Thursday, July 6, 2017

Barnstaple and John Delbridge

by Lauren Gilbert

A view of Barnstaple and its setting at low tide
Some years ago, I surprised my husband with a fishing trip in northwest Devon. We got off the train in Umberleigh, checked into a delightful hotel (with an equally delightful pub), and discovered...there was no fishing due to an unprecedented heat wave. Nothing daunted, we proceeded to explore the area. At dusk one evening, we witnessed the water rushing into a river at high tide, followed by a family of wild swans. The next day, we hopped back on the train and went on to Barnstaple. It was a fascinating town which we enjoyed exploring. My current work in process includes a gentleman who inherits a small estate in the vicinity of Barnstaple, so I decided to read up on its history.

Afred the Great
Barnstaple is what may be the oldest borough in England. The town was known in the 900’s, a typical Saxon stronghold. Known to the Romans as “Tunge abertawe” and to the Saxons as “Beardenstaple,” it was referred to as “Barum”, the Latin contraction, in documents of the era. It was created a burg (borough) by King Alfred. A mint was established, possibly by King Athelstan who also supposedly granted a charter with rights to hold a market and fair (If there were a charter, it has been lost-a charter dated 930 was proven a forgery and no other has ever been found). The earliest known coin was minted during King Eadwig’s reign (between 955-59). The mint was not a particularly active and ceased production in the 13th century.

King Athelstan I
It fell to the Normans about 1068, and the fall is discussed in the Domesday Book. It is believed that an original castle was built by King Athelstan, and strengthened after the Conquest. This may be the site of the known castle, built in wood in the 11th century by Geoffrey de Mowbray, Bishop of Coutances. Stone walls were erected subsequently, probably by Henry de Tracey. By 1326, castle was a ruin; only the motte remains as a mound. It was the only port in the southwest of England, and by 1290, an important trade center located on River Taw; trading with Europe, Ireland and New World. Imports included tobacco, wine, spices. Barnstaple was licensed to export wool from the 14th century and was a member of the early merchant Guild of St Nicholas. Exports included woolen material and pottery.

Other industries included lace making, fishing, and ship building. Barnstaple was the 3rd richest town in Devon in the 14th century (behind Exeter and Plymouth). Its importance as a port grew during the 14th to 16th centuries, and the city was represented in the Naval Council. There was a petition to Mary I to build a quay and merchants' exchange on the river in 1555. Barnstaple was a “privileged port” as a member of the Spanish Company (authorized to trade in Spain and Portugal) in 1577. There were 12 merchants in Barnstaple listed in the charter.

Trade with America was also very important in the 16th and 17th centuries. Barnstaple had a rather exciting military past as well. In 1588, 3-5 outfitted ships, manned by locals, sailed to join Sir Francis Drake to help defend against Spanish Armada. In 1642, when the English Civil War erupted, Barnstaple was originally pro-Parliamentarian, but changed sides four times. Seriously damaged after the war, the city eventually resumed its normal business and trading activities.

Queen Anne's Walk
Queen Anne’s Walk was built in 1708 (a rebuilding of the original Merchants' Walk built in Tudor times) and completed in 1713, as a merchant exchange on the river with its own quay for loading and unloading ships. A statue of Queen Anne was placed on the colonnade. In the 18th Century, the wool trade ended and Barnstaple began to import Irish wool which was sent on for manufacture. The harbour silted up (a process which began as early as the 17th century) and trade gradually moved to Bideford although there was local shipping (agricultural) until the 20th century. However, the town still maintained its importance as a market town. It has been represented in Parliament continuously since 1295 (it had 2 representatives until 1885 when representation was reduced to one member). It remains an important business and shopping site and the main town in North Devon.

Delbridge Arms

A name that recurred in the history of the town during the 16th century was John Delbridge. Who was John Delbridge? He was born in Barnstaple. His exact date of birth is unknown; however, he was baptized July 9, 1564. John was the 2nd son of Richard Delbridge, a merchant of Barnstaple, and his wife Alice. 

John was a Puritan, and was educated at Emmanuel College Cambridge (he enrolled July 3, 1604 as a paying student or commoner, not as a scholar), and later entered the Middle Temple in London May 10, 1606. He was married to Agnes Downe of Barnstable on January 10th, 1585. Agnes was the niece of Bishop Jewel, Bishop of Salisbury. They had five sons and three daughters, but only one son and daughter survived John. He became a successful cloth merchant, importing and exporting goods by 1591. He was involved in the Newfoundland fishing trade and was a member of the East India Company (1611-21), the French Company (1611), the Virginia. Company (from 1612 to at least 1623), the North West Passage Company (1612), and the Somers Island Company (from 1615 to at least 1622). He was also a member of the Council for Virginia (1621). Clearly, he was a man of great influence with fingers in many pies.

John was involved in the American colonies, including providing passage for colonists to Virginia and Bermuda. His ship The Swan took 70 new settlers to Virginia in 1620 and all survived the voyage (he was apparently known for well supplied ships, and few deaths). He was an active trader particularly in imported tobacco. Clearly successful, John acquired property in Virginia as well as in England. He owned a house in Barnstaple and by 1632 had an estate at West Buckland (a manor which included an advowson (right to appoint a clergyman to serve that area)) about eight miles from Barnstaple. He also had an estate at Bishop’s Tawton. John became active in politics. His political career includes: working under Robert Cecil (Elizabeth I’s chief minister) in 1602-1606 (dates approximate); serving as Mayor of Barnstaple three times (1600-1, 1615-16, 1633-4). He was elected Member of Parliament for Barnstaple six times (elections in 1614, 1621, 1624, 1625, 1626 and 1628), in which capacity he served on various committees (with his known expertise in trade matters) and was very vocal on a wide range of bills at least occasionally in open defiance of the king’s wishes. (He served with Pentecost Dodderidge, a fellow merchant, at least three times, and Alexander St. John, Knight as well).

Agnes died in May of 1639, and was buried May 15th of 1639. John made his will on May 27th and died June 24, 1639 at his home at Bishop's Tawton, leaving the bulk of his estate to his surviving son Richard, with bequests to other relatives and to the poor. 

Unrest was brewing, leading to the Civil War which erupted in 1642. The events involving the war and its aftermath left John Delbridge in obscurity. I couldn't help but wonder if his Puritan faith and service in Parliament steered the loyalty of his city to the Parliamentary side of the conflict, at least at the start.

This is not by any means a comprehensive history of Barnstaple or of John Delbridge; it does, however, serve to tickle one's fancy to look further into that fascinating town and its people.


Holton, Denise and Hammett, Elizabeth. BARNSTAPLE THROUGH TIME. Stroud: Amberley Publishing, 2013. (Kindle Version); SECRET BARNSTAPLE. Stroud: Amberley Publishing, 2015. (Kindle Version)

The History of Parliament on-line. “Delbridge, John (1564-1639) of Barnstaple and Bishop’s Tawton, Devon.” HERE

GoogleBooks. Willis, Browne. NOTITIA PARLIAMENTARIA: Or A History of the Counties, Cities and Boroughs in England and Wales. 2nd Edition with Annotations. London: Robert Gosling, 1730. HERE ; Tudor and Stuart Devon: The Common Estate and Government : Essays Presented to Joyce Youngs. Edited by Todd Gray, Margery M. Rowe, and Audrey M. Erskine. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1992. HERE

Barnstaple Town Centre on-line. “History.” HERE

A Vision of Britain. “Descriptive Gazetteer Entry for Barnstaple” by John Marious Wilson in IMPERIAL GAZETTEER OF ENGLAND AND WALES (1870-72). HERE

Cambridge Alumni Database. “Delbridge, John.” HERE

View of Barnstaple taken by Lauren Gilbert (c) Lauren Gilbert

Images from Wikimedia Commons

Alfred the Great HERE

Athelstan HERE

Queen Anne's Walk HERE

Delbridge Arms HERE

Lauren Gilbert, author of HEYERWOOD: A Novel, is working on her second novel set in Regency England, A RATIONAL ATTACHMENT. She lives in Florida with her husband. Please visit her website HERE.


  1. Great post love it,. I wonder why John Delbridge Esq; was never knighted there are those knighted for less, and I doubt that in the 16th 17th & 18th centuries anyone would be game to refuse the elevation, probably be considered traitors and been hanged, drawn and slaughtered

  2. I'm so glad you enjoyed the post! I found no indication that a knighthood was ever considered for John Delbridge-he seemed to have been satisfied with his status as a merchant and politician. Certainly, available data indicates he was more concerned about national trade interests and the interests of his local area than about pleasing higher-ups (which may explain the lack of that knighthood!).

  3. As a North Devonian living about 11 miles from Barnstaple I loved this post! I also live 3 miles from Umberleigh - I can see a section of the Tarka Line train go past from my bedroom window. (have to pick you up on one slight thing though- Barnstaple comes under North Devon, not North West Devon :-) Next time you are in the area give me a shout & we'll meet up for coffee and a chat!


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