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 and commonalty

Number of voters:




Main Article

A settlement from Saxon times, Plymouth derived its prosperity from its strategic location at the head of one of the best natural harbours in south-west England. Its prominence as both a port and a royal naval base dated from the thirteenth century. During Elizabeth’s reign the town came into its own as the launch pad for English exploration of North America, and the regular departure point for military expeditions against Spain, not least the fleet that harried the 1588 Armada. Between the 1530s and the accession of James I, Plymouth almost doubled in size, and the early seventeenth-century population numbered around 7,000.1 By the late 1610s, the port was accounted the sixth wealthiest in the country, its merchants trading with the Low Countries, northern and western France, Portugal and Spain, the Canary Islands, Italy, North Africa, Newfoundland and Virginia.2 One reason for its prosperity was that it served as the main outlet for the Devon cloth manufactured at Tavistock. An even more important commodity was the fish caught in North American waters. During the early seventeenth century the port continued to serve as the customary starting point for transatlantic colonial ventures, such as the short-lived Plymouth Company’s New England plantation of 1606-8. However, in general the local merchants viewed American colonists as potential rivals in the lucrative fishing trade, and the New England Company, which from 1620 claimed a monopoly over the vital waters, aroused fierce opposition within the town.3

One legacy of the decades of conflict with Spain was Plymouth’s firm support for godly Protestantism. This fervour did not yet extend to outright separatism, and the Pilgrim Fathers failed to attract new recruits when they passed through in 1620. Nevertheless, the town was markedly sympathetic towards non-conforming ministers, and many of the leading merchants and corporation members inclined to puritanism.4 The government disapproved of such tendencies, but continued to value Plymouth as a base for military operations. However, compared with the Elizabethan era, when war against Spain had been accompanied by lucrative privateering activity, the campaigns at the start of Charles I’s reign brought few tangible local benefits. Between the spring of 1625 and early 1628, life in the town was repeatedly disrupted by the soldiers billeted there in connection with the expeditions to Cadiz and the Ile de RĂ©. The troops’ presence coincided with a major plague outbreak in 1625-6, which claimed up to 2,000 lives. Trade inevitably suffered during the war, compounding the already serious problem of piracy, and in February 1627 the corporation alleged that these twin difficulties had recently cost the town £44,000. Understandably, relations between Plymouth and the government at the end of this decade were at a low ebb.5

Plymouth was incorporated by Henry VI, with subsequent charters augmenting the borough’s privileges. At the start of James I’s reign, the town was governed by a corporation consisting of a mayor, 12 aldermen and 24 common councilmen. The mayor, recorder and one other alderman acted as magistrates within the borough, which was exempt from the jurisdiction of the main Devon bench. These rights were confirmed by the king in November 1614, while a further charter of March 1628 allowed for two more aldermen to serve as j.p.s.6 While not entirely free from internal squabbles, the corporation was generally united in the face of external threats. In 1616-17 Prince Charles attempted to exercise authority over the waters of Sutton Pool, Plymouth’s inner harbour, which formed part of the duchy of Cornwall’s medieval estates, but after a protracted legal battle the prince leased the harbour to John Sparke* and another townsman. Relations were periodically strained between the corporation and the governor of Plymouth fort, Sir Ferdinando Gorges†, especially once he became the leading figure in the unpopular New England Company. Efforts by Devon’s vice admirals to interfere in the port’s operations were also firmly resisted.7

Plymouth first sent representatives to Parliament in 1298. In principle the franchise was vested in the whole of the borough’s commonalty, but in practice by the early seventeenth century it was exercised exclusively by the corporation. Two of the surviving indentures from this period were signed by the mayor, but the rest simply carried the borough’s seal. Plymouth’s Members normally received wages at the generous rate of 6s. 8d. a day, though after the 1621 session John Glanville was presented instead with a silver ewer and basin worth £33 17s. 6d.8

During Elizabeth’s reign, the borough quite frequently accepted nominations from a variety of external patrons, but this practice ceased entirely in the early Stuart period. Only five men sat for Plymouth during these years, of whom three were drawn from the town’s merchant community; the other two were recorders of the borough. Sir Richard Hawkins, who took the senior seat in 1604, was then head of the town’s leading merchant dynasty, and something of a local hero, as he had only recently returned home after nearly a decade imprisoned in Spain. Contrary to parliamentary convention, he was returned to the Commons while serving as the borough’s mayor. His partner was James Bagg I, a former mayor, who had also represented Plymouth in 1601. During the next few years, both men contrived to fall out with the town, Hawkins through his role as Devon’s vice admiral, Bagg on account of his corrupt practices as a customs official and his insolent behaviour towards his fellow corporation members.9 Accordingly, in 1614 the borough opted for a fresh choice, electing its current recorder, Sir William Strode, and another former mayor, Thomas Sherwill, who possessed a fearsome reputation, both for his puritan zeal and for the vigour with which he defended Plymouth’s privileges. Sherwill retained his seat through six consecutive parliaments, accompanied from 1621 by Strode’s successor as recorder, John Glanville, who proved to be an equally indefatigable champion of the borough’s interests. So well did the latter entrench himself in this role that he was even elected in 1626 while absent in Ireland, too ill to travel.10 Prince Charles’s Council twice sent down nominations, on the strength of the prince’s claim to Sutton Pool, but there is no evidence that the candidacies of either Edward Salter* in 1621 or Sir Richard Smythe in 1624 were taken seriously by the corporation. According to one apocryphal account, the duke of Buckingham also attempted to secure a seat for one of his clients, perhaps in the late 1620s, but, if the episode ever occurred, nothing came of this either.11

The corporation’s surviving records shed no significant light on Plymouth’s parliamentary agenda, but it is possible to isolate some issues in which the borough took a conspicuous lead in the Commons. In 1614 Strode was the prime mover behind the attempt to overturn the patent of the French Company of London, which interfered with Plymouth’s cross-Channel trade. Ironically, it may well have been Strode’s reluctance to attack his friend Gorges’ New England Company six years later that led to his resignation as recorder.12 His successor, Glanville, promoted a bill in 1621 for free fishing in American waters, which was designed specifically to cancel out the New England Company’s monopoly. He continued this battle in the next two parliaments, in 1624 also persuading the House to rule that Gorges’ patent was a grievance.13 During the 1625 Oxford sitting both Members combined forces to denounce the navy’s failure to protect merchant shipping, while in the 1626 session Sherwill was particularly vocal on the twin threats posed by Turkish pirates and Dunkirker privateers. In 1628 Glanville raised local concerns about the abuse of martial law in respect to billeted soldiers, while Sherwill once again presented evidence from Plymouth on the inadequacies of the Navy’s coastal patrols.14

Authors: John. P. Ferris / Paul Hunneyball


  • 1. C. Gill, Plymouth: a New Hist. i. 32-3, 57, 66, 136, 154, 157-63, 176, 196; ii. 7.
  • 2. W.B. Stephens, Seventeenth-Cent. Exeter, 8; E190/1023/16, 18; 190/1029/19.
  • 3. Stephens, 3; Gill, ii. 7, 10-12; K.R. Andrews, Trade, Plunder and Settlement, 326-8; APC, 1618-19, pp. 289-90; 1619-20, pp. 158-9; 1621-3, p. 51; CSP Dom. 1619-23, p. 344.
  • 4. Gill, ii. 5-6; R.N. Worth, Cal. Plymouth Municipal Recs. 145.
  • 5. CSP Dom. 1625-6, pp. 23, 77, 83, 95, 184, 291, 319; 1627-8, pp. 29, 50, 466, 564; APC, 1625-6, pp. 99-100; 1627-8, p. 5; SP16/43/35; L.F. Jewitt, Hist. Plymouth, i. 166.
  • 6. Gill, i. 95-7, 213; Worth, 2, 22; Jewitt, i. 136, 169-70.
  • 7. E. Coke, Reps. xi. ff. 94-6; Gill, i. 33, 189-90, 199; Worth, 121, 139, 150-1, 218; CSP Dom. 1619-23, p. 344.
  • 8. Gill, i. 67; C219/35/1/125; 219/37/12; 219/38/68; 219/39/76; 219/40/145; Trans. Plymouth Institution, v. 563-4; W. Devon RO, W132, f. 149; Worth, 153.
  • 9. HP Commons, 1558-1603, i. 147; Gill, i. 124-5, 136; Worth, 22-3, 145-6, 216; APC, 1613-14, pp. 411-12; Coke, xi. ff. 93v-7v.
  • 10. Worth, 23, 85, 205; DWL, J. Quick, ‘Icones Sacrae Anglicanae’, ff. 403-4, 414; SP16/20/23; Lismore Pprs. ed. A.B. Grosart (ser. 1), ii. 173, 177.
  • 11. DCO, ‘Letters and Patents, 1620-1’, f. 39v; ‘Prince Chas. in Spain’, f. 33v; DWL, Quick, f. 403.
  • 12. Procs. 1614 (Commons), 58-9, 79, 117, 128; CSP Dom. 1598-1601, p. 275.
  • 13. CD 1621, ii. 294; iii. 81; CJ, i. 630a; ‘Spring 1624’, p. 39; ‘Nicholas 1624’, f. 82v; ‘Pym 1624’, i. f. 59; Procs. 1625, p. 274.
  • 14. Procs. 1625, p. 460; Procs. 1626, ii. 122, 361; CD 1628, iii. 308; iv. 208.