SPARKE, John (c.1574-1640), of The Friary, Plymouth, 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



Family and Education

b. c.1574,1 1st s. of John Sparke of Plymouth and Julian, da. of Gregory Cock of Plymouth.2 educ. ?Exeter Coll., Oxf. 1594 aged 19; Lyon’s Inn; M. Temple 1597.3 m. 28 Oct. 1600, Deborah (d. 1 Nov. 1638), da. of John Rashleigh† of Fowey and Menabilly, Cornw., 3s. (1 d.v.p.) 4da. (2 d.v.p.).4 suc. fa. 1603;5 d. 17 Mar. 1640.6 sig. John Sparke.

Offices Held

Treas. loan money, Devon and Cornw. 1625,7 sgt.-maj.-gen. to land forces 1625,8 commr. martial law 1625-at least 1627;9 under-sheriff, Cornw. 1627-8,10 kpr. sheriff’s ward, Devon by1628.11


Sparke’s grandfather and namesake originated in Cheshire but settled in the Devon borough of Plympton Erle, which he served as both mayor and MP in 1554.12 He named two of his sons John, and each in turn used the name for their own offspring. Although one branch of the family remained in Plympton Erle, while the other one settled in neighbouring Plymouth, it can be difficult to distinguish between them in contemporary records, not least because both branches were merchants. Sparke, who perpetuated the confusion by naming his own eldest son John, represented the second generation of the Plymouth line.13

Sparke’s father was probably the ‘John Sparke the younger’ who wrote a journal of John Hawkins’† voyage to America in 1564-5, and provided the earliest-known English description of potatoes and tobacco. Subsequently he became a notable figure in Plymouth, marrying the heiress of its sometime mayor, Gregory Cock, and serving as mayor himself in 1583 and 1591. Although he described himself as ‘merchant’ in his will, he had also by 1597 adopted the style of ‘gent.’, and during the 1580s acquired a substantial residence in Plymouth, the former Carmelite friary. By the time of his death he owned ‘a great estate as well in lands and rents as in leases, goods and plate’.14 Sparke was apparently the first of his family to attend university and the inns of law, his education confirming his family’s shift towards gentle status. In the 1610 subsidy return for Plymouth he was styled ‘esquire’, and valued at £10 in lands, the second highest assessment in the town.15 His eldest son was educated in France as well as at Oxford and Lincoln’s Inn.16

Sparke was clearly a major figure in Plymouth. In 1621 he joined with the town clerk, John Fowell, in leasing Sutton Pool, Plymouth’s inner harbour, which was Duchy of Cornwall property and a source of friction between the Duchy and the borough.17 While probably just a private business venture, the lease must have enhanced Sparke’s local standing. He never served as mayor of Plymouth, but in 1634 he arbitrated in a property dispute on the corporation’s behalf.18 Despite his family background, Sparke seems not to have engaged in commerce. However, he did venture into property dealing, and in 1624 provided financial assistance to his Plympton cousin, who was preparing for a voyage to Virginia.19 Named to the 1625 martial law commission for Devon and Cornwall, Sparke was active that year in organizing supplies and accommodation for the troops involved in the Cadiz expedition.20

Sparke’s career, at both business and personal levels, was significantly influenced by his marriage into the Rashleigh family. His eldest son was born in Fowey, and had settled there when he died in 1633. Sparke himself was appointed overseer to his father-in-law’s will in 1623, with additional responsibilities as a trustee for his brother-in-law John, who was probably mentally retarded.21 Both John Rashleighs, father and son, died in 1624, thus relieving Sparke of the burden of acting for the latter, but he continued to work closely with his brother-in-law Jonathan Rashleigh*, apparently in matters as mundane as the collection of Rashleigh rents. Within days of Rashleigh’s appointment as sheriff of Cornwall in 1627, Sparke was advising him of the correct procedure for selecting under-sheriffs, and it is no great surprise that he was himself chosen.22

Throughout the 1620s John Glanville and Thomas Sherwill monopolized Plymouth’s parliamentary seats, and this may have encouraged Sparke in 1628 to seek election elsewhere. His nomination at Mitchell can be attributed to the Rashleighs, who enjoyed kinship ties to the borough’s major patron John Arundell*, and who appear to have effected the election there of Sparke’s nephew John Sawle in 1624.23 The Mitchell election of 1628 was disputed, but Sparke’s own return was not challenged. As under-sheriff, he was also drawn into the electoral dispute at Newport, and on 28 Mar. he confirmed to the House that for this borough he had returned only one indenture, though others had subsequently been delivered in. This statement followed Sir John Eliot’s complaint six days earlier that one Member, whose return was not in dispute, was being prevented from sitting by the clerk of the Crown, who had stopped all Newport’s indentures. Sparke’s intervention prepared the way for an immediate Common’s resolution that those Members returned by the sheriff should sit pending the verdict of the committee for privileges.24

In 1639 Sparke reacted to the news that the Scots were demanding a Parliament: ‘please the king to grant [it;] it is thought all business now in question will rest quiet, which I pray God direct the king rightly to consider to his glory’.25 He lived long enough to see the summoning of the Short Parliament, but died on 17 Mar. 1640, before it met. He left a careful, lawyerly will, hedged round with provisos and safeguards, a reflection perhaps of earlier testamentary disputes with members of his family. His principal concern was for his unmarried sister and daughter; he had already conveyed the bulk of his property in Plymouth to his son Jonathan, leaving only a residue there and in the Devon parishes of Stoke Damerel and Clawton. As befitted a man of his local standing, Sparke’s funerary monument was erected in the chancel of St. Andrew’s, Plymouth. Subsequent consolidation of the family’s local position was rewarded by the election of his grandson John as MP for Plymouth in 1677 and 1679.26

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Author: Paul Hunneyball


C. Gill, Plymouth: a New Hist. 130.

  • 1. MI, St. Andrew’s, Plymouth.
  • 2. Vivian, Vis. Devon, 856.
  • 3. Al. Ox.; M. Temple Admiss.
  • 4. Cornw. RO, P66/1/1, p. 115; Vivian, 856; MIs, Fowey church and St. Andrew’s, Plymouth.
  • 5. Vivian, 856.
  • 6. MI, St. Andrew’s church, Plymouth.
  • 7. AO1/300.
  • 8. E351/283.
  • 9. T. Rymer, Foedera, viii. pt. 1, p. 180; APC, 1627-8, p. 79.
  • 10. CJ, i. 876b.
  • 11. E215/1512.
  • 12. HP Commons, 1509-58.
  • 13. Vivian, 856; J. Brooking Rowe, Hist. of Bor. Plympton Erle, 249.
  • 14. Gill, 137-9; R. Hakluyt, Principal Navigations of the Eng. Nation, x. 9-63; Cal. Plymouth Municipal Recs. ed. R.N. Worth, 18, 21; PROB 11/102, f. 428; Al. Ox.; J. Barber, ‘New light on Plymouth Friaries’, Trans. Devon Assoc. cv. 61; C2/Jas.I/S34/41.
  • 15. E179/101/452.
  • 16. Al. Ox.; LI Admiss.; MI, Fowey church.
  • 17. HMC 9th Rep. i. 269; E317/Devon/16.
  • 18. HMC 10th Rep. iv. 546.
  • 19. C2/Chas.I/S19/54; 2/Jas.I/S32/24.
  • 20. E351/283.
  • 21. MI, Fowey church; Cornw. RO, DD.R(S) 1/24; PROB 11/143, ff. 421v-2.
  • 22. Cornw. RO, DD.R(S), 1/38, 1/992; List of Sheriffs comp. A. Hughes (PRO, L. and I. ix), 23.
  • 23. Cornw. RO, DD.R(S) 1/2, 648, 864.
  • 24. CD 1628, ii. 54, 168, 170; iii. 511.
  • 25. Cornw. RO, DD.R(S) 1/1036.
  • 26. PROB 11/184, ff. 187v-8; 11/160, ff. 474v-5; C2/Jas.I/S34/41; R. Polwhele, Hist. Devonshire iii. 453.