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 not receiving charity

Number of voters:

at least 21 in 1626


c. Feb. 16041EDWARD HEXT
c. Mar. 1614JOHN DONNE
c. Apr. 1625SIR HUGH PORTMAN , bt.
19 Feb. 16282SIR HUGH PORTMAN , bt.

Main Article

Originally an Anglo-Saxon foundation, Taunton was dominated throughout the Middle Ages by the bishops of Winchester, who owned the principal manor of Taunton Dean.3 Accordingly, at the start of the seventeenth century, the town’s considerable economic prosperity and regional importance contrasted sharply with its primitive municipal government. On the one hand, it was now both a major market town, and a thriving centre of the cloth trade, specializing in ‘Taunton cottons’, as well as the home of Somerset’s autumn assizes and midsummer quarter sessions.4 On the other hand, the town was still only a borough by prescription, presided over by the bishops’ bailiffs, with the assistance of two constables elected annually at the manorial court leet.5 Despite this anomaly, Taunton’s leading residents were more than capable of asserting their own self-interest. In 1615 the town was rebuked by the Privy Council after many of its wealthiest inhabitants refused to contribute to the Benevolence. Unbowed by the government’s displeasure, the local merchants threatened in 1620 to withdraw their trade from Lyme Regis, Dorset, if they were compelled to help with that port’s contribution towards the forthcoming Mediterranean naval expedition.6

Taunton was badly affected by the slump in the cloth trade in the early 1620s. This crisis was cited in 1622 as an excuse for the town’s predictably small contribution towards the Palatine Benevolence. Two years later, economic hardship prompted the borough to apply for a charter of incorporation.7 Such a grant would inevitably reduce the bishops’ influence, and Lancelot Andrewes presumably used his influence at Court to block it. Not until March 1627, six months after Andrewes’ death, was a new charter issued, which established a corporation consisting of a mayor, recorder, 14 capital burgesses, and ten inferior burgesses.8

Taunton first returned Members to Parliament in 1295. The franchise was broad, embracing all adult male residents who were not receiving charitable support, but the parliamentary borough covered only part of the town, the parish of St. Mary Magdalen. At the start of the seventeenth century the two constables acted as returning officers, but under the 1627 charter, this role passed to the mayor.9 Only the indentures for the 1626 and 1628 elections survive from this period. Both were written in Latin. The pre-charter return was made in the name of the constables, bailiffs and burgesses, with 21 individuals listed altogether. The later indenture was returned by the mayor, and on this occasion was signed by at least 17 voters. It is not known whether the signatories in 1628 were specifically members of the new corporation.10

There is no clear evidence that the bishops of Winchester influenced the choice of Members during this period. Ordinarily, the two burgess-ships were taken by local residents or the Somerset gentry. In the former category was John Bond, a former Taunton schoolmaster, who had represented the borough in 1601, and retained his seat in the first Jacobean Parliament. His son-in-law Roger Prowse was returned in 1624, while Lewis Pope, a Taunton merchant, sat in 1621. George Browne, the junior Member in 1626 and 1628, was clerk of Taunton castle, and became the borough’s recorder under the 1627 charter.11 Of the gentry, James Clarke (1614) lived just outside the town, as did Sir Hugh Portman (1625 and 1628), who was also Browne’s cousin. Edward Hext, the senior Member in 1604, hailed from 12 miles away, but as an active local magistrate he was presumably well known in the borough, and indeed had already represented Taunton in 1597. The remaining Members were all nominated by one of Somerset’s most important gentry families, the Phelipses of Montacute. Sir Robert Gorges, who sat in 1626, was Sir Robert Phelips’* brother-in-law, while Thomas Brereton (1621-5) was one of his principal allies in county politics.12 The only complete outsider was John Donne in 1614, who benefited from the patronage of Sir Edward Phelips*, although the latter also initially considered handing the seat to Sir Edwin Sandys*.13

Taunton rarely featured in the Commons’ records. Indeed, in March 1624, when Brereton was requested by one of the town’s merchants to seek parliamentary action over the threat posed to West Country trade by French privateering, he instead passed the letter to Sir Robert Phelips, who secured government intervention without taking the matter before the House.14 However, the borough did briefly come under the Commons’ scrutiny in the 1628 session. During the previous winter, 100 soldiers from Sir Richard Grenville’s* regiment had been billeted in the town. Shortly before the shire election, (Sir) John Stawell* canvassed for votes in Taunton, but failed to attract much support, and was subsequently outpolled by Sir Robert Phelips. In revenge, he used his powers as a Somerset deputy lieutenant to reorganize the billeting in Taunton, allocating soldiers to the houses of leading residents, including the mayor and the recorder, George Browne. The latter raised this abuse in the House on 2 Apr., and the matter was referred to a committee. The initial report by Sir Walter Earle on 19 Apr. suggested that the disruption to Browne’s household might constitute a breach of his parliamentary privilege, and Stawell was accordingly summoned to Westminster to explain himself. On closer inspection, though, the committee concluded that the privilege complaint could not be proved, and despite further evidence that Stawell had abused his position as a deputy lieutenant, he was discharged again on 15 May.15

Author: John. P. Ferris


  • 1. SP14/7/82.II.
  • 2. OR.
  • 3. J. Toulmin, Hist. Taunton ed. J. Savage, 18, 47.
  • 4. T.G. Barnes, Som. 1625-40, pp. 8-9; CSP Dom. 1611-18, p. 206; HMC Cowper, i. 171.
  • 5. Toulmin, 310-11.
  • 6. APC, 1615-16, pp. 49-50; CSP Dom. 1619-23, p. 156.
  • 7. CSP Dom. 1619-23, p. 389; HMC Cowper, i. 171;
  • 8. HMC Cowper, i. 466-7; CSP Dom. 1627-8, p. 101; M. Weinbaum, British Bor. Chs. 1307-1660, p. 104.
  • 9. T.H.B. Oldfield, Hist. Bors. of Gt. Britain, ii. 447-8, 455-6; Toulmin, 310-11.
  • 10. C219/40/133; 219/41A/64.
  • 11. Som. Par. Reg. ix. 19.
  • 12. Vis. Dorset Addenda ed. F.T. Colby and J.P. Rylands, 8; Vis. Som. (Harl. Soc. xi), 42; Barnes, 287.
  • 13. R.C. Bald, John Donne, 285; E. Farnham, ‘Som. Election of 1614’, EHR, xlvi. 581.
  • 14. CSP Dom. 1623-5, p. 173; T. Cogswell, Blessed Revolution, 160-1.
  • 15. CD 1628, ii. 254-5, 264-5, 564, 573; iii. 419-20.