Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1509-1558, ed. S.T. Bindoff, 1982
Available from Boydell and Brewer


10 Oct. 1534ROBERT HOOKER alias VOWELL vice Blackaller
1536(not known)
27 Mar. 1543GILBERT KIRK vice Spurway
 JOHN PASMORE vice Hurst
Apr. 1543THOMAS SPURWAY vice Kirk11
by 14 Jan. 1544WILLIAM HURST vice Pasmore12
29 Oct. 1549THOMAS PRESTWOOD vice Hull, deceased

Main Article

In the early 16th century Exeter ranked with London, Bristol and Norwich among the six wealthiest towns in England. Its local pre-eminence is shown by its taxable population in 1523 of over 800, more than twice that of Plymouth, the next most important town in Devon, and by its assessment at four times Plymouth’s figure. Yet this prosperity, founded on cloth, tin and the brewing of beer and cider, was already under threat from its rival, which enjoyed better access to the sea than did Exeter through Topsham. Hardly perceptible before 1558, this weakening of the city’s economic foundations was masked by the opulence of its bishopric and the splendour of its secular role as the capital of the south-west.16

Edward II’s charter ratifying and defining the city’s privileges was repeatedly confirmed throughout the 14th and 15th centuries and again in 1510 and 1535. Henry VII is said to have been shocked in 1497 by the chaotic state of civic government and to have set up a more effective body, not to be formalized by charter until 1537. Authority was vested in a mayor and a self-perpetuating council of Twenty-Four (otherwise known as the chamber) chosen from the freemen, with—at least from 1537—eight of its number, and the recorder, as aldermen. Officials included a receiver, who was the senior bailiff, a town clerk and the stewards of the city and of its manors. The mayor held a weekly court for the freemen, who numbered about 250. In 1535 the city was permitted to hold its own quarter sessions, and two years later it was made a county and given its own sheriff, who presided at the county court of the city held in the guildhall. In addition to the receivers’ accounts and the books of various courts, there is an act book, begun early in the century, minuting the business of the Twenty-Four. Incoming and outgoing letters of importance were copied into ledgers. John Hooker, the antiquary, used and sometimes transcribed these, and other civic records now lost, in his justly famous commonplace book.17

There were various liberties in and around the city belonging to the bishop, to the dean and chapter of the cathedral and, until the Dissolution, to St. Nicholas’s priory, over which the corporation had no authority; the Courtenay estates along the river Exe were also outside civic jurisdiction. During the episcopate of John Veysey (1519-51, 1553-4), who as president of the council in the marches lived mainly in Warwickshire, the see declined in wealth and prestige, and perhaps for this reason the city had fewer disputes with its authorities than previously. At the Dissolution the religious houses were granted to various courtiers; Sir John Russell, later 1st Earl of Bedford, acquired the Blackfriars which he converted into a town house. The corporation sought Russell’s help towards obtaining the priory lands but in 1540 they were sold to the recorder Sir Thomas Denys. A fee-farm of £20 a year was paid to the duchy of Cornwall.18

The absence of a manorial lord, while freeing Exeter from vexatious disputes over rights and privileges, left the corporation without an obvious patron. During the 1530s Cromwell filled this role: in 1533 the Twenty-Four voted him £4 a year for life and in October 1537 presented him with £20. He was succeeded, even before his fall, by Russell, and frequent gifts assured the city of its new patron’s favour and later of his son’s. The corporation also strove to keep on good terms with the Courtenays and other families in the region, while the recordership went to prominent Devonians like Sir Lewis Pollard, Sir Thomas Denys and Serjeant John Harris, the regular work being done by fee’d counsel, also usually of Devon origin.

Until 1536 elections were held in the guildhall following the receipt by the mayor of a precept from the sheriff of Devon; after that year it was the city’s own sheriff who received the writ from Chancery. The names of candidates, sometimes amounting to five or seven, were submitted to the members of the Twenty-Four, each of whom had two votes, and the pair gaining the highest number of votes were declared elected. After the institutional changes of the later 1530s the two names were referred to the freemen for approval, but there is no evidence that the freemen had the power of rejection. Only one indenture, that for the by-election of 1534, survives from the years before 1537 and this gives the contracting parties as the sheriff of Devon and the mayor, bailiffs and citizens. From 1537 onwards there are seven indentures, all in Latin; two are for the by-elections of 1543 and 1549 and five for the Marian Parliaments. They name the city’s sheriff as one of the contracting parties with the mayor, aldermen and 20 to 50 other inhabitants, although in October 1549 the under sheriff is named. As the sheriff of Devon had done earlier, the city’s sheriff also made a schedule bearing the names of the two Members, of which four examples survive for the 1550s.19

Between 1510 and 1558 three by-elections were held. One was to replace a Member who had died, the other two were ostensibly on the grounds of incapacity: in 1534 John Blackaller (who was to live until 1563) was replaced by Robert Hooker alias Vowell, and in 1543 Thomas Spurway and William Hurst gave way to Gilbert Kirk and John Pasmore, who themselves were shortly replaced by the original pair without another election being held. Two writs were issued for the by-election in 1543, one on 1 Dec. 1542 during a prorogation and the other on 17 Mar. 1543 while Parliament was in session: the first seems to have been delivered but no election was held until the arrival of the second.

During the period 24 men sat in 15 Parliaments, John Grenville, Richard Hart and Hurst sitting three times each and Richard Hewet, John Orenge and John Ridgeway twice. If the city complied with the King’s request in 1536 for the re-election of the previous Members Henry Hamlin and Hooker also sat twice. John Orenge had sat in the last Parliament of Henry VII’s reign and Sir John Pollard was to serve again in 1559. Except for Pasmore all qualified for Membership as freemen, but in the cases of Grenville, John Hull, Ridgeway and Robert Weston their admission followed election: the date of Edmund Sture’s admission seems not to have been recorded but he had presumably been admitted when made a fee’d counsellor and reversioner to the recordership. All owned or occupied property in the city, but Pasmore, Pollard, Ridgeway and Sture were not residents, and Hull lived outside the walls at Larkbeare. Fifteen of the Members (Griffith Ameredith, Thomas Andrew, Blackaller, John Bridgeman, Hamlin, Richard Hewet, Hooker alias Vowell, Hurst, Kirk, John Noseworthy, Orenge, John Petre, Thomas Prestwood, John Simon and Walter Staplehill) were experienced members of the Twenty-Four; nine had been mayor and seven were to be chosen later, only Ameredith, Bridgeman, Orenge and Simon not achieving the office; Hart was the town clerk. Noseworthy, Orenge, Pasmore and Sture were lawyers whose counsel was retained by the city, and Ridgeway was a Devon lawyer connected with Secretary Petre. As customs officers Grenville, Hull and Simon perhaps owed as much to official support as to their local position, while Weston from Staffordshire was Bishop Coverdale’s chancellor. John Petre was another of the secretary’s kinsmen and through his relative John Gale Prestwood was presumably known to Russell. Six (Hamlin, Hewet, Hurst, Kirk, Petre and Staplehill) were merchants, Ameredith, Andrew and Bridgeman tailors and Prestwood a mercer; five (Andrew, Blackaller, Hewet, Hurst and Simon) held posts in the city’s staple. Comparatively few were Exeter born, yet both Hooker and Orenge were the sons of previous Members while Prestwood’s brother Robert was to sit in 1559 and Hooker’s own son in 1571 and 1586. Andrew sat in 1510 and his sons-in-law Blackaller and Hamlin in 1529. Spurway from Tiverton married the daughter of a former mayor: he was elected in 1542 and Staplehill, who married Spurway’s widow, in 1558. Only Pollard, Ridgeway and Sture had any previous parliamentary experience and only Orenge and Weston were to sit elsewhere after representing Exeter in Parliament.

Two writs de expensis made out in favour of Hewet and Simon for the Parliaments of 1512 and 1515 are preserved in the city archives along with notes of payment dated 1514 and 1516. Since the previous Members had not been paid by 1512 the pair agreed not to ask for payment of wages until the dissolution and they seem to have acted with similar forbearance three years later. Nearly all the members of the Twenty-Four returned received wages, as did the town clerk, Hart, and Grenville and Pasmore. In 1510 the rate was 2s. a day but by 1553 it had risen to 3s.4d. Several of the Members received sums towards their expenses before departure, the difference being made up on their arrival home or the residue then being handed back to the receiver.

Exeter took a keen interest in legislation. Before the fall of the Marquess of Exeter the city sought the removal of the marquess’s weirs obstructing the river Exe, Hull seeking Cromwell’s support in 1538 ‘for the expedition of my bill’ in the next Parliament to be summoned. In 1539 the city obtained an Act (31 Hen. VIII, c.4) for amending the river and the port and ten years later another (2 and 3 Edw. VI, no. 49) for enlarging its liberties. In 1553 and 1558 it had measures introduced to bring apprenticeship in Exeter into conformity with elsewhere, but without success, and it perhaps had an interest in the bill for artificers in the south-west which failed after a second reading in November 1554. Measures redefining the taking of recognizances in the city also came to nothing in 1552 and 1553. The Licensing Act (7 Edw. VI, c.5) allowed the city four taverns, twice the usual number elsewhere. In 1549 Hull seems to have travelled back to Exeter to discuss the reception of the bill enlarging the liberties, and in 1558 Staplehill received instructions about the bill for apprentices. Whilst attending Parliament the Members also performed a number of other tasks on behalf of the mayor and the Twenty-Four.20

Author: A. D.K. Hawkyard


  • 1. Exeter act bk. 1, f. 10v.
  • 2. Ibid.
  • 3. Ibid. f. 26.
  • 4. Ibid.
  • 5. Ibid. f. 57.
  • 6. Ibid.
  • 7. Ibid. f. 100.
  • 8. Ibid.
  • 9. Ibid. 2, f. 42v.
  • 10. Ibid.
  • 11. Ibid. f. 57v.
  • 12. Exeter L28.
  • 13. Exeter, act bk. 2, ff. 73, 75.
  • 14. Ibid. f. 73.
  • 15. Ibid. ff. 106, 118; Hatfield 207.
  • 16. Tudor Exeter: Tax Assessments (Devon and Cornw. Rec. Soc. xxii), pp. xii. xiv; J. Youings, Early Tudor Exeter (inaugural lecture, Exeter Univ. 1974), 5, 10-12; W. T. MacCaffrey, Exeter 1540-1640, pp. 6-20; W. Cotton, An Eliz. Guild of Exeter, 13; J. Hoker, The description of the citie of Excester (Devon and Cornw. Rec. Soc. xi), passim.
  • 17. W. J. Harte, Gleanings from the Commonplace Bk. of John Hooker , 15, 18; Exeter act bks. 1, 2; receivers’ accts. 1508-58; mayor’s ct. rolls 1533-57; provost’s ct. rolls 1506-9, 1563-9; letter bk. 60A; Hooker’s commonplace bk.; HMC Exeter , passim.
  • 18. J. E. Kew, ‘Land market in Devon 1536-58’ (Exeter Univ. Ph.D. thesis, 1967), 60, 72-73; B. P. Wolffe, The R. Demesne in Eng. Hist. 240.
  • 19. C219/18A/3, 4, 18B/17-19, 19/23, 20/150, 21/196, 22/118, 119, 23/163, 24/202, 203.
  • 20. CJ , i. 4, 6-8, 10, 20, 28, 38, 49.