NYELL (NEALE), William (-d.1624), of Dartmouth, Devon

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



1624 - c. Oct. 1624

Family and Education

m. 19 Jan. 1595, Mary Norbor, ?s.p. admon. 10 Nov. 1624.1 sig. William Niell.

Offices Held

Steward of bor. ct. Dartmouth 1598-at least 1622, town clerk 1602-d.2


Nyell’s parentage has not been established. However, his surname was practically unknown outside south Devon, so he may have belonged to a yeoman family from the Kingsbridge area, which had ties with Dartmouth by the 1570s.3 He was described as a merchant on both indentures by which the borough returned him to Parliament, but does not appear in the town’s customs records.4 Rather, his appointment as steward of Dartmouth’s borough court points to some form of legal training, the details of which are now lost. By 1604 he was signing important corporation documents alongside the merchant oligarchy. As town clerk, he accompanied Thomas Gourney* in March 1605 with a petition to lord treasurer Dorset (Thomas Sackville†) for a continuation of the annual subvention of £40 from the customs for defence purposes, a matter for which he subsequently assumed regular responsibility.5 Nyell was resident in Dartmouth by 1609, when he was assessed there for subsidy, with a £4 rating comparable to the town’s middle-ranking merchants. Nevertheless, the corporation accounts show that he actually spent much of each year in London, or in Exeter, Devon, where he represented the town at the assizes or the Admiralty sessions.6 By 1618 he had emerged in his distinctive role as a leading spokesman for the merchants of Dartmouth and the West Country in general. At the end of that year, he petitioned the Privy Council on behalf of the Newfoundland fishing interests, obtaining an order forbidding the settlers on the American coast from interfering in the fishing fleets’ activities. Weymouth’s corporation was sufficiently grateful for his efforts to reimburse him by means of a levy on fishing.7 Similarly, in 1620 Plymouth paid him £10 for travelling to the capital ‘about the suppressing of the French and Spanish companies of London’.8

Elected to Parliament in 1621, Nyell attracted just two committee nominations, but he quickly made his presence felt, with 27 recorded speeches during the first sitting alone, and another 11 after the summer recess. Nyell very occasionally engaged with the general business of the House, as on 1 May, when he called for the slanderous Catholic, Edward Floyd, to be sent to the Tower. He also attended one meeting of the bill committee concerned with the removal of suits from inferior courts, despite not being appointed to do so (20 April).9 However, he devoted his energies almost exclusively to pursuing his constituency’s priorities, which revolved entirely around trade. His agenda within this field was wide-ranging. On 7 May his comments on usury earned him his first committee appointment, to help scrutinize a bill on this topic. Later that day he was nominated to the committee for the bill against extortionate customs officials, after launching a detailed attack on their abuses. He may even have introduced this measure, for John Pym closely echoed Nyell’s speech in summarizing the bill’s contents.10 On 20 Apr. he accused customs officers of restricting corn exports, contrary to statute, while ten days later he requested a ban on the export of sheep to Ireland. He also attacked the patent by which shipping was charged a levy for the upkeep of Dungeness lighthouse, Kent (21 Mar.), and attended the legislative committee which addressed the underlying issues.11

A staunch advocate of free trade, which he defended on 20 Mar., Nyell was guaranteed to object to any burdens or restrictions on the merchant community. In his maiden speech on 14 Feb., he observed that the government was raising £1,000 a year through the pretermitted custom levied on kersies, a popular Devon cloth, and called for an inquiry into the national impact of such charges.12 He was particularly hostile towards trading monopolies, which he viewed as a major obstacle to national prosperity. As he commented on 26 Apr.:

the impositions laid on the merchandises of this kingdom by all the companies, amounteth to no less than £20,000 per annum. ... There is now no place whither a merchant may trade, but there is a company of it, ... and ... there is power given ... to restrain trade as they list, and to lay what impositions they will on trade.13

Predictably, given the massive importance of cloth exports for Devon’s economy, he was especially vocal in attacking the Merchant Adventurers, whom he condemned the same day as ‘the most principal decayers of trade’. On 27 Apr. he successfully moved for the Merchant Adventurers’ patent and its supporting Proclamation to be brought into the grand committee for grievances, and he called on 14 May for this investigation to be given greater priority. He also supported the bill for free trade in wool (26 May).14

The other mainstay of Dartmouth’s prosperity was the trade in Newfoundland fish. Accordingly, the corporation took a close interest in the bill for freer fishing in North America, which sought to overturn the patent which granted privileges to the New England Company. Although the bill was promoted by the neighbouring port of Plymouth, Nyell was evidently briefed to support it. On 25 Apr. he pointed out that the patent both breached an Act of 1549, and contradicted the order that he had himself obtained from the Privy Council in 1618 for free access to American waters. Assuring Members that this trade was worth £160,000 to England, and provided work for more than 300 ships, he roundly condemned the harassment being experienced by fishermen at the hands of local settlers.15 Three days later, reminding the House of its success during the first Jacobean Parliament in securing free trade with France and Spain, he again called for action against the New England Company. Following the report of the fishing bill on 24 May, Nyell once more asserted that the colonists themselves had little interest in fishing, and merely sought to exploit the visiting Englishmen. His assessment was promptly endorsed by Sir Edwin Sandys, who agreed that the bill would reduce the threat of competition from foreign fishermen.16 Nyell also took great interest in the bill to prohibit the enforced payment of tithes by the fishermen of the Newfoundland fleets, attending the committee. However, he was unhappy with amendments made to it at that stage. When the Plymouth Member John Glanville reported the measure on 28 May, Nyell complained that the bill would no longer provide the relief intended by those who had preferred it. Glanville in response curtly assured the House that Nyell had been a lone voice in the committee.17 Despite this dispute with his erstwhile ally, the campaign to lift restrictions on American fishing remained Nyell’s principal concern. When the imminent end of the session was announced the next day, he responded by urging the Commons to use the remaining time to encourage trade, and specifically proposed that ‘the matter of fishing’ be referred to the king. During the next two days, he continued to press for the House to complete as much business as possible, but finally conceded on 2 June that an immediate adjournment might be the best eventuality, since this would at least allow work to continue on unfinished legislation in the next sitting.18

During the recess, Nyell apparently spent time consulting his Devon allies about their parliamentary agenda, visiting Exeter in September to discuss ‘the decay of trade and want of money’.19 When the Commons reconvened, he immediately resumed his attack on the New England Company, seconding Glanville’s motion on 20 Nov. for action on the freer fishing bill, and confirming that the Company had persuaded the Privy Council to stay the Newfoundland fishing fleet, despite Members’ clear opposition to such constraints. Similarly, he backed Sir Edward Coke’s call four days later for the Company’s patent to be brought into the grievances grand committee. Ironically, his reluctance to compromise over this issue ultimately undermined his campaign. On 1 Dec. he helped to secure the rejection of a proviso to the fishing bill that would have allowed the American colonists first choice of one berth in every harbour. In Nyell’s opinion, this would unfairly reinforce the settlers’ local advantage, and accordingly he ignored a warning by the secretary of state, (Sir) George Calvert, that the bill would be unacceptable to the king without the proviso.20 He also successfully opposed the bill for maintenance of navigation, which would have allowed only English vessels to carry English goods. Reasoning that this measure would merely benefit the London-based, monopolistic trading companies, he asserted on 22 Nov. that West Country merchants should be allowed to trade directly with the Baltic if they could no longer rely on the Dutch and Flemish ships to deliver essential naval supplies.21

Increasingly impatient with the slow pace of reform, Nyell intervened in dramatic fashion during the supply debate on 27 November. Aware that the extra grant being requested by the Crown was intended for military purposes, Members had begun to speculate on what strategy should be pursued. Sir Thomas Edmondes, conscious that foreign policy decisions were the king’s prerogative, sought to steer discussion back on to the issue of finance, ‘but that was quickly crossed by Mr. Nyell resorting to the former questions’. Having excused his ‘disability to speak of the great business in hand’, he proceeded to argue that the prospects for a further grant of supply were diminished by the Crown’s apparent reluctance to confront England’s principal enemy directly. His constituents would venture their lives in a ‘plain war’ against Spain, but had no stomach for other military or diplomatic options, and he moved for James I to be informed of the feeling in the House. He then questioned whether Parliament’s earlier vote of subsidies had been adequately rewarded with the redress of grievances, and asserted that people would pay more willingly if ‘monopolies and exactions’ were removed. Finally, he claimed that Devon’s poorer inhabitants were unable to contribute anyway, and called for subsidies to be targeted more effectively at the genuinely wealthy.22 Nyell’s controversial proposal for the House to offer the king advice on foreign affairs was not adopted for several more days, and in the event this move merely precipitated a confrontation between Crown and Commons over free speech. During the Parliament’s final crisis, Nyell kept a fairly low profile, focusing as in the previous sitting on the need to complete as many bills as possible. On 7 Dec. he opposed sending the Speaker to see the king, since this would disrupt business in the House. Seven days later he welcomed James’s latest assurances over privilege and religion, and argued that it was now time to draw a line under this controversy, and turn to more pressing matters such as the trade slump and the threat posed by English Catholics.23 It was presumably Nyell who obtained a copy of the king’s message for Dartmouth corporation.24

In June 1623 Nyell delivered Dartmouth’s complaint to the Privy Council about the charges being levied to fund the new Cornish lighthouse on the Lizard. He was again acting as spokesman for other West Country interests, for Weymouth subsequently paid him £5 for his trouble over this issue, and in relation to imports from the Baltic. His services now in wide demand, he was also approached at around this time by fishermen from Salcombe and Sidmouth, Devon, who wished him to present a petition to Parliament against customs charges levied on fishing ‘in the Irish seas’.25

Nyell was again elected to sit for Dartmouth in 1624, attracting 12 committee nominations but making only 20 recorded speeches during the session. On 24 Mar. he attacked the principle of a broad franchise being employed in parliamentary elections. Noting that this was becoming an issue in many West Country boroughs, he warned ‘that if it shall be lawful for every freeman to have voice, then the more debased and poorer men will choose the burgesses’. Given that Dartmouth’s merchant oligarchy lost its monopoly over nominations at the 1625 election, his views may well have been influenced by the growing assertiveness of his own borough’s lesser freemen, though there is no evidence that he himself faced such a challenge. It may have been with these anxieties in mind that he attended one meeting of the committee for the bill to enfranchise county Durham and some of its boroughs.26

In general, Nyell was concerned with many of the same things as he had been in 1621, though he devoted a little more time to legal issues. Named on 5 Mar. to the committee for the bill about licences of alienation, he was also appointed to scrutinize the bill for continuance or repeal of expiring statutes (13 March). His anecdote on 22 Mar., about a West Country man who had cheated his creditors by declaring himself bankrupt, earned him a nomination that day to the committee for the bankruptcy bill. On 8 Mar. he commented briefly on the oath employed when sheriffs passed their accounts.27 Despite his provocative remarks in the previous session about foreign affairs, he now largely avoided this topic, except on 20 Mar., when he optimistically claimed that a grant of three subsidies and three fifteenths would be enough to frighten Spain into surrendering the Palatinate.28 During the inquiry into the alleged corruption of the lord treasurer (Sir Lionel Cranfield*), Nyell informed the House that one of the key witnesses, Abraham Jacob, had suggested that the imposition on groceries might be refunded, and that Jacob was anxious to avoid a parliamentary investigation (7 April). Two days later, he was appointed to help examine the circumstances behind this imposition.29

Indeed, economic affairs remained Nyell’s staple topic. Named to the committees for the bills to reform apprenticeships and cloth manufacture (3 and 20 Apr.), he also attended several meetings of the legislative committee concerned with extortionate customs officials, in his capacity as a port town burgess. He served on a sub-committee of the grand committee on trade, on 18 Mar. reporting on the revenues accruing to the Crown through its imposition on cloth. On 9 Apr. he presented the petition that he had been given about customs dues demanded from ‘fishermen in Ireland’.30 However, his main targets as before were monopolistic trading companies. On 24 Feb. he brought in a new bill to secure freer fishing in America. The next day he complained that seven ships of Plymouth and Dartmouth had been arrested by Admiralty warrant for fishing off New England, and called for a halt to this prosecution until his bill had passed through Parliament. As usual, he identified as the source of these problems the New England Company’s patent, which was again investigated by the grievances grand committee.31 On 5 Mar. Nyell gave a detailed account of the conditions under which the West Country fishermen were now obliged to operate; claiming that he knew of 15 more ships currently under threat of arrest, he described how in one unnamed port the Company had extorted £140 in return for authorizing fishing voyages. He was naturally nominated on 15 Mar. to the committee for the free fishing bill, attending five out of its seven meetings, but the measure once again failed to become law.32

On 24 Feb. Nyell also launched a more general attack on the undue dominance of London traders, and called for the charters of the Merchant Adventurers and the Eastland Company to be brought into the grand committee for trade.33 In a series of subsequent speeches, he demanded greater freedom to export finished cloth, and argued that the Merchant Adventurers had actually been less successful since they achieved self-government, particularly since the granting of their latest patent by James I (26 Feb., 5 and 10 May). Condemning the impositions that the Merchant Adventurers levied on other merchants, he warned on 22 Apr. that if the Commons did not act now, the Company would be able to claim that its actions had been approved by two successive Parliaments.34 Nyell’s main worry about the Eastland Company continued to be its restrictive impact on imports. As he explained on 26 May, certain essential Baltic supplies such as masts had to be brought to England in Dutch ships, because they were the only merchant vessels suitable for this task. This telling observation brought him a nomination to help redraft the Commons’ petition about this Company.35 Nyell’s interventions in the House apparently had some general impact. The petition of grievances drawn up by the trade grand committee included a number of his concerns, such as the New England Company’s patent, impositions on cloth, and the abuses of customs officials, and a full copy was acquired by Dartmouth corporation. However, when the session ended, he once again had nothing more concrete than this to report to his constituents.36

Nyell did not long survive the end of the 1624 session. In August he served one last time as spokesman for the merchants of the four western counties, presenting information on ‘two weighty points’ to the Privy Council. He also appeared before the Council board on 21 Sept., representing Dartmouth in a dispute over funding for the redemption of captives at Algiers. In connection with this matter, the Council ordered money to be delivered to him on 22 Oct., so he was presumably still alive then. However, he died shortly afterwards, intestate and apparently childless, administration of his estate being granted to his widow on 10 November.37

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Authors: George Yerby / Paul Hunneyball


  • 1. IGI; PROB 6/11, f. 128.
  • 2. Devon RO, DD61661, 62065; Bodl., Tanner 287, f. 94.
  • 3. Devon RO, DD61492, 61497, 61532-3.
  • 4. C219/37/6; 219/38/74.
  • 5. HMC Hatfield, xvi. 128; Devon RO, DD61461, f. 129.
  • 6. Devon RO, DD61621, 61805, 61908.
  • 7. APC, 1618-19, pp. 289-90, 331; Dorset RO, Weymouth corp. order bk. p. 45.
  • 8. HMC 10th Rep. iv. 541.
  • 9. CJ, i. 601a; CD 1621, iii. 123; C.R. Kyle, ‘Attendance Lists’, PPE 1604-48 ed. Kyle, 193.
  • 10. CJ, i. 611a-b; CD 1621, iii. 185; iv. 315.
  • 11. CD 1621, iii. 27; CJ, i. 568a, 597a; Nicholas, Procs. 1621, i. 353; Kyle, 189.
  • 12. Nicholas, i. 204; CJ, i. 521a; CD 1621, ii. 78.
  • 13. Nicholas, i. 329-30.
  • 14. Ibid. i. 330, 333; CD 1621, iii. 319; v. 351; CJ, i. 620b.
  • 15. Devon RO, DD61616; CJ, i. 591b-2a; CD 1621, iii. 82; iv. 256.
  • 16. CD 1621, iv. 272; vi. 107; Nicholas, i. 346; ii. 96-7; CJ, i. 626a.
  • 17. CJ, i. 630a; CD 1621, iii. 335.
  • 18. CD 1621, iii. 345, 362, 370, 372, 399; Nicholas, ii. 157.
  • 19. Devon RO, DD62035.
  • 20. CJ, i. 640b-1a, 644a, 654a; Nicholas, ii. 178, 258; CD 1621, iii. 441.
  • 21. CJ, i. 642a; Nicholas, ii. 192.
  • 22. CD 1621, ii. 453; iii. 460; iv. 441; v. 215; vi. 200; Nicholas, ii. 218; CJ, i. 647b.
  • 23. CJ, i. 660b, 663b; CD 1621, ii. 520.
  • 24. Devon RO, DD62036.
  • 25. APC, 1623-5, p. 28; Devon RO, DD62087, 67829, 62944 ff. 2-4, 6; Dorset RO, Weymouth corp. order bk. p. 88.
  • 26. ‘Nicholas 1624’, f. 108; Kyle, 211.
  • 27. CJ, i. 678a, 679a, 736b, 744b; ‘Nicholas 1624’, f. 104; ‘Pym 1624’, i. f. 21.
  • 28. ‘Nicholas 1624’, f. 101; ‘Spring 1624’, p. 147; ‘Lowther 1624’, f. 41; ‘Holland 1624’, i. f. 68.
  • 29. ‘Spring 1624’, p. 190; Holles 1624, p. 68; CJ, i. 760b.
  • 30. CJ, i. 754b, 771b; Kyle, 218; ‘Nicholas 1624’, f. 88v; ‘Pym 1624’, i. f. 57..
  • 31. CJ, i. 673a-b; ‘Nicholas 1624’, f. 21; Rich 1624, p. 12; ‘Jervoise 1624’, f. 9.
  • 32. ‘Earle 1624’, ff. 54v-5; CJ, i. 737a; Kyle, 220.
  • 33. CJ, i. 672b, 717a; ‘Spring 1624’, pp. 14-15; Rich 1624, pp. 3-4; ‘Earle 1624’, ff. 14v-15.
  • 34. ‘Nicholas 1624’, ff. 26-7, 169v-70, 200; CJ, i. 698b; ‘Pym 1624’, iii. f. 37.
  • 35. ‘Spring 1624’, p. 245; CJ, i. 712b.
  • 36. Devon RO, DD61944.
  • 37. CSP Dom. 1623-5, p. 332; APC, 1623-5, pp. 273-4, 318, 347; PROB 6/11, f. 128.