Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1558-1603, ed. P.W. Hasler, 1981
Available from Boydell and Brewer


17 Nov. 1584CAREW RALEGH
15 Oct. 1588JOHN THYNNE
29 Sept. 1601EDMUND CAREY

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In Elizabethan Wiltshire there were two noble families whose influence was felt in county as well as borough elections. The Herberts, earls of Pembroke, with their seat at Wilton were the more important. The 1st Earl was a man of great qualities, who had eased his way to fortune, first by marrying the sister of Catherine Parr, and later by a switch of loyalties from Protector Somerset to the Duke of Northumberland. He was still alive at the accession of Elizabeth, and, through his prudent opportunism, was still powerful at court as well as locally, being indeed one of Mary’s Privy Councillors whom Elizabeth unhesitatingly took into her own Council. He died in 1570 and was succeeded by his son Henry, whose reign almost spanned the rest of the Elizabethan period and whose qualities, prestige and activities matched his father’s. His interest in parliamentary elections was even keener.

The second family was the Seymours. They had been supreme in Wiltshire under Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset. His fall and execution, followed by the minority of his heir, temporarily extinguished their power; and though their influence was recovering at the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign, there was again an interlude, owing to the secret marriage of the heir, the Earl of Hertford, to Lady Catherine Grey, sister to Lady Jane Grey, with pretensions to the succession to the throne which involved both husband and wife in disgrace and imprisonment.

In the second rank—that is, among the substantial gentry—there was an outstanding man, Sir John Thynne, builder of Longleat. His path to fortune had been as Protector Somerset’s steward. Unlike Pembroke, he remained faithful to the Protector, and suffered for his loyalty. There was no love lost between these two in consequence. Letters still at Longleat suggest that in the closing weeks of Mary’s reign Thynne was in touch with the Princess Elizabeth through her cofferer and adviser, Sir Thomas Parry, acting in her interests and rallying support for her in Wiltshire, lest her claim to the throne should be challenged on Mary Tudor’s death.1 Elizabeth’s accession therefore marked his re-emergence to authority after the fall of his master and friend, Somerset. The bare facts of his parliamentary career emphasize this, for, after representing two boroughs in 1545 and 1547, there was total eclipse until 1559, when he sat for the county, afterwards being a member of the three remaining Parliaments of his life.

Thynne probably felt something of a proprietary interest in the accession of Queen Elizabeth and thought it imperative to mark his status in the new Elizabethan Wiltshire by representing the county in the first Parliament of the reign—the more so because the senior seat in Mary’s last Parliament had gone to the Earl of Pembroke’s steward, George Penruddock. Penruddock was standing again in 1559; and since the deep-seated antagonism between Thynne and Pembroke had in recent years been heightened by a bitter and prolonged quarrel over an advowson2—reconciliation, such as it was, did not come till 1565—Thynne’s challenge of Penruddock’s candidature must have had a factional quality not revealed in the known story of the election. By hook or by crook Thynne had to win; and win he did, through the palpable misconduct of the sheriff.3 The wretched sheriff, Henry Brouncker, was pursued—doubtless in consequence of Pembroke’s influence as a Privy Councillor—by every course open to his opponents. He was sued in the Exchequer by the attorney-general for the £100 fine due to the Crown for his misconduct; in the common pleas by Penruddock for the £100 due to him; and in the Star Chamber by the attorney-general, in which last court he was sentenced to £200 fine and a year’s imprisonment. Presumably though imprisoned he was not much out of pocket, for a friend of Thynne’s had bound himself in £300 to hold Brouncker harmless of the consequences of his action. Thynne not only got the seat: the sheriff returned him as senior knight, and Penruddock was left out in the cold. Interestingly enough there was no logical reason why Penruddock and Thynne should not both have sat. The junior county seat in 1559 was taken by as insignificant a man as it is possible to imagine being elected to a county seat.

When the next election came in 1563, Thynne’s feud with the Earl of Pembroke was still rampant. The Star Chamber had condemned the sheriff’s shameless partisanship in 1559; and it was unthinkable that even Sir John Thynne should recall his fraudulent victory over a leading Privy Councillor and peer by standing again for the county. He had to be content with the senior seat at the Earl of Hertford’s borough of Great Bedwyn, thus emphasizing his alliance with the rival family of Seymour. The two county MPs were Edward Baynton of Bromham and John Eyre of Wedhampton, both sound country gentlemen of the second rank.

The next election was in 1571. The 1st Earl of Pembroke was now dead, and Thynne in any case had been reconciled with the Herberts. He could again aspire to a county seat, almost certainly with the 2nd Earl’s goodwill. He secured the senior seat, the election presumably being peaceful and uncontested. The junior seat was taken by John Danvers of Dauntsey. However, in 1572 it looked as though Thynne was proposing to turn his good fortune into a habit, and he met with firm, though apparently not unfriendly, opposition from the 2nd Earl of Pembroke. Evidently, the Herbert group among the leading gentry was determined not to permit a monopoly, especially by the leading rival, Thynne. They were resolved to give Mr. Penruddock, now Sir George, the place that had been filched from him in 1559, and for second Member determined on James Marvyn, probably also a Pembroke follower, at any rate a man at feud with Sir John Thynne’s son and successor a few years later.4

Three days before the election Pembroke, whom the Privy Council had charged with the task of supervising the Wiltshire elections in 1572,5 wrote ‘to my loving friend Sir John Thynne’ to tell him that Mr. James Marvyn and Mr. Estcourt—probably the Salisbury lawyer—had asked for his ‘consent and goodwill’ to the deliberations of ‘some gentlemen of the shire’ about the choice of the county representatives. Presumably these gentlemen belonged to the Pembroke party, and clearly their candidates were Penruddock and Marvyn. The Earl informed Thynne that

I had granted my good will and these were my considerations, that is I would have all gentlemen to have their due reserved unto them, which is, from time to time, as parliaments fall out, to be chosen, now some and then some, as they are fit; to the end they may be experimented in the affairs and state of their country.

He added that as Thynne had held a county seat in the last Parliament, he had not thought that he would wish to stand on this occasion. ‘If I had known your mind therein’, he added, ‘I could have been well contented to have yielded to you as soon as to any’. He offered Thynne a borough seat, if he really wished to be in the House of Commons.6 There are no means of telling whether the Earl’s mind was as friendly and ingenuous as his letter suggests. Nor is it known whether Thynne contested the county election. Probably he withdrew, not wishing to incur the disgrace of defeat; though, as his intentions were generally known, even a withdrawal meant loss of prestige for himself and discomfiture for supporters already pledged to him. Since Thynne could always have a seat at Heytesbury, Pembroke’s offer of a borough seat rings false. Thynne sat for Heytesbury.

Pembroke’s principle of share and share alike, with no monopoly, was more or less followed in Elizabethan Wiltshire. Apart from Thynne, who sat for the county twice in Elizabeth’s reign—once fraudulently—only two gentlemen sat more than once. One was Sir Walter Ralegh’s brother, Carew, who sat in 1584 and 1586. This could be excused as being in obedience to the expressed wish of the Privy Council that, wherever possible, the 1584 Members should be re-elected in 1586; and indeed, though he sat in four subsequent Parliaments, Ralegh never again secured a county seat. He had been gentleman of the horse to Thynne, and married his widow. If his re-election in 1586 cannot be regarded as a clear breach of Pembroke’s principle, there need be no such qualification of another Member’s record. He was William Brouncker of Erlestoke, son and heir of the sheriff who in 1559 got into trouble for returning Sir John Thynne instead of Penruddock. He secured the senior county seat in 1586 and the junior in 1589 and 1593. He died before the following Parliament, thus missing the opportunity of demonstrating whether his record could have been even more striking. Brouncker’s wife was a daughter of the chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Walter Mildmay, which no doubt has some bearing on the matter, and it is interesting that in 1584 Sir Walter Mildmay’s son Anthony was elected, though he was not from Wiltshire at all, but from Northamptonshire, which county he never represented. While he was an eminent man, and the son of an eminent man, and even had a claim to a Wiltshire seat in right of his wife, it is still surprising to find him representing a shire where there was so much competition for the seats. For Wiltshire gentlemen were not indifferent about sitting in Parliament. Only three of the sixteen who represented the county in Elizabeth’s reign were content with a single experience of the House of Commons. The others had to turn to boroughs to supplement the county. Two members of the Baynton family, for example, could achieve a county seat only once, and sat, in one instance twice, and in the other three times for boroughs. Even more significant is the career of Sir John Thynne’s son, John, who proved to be an inveterate parliamentarian. He succeeded his father as head of the family in 1580, but had to find a borough seat for himself in 1584 and 1586. In 1588-9 he attained the senior county seat, then returned to the family borough in 1593, 1597 and 1601, and only got back to the county in 1604, the year of his death. His election in 1588, which was accomplished with the ‘indifference’ (i.e. neutrality) of the Earl of Pembroke, may have given rise to trouble, and perhaps to a contest. Pembroke’s servant, John Penruddock, to whom Thynne wrote for support from that quarter, promised to procure ‘some voices’ for Thynne. But he evidently expected opposition and was critical of Thynne for giving his enemies too early warning of his intentions:

It is published very far already; wherein I would be loth you should receive disgrace; and therefore use sound deliberation and more secrecy if you purpose to prevail.7

There can be little doubt that Penruddock had in mind the long-standing feud between Thynne and Sir James Marvyn, which in fact caused an affray between the followers of each party in September 1589. The feud may explain why Thynne’s electoral fortune was so surprisingly less distinguished than that of William Brouncker, who, as already stated, was returned for a second time in 1588 (with Thynne) and a third in 1593, with Sir Walter Long of Wraxhall, whose second wife was a daughter of Sir John Thynne. The 1597 Members were the sons of the 1563 Members, another neat illustration of the way in which each family had its share. By 1601 Thynne must have thought that it was his turn again, more especially as the 2nd Earl of Pembroke had recently died and the lord lieutenancy had passed or was about to pass to the Earl of Hertford, head of the Seymour family, to which Thynne’s own family was bound so closely. Ironically it was Hertford who now intervened on behalf of two other candidates. To his ‘loving friend John Thynne Esq.’ he wrote from Amesbury 23 Sept. 1601:

Whereas my very good friends Sir Edmund Carey and Sir Edward Hungerford knights by mine own opinion, and in the conceits of many of good place and judgment in this shire, are thought in respect of their experience, knowledge and wisdoms, to be worthy the place of knights of the Parliament house for this county of Wilts. I do desire, not only your own voices, but for the better performance of the good of the Queen, I do also request you to move such as are your friends, and may give voices in this election, to be at Wilton, on Tuesday next being Michaelmas Day, to yield their best help for the finishing of this business: praying you to express what I wish to such as you request to be there, assuring you both of my kind acceptance of your good endeavours, and of my thankfulness towards any, that shall do any thing for my sake in this, which I esteem to be beneficial to the whole shire. And so hoping you will perform with friendly respect what I commend unto you for a common benefit: do leave you to Almighty God.8

Hungerford was a Wiltshire man, but Carey was a younger brother of Lord Hunsdon, commended, no doubt, by his parentage and his relationship with the Queen, but scarcely by his place among Wiltshire gentry. He had no land in the county when he married the rich widow of Sir John Danvers about 1596, and was as much an outsider as Anthony Mildmay. There must have been hard thoughts about his election in others’ minds as well as Thynne’s. Thynne, however, was bound to Hertford; and, with the Herbert influence momentarily in eclipse, who could have challenged such a combination? Thynne had to postpone his own aspirations until 1604; and then he only secured the junior seat.

The story of the Thynnes in Wiltshire county elections does not match their ambitions, nor does it match their power, as measured, for example, in borough elections. There are two reasons: they were subordinate on the one hand to their social superiors, the Herberts and the Seymours, and they were subordinate on the other to the principle that the county representation should be shared among the gentry families.


  • 1. Neale, Essays Eliz. Hist. 49.
  • 2. Thynne mss, ex inf. Mr. John Cooper, Trinity Coll. Oxford.
  • 3. Neale, Commons, 97-98; K.R. mem. roll E159/340, Hill m. 9.
  • 4. VCH Wilts. v. 124-5.
  • 5. Add. 48018, ff. 282-3.
  • 6. Thynne mss 4, f. 230, incorrectly endorsed ‘l580’.
  • 7. Thynne mss 6, f. 72.
  • 8. Thynne mss 7, f. 212.