CAREW, Sir Peter (c.1510-75), of Mohun's Ottery, Devon.

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



Mar. 1553
Oct. 1553

Family and Education

b. c.1510, 3rd s. of Sir William Carew of Mohun’s Ottery, and bro. of George. educ. Exeter g.s. c.1523-4; St. Paul’s, London c.1524. m. 20 Feb. 1547, Margaret, da. of Sir William Skipwith of South Ormsby, Lincs., wid. of George, 2nd Lord Tailboys, s.p. suc. bro. 19 July 1545. Kntd. Aug.-Sept. 1545.3

Offices Held

Henchman in Household c.1530-2; gent. privy chamber by 1533; gent. pens. 1540-4; sheriff, Devon 1546-7; v.-adm. Devon by 9 Aug. 1548, Cornw. c.1549; commr. relief, Devon and Bristol 1550, goods of churches and fraternities, Devon and Exeter 1553; dep. lt. Devon prob. 1558; j.p.q. Devon and Dorset 1558/59-d.; custos rot. Devon 1558/59-d.; PC [I] Feb. 1569; constable, the Tower 1572; marshal, army in Ireland 1573, lt. 1575.4


Peter Carew is one of the most interesting and, in his way, significant figures of the mid 16th century. His personality and career are fully and vividly portrayed in the biography written shortly after his death by his servant and friend John Hooker alias Vowell, and from this and the copious material relating to him in the archives more is to be learned of him than of almost any other contemporary of his rank.

As a ‘very pert and forward’ younger son Carew may have been intended for one of the professions, and his education began at the grammar school in Exeter. There he lodged with one of the city’s aldermen, Thomas Hunt, but ‘whether because of his fear of the schoolmaster or his disaffection to learning’ he frequently played truant until Hunt appealed to his father: Sir William Carew came to Exeter, leashed the boy like a dog and led him out from the city to Mohun’s Ottery, some ten miles away, where for the next few weeks he was kept chained to a hound. These barbarities notwithstanding, Sir William still wanted his son to have a good education. Soon afterwards Carew was entered at St. Paul’s, but it took only a short time to convince the high master that he would be better employed elsewhere, and again his father had to take him away. Not altogether surprisingly, or unfairly, this seems to have been the end of Carew’s formal education. In later life he was an admirer of the classical authors, especially Cicero, as well as a fluent speaker of Italian and French and a wide reader in those languages and English of books on government, war and science; but he had ‘small Latin and less Greek’ and his handwriting was execrable. Queen Elizabeth remarked of his despatches that ‘he wrote them with no more pain than she had labour to read them; for as he spent a night in writing, so she spent a whole day in reading’.

On quitting St. Paul’s Carew was taken by a friend of his father’s to the French court, but becoming discontented with his treatment there he joined a cousin who was serving with the French army in Italy and took part in the battle of Pavia. (There he may have met a man whose path was later to cross his own, Sir John Russell.) After this disaster for France, Carew entered the service of Philibert, Prince of Orange, whom he followed for the next two or three years, afterwards transferring to the household of the Prince’s sister, Claudia of Nassau. It was with letters of recommendation from these patrons, and considerable experience of courts and armies, that he returned about 1530 to the court of his own King. A wit who was fond of manly pursuits like jousting, Carew quickly became a favourite with Henry VIII. In 1532 he was present at the meeting with Francis I at Calais and two years later he went with Lord William Howard on a mission to Scotland. He was at Calais in 1539 for the reception of Anne of Cleves. A man of the Renaissance, he was never one to bide quietly at court or in Devon but yearned ‘to travel countries and to see strange fashions’. In 1540 he obtained the King’s permission to go abroad again, and with his cousin John Champernon and Henry Knollys I he set out in the following spring for France and Italy. After wintering at Venice, Carew and Champernon sailed to Ragusa and crossed the Balkans to Constantinople, where they stayed for two months in the guise of merchants. Coming back to Venice, they witnessed the wars around Budapest and Vienna, and after Champernon’s death Carew returned to Venice and thence to England, where he arrived probably in 1542. This anticipation of the Grand Tour, unusual for an Englishman of the period, brought Carew fame at court, where King and nobles alike relished the tales of what he had seen and done. On the outbreak of war with France he and his eldest brother Sir George Carew joined Sir John Wallop’s army as captains of footmen, but in the following year he was made captain of a troop of horse and then commander of Hardelot castle, five miles from Boulogne. He returned to England late in 1544 to join the fleet under John Dudley, Viscount Lisle, was made captain of one of the greater ships and a few months later was offered the command of all the galleys. The last appointment he refused in the hope of seeing more action in his own ship, and his valour during the rest of the naval campaign brought him a knighthood from Lisle in 1545. In the following summer he accompanied Lisle on the peace embassy to France.5

In July 1545 (Sir) George Carew was drowned at the sinking of the Mary Rose off Portsmouth: he was childless and as the second son, Sir Philip, had also died without heirs Sir Peter inherited the family estates, which put him among the foremost of the Devon gentry. The principal lands were near Mohun’s Ottery (where Carew was to rebuild the house) north-east of Exeter, but they also included manors and lands in the south of the county, including the lordship of the borough of Dartmouth. For some years considerable parts of the inheritance remained as dower with his mother and sister-in-law, and as he also took over family debts to the crown going back some 35 years he did not suddenly become rich. He purchased little land himself but took part in a number of commercial enterprises, including large purchases of lead at the dissolution of the chantries, and with the Earl of Bedford and others he obtained iron and lead mining concessions on Exmoor and Dartmoor in 1550. These do not seem to have been consistently profitable and, as Hooker admits, Carew was also over-generous and extravagant. In 1553 his debts to the crown, partly contracted and partly inherited, amounted to £2,000, which he agreed to pay off at £100 a year. In view of his financial difficulties Carew was fortunate to secure a wealthy wife, the widow of Lord Tailboys, whom he courted unsuccessfully, ‘being wrapped in Venus’ bands’, for some time before he persuaded the King to intervene on his behalf. He was married on the coronation day of Edward VI and lived quietly for two or three years on his wife’s extensive Lincolnshire estates.6

The religious atmosphere of the new reign was congenial to Carew. His early experience among the Lutherans of the Emperor’s army in Italy, the influence of the English court in the 1530s and his extensive travels had all played their part in making him a Protestant; late in 1545 he had been under a cloud for possessing heretical books. His views were shared by many of his Devon neighbours, among them Baron Russell, the dominating figure in the west since 1539. It was Russell who was responsible for Carew’s election for Tavistock to the Parliament of 1545, from which he must have been partially absent when his unorthodoxy led to his being committed to private custody. Russell may also have helped him at Dartmouth in 1547, although as lord of the borough he was in a stronger position there: he was still sheriff of Devon at the time of his return. As ‘Mr. Carew’ he was ordered on 16 Nov. 1549 to ‘redeliver’ a bill exhibited by Devon clothiers for remission of taxation when it was committed to him after a first reading; an answer was to be made when the knights for the county, (his uncle (Sir) Gawain Carew and kinsman (Sir) John Chichester), should return to the House. At the outbreak of the western rebellion in June 1549 Carew and his uncle were sent to aid the sheriff, Sir Thomas Denys, in its suppression. Their instructions were to act in conciliatory fashion and to avoid violence, but a parley ended in a skirmish and the burning of barns. This harshness caused further risings and earned Carew severe criticism from the Protector Somerset when he returned to report to the Council. He defended himself, however, and joined Russell to aid in the final crushing of the rebellion.7

Carew’s connexions were with Russell and with Dudley, under whom he had served in the fleet, and he was probably pleased with the coup which overthrew Somerset in 1549, and particularly with the increased pace of reform that followed. He sat as knight of the shire for Devon for the first time in the Parliament of March 1553, but he was not prepared to support the device to alter the succession and in July 1553 he proclaimed Queen Mary at Dartmouth.

Chosen first knight of the shire again in Mary’s first Parliament, he was quickly disillusioned about the intentions of the new regime. He was one of the Members of this Parliament who ‘stood for the true religion’, that is, for Protestantism, and by November he had joined Sir Thomas Wyatt II and other dissidents in treasonable opposition, in particular to the Spanish marriage. He told the Duke of Suffolk that ‘if the Queen would forbear this marriage with Spaniards and use a moderation in matters of religion I would die at her foot, but otherwise I will do the best to place the Lady Elizabeth in her stead’, and added that he would be prepared to lead the Queen to the Tower. At the dissolution of the Parliament Carew retired to Devon to spread disaffection there and to prepare to raise the county under Edward Courtenay, Earl of Devon. His efforts produced negligible result. On 7 Jan. 1554 the Imperial ambassador wrote that the Privy Council had ordered Carew, whom he described as ‘the greatest heretic and rebel in England’, to come to London, when he would be thrown into the Tower. Carew refused to come or to submit to the sheriff of Devon but wrote to the Council protesting his loyalty. On 23 Jan. he left Mohun’s Ottery, ostensibly to go to London to clear himself, but in fact to flee in disguise to Weymouth whence he sailed to France.8

For the next two years Carew was in exile on the Continent. During the spring and summer of 1554 his activities caused the government in England considerable concern: he was suspected of planning, with the connivance of the French King, a further attempt at rebellion, and the English ambassador in Paris, Nicholas Wotton, was instructed to follow his movements and, if possible, to have him extradited. By the end of May, however, Carew was making overtures through Wotton to secure a pardon, and to show his loyalty he refused to take service with the King of France and departed in early July for Venice. After some months there he joined Protestant refugees at Strasbourg. In the meantime his wife was making great efforts to secure a pardon for him and in September 1554 she was allowed to send him letters and money. Early in 1555 it was reported that he had paid a secret visit to her brother’s Lincolnshire house. Carew had other friends in England, like Sir John Mason who in July 1555 wrote to (Sir) William Petre that an opportunity should not be missed to win such a servant for the Queen, ‘as for sundry qualities there be not a man in the realm of England’. His wife’s entreaties to both King and Queen eventually procured the issue of a pardon. This was enrolled on 9 Dec. 1555 but Carew, although arriving in Brussels a few days later, did not at first receive it: even when it was sent to King Philip at Brussels in March 1556 he was not allowed home at once.9

It is possible that he was expected to earn his pardon by revealing the conspiracies of his Protestant associates. He does, indeed, seem to have aided the government in uncovering various of these plots, and it has been conjectured that he was responsible for betraying (Sir) John Cheke into Paget’s hands. Carew and Cheke were both arrested near Brussels about 16 May 1556 and taken to England where they were lodged in the Tower. There is no real evidence that Carew betrayed Cheke in return for his own pardon, although he was certainly working for the Marian government at this time. His sword and temper often seem to have been sharper than his wits, and he may have been used by Paget without realizing it. In June a member of the Privy Council, probably Paget himself, told the Venetian ambassador that Carew had been arrested only because he was in Cheke’s company, but that it would now be desirable to find something against him. Yet his pardon had been issued and his recent behaviour, supported by his wife’s efforts, earned him the same leniency as most of his fellow-conspirators had received: in October he was released, on payment of a fine of 2,000 marks and part of his long-standing debt to the crown, and recovered all his lands save those which had been leased to James Bassett. He took no part in politics for the rest of the reign, but in September 1557 he served with the 1st Earl of Pembroke’s army in France.10

Although he was to sit in two further Parliaments and to find employment both nationally and in local administration, either his extreme Protestantism or his debts prevented Carew from taking full advantage of his restoration to favour in the reign of Elizabeth. From 1567 his energies were devoted to an attempt to obtain the ancient estates of the Carews in Ireland and he died in that country on 27 Nov. 1575. Besides the verbal picture given by Hooker, there is a portrait of Carew at Hampton Court.

Ref Volumes: 1509-1558

Author: Roger Virgoe


  • 1. C219/282/2; Hatfield 207.
  • 2. Did not serve for the full duration of the Parliament.
  • 3. Date of birth estiamted from that of elder brother, George. This biography rests on J. Vowell alias Hooker, ‘Sir Peter Carew’, Archaeologia, xxviii. 96-151. Vis. Devon, ed. Vivian, 135; CP, xii(1), 603-5; Wards 7/2/81; LP Hen. VIII, xx; DNB.
  • 4. LP Hen. VIII, xiv; SP10/4, no. 40; EHR, xxiii. 739-40; CPR, 1553, pp. 352, 361, 414, 416; J. C. Roberts, ‘Partly. Rep. Devon and Dorset 1559-1601’ (London Univ. M.A. thesis, 1958), 30-31; CSP Ire. 1509-73, pp. 401, 527; Cal. Carew Pprs. ii. 6, 8, 20-21; information from W. J. Tighe.
  • 5. LP Hen. VIII, xviii-xxi.
  • 6. Wards 7/2/81; Vis. Devon, 135; LP Hen. VIII, xxi; CPR, 1549-51, p. 345; 1550-3, pp. 398-400.
  • 7. LP Hen. VIII, xx; CJ, i. 11; F. Rose-Troup, The Western Rebellion, 139-61; W. K. Jordan, Edw. VI, i. 460 seq.; M. L. Bush, Govt. Pol. Somerset, 90.
  • 8. Bodl. e Museo 17; CSP Span. 1554, pp. 16, 31-34; D. M. Loades, Two Tudor Conspiracies, 15-46 passim; KB9/587, f. 51; CPR, 1555-7, pp. 45-46; CSP Dom. 1547-80, pp. 56-59; APC, iv. 385.
  • 9. CSP For. 1553-8, pp. 56, 61, 66, 69, 74, 79, 89, 107-8, 177; CSP Span. 1554, pp. 107, 165, 171, 223-4; CSP Ven. 1534-54, p. 568; 1555-6, pp. 227, 258, 282; APC, v. 75, 119; CPR, 1555-7, pp. 45-46; CSP Dom. 1547-80, p. 75; Loades, 152-72 passim.
  • 10. CSP Ven. 1555-6, pp. 446-7, 452, 454, 475, 526, 717; C. H. Garrett, Marian Exiles, 104-7; CPR, 1555-7, pp. 551-4; HMC Foljambe, 7; Loades, 122-5.