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

Background Information

Number of voters:



c. Apr. 1660GEORGE MONCK
31 July 1660SIR EDWARD SEYMOUR, 3rd Bt. vice Monck, called to the Upper House
9 Apr. 1661SIR HUGH POLLARD, Bt.
8 Jan. 1667CHRISTOPHER MONCK, Earl of Torrington vice Pollard, deceased
28 Feb. 1671SIR COPLESTONE BAMPFYLDE, Bt., vice Lord Torrington, ineligible to sit
 Sir Coplestone Bampfylde
 Samuel Rolle

Main Article

Third in acreage among English counties, and with numerous small freeholders, Devon always seems to have held its county court at Exeter Castle, without adjournment to other local centres in this period. Polls were consequently exceptional and uncontested returns are frequently recorded. Monck, needless to say, was returned unopposed to the Convention, and his colleague Northcote, another Presbyterian, had worked his passage by taking a leading part in the Exeter disturbances of February 1660 in support of a free Parliament. The by-election which followed Monck’s elevation to the peerage returned an old Cavalier, Sir Edward Seymour, to the House. The royalist press gave a fairly full account of the general election of 1661. It was preceded by an address from the grand jury, demanding uniformity in church services, and a speech from the sheriff, Sir Coplestone Bampfylde:

I hope you will desire as well as myself to be represented in Parliament as loyal subjects and good Christians. It concerns us therefore to choose such as are and always have been such.

The freeholders took the hint and ‘immediately’ elected Sir Hugh Pollard, another old Cavalier but much closer to the Court than Seymour, and Sir John Rolle, a wealthy landowner of the younger generation. On Pollard’s death in 1666 the 13-year-old Earl of Torrington was elected to fill his place, thanks to the adroit manoeuvres of his kinsman the Earl of Bath, and as a tribute to his father, whose prestige was at its height.2

When Torrington succeeded to the peerage in 1670, a curious constitutional point arose. Monck was too young to take his seat in the Upper House; could his seat in the Lower be considered vacant? This point was used by Northcote and Bath to delay the writ while intensive canvassing of the free holders was conducted on behalf of their candidate, Robert Fortescue of Filleigh. Fortescue by his first wife was Bath’s brother-in-law; his second wife was Northcote’s daughter. Bath wrote to his deputy lieutenants recommending him ‘as a loyal, worthy, understanding and public-spirited man’, but the county magnates of all shades of opinion, who had already agreed on Bampfylde, resented this interference. When Lady Bath came to London in May she found that gossip in town was generally unfavourable to her husband, and on the reassembly of Parliament rumour spread in the lobbies that the matter would be raised in the House. Sir Thomas Higgons, shown a copy of the letter by Lord St. John (Charles Powlett I) and Sir Gilbert Talbot, ‘was very glad to see that there was nothing in it but what your friends might be able to defend, and that the style was not at all imperative, but merely recommendatory’. But he added ‘in my opinion it were well that the election were deferred till your lordship were out of the country, for if you should be there the authors of this report will take colour from thence to say you stayed to awe the election’. Samuel Rolle ‘gave out that he would complain to the House of it’, but his uncle Sir John assured Higgons that the threat would not be carried out. It was Northcote’s pedantic constitutionalism that brought the matter into the open in a debate which lasted a whole day. On 18 Jan. 1671 Higgons wrote:

At last the mine hath played, and without hurting any man is evaporated in fume. This morning Sir John Rolle moved for a writ for the choosing of a knight for the county of Devon, which I think had ended there, but that Sir John Northcote opposed the sending of the writ. Whereupon Mr Rolle stood up and said it was strange that they should be against the electing of a new knight, who had themselves sent warrants for the electing one.

Northcote’s clumsy denials only ensured the reading to the House of his own letters to the high constables ordering them to communicate the lord lieutenant’s recommendation to the freeholders. A further letter, not over Northcote’s signature, instructed them to return ‘the names of all such as were willing to give their voices for Mr Fortescue’. Sir Thomas Clifford sought to allay the tumult:

He had seen copies of letters to constables on both sides. It was said that if such a gentleman was chosen, they would throw him over Exeter Castle walls. ... There are 8,000 or 9,000 freeholders in Devonshire, and these warrants were to prevent heats, they being mettled men.

Efforts were made to censure Northcote and Sir Courtenay Pole, who had also signed the letters, but the general respect felt for Bath prevented any resolution being passed except one ‘seeming only to have regard for the future’. The writ was issued forthwith, but Fortescue stood down, no doubt realizing from the course of the debate that, if elected, he would have to face a hostile committee of privileges. Thomas Reynell, described by the Bishop of Exeter ‘as a cunning busy Fifth-Monarchy man ... much befriended at Court’, was still in the field. Social relations were suffering, The wedding festivities of Sir James Smith were disturbed by young Albemarle, who threw two glasses of wine in the face of Sir William Courtenay. With the date of the election fixed for 9 Mar. the ‘Triumvirate’, as they were styled, consisting of Courtenay, Seymour and Sir John Rolle, went down to assist Bampfylde; but Reynell had apparently already withdrawn, for the return is dated 28 Feb.3

With the rise of Seymour’s son Edward to parliamentary and political eminence, it was generally accepted that he would succeed Sir John Rolle in the representation of the county. Albemarle’s interest was promised, but as the Popish Plot fever grew higher, Seymour, who never allowed himself to lose contact with the west country, began to wish that the family seat at Totnes had not been disposed of. The harmony of the ‘Triumvirate’ had long been broken, and at the first Exclusion election Courtenay, head of Devon’s greatest family, appeared as leader of the country party and defeated Bampfylde, while Seymour, who was not unacceptable to both parties after his quarrel with Danby, was returned unopposed. In September, however, he had to retreat to Totnes, and Courtenay was returned with the moderate Samuel Rolle. After extracting an ‘abhorring’ address from the grand jury in August 1680, the Tories succeeded in persuading Rolle to join with Sir Hugh Acland at the next election. But Courtenay’s interest ‘was enough to carry it, not only for himself’, but also for the other exclusionist candidate, probably Sir Francis Drake, 3rd Bt., who offered to stand down ‘to avoid any animosity between the gentry’ if Rolle ‘would yet desist the opposition’ to his colleague. On Rolle’s acceptance, Acland had no alternative to quitting the field, and the sitting Members were returned without a contest.4

The 1685 return is a suspicious document, attested only by one esquire, four gentlemen and three others of undefined status. Bampfylde was declared elected with Sir Bourchier Wrey, formerly an officer in the Duke of York’s regiment. A petition from Samuel Rolle was never reported. In April 1688 the King’s electoral agents reported that the strongest candidates were Courtenay, Drake and Reynell. Courtenay was supposed to be ‘right’ on the repeal of the Test Act and Penal Laws, and the other two were known to be, but Drake was unwilling to stand. ‘The under-sheriff’, they added, ‘is a very bad man, and will do mischief, except care be taken to prevent it.’ But by September it was reported that Drake had returned an absolute refusal, and no court candidate could be found. In the event, Courtenay’s health would not permit him to stand, but his eldest son was returned to the Convention with Rolle. Both were in process of moving from Whig to Tory, and their political standpoint at this juncture is impossible to assess.5

Author: John. P. Ferris


  • 1. Grey, i. 353.
  • 2. Whitelocke Mems. iv. 406; CSP Dom. 1659-60, p. 366; Kingdom’s Intelligencer, 15, 22 Apr. 1661; Merc. Pub. 25 Apr. 1661.
  • 3. Devon and Cornw. N. and Q. xxii. 48; Dering, 52, 55-56; R. Granville, Hist. Granville Fam. 355, 357, 359-62; Grey, i. 352-3; CJ, ix. 191; CSP Dom. 1671, pp. 105-6.
  • 4. HMC 15th Rep. VII, 106; CSP Dom. 1679-80, p. 90; 1680-1, p. 199; Luttrell, i. 53; True Prot. Merc. 9 Mar. 1681; Bagworth Ballads ed. Ebsworth, 996.
  • 5. Duckett, Penal Laws (1883), 230-1, 240.