Plympton Erle


Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1386-1421, ed. J.S. Roskell, L. Clark, C. Rawcliffe., 1993
Available from Boydell and Brewer


1386John Golde
 Richard Golde
1388 (Feb.)Ellis Beare
 John Boys
1388 (Sept.)Peter Hadley
 John Bremdon
1390 (Jan.)John Selman I
 John Lane
1390 (Nov.)
1391John Selman I
 John Jaycock
1393Thomas Branscombe
 John Jaycock
1394John Selman I
 John Jaycock
1395Thomas Norris II
 John Jaycock
1397 (Jan.)Thomas Norris II
 William Selman I
1397 (Sept.)
1402Thomas Topcliffe
 ... More 1
1404 (Jan.)
1404 (Oct.)
1406John Selman I
 Thomas Prous
1407William Isabel
 Richard Hurston
1411John Selman I
 John Jaybien
1413 (Feb.)
1413 (May)Thomas Barry
 Roger Wyke
1414 (Apr.)
1414 (Nov.)John Selman II
 John Serle I
1416 (Mar.)
1416 (Oct.)
1420William Selman II
 John Selman II
1421 (May)William Selman II
 John Selman II
1421 (Dec.)William Selman II
 John Selman II

Main Article

The town of Plympton Erle took the second part of its name from the earls of Devon. In 1107 a member of the family of Reviers built a castle on his manor of Plympton, shortly afterwards another erected the church, and in 1194 a third, William Reviers, earl of Devon, gave the town the status of a mesne borough. Earl William allowed the burgesses a market and a fair, and by a charter granted in 1242 by his descendant, Earl Baldwin, they were permitted to hold the borough at farm and to have the same liberties as were then enjoyed by the citizens of Exeter. But the men of Plympton could not acquire from their lord the kind of privileges those of Exeter obtained by grant of the King: while merchants from Exeter were exempted from tolls levied throughout the realm, those of Plympton enjoyed such a privilege only within the demesnes of the earls of Devon. Nor did subsequent charters keep them abreast of new grants to the citzens of Exeter: Baldwin’s charter was confirmed successively by his daughter, Isabel Fortibus, countess of Aumâle and Devon, by the Courtenays who inherited the earldom, and, at the burgesses’ request, by Edward I and his successors, but none of the later lords of the borough gave them additional liberties. The burgesses continued to pay the substantial fee farm of £24 2s.2d. to the earls and their heirs every year down to 1833.2

In the 13th and early 14th centuries Plympton had evidently been a busy and flourishing market centre. Commerce increased following the decision, reached in 1328, that it should join Tavistock, Ashburton and Chagford as an official stannary town where all tin mined in Devon was to be assessed before being put on sale. At that time the river Plym was navigable almost up to the town gates, but, despite the risk of attack from the French, local merchants were beginning to divert their traffic to the port of Plymouth which was growing up around Sutton Pool on the estuary. By 1334, when Plympton was tenth on the list of Devonshire towns in order of their economic importance (being required to contribute £4 6s.8d. towards parliamentary subsidies), Plymouth already stood in second place (immediately after Exeter) and was required to contribute eight times as much. Judging from the evidence of the poll tax of 1377, when the adult population of Plympton numbered only 240, Plymouth was then more than five times the size of the older settlement. It is clear that long before 1439, when Plymouth obtained its charter, the port had superseded Plympton as the principal town of the district.3

As none of the borough records of the medieval period have survived, very little is now known about the internal administration of Plympton. It would appear, however, that in the early 15th century the chief officer in the town was the reeve, and there is evidence that by the 1420s the burgesses were accustomed to elect a town clerk and to hold meetings in a ‘yeld halle’.4 The guild and its officers had only limited powers of jurisdiction, for it was the steward of the lord of the borough, the earl of Devon, who officiated at local courts, and the profits of justice were handed over to the lord’s receiver. It is difficult to assess how much interest was taken by the earls themselves in the town’s affairs and in particular in its parliamentary representation, and the loss of all but a few of the Courtenays’ estate papers must leave several questions of this nature unanswered. But the many connexions discovered between the Courtenays and the parliamentary burgesses for Plympton of the late 14th and early 15th centuries suggest that the lords of the borough were by no means indifferent to the selection of its MPs. Robert Hill, Robert Hill, junior, John Hill and Thomas Raymond*, who together sat in ten Parliaments for Plympton Erle between 1360 and 1386, are all known to have worn the livery of Edward Courtenay, earl of Devon, and to have been his counsellors in matters of law.5 Earl Edward’s encroaching blindness probably lessened his interest in politics, but members of his circle continued to be returned to Parliament for Plympton Erle between 1386 and his death in 1419: Richard Golde, who had served in Ireland in the retinue of his uncle, Sir Philip Courtenay*, was elected to Parliament in 1385 and 1386; Thomas Norris II, his attorney, was returned in 1395 and 1397 (Jan.); John Selman I, one of his legal counsel, sat in five Parliaments between 1390 and 1411; and Roger Wyke, who was later to serve in Normandy in the company of his heir apparent, Edward, Lord Courtenay, was returned in 1413. No fewer than five of Plympton’s Members are known to have been associated with the earl’s successor, Hugh Courtenay (d.1422): John Serle I and John Selman II fought in France under his command, and John Selman I, William Selman II and John Jaybien were all involved in the administration and settlement of his estates. Jaybien served for a short while as steward of the Courtenay inheritance. These five men dominated the representation of Plympton Erle in the early 15th century. Despite the scanty evidence it is clear that in no fewer than 13 of the 18 Parliaments convened between 1386 and 1422 for which returns have survived Plympton was represented by at least one man who was connected in some way with the earls of Devon or members of the Courtenay family; yet while this can hardly have been mere coincidence, there is no evidence pointing to any instance of direct intervention in parliamentary elections on the Courtenays’ part.

Plympton had sent representatives to Parliament regularly since 1295. Returns are no longer extant for 14 of the 32 Parliaments which met between 1386 and 1421 (inclusive), and the names are known of only 23 MPs for this period. To judge from the surviving evidence, as many as 12 parliamentary burgesses sat only once, but it would be inadvisable to draw conclusions about local attitudes to Parliament from this fact alone. Some of the Members built up a quite impressive record of parliamentary service: John Jaycock sat in the Commons no fewer than four times, John Selman I in five, John Serle I in eight and John Selman II in as many as ten, four of these (1420, 1421 (May and Dec.) and 1425) in the company of his kinsman, William Selman II. Over the years from 1390 to 1435 four members of the Selman family of Plympton filled no fewer than 21 places in 17 Parliaments. There was clearly no reluctance in some quarters to undertake the long journey to Westminster. Some of the men returned for Plympton were also ready to represent other Devonshire boroughs: Richard Golde also sat for Exeter, and Richard Hurston for Ashburton; both Peter Hadley and Thomas Norris II appeared in six Parliaments as representatives for one or other of the Devon boroughs, and Ellis Beare sat in eight all told (two for Barnstaple, three for Totnes and three for Plympton). It sometimes happened that one man represented two boroughs in the same Parliament: thus Golde sat for both Exeter and Plympton in that of 1385, Hadley for Exeter and Plympton in that of 1388 (Sept.), Norris for Barnstaple and Plympton in 1395, and Hurston for Ashburton and Plympton in 1407. Such elections were probably made for reasons of economy, in order to halve or share the cost of Members’ wages and expenses. When this accumulated experience of parliamentary attendance is taken into account, it becomes apparent that only in five Parliaments (January 1390, 1402, 1407, May 1413 and November 1414) is it at all possible that the elected representatives for Plympton were both novices, and in view of the gaps in the returns it is unlikely that this was in fact the case for all of those five. Certainly, in five other of the 18 Parliaments for which returns have survived both burgesses-elect were already familiar with the Commons, and in eight more one Member at least was no newcomer to the House. That experience was a factor when the burgesses made their choice of representatives is also suggested by the high incidence of re-elections. This is known to have happened ten times in our period: John and Richard Golde were returned together in 1385 and 1386; John Jaycock sat in four consecutive Parliaments between 1391 and 1395; Thomas Norris II was re-elected in 1397 (Jan.); and John II and William Selman II together represented Plympton in 1420, 1421 (May) and 1421 (Dec.).

Out of the 23 Members only six are known to have held property in the town, although four more, who have not been identified, are so obscure as to have been most probably local men. There is no doubt, however, that as many as 13 did not live there. Some, like John Golde, came from no further away than Plymouth, but others came from north Devon or, like Peter Hadley, from Exeter, and most had no recorded connexion with the borough. However, none of the 13 were outsiders in the more extreme sense of residing beyond the borders of the shire, for while John Jaybien owned land in Cornwall as well as in Devon, and Roger Wyke acquired an interest in property in four other counties, too, at the time of their election for Plympton they were living at Plymouth and Axmouth, respectively. It should also be noted that for some years after 1413, when there came into force a statutory requirement for parliamentary burgesses to be resident in the towns which returned them to Parliament, Plympton seems to have obeyed the letter of the law: the three men returned to the four Parliaments for which returns have survived between 1414 and 1421 all held property in the immediate locality.

For the most part the occupations of the Members are not known, but some were probably tradesmen or merchants on a small scale, and a number who owned land may have made a living from farming. No fewer than nine of the 23 were professional lawyers, and it was clearly this group which dominated the representation of the borough. In 14 of the 18 Parliaments for which returns are extant at least one of the elected representatives was a man of law, and in seven both were members of the legal profession. The most outstanding individual of this group was John Jaybien, whose services as a lawyer were sought after by many of the leading gentry of Devon and Cornwall. After his single Parliament (1411) Jaybien was made a justice of oyer and terminer, of the peace and of assize. John Boys and the elder John Selman also sat on the Devonshire bench, although not coincidentally with their parliamentary service. Nine of the Members for Plympton were appointed at some time in their careers to royal commissions, either for the collection of lay subsidies in Devon or to investigate local matters. Six held even more important offices in the Crown’s appointment: Thomas Norris II, John Jaybien and John Jaycock all served a term as escheator of Devon and Cornwall; Jaycock acted as a coroner of Devon, although it was later alleged that he was insufficiently qualified; and John Boys had even been sheriff of the county, albeit some 20 years before his election to Parliament for Plympton. Peter Hadley acted as controller of customs and subsidies at Exeter for 13 years, during which he represented Plympton in the Cambridge Parliament of 1388, and John Serle I served as customer of Plymouth and Fowey for six years, in the course of which he was returned to the Parliament of 1431.

Author: L. S. Woodger


  • 1. The Christian name is no longer legible (C219/10/2).
  • 2. M.W. Beresford, New Towns, 425-6; CChR, ii. 303-4; Trans. Devon Assoc. xix. 555-65; Add. Roll 64321; CIPM, xiv. 325; CPR, 1396-9, p. 481; 1399-1401, p. 481; 1436-41, p. 498.
  • 3. Devon Studies ed. Hoskins and Finberg, 223-5; Beresford, 267.
  • 4. CPR, 1422-9, pp. 123, 435.
  • 5. Add. Roll 64320.