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 freeholders or burgesses

Number of voters:

at least 13 in 1628


9 Mar. 1604Sir Robert Killigrew
23 Dec. 1620Sir Robert Killigrew
19 Jan. 1624(SIR) JOHN ELIOT
21 Apr. 1625(SIR) JOHN ELIOT
12 Jan. 1626THOMAS GEWEN
  Double return. GEWEN and HUNGATE declared elected, 17 Mar. 1626.
5 Mar. 1628JOHN HERNE
  Double return. TREFUSIS and EDGCUMBE declared elected, 14 Apr. 1628.

Main Article

Newport sprang up in the shadow of Launceston Priory, and seems to have taken its name from one of the monastery’s gateways. In existence by 1274, little more is known about it until 1529, when it was enfranchised. In terms of geography and administration, Newport was the least impressive of the seventeenth-century Cornish parliamentary boroughs. Effectively just a suburb of Launceston, separated from its larger neighbour by only a minor tributary of the Tamar, the village lacked the most basic structures of self-government. Newport allegedly obtained the right to hold a fair and market through a royal charter of 1557, but if this document ever actually existed it provided no other significant privileges. Responsibility for the market lay with a group of ‘eight men’ drawn from the local parish of St. Stephen by Launceston, and all other issues were settled in the court leet of Launceston Land manor.1

One consequence of this primitive institutional framework was an electoral procedure which was apparently unique in early modern England and Wales. With no mayor or portreeve to serve as a returning officer, this function was performed by two ‘vianders’, who were appointed at the court leet, possibly on the nomination of the manorial steward. Newport’s franchise at this time was the subject of dispute. The basic qualification was the ownership of local burgage tenures, possibly combined with payment of scot and lot, and early seventeenth-century parliamentary indentures often refer to ‘freeholders’ or ‘free burgesses’.2 However, the proper size of the electorate was unclear, and in every election from 1624 to 1628 the vianders sought to return Members solely on their own authority.3 Such opportunities for the exercise of electoral patronage encouraged non-residents like Thomas Gewen* and Richard Estcott to take on the viander’s role, and in 1625 three men laid claim to the two posts. Such confusion undoubtedly contributed to the election disputes which characterized the borough in the later 1620s.4

Before 1624 the borough’s parliamentary seats were controlled by the Killigrews. At the start of the seventeenth century Launceston Land manor was being leased from the Crown by Sir William Killigrew I*, who in 1601 found his step-son Sir John Leigh* a seat at Newport. In 1604 the borough returned Killigrew’s son, Sir Robert, and a nephew by marriage, Sir Edward Seymour.5 Four years later Killigrew surrendered his lease so that the manor could be used to augment the duchy of Cornwall’s estates, but in 1609 Sir Robert became the manorial steward, thereby perpetuating the existing patronage framework. In 1614 one of Newport’s burgess-ships went to his distant cousin, Sir Thomas Cheke, while the other Member, Thomas Trevor, probably obtained his seat through the mediation of his brother Sir John Trevor I*, who was one of Sir William Killigrew’s colleagues in the king’s privy chamber.6 In 1621 the borough accepted a duchy of Cornwall nominee, Sir Edward Barrett, with Sir Robert Killigrew himself taking the second place five days later.7

The 1624 elections brought an abrupt end to this pattern. Barrett was again nominated by the duchy, but on 19 Jan., three days before Launceston meekly handed both its seats to courtiers, the Crown’s plans for Newport were swept aside by local interests. One of the vianders, Richard Estcott, exploited his position to secure the return of his own son and namesake. The other place went to Sir John Eliot, whose father-in-law Richard Gedy was doubly equipped to exert influence over the borough, being both a local landowner and the serving sheriff of Cornwall.8 If Sir Robert Killigrew was taken by surprise on this occasion, as seems likely, he fared no better in 1625. Eliot was again returned, along with Paul Speccott, whose father (Sir) John* had recently acquired the major local seat of Penheale. The election was not straightforward, however, due to a dispute over who the vianders should be. Three indentures were finally sent to London, two for Eliot and one for Speccott. Both of Eliot’s named the first viander as William Courtier, but he was associated on one with John White and on the other with Degory Seccombe. In both cases the vianders were the only signatories. Speccott’s indenture recorded the vianders as Courtier and White, and included three additional signatures. Since both Seccombe and White wished to elect Eliot, it appears that the underlying issue was one of personal status within the borough, rather than a clash of external patrons. With no actual disagreement about the identity of the Members, Parliament ignored this curious turn of events.9

In 1626, however, the Commons was faced with a full-blown election dispute, involving three strands of local patronage. The source of Sir Robert Killigrew’s influence at this juncture is unclear, since his stewardship of Launceston Land may well have been terminated in early 1625, when a lease of the manor to the Trefusis family came into effect. Nevertheless he stole a march on his rivals, for on 12 Jan. he secured one place for his nephew, Sir Henry Hungate. At the same time the second seat was awarded to Thomas Gewen, who lived around four miles from Newport. Six days later, Sir John Speccott’s supporters swung into action, and a third indenture was drawn up in favour of his son-in-law, Thomas Williams. The Speccott camp then launched a two-pronged attack on the validity of the earlier returns. While Gewen’s indenture registered the approval of both the vianders and Newport’s freeholders, Hungate had been returned in the name of the vianders only. By contrast, and probably by design, Williams claimed the backing of the ‘free burgesses and inhabitants of Newport’. Some residents of the borough duly dispatched a petition against Hungate to Parliament, questioning ‘whether election by the generality of the inhabitants or the principal burghers [was] most due’. In the meantime Williams personally pursued Gewen, who, as one of that year’s vianders, had returned himself. It is unclear whether this action was directly akin to the recognized abuse of sheriffs and mayors providing themselves with a burgess-ship, but Gewen had clearly experienced some doubts, since he omitted to sign his own indenture. The anti-Hungate petition came before the committee for privileges on 10 Feb., but was apparently rejected, probably because Sir Henry’s indenture followed a locally well-established formula. On 16 Mar. the committee also heard the complaint against Gewen, but reported only that Williams had ‘deserted the cause’ and that Gewen should therefore be allowed to sit. Whether Williams backed down that same day or sometime earlier is unclear. The fact that neither viander had supported his election may have told against him, while Gewen’s behaviour was clearly deemed acceptable in the absence of convincing opposition. Questionable as this verdict appears, the Commons agreed on 17 Mar. to admit both Hungate and Gewen.10

During the next two years control over Launceston Land shifted yet again. The Crown sold part of the manor to Paul Speccott in September 1626, and both Killigrew and the Speccotts subsequently acquired further parcels.11 The 1628 elections brought together many of the strands of patronage and controversy which had surfaced in the previous four years, and resulted in a yet more complex dispute. Five candidates were nominated on 5 Mar., and indentures were drawn up for each of them that day. Local interests were represented by Sir John Speccott’s nephew Piers Edgcumbe, Sir Robert Killigrew’s son Sir William, and also by Nicholas Trefusis, who certainly owned property close to Newport, and possibly held the lordship of Launceston Land manor itself.12 There were also two complete outsiders, John Herne and Sir John Wolstenholme. Herne was a colleague at Lincoln’s Inn of Richard Estcott, the 1624 Member. Wolstenholme’s connection is uncertain, but he may have approached the Estcott family through their cousin (Sir) James Bagg II*, who had recently worked closely with him in preparing naval campaigns. On this occasion one of the vianders was Thomas Estcott, the former MP’s brother.13 His fellow officer was a veteran of 1625, William Courtier. The failure of these two men, the former a Launceston man and the latter a Newport resident, to work together brought about the dispute. Estcott must have received the nominations for Herne and Wolstenholme well in advance, and he presumably hoped to use his position to secure seats for them, thereby emulating his father’s behaviour in 1624. He perhaps failed to anticipate the appearance on 5 Mar. of Sir John Eliot, to whom he and Courtier felt obliged to offer one seat. In the event Eliot, who was standing as a knight of the shire, declined this invitation, but he may have indicated at this juncture that he intended to nominate his friend Trefusis. The introduction of a third candidate at this juncture would help to explain why Courtier refused to co-operate when Estcott recommended the election of Herne and Wolstenholme. Undeterred, Estcott inserted his candidates’ names on two indentures which had evidently been prepared in advance, and returned them to Westminster on his sole authority. Courtier, unable to frustrate this scheme, instead proceeded to a full-blown election with the freeholders. Eliot now formally proposed Trefusis, who secured a clear majority of votes, and a fresh indenture was drawn up for him, purportedly on behalf of the free burgesses and both vianders though Estcott could not be persuaded to sign it. The second seat was now contested by Edgcumbe and Killigrew, who initially secured four votes each. However, Edgcumbe’s kinsman, Ambrose Manaton*, then announced himself as a Newport freeholder and provided Edgcumbe with an extra voice. His credentials were challenged as he was a non-resident but they were ultimately accepted, and so, before the formal election concluded at lunchtime, a further indenture was prepared along the same lines as Trefusis’ return. Significantly, Courtier withheld his support from Edgcumbe, whose indenture was not signed by either viander. Later the same day, and apparently after the election was officially over, Killigrew managed to muster two more votes. On the basis of this dubious claim to numerical superiority, Courtier drew up and signed a fifth indenture, in his own name and that of ‘the greatest number of the freeholders being inhabitants of the said borough’.14

Prior to the opening of Parliament, the indentures for Trefusis and Killigrew were sent up by the sheriff, Jonathan Rashleigh*, who included a certificate affirming the valid return of the former but expressing doubts about the latter. The remaining three indentures arrived by other means. The clerk of the Crown, Sir Thomas Edmondes*, unsure how to handle the situation, declined to record any of the candidates as being duly elected. On 22 Mar. the dispute was referred to the committee for privileges, and later that day Eliot alerted the Commons to the clerk’s actions, complaining that Trefusis was being improperly prevented from taking his seat. On 28 Mar. the sheriff’s deputy, John Sparke*, confirmed that he had brought up returns only for Trefusis and Killigrew, and the House resolved that they should both be allowed to sit pending the committee’s final verdict. Killigrew, however, had also secured an unchallenged burgess-ship at Penryn, and on the same day announced his intention of serving for that borough rather than Newport. Further confirmation of the sheriff’s dealings by the deputy clerk of the Crown on 29 Mar. was therefore barely relevant. The committee’s report was finally presented on 14 April. There had clearly been some discussion about the validity of Newport’s electoral arrangements, and though the committee arrived at no formal conclusions on this point, it implicitly rejected the vianders’ claims to pre-eminence and independent authority. Herne and Wolstenholme were dismissed out of hand, and the report dealt only with the remaining three candidates. The legality of Trefusis’ return was re-affirmed, while Edgcumbe became the only man during this period to secure a Newport seat without the backing of a single viander. How far Killigrew’s preference for Penryn swayed the committee’s decision is impossible to judge. In the meantime, in a splendid gesture of bureaucratic pedantry, the clerk of the Crown issued a writ for an election to fill the ‘vacancy’ created by Killigrew’s withdrawal. The final act of the drama was therefore not the formal declaration that Trefusis and Edgcumbe were duly elected, but rather a procedural motion to stay the unnecessary writ.15

Author: Paul Hunneyball


  • 1. W.P. Courtney, Parl. Rep. of Cornw. 359; R. and O.B. Peter, Launceston and Dunheved, 53-6; HP Commons, 1509-58, i. 56; Cartulary of Launceston Priory ed. P.L. Hull (Devon and Cornw. Rec. Soc., n.s. xxx), p. xxiv; E134/20 Jas.I/East. 10.
  • 2. Hist. Cornw. ed. S. Drew, i. 647; CD 1628, ii. 446; J. Polsue, Complete Parochial Hist. of Cornw. iv. 169; C219/35/1/161; 219/37/19; 219/40/245.
  • 3. CD 1628, ii. 446; C219/38/57; 219/39/53; 219/40/280.
  • 4. E367/240; Vis. Cornw. (Harl. Soc. ix), 281; C219/37/18; 219/39/51-2; 219/40/280.
  • 5. E134/3 Jas.I/East. 11; HP Commons, 1558-1603, i. 133; Vivian, Vis. Cornw. 268, 270.
  • 6. L.M. Hill, ‘Sir Julius Caesar’s Jnl.’, BIHR, xlv. 322; E306/12, box 2, bdle. 21, no. 17; E315/310, f. 57; Vivian, Vis. Cornw. 268; Misc. Gen. et Her. (ser. 3), iv. 20; Vis. Essex (Harl. Soc. xiii), 177.
  • 7. DCO, ‘Letters and Patents 1620-1’, f. 39v.
  • 8. DCO, ‘Prince Charles in Spain’, f. 33v; C219/38/57-8; Vivian, Vis. Cornw. 147, 159; A.F. Robbins, Launceston P and P, 127.
  • 9. Vivian, Vis. Devon, 707; C54/2428/38; C219/39/51-3.
  • 10. E147/3/13; C219/40/245, 262, 280; Procs. 1626, ii. 16, 300, 305.
  • 11. E147/3/13; C66/2424/2; Robbins, 141.
  • 12. Vivian, Vis. Devon, 707; Vivian, Vis. Cornw. 142, 270; C142/333/13.
  • 13. Vivian, Vis. Cornw. 159, 446; Vivian, Vis. Devon, 34; HMC Cowper, i. 320.
  • 14. C219/41B/116, 142-3, 175, 178; CD 1628, ii. 54, 446; Vivian, Vis. Cornw. 142, 467; E179/88/301.
  • 15. CD 1628, ii. 53-4, 168-70, 188, 444, 446, 453.