Bere Alston


Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, ed. D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley, 2002
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Background Information

Right of Election:

in burgage holders

Number of Qualified Electors:

under 1001

Number of voters:



11 Mar. 1690Sir Francis Drake, Bt.
 John Swinfen
15 Dec. 1691John Smith vice Drake, chose to sit for Tavistock
14 May 1694Sir Henry Hobart, Bt. vice Swinfen, deceased
15 Nov. 1695Sir Henry Hobart,  Bt.
 John Elwill
10 Dec. 1695Sir Rowland Gwynne vice Hobart, chose to sit for Norfolk
27 July 1698Sir Rowland Gwynne
 John Hawles
30 Dec. 1698James Montagu vice Gwynne, chose to sit for Breconshire
10 Jan. 1701Sir Rowland Gwynne
 Peter King
7 Mar. 1701William Cowper vice Gwynne, chose to sit for Breconshire
1 Dec. 1701William Cowper
 Peter King
24 July 1702William Cowper
 Peter King
17 May 1705William Cowper
 Peter King
1 Dec. 1705Spencer Cowper vice William Cowper, appointed to office
11 May 1708Spencer Cowper
 Peter King
13 Oct. 1710Sir Peter King
 Lawrence Carter
5 Sept. 1713Sir Peter King
 Lawrence Carter

Main Article

Bere Alston was arguably the most nondescript of Devon’s boroughs, consisting of ‘a few cob cottages, a market house and a poor house’. Browne Willis* observed that there were fewer than ‘80 poor houses’. Several ‘persons of quality’ owned freeholds and property in the borough, though by far the largest landowner was Sir Francis Drake, 3rd Bt. In 1690 the lordship of the manor was in the hands of Sir John Maynard*, a friend of Drake to whom he had granted the leases of mills and other borough property. On Maynard’s death in October of that year, however, the manor devolved to the Whig 2nd Earl of Stamford by right of his wife, the daughter and coheir of Sir John’s elder son, Joseph Maynard†, who had predeceased his father. Stamford leased most of the property to Drake, and accordingly left to him the management of the parliamentary seats, there being an understanding that neither side would create fresh votes.2

Under Drake’s supervision Whigs were returned without a contest. Invariably these were prominent Court supporters, even under Tory ministries, who might need a parliamentary seat, but had no local connexions, with the obvious exceptions of Drake himself, and Sir Henry Hobart, 4th Bt., who was Lord Stamford’s brother-in-law. William Cowper, a leading Junto Whig and MP from 1701 until 1705, when succeeded by his brother, provided funds for Lord Stamford’s steward to ‘disburse as usual on such occasions’, and was punctilious in writing to ask for the continuance of Stamford’s favour. Indeed, when Cowper was re-elected in December 1701 ‘he never appeared in person but made his application by proxy, yet he was so effectually recommended to them that he succeeded without any opposition’. Peter King, the friend and nominee of Drake, on the other hand, provided his patron with free legal advice. Harmony prevailed until 1710 when the disastrous results of the Sacheverell case on Whig fortunes provoked a quarrel between William (now Lord) Cowper and Stamford. This in turn fuelled a breach between Stamford and Drake, when the former threatened to create 16 new voters in order to overthrow Drake’s interest. A legal battle ensued over the validity of such votes, in which King gave reticent support to Drake’s position despite the fact that Drake had allowed King to nominate a fellow barrister, the moderate Tory Lawrence Carter II, when Spencer Cowper, Lord Cowper’s younger brother, declared his intention not to stand. The quarrel blew over and the election was amicably settled in October in favour of King and and Carter, and the pair retained their seats in 1713.3

Author: Eveline Cruickshanks


  • 1. Willis, Not. Parl. i. 372
  • 2. E. F. Eliott-Drake, Fam. and Heirs of Drake, ii. 110–12; Bodl. Willis 48, f. 191.
  • 3. Herts. RO, Panshanger mss D/EP F100, Cowper to ?Drake, draft n.d., Ld. Cowper to Stamford, 14 Apr. 1708; Add. 27440, f. 97; Eliott-Drake, 176–85.