Launceston (Dunheved)


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 commonalty

Number of voters:

maximum of 182 in 1604


18 Dec. 1620THOMAS BOND

Main Article

Founded by a half-brother of William the Conqueror, Launceston grew up around Dunheved castle, which the Normans built to control the principal northern crossing of the Tamar, Cornwall’s eastern border. The town’s name referred originally to a neighbouring settlement whose population was encouraged to move to the new citadel, and even in the early seventeenth century the parliamentary borough’s official designation remained Dunheved alias Launceston.1 As the focal point of a royal honour, and a strategic base of the earls and subsequently the dukes of Cornwall, Launceston received considerable privileges during the medieval period. A succession of charters provided regular markets and fairs. As the leading town of the tin-producing zone, or stannary, of Foweymore, Launceston was entitled to nominate a quarter of the representatives at Cornwall’s stannary parliaments. The county gaol and assize hall were located within the castle, and for many years the quarter sessions were also held there.2 By the early sixteenth century, decline had set in. The medieval walls were crumbling, significant tin production ceased in the region, and the quarter-sessions were removed to Truro and Bodmin. Nevertheless, Launceston remained the principal market for the wool trade in eastern Cornwall, and by the 1590s Richard Carew† detected ‘a new increase of wealth … in the inhabitants’ late repaired and enlarged buildings’. With an adult male population of around 250 people, the town was still one of Cornwall’s largest communities, and during the early seventeenth century it continued to enjoy the dubious honour of receiving tax demands separately from the rest of the county.3

Launceston received its first borough charter in the early thirteenth century, and a governing body consisting of a mayor, aldermen and burgesses had emerged by 1319. This arrangement was confirmed when the borough was incorporated in 1555. The Marian charter established a common council comprising a mayor, eight aldermen and an unspecified number of freemen or burgesses, and also provided for a recorder and deputy recorder. In the early seventeenth century the borough enjoyed an annual income of over £200, and was noted by contemporaries for its civic pomp. Uniquely within Cornwall, the aldermen dressed in distinctive red robes, which until 1605 were provided free of charge. The burgesses were certainly capable of defending their privileges. When the neighbouring borough of Newport established a rival wool and yarn market in the early 1620s, Launceston’s mayor sued for redress in the Exchequer.4

Launceston returned Members to Parliament from 1295. The 1555 charter provided for their election by the mayor and commonalty, the latter term apparently signifying the freemen and burgesses. In 1604 these numbered 182, though it is unclear how many of them participated in early seventeenth century elections, since it was the borough’s custom to seal parliamentary indentures rather than append signatures.5 Except in 1604, individual returns were made for each Member, the standard Cornish practice. However, in contrast to many of the county’s boroughs, Launceston’s indentures are notable for their uniformity from one election to the next, and for a general absence of tampering with names or dates.6 This orderliness seems primarily to have reflected the borough’s willingness to cooperate with the same external patrons for long periods of time.

During James I’s reign, Launceston returned just two Members with local ties, Ambrose Rous (1604) and John Harris (1620). Both men were the heirs to major estates in eastern Cornwall or west Devon, and Rous’s father Sir Anthony* later became the borough’s recorder.7 The remaining six Members all possessed Court connections. Thomas Bond (1620) and Sir Francis Crane (1624) were nominated by Prince Charles’s council, which on these occasions reminded Launceston of its duty as one of the duchy of Cornwall’s own boroughs.8 Sir Thomas Lake (1604) was a close colleague of secretary of state Lord (Robert) Cecil†, while in 1614 Sir Charles Wilmot was a client of the royal favourite, the earl of Somerset, as indirectly was William Croft through his father Sir Herbert*. Another decade on, Sir Miles Fleetwood was emerging as a prominent ally of Somerset’s successor, the duke of Buckingham.9 No evidence survives of formal government nominations for these latter four Members, and their places were probably secured through the intervention of the Killigrew family. In 1604 Sir William Killigrew I* possessed unrivalled influence over the borough through his office as constable of Launceston castle, and his leases of Launceston park and the major local manor of Launceston Land. He was also related to the Cecils, and probably found a seat at Penryn for another of their dependents, Sir Richard Warburton, in the same year. By 1614 the constableship and lease of Launceston Land had both been surrendered, but the Killigrews may have kept hold of the park until mid-1624. In the meantime Sir William’s son, Sir Robert*, had become manorial steward of Launceston Land, through which role he certainly dominated Newport borough. Given that Sir Robert was himself a client successively of Somerset and Buckingham, it is highly likely that he conveyed their wishes to Launceston corporation in 1614 and 1624.10

The new reign saw a dramatic change of pattern, caused by several distinct factors. The first was the rise of the Estcott family, who achieved a dominant position within the corporation during the later 1620s. Richard Estcott, who had already secured a seat at Newport in the 1624 Parliament, became deputy recorder of Launceston early in 1625, and with the backing of his father, a senior alderman, took a seat in the next three elections.11 His partner on each occasion was Bevill Grenville, whose father owned substantial property in and around the town. In 1621 and 1624 Grenville had served as a Cornish knight of the shire, but in 1625 he required an alternative seat, and Launceston was one of the closest boroughs to his principal residence at Stowe, in north-east Cornwall. The fact that the Grenvilles also had business contacts with the Estcotts probably assisted Bevill’s cause.12 The final, and most puzzling factor, is the collapse of the Killigrew interest. Sir Robert may have lost his position as steward of Launceston Land manor in early 1625, though if so he managed to maintain a hold of sorts over Newport. The advent of a new lessee of Launceston park in 1624 perhaps also helped to tip the scales. Whatever the cause, however, the corporation’s subservience to both the Killigrews and the Court emphatically came to an end.13

Author: Paul Hunneyball


  • 1. R. and O.B. Peter, Launceston and Dunheved, 68, 70; I.D. Spreadbury, Castles in Cornw. 17; C. Henderson et al., Cornish Church Guide, 137, 198; C129/37/17.
  • 2. Early Tours in Devon and Cornw. ed. R. Pearse Chope, 9; Peter, 74, 105, 109-10, 119; F.E. Halliday, Richard Carew of Antony, 153; G.R. Lewis, Stannaries, 126.
  • 3. Chope, 9; D. and S. Lysons, Magna Britannia, iii: Cornw. 189; Halliday, 160, 184; Lewis, 44; A. Duffin, Faction and Faith, 7; Cornw. RO, B/LAUS/293/1; APC, 1613-14, p. 493; 1621-3, p. 177.
  • 4. Peter, 72, 88, 191-6; Cornw. RO, B/LAUS/112, 179/1; Halliday, 184; E134/20 Jas.I/East.10.
  • 5. Peter, 81, 197-8; Cornw. RO, B/LAUS/293/1.
  • 6. C219/35/1/173; 219/37/16-17; 219/38/32-3; 219/39/25-6; 219/40/259, 271; 219/41B/172-3.
  • 7. WARD 7/58/188; Devon RO, 2527 M/TS 14; Cornw. RO, B/LAUS/296.
  • 8. DCO, ‘Letters and Patents 1620-1’, f. 39v; ‘Prince Charles in Spain’, f. 33v.
  • 9. CSP Dom. 1611-18, pp. 229, 233; CSP Ire. 1611-14, p. 411; V. Treadwell, Buckingham and Ire. 59; C. Russell, PEP, 168.
  • 10. DCO, ‘Duchy Servants’, pp. 153, 325; A.F. Robbins, Launceston P and P, 106; E134/3 Jas.I/East.11; L.M. Hill, ‘Sir Julius Caesar’s Jnl.’, BIHR, xlv. 322; E315/310, ff. 57, 67v; Parl. Survey of Duchy of Cornw. ed. N.J.G. Pounds (Devon and Cornw. Rec. Soc., n.s. xxv), i. 73.
  • 11. C2/Chas.I/D51/30; Cornw. RO, B/LAUS/339, 179/1.
  • 12. WARD 7/58/193; Roy. Inst. of Cornw., BRA.B/328/3.
  • 13. E147/3/13; Parl. Survey of Duchy of Cornw. i. 73.