PROWSE, John (-d.1625), of Exeter, Devon

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



1624 - 24 Feb. 1625

Family and Education

1st s. of Richard Prowse† of Exeter, merchant tailor and his 1st w. Richard, da. of one Vincent of Exeter. m. (1) 5 May 1577, Judith, da. of Eustace Oliver of Exeter, merchant, 1s. 1da.; (2) Grace, da. of William Chappell of Exeter, s.p. suc. fa. 1607. d. 24 Feb. 1625.1 sig. Jo[hn] Prouse.

Offices Held

Freeman, Exeter 1577,2 bailiff 1584-5,3 common councilman 1595-d.,4 recvr. 1598-9, sheriff 1599-1600, mayor 1608-9, 1619-20,5 commr. and collector, aid 1609,6 alderman 1611-d.,7 commr. oyer and terminer 1612, 1614-15,8 piracy, Devon 1614, 1620;9 dep. lt., Exeter from 1621.10

Member, Exeter French Co. from 1597, gov. 1607-8.11


Prowse’s family can be traced in Exeter from the late fifteenth century. His father Richard, a wealthy cloth merchant, served twice as mayor, and represented the city in Parliament in 1584.12 Prowse himself, who first held municipal office that year, pursued the same trade successfully enough to warrant a subsidy assessment of £6 in 1602. Five years later he inherited the bulk of his father’s estate, including his townhouse, the barton of Bowhill in Exeter’s suburbs, and numerous properties 15 miles away at Broadhempston. Among the latter were three almshouses founded by Richard, but Prowse, disregarding filial piety, sold these in 1615. A forceful character prone to lecturing and even abusing his corporation colleagues, he was nevertheless trusted by them to represent the city in four consecutive Parliaments.13

Prowse was elected for the first time in 1604 as a corporation nominee, outpolling two rival candidates put forward by the commonalty.14 Although he made no recorded speeches in this Parliament’s opening session, he was named to 11 committees, an impressive total for a novice Member with his background. Prowse was appointed on 14 Apr. to attend the preliminary conference with the Lords about the Union, but the bulk of his business concerned economic affairs. Despite the broadly protectionist outlook of Exeter’s mercantile community, he was nominated on 24 Apr. to scrutinize two free trade bills. He was also appointed to two legislative committees relating to the brewing industry, another area in which Exeter’s corporation favoured tight regulation (21 Apr., 18 May). Both he and his colleague George Smith were named on 20 June to the committee for the bill on starch manufacture, which again suggests a constituency interest.15 Behind the scenes, Prowse probably also lobbied against a bill in the Lords to exempt Exeter cathedral’s dean and chapter from the city’s jurisdiction. This measure stalled in committee. However, the corporation remained sufficiently concerned that in December 1604 Prowse and others were instructed to prepare a defence strategy in case the bill was revived. His parliamentary wages for this session came to £37 7s. 2d.16

In October 1605 Prowse was appointed to deliver a message from the corporation to the earl of Bath about a dispute with the dean and chapter, but it is unclear whether this also concerned the failed 1604 bill.17 During the 1605-6 parliamentary session he was again relatively busy, attracting 15 committee nominations, and making two speeches. Nominated to consider the recent Spanish Company charter on 5 Nov., and again on 28 Jan. when the committee was renewed after the prorogation, it was Prowse, rather than his colleague Smith, who emerged as Exeter’s spokesman on economic affairs. He was named to scrutinize the bill for free trade with Spain, Portugal and France (10 Feb.), but clearly opposed the measure, for on 27 Feb. he unsuccessfully moved for a proviso to protect the city’s French Company charter. On 19 May he also contributed to the debate on the bill concerning cloth manufacture, though his words went unrecorded.18 Several of his other bill committee nominations tied in with his constituency’s interests, their subjects including the correct length of kerseys (5 Feb.), free trade with Russia (17 Mar.), and the confirmation of grants made by corporations (25 January). Named to scrutinize the bill against the ‘haunting of alehouses’, Prowse was also appointed to attend the conference with the Lords on the beer export bill (11 Feb., 16 May). He was also nominated on 14 May to attend when the Commons’ general grievances were presented to the king. His wages for this session are incompletely recorded.19

Prowse began the third session as he had the first, with an appointment to meet with the Lords about the Union (24 Nov. 1606). On the following day, it was most likely him who introduced the bill to amend the 1606 Free Trade Act by upholding the Exeter French Company’s privileges. He was certainly entitled as an Exeter Member to attend the bill’s committee (26 November). Although the measure was ‘much disputed and impugned’ following its report by John Hoskins on 29 Nov., it was passed by the Commons three days later, and received the royal assent at the end of the session.20 On 11 Mar. 1607, Prowse opposed the bill to reduce overcrowding in towns and cities. Apparently arguing that in London the problem was linked to the presence there of the central courts, he proposed ironically that ‘the city will be suitors to the king, that the term may be kept in the West Country; and then they take discommodities with it’. The bill was subsequently rejected. When a new bill on the same issue was introduced, Prowse was named to its committee (15 May). Among his eight other nominations, he was appointed on 25 Feb. to examine the bill about Cutton prebend promoted by Sir John Acland*, a gentleman well known to Exeter’s corporation. On 17 Mar. he sent his colleagues a copy of the abortive bill to regulate weights and measures in market towns, first read five days earlier, which had a direct bearing on the cloth industry. In April 1608 the corporation voted him a special reward of £20 in addition to the customary wage of 4s. a day, thereby acknowledging his good service while attending ‘the Parliament House a great long time about the city’s business to his great labour and hindrance’.21

In August 1607, perhaps in acknowledgment of his recent services to the Exeter French Company, Prowse was elected its governor. In this capacity, he lobbied intensively against the Crown’s plans for a national Company of merchants trading with France. However, despite reminding the government of Exeter’s privileges, so recently endorsed in Parliament, and personally delivering the city’s invitation to lord treasurer Salisbury (Robert Cecil†) to become its high steward, his efforts were rebuffed.22 Prowse became mayor in the autumn of 1608, and oversaw the completion of a controversial new weir across the Exe. Although this structure was needed to control the water supply for the city’s mills, the project provoked lawsuits from local landowners who claimed that the weir caused flooding on their property.23

Back at Westminster in 1610 for the fourth parliamentary session, Prowse was markedly more active than on previous occasions, with three recorded speeches and 32 committee nominations. Private legislation accounted for one third of the latter, but he was also named to scrutinize a wide range of social and economic bills. His speech on 21 Mar. on the bill to regulate brewing in victualling houses has not survived, but it presumably helped to earn him his nomination ten days later to the legislative committee on alehouses. Appointed on 29 Mar. to examine the bill to suppress the use of logwood as dye, he apparently objected to the supervisory powers that it would establish; his complaint on 1 June at the report stage, ‘an office - injustice in the bill’, helped to secure the measure’s rejection. He was nominated on 16 June to the committee to search the port books as preparation for a debate on impositions, but was the only one of this select group to make no subsequent comments on the issue. On 25 June he was the first Member named to the committee for the bill to preserve Devon timber for shipping, though he did not ultimately take the chair. He had earlier been nominated to two other committees with similar briefs (28 Feb., 22 March).24

Prowse also had specific constituency interests to promote. Sir John Acland had recently begun to fund apprenticeships across Devon, with Exeter receiving a £50 donation in December 1609. During this session Acland introduced a bill to regulate his project, and on 27 Mar. Prowse was named to the committee. More importantly, on 23 Apr. Exeter’s corporation addressed continuing complaints about the new weir by determining that ‘Mr. Prowse shall attempt by all the means he can to obtain an Act of Parliament for the settling of the same weir where it is’. A bill for this structure’s ‘continuance and reparation’ was duly brought into the Commons on 15 May, presumably by Prowse, who certainly introduced its second reading four days later. He was named to the committee, and following the report on 11 June by the Exeter-born William Hakewill, the measure proceeded smoothly onto the statute book. Prowse spent £64 10s. 6d. on lobbying and other costs during the bill’s passage, for which he was reimbursed by the corporation in August. Behind the scenes, he and Smith protected their constituency’s reputation in February by dissuading some Exeter men from petitioning the king to be set on work in the city. As usual he was paid 4s. a day during this session. Prowse left no trace on the records of the Parliament’s fifth session later that year, but received wages of £17 13s.25

In 1611 Prowse became an Exeter alderman, and it was as one of the corporation’s most senior members that he was elected to the 1614 Parliament. Compared with his previous Commons’ performances, he took little part in proceedings. His only personal committee nomination concerned the bill to reform the Court of Wards (14 May). As an Exeter burgess he was also entitled to attend five other legislative committees, whose subjects included the removal of weirs, and cloth dyeing (21 and 24 May). Prowse spoke twice in defence of local interests. On 11 May he accused London’s merchants of encouraging the export of English ordnance, and described the devastating impact of this practice on the West Country: ‘the passing away of the ordnance to Turkey has brought us into their great slavery, and [we are] not now able to pass anywhere, we are so beaten with our own weapons’. He also opposed the bill to ban sub-letting of property in the London area, arguing unsuccessfully on 1 June ‘that this bill [was] rejected the last Parliament, so would have it now; for that it will thrust all the poor from London into the country’. However, if he was present on 20 Apr., when Sir Henry Montagu defended the unpopular London French Company by citing the 1606 Exeter Free Trade Amendment Act, he opted to remain silent. He and his colleague Thomas Martin kept Exeter’s corporation well briefed on developments at Westminster, but failed in their principal extra-parliamentary task of obtaining a new city charter. Prowse’s wages for this session came to £16 8s., with £7 12s. 8d. more for carriage and other expenses.26

In 1616 Prowse was appointed a trustee of Sir John Acland’s local charitable projects. However, this was no indication that he was mellowing with age. In March 1618 the mayor of Exeter, Ignatius Jourdain*, complained to the Privy Council that Prowse and his son had abused his office by using ‘contemptuous and menacing language against him’. In the following year the clerk of the market sued him in Star Chamber for leading local resistance to the standardization of weights and measures, though as mayor in 1619-20 Prowse gave in and implemented these changes. He had difficulty in gathering Exeter’s levy for the planned expedition against the Barbary corsairs, and twice requested the Privy Council to punish defaulters.27

Elected with Jourdain to the 1621 Parliament, he carried up £367 collected in Exeter for the Palatine war effort, which he delivered on 13 Mar. to Baron von Dohna. In the Commons, he spoke less frequently than Jourdain, but continued to handle most constituency business. On 24 Feb. he raised a major local concern, the taking of recognizances by the patentees for licensing alehouses, which was thought to contravene Exeter’s charter. His claim that 400 poor alehouse-keepers were affected prompted the House to order the restraint of such practices. However, his argument on 7 May that the bill to restrict usury rates would ‘much distress both gentlemen and merchants’ failed to halt the measure’s progress. Prowse apparently acted on behalf of a Devon gentleman, Walter Morrell, when he brought in a bill on 17 Apr. to improve the manufacture of new draperies in the county, an initiative likely to benefit Exeter’s trade. He was named to the bill’s committee on 12 May, but Parliament was adjourned before a report could be delivered.28

During the Parliament’s second sitting, the new draperies bill again came before the House, but it was allowed to sleep on 20 Nov., and an anticipated replacement measure failed to materialize. Foreign affairs now dominated the Commons’ agenda, and it was probably Sir Edward Coke’s imminent report on the Spanish treaties that prompted Prowse’s motion on 22 Nov. ‘to send into ... [Westminster] Hall for all the lawyers, and give no reason’. Six days later, he notified the mayor of Exeter that the Commons had finally granted a subsidy ‘towards the recovering of the Palatinate out of the jaws of the princely Palatine’s invertirable [sic] enemy’, and noted the arrival of envoys from the United Provinces. On 30 Nov. he reported that the House was now labouring to prepare bills for the royal assent, ‘hoping that we shall bring home some, though not all such as we desire’. By 15 Dec., however, he despaired not only of being home for Christmas, but also of a successful conclusion to the Parliament: ‘as the present condition is betwixt the king and the Lower House I would not willingly go hence but upon better terms than now we stand upon each side’. While in London he also procured the arrest by the Privy Council of an Exeter Jesuit, and tried unsuccessfully to negotiate the 1st earl of Suffolk’s resignation as the city’s high steward. He received wages at the usual rate, with ‘allowance for horse hire’.29

In April 1623, when the bishop of Exeter proposed to make a gate from his palace through the city wall, the corporation sent Prowse to London to petition the king against this project, and defend the city’s privileges against ecclesiastical encroachment. He had limited success, for the bishop had powerful allies at Court, and James suspected the people of Exeter of puritanism. However, he reported back that the corporation could rely on the support of lord treasurer Middlesex (Sir Lionel Cranfield*), who had recently been appointed as the city’s assistant high steward.30

Prowse was again returned to the Commons in 1624, this time with Exeter’s recorder, Nicholas Duck. He made just one recorded speech, on 24 Feb., when he insisted that the bill against swearing should not allow a constable any discretion in punishing children, lest he ‘execute his private spleen against the father or master or child’. This intervention won an assurance that such officers would require a magistrate’s warrant. Prowse was named personally to just one committee, concerning a naturalization bill (24 Apr.), though in his capacity as a port-town burgess he twice attended the legislative committee on abuses by customs officials.31 Meanwhile, in mid March the corporation sent him and Duck supplementary instructions, including a list of grievances prepared by Exeter’s merchants. On 24 Apr. he replied that he had ‘possessed the House of Parliament’ with the most pressing economic concerns, and was hopeful of some concessions, although the continuing legal wrangling over the Crown’s prerogative right to collect the pretermitted custom made progress on that issue unlikely. In addition, he had steered a new bill promoting the new draperies through its first two readings (12 and 20 Apr.); it was now in committee, to which Prowse himself was entitled to attend as a Devon burgess, but he correctly predicted that the measure would run out of time, and have to ‘sleep with many other good bills until a new meeting’. Although this was undoubtedly disappointing, it was encouraging that the Commons had just received the king’s ‘most noble answer’ to its petition against Jesuits and recusants, and Prowse undertook to forward a copy to Exeter. However, trouble was looming on another front, as it was now widely expected that the city’s patron, Middlesex, would shortly be disgraced. Prowse had as usual been busy outside Parliament, though his lobbying of the bishop for an additional school in Exeter had been rebuffed. Apparently depressed by such setbacks, he closed by complaining that he was ‘tired out daily and full weary of this service’, which he now found ‘too burdensome for an old man both in purse and body’.32

Prowse was presumably relieved that the expected second session of the 1624 Parliament failed to take place. He died in February 1625, and was buried in Exeter Cathedral. His will was proved locally, but no longer survives. No further members of his family are known to have entered the Commons.33

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Authors: George Yerby / Paul Hunneyball


  • 1. Vivian, Vis. Devon, 628; Exeter Freemen ed. M.M. Rowe and A.M. Jackson (Devon and Cornw. Rec. Soc. extra ser. i), 93; PROB 11/110, f. 284.
  • 2. Exeter Freemen, 93.
  • 3. J.J. Alexander, ‘Exeter MPs’, Reps. and Trans. Devon Assoc. lxi. 210.
  • 4. Devon RO, ECA Act Bk. 5, p. 334.
  • 5. Alexander, ‘Exeter MPs’, 210.
  • 6. HMC Hatfield, xxi. 79; E403/2730, f. 51.
  • 7. Devon RO, ECA Act Bk. 7, p. 4.
  • 8. C181/2, ff. 164v, 206v, 224.
  • 9. C181/2, f. 201; 181/3, f. 1v.
  • 10. C231/4, f. 126.
  • 11. W. Cotton, Elizabethan Guild of City of Exeter, 128-9; HMC Hatfield, xix. 311; xx. 173.
  • 12. Exeter Freemen, 62, 71; R. Izacke, Remarkable Antiquities of Exeter (1741), pp. 136, 139; HP Commons, 1558-1603, iii. 256.
  • 13. Exeter Freemen, 93; Exeter Tax and Rate Assessments ed. W.G. Hoskins (Devon and Cornw. Rec. Soc. n.s. ii), 2; PROB 11/110, ff. 282-4; H.R. Evans, ‘Broadhempston’, Reps. and Trans. Devon Assoc. xc, 93-4; Devon RO, ECA Ancient Letters, no. 205.
  • 14. CD 1628, ii. 121, 136.
  • 15. CJ, i. 172a, 180a, 183b, 213b, 243b; W.T. MacCaffrey, Exeter 1540-1640, p. 83; Devon RO, ECA Act Bk. 6, p. 9.
  • 16. SP14/7/51; LJ, ii. 287a; Devon RO, ECA Act Bk. 6, p. 156; J.J. Alexander, ‘Parl. Representation of Devon’, Reps. and Trans. Devon Assoc. lxviii. 108.
  • 17. Devon RO, ECA Act Bk. 6, p. 186.
  • 18. CJ, i. 256b, 261a, 265b, 275a, 310b.
  • 19. Ibid. 260a, 264a, 266b, 285b, 309a, 310a.
  • 20. Ibid. 324b-5a, 326b-7a; SR, iv. 1148.
  • 21. CJ, i. 340b, 351b, 374a, 1029b; HMC Exeter, 84, 321; Devon RO, ECA Ancient Letters, no. 120.
  • 22. Cotton, 54; HMC Hatfield, xx. 107, 173; xxi. 41.
  • 23. Devon RO, ECA Act Bk. 6, pp. 334-8; SR, iv. 1173.
  • 24. CJ, i. 402a, 413a-b, 416b-17a, 434b, 440b, 443a.
  • 25. Devon RO, ECA Act Bk. 6, pp. 387, 403, 414, 431; CJ, i. 415a, 429b; SR, iv. 1173-4; HMC Exeter, 80; Alexander, ‘Exeter MPs’, 202.
  • 26. Procs. 1614 (Commons), 111, 200, 207, 235, 309, 330, 401-2; Devon RO, ECA Act Bk. 7, pp. 120, 123; Alexander, ‘Parl. Representation’, 108.
  • 27. PROB 11/136, ff. 99, 103v; CSP Dom. 1611-18, p. 528; 1619-23, pp. 156, 172; STAC 8/206/19.
  • 28. Devon RO, ECA Ancient Letters, nos. 195-6; Act Bk. 7, p. 384; CD 1621, ii. 133, 294; vii. 303; CJ, i. 611a, 619a; Kyle thesis, 108.
  • 29. CD 1621, iii. 408, 429; HMC Exeter, 76-7, 109, 111-13; Devon RO, ECA Act Bk. 7, p. 408.
  • 30. Devon RO, ECA Act. Bk. 7, p. 487; HMC Exeter, 77, 130-1.
  • 31. ‘Spring 1624’, p. 18; CJ, i. 774a; C.R. Kyle, ‘Attendance Lists’, PPE 1604-48 ed. Kyle, 218.
  • 32. Devon RO, ECA Act Bk. 7, p. 539; HMC Exeter, 113-4, 137-8, 166; CJ, i. 763a, 771b.
  • 33. Vivian, 628; Devonshire Wills ed. E.A. Fry, 141.