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

Number of Qualified Electors:


Number of voters:

2,099 in 1712


4 Mar. 1690Francis Courtenay 
 Samuel Rolle 
5 Nov. 1695Francis Courtenay 
 Samuel Rolle 
9 Aug. 1698Francis Courtenay 
 Samuel Rolle 
16 May 1699Thomas Drewe vice Courtenay, deceased 
21 Jan. 1701William Courtenay 
 Samuel Rolle 
5 Dec. 1701Sir John Pole, Bt. 
 William Courtenay 
4 Aug. 1702Sir William Courtenay, Bt. 
 Robert Rolle 
5 June 1705Sir William Courtenay, Bt. 
 Robert Rolle 
1 June 1708Sir William Courtenay, Bt. 
 Robert Rolle 
17 Oct. 1710Sir William Pole, Bt. 
 John Rolle 
22 July 1712Sir William Courtenay, Bt., vice Pole, appointed to office1769
 Sir William Pole, 3291
 ? Richard Reynell12
15 Sept. 1713Sir William Courtenay, Bt. 
 Sir Coplestone Bampfylde, Bt. 

Main Article

There was a strong tradition in Devon of restricting the shire seats to a handful of the county’s chief gentry families. Intra-gentry squabbling had frequently accompanied the post-Restoration elections, but during the reigns of William and Anne agreement was usually reached without any real struggle, thus satisfying an all-round preference for consensus and inexpensive contests. The Courtenays and the Rolles, two of the wealthiest families in the county, had monopolized the county seats during much of the 17th century and continued to do so. Some of the upper gentry were anxious to observe a system of ‘rotation’ to ensure that protocol was duly accorded to the ‘head of the county’, but it is doubtful if this practice was uniformly implemented. A more important priority was the need to ensure that representation was equably balanced between the western and eastern districts as suggested by the fact that such a pattern was only twice broken: in December 1701 and 1713 when in both cases the seats were taken by gentlemen of the county’s eastern side. Since the seats were usually decided well in advance, the proceedings at Exeter Castle on the day of election were never more than a formality. Without fail the seats were allocated to gentlemen of Tory persuasion, and in consequence county politics were uneventful. On the single occasion which saw a contest, a by-election in 1712, both candidates were Tories. While many English counties settled into a pattern of Tory domination, none did so with such complete outward unanimity as Devon. Writing in 1711, the Whig historian John Oldmixon noted that ‘Devon has preserved its pinnacle principles very punctually’. Their voice substantially blocked at county level, the Whig squires channelled their efforts into borough politics. For much of this period the Tory interest in the shire and its boroughs was energetically supervised by Sir Edward Seymour, 4th Bt.*, one of the party’s leading figures. With his extensive connexions among the west-country gentry and his zeal to prevent the election of ‘fanatics’ wherever possible, Seymour was seen in exaggerated terms as ‘Tsar Seymskie’, the virtual ruler of a ‘western empire’, though in reality the scope of his influence and following, even at its zenith in the early years of Anne’s reign, was more circumscribed than the popular view suggests.3

In 1690 Francis Courtenay and Samuel Rolle I, the county’s two representatives in the Convention, were re-elected, and retained their seats in the next two elections. Courtenay’s death in April 1699 occasioned a by-election and a choice was hurriedly made of Thomas Drewe, who, though little known, was able to assume the late MP’s mantle in the eastern side of the county. Drewe did not seek re-election in January 1701, however, and his seat was allocated to Francis Courtenay’s eldest son, William. In the second election that year the long-serving ‘Colonel’ Rolle was peremptorily ditched by the western gentlemen owing to his failure during the preceding session to oppose the Whig Sir Walter Yonge, 3rd Bt.*, in the disputed election at Honiton. The issue was especially sensitive since one of the petitioners against Yonge was none other than Rolle’s fellow MP William Courtenay. In place of Rolle, the gentlemen determined on Sir John Pole, 3rd Bt., whose family had not previously been associated with the shire seats, though he himself had previous parliamentary experience. At the 1702 election Courtenay, who had since succeeded to his grandfather’s baronetcy, was returned with Robert Rolle, a distant cousin of the Member displaced in December 1701. Courtenay and Rolle were endorsed again at the elections of 1705 and 1708. They were replaced, however, in 1710, Rolle having died from a bout of hard drinking at the August assizes and Courtenay having indicated his wish to be excused serving any longer. According to Sir Nicholas Morice, 2nd Bt.*, writing two weeks before the election, Courtenay’s retirement was in fact facilitated by Morice’s agreement to bring in Courtenay’s uncle, George Courtenay*, as MP for Newport. But it is also distinctly possible that Courtenay’s rating as an acceptable Tory suffered at this time in the prevailing High Church atmosphere and for this reason had been persuaded to step down: his past record in Parliament had not been wholly commensurate with strong churchmanship, whereas that of Sir William Pole, 4th Bt., had been. In mid September ‘a great meeting of gentlemen’ at Exeter adopted Pole and Rolle’s younger brother John, and both were returned without opposition a month later.4

What should have been a routine by-election in July 1712, following Pole’s appointment to a Household office, resulted in an unseemly skirmish in which Pole was unexpectedly defeated. A few days before the election Pole discovered that Sir William Courtenay had been preparing to mount a challenge by bringing hordes of freeholders into Exeter and leaving Pole with precious little time to arrange counter-measures. Pole, who at the time was immobilized with severe gout, complained immediately to Lord Treasurer Oxford (Robert Harley*) on 17 July, claiming that Courtenay, having promised his interest, had ‘worked underhand in the most private manner unsuspected by any this month’, assisted by the former shire knight Samuel Rolle I, with the inevitable consequence that ‘I shall be perfectly tricked out of my election’. It has been suggested that the support given by Rolle in this intrigue may be explained by a long-standing animus arising from his displacement in 1701 in favour of Pole’s father. The controversial figure of one Joseph Quash emerges as a major factor in this uncharacteristic breach within Devon’s Tory ranks. Quash enjoyed a county-wide importance as receiver-general of taxes in the county and because he exercised control over all the secondary mails in the West country, South Wales and the border counties. He had, however, fallen into serious financial difficulties (the Post Office was to sue him for arrears of £3,800 in 1713, and the receiver-general for Cornwall for another £3,500 in 1714) and a campaign was being waged by the ‘Church party’ in Devon to divest him of his official duties. Courtenay had taken a lead in pleading ‘Mr Quash’s affair’ and in May was ‘surprised’ when the lord treasurer went so far as to misrepresent his views on the subject to a delegation of gentry clamouring for Quash’s dismissal. The whole situation, as George Courtenay later commented to Lord Oxford, was ‘dressed up as a matter of that mighty consequence that the whole Tory interest . . . depended on turning out this poor receiver’. Now confronted with this sudden electoral challenge in July, Pole immediately diagnosed that ‘Quash is the meaning of it, and . . . they level their spleen through me’. In Courtenay’s words to Oxford on 26 July, the circumstances in which he was requested to stand

proceeded from the carriage of Sir William Pole to some of the gentlemen at the general quarter sessions by his taking little or no notice of them, which gave such a disgust that they immediately declared he should not be their representative and sent to offer me their interest which I declared being unwilling to oppose any of her Majesty’s household, but afterwards some imprudent words fell from him which so exasperated the gentlemen that they unanimously agreed to chose some other person if I would not accept of it and that I should not have their assistance for the future.

The chief movers appear to have been the county’s High Church faction. Having grown impatient at Oxford’s failure to dismiss Quash, they now turned against Pole, as the lord treasurer’s recent appointee to the post of master of the household, using some indiscreet remarks by Pole as the pretext. Strong-arm tactics were employed to coerce Courtenay back into Parliament and he was told ‘he must not expect their interest another time unless he complied with their request now’. On the basis that the ‘regulating gentry’ had already taken a decision that the county representatives in the next Parliament should be Pole and Sir Coplestone Bampfylde, 3rd Bt., Courtenay resolved to seize the opportunity offered. He may have surmised, too, that his acceptance might eventually lead the gentry decision-makers to change their minds in 1713 and re-elect him. In the event, those who polled for Courtenay and contributed to his victory were a curious medley of Church Tories who had grown irritated with Pole over the Quash affair, moderate Tories who would have supported him in any event, and Whigs who were cock-a-hoop at the appearance of this split in the Tory ranks and at the opportunity of helping to widen it. An incomplete record of the poll shows a number of influential Whig gentlemen voting for the more moderate Courtenay, who had been removed from the commission of the peace in 1704 at the behest of Seymour, including Sir Francis Drake, 3rd Bt.*, Richard Coffin†, Arthur Champernowne†, Roger Tuckfield*, and Robert Burridge*. The same record indicates that Richard Reynell, the former Whig Member for Ashburton, also stood but was only accorded a single vote. The news writers were evidently in some confusion over what had actually occurred at Exeter Castle on 22 July. A report in the Post Boy newspaper erroneously stated that no poll took place, and that when Pole arrived at Exeter Castle ‘he found Sir William Courtenay, had declared to oppose him, and appeared with a great number of people for that purpose’, whereupon he declined to poll ‘those he brought with him’. There is no doubt that votes were taken. Pole had serious intentions of petitioning against the return, mentioning to Oxford ‘a certainty of getting in again the next sessions if you approve of a scheme I’ll inform you of’. Towards the end of December severe gout prevented his journeying to London for this purpose, but he was cheered by assurances both from his friends in the House that he would carry it, and from many would-be supporters who had written informing him that they had been imposed upon ‘and would not only oppose him [Courtenay] for the future but support me in a petition against him now’. Pole’s petition was not presented, however. Despite the earlier decision to elect Pole at the 1713 election, the moderate Courtenay was allowed to retain his seat, while as planned the High Tory Sir Coplestone Bampfylde was returned with him. The tensions between High and moderate Tories which had become exposed in 1712 were now neatly compromised. It was not until 1790 that the county witnessed another contested election.5

Author: Andrew A. Hanham


  • 1. Bean’s notebks.
  • 2. Trans. Devon Assoc. cvi. 237.
  • 3. Oldmixon, Hist. Addresses, ii. 52; Bath mss at Longleat House, Thynne pprs. 12, f. 95.
  • 4. Add. 70256, Seymour to Harley, 13 Nov. 1695; Som. RO, Sanford mss DD/SF 3068, E. Duke to [?Mary Clarke], n.d. [c. Dec. 1701]; Bodl. Rawl. D.863, ff. 89–90; C115/110/8929; Bank of Eng. Morice mss, Sir Nicholas to Humphry Morice*, 19 Sept., 3 Oct. 1710; BL, Evelyn mss, Samuel Thomson to John Evelyn II*, 10 Oct. 1710.
  • 5. Add. 70204, Pole to Oxford, 5, 17 July, ‘Tuesday morning’, 22 Dec. 1712; 70220, Sir William Courtenay to Oxford, 23 May, 26 July, George Courtenay to same, 29 July 1712; Trans. Devon Assoc. 231–58; Post Boy, 24–26 July 1712.