The History of the Lord-Lieutenant of Devon


The Tudor Monarchs started to transfer authority to Justices of the Peace who were local landowners and it was from them that Lieutenants were appointed as representatives of the Crown. These Lieutenants took authority away from Sheriffs as they began to be used to put down insurrections and organise the County militias. Lord Russell, as Devon’s first Lieutenant, defeated the rebels besieging Exeter in 1549. These posts became permanent in 1585 in anticipation of the Spanish Armada.


Deputy Lieutenants, in support of the Lieutenant, were appointed to help to run the militia and keep an eye on activities that might be deemed to be treasonous, rebellious, unlawful, negligent, riotous, criminal and murderous in the County. They had to identify those who could be taxed and deal with matters of religion, trade and finance. They had geographical areas of responsibility, helped to supervise military musters, check gunpowder stores and the serviceability of weapons and, prior to the Armada, survey the coast and inspect defences.


By the reign of James I Lieutenants were leading figures in their Counties but still involved in the County Militias. The Civil War was an uncomfortable time for them but, with the disbanding of the Parliamentarian army after the restoration in 1660, they reverted to their former role at the head of the County militia.


County Lieutenants became Keeper of the Rolls in their Counties and were responsible for the appointment of Magistrates and at this stage were still ‘political’ in that they supported the Government of the day in elections. Their military role continued too and during the Napoleonic wars they had to deal with 51 Acts of Parliament that affected the militia. Deputies had to deal with a huge amount of administration and Vice-Lieutenants were appointed to share the load.


From 1871 military jurisdiction reverted to the Crown but deputies still had to demonstrate a history of military service. As County boundaries changed in the 20th century Lieutenants became known as ‘Lord-Lieutenants’ and by the 1960s deputies no longer had to demonstrate military service; they and the Lord Lieutenant had to be strictly non-political, female deputies were being appointed and a retirement age of 75 was introduced.  The first lady Lord-Lieutenant was appointed in 1975.


Lord Lieutenants remain the King’s personal representatives and they provide the link between Devon and the Monarchy. They are now much more involved in the business, charity and civic society of their County.


The first Lord-Lieutenant of Devon was John Lord Russell appointed in 1549. There have been 29 Lord-Lieutenants since.