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 freemen

Number of voters:

229 in 16751


7 Apr. 1660JOHN ROLLE
23 Dec. 1667SIR JOHN NORTHCOTE, Bt. vice Chichester, deceased
14 Mar. 1677JOHN BASSET II vice Northcote, deceased John Mayne
20 Feb. 1679SIR HUGH ACLAND, Bt.
 Richard Lee
  LEE vice Acland, on petition, 24 Dec. 1680
 John Rolle

Main Article

Since Elizabethan times the Chichesters of Raleigh had claimed one seat at Barnstaple; but until 1679 the other was usually reserved for a townsman, although there were no other borough seats available to the North Devon gentry. No strangers from outside the county were elected in this period, nor is there evidence of the rampant venality that characterized the borough in the following century, probably because the corporation, consisting of the mayor, recorder, two aldermen, and 22 ‘capital burgesses’, insisted on removing non-residents from the roll of freemen.2

Before the general election of 1660 ‘a resolution (as they give out) is taken up by the chief ones here to make choice of no one but he that is actually a burgess [i.e. freeman]’. Nicholas Dennys, a local lawyer of no great distinction hastily qualified himself; but the report was enough to deter Richard Coffin, a local squire of antiquarian interests, who had hoped to be ‘truly serviceable’ to the town. The senior seat was taken by John Rolle, the head of the Stevenstone branch of the family. Both Members supported the Restoration. At the general election of 1661 Rolle was elected knight of the shire, and Sir John Chichester succeeded to his seat at Barnstaple. Disputes in the corporation after its regulation by the commissioners required a new charter to settle them in 1664. Chichester died in 1667, leaving a child of nine as his heir, and was replaced by Sir John Northcote, who had sat for the county in the Convention. Once a roundhead, he had become ‘the Earl of Bath’s cully’ and a court supporter. He died on 24 June 1676, but owing to the long recess no writ could be issued until the following February. The recorder, John Basset of Heanton Punchardon, a local gentleman active in the militia, was returned, and kept the seat for the rest of his life. His first election was challenged by John Mayne, an Exeter merchant and brother to a Presbyterian minister; but the petition never emerged from committee.3

Dennys retired from his practice in 1674, and left the town. At the first general election of 1679 he was replaced by Sir Hugh Acland, the head of a magnate family with many offshoots in the neighbourhood. Basset opposed exclusion; but Acland was absent from the division, and for the autumn election he was succeeded as court candidate by his distant cousin Arthur, one of the aldermen installed by the commissioners for corporations. He was declared elected with Basset; but an obscure country gentleman, Richard Lee, petitioned, and Acland was unseated. George Treby, as chairman of the elections committee, acquainted the House with several misdemeanours committed by the then mayor at the election, and he was brought up in custody. The sitting Members were re-elected in 1681. The corporation sent up loyal addresses approving the dissolution, and abhorring the ‘Association’ and the Rye House Plot. Nevertheless they were compelled to surrender their charter in 1684. Its replacement confirmed Basset as recorder, and included the usual provision for removal of officials by order-in-council. It was later alleged that before the next election many Whigs were disfranchised on the grounds that they had lived out of the town for a year and a day. Rolle had retired from parliamentary politics before the exclusion crisis, but his son offered himself as a country candidate in 1685. He was defeated by Basset and Sir Arthur Chichester, now of age, and his petition was not reported.4

Barnstaple showed itself exceptionally refractory in 1688, and the regulators exceptionally devious, or perhaps merely confused. In December 1687 they ordered the removal of the mayor and eight of the capital burgesses, together with Basset (who had died in the previous year), and three aldermen, although by the charter their number was limited to two. This was amended or supplemented in the following month to remove the deputy recorder, two aldermen, eight capital burgesses (including Lee), and the town clerk; but in April the King was told that ‘your Majesty’s late regulation was disputed, and some of those named in your mandate not elected’. The royal electoral agents recommended a further regulation to restore the non-resident freemen; this they considered would ensure the election of two right men of great interest in the borough, Lee and George Musgrave, a Somerset attorney, whose brother John was a merchant in the town. One of the corporation, who ‘used to be very severe against dissenters’, urged that ‘though the power of putting out was in the King, that of choosing in was in them. ... At last, there happening some small mistake in spelling the names of two that were to be put in, they refused them, and chose two others of their own stamp.’ The corporation was dissolved in the following month, and in June the somewhat puzzling report was received: ‘Barnstaple declare they will choose their old Members’. Presumably this meant Chichester and Lee, since Musgrave was now engaged for Bridgwater. The electoral agents did not visit the borough in September, and seem to have relied on the Cromwellian Major Wade to manage the constituency on behalf of his son, the renegade republican Nathaniel Wade, now town clerk of Bristol. His influence in the borough must have been dubious; and this perhaps accounts for the distinction in the report between the ‘town’ and the ‘place’. Both groups accepted Lee; but the former were now inclined to choose a member of a more distinguished family than Musgrave, probably Narcissus Luttrell. The latter, which presumably meant the non-resident freemen, ‘will be settled to choose Mr Richard Lee and Mr Nathaniel Wade’, provided that the new charter, in which Lee was nominated recorder, was delivered to Wade’s father. It was withdrawn in the following month, and at the general election of 1689, held ‘according to the usage before the surrender of the charter’, Chichester and Lee were returned.5

Author: J. S. Crossette


  • 1. T. Wainwright, Barnstable Recs. ii. 169.
  • 2. Ibid. i. 223.
  • 3. HMC 5th Rep. 371; J. B. Gribble, Mems. Barnstaple, 299; SP29/99/131; PCC 83 Bath; Exeter Freemen (Devon and Cornw. Rec. Soc. extra ser. i), 141; A. G. Matthews, Calamy Revised, 347; CJ, ix. 419.
  • 4. CJ, ix. 693, 697, 718; London Gazette, 9 June 1681, 17 Apr. 1682, 27 Aug. 1683; SP44/335/209-10; Duckett, Penal Laws (1882), 231.
  • 5. PC2/72/555, 588, 668; Pub. Occurrences, 24 Apr. 1688, Duckett, Penal Laws (1882), 231-2, 241; (1883), 381; Som. Wills, iii. 39-41; DNB; CSP Dom. 1682, p. 97; 1687-9, p. 275.