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:



c. Dec. 1620JOHN PROWSE
 Nicholas Spicer
 Adam Bennett
  Double return of Jourdain and Martin. JOURDAIN declared elected, 26 Mar. 1628

Main Article

Founded by the Romans, Exeter flourished through its strategic location on the River Exe, which provided ready access to both the English Channel and most of Devon. Probably England’s fourth largest provincial town at the start of the seventeenth century, with a population of around 9,000, it played host to the Devon assizes and Admiralty court, while its cathedral served a diocese covering both Devon and Cornwall.2 ‘The emporium of the western parts’, according to the contemporary writer Thomas Westcote, Exeter was the main outlet for cloth produced in north and east Devon and west Somerset. Rising demand for ‘new draperies’ such as kerseys and perpetuanas made it the country’s third wealthiest port until the prolonged economic depressions of the 1620s. The city’s merchants ventured as far as Spain, Italy, the Canary Islands, Guinea, Newfoundland and the Baltic, but the mainstay of the local economy was the cloth trade with France, which typically accounted during this period for around half of Exeter’s exports. A considerable quantity of Devon cloth was finished in the city’s fulling mills, which were powered by water diverted from the Exe, and textile workers as a whole formed the second largest group among Exeter’s freemen. However, the dominant force in the city was its merchant body, incorporated since 1560 as the Exeter French Company. Not only did this organization enjoy a monopoly over the city’s wholesale trade with France, but its members invariably formed a majority within Exeter’s corporation, which accordingly pursued policies designed to further the Company’s interests.3

A borough since the twelfth century, early Stuart Exeter possessed the full panoply of civic offices and privileges. Power rested with the 24-member common council, a self-perpetuating oligarchy comprising the city’s wealthiest inhabitants. The mayor, recorder and aldermen were all local magistrates. As a county in its own right from 1537, Exeter also possessed its own sheriff and deputy lieutenants, while the corporation enjoyed jurisdiction over the cathedral enclave, much to the annoyance of the ecclesiastical authorities. This administrative independence was jealously guarded. In 1622 Bishop Carey of Exeter sought appointment as a city magistrate, but the corporation’s energetic lobbying in London eventually thwarted his proposal, and a new charter in 1627 specifically ruled out this option.4 Conspicuous during this period for its internal unity, the common council ordinarily also had considerable financial resources at its disposal, derived from its property portfolio and its exclusive management of the city’s markets. With a typical annual budget of between £800 and £1,100, the corporation not only undertook large capital projects such as the construction of a new guildhall in the 1590s, but could also fund legislative initiatives at Westminster.5

Exeter was represented in Parliament from the late thirteenth century. As with most aspects of civic life, the choice of Members normally rested with the common council. Although the earls of Bedford owned a house in the city, and the corporation invariably chose as its high steward leading peers such as the 1st earl of Salisbury (Robert Cecil†) and the 3rd earl of Pembroke, there is no evidence of external patronage. Exeter’s early Stuart Members were all corporation figures, usually prominent merchants serving on the common council, though in 1624 and 1625 the borough returned its recorder, Nicholas Duck. In the selection process, personal ability counted for as much as seniority of office. John Prowse, Exeter’s most active Member during this period, was merely a middle-ranking common councilman when first elected in 1604, while John Hayne in 1626 had only just joined the corporation.6 Parliamentary wages were paid at a standard rate of 4s. a day, with allowance made for travelling time and costs. In exceptional circumstances, the common council also voted additional rewards, as in 1608, when Prowse received £20 as compensation for ‘his great labour and hindrance’ while attending the Commons.7

The normal procedure during elections was for the common council to nominate two candidates, who were then approved by voters at the county court. Ostensibly the franchise was vested in Exeter’s freemen. The city’s freeholders were also allowed to vote in 1588, but there is no clear evidence of this wider electoral body thereafter, and only freemen were allowed a voice under the 1627 charter. The 1604 election return, the sole surviving indenture for this period, merely refers to the mayor and bailiffs, the borough’s traditional officers.8 Ordinarily the common council’s nominees were endorsed without argument, but at times of economic hardship rifts tended to emerge between the corporation and the commonalty. In 1604 the latter proposed their own candidates, forcing the common council to concede a poll, though on this occasion the corporation’s nominees emerged victorious. A similar situation developed in the later 1620s. According to one report, the freemen forced the election in 1625 of a controversial alderman, Ignatius Jourdain, against the corporation’s wishes. On balance, this claim seems doubtful, but the events of the next two elections are unambiguous. When Exeter succumbed to a catastrophic plague epidemic in the autumn of 1625, Jourdain was virtually the only magistrate to remain in the city, his colleagues having fled for their own safety. His heroic efforts to preserve order and tend the sick earned him the lasting gratitude of the masses, and when the corporation failed to propose him for a seat in the 1626 Parliament, the commonalty both nominated and elected him. In retaliation, the common council ruled in the following September that the ordinary freemen would be liable for the parliamentary wages of any further Members that they themselves put forward.9

In a further bid to restore its monopoly over nominations, the corporation in February 1628 devised an official shortlist of four names, to allow the commonalty a limited degree of choice, and enjoined the sheriff, John Hakewill (the brother of William Hakewill*), to reject additional nominees. In the event, Jourdain was again proposed as a rival candidate, after Hakewill conceded that such a move was permissible, and in the ensuing poll he emerged victorious alongside the corporation’s first-choice nominee, John Lynne. The common council declined to accept this verdict, and a double return was made to Westminster, with Lynne paired on one indenture with Jourdain, and on the other with the next most popular corporation candidate, Nicholas Martin. Both sides in this dispute apparently also petitioned the Commons, the corporation asserting that its tactic of making four nominations was in fact a long-established custom. On 26 Mar. the House ruled in Jourdain’s favour, but in January 1629 his case again came before the committee for privileges, since the common council was refusing to finance him, in line with its ruling of 1626. Under pressure from the Commons, the corporation backed down, but as late as June 1629 it still aimed to recover Jourdain’s wages from the commonalty, and finally abandoned this policy only in the following October.10

Lynne’s election as mayor of Exeter in September 1628 further antagonized the Commons, which refused to allow him to resign his seat so that he could attend to his civic duties.11 However, such negative behaviour was uncharacteristic of the corporation, which normally sought during this period to engage constructively with Parliament. Enough evidence survives to demonstrate that Exeter’s Members corresponded regularly with the common council about developments at Westminster. For example, during the second sitting of 1621, John Prowse and Ignatius Jourdain sent at least five letters, reporting on progress with legislation, particularly supply, the Commons’ advice to the king to break off the Spanish treaties, and the disastrous dispute with James over Members’ freedom of speech.12 In 1624 Prowse warned the corporation of the impending disgrace of the lord treasurer (Sir Lionel Cranfield*), Exeter’s assistant high steward, and sent down a copy of the king’s reply to the Commons’ petition against recusants. Four years later, the corporation received copies of the Petition of Right, the Remonstrance against Buckingham, and Charles I’s prorogation speech of 26 June.13

Such reports were vital, for, as often as not, Exeter’s Members arrived at Westminster with specific business to pursue. On several occasions, this involved legislation. The 1606 Act for free trade with Spain, Portugal and France threatened the interests of the city’s merchants. Prowse failed to obtain a proviso to protect the privileges of the Exeter French Company, so an explanatory bill was introduced during the 1606-7 session specifically to reaffirm the terms of the Company’s charter. Despite considerable opposition in the Commons, the bill received the royal assent.14 Presumably buoyed up by this success, Exeter’s corporation promoted further legislation during the first session of 1610, to protect a recently renewed weir which played a vital role in channelling water to the city’s fulling and grist mills. This bill was designed to silence troublesome local opponents of the weir, and the corporation left nothing to chance. Prowse was instructed on 23 Apr. to ‘attempt by all the means he can to obtain an Act of Parliament for the settling of the same weir where it is’, and he clearly kept the common council abreast of developments. On 22 May, with the bill in committee in the Commons, the corporation began planning for its passage through the Lords, and four days later wrote to the earl of Salisbury asking him ‘to give strength to it if it happens to come to the Upper House’. Curiously, they also decided to lobby the 3rd earl of Essex who, as a minor, was not yet attending the Lords, and had no obvious connection with the city. In the event, Salisbury was not named to the Lords’ committee, but the bill successfully passed into law at the end of the session. Prowse’s expenses for this episode, approved on 14 Aug., shed further light on the lobbying process. He spent in total £64 10s. 6d. Of this amount the lord chancellor (Thomas Egerton†) and the Commons’ Speaker, Sir Edward Phelips, each received £10, the clerk of the Parliaments (Robert Bowyer*) £7, and the clerk of the Commons £4. Sums of £10 10s. were also bestowed on the Commons’ serjeant-at-arms, and an unnamed civil lawyer. A ‘supper for divers gentlemen of the House to make use of their help’ came to £1 12s., while ‘breviates to deliver abroad’ cost £1. Prowse gave 5s. to the keeper of the Exchequer chamber ‘where the committees sat’, and spent 7s. 6d. on copies of the committee lists for both Houses. Clearly, the process of smoothing a bill’s path was well understood. Indeed, the corporation already recognized the value of good relations with key officials, having agreed on 23 Jan. 1610 that the Exeter Members should present the Commons’ Speaker with a hogshead of Malaga wine or claret and a baked salmon pie, ‘in token of their goodwill’.15

The city is not known to have initiated any further legislation during this period, though it perhaps contemplated such a course in 1624, when the bishop of Exeter rejected the corporation’s request for a new school. Nicholas Duck, who had been negotiating with the bishop, certainly pondered this option, but concluded in late April that ‘to move yet in the Parliament … would be but a hazard to expend money upon a doubtful event’, since the Commons was already fully occupied with bills and petitions. Nevertheless, the corporation undoubtedly recognized Parliament’s value as a forum for complaints. When Prowse on 24 Feb. 1621 raised the issue of abuses committed by the patentees for licensing alehouses, persuading the Commons to summon the offenders, he was reiterating arguments already fruitlessly presented by the corporation to the Crown’s law officers during the previous few months.16 Duck was surely speaking on the city’s behalf on 1 Aug. 1625, when he criticized a pardon granted to some Exeter Catholics. Similarly, John Hayne’s eloquent pleas in 1626 for a speedy end to the current embargo on trade with France (1 Mar., 17 Apr.) conveyed the desperation of a merchant community economically crippled by this dispute.17

It seems likely that Exeter’s Members occasionally collaborated with colleagues in the Commons over issues of shared interest. Prowse’s nomination on 27 Mar. 1610 to the committee for Sir John Acland’s* apprenticeships bill may well have reflected the corporation’s backing for the proposed scheme, under which Exeter stood to benefit. In 1626, several Devon boroughs apparently worked together in the Commons to raise grievances about the alnage of clothing and the prisage of wines. No parliamentary evidence for this lobbying now survives, but in the following October the Privy Council, having noted this activity, invited Exeter corporation and other interested parties to make representations to it. Similarly, in 1621 Prowse sponsored a bill to promote the manufacture of new draperies, which seems to have been submitted to Parliament by a Devon gentleman, Walter Morrell, but which was obviously to Exeter’s advantage.18

The corporation during this period displayed an impressive ability to respond to events as they emerged in Parliament. While it is possible that Hayne used his own initiative on 25 Mar. 1626 in tendering a proviso for Exeter to the bill on exports of dyed and dressed cloth, it is more likely that he first consulted the corporation. In March 1607 Prowse sent down for comment a copy of the bill to regulate weights and measures in market towns, while in April 1614 the common council ordered the urgent dispatch of ‘instructions to the burgesses of this city touching their late letters’.19 A bid in 1604 by the dean and chapter of Exeter to remove the cathedral enclave from the city’s jurisdiction prompted a particularly vigorous reaction. Tipped off by Prowse and George Smith that legislation on this issue was expected, the corporation ordered on 21 Apr. that the Members should block ‘any bill … preferred in this Parliament against the city’s liberties’. The next day, it wrote to Lord (Robert) Cecil complaining that the dean and chapter ‘do now pretend … to exhibit a bill first into the higher House of this present Parliament, that they may be exempted from us, and be annexed both in possessions and persons to the county of Devon’. The anticipated legislation on the ‘boundaries of the county of the city of Exeter’ indeed received its first reading in the Lords on 21 Apr., but was lost in committee. Nevertheless, this was doubtless the unnamed bill that the corporation ordered to be entered in its Act Book in the following September. Clearly anxious that the measure might be revived in the next parliamentary session, the common council in December 1604 also appointed a committee, including the two Members, to prepare arguments against the ‘suit of the dean and chapter depending in the Parliament House’.20

The level of briefing that Exeter’s Members could expect was most fully demonstrated in 1624. For once the corporation was still preparing its agenda when the session opened, but on 13 Mar. it authorized a letter to Prowse and Duck, instructing them ‘to prefer such grievances as are now sent up by John Chappell from the merchants, … together with some other grievances touching the state of the city’. One item was doubtless the Exeter merchants’ petition against the composition for grocery in the new Book of Rates, referred to in Sir Edwin Sandys’ report from the committee for trade on 2 April. However, the Commons’ records reveal only part of the city’s programme. On 24 Apr. Prowse reported that he had ‘possessed the House of Parliament with such things as do most touch the merchants in the burthen of their trade, as they have advised’. He had also secured two readings for a new bill on perpetuanas, while correctly anticipating that it would be lost in committee for lack of time. Stalemate had been reached over the unpopular pretermitted custom, because it touched on the king’s prerogative, but he remained hopeful of some concessions. According to Chappell, who had remained in London to assist the two Members, and himself wrote back three days later, other target issues were the prisage of wines, imposts on sugar exports, and the customs allowance on certain types of Devon, Dorset and Somerset cloth. It is worth noting that both of these letters dwell at length on discussions with the bishop of Exeter about the proposed new school, a timely reminder that the corporation’s business in London routinely extended beyond the confines of Westminster.21

Authors: George Yerby / Paul Hunneyball


  • 1. Procs. 1628, vi. 150.
  • 2. W.T. MacCaffrey, Exeter 1540-1640, pp. 6, 8; P. Clark and P. Slack, English Towns in Transition 1500-1700, p. 83.
  • 3. T. Westcote, View of Devonshire in 1630, p. 135; W.B. Stephens, Seventeenth-Cent. Exeter, 3, 6-9; E190/937/6; 190/947/3; MacCaffrey, 61, 146, 162; W.B. Stephens, ‘Merchant Companies and Commercial Policy in Exeter’, Reps. and Trans. Devon Assoc. lxxxvi. 138-40.
  • 4. MacCaffrey, 16-17, 19, 21, 28-9; C.F. Patterson, Urban Patronage in Early Modern Eng. 135-7, 289.
  • 5. MacCaffrey, 22-3, 33, 56-7, 69.
  • 6. Ibid. 222; Westcote, 147; Patterson, 247; Devon RO, ECA Act Bk. 6, p. 118; Act Bk. 7, p. 693.
  • 7. Devon RO, ECA Act Bk. 7, pp. 129, 647; HMC Exeter, 321.
  • 8. MacCaffrey, 222-4; C219/35/1/135.
  • 9. D. Hirst, Representative of the People?, 203-4; CD 1628, ii. 121, 136; Procs. 1628, vi. 150.
  • 10. Hirst, 204; CD 1628, ii. 119, 121, 136; Procs. 1628, vi. 150; F. Nicolls, Life and Death of Mr. Ignatius Jurdain (1654), p. 19; Devon RO, ECA Act Bk. 7, pp. 711, 729, 740-1; CJ, i. 924b, 926b; HMC Exeter, 189; Vivian, Vis. Devon, 437.
  • 11. CJ, i. 920a, 924b;
  • 12. HMC Exeter, 76-7, 109-13.
  • 13. Ibid. 114, 138, 184-8; Patterson, 39.
  • 14. CJ, i. 275a, 324b, 326b; SR, iv. 1148.
  • 15. Devon RO, ECA Act Bk. 6, pp. 403, 414; CJ, i. 429b; HMC Exeter, 321; SP14/54/77; LJ, ii. 623b; SR, iv. 1173-4.
  • 16. HMC Exeter, 137-8; CD 1621, ii. 133; Devon RO, ECA Act Bk. 7, pp. 384, 400.
  • 17. Procs. 1625, p. 375; Procs. 1626, ii. 170; iii. 3, 5, 11.
  • 18. CJ, i. 415a; Devon RO, ECA Act Bk. 6, p. 387; APC, 1626, p. 337; CD 1621, ii. 294; Kyle thesis, 108.
  • 19. Procs. 1626, ii. 367; HMC Exeter, 78; Devon RO, ECA Act Bk. 7, p. 120.
  • 20. Devon RO, ECA Act Bk. 6, pp. 126, 147, 156; SP14/7/51; LJ, ii. 283b.
  • 21. Devon RO, ECA Act Bk. 7, p. 539; CJ, i. 752b; HMC Exeter, 113, 137-8, 166.