Plympton Erle


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:



4 Apr. 1604JOHN HELE vice Beaumont, chose to sit for Leicester
22 Oct. 1605SIR WARWICK HELE vice Hele, deceased
24 Jan. 1624SIR FRANCIS DRAKE , bt.
24 Jan. 1626THOMAS HELE
c. Mar. 1626SIR WILLIAM STRODE vice Strode, chose to sit for Bere Alston
25 Feb. 1628(SIR) THOMAS HELE , (bt.)

Main Article

Plympton Erle grew up around a castle belonging to the earls of Devon, who granted the settlement’s first borough charter in 1194. It became a coinage town, a centre for processing Dartmoor tin, in 1328, but local production of this metal declined in the late medieval period, when Plympton was also outstripped economically by the nearby port of Plymouth. By the early seventeenth century the castle had fallen into decay, though the townsfolk still enjoyed a measure of prosperity. Besides the ‘much frequented market every Saturday’, there were two or three fairs each year, and the local tradesmen had diversified into such activities as wool-combing, tanning and brewing. The adult male population stood at 159 in 1641.1

Plympton was incorporated in 1602, with authority vested in a Common Council consisting of the mayor and eight principal burgesses. Other officers included a bailiff and recorder. The Elizabethan charter also confirmed a broad parliamentary franchise which embraced all the freemen.2 In the early seventeenth century election returns were normally drawn up in the name of the mayor, bailiff and burgesses, although the 1620 indenture was made between the sheriff of Devon and the mayor alone, and simply confirmed that the election had been held with the burgesses’ consent. As only the mayor signed these returns, the actual number of voters is unclear.3 Plympton first sent representatives to Parliament in 1295. For the next two centuries at least the borough’s dominant patrons were the Courtenay family, the earls of Devon, who owned not just the castle and its attendant honour, but also the local manor. However, in 1556 the Courtenay estates descended to four coheirs, none of whom was able to exercise the same degree of influence.4 This vacuum was exploited by the Strode family of Newnham, in the neighbouring parish of Plympton St. Mary, who seem to have nominated all but one of the borough’s Members in the last four Elizabethan Parliaments.5 Their only rival was Sir John Hele†, whose main seat lay five miles south of Plympton, at Wembury. Having acquired a quarter-share of the castle, manor and borough from one of the Courtenay heirs in 1589, Hele brought in his son in 1601. He further strengthened his position in 1602, when he became the borough’s recorder.6

The elections for the Jacobean and early Caroline parliaments confirmed that the Strodes had lost ground as patrons of Plympton, though they normally still controlled one seat. Sir William Strode, who had already represented the borough in 1601, was again returned in 1604, 1621 and 1625, while his son-in-law, Sir Francis Drake, served as the senior Member in 1624. When the election was held for the 1626 Parliament, Strode was fully occupied as a commissioner for billeting and martial law at Plymouth, and apparently left his options open by securing seats for his son William at both Plympton and Bere Alston. However, on 18 Feb. William opted to sit for the latter borough, and his father was promptly returned for Plympton in the resultant election.7 (Sir) James Bagg II, who took the second seat in 1628, probably owed his nomination to Sir William, as the two men had recently collaborated closely in local government. However, Bagg’s ownership of Saltram House, another of the gentry houses near Plympton, may have afforded him some independent leverage.8

In 1604 Plympton’s second seat was initially awarded to Sir Henry Beaumont II, a Leicestershire landowner who presumably owed his nomination to Sir John Hele. No definite connection between the two men has been established, but Hele and Beaumont’s father, Francis†, were contemporaries at the Inner Temple, and also served simultaneously as serjeants-at-law. Moreover, as Beaumont himself attended the Inner Temple, it is not improbable that the two men knew each other.9 Beaumont, however, subsequently opted to sit for Leicester, whereupon Plympton returned Hele’s son John. A further election was called in October 1605 following John’s death, and this time the borough chose their recorder’s eldest son, Sir Warwick Hele. Having inherited his father’s property in 1608, Sir Warwick went on to represent Plympton in 1614, 1621 and 1625. In the first of these Parliaments he was partnered by his cousin, Sampson Hele, a show of electoral strength made easier by Sir William Strode’s decision to sit for Plymouth that year.10 In 1624 the second seat went to John Jacob, a secretary to lord treasurer Middlesex (Sir Lionel Cranfield*). The circumstances are unclear, but Jacob may have been nominated by Sir Warwick, who appears to have been on familiar terms with the lord treasurer.11 In January 1626 the Hele estates descended to a minor, Sir Warwick’s nephew, and the family’s interest at Plympton passed to a cousin, Thomas Hele, who owned substantial property near the borough, and had himself returned there in 1626 and 1628.12

Authors: John. P. Ferris / Paul Hunneyball


  • 1. W.G. Hoskins, Devon, 461; G.R. Lewis, Stannaries, 90, 149n; J.B. Rowe, Plympton Erle, 383, 386, 388; T. Westcote, View of Devonshire in 1630, pp. 65, 384-5; Devon Protestation Returns, 1641 ed. A.J. Howard, 235-6.
  • 2. Rowe, 111-16.
  • 3. C219/37/8; 219/38/75; 219/40/147.
  • 4. Hoskins, 461; Rowe, 16-17, 22-4.
  • 5. HP Commons, 1558-1603, i. 147-8; ii. 211, 247; iii. 340, 420.
  • 6. Rowe, 24, 114.
  • 7. Vivian, Vis. Devon, 719; Procs. 1626, ii. 69.
  • 8. H. Hulme, ‘Sir John Eliot and the Vice-Admiralty of Devon’, Cam. Misc. xvii. pt. 3, p. 29; Hoskins, 463.
  • 9. Nichols, County of Leicester, iii. 656; CITR, i. 302, 356, 421; Order of Sjts.-at-Law ed. J.H. Baker (Selden Soc. suppl. ser. v), 499, 517.
  • 10. Vivian, 461-2, 464.
  • 11. CJ, i. 641a.
  • 12. Vivian, 464, 466; C142/423/79.