 1630, p. 60.
  • 5. Wolffe, 4; C219/37/79; Stoyle, 18, 21-2.
  • 6. Vivian, Vis. Devon, 39-40, 247, 380, 603, 703, 719.
  • 7. Ibid. 702-3; H. St. Maur, Annals of the Seymours, 435; C142/296/110; 142/444/76; D.S. Katz, Philo-Semitism and Readmission of Jews to Eng. 19; J. Prince, Worthies of Devon, 422.
  • 8. CJ, i. 185a; A.H.A. Hamilton, Q. Sess. from Queen Eliz. to Queen Anne, 36-9.
  • 9. HMC Hatfield, xvi. 264.
  • 10. CJ, i. 339b, 415a; SR, iv. 1157-9.
  • 11. Vivian, 297, 703.
  • 12. Procs. 1614 (Commons), 128-9, 157, 281, 304, 392, 420.
  • 13. Nicholas, Procs. 1621, i. 56, 71-2; ii. 89; ‘Nicholas 1624’, ff. 137, 177; CJ, i. 776a.
  • 14. CJ, i. 527a; ‘Spring 1624’, p. 56.
  • 15. D. Hirst, Representative of the People?, 203; C219/40/143; Procs. 1626, ii. 356; Vivian, 603.
  • 16. CSP Dom. 1625-6, pp. 95, 184, 291, 375; 1627-8, pp. 358, 406; Wolffe, 112; Vivian, 39-40; CD 1628, iv. 280.