Barnstaple

Borough

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 freemen

Number of voters:

unknown

Elections

DateCandidate
27 Feb. 1604THOMAS HINSON
 GEORGE PEARD
c. Mar. 1614JOHN GOSTLIN
 JOHN DELBRIDGE
12 Dec. 1620JOHN DELBRIDGE
 PENTECOST DODDRIDGE
20 Jan. 1624JOHN DELBRIDGE
 PENTECOST DODDRIDGE
25 Apr. 1625JOHN DELBRIDGE
 PENTECOST DODDRIDGE
23 Jan. 1626SIR ALEXANDER ST. JOHN
 JOHN DELBRIDGE
21 Feb. 1628SIR ALEXANDER ST. JOHN
 JOHN DELBRIDGE

Main Article

Founded in Saxon times at the head of the Taw estuary, Barnstaple developed into north Devon’s principal town, and indeed the county’s third richest urban community after Exeter and Plymouth. Although its medieval walls had crumbled by the early seventeenth century, the contemporary historian Thomas Risdon described it as ‘fair built, and populous withal, … pleasantly and sweetly situate[d] …; whose streets, in whatsoever weather, are clean and fairly paved’. In 1634, the population was estimated to be almost 8,000.1 Barnstaple’s prosperity derived from trade. Its fairs and markets were regarded as the best in the surrounding area, and it was then the only place in Devon where goldsmiths operated apart from Exeter. However, the mainstay of the local economy was cloth. For several centuries the town had been one of the county’s leading centres of textile production. Although the traditional English fabrics were falling out of fashion by the late Tudor period, Barnstaple had responded to the demand for the ‘new draperies’ by developing a coarse, Flemish-style baize.2 This commodity, along with other local cloths, was exported in large quantities to western France, Spain, Portugal and the Atlantic Islands. From around 1608 Barnstaple baize was exempted from the payment of impositions in order to encourage the nascent industry. The port’s shipping also played a significant role in exploiting the new fishing grounds off the North American coast, and in supplying the early colonies in Virginia and Bermuda, which paid in kind with tobacco.3

Despite these many successes, the prevailing wisdom in early Stuart Barnstaple was that the town was on the brink of decline. Despite a major dredging exercise in 1603-5, the harbour was gradually silting up, and by the late 1620s it was so shallow ‘that it hardly beareth small vessels’. Consequently, there was mounting concern at the emergence of two commercial rivals, the nearby ports of Bideford and Minehead. Freak flooding in the Bristol Channel in January 1607 caused around £2,000-worth of damage to the town. In the following decade piracy became a serious problem, and the local merchants claimed in 1619 that they could not find the full £500 requested by the government to help fund a naval campaign against the Barbary corsairs.4 Barnstaple was badly affected by the general slump in the cloth trade at the start of the 1620s, and it was claimed in 1621 that the number of active looms had fallen from 1,000 to just 200. To complicate matters further, sporadic civil war in France disrupted trade with Barnstaple’s biggest single market, La Rochelle, leading the corporation to complain in 1622 that many merchants currently had goods trapped there by a blockade. The situation deteriorated further when England went to war against Spain and then France from 1625. With normal commerce effectively suspended, the overall volume of Barnstaple’s trade dropped dramatically, despite attempts to boost exports to Ireland and America. The billeting of troops there after the Cadiz expedition imposed another significant burden on the town, which had spent out £781 on these unwelcome visitors by February 1627. Two months later, the corporation declined to supply two ships demanded by the government for the new fleet assembling at Portsmouth, Hants.5

Barnstaple’s earliest surviving charter was granted by Henry II. The borough was incorporated in 1557, with the same privileges confirmed in 1596. The corporation was governed by a common council of 25 capital burgesses, from whose number a mayor and two aldermen were elected annually by secret ballot. William Bourchier, 3rd earl of Bath, the most important local landowner, was elected as recorder in 1596 even though this office was not provided for in the borough’s charters. This omission was rectified in 1611 by a further charter, whereupon Bath was re-elected on James I’s instructions.6 The borough dealt confidently both with powerful neighbours and with central government. Well aware of the town’s importance as a significant source of customs revenues, and as a vital communications link between England and Ireland, the corporation regularly lobbied the Privy Council, seeking both privileges and redress of grievances. In addition to obtaining tax concessions for the baize industry, it secured an investigation at the 1607 assizes into a dispute between the town and a troublesome Devon magistrate, as well as special powers in 1626 to organize its own local militia, in the face of an invasion threat. However, the government evidently tired of the town’s assertiveness by 1628, when quo warranto proceedings were begun against the corporation, apparently resulting in a £100 fine.7

Barnstaple first sent representatives to Parliament in 1295. Elections were held at the guildhall, with the mayor acting as returning officer. The early Stuart indentures were invariably drawn up in the name of the mayor, aldermen and burgesses, and were normally validated simply with the borough seal, though the mayor also signed the return in 1628. Parliamentary wages were paid intermittently, but only ever to the corporation’s own nominees, who seem not to have recovered their full expenses.8 Under the terms of an agreement reached in 1566, the Chichesters of Raleigh, one of the most important local gentry families, were entitled to nominate one of the burgesses at each election. However, while Robert Chichester exercised this privilege as late as 1601, he is not known to have done so subsequently.9

In 1604 Barnstaple elected men who had both represented the borough previously. Thomas Hinson was the earl of Bath’s receiver-general, and put his master’s interests before those of his constituents, to the extent that between 1605 and 1608 he repeatedly attacked the town’s recent harbour improvements in the courts. George Peard, in marked contrast, was the borough’s fee’d counsel, and he acted as the borough’s voice in the Commons, notably in March 1610, when he complained at length about local problems with piracy.10 In 1614 Bath successfully nominated another of his local clients, John Gostlin, who left no mark on the Parliament’s records. Gostlin’s partner was a merchant and former mayor of Barnstaple, John Delbridge, who was returned for the borough in every remaining election during this period. He became one of the most prominent and outspoken West Country spokesmen in the Lower House, particularly on any matters affecting his constituency’s trade. His stinging attacks in 1621 on the local impact of impositions forced Sir Lionel Cranfield to produce statistics in the Commons on Barnstaple’s recent customs revenues. Delbridge also frequently criticized the town’s commercial rivals, particularly the Merchant Adventurers and the New England Company, highlighted restrictions on key commodities such as tobacco and wine, and pursued other general grievances like piracy and billeting.11 Bath is not known to have made a nomination in 1621, but the borough in any case preferred to given its second seat that year to another local merchant and sometime mayor, Pentecost Doddridge, perhaps spurred on by the prevailing crisis in the cloth industry. Doddridge was also returned with Delbridge in 1624 and 1625, though he contributed very little to the proceedings of these three parliaments. The pattern of patronage reverted in 1626 and 1628 to its earlier form, with the borough electing Sir Alexander St. John, brother-in-law to the 4th earl of Bath. It is unclear whether this development simply marked a resurgence in the Bath interest, or whether the town opted to secure the services of a prominent local militia officer in response to the current billeting emergency. However, St. John was apparently content on both occasions to let Delbridge air Barnstaple’s grievances as usual.12

Authors: Tim Venning / John. P. Ferris / Paul Hunneyball

Notes

  • 1. W.G. Hoskins, Devon, 327-8; T. Risdon, Survey of Devon, 327; CSP Dom. 1634-5, p. 172.
  • 2. Risdon, 328; J.F. Chanter, ‘Barnstaple Goldsmiths’ Guild’, Reps. and Trans. Devon Assoc. xlix. 174; Hoskins, 328; E. Kerridge, Textile Manufactures in Early Modern Eng. 96, 103-4, 107.
  • 3. E190/939/4; 190/940/2, 4; 190/942/13; 190/944/8; 190/947/5; HMC Downshire, ii. 336; CSP Dom. 1623-5, p. 496.
  • 4. Risdon, 328; CJ, i. 416a; CSP Dom. 1634-5, p. 173; Barnstaple Recs. ed. J.R. Chanter and T. Wainwright, ii. 134; APC, 1618-19, p. 410.
  • 5. CJ, i. 633b; CSP Dom. 1619-23, p. 398; 1627-8, pp. 43, 141; E190/947/5.