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

Number of voters:

at least 1,500 in 1628


21 Oct. 1605SIR WILLIAM GODOLPHIN vice Trelawny, deceased
 Sir Robert Killigrew
10 Mar. 1628(SIR) JOHN ELIOT
 ?John Mohun
 ?Sir Richard Edgcumbe

Main Article

A ‘demi-island … besieged … with the ocean’, early seventeenth-century Cornwall largely depended economically on its proximity to the shipping routes between Wales, Ireland, Spain, France and the Netherlands. Despite its poor agricultural land and insubstantial towns, this most westerly of English counties boasted two major trading commodities. The waters around its extensive coastline teemed with pilchards, the bulk of most catches being packed for sale in France and Spain. Equally significant was the mining of tin, England’s most important export after cloth at this period. As Richard Carew† noted at the turn of the century, through tin Cornwall’s ‘inhabitants gain wealth, the merchants traffic, and the whole realm a reputation’.1 However, the county’s location also brought with it problems. Mediterranean pirates and ‘Dunkirker’ privateers posed a constant threat to local shipping and the coastal population, particularly in the later 1620s. From 1625 eastern Cornwall also bore much of the burden of billeting generated by the naval expeditions dispatched from the nearby Devon port of Plymouth.2

Cornwall during the early Stuart era lacked a dominant electoral patron. The county had no resident peers until 1625, when a gentleman-moneylender, Sir Richard Robartes, purchased a barony. The greatest landed interest lay with the Crown, consisting principally in the 42 local manors held by the duchy of Cornwall. As the duchy appointed the county sheriff, and also controlled the tin industry through its stannary administration, it might have been expected to wield considerable influence at elections. However, even in 1620 and 1624, when Prince Charles’s Council actively exercised its political leverage, nominations were made only to 13 Cornish boroughs where the duchy owned property. The lord warden of the stannaries, the 3rd earl of Pembroke, who was also Cornwall’s lord lieutenant, likewise normally limited his attention to borough seats, although his vice-warden and leading client, William Coryton, presumably enjoyed his backing when he became a knight of the shire in 1624 and 1626.3

In the absence of significant external pressures, the leading Cornish gentry jockeyed among themselves for the honour of representing their county. Most candidates were both wealthy and active in local government, and were typically drawn from the ranks of the deputy lieutenants, but a lengthy pedigree was also a marked advantage. All but three of the county Members during this period came from families resident in Cornwall since at least the fourteenth century. Of the exceptions, Richard Carew’s ancestors had arrived in the 1400s, while Sir Anthony Rous came from ancient Devon stock with estates straddling the county border. Only Sir John Eliot, who owed his fortune to his great-uncle, a Plymouth merchant, could be accounted a genuine newcomer to this elite circle.4

Although Cornwall was effectively split into Eastern and Western divisions for administrative purposes, this pattern was not automatically replicated in the choice of Members. Each half of the county was indeed represented in 1614, 1621 and 1626, but both Members in 1604, 1624 and 1628 came from eastern Cornwall, while the west dominated in 1625.5 However, it is clear that bargains were struck ahead of elections, with prospective candidates lobbying their friends, and testing the strength of potential rivals. For example, in November 1620 John Arundell decided to stand with Bevill Grenville, and sounded out William Coryton, who, it turned out, had been gathering support for his own bid. After an elaborate exchange of courtesies, Coryton agreed to back Arundell and Grenville. Sir Reginald Mohun then informed Arundell that he too was aiming for a county seat, but the latter rebuffed this approach under the pretence that he and Grenville had already engaged themselves to Coryton. These discussions, held discreetly in London, cleared the way for Arundell and Grenville to stand unopposed, and are representative of Cornwall’s standard practice.6

The surviving election indentures from this period were generally signed only by those gentry who lived close to Lostwithiel, where the county court assembled. The exception to this rule is the indenture for 1628, which was signed by many supporters of Coryton and Sir John Eliot who had come from much further afield for what may have been a contested election. This contrast with normal practice tends to confirm that ordinarily the outcome was a foregone conclusion.7

The 1604 election saw the return of two men prominent in local government, the Cecil client Sir Jonathan Trelawny, who had already represented Cornwall in 1597, and the notably pious Sir Anthony Rous. When Trelawny died suddenly during the Parliament’s first session, he was replaced by another Cecil protégé, the young Sir William Godolphin, whose electoral success may partly have stemmed from the fact that his father, Sir Francis, was the current sheriff and returning officer.8 In 1614 the choice fell on John Arundell’s nephew and brother-in-law, Richard Carew and John St. Aubyn, neither of whom had yet come into their estates. Arundell presumably backed their return to the Addled Parliament, but at the next general election he presented both of these kinsmen to the borough of Mitchell in order to facilitate his own pursuit of a county seat. As already noted, he faced competition from the newly appointed vice-warden of the stannaries, William Coryton, as well as from Sir Reginald Mohun, who was planning to introduce a private estate bill in the Commons.9 However, since 1619 Arundell had been leading the county’s resistance to the earl of Tullibardine’s monopoly of packing, drying and salting fish in Devon and Cornwall. This campaign provided him with a popular platform that his rivals could not match, though he still found it expedient to concede the senior shire seat to the young Bevill Grenville, who could boast recent experience of life at Court. It is possible that Coryton’s withdrawal in November 1620 was conditional on Arundell promising to support him at a future election, for in 1624 the vice-warden was returned alongside Grenville, while Coryton’s friend Charles Trevanion found Arundell a place at St. Mawes.10

The onset of war with Spain changed the dynamic of Cornish politics. In 1625 the county was represented by the courtier Sir Robert Killigrew, who was also captain of a vital coastal fort, Pendennis Castle, and Trevanion, whose home lay close to the English Channel. Arundell, who had recently been removed from the Cornish bench, also attempted to stand, possibly as Trevanion’s partner, but was unable to muster enough support.11 By the time of the next election, parts of the county were grappling with the burden of billeted soldiers. The government was slow to repay the expenses incurred at local level, and Cornwall’s best hope of recovering the money lay in the Privy Seal loan which was raised during the winter of 1625-6. It was no coincidence that the county’s freeholders returned the two Cornish loan collectors, Coryton and Sir Francis Godolphin, the latter of whom also commanded the Scilly Isles’ defences.12 Once at Westminster Coryton pressed for the reimbursement of Cornwall’s billeting costs and campaigned for better naval protection of the Channel coast. However, as a leading client of the earl of Pembroke he was also prominent in the Commons’ failed impeachment of the duke of Buckingham.13

Following the 1626 Parliament’s dissolution, Coryton was replaced as vice-warden by Buckingham’s client John Mohun, and also stripped of other local offices. In the following year he and Sir John Eliot were imprisoned in London for opposing the Forced Loan, attracting considerable local sympathy for their resistance to arbitrary taxation.14 Released in January 1628 ahead of fresh parliamentary elections, Coryton and Eliot promptly announced their intention of standing as knights of the shire. Completely wrong-footed, Mohun launched a rival campaign with Sir Richard Edgcumbe as his partner. With neither side prepared to back down, there ensued an unprecedented period of public lobbying by both camps. Mohun and his allies, who included several deputy lieutenants, attempted to bully the county sheriff, Jonathan Rashleigh*, and appealed for support from their fellow magistrates, urging the necessity of electing Members who would be acceptable to the government, and thus able to negotiate redress of the county’s grievances.15 By contrast, Coryton and Eliot sought the backing of the ordinary freeholders, playing on their reputation as martyrs for the common good. Experimenting with one novel tactic, Coryton encouraged his supporters to vote by issuing ostensibly neutral ‘tickets’ to be read in Cornwall’s parish churches:

These are to give you notice that the day for the election of our shire knights is at Lostwithiel on Monday the tenth of March by eight of the clock in the morning, that the freeholders ought to be there to give their voices, those that have forty shillings yearly of inheritance, or for term of their own lives, or for another’s life, to which they are requested that there may be a due election.

Perhaps aware that the Mohun faction hoped to cow the voters by summoning the trained bands to Lostwithiel, Coryton and Eliot also arranged for their friends Arundell, Grenville and Trevanion to bring hundreds of their tenants to the election. In the event, Mohun and his associates stayed away from the county court, presumably recognizing that they would not win a poll. Consequently it is not clear whether this election was ultimately contested.16

Three days into the new parliamentary session, Coryton produced in the Commons correspondence illustrating the attempt by Mohun and his friends to influence the election’s outcome. On 21 Mar. the House agreed that the offenders should be sent for, but it was early May before they finally reached Westminster, by which time several of the group had been spared, and Mohun himself had evaded the Commons’ jurisdiction by securing a peerage.17 Edgcumbe, who had been returned at Bossiney, then made his excuses, leaving just four men to face the Members’ wrath. On 13 May John Trelawny and Walter Langdon were sent to the Tower, while Sir William Wrey and Edward Trelawny were placed in the serjeant-at-arms’s custody. The Commons’ order that all four should make a public submission back in Cornwall was never implemented, and the king released them from detention once the session ended.18 Of the two victorious Members, Eliot was apparently the more vengeful, maintaining the pressure on Mohun during this session by attacking his record as vice-warden. Coryton, in contrast, largely maintained a dignified silence during the parliamentary investigation, instead addressing local concerns about billeting and martial law. Eliot’s bid to revive the inquiry into Mohun’s actions in the 1629 session failed in the face of more important business.19

Authors: Anne Duffin / Paul Hunneyball


  • 1. R. Carew, Survey of Cornw. ed. P. White, 11, 13, 16-17, 19, 34, 45, 51-3; J. Whetter, Cornw. in Seventeenth Cent., 16, 21, 53, 126.
  • 2. A. Duffin, Faction and Faith, 128-31, 134.
  • 3. Duffin, 5, 8; Parl. Survey of Duchy of Cornw. ed. N.J.G. Pounds (Devon and Cornw. Rec. Soc. n.s. xxv), pp. xv-xvi; J. Doddridge, Hist. Account of Principality of Wales (1714), p. 90; G.R. Lewis, Stannaries, 86; P.M. Hunneyball, ‘Prince Charles’s Council as Electoral Agent’, PH, xxiii. 319-21, 327; G.K. Gruenfelder, Influence in Early Stuart Elections, 129-30.
  • 4. J. Chynoweth, Tudor Cornw. 33; F.G. Marsh, The Godolphins, 2; D. and S. Lysons, Cornw. 222; C. Henderson, Essays in Cornish Hist. 187-8; W.H. Tregellas, Cornish Worthies, ii. 116-17; J. Polsue, Complete Paroch. Hist. of Cornw. i. 263; ii. 370-1; Vivian, Vis. Cornw. 11, 68; D. and S. Lysons, Devon, p. ccxii; WARD 7/18/162; H. Hulme, Sir John Eliot, 17.
  • 5. Carew, 106.
  • 6. SP46/72, f. 147v; SP14/117/55.
  • 7. C219/35/1/150, 181; 219/37/15; 219/39/22; 219/41B/135.
  • 8. HMC Hatfield, xi. 405; xv. 303; C219/35/1/150.
  • 9. Vivian, 12, 69; CJ, i. 605b.
  • 10. APC, 1619-21, pp. 84, 136; M. Coate, Cornw. in Gt. Civil War, 85.
  • 11. SP16/521/19.
  • 12. Duffin, 128-9, 145.
  • 13. Procs. 1626, ii. 122, 142, 336; iii. 130, 387.
  • 14. SP16/37/91; 16/106/14; CSP Dom. 1627-8, pp. 232-3.
  • 15. APC, 1627-8, p. 217-18; SP16/106/14; HMC 1st Rep. 51, 62; CD 1628, ii. 33.
  • 16. SP16/96/36, 48; 16/106/14; CD 1628, ii. 375.
  • 17. CD 1628, ii. 33-4, 41; iii. 26, 60, 82, 324.
  • 18. Ibid. iii. 376, 386; SP16/108/52.
  • 19. CD 1628, ii. 420-1; iii. 32, 623-6, 631-2; iv. 280; CJ, i. 925a.