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 mayor and burgesses

Number of voters:

at least 34


19 Apr. 1625SIR EDWARD SEYMOUR , (bt.)

Main Article

Founded as a Saxon burh, Totnes benefited from its strategic location at the western end of Foss Street, eight miles from the sea on a navigable stretch of the River Dart. The main outlet for tin coined at the nearby stannary town of Ashburton, Totnes also became a centre of cloth production, particularly of Devon ‘straits’. For much of the sixteenth century it was accounted the second wealthiest community in the county, its merchants trading with western France and the Iberian peninsula in particular.1 These patterns of activity continued into the early Stuart period, but economically Totnes was starting to lose ground to its local rivals. Tin production in Ashburton Stannary had now declined sharply, but the debris from the remaining mines silted up the Dart, making it harder for large ships to reach Totnes quay. Accordingly, the commercial focus began to shift downstream to the rapidly expanding port of Dartmouth. However, while many Totnes merchants operated there, new commercial opportunities seemed to pass them by. Few acquired a stake in the lucrative Newfoundland fisheries, and Totnes also failed to respond to the latest trends in cloth manufacture, the so-called new draperies. In 1636 the town was still rated as Devon’s fifth richest, but by now many of the wealthier merchants were scaling down their trading ventures and instead investing in land.2

Totnes received its first borough charter from King John, and was incorporated in 1505. Initially the governing structure consisted of a mayor, recorder and a single council of burgesses. However, in 1596 power was concentrated in the hands of the town’s leading merchants when a further charter redefined the corporation as a governing body of 14 ‘masters’, including the mayor, with an inferior council of 20 burgesses. These masters formed a closed oligarchy, filling vacancies in their ranks by co-option, and nominating the mayoral candidates. The lesser burgesses petitioned the Privy Council against this new system in the following year, but their complaint was rejected.3

Ever since the Model Parliament of 1295 Totnes had enjoyed regular representation in the Commons. Early seventeenth-century election returns were made in the name of the mayor and burgesses. In 1626 the indenture was signed by the mayor, Nicholas Wise, but ordinarily the borough seal was the only authenticating mark employed. This customary absence of voters’ signatures may well indicate that the ‘masters’ dominated the electoral process. However, the franchise was formally vested in the burgesses as a whole, and in 1616 the corporation asserted that, upon reports of a Parliament, a meeting of townsmen was summoned to discuss the choice of Members. There is no evidence that successful candidates during this period received wages.4 In terms of electoral patronage, the corporation was relatively independent. Since 1559 the lords of the manor, the Edgcumbes of Mount Edgcumbe, Cornwall, had leased their manorial rights to the mayor and burgesses, and although the family ostensibly retained the privilege of nominating one Member unless both seats were taken by townsmen, this claim was in practice unenforceable. Sir Richard Edgcumbe*, who had himself represented Totnes in 1589, wrote to the borough in February 1616 noting that a Parliament was expected, and requesting one seat should there be an election (which, in the event, there was not). Even though his father-in-law, Sir George Carey†, was then recorder, Edgcumbe was still rebuffed by the corporation, which replied simply that it had already decided to return two of its own members.5

Ordinarily during this period, at least one seat was taken by a townsman. In 1601, indeed, two corporation members were returned, and this pattern was repeated in 1604, when the choice fell on Walter Dottyn and Christopher Brooking, both former mayors, who had recently played key roles in defending the borough’s management of the local almshouses. At Westminster they were probably responsible for the introduction in March 1606 of a bill to confirm lands granted to corporations for charitable purposes, but the measure failed to complete its passage through the Commons.6 Their successor in 1614 was Lawrence Adams, who was probably one of the ‘masters’, since he became mayor in the following year. Like Dottyn and Brooking, he had already represented the borough’s interests in the capital, delivering a letter in 1613 to the earl of Northampton, the borough’s high steward, which complained that local merchants were being penalized by the new, London-dominated, French Company. There is no evidence that Northampton made any effort to redress this grievance, even though Totnes could quite correctly state that Parliament had in 1605-6 guaranteed free trade with France.7 Despite this impasse, the earl wrote to the borough in February 1614, requesting the nomination of one Commons’ seat. The corporation, with a superficial show of great regret, responded that it was unable to comply, as one place was reserved for a townsman, and the other was in the gift of the recorder, Carey, who declined to relinquish this privilege. The latter’s choice fell on his kinsman by marriage, Nathaniel Rich. Carey died two years later, and there is no evidence that his successor as recorder, William Bastard, attempted to make nominations.8

For the 1621 Parliament Totnes returned another former mayor, Richard Rodd, but awarded the senior seat to Sir Edward Giles, a prominent Devon gentleman resident just outside the town, who had already sat for the borough in 1597. Giles had doubtless won local favour by attacking the French Company in the Commons in 1614. He proved himself an effective advocate of Totnes’s interests in 1621 as well, addressing a range of economic concerns, including the impact of impositions on the Devon kersey industry, an issue that had already prompted the town’s merchants to petition the Privy Council.9 Giles’s usefulness in this regard doubtless assisted his re-election by the borough in 1624, and may also have influenced the corporation’s decision to offer the second seat not to a townsman but to another local gentleman, Arthur Champernowne of Dartington Hall, who himself possessed commercial interests. Giles retained his hold over the borough’s electorate in the following year, but was this time partnered by another major Devon figure, Sir Edward Seymour, who owned the barony of Totnes, and lived just three miles from the town at Berry Pomeroy.10 In 1626 Giles is not known to have stood, and the corporation once again returned one of its own members, Philip Holditch. The senior place went to Champernowne, whose value to the town was enhanced by his current role as a Devon billeting commissioner, in which capacity Totnes also sought his assistance later in the year. Holditch and Champernowne left no mark on the Commons’ records that year, but clearly conducted business of some sort on their constituents’ behalf, for they wrote to the corporation from London. Conceivably they joined in the complaints made by several Devon towns during the Parliament against abuses committed in the alnage of cloth, but no firm details of these protests have been found. In 1628 Giles resumed his accustomed seat, and protested vigorously in the Commons against billeting. He was partnered by another corporation member, Thomas Prestwood, who was apparently content to let Giles represent the borough’s interests.11

Authors: George Yerby / Paul Hunneyball


  • 1. W.G. Hoskins, Devon, 504; T. Westcote, View of Devonshire in 1630, p. 412; T. Greeves, ‘Four Devon Stannaries’, in Tudor and Stuart Devon ed. T. Gray, M. Rowe and A. Erskine, 43; E. Kerridge, Textile Manufactures in Early Modern Eng. 27; P. Russell, Good Town of Totnes, 45-6.
  • 2. E190/938/11, 14; 190/942/12; 190/943/10; Greeves, 45; T. Gray, ‘Early Stuart Dartmouth’, in Tudor and Stuart Devon ed. Gray, Rowe and Erskine, 175; Russell, 57, 61; Hoskins, 506; E179/102/463.
  • 3. D. and S. Lysons, Devonshire, 532; M. Weinbaum, British Bor. Charters 1307-1660, pp. 27-8; HP Commons, 1558-1603, i. 149; E. Windeatt, ‘Totnes Mayors’, in Reps. and Trans. Devon Assoc. xxxii. 111; APC, 1597-8, pp. 168, 507.
  • 4. Lysons, 532; OR; W. Cotton, Antiqs. of Totnes, 10; C219/35/1/126; 219/40/146; Devon RO, 1579A-O/12/9.
  • 5. Russell, 54; Devon RO, 1579A-O/12/8-9; Vivian, Vis. Cornw. 142.
  • 6. HP Commons, 1558-1603, i. 149; Devon RO, 1579A-O/10/17, 20-1, 23a; CJ, i. 277a, 312a.
  • 7. Devon RO, 1579A-O/16/32, 35; SR, iv. 1083; APC, 1613-14, p. 206; C.F. Patterson, Urban Patronage in Early Modern Eng. 253.
  • 8. E. Windeatt, ‘Totnes Mayors’, Western Antiquary, x. 147-8; Devon RO, 1579A-O/12/5-6; Vis. Essex (Harl. Soc. xiii), 277-8; Harl. 3959, f. 16; Vis. Devon (Harl. Soc. vi), 334.
  • 9. T. Risdon, Survey of Devon, 166; Procs. 1614 (Commons), 129, 405; CD 1621, ii. 75-6; CSP Dom. 1611-18, pp. 548, 554.
  • 10. C142/232/69; P. Russell and G. Yorke, ‘Kingswear and Neighbourhood’, Reps. and Trans. Devon Assoc. lxxxv. 68; Windeatt, Western Antiquary, x. 148.
  • 11. Devon RO, 1579A-O/7/1/20; APC, 1626, pp. 337-8; CD 1628, ii. 80, 253; iv. 283.