Devon’s parliament

Sometimes, just a word on an Ordnance Survey map can ignite curiosity, especially when that word is written in a fancy Old English font. An example is Parliament, marked on the map a few miles from Brixham, in South Devon. To what “Parliament” does that refer?

On the ground, Parliament is made up of a couple of cottages called, not surprisingly, Parliament Cottages.

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The proximity of Parliament to Brixham should have been a clue. For it was at Brixham Harbour, in 1688, that William of Orange landed in the so-called “Glorious Revolution”.

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A stone (above) in the garden of the cottages reveals the origin of the name of the cottages. The inscription is not easy to read, but says:

William Prince of Orange is said to have held his first Parliament here in November 1688

That may answer the initial query about the place name, but it raises more questions about the historical background to all this.

What was happening in this quiet corner of Devon in 1688, and why?

The historical background

In 1685, James II ascended to the throne of England, Scotland, and Ireland (James VII of Scotland). Crucially for the events that would follow, he was a Catholic.

Initially, this did not create a problem for the English Parliament. Despite earlier attempts to exclude James from the succession, Parliament tolerated the new monarch. The English Civil War had ended only 34 years earlier and its horrors were probably still fresh in people’s memories. Despite James making frequent use of the dispensing powers of the monarch and promoting Roman Catholics in numerous institutions, such as the Army and Oxford University, no moves were made against him. Even when the Duke of Monmouth, an illegitimate son of Charles I and a Protestant, landed at Lyme Regis in 1685, the population did not turn against James, and the Duke was easily defeated.

The uneasy status quo changed in 1688. Parliament, and the hierarchy of the Anglican Church, may have been willing to put up with a Catholic monarch until his death, but they baulked at the idea of a Catholic succession. On 10th June, 1688, James’ wife, Mary, gave birth to a son. This was unacceptable to the Establishment. A rumour, probably unfounded, quickly spread that the baby was a changeling, smuggled into the Queen’s apartments in a warming-pan. He was christened James Edward Stuart, later to become better known as the Old Pretender, and father of Bonnie Prince Charlie.

It was in this atmosphere that leading Parliamentarians and Anglicans invited the Dutch Prince William of Orange to invade. As a grandson of Charles I, William had only a tenuous link to the throne; his wife, Mary, daughter of James II, had a much stronger claim to the succession.

So it was that William of Orange landed at Brixham Harbour on 5th November, 1688, accompanied by an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 troops. The date was propitious: the 83rd anniversary of the discovery of Catholic conspirators attempting to blow up a Protestant king in the Gunpowder Plot.

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The stone on which William supposedly first set foot on English ground is encased in a monument (above) on Brixham seafront.

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Why Brixham? It’s difficult to say; there is evidence that the English suspected he might land at Hull, or Sole Bay in Suffolk. In reality, William may have been unconcerned about where he might land. Unlike the Duke of Monmouth, who relied on garnering local support and thus chose the West Country deliberately, William of Orange had 15,000 experienced troops, and was not dependent on the English to swell his ranks. It may, though, have been his plan to land some distance away from the capital, in the hope that James’ position might collapse during a slow advance towards London.

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Following his landing, William headed inland. There is a cottage at Yalberton, some six miles from Brixham, called King William’s Cottage, and it is thought that William of Orange may have stopped here to take refreshment.

willy cottae

William continued along the narrow Devon lanes for a further three miles, which brought him to a farmhouse near the hamlet of Aish. Here, he met up with Sir Edward Seymour, an influential privy counsellor and opponent of James II, together with a number of unnamed “Gentlemen of the West”. This meeting has been termed his first Parliament on English soil.

Thus, a farm in rural South Devon wrote itself into the fabric of the history of England.

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Why visit?

If the historical value is not enough, Brixham has much to offer as a harbour and seaside resort. The harbour contains a replica of Drake’s Golden Hind, and the long outer breakwater is an exhilarating walk. The steeply-set cottages of the town are much photographed, and the vicar of All Saints’ Church composed the hymn Abide With Me. I will certainly be returning to Brixham in future posts.

Getting there

Although it is not easy to park near Parliament Cottages, they are within walking distance, along quiet lanes, of both Totnes and Stoke Gabriel. All the places mentioned also lie on the Orange Way, an unofficial 350 mile long distance footpath which follows the route of William of Orange from Brixham to London.

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For those who would like to learn more about William III and the Glorious Revolution, I can thoroughly recommend the book by Edward Vallance below.

glo rev

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