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 inhabitant householders

Number of voters:

at least 19 in 1628


1614 No returns made
c. Dec. 1620(SIR) ROBERT LLOYD
  Lloyd expelled 21 Mar. 1621 but not replaced
30 Jan. 1626SIR JOHN GILL

Main Article

Minehead probably derived its name either from a Celtic phrase meaning ‘the haven under the hill’ or from the Anglo-Saxon for ‘main head’, which alluded to its location on one of Somerset’s most prominent coastal headlands. Following the Norman Conquest, the settlement enjoyed manorial status, and became part of the honour of Dunster. Although well placed for trade with Wales and Ireland, Minehead played only a limited role as an outport.2 Its principal exports were beans and cloth, especially the local cottons manufactured in Dunster, though the total volume of this trade was very small.3 In the early seventeenth century, fishing formed a major element in the town’s economy, and accordingly its overseas trade centred on importing salt from the Bay of Biscay. Following a slump during the Elizabethan war with Spain, trade picked up in the early Jacobean period, only to decline again from the mid-1610s. A subsequent recovery in the early 1620s was associated with an increase in Irish wool imports, whereupon the town became a centre for the distribution of wool. This in turn encouraged local cloth manufacture, which led to ‘Minehead dozens’ being regularly exported to the Bay of Biscay for the first time.4

Before the mid-sixteenth century Minehead’s trading position was never substantial enough for the town to establish itself as an independent political unit, and it therefore remained in the shadow of the Luttrell family, who had been lords of the manor of Minehead since the end of the fourteenth century. Based at Dunster Castle, three miles south of the town, the Luttrells were the dominant landowners in north-west Somerset. However, the town resented their domination, and in 1559 its inhabitants obtained a charter of incorporation, which created a new municipal government comprising a portreeve, 12 principal burgesses and a steward.5 This charter was granted on the condition that the new town government kept its harbour in good repair. The Luttrells were displeased at this blatant assertion of municipal independence and in 1601, probably at the instigation of George Luttrell, a royal commission was established to inquire into the maintenance of the harbour, which was by now decayed.6 Although Minehead asserted that its recent trade slump had greatly reduced the funds available for essential repairs, Luttrell successfully argued that as the corporation lacked other sources of income with which to offset this loss of mercantile revenues, it was incapable of carrying out its duties, and that the charter was therefore void. The inquiry upheld Luttrell’s claims, and in the summer of 1604 the charter was revoked and the town council dissolved.7

George Luttrell now embarked on the building of a new harbour at his own cost.8 However, he soon found the work to be prohibitively expensive, and in October 1609 he invited 40 of his neighbours to dinner with the aim of asking for financial contributions. Not surprisingly, only five of the invited guests promised to attend, and as a result little money was raised.9 In the following year Luttrell turned to Parliament for a solution. At his instigation, a bill ‘for repairing and maintaining the harbour at Minehead’ was introduced into the Commons and given a first reading on 21 February.10 This explained that a new harbour was needed as the old one had become ‘choked up with gravel and stones’, and that to meet the expense statutory authority was required to lay a series of duties on shipping.11 Although the bill encountered opposition from some Welsh Members (presumably because of the duties intended to be levied on commodities from Wales),12 it passed through its final stages in the Commons on 28 Mar. and received a first reading in the Lords on 2 April.13 However, thereafter no more was heard of the measure. Nothing daunted, Luttrell subsequently established the new quayside duties by other means. By 1622 he was asserting a right to levy them by virtue of his ownership of the land on which the new harbour was being built. Anyone who refused to pay was to be dealt with ‘by way of distress as damage feasant for the passing upon my soil there’. The new harbour evidently proved highly successful, as it was at about this time that Minehead’s trade revived.14

Although not explicitly enfranchised by the charter of 1559, Minehead first sent Members to Parliament at the next available opportunity, in 1563. The revocation of the charter in the summer of 1604 occurred too late to effect the election held that same year, and therefore two Members were returned in the manner which had become usual since 1563, that is to say in the name of ‘the portreeve and burgesses with the consent of the commons’.15 In 1614 the town ostensibly made no returns, which suggested that the borough believed that the franchise had been forfeited along with the charter. However, the townspeople thought otherwise and later claimed that an election did take place in 1614, but that Luttrell had prevented the return by intercepting the indentures. As Parliament had been dissolved soon thereafter, the town had not had time to seek redress.16

In December 1620 Minehead again elected two Members, somehow outmanoeuvring Luttrell, who promptly tried to get the return declared void. On 20 Feb. 1621 he presented a petition to the Commons arguing that the election should be quashed as the franchise had depended on the charter, which was now forfeit.17 When the matter was debated again the following day, Minehead’s representatives riposted that Luttrell’s argument was flawed as the charter did not mention the franchise.18 They were probably encouraged by the opinion of Sir Edward Coke that a franchise need not depend on a charter or patent but might be based on prescriptive right or custom.19 However, the Commons stated that it would only be satisfied that such a right existed if it could be demonstrated that the town had enjoyed the franchise before 1563. The town was therefore given time to search the records.20 It was subsequently discovered that the Commons had queried Minehead’s return in 1563, when the town had been listed among several boroughs which had ‘not lately returned in Chancery’. The searcher who made this finding noted, however, that satisfaction must have been given, as the town’s burgesses continued to sit and were not questioned in the succeeding assembly.21 This was scarcely a convincing argument, and when Sir George More reported the case from the privileges committee on 3 Mar. he gave a stern warning that unless the town could produce concrete precedents the election of its Members would be declared void. Furthermore, he noted that though the town had requested more time to continue its search, the committee doubted whether there was any point in this.22 The situation was saved by Sir Robert Lloyd, one of the town’s Members and its leading spokesman in the matter, who appealed to the House for ‘liberty till Tuesday next, and then to be heard by his counsel’. The House agreed to this postponement, but stressed that this would be the last chance for Minehead to prove its case.23

The town was never able to find evidence that it had returned Members to Parliament before 1563. However, it was determined not to give up the fight without a struggle, and it therefore fell back on the argument that the records of parliamentary returns were simply not adequate to determine the issue either way. Lloyd pointed out that ‘from Ed. IV till 33 Henry VIII no records of this kept; and from 33 Henry VIII ill kept’. He concluded that it was only in 1563 itself that the keeping of records became reliable.24 This did not seem to add up to a very powerful case, but when Sir George More came to make his final report on 16 Mar. he found in favour of the town. Three things seem to have swayed him and the rest of the committee in reaching their conclusion. First, they acknowledged that Minehead’s franchise did not rest upon the charter, which had been merely concerned to erect a municipal government ‘for the maintenance of the harbour only’. Secondly, they accepted the argument that poor record keeping could indeed make it impossible to demonstrate that Minehead had enjoyed a prescriptive right to the franchise before 1563. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, they had come to realize that if the Members for Minehead were unseated so too would the representatives of 30 other ancient boroughs then sitting in the House, as there were no records extant to prove that these boroughs had anciently sent burgesses to Parliament either.25 However, the committee’s recommendation was not quite the end of the matter. On 7 May, after Lloyd had been expelled as a monopolist and a motion had been made to send out a writ for a by-election,26 Luttrell renewed his petition against the franchise. This provoked a response from some of the most influential figures in the House, such as John Glanville, who reiterated the reasons which had earlier led the Commons to find in favour of the town. Sir George More, too, spoke of the town having been hampered in the presentation of its case because ‘their records have been embezzled’. Four days later, William Noye and Sir Edwin Sandys persuaded the House not to hear Luttrell’s counsel.27 Luttrell’s sole achievement may have been to delay proceedings to such an extent that the intended by-election was never held.

Nothing more was heard of the franchise dispute thereafter. From 1624 the town’s parliamentary indentures assumed a settled form which differed in some respects from those which had been used before 1604. They were now made out between the sheriff of Somerset on the one hand and the constables, burgesses and inhabitants of Minehead on the other. Each indenture was witnessed by at least ten ‘burgesses and inhabitants’, and the election was said to have been carried out in ‘public and open assembly in the presence of divers others the burgesses and inhabitants of the said borough with a free and voluntary consent’.28

In view of the long-running dispute between George Luttrell and the town over the charter, it is not surprising that Luttrell apparently exercised no influence in the borough’s parliamentary election of 1604. Sir Ambrose Turvile, who took the senior seat, was a Buckinghamshire gentleman who undoubtedly owed his election not to Luttrell but to the prominent Somerset lawyer Sir Edward Phelips, whose marriage into another Buckinghamshire family meant that he was a close neighbour and friend of Turvile’s mother. Sir Maurice Berkeley, who obtained the junior seat, was a prominent parliamentarian who had recently been one of Somerset’s knights of the shire and was probably elected for Minehead at his own request. Appointed to the committee for the Minehead harbour bill, he played no active part in managing it so far as is known. There is no clue as to the identity of the men whom the town claimed it had elected in 1614, but both they and the Members chosen in 1620 would obviously have been chosen without Luttrell’s approval. Of the latter, Francis Peirce was a prominent Minehead resident who had advanced money to help the town a few years earlier. He was the only townsman to be elected in this period. His presence at Westminster was undoubtedly necessitated by the need to defend the franchise against Luttrell. Peirce’s fellow Member, Sir Robert Lloyd, is not known to have had a personal connection with the town. His election should perhaps be seen as part of a bargain, whereby he agreed to help defend the franchise in return for an opportunity to defend a cause of his own in Parliament. This other cause involved a patent for the sole engrossing of wills, which he enjoyed. In this personal battle he proved unsuccessful, and on 21 Mar. 1621 he was expelled as a monopolist.

The election of 1624 appears to have been held without a confrontation between Luttrell and the town, but even so the candidates returned seem not have owed their seats to the squire of Dunster Castle. It is true that Arthur Duck was loosely connected with Luttrell, as his father-in-law was tenant of a manor held by Luttrell, but Duck’s electoral patron was undoubtedly his employer, the bishop of Bath and Wells. Duck was chancellor of the diocese, and was entrusted with guiding through the Commons the bill to confirm the foundation of Wadham College, Oxford, in which the bishop had an interest as the college’s ecclesiastical visitor. The bishop’s influence in this election is underlined by the identity of Duck’s fellow Member, the bishop’s nephew and namesake, Sir Arthur Lake.

It was only from 1625 that Luttrell’s influence can be clearly perceived as the determining force in Minehead elections. The completion of the new harbour not only gave Luttrell control of the town’s major trading facility, but also enabled the trade expansion of the 1620s. Many of Luttrell’s former enemies among Minehead’s citizens may have been grateful to him for their new-found prosperity, but even if they were not they could now scarcely afford to ignore his views. The 1625 election saw the return of Thomas Luttrell, the heir to Dunster and the first member of the family to sit in the Commons since 1589. He was accompanied by Edmund Wyndham, who also sat in 1628. A relative and neighbouring landowner, Wyndham was a close associate of the Luttrells. Wyndham’s father was overseer to Thomas Luttrell’s marriage settlement in 1621, and Luttrell’s father performed the same service for Wyndham in 1623.29 John Gill, a royal equerry who sat in 1626, was another distant kinsman of the Luttrells, as well as being a Somerset magistrate based a few miles from Minehead. The precise identity of his fellow Member, Thomas Horner, who also sat in 1628, is uncertain, but he belonged to another prominent Somerset family, and most likely also relied for his returns on his cousins, the Luttrells.30

Author: George Yerby


  • 1. OR.
  • 2. F. Hancock, Hist. Minehead, 138-41, 230, 232-4.
  • 3. E190/1081/1; 190/1082/5; 190/1083/1, 24; 190/1084/7, 17, 23; 190/1085/5.
  • 4. E190/1084/7, 17, 23; 190/1085/5, 7, 13; 190/1086/8, 15, 19; 190/1087/1, 14, 16; Som. RO, DD/L 1/55/1.
  • 5. Hancock, 242-5; Som. RO, DD/L/P 29/34.
  • 6. E178/1994; H.C. Maxwell-Lyte, Hist. Dunster, 174.
  • 7. Som. RO, DD/L/P 30/50; L/P 55/1; E159/425, Trinity term, 1 Jas. I, memo. 25; Hancock, 254.
  • 8. Som. RO, DD/L 1/55/1, letter from John Luttrell, n.d. but c.1604.
  • 9. Ibid. letter of 9 Oct. 1609.
  • 10. CJ, i. 398a.
  • 11. Som. RO, DD/L 1/55/1, ‘Draft Act for Minehead Quay’; CJ , i. 398a-b, 416a.
  • 12. CJ, i. 398b, 403a.
  • 13. CJ, i. 416a; Procs. 1610, pp. 63, 207.
  • 14. Som. RO, DD/L 1/55/1, docket of quay duties, 1622.
  • 15. Som. RO, DD/L 1/59/1.
  • 16. CD 1621, ii. 87; v. 481.
  • 17. Ibid. ii. 82; Nicholas, Procs. 1621, i. 68.
  • 18. CD 1621, ii. 87.
  • 19. Ibid. i. 73.
  • 20. Ibid. v. 481.
  • 21. SP12/77/44.
  • 22. CJ, i. 536b.
  • 23. Ibid. 537b.
  • 24. Ibid. 556b.
  • 25. Nicholas, i. 175.
  • 26. CJ, i. 612a.
  • 27. CD 1621, iii. 190-1, 372; CJ, i. 617a.
  • 28. C219/41A/65; Som. RO, DD/L 1/59/1: 16 Jan. 1624, 31 Jan. 1626.
  • 29. Som. RO, DD/L/P 3/4; C142/568/120.
  • 30. Vis. Som. (Harl. Soc. xi), 103, 125; Collinson, Som. ii. 12; Misc. Gen. et Her. n.s. iv. 162.