The true Queen of the West

May marks Local & Community History Month and kick-starts a new Local History blog series at the History of Parliament. Each month our researchers will explore the history of a constituency or an area across our different projects, and this week Dr Hannes Kleineke, editor of the Commons 1461-1504 section, introduces the medieval constituency of Exeter. Keep an eye on our blog as other projects explore the borough’s parliamentary history throughout in the month...

To any traveller approaching medieval Exeter from the west, the city presented a striking spectacle, with its red sandstone walls surmounted by the white limestone cathedral rising out of the green fields of Devon. Once he had negotiated the impressive bridge over the Exe river, in the 15th century frequently riddled with potholes in which the unwary visitor’s horse could break a leg, the traveller faced a steep climb to the upper parts of the city that housed the ancient royal castle of Rougemont and the cathedral close. On the way, he would pass a succession of the city’s numerous parish churches and religious houses.

Exeter, 1563
via Wikimedia Commons

Bristolians might think of their town as the ‘queen of the west’, but it was Exeter that stood crowned with a cathedral, thus commanding city status, and that in the centuries before the Reformation hosted an agglomeration of religious houses and places of worship not otherwise found further west. Like other towns in Devon and Cornwall, Exeter had developed its own foundation myths: while a variety of coastal settlements from Totnes to Plymouth laid claim to the site of the Trojan Brutus’s legendary battle with the giant Gogmagog, the men of Exeter maintained that in the first century A.D. their city had successfully resisted an eight-day siege by the Emperor Vespasian, causing the Roman to turn his attention instead to the easier target of Jerusalem.

The civic pride that gave rise to such narratives also found its expression in the city’s choice of parliamentary representatives. Throughout the middle ages, Exeter largely resisted external pressures for the return of royal and aristocratic servants, sending to the Commons only such of these placemen as also possessed an established place in civic society, such as, for instance, the Hollands of Cowick, a gentry family residing just outside the city walls. This was all the more remarkable, since – while individual Exeter merchants made their fortune in the trade across the Channel – the medieval corporation was often short of funds, and had occasionally to turn to its officials for advances of cash. This meant that while until the early 15th century Exeter’s MPs could expect to be paid a worthwhile wage, by the mid century, when a wider economic crisis combined with the impact of the loss of the English possessions in France, the city’s representatives more often than not had to pay their own way during increasingly protracted parliamentary sessions.

If the not inconsiderable outlay to be expected could easily have provided good reason for the merchants of Exeter not to wish to spend weeks in deliberation at Westminster – or worse, at some provincial backwater in East Anglia or the north – it is clearly a further mark of the communal spirit that leading men could usually be found to serve in the Commons. At just two times during the 15th century – from an English, and indeed an Exeter perspective, not the happiest of medieval centuries – was the normal pattern of the city’s representation disrupted, and external events and influences made a discernible impact. The first of these crises arose from the first phase of England’s inglorious exit from continental Europe, the loss of Normandy during 1449-50. Several of the lords who set themselves up in increasing opposition to Henry VI’s court were major Devon landowners, principal among them Thomas Courtenay, earl of Devon, and Henry Holland, duke of Exeter, who respectively had residences at Tiverton and Dartington. 

Between 1449 and 1455 the two lords’ servants began to feature regularly among Exeter’s MPs, although even here the citizens asserted themselves as far as they could. The earl of Devon’s retainer, Thomas Holland of Cowick, returned at Exeter in November 1449, 1450 and 1455, came from a gentry family that resided not far outside the city, and whose members had long maintained friendly ties among the leading citizens. Thomas had himself become a freeman of the city in 1445, and by the early 1450s was a regular participant in the annual elections of the civic officers. Like him, David John, the duke of Exeter’s servant, cut a familiar figure in the streets of Exeter, where by the time of his return to Parliament in 1453 he had been serving as searcher of ships for more than a year. He did not become a freeman until his return from Parliament, but did later go on to hold senior civic office in Exeter.         

The means by which the earl and the duke brought their influence to bear are often obscure, but it is clear that both lords had servants who were well connected among the citizens and who could have exercised their influence informally. It is thus a mark of the exceptional circumstances of the late summer and autumn of 1450 when – in the aftermath of the loss of Normandy, which saw English soldiers and settlers flood home from the duchy with their families, and of Cade’s rebellion that shook much of southern England to the core – the citizens dispatched messengers to both lords to discuss the forthcoming parliamentary elections. The earl was content once again to see Thomas Holland returned, but the duke took the highly unusual step of nominating a civil lawyer, Hugh Payn, the man upon whom he relied to run his court of admiralty (a capacity in which he was known to many Exeter citizens). 

The second crisis of Exeter’s parliamentary representation arose from one of the repeated bouts of epidemic disease to sweep England in the 15th century. During the reign of Henry VII, the city’s representation was consistently vested in a small group of the city’s merchants who repeatedly returned and, as often as not, directly re-elected. One of these men was John Attwyll, who was first elected at Exeter in 1478, returned to the Commons in 1489, after an apparent (the records are incomplete) absence of 20 years, and then proceeded to sit in every Parliament until 1497, before dying in 1500. Attwyll’s companion in his last two Parliaments, those of 1495 and 1497, was John Danaster. Unlike Attwyll, whose father had been an Exeter merchant and senior civic office holder, Danaster, who came from Surrey, was a first-generation immigrant to the city who had purchased the freedom as recently as 1484. He had nevertheless rapidly established himself in Exeter and served as one of the city’s stewards in 1493-4 and as its receiver (or chief financial officer) in 1497-8. At the end of 1503, he must have seemed a natural choice for election to Parliament, and it is indeed just possible that he was elected, but he was not to sit, for when the mayor, Robert Newton, contracted the plague and died, he took his place, before being himself swept away by the epidemic. With Attwyll and Danaster out of the picture, the citizens once again turned to their old friends, the Hollands of Cowick, and elected the city recorder, Thomas Holland’s son Roger, to represent them in the Commons.

Change was, however, in the air. Even by Henry VIII’s second Parliament the names of the families who had dominated Exeter’s representation in the later middle ages replaced by new and different ones, with only the Hookers retaining a foothold.    

H.W.K.

Read about Exeter’s parliamentary history during other time periods through the Local History blog series.

The Commons 1422-1461 volumes will soon be available for purchase. Follow the History of Parliament on twitter for updates on publication and keep up with the research of our new medieval project, Commons 1461-1504, through the Commons in the Wars of the Roses section of our blog.

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