St. Germans


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 inhabitants

Number of voters:

at least 35 in 1625


c.6 Mar. 1604JOHN TROTT
c. Mar. 1614JOHN TROTT
15 Jan. 1624SIR JOHN STRADLING , bt.
22 Apr. 1625(SIR) JOHN COKE
16 Jan. 1626(SIR) JOHN ELIOT

Main Article

Set on the west bank of the Tiddy, a few miles upstream from Plymouth Sound, St. Germans existed by 936, when its church became the cathedral of the Anglo-Saxon diocese of Cornwall. Although the bishops relocated to Devon in 1042, St. Germans Priory remained an important religious site during the Middle Ages, affording the town much of its prestige and prosperity. The decline which set in after the monastery’s dissolution in 1539 was noted at the end of the century by Richard Carew†: ‘the church town mustereth many inhabitants and sundry ruins, but little wealth’. Although privileged with an annual fair, St. Germans lacked any corporate structures, and formal business was conducted by a portreeve appointed each year at the manorial court-leet. At least three of these officers during the 1620s were unable to sign their own name.3

How the borough first came to return burgesses to Parliament in 1562 is unclear, and electoral arrangements in the early seventeenth century were relatively ill-defined. The franchise was apparently vested in all householders who had been resident for at least a year, and the portreeve acted as returning officer. The surviving election indentures mostly refer to the ‘inhabitants’, though the terms ‘commonalty’ and ‘burgesses’ were used in 1604 and 1620.4 The number of voters is difficult to judge. The indentures for 1624 and 1625 include a kind of certificate listing the participants, but much of the text from the former year is now illegible, while in the latter document the roll of 35 names was concluded with the phrase ‘etc’. Almost 50 individuals have been identified in the indentures from 1624 to 1628, which accords well with the estimated number of households in the borough at around this time.5

Electoral patronage in the early seventeenth century lay exclusively with the local landowners. Half the great manor of St. Germans belonged to the bishops of Exeter, and until 1626 they maintained a firm grip on one seat. In 1604 and 1614 Bishop Cotton placed his son-in-law John Trott, while in 1620 he put forward Trott’s close friend Richard Tisdall.6 Bishop Carey, invited by his tenants in 1624 to make the customary nomination, handed a burgess-ship that year and in 1625 to his brother-in-law (Sir) John Coke.7 The bishops’ principal tenants at St. Germans were the Eliot family, who, although they owned the other half of the manor, were not always able to control the remaining parliamentary seat. At the start of this period they faced competition from another local landowner, George Kekewich of Catchfrench, who had accumulated enormous local prestige in the previous decade or so through his ‘continual large and inquisitive liberality to the poor … beyond the apprehensive imitation of any other in the shire’. His family had also frequently held the post of portreeve during Elizabeth’s reign.8 In 1604 Kekewich obtained the second seat for his brother-in-law Sir George Carew II, who expected to have to stand down on being appointed ambassador to France in 1605. Indeed, Carew invited his patron, the earl of Salisbury (Robert Cecil†), to suggest a new candidate, undertaking to recommend this nominee to Kekewich. However, although Carew formally resigned his seat in September 1605, the Commons seem not to have discussed his case until November 1606, when they decided to let him retain his place pending his return home.9

George Kekewich died in 1611, leaving a minor as his heir, and this doubtless helped John Eliot to secure the junior burgess-ship in 1614, in the first election after he succeeded to his own patrimony.10 However, the Kekewiches recovered their advantage in 1620, when their cousin Sir Richard Buller was returned, leaving Eliot without a seat.11 This upset seems to have spurred Eliot into action, for in 1622 and 1623 he invested heavily in property in St. Germans borough, effectively ending the Kekewich challenge. Eliot himself sat for Newport in the next two parliaments, through his father-in-law’s influence. However, he was most likely responsible for the election in 1624 of the outsider Sir John Stradling, a client of the 3rd earl of Pembroke, while in the following year he provided a seat for his friend Sir Henry Marten, perhaps as a favour to his patron, the duke of Buckingham.12 It may have been the fierce competition for seats at Newport in 1626 which persuaded Eliot to stand once again in his home borough. However, having presumably already agreed to nominate Marten at St. Germans, he was left with no option but to challenge Bishop Carey’s patronage. Sometime in early January the bishop wrote as usual to his tenants, again requesting a place for Sir John Coke, and asking to be supplied with a blank indenture for this purpose. Unexpectedly, the portreeve ruled out any possibility of a blank, and warned that although Coke was likely to be returned, he ‘could not make promise, it being a business resting in the wills of others besides himself, and chiefly in Sir John Eliot’. By the time Carey informed Coke on 22 Jan., Eliot and Marten had already been elected. In the event it was a fitting prelude to this stormy Parliament that Eliot entered the Commons by displacing a secretary of state.13 In the following year he boosted his local standing by having the parish of St. Germans exempted from billeting, and his new-found dominance was confirmed in 1628, when the borough returned his friends Thomas Cotton and Benjamin Valentine.14

Author: Paul Hunneyball


  • 1. HMC Hatfield, xvii. 339.
  • 2. OR.
  • 3. C. Henderson et al., Cornish Church Guide, 98-9; R. Carew, Survey of Cornw. 61, 127; Hist. Cornw. ed. S. Drew, i. 652; C219/37/21; 219/40/261; 219/41B/158.
  • 4. HP Commons, 1558-1603, i. 134; Hist. Cornw. i. 652; C219/35/1/162; 219/37/21; 219/39/47.
  • 5. C219/38/27; 219/39/47, 55; 219/40/261, 279; 219/41B/146a, 158; Hist. Cornw. i. 652.
  • 6. Hist. Cornw. 651; Mdx. Peds. (Harl. Soc. lxv), 77; PROB 11/152, f. 238.
  • 7. HMC Cowper, i. 157; Vis. Derbys. (Harl. Soc. n.s. viii), 116.
  • 8. Hist. Cornw. 651; C142/333/26; Carew, 126-7; HP Commons, 1558-1603, i. 134.
  • 9. HMC Hatfield, xvii. 339; CSP Dom. 1603-10, p. 233; CJ, i. 316a, 324a.
  • 10. Vivian, Vis. Cornw. 147, 252, 254.
  • 11. Ibid. 56-7, 117, 252.
  • 12. H. Hulme, Sir John Eliot, 37-8, 62.
  • 13. HMC Cowper, i. 251.
  • 14. APC, 1627-8, p. 45; HMC Cowper, i. 329; Hulme, 181.