SHERWILL, Thomas (c.1571-1631), of Plymouth, Devon

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1604-1629, ed. Andrew Thrush and John P. Ferris, 2010
Available from Cambridge University Press



Family and Education

b. c.1571,1 ?1st s. of Thomas Sheirwell (admon. 3 July 1582) of Plymouth, mariner and a da. of John Blythman of Plymouth, merchant.2 m. 29 Sept. 1591, Elizabeth Ryland of Plymouth, 11s. (8 d.v.p.) 7da. (4 d.v.p.).3 bur. 16 Aug. 1631.4 sig. Thomas Sherwill.

Offices Held

Freeman, Plymouth 1592, mayor 1608-9, 1617-18, 1626-7.5

Member, French Co. 1611,6 Virg. Co. 1618.7


The Sherwill family can be traced in Plymouth from at least the 1540s, one member holding a minor local office there during Elizabeth’s reign.8 However, they were initially of little note in the town, and Sherwill and his younger brother Nicholas were doubtless aided in their rise to prominence by their maternal grandfather, John Blythman, a wealthy merchant who served three times as Plymouth’s mayor. Blythman, who may well have brought them up after their father’s early death, bequeathed the brothers the bulk of his estate in 1617.9 By then Sherwill had built a successful career trading in cloth with France, though his interests extended as far afield as the Low Countries and Spain.10 From around 1601 he performed administrative tasks for Plymouth corporation, such as surveying their property, and in 1606 he was sent to London to obtain a copy of the borough charter, which had been challenged by Sir Richard Hawkins*. Over time ‘he made the business of the town his own, was exceedingly skilled in all the records and antiquities of it, very jealous of, and a most zealous defender of its charters and privileges’.11 As a magistrate, he also acquired a contemporary reputation as ‘a zealous suppressor of vice and debauchery, ... and a great promoter of the Reformation and practical godliness’. A firm supporter of local radical preachers, in 1607 he helped to smuggle in from Holland a newly printed pamphlet arguing against clerical subscription to the 1604 Canons. With puritanism fast gaining ground in the town, such behaviour arguably boosted Sherwill’s reputation, and he was elected mayor in the following year. Admittedly, James Bagg I*, a Plymouth magistrate and customs official, described him as ‘a seditious fellow’, but this was after Sherwill had refused to assist Bagg when the latter attempted to remove Sherwill’s successor as mayor from office in November 1609.12

In 1611 the French Company of London secured a monopoly over trade with France. Like many Devon merchants, Sherwill was obliged to join the Company in order to continue trading, but its charter was soon regarded as a major grievance in Plymouth. At about the same time, local protests mounted against the corrupt practices of the port’s customs officers, Sherwill himself informing Bagg that, as a shipowner, ‘he would rather pay £6 unto the king for custom, if it were due unto His Majesty, than 6d. unto any man by way of extortion or oppression’. In January 1613 Sherwill was sent to London to assist with lawsuits against the customs officials and the French Company. Barely a year later, he was dispatched back to the capital as the borough’s junior Member of Parliament.13

Sherwill’s name caused some confusion at Westminster, and in the course of his Commons’ career he was recorded by clerks and diarists as Sherwin, Sherwood, Sherley and, very occasionally, Shervile. As the last of these variants was also routinely applied to his parliamentary colleague Henry Sherfield, it can be difficult to distinguish between the two men.14 In 1614, however, he barely featured in the Commons’ records. The senior Plymouth Member, Sir William Strode, led the campaign against the French Company’s charter, leaving Sherwill to speak only once in the House, on 20 May, when he attacked the Cockayne Project’s damaging impact on the cloth trade. Sherwill presumably also followed the bill against corrupt customs officials; certainly, as a port town burgess, he was entitled to attend the committee. While at Westminster Sherwill continued to follow the two lawsuits, but despite these additional responsibilities, he received only a reduced parliamentary wage of 4s. a day, presumably on account of his inexperience.15

Bagg resigned as comptroller of the Plymouth customs in May 1614, but the Exchequer case against him dragged on into the autumn. Sherwill continued to deal with this, and he was also employed by the Plymouth corporation when its charter was renewed towards the end of the year. In 1617 he returned to London, this time in search of legal advice and records after the duchy of Cornwall claimed jurisdiction over Sutton Pool, the inner portion of Plymouth’s harbour.16 By now Sherwill’s local standing, and that of his brother, had increased significantly as they had overseen the construction of an orphanage. This project had originated in 1613 with a bequest from their merchant friend William Lawrence, who entrusted them with £100 for this purpose. The brothers themselves each contributed £120, and secured a site for the new building, which opened in 1617, the year that Sherwill was elected mayor for the second time. Now a pivotal figure in Plymouth life, he represented the borough in Parliament throughout the following decade, invariably receiving wages at the higher daily rate of 6s. 8d.17

During the 1621 Parliament Sherwill again made little mark on proceedings. Although not named in person to any committees, he was entitled as a port town burgess to attend the legislative committee concerned with extortionate customs officials (7 May). He was presumably the ‘Mr. Sherwin’ who came forward the following day as a witness to the unseemly brawl between Clement Coke* and Sir Charles Morrison*. During the second sitting he spoke against the bill to boost English exports, which it was feared would penalize West Country ports (22 November). Conversely, he supported the bill for freer fishing in America, which targeted the monopolistic claims of the New England Company, led by Sir Ferdinando Gorges†, captain of Plymouth fort. During the measure’s third reading, he argued against a proviso to protect settlers in Newfoundland, and warned that ‘in taking care for plantation, let us not displant England’.18

Sherwill’s profile during the 1624 Parliament was somewhat higher. On 24 Feb. he ‘alleged one main cause of the decay of trade was the burthen and pressure of the impositions, which would not suffer it to rise or grow again’. Two days later he called for a general inquiry into the impact of impositions and ‘the restraint of trading’, explaining in detail how the Merchant Adventurers’ privileges impeded Devon’s cloth trade. He was even more critical of the New England Company, informing the House on 27 Feb. that government proclamations and Admiralty warrants were now being used to bar independent fishing voyages. On 15 Mar. he disputed Sir George Chudleigh’s claim that English fishermen were sabotaging New England settlements by supplying guns to American Indians, but conceded that the French might be doing this. He was named the same day to the committee for the freer fishing bill, and attended five of its seven meetings.19 Sherwill also participated in legislative committees concerned with corrupt customs officials, the London Feltmakers, and, more surprisingly, the enfranchisement of County Durham (25 and 29 Mar., 30 April). His final speech was a renewed attack on impositions (6 Apr.), while he was appointed on 26 May to help redraft the Commons’ petition against the Eastland Company’s patent.20

Sherwill set off in early May 1625 to attend the opening of the first Caroline Parliament, only to turn back after hearing at Exeter that it had been prorogued until the end of that month. As he received 72 days’ wages for the first sitting, he must have been in London in time for the second prorogation on 31 May.21 When proceedings did finally commence in mid-June, he contributed little to them.22 He was named on 22 June to the committee for the bill against Sabbath abuses, and seven days later to the select committee to consider a petition from merchants complaining against the new imposition on wines. Improbably, the Commons Journal affirms that it was Sherwill, rather than the lawyer Sherfield, who was appointed on 8 July to the legislative committee concerning the Sackville estates. However, it is unclear which of these two Members called on 5 July for a proviso in the Tunnage and Poundage bill to amend the behaviour of collectors. Sherwill attended the Oxford sitting, and on 11 Aug. backed the complaint by his fellow Plymouth Member, John Glanville, that the Navy was failing in its duty to protect the English coast.23

Back at Westminster for the 1626 Parliament, Sherwill retained his interest in trade issues, proposing on 15 Feb. that a further petition against the new imposition on wines should be discussed at the same time as the Tunnage and Poundage bill. In the event, he was named five days later to the committee set up to consider the imposition alone. He was also appointed to legislative committees concerned with the preservation of salmon stocks, and the naturalization of a London merchant’s son (27 Feb., 1 June).24 By now Sherwill was deeply concerned about the prevailing conditions for overseas trade. On 24 Feb. he complained of the threat posed by Turkish pirates, returning to this theme on 24 Mar.: ‘we have lost more [ships] within this year and [a] half by the Dunkirkers and Turks than we did in all Queen Elizabeth’s time’. Four days later, he and the Dartmouth Member Roger Mathew were given permission to testify in the Lords about Englishmen held captive by pirates at Sallee, and Sherwill was entrusted with a letter on this subject received by the Commons.25 He undoubtedly blamed the duke of Buckingham for failing in his responsibilities as lord admiral, and on 1 Mar. he denounced the duke’s decision to re-arrest the St. Peter of Le Havre as a breach of the conventions governing international trade. As a port town burgess he was entitled to attend the select committee (16 Mar.) to consider petitions from fellow merchants who had had goods impounded in France, a situation made worse by the St. Peter incident. Although Sherwill said nothing more in the House in relation to Buckingham, he was cited by John Glanville during the impeachment conference as a witness to the charge that the duke had allowed royal ships to be lent to the French government for use against the Huguenots.26 In view of his mercantile expertise, he was an obvious nominee to the committee to consider Sir Dudley Digges’s* proposal for a commercially run naval campaign (14 March). Eight days later he was appointed both to consider the Navy’s defects and to help draft a bill to increase seamen’s wages. On 15 Apr. he informed the House of a case in which 1,000 men had been impressed for a ship capable of holding only 300, prompting the appointment of a fresh committee on naval reform, which he was entitled as a port town burgess to attend.27

Sherwill’s hostile attitude to Buckingham stemmed primarily from the prevailing naval crisis, but it may also have been shaped by an incident, recorded several decades later, in which he allegedly rebuffed an attempt by the duke to secure a seat at Plymouth for one of his followers at Court. The dating of this supposed event is unclear, but it fits with Buckingham’s known efforts in the late 1620s to obtain seats in West Country boroughs. It should also be considered alongside another anecdote concerning Sherwill’s third term as mayor, in 1626-7, during which time he is said to have faced down publicly the duke’s client, (Sir) James Bagg II*, the son of his old enemy, for swearing profanely before the Mayor’s Court.28

The 1628 Parliament opened on 17 Mar., but Sherwill did not set out for London until 25 Apr., perhaps because of the prevailing disorder in Plymouth caused by the soldiers billeted there after the RĂ© expedition.29 He used his first speech, on 13 May, to accuse Bagg of complicity in the failed campaign to prevent the election of William Coryton and Sir John Eliot as Cornwall’s knights of the shire. The charge was accurate, but Bagg successfully extricated himself. Thereafter, Sherwill received nominations to the select committees which considered disputes over whaling rights off North America, and over the foreign post monopoly (17 May, 14 June).30 The drafting of the Remonstrance against Buckingham offered him the chance to reiterate concerns expressed in 1626. On 5 June he complained of the treatment now being meted out to Huguenots at La Rochelle. Four days later, he recited examples of shipping lost off the Devon coast to French privateers and Dunkirk pirates, and again asserted that the king’s ships were doing nothing to prevent this, despite regular appeals to the lord admiral. When Sir Humphrey May suggested on 11 June that the king might receive the Remonstrance more favourably if Buckingham were not named, Sherwill retorted that he ‘would fain know whether ever there were any abuse of power in a man complained of, and the man not named’. The next day, he was appointed to help draft the petition that subsidy money be used to settle overdue billeting payments, a major Devon grievance.31

Sherwill made little impact on the 1629 session, but on 3 Feb. he was added to the committee to consider the case of John Rolle*, who had had merchandise seized for non-payment of Tunnage and Poundage. He was also appointed to consider the dangers of allowing ordnance exports to Spain, to examine a further petition about the foreign posts dispute, and to scrutinize the bill for increase of trade (26 Jan., 9 and 11 February).32

Sherwill drew up his will on 17 Mar. 1630, expressing his ‘sure and undoubted confidence’ of salvation. His lands in Plymouth and elsewhere had already been conveyed in trust to his executors, namely his brother Nicholas, his two sons-in-law, and his friend Matthias Nichols, the town preacher. His charitable bequests included an £8 annuity to the orphanage, and gifts of £1 to 20 poor but industrious artificers. He also provided a £5 allowance for 24 years to enable Plymouth’s corporation to maintain its store of gunpowder. To his nephews and nieces he left divinity books, in token of his ‘love and desire of their spiritual growth and comfort’. Already disappointed in his feckless eldest son, he bequeathed his two younger sons £100 each, with which to set up in trade, providing that they proved themselves thrifty and industrious. If all three of them failed to prove their worth, Sherwill’s estate was to be divided between his three daughters, with his sons receiving much reduced annuities. He added a codicil on 18 July 1631 to discourage his heir from disputing the will, and died a few weeks later. In his funeral sermon, preached on 16 Aug. by Alexander Grosse, a local puritan lecturer, Sherwill was described as ‘a careful watchman over this town and people, ... towards God’s people kind, loving and amiable, ... in his conference and communication grave, wise, holy, full of heavenly discourse’. No later member of his family is known to have entered Parliament.33

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Authors: John. P. Ferris / Paul Hunneyball


  • 1. Aged 43 in 1614: E134/12 Jas.I/Mich 40.
  • 2. PROB 11/64, f. 245v; 11/130, f. 2v; 11/180, f. 266.
  • 3. Plymouth St. Andrew Par. Reg. ed. M.C.S. Cruwys (Devon and Cornw. Rec. Soc., 1954), pp. 47, 52, 58, 66, 72, 79, 85, 92, 113, 121, 127, 146, 165, 180, 223, 339, 348, 381, 415, 421, 439, 444, 468; PROB 11/160, f. 302.
  • 4. Soc. Gen., DE/REG/57538/6.
  • 5. W. Devon RO, W46, f. 304; Cal. Plymouth Municipal Recs. ed. R.N. Worth, 23.
  • 6. Select Charters of Trading Cos. ed. C.T. Carr (Selden Soc. xxviii), 65.
  • 7. Recs. Virg. Co. ed. S.M. Kingsbury, iii. 88.
  • 8. Devon Lay Subsidy Rolls 1543-5 ed. T.L. Stoate, 128; Plymouth Building Accounts ed. E. Welch (Devon and Cornw. Rec. Soc. n.s. xii), p. ix.
  • 9. PROB 11/64, f. 245v; 11/130, ff. 2v-3; E179/100/368; 179/101/429; Cal. Plymouth Municipal Recs. 18, 20-1.
  • 10. E190/1023/16, 18; 190/1025/6; 190/1026/14; 190/1029/19; C. Gill, Plymouth: a New Hist. ii. 6, 8.
  • 11. Cal. Plymouth Municipal Recs. 146, 199, 216; DWL, J. Quick, ‘Icones Sacrae Anglicanae’, f. 403.
  • 12. DWL, ms Morrice 37.J, p. 36; Quick, f. 402; Gill, 6, 15; E. Coke, 11th Rep. 95.
  • 13. E. Lipson, Econ. Hist. of Eng. ii. 363; Select Charters of Trading Cos. 65; E134/12 Jas.I/Mich 40; W. Devon RO, W132, f. 198.
  • 14. CD 1621, ii. 483; CJ, i. 737a; ‘Nicholas 1624’, f. 5; ‘Spring 1624’, p. 16.
  • 15. Procs. 1614 (Commons), 300, 339; W. Devon RO, W132, f. 198.
  • 16. CSP Dom. 1611-18, p. 235; E134/12 Jas.I/Mich 40; W. Devon RO, W132, f. 198; Cal. Plymouth Municipal Recs. 150.
  • 17. Plymouth Building Accounts, pp. x, xii, 103; Cal. Plymouth Municipal Recs. 258; W. Devon RO, W132, ff. 195, 197v, 202v, 207v, 211, 216v, 219v.
  • 18. CJ, i. 611b, 654a; CD 1621, ii. 354; vi. 218.
  • 19. ‘Nicholas 1624’, ff. 5, 27-8, 82; ‘Spring 1624’, p. 16; CJ, i. 686b; HLRO, HL/PO/JO/10/13/9, 4 May 1624.
  • 20. HLRO, HL/PO/JO/10/1/25, 8 May 1624; 1/26, 20 May 1624; ‘Nicholas 1624’, f. 116v; CJ, i. 712b.
  • 21. W. Devon RO, W132, f. 207v.
  • 22. The editors of Procs. 1625, Procs. 1626 and CD 1628 have mistakenly assumed that all contemporary refs. to ‘Mr. Shervill’ or ‘Shervyle’ signify Sherwill, and have accordingly assigned to him much of Henry Sherfield’s parliamentary business.
  • 23. Procs. 1625, pp. 215, 268, 460; CJ, i. 807a; CD 1625, p. 44.
  • 24. Procs. 1626, ii. 50, 73, 134; iii. 340.
  • 25. Ibid. ii. 122, 361, 385.
  • 26. Ibid. i. 437-8; ii. 171, 297.
  • 27. Ibid. ii. 280, 339-40, 446-7.
  • 28. DWL, ms Morrice 37.J, p. 36; Quick, f. 403; J.K. Gruenfelder, Influence in Early Stuart Elections, 146-8.
  • 29. W. Devon RO, W132, f. 216v; M. Wolffe, Gentry Leaders in Peace and War, 125-6.
  • 30. CD 1628, iii. 392, 449; iv. 307.
  • 31. Ibid. iv. 126, 130, 200, 205-6, 214, 268, 280.
  • 32. CJ, i. 922a, 926a, 927b, 928b.
  • 33. PROB 11/160, ff. 301v-2v; A. Grosse, Death’s Deliverance (1632), p. 18.