Who in Thorncombe did not sign the 1723 Devon Loyalty Oaths and Why?

By Eve Higgs

Note: until changes to parliamentary boundaries in 1844, the parish of Thorncombe which is now in Dorset, was part of Devon. It also shares its borders with Somerset.


Eighty-nine parishioners from Thorncombe out of an estimated population of 900, stepped up to the mark and signed the 1723 Devon oaths of allegiance.1 Six signed twice and 22 were women. Given the eligibility criteria, albeit ambiguous, this suggests a low turnout, against a county average of one in five, which begs the questions, who among those aged over 18 and potentially eligible, were not among the oaths' signatories and why?

The rural parish of Thorncombe, nestles in the seclusion of the Axe Valley in what was East Devon. The nearest town, Crewkerne, is six miles away. Axminster and Chard are eight miles distant. At the end of the late seventeenth and at the beginning of the early eighteenth centuries it was still a closed parish, in the hands of two powerful landowners. The 1721 Devon Freeholders Book lists Wells MP, Francis Gwyn Esq of Forde Abbey and William Bragge Esq of Sadborow2.

Field names in property documents from this period suggest that most of the parish was enclosed, with very little common land, if any, for grazing. Tenants and copyholders with land valued in excess of £10 per annum, as subjects in this isolated fiefdom, might therefore be expected to take their lead from their landlords, as to whether or not to sign the 1723 Devon Loyalty Oath.

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  1. http://www.foda.org.uk/oaths/index/parishes.htm (accessed 15.10.2009). Thorncombe's estimated population of 900 in 1723 is calculated from parish register aggregates using the 1674 Lady Day hearth tax return as a benchmark and comparing figures for Thorncombe from the 1676 Compton Census and from the 1744 reply to the Bishop's visitation queries return. See Schofield, R. (1998), Parish Register Aggregate Analyses: the Population history of England database and introductory guide, Colchester, CD ROM; Stoate, T., Devon Hearth Tax Return, Lady Day 1674, (Bristol, 1982), 14-15; Whiteman, A. (Editor), The Compton Census 1676: critical edition, (London 1986), 273; http://www.foda.org.uk/visitations/1744/Chanter225A/Thorncombe.htm (accessed 15.10.2009). [back]
  2. http://www.foda.org.uk/freeholders/QS7/9/axminster.htm (accessed 15.10.2009). [back]