Rights, Privileges and Just Liberty: Exeter and Parliament, 1600-1660

In today’s blog we return to our Local and Community History Month exploration of the historic constituency of Exeter. This week our director Dr Stephen Roberts looks at the city’s 17th century representation and civil war religious divisions.

Like their medieval predecessors, visitors to Exeter in the seventeenth century would have been struck by the contrasting colours of red sandstone city walls and white limestone cathedral towers, a visual display in the one of civic strength; and in the other, of spiritual authority. However, in the city’s suburbs they would also have been impressed by the scale of industrial activity, as water-powered fulling mills worked insistently to produce the cloth for which Exeter was by this time celebrated. Once in the heart of the city, they would be well aware of the impact an expanding population was exerting on the city’s amenities, so much so that the graveyard of the cathedral close had become a health hazard owing to the number and frequency of burials. Exeter was a regional capital still, but by this time had become also an industrial city. Exeter’s cloth trade was conservative and slow to adapt to change. It rested on the maritime trade with France and northern Spain. In the first half of the seventeenth century, Exeter’s merchants were not as enterprising as their counterparts in other Devon ports such as Plymouth and Dartmouth, who were engaging in the hazards of transatlantic trade. The most seriously wealthy Exeter men were not the mill-owners, the cloth-producers or even the ship-owners, but the kings of overseas trading, who dealt more in contracts and contacts than in commodities and machinery.

Bird’s eye view of Exeter, 1597
John Hooker, British Library

The Exeter merchants were, for the time being at least, secure in their prosperity, a prosperity which allowed them to select their representatives to Parliament from their own number, without needing to court the favour of aristocratic or gentry patrons. From 1600 down to the mid-1650s, all Exeter’s MPs were citizens there. Although the earls of Bedford maintained an imposing residence in the city, Bedford House, they exerted no influence over elections. But the Exeter merchant princelings did not run everything their own way. Although wealth could hardly be said to have been evenly spread among the people of Exeter, it was sufficiently distributed to allow the existence of a vocal and assertive freeman class, which could challenge the choices of the city grandees. A good example of the freemen’s choice was Ignatius Jourdain, MP in five Parliaments of the 1620s. Jourdain was an uncompromising Puritan. News of his impending tours of the city streets would send drinkers and gamesters scurrying from the alehouses. But he proved to be the hero of the streets too, when in 1625 as deputy mayor he led Exeter’s response to a disastrous outbreak of plague, after other civic leaders had fled the city. This heroic service fuelled his repeated nomination to Parliament by the ‘commonalty’, against the wishes of the corporation’s elite.

Exeter usually mandated its MPs, who journeyed to Westminster with a local agenda prepared for them in advance. The issues were mostly about trade and commerce. For example, a bill protecting the privileges of Exeter’s French Company, the body through which much of the city’s overseas trade was conducted, was passed in 1607. The need to oil the wheels of legislation was well understood, so the Exeter men resolved in 1610 to present the Speaker of the House of Commons with a hogshead of wine (imported from France or Spain) and a pie of River Exe salmon, gifts they hoped would be received as a memorable and distinctive token of their regard.  The overall effect of Exeter’s relations with Parliament was to bolster civic self-confidence, visible in the city’s troubled relations with the cathedral authorities, who throughout this period sought exemption from city authority over the cathedral close. The city’s common council appealed successfully to the Commons against such claims to jurisdictional independence. Tensions between city and cathedral were still simmering away in 1640, and to add to the city council’s sense of being beleaguered was the questioning by the privy council in London of the terms of their charter. The perception that Exeter’s leading citizen needed to be at Westminster probably lay behind the choice of Robert Walker, a serving mayor, as one of the two MPs in 1640.

By 1642, however, there was a shift in the preoccupations of the Exeter council, away from their own intra-mural squabbles and towards engagement with wider issues. By this time there was a full-scale Catholic revolt in Ireland, a country with which Exeter conducted a significant volume of trade: a rebellion which greatly troubled the Exeter merchants. But of their worries, ‘the grounds of all’, as they expressed it in a petition to Parliament, were events in London, where the ‘popish party’ was intent on undermining ‘the rights and privileges of Parliament and just liberty of the subject’. In the civil war that followed, Exeter was initially parliamentarian in orientation and then, between September 1643 and April 1646, became the headquarters of King Charles’s presence in the south west: his daughter, Princess Henrietta, was born there in 1644. In December 1646 the city elected Samuel Clarke, son-in-law of the old Puritan, Ignatius Jourdain, as their MP, to succeed Robert Walker, excluded from Parliament for having gone off to the king’s rival assembly at Oxford. Once the New Model army had mopped up resistance in the region, the city became the arena for resumed internal conflict. The enemies of the council were now not the cathedral hierarchy, but the soldiers of the parliamentarian city garrison. Councillors complained to Parliament that the military ‘soar very high, and if their wings be not clipped ‘twill be very dangerous’.

Exeter Guildhall, the centre of civic life in Exeter in this period

The effect of prolonged disharmony between the city government and the soldiery would have repercussions well beyond the Exeter boundaries. When the army purged Parliament in December 1648, its MPs, Clarke and Simon Snowe, were excluded from the Commons chamber. When radical politicians and army officers went on to put on trial and then to execute the king in January 1649, the Exeter mayor and corporation refused to recognize the new commonwealth regime, and it was not until 1651 that the state’s arms were erected over the mayor’s chair at the Guildhall. Even so, the self-confidence of the citizens was returning, and the old pattern of the city’s making good use of opportunities afforded by Westminster was visible in the 1656 Parliament. By means of various legal instruments, including parliamentary statute, the city corporation annexed the cathedral, its associated buildings, close and property, and set about rationalizing and amalgamating the ancient city parishes. Most famously, the cathedral itself was divided into East St Peter’s and West St Peter’s, for separate Presbyterian and Independent congregations. It was a triumph for conservative Puritanism over religious rivals, but it was also a victory for civic authority over the troublesome and persistent thorn in its side, located in the cathedral close. The legislation of 1657 must have seemed like the final reckoning, but three short years later, the monarchy was restored, and with it the full panoply of episcopal ecclesiastical authority.  

S. K. R.

Read all of our Local and Community History Month blogs, including last week’s study of Medieval Exeter, here. For more from our Civil War researchers, head over to the James I to Restoration section of the blog.

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