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 portreeve and commonalty or burgesses

Number of voters:

37 in 1621


11 Mar. 1604HENRY PETER
20 Jan. 1624WILLIAM NOYE

Main Article

The mouth of the River Fowey forms the best natural harbour on the English coast between Plymouth and Falmouth. This fact, combined with Fowey’s close proximity to the duchy of Cornwall’s tin coining centre at Lostwithiel, explains the town’s rise in the later middle ages as a base for trade, piracy and, on occasion, military expeditions. The latter two activities largely ceased under the early Tudors, but in the early seventeenth century the town quay, 500 feet long, provided a berth for merchant vessels trading with Ireland, Brittany, Gascony and the Netherlands, besides the more distant locations of southern Spain, Naples and Newfoundland. Plymouth was now steadily overtaking Fowey as a port, but the town had improved its economic performance in the later sixteenth century and remained Cornwall’s principal merchant community, even though an upsurge in piracy contributed to a sharp decline in its trade between the 1610s and the early 1630s.1

Fowey’s municipal government was not formally incorporated until 1685, but a recognized structure of Portreeve and burgesses existed as early as the thirteenth century. By then the original manor of Fowey had been divided in two. One half, the so-called ‘burgage’ manor, was held from the late fourteenth century by the Treffry family, whose house dominated the small town. The other half or ‘borough’ manor, to which the town’s privileges attached, belonged to the nearby Tywardreath Priory until the Reformation, and became part of the duchy of Cornwall in 1540.2 The parliamentary borough was created in 1571, probably in order to increase Crown or Duchy patronage. The exact nature of the franchise prior to the 1685 charter is uncertain, as the election indentures merely speak of burgesses or the commonalty of Fowey, but it seems to have consisted of freeholders of the borough manor and other tenants paying scot and lot.3

The electoral pattern between 1604 and 1628 reflected the local dominance of the borough’s leading gentry families, the Rashleighs of Menabilly and the Treffrys. Major players in Fowey’s Elizabethan trade revival, the Rashleighs had used their wealth to buy up properties to which burgess votes attached. They are said to have controlled 12 votes in the 1570s and 15 by 1650, the latter figure matching the number of freehold properties in the borough manor which they owned in 1649. Although some of these burgages belonged to a junior branch of the family, based outside Fowey at Coombe, the election results in the early seventeenth century indicate that John Rashleigh† and his son Jonathan* could rely on their cousins’ co-operation. By comparison, the Treffrys apparently controlled just three or four votes in this way, and the family’s influence was further limited by the fact that its head, John Treffry*, inherited as a minor in 1603, coming of age only in 1616.4 Nevertheless, both families usually exercised greater electoral patronage than the duchy of Cornwall, which possessed little local leverage beyond the right to appoint the ‘borough’ manor’s officials. Although the Duchy occasionally flexed its administrative muscles, in 1616 accusing John Rashleigh and John Treffry of infringing its rights over the River Fowey, the town was quite capable of ignoring the government’s wishes. Twenty years earlier, Rashleigh and William Treffry†, John’s father, had mobilized Fowey against a trade levy introduced to help pay for Plymouth’s fortifications.5

During this period, Fowey’s most successful patrons were undoubtedly the Rashleighs. John Rashleigh, who died in 1624, can be credited with the return of his future son-in-law Francis Vyvyan in 1604, and his son Jonathan in 1614 and 1621. In 1625 Jonathan secured one seat for himself, handing the other to his brother-in-law Arthur Bassett, who sat for Fowey again in the following year. Robert Rashleigh, representing the Coombe branch, took his turn in 1628. The Treffrys probably backed their kinsman Henry Peter in 1604, though their only clear-cut success was John Treffry’s return in 1621.6 The local patrons’ double victory in 1621 was especially significant, as the borough thereby rejected the duchy of Cornwall’s nominee, William Noye. Three years later, however, the situation was reversed. The Duchy secured one seat for Noye, while Sir Robert Coke was probably nominated by the 3rd earl of Pembroke, lord warden of the stannaries, who enjoyed his own Cornish powerbase within the Duchy.7 Pressure was evidently applied, as Noye was apparently returned on a blank indenture, while Coke’s name seems to have been inserted on the other return only after another name was erased. Neither of the 1624 indentures was signed by John or Jonathan Rashleigh, a complete break with the usual pattern, and the number of signatories, 19, was unusually low.8

The Duchy ceased to make nominations after 1624, though this did not mean an end to external interference. When Cornish politics descended into factional struggle during the later 1620s, Jonathan Rashleigh seems to have sided with Pembroke’s vice-warden, William Coryton†, which presumably explains the return of Pembroke’s nominee, William Murray, in 1626. Two years later, Rashleigh came under pressure from Coryton’s opponents, notably John Mohun* and Sir Bernard Grenville†, which probably accounts for the election of Grenville’s son, Sir Richard.9 It has not proved possible to explain the election in 1614 of Sir Edward Boys, a Kent resident without obvious ties either to Fowey or to the government.

Author: Paul Hunneyball


  • 1. SP16/12/78; J. Keast, Fowey, 11, 15, 24-5, 33, 36, 44, 47-8; Carew, Survey, 210; E190/1023/14; 190/1033/33; M.M. Oppenheim, Maritime Hist. of Devon, 52-3.
  • 2. Keast, 8, 75; (J. Polsue), Paroch. Hist. of Cornw. ii. 28; S. Drew, Hist. Cornw. i. 665; R. Carew, Survey of Cornw. ed. F.E. Halliday, 209.
  • 3. Keast, 44, 78; Polsue, ii. 24; C219/35/1/163; 219/39/27.
  • 4. Vivian, Vis. Cornw. 460; Carew, Survey, 210; Keast, 44-5; E.W. Rashleigh, Short Hist. of Fowey, 29; E317/Corn/15.
  • 5. G. Haslam, ‘Duchy and parl. representation’, Jnl. Royal Inst. Cornw. n.s. viii. pt. 3, pp. 230-1; DCO, ‘Letters and Warrants 1615-19’, f. 52v; Keast, 49.
  • 6. Vivian, Vis. Cornw. 391-2, 460; Vivian, Vis. Devon, 47.
  • 7. DCO, ‘Letters and Patents 1620-1’, f. 39v; ‘Prince Charles in Spain’, f. 33v; J.K. Gruenfelder, Influence in Early Stuart Elections, 129.
  • 8. C219/38/38-9.
  • 9. SP16/523/77; HEHL, HM 1554, p. 10.