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 freemen

Number of voters:

at least seven in 1628


c. Dec. 1624ROGER MATHEW vice Nyell, deceased
30 Apr. 1625JOHN UPTON
19 Jan. 1626JOHN UPTON
23 Feb. 1628JOHN UPTON
 Robert Dixon

Main Article

From its foundation in the twelfth century, Dartmouth was important for its deep natural harbour, in a sheltered location close to the Dart estuary. A base for major mercantile and military voyages during the Middle Ages, the town first returned Members to Parliament in 1298, and secured the right to elect its own mayor in 1341.1 As the Dart silted up during the sixteenth century, Dartmouth prospered at the expense of Totnes, further upstream. By 1600 it was Devon’s second busiest coastal port after Plymouth, with a rapidly expanding population of around 2,000. Local trade revolved around two principal commodities, cloth and fish. Devon dozens were exported mainly to France, but vast quantities of Newfoundland fish were sent as far afield as the Mediterranean and the Canary Islands. Even though many of the merchants engaging in this trade were actually from rival centres such as Totnes and Exeter, the early seventeenth century was one of Dartmouth’s most lucrative eras. Only in the late 1620s, when war with France and Spain disrupted trade and the town was burdened with billeted troops, did the local economy experience decline. In 1627 the corporation twice rejected Crown attempts to requisition ships, alleging poverty.2

Dartmouth was governed by a mayor, two bailiffs and 12 common councillors, an arrangement confirmed when the borough was enfranchised in mid-1604. This charter also provided for a recorder, town clerk and numerous minor officers.3 Parliamentary election indentures, which still employed the borough’s old composite title of Clifton Dartmouth Hardness, were made out in the name of the mayor, bailiffs and burgesses, and were normally sealed but not signed, thereby obscuring the true size of the electorate.4 The records for parliamentary wages are incomplete, but the majority of Members were paid, the standard rate apparently being 5s. a day.5

Dartmouth’s corporation maintained the firmest possible grip over electoral patronage, and normally returned prominent figures from its own ranks to Westminster. Other would-be patrons were invariably rebuffed. In 1614 the borough was approached by several notables, including its high steward, Henry Howard, earl of Northampton, and the Devon magnate Sir George Carey†, but it refused them all. As the corporation explained to the earl:

sundry knights and gentlemen of worth by their letters and friends had solicited us that they might serve for this place in this Parliament, and upon making known their desires unto the burgesses and commons of this town for that purpose called together, it was by them all with one voice agreed and resolved that in hope their grievances might be better made known and themselves thereof relieved, they would be at the charge to send burgesses of their place having equal feeling with themselves of the same.6

In 1628 a subsequent high steward, the 1st earl of Manchester (Sir Henry Montagu*), nominated his servant Robert Dixon, but met with the same response:

both privately before and publicly at the election we acquainted the commons who have their voices in the election as well as we. … But they intreated us to signify to your honour … that you desire not to prejudice their freedom of election which they have anciently enjoyed, and according to which they have usually made choice of men free of the corporation, and well known unto them.7

In point of fact, the corporation was being ingenuous when it blamed the ordinary burgesses for rejecting these overtures. The common council was just as resistant to the commonalty having any say in the nomination process. This oligarchic prejudice was expressed firmly in Parliament in 1624 by William Nyell, the town clerk, during a debate on voting rights at Dover, Kent: ‘if it be lawful for every freeman to have a voice, then the more debased and poorer men will choose the burgesses’.8 Nyell’s comment may well have reflected mounting tensions in Dartmouth between the corporation and commonalty, for in 1625 the borough unexpectedly returned an outsider, the local landowner John Upton.9 His election was forced through by the ordinary burgesses, and this prompted the corporation on the day before the 1626 election to pass a resolution designed to prevent the same thing happening again. This ‘constitution’ asserted that Dartmouth had customarily chosen men ‘free of the borough’, and not ‘strangers who rather seek the place to the end to pry into their liberties and to sway and rule over the town’. Nevertheless,

of late some of the freemen of this borough … out of a contentious and malicious and turbulent humour … forgetting their oath and duty to this town and opposing themselves to the government thereof … have practised among themselves and with others … to make choice of foreigners … such as in no way acquainted with the town … its customs, nor experienced in its trades … nor what may tend to the benefit whereof.10

In fact, this move failed to stop Upton’s re-election, and he was also returned in 1628, though he never received parliamentary wages, and was evidently not trusted to promote the borough’s business in the Commons.

One of the clearest signs that Dartmouth took parliamentary representation seriously is the small number of men dispatched to Westminster during this period. Thomas Holland and Thomas Gourney, both of whom held the mayoralty, served in the 1604-10 and 1614 Parliaments. William Nyell proved himself an effective spokesman in 1621 and 1624, before dying between the prorogation and dissolution of the latter session.11 Roger Mathew, Nyell’s colleague in 1621, was ineligible at the next election, which he presided over as mayor, but he was elected in late 1624 to replace Nyell. In the event, that Parliament did not reconvene, but Mathew went on to partner Upton in every session from 1625 to 1629. In 1624, when Mathew was temporarily unavailable, he was replaced by William Plumleigh, another sometime mayor.

Neither Holland nor Gourney contributed much to debate during their time in the Commons, but they were clearly trusted to handle important business behind the scenes. For example, Gourney stayed on in London after the 1604 session to conclude negotiations for the borough’s new charter, while in 1610 the two Members collected an impressive selection of documents detailing the protests in the House against impositions.12 In subsequent Parliaments, one Member seems to have been nominated as Dartmouth’s principal spokesman. Nyell fulfilled this role in 1621 and 1624, while Mathew took the lead in 1626 and 1628, almost by default, given the circumstances of Upton’s elections. In 1621 Nyell possibly introduced the bill against extortionate customs officials, which Mathew also supported. With Dartmouth’s cloth trade in mind, Nyell condemned the pretermitted custom, and vigorously attacked the monopolistic ambitions of the London Merchant Adventurers.13 He had also clearly been briefed to defend Plymouth’s bill to preserve free access to the Newfoundland fisheries, in the face of privileges recently granted to Sir Ferdinando Gorges’† New England Company. Accordingly, Nyell collaborated with John Glanville on this issue, providing the House with detailed information about the fishing trade, and repeatedly calling for the offending patent to be examined.14 In 1624 Nyell himself introduced a bill with the same objectives, though the measure failed to become law despite his best efforts to promote it. He also resumed his campaign against the Merchant Adventurers, whom he accused of damaging English trade.15 The onset of war in the middle of this decade changed Dartmouth’s priorities. Accordingly, in the 1626 and 1628 Parliaments Mathew spoke mainly about the threat posed to local shipping by pirates and privateers, the disruption of trade with France, and the problem of soldiers billeted in south Devon. In 1628 he also brought in yet another bill about Newfoundland fishing, which passed the Commons but was lost in the Lords.16

Authors: George Yerby / Paul Hunneyball


  • 1. W.G. Hoskins, Devon, 179, 382-3; P. Russell, Dartmouth, 10.
  • 2. T. Gray, ‘Fishing and the Commercial World of Early Stuart Dartmouth’ in Tudor and Stuart Devon ed. T. Gray, M. Rowe and A. Erskine, 174-5, 177-8, 181-2, 189-90; E190/938/11; 190/942/12; 190/947/1; Hoskins, 384; CSP Dom. 1627-8, pp. 46, 148.
  • 3. British Bor. Charters 1307-1660 ed. M. Weinbaum, 24.
  • 4. C219/35/1/123; 219/39/79; 219/41B/110.
  • 5. Devon RO, DD62050, 62109, 62126, 67913.
  • 6. Devon RO, DD61850; SM1989, f. 20; C.F. Patterson, Urban Patronage in Early Modern Eng. 246.
  • 7. Devon RO, SM1989, f. 34.
  • 8. ‘Nicholas 1624’, f. 108.
  • 9. C142/650/140.
  • 10. Devon RO, SM2004, f. 7.
  • 11. PROB 6/11, f. 128.
  • 12. Devon RO, DD61708, 67721, 67723-5.
  • 13. CD 1621, ii. 78; iii. 185-6; Nicholas, Procs. 1621, i. 330, 333; CJ, i. 620b.
  • 14. CJ, i. 591b-2a, 644a, 651a; CD 1621, iii. 82; Nicholas, ii. 96-7, 178.
  • 15. CJ, i. 673a-b; ‘Earle 1624’, ff. 14v-15, 54v-5; ‘Pym 1624’, i. f. 59; iii. f. 37.
  • 16. Procs. 1626, ii. 91, 132, 298, 379, 385; CD 1628, ii. 87; iii. 310; iv. 201.