Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1660-1690, ed. B.D. Henning, 1983
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Background Information

Right of Election:

in the freeholders

Number of Qualified Electors:

about 40 in 1660-1; under 100 in 1677; about 120 in 1689


9 Mar. 1677WILLIAM STAWELL vice Sondes, called to the Upper House
 RAWLIN MALLOCK vice Fowell, deceased Thomas Reynell
 Richard Duke
 Richard Duke
10 Jan. 1689SIR WALTER YONGE, Bt.

Main Article

Ashburton was restored as a parliamentary borough in 1640, but the franchise was left undefined until 1708. The returning officer was the portreeve, appointed by the joint lords of the manor and borough. Until the new charter of 1684 he signed the indentures in the name of the ‘burgesses’, varying in number from 40 in 1661 to 12 in February 1679. Of the Members in this period only Sir George Sondes and William Stawell were lords of the manor at the time of their election, though the encouragement given to Duke’s father by the exclusionists to purchase a moiety in 1681 shows that this was already a political factor of importance. But for most of the period elections seem to have been fought on straightforward church or chapel lines. All the candidates except Sondes were gentlemen resident within the county and well known in the locality, and most of them were distinguished by strong religious views. The family network is particularly close in respect of the country party candidates.

Nothing is known of the elections of 1660 and 1661. John Fowell, who was successful in both, was the son of one of the Members originally returned when Ashburton was restored as a borough. The other representative in the Convention, Sir William Courtenay, had property in the town; but for some years after the Restoration he seems to have virtually dropped out of politics. The return of Fowell and Sondes in 1661 may not have been a walkover, however; 40 ‘burgesses’ are named on the indenture, but only 26 signed ‘with the approbation of the rest’. In the double by-election of 1677, the high churchman Stawell and the dissenter Thomas Reynell originally agreed to divide the borough. But with the appearance of a second court candidate in the person of Rawlin Mallock, Stawell reneged on his agreement. The country party were unable to find a second candidate; though Courtenay managed their campaign in person, his health apparently precluded him from standing himself. The court supporters complained of the massive creation of new freeholders, and the lists of voters they compiled show considerable uncertainty, varying from about 85 to about 105. Sometimes Courtenay’s efforts were fruitless:

On Saturday there fell an unhappy accident viz. Sir William Courtenay made a new freeholder [and] drank him so freely that going down the stairs [he] fell and broke his neck.

The other campaign also had its setbacks:

The writ was sent down by one Mr Cholwich (but directed to Sir Thomas Carew). Sir Francis Drake came down with him, and it seems hath so wheedled him that it is delivered to the sheriff [Sir William Bastard].

But on the whole the election seems to have been clean; even government supporters admitted that Courtenay was ‘very moderate in his persuading to all persons’. The Church interest was probably decisive in securing the return of both court candidates. Reynell’s petition was fruitless, and bitter recriminations followed in the country party.1

After the Popish Plot, however, Reynell’s hardcore chapel voters were sufficiently reinforced to bring him in for all three Exclusion Parliaments. His running-mate Richard Duke was less successful, being defeated in February 1679 by the Abhorrer Stawell, and his petitions buried in committee. He was successful at the next election, and the dominance of the country party seemed to be emphasized by a petition of 18 Jan. 1681 against the dissolution of the second Exclusion Parliament. Nevertheless, Stawell regained his seat at the general election, and the Oxford Parliament was dissolved before Duke’s petition could be reported. No loyal address was obtained from Ashburton until after the forfeiture of the charter in 1684.2

The new corporation, nominated by the Earl of Bath, congratulated James II on his accession. The 1685 return, signed by the vicar of Ashburton and three gentlemen, does not specify whether the electors were ‘burgesses’ or freeholders. They elected Stawell together with Edward Yarde, Bath’s vice-warden of the stannaries and captain of the town militia. A local Roman Catholic presented an address from the ‘loyal and faithful subjects’ of Ashburton in July 1687, and in 1688 the King’s electoral agents reported that the dissenting interest was strong, though they recommended the replacement of the postmaster and the removal of Stawell from the bench as necessary to maintain it. ‘They propose to choose Mr Reynell and Mr Richard Duke, both right men.’ Reynell, however, had hopes of the county seat, and there was difficulty in finding a sufficiently weighty substitute. First Duke’s brother-in-law, an alderman of Exeter, was named, then his father, whose local standing was somewhat impaired by an all too appropriate nickname from Hudibras bestowed on him by Sir Edward Seymour. When the elections for the Convention came to be held, the Whigs carried the seat; but the Dukes, whose attempt to monopolize the borough may well have aroused local antagonism, stood down in favour of their kinsman, Sir Walter Yonge. The indenture was signed by the portreeve on behalf of the freeholders ‘who by the ancient customs there of right ought to choose Members of Parliament’. It is hard to see how this assertion could have been upheld on petition, but there was none; presumably no Tory candidate had stood the poll, though even on the enlarged franchise the dissenters have been estimated at no more than 25-40 out of 120.3

Author: John. P. Ferris


This account is based on H. J. Hanham, ‘Ashburton as a Parliamentary Borough, 1640-1868’, Trans. Devon. Assoc. xcviii. 206-256.

  • 1. HMC Portland, iv. 122; HMC 13th Rep. VI, 7; Exeter City Lib. 48/13/6/3; CJ, ix. 486, 532.
  • 2. CJ, ix. 569, 706; Luttrell, i. 61.
  • 3. CSP Dom. 1684-5, pp. 246, 291; North, Lives, i. 151; London Gazette, 18 July 1687.