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


1386Robert French
 John Pasford
1388 (Feb.)John Row
 Walter Browning
1388 (Sept.)John Statham
 Walter Browning
1390 (Jan.)John Poltimore
 Walter Hotot
1390 (Nov.)
1391John Grey I
 Thomas Norris II
1393John Suell
 Robert Barneburgh
1394Richard Whitelegh
 John Pasford
1395Ellis Beare
 John Marshall II
1397 (Jan.)John Gunne
 Ellis Beare
1397 (Sept.)
1399Simon Marsh
 John Rose
1402Henry Spencer
 John Hulle II
1404 (Jan.)
1404 (Oct.)
1406Robert Wastell
 John Warwick II
1407Alfred Wonston
 Sir John Pomeroy
1410Henry Austin
 Robert Wastell
1411John Bosom I
 Henry Bremeler
1413 (Feb.)
1413 (May)John Sebright
 Henry Austin
1414 (Apr.)
1414 (Nov.)William Ryder
 Henry Berkeley
1416 (Mar.)
1416 (Oct.)
1420John Ash
 Walter Serle
1421 (May)Henry Berkeley
 Thomas Kirkby II
1421 (Dec.)Henry Chesewell
 William Cosyn

Main Article

It would not be difficult to refute Justice Thirning’s opinion, delivered in 1388, that Totnes was ‘de plus auncien de tout dengleterre’, but undoubtedly there was a settlement there in the ninth century, if not before. Totnes had been one of the Saxon fortified ‘burghs’, and the town was chosen in the tenth century to house a royal mint and in the 11th a castle. It soon became the most important market town between Exeter and Plympton and eventually was also a depot for overseas trade. However, in the course of the 14th century trade declined owing to the gradual silting up of the river Dart and the rapid growth of Dartmouth lower down in the estuary. The burgesses of Totnes were permitted to use the river quit of the tolls levied at Dartmouth, but this did not prevent the movement of mercantile traffic to the more convenient port. The assessments for parliamentary subsidies made in 1334 show that Totnes was then sixth in order of wealth out of the 19 Devonshire boroughs assessed, although it was clearly of minor economic importance when compared with Plymouth or Exeter. Cloth making and leather working were the principal local industries and, although the Devonshire alnage accounts of the late 14th century indicate a comparatively low output of cloth from Totnes, the local development of the making of ‘straights’ (coarse material woven from inferior wool) were to contribute to a general rise in cloth exports from this part of Devon in the 1430s and 1440s. The walls of Totnes enclosed an area of no more than nine acres, a mere tenth of the area of Exeter, but the size of the town so expanded that by 1440 at least half of its population was living in suburbs.1 The rebuilding of the parish church of St. Mary, undertaken between 1432 and 1460, also suggests some recovery of an earlier prosperity.

Since the early 14th century the lords of the borough had been the Barons Zouche of Harringworth, who also called themselves ‘of Totnes’, although they are not known ever to have resided there. The lord’s principal local ministers were the constable of the castle and the steward. None of the constables of this period are known to have served as MPs for Totnes, although John Shapwick of Bowden (who held this post in 1418-19) was afterwards elected by the burgesses as mayor.2 Two of the parliamentary burgesses, Robert French and John Ash, each served a term as steward, the former being in office at the time of his fourth and last election to Parliament, in 1386. It seems unlikely, however, that the Lords Zouche tried to influence this or any other parliamentary election of the period; no closer connexions between them or any other of the Members have been discovered. The burgesses of Totnes had attempted to exert their independence of their lord in the later years of the 13th century, but in 1304 had agreed to his demands that they should limit admissions to the freedom of the borough to men with property in the town, and that weights and measures should, following consultation with the officers of the merchant guild, be regulated by his steward. To all appearances, during the period under review the government of the borough was shared between the officers appointed by the lord and those elected by the burgesses. But, in reality, although the latter achieved some measure of self-government, this was only in petty matters: all tolls and local dues continued to be payable to the lord, who retained his courts and guarded his rights to administer the assizes of bread and ale. In earlier times the townspeople had elected a provost or reeve as their chief officer, but his powers were curtailed as the guild of merchants grew in importance. It was the senior of the two stewards of the guild who, from the mid 13th century, assisted the lord’s steward in holding sessions of the borough court; and in the early 14th this officer assumed the title of mayor. It seems likely, however, that the mayoralty was not officially recognized by the Crown until 1377.3 The town elections took place every year in October or November. The first detailed record of them, dated 17 Oct. 1424, noted that a jury of 12, meeting in the borough court, had presented to 20 minor offices and then to those of mayor, receiver and mayor’s bailiff. The petitioners in a Chancery suit brought later, in 1435, claimed that the mayor was chosen by ‘the most notable commones’ of Totnes, and that the ‘Kynges mase ... is used to be born there before the maire of tokyn and signe of his auctorite’. But this outward show bore little relation to the mayor’s real powers, which were in practice limited. So far as the guild merchant is concerned, its membership was not restricted to resident townspeople; men of substance from the neighbouring villages sought entry, if only in order to obtain the trading privileges offered. It seems likely that the lists of persons recorded in the 15th-century rolls of ‘free assize’ were freemen of the town. If so, the burgesses proper were not very many: in 1405-6 just 120 persons were so recorded, and the lists of 1413-14, 1414-15, 1424-5 and 1444-5 provide totals of no more than between 99 and 103.4

Totnes was one of only 22 towns known to have elected representatives to all seven of Edward I’s Parliaments for which the returns have survived,5 and, throughout the 14th century, the burgesses continued to send Members to the Commons quite regularly. During the period under review the elections were recorded in the same way as for the other Devonshire boroughs, that is, as if they had taken place in the county court at Exeter and concurrently with those of the shire knights. It seems likely, however, that they were in fact held, in response to the sheriff’s precept, in the town itself, and the outcome merely reported subsequently at the shire court. It may be that the system of election by jury used at Totnes for the nomination of borough officials was adopted for the selection of MPs too, and that the franchise was similarly restricted to the 100 or so freemen, but the position remains obscure. Returns are extant for no more than 20 of the 32 Parliaments convened between 1386 and 1421 (inclusive). In such circumstances it is impossible to gauge the burgesses’ attitude to the question of parliamentary experience. But some general observations may be made. As many as 24 of the Members, a majority of the 34 men known to have been returned, each sat for Totnes in only one Parliament and, so far as the records show, both representatives in as many as ten Parliaments were newcomers to the Commons. Only in the Parliaments of 1386, 1391, 1394 and 1411 are both Members known to have been tried before. Re-election to consecutive Parliaments occurred only three times: in 1386, 1388 and 1397. Moreover, in no fewer than seven instances of previous parliamentary experience, this had been gained following the Member’s election for some other Devonshire borough or boroughs: John Pasford, John Bosom I, Henry Bremeler and Richard Whitelegh had all previously sat for Dartmouth; John Grey I had attended five Parliaments for Exeter and one for Barnstaple before being returned for Totnes in 1391 (a Parliament in which he also represented Exeter); Thomas Norris II had previously been returned for Barnstaple; and Ellis Beare had sat twice for Barnstaple and twice for Plympton Erle before his first election for Totnes in 1385. Two others, who (so far as is known) were elected for Totnes only once, went on to represent other constituencies: Alfred Wonston was returned twice for Barnstaple and once for Tavistock, and John Ash eventually appeared as knight of the shire for Middlesex. If their representation of other constituencies is taken into account, then some of the Members for Totnes of this period were quite well acquainted with parliamentary business: Thomas Norris sat in six Parliaments, Ellis Beare in eight, and John Grey in nine; but for those who represented Totnes and no other place such prolonged service was rare, although William Cosyn was elected to not less than six Parliaments between 1421 and 1431.

The place of residence of as many as 11 of the 34 Members has not been ascertained, which in itself may, paradoxically, point to their having been simply obscure local men. Fourteen of the parliamentary burgesses, however, certainly did live in the town or its immediate neighbourhood. Of the remaining nine, although one or two, such as John Grey I and Richard Whitelegh, owned property in Totnes, all lived elsewhere, but never very far from the town and in no case beyond the borders of the shire: Ellis Beare dwelt at Nether Exe, Richard Whitelegh at Churchstow, John Bosom I at Bosomzeal, John Grey in Exeter, Alfred Wonston at Newton Abbot, John Ash at Sowton, and Sir John Pomeroy at Berry Pomeroy: while John Pasford’s home was probably at Broadhempston and Thomas Norris’s at Chudleigh. Both Members in 1391, 1394, 1407 and most likely 1395, too, were ‘outsiders’, but outsiders only of that kind and in that sense.

The lists of local Totnes officials are incomplete. All the same, it seems quite clear that the burgesses preferred not to send to Parliament men who had already served a term as mayor or were currently holding that office. Between them, Walter Browning, John Row and William Ryder occupied the mayoralty for 21 years, but only in 1388 and 1414 was one of them sent to the Commons when mayor. Most probably a majority of the Members for Totnes were either engaged as victuallers or in the cloth trade. But none were merchants of any note, with one exception. This was John Grey I of Exeter, who at the time of his elections for that city and Totnes in 1391 was acting as constable of the Staple at Exeter, and was perhaps chosen as best able to represent the interests of the two mercantile communities. No fewer than eight parliamentary burgesses were members of the legal profession, one of their number being returned to the Parliaments of 1386, 1391, 1394, 1395, 1397 (Jan.), 1399, 1407, 1411 and 1420. Some of this group may have been selected by the burgesses of Totnes quite simply because of their knowledge and experience of the law, but it might be that they were planning to travel to Westminster on business in the central courts in any case, and were prepared to attend Parliament for something less than the usual fee. But, on the whole, the Members for Totnes were townsmen of no great standing beyond its walls. Indeed, very few of them made any mark among even the gentry of the shire: William Cosyn and William Ryder were both described as ‘gentlemen’; John Pasford, Richard Whitelegh, John Bosom I and Thomas Norris II achieved armigerous rank, and John Ash, whose estates in Devon, Cornwall and Middlesex were eventually valued at as much as £53 a year, must at least have been their equal.

Then, too, in one Parliament (that which met at Gloucester in 1407) the borough was evidently represented by a knight, Sir John Pomeroy. The Pomeroys, who lived at the nearby castle of Berry and were lords of Bridgetown (just over the river from Totnes), clearly carried some weight in the town’s affairs. Quite possibly they exerted their influence to secure Sir John’s election on that occasion. But if so, this would seem to have been as far as they ever went: although John Ash and William Ryder were both concerned with the affairs of the Pomeroys, and Robert French was sometime steward of Sir John’s estates, it would be stretching the evidence to suggest that they secured election to Parliament simply as a result of this connexion. A potentially important influence more liable to affect the burgesses’ choice of representatives and one which perhaps in some instances did so, was that of the Courtenay family. Certainly, a number of those returned for Totnes were associated with the Courtenays: Thomas Norris II acted as legal counsel to Edward, earl of Devon, and was perhaps already doing so at the time of his election in 1391; John Pasford appeared similarly on behalf of the earl’s uncle, Sir Philip Courtenay*; and John Ash was connected with the earl’s brother, Sir Hugh*. Pasford, however, subsequently found a place as an esquire in the household of John Holand, duke of Exeter, although perhaps not until after he was last returned to Parliament in 1394. The more able of the lawyers who represented Totnes were also much in demand when it came to helping with the administration or settlement of large estates in Devon; thus John Bosom I was steward of properties belonging to the earl of Salisbury; Robert French acted in a similar capacity for Buckfast abbey and Plympton priory, as well as for Lord Zouche and Sir John Pomeroy; John Marshall II was steward for Sir John Dynham of Hartland; and Thomas Norris II was surveyor of the estates of the dean and chapter of Exeter cathedral. But none of these appointments had any obvious connexion with their parliamentary service for Totnes. Similarly with John Ash, who was to be made a feoffee of the lands of Cardinal Beaufort, and later served as deputy to the steward of Henry VI’s household, William de la Pole, earl of Suffolk: neither of these important contacts was made until several years after Ash’s return for Totnes in 1420.

Only seven Members were at any time in their careers appointed to serve on royal commissions, and of these only three, John Ash, John Bosom I and Sir John Pomeroy, ever became j.p.s. Furthermore, Ash’s service on the bench took place far away in Middlesex. Seven held offices by appointment of the Crown or the duchy of Cornwall: John Rose briefly as controller of customs at Exeter, Thomas Norris II and Robert French as escheators of Devon, Alfred Wonston as bailiff of the stannary of Chagford and as a forester of Dartmoor, and Richard Whitelegh, John Bosom I, and Sir John Pomeroy as sheriffs of Devon. But tenure of these posts only coincided with parliamentary service for Totnes in the case of Wonston, who was officiating at Chagford at the time of his election in 1407.

Author: L. S. Woodger


  • 1. Yr. Bk. 1387-8 ed. Thornley, 176; P. Russell, Totnes, 3-7, 31-33; H.R. Watkin, Totnes Priory and Town, 201; Devon Studies ed. Hoskins and Finberg, 223, 225-6, 233.
  • 2. CIMisc. vii. 573.
  • 3. Watkin, 152-3, 198-9, 202; Yr. Bk. 1387-8, p. 179.
  • 4. Watkin, 307-8, 321-2, 326-7, 350, 354-5, 386-7, 916; C1/9/301.
  • 5. M. McKisack, Parl. Repn. Eng. Bors. 19.