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

Background Information

Right of Election:

in the corporation

Number of voters:

48 in 1575; 38 in 16271


27 Jan. 1607JOHN CORBET vice St. John, appointed to office
c. Feb. 1626SIR JAMES FULLERTON vice Harington, chose to sit for Hertford

Main Article

Portsmouth’s strategic position and fine natural harbour made it an ideal naval base, although the presence of the garrison and its governor were occasionally a source of friction with the townsmen. Camden noted that ‘in war-time it is much frequented, at other times scarce at all, the inhabitants being more attentive to war and navigation than to trade’.2 The borough received its first charter in 1194, and was incorporated with a governing body specified only as the ‘mayor and burgesses’ in 1600.3 Two Members were first sent to Parliament in 1295; the franchise was confined to the corporation, and elections were held in the guildhall.4 Electoral patronage was dominated by the governor, who usually nominated one, and sometimes both, Members. During the 1620s Sir Daniel Norton*, who lived seven miles away at Southwick and held the lease of the town’s two rectories, also exerted a claim to one of Portsmouth’s seats.5

In 1604 the 1st earl of Devonshire (Sir Charles Blount†), who was both governor and high steward of the town, nominated his kinsman Sir Oliver St. John for the senior seat. The second Member, Richard Jenvey, was an obscure townsman whose wages of 4s. a day for five sessions, plus 20s. for horse hire as required, must have proved an exceptional drain on the borough’s resources.6 On Devonshire’s death in 1606 the corporation invited the 1st earl of Salisbury (Robert Cecil†) to accept the high stewardship, while the king appointed Sir Francis Vere† as the next governor.7 At the start of the third session of the Parliament in November 1606 a writ was issued for a by-election to replace St. John, who had been appointed master of the ordnance in Ireland. The corporation offered the nomination to Salisbury, and as a result the latter’s client John Corbet was elected the following January.8 William Herbert, 3rd earl of Pembroke, became governor following Vere’s death in 1609, and held the post for the rest of the period.9 Soon after his appointment the corporation presented him with a list of grievances, and requested that soldiers should be forbidden to exercise trades or keep alehouses, that their dependants should not become a charge on the borough, and that the constables should have the right of pursuit throughout the garrison.10 Pembroke’s answer was conciliatory but the corporation, alarmed by a report that he intended to have his powers increased by patent, appealed to Salisbury.11 They also asked Salisbury’s furtherance for a bill to establish a customs house at Portsmouth. No such bill was ever introduced in Parliament, presumably because it was not needed, as Salisbury, the lord treasurer, seems to have acted on his own authority to establish a customs house before his death. At any event, the first port book registering customs entries at Portsmouth dates from Christmas 1612.12

Following Salisbury’s death in May 1612 the office of high steward appears to have fallen into abeyance. Relations between the garrison and the town remained somewhat strained, and in the absence of a high steward, the mayor and brethren petitioned the Privy Council to arbitrate in the summer of 1613.13 The Council’s involvement in its affairs may help to explain the corporation’s decision to return, at the general election in 1614, John Griffith II, secretary to one of the most important members of the Council, Henry Howard, earl of Northampton. Certainly neither Northampton nor Griffith had any other discernable link with the town.14 The second seat went to George Thorpe, a board member of the Virginia Company, in which Pembroke was a leading partner. In December 1620 Norton claimed the first seat, together with Pembroke’s most valuable henchman, Sir Benjamin Rudyard in second. Both were elected with the ‘whole assent and consent’ of the corporation.15

Royalty twice graced Portsmouth with visits in 1623, once when James came to inspect the fleet in August, and once when Prince Charles returned from his doomed trip to Spain in October.16 In the 1624 elections Pembroke, now lord chamberlain, nominated both Members; possibly Norton, who was chosen as a Hampshire knight of the shire, may have surrendered his patronage at Portsmouth in return for the earl’s support in the county elections. The first seat went to Sir William Uvedale, a courtier who lived at Wickham, eight miles north of Portsmouth, and Rudyard was re-elected in second place. Rudyard moved up to the first seat in 1625, while Norton took the second.

In September 1625 the corporation petitioned the Privy Council for a renewal of its privileges, and asked for a monopoly of tobacco imports and of exports to New England. Nothing came of the request, and in the following month the town’s administration was paralysed by a severe outbreak of plague.17 Ahead of the 1626 election Rudyard recommended his brother-in-law Sir William Harington, Pembroke’s lieutenant, who was returned with the recorder, Thomas Whatman.18 In the event Harington was also elected at Hertford, leaving a vacancy at Portsmouth. A new writ was issued on 11 Feb., and Harington’s place was taken by the Scottish courtier Sir James Fullerton, also a member of the Pembroke circle.19

Despite two further plague outbreaks, Portsmouth was chosen as the embarkation point for the military expeditions to the Ile de RĂ© and La Rochelle, and the duke of Buckingham, in his role as lord admiral, made his headquarters at the house of William Towerson II.20 The corporation capitalized on the royal favourite’s presence by suing for a new charter, granted on 17 Nov. 1627. This established a council consisting of the mayor and 12 senior aldermen, and also formally recognized the recorder and the other municipal officers.21 By the time of the next election Pembroke, whose nephew had recently been betrothed to Buckingham’s infant daughter, may have agreed to let Buckingham choose Portsmouth’s candidate. The mayor wrote to the lord admiral’s secretary Edward Nicholas* on 6 Feb. 1628 that ‘I dare promise nothing until the summons and warrants be out and come to us’ but gave an assurance that ‘upon my lord his grace’s letter to us we shall think ourselves happy to grant his grace’s request’.22 In the event the corporation with ‘the whole assent and consent of the rest of the burgesses’, returned two of their own number, Towerson II and Owen Jennens, both of whom were local admiralty officials. They were probably selected at the behest of Buckingham’s client, Lord Conway (Sir Edward Conway I*), secretary of state and vice admiral of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight.23

Authors: Virginia C.D. Moseley / Rosemary Sgroi


  • 1. VCH Hants, iii. 177-8.
  • 2. Portsmouth Pprs. xv. 6; W. Camden, Britannia (1772), i. 217.
  • 3. VCH Hants, iii. 176-7, 181.
  • 4. C219/38/201.
  • 5. Winchester Coll. muniments, 15256B, 15257-8.
  • 6. Portsmouth RO, CE1/3, f. 47; CSP Dom. 1603-10, p. 64; Portsmouth Recs. ed. R. East, 627.
  • 7. HMC Hatfield, xiii. 103; HMC Buccleuch, i. 106.
  • 8. HMC Hatfield, xix. 7.
  • 9. Portsmouth Recs. 637.
  • 10. Add. 33283, ff. 85-6.
  • 11. HMC Hatfield, xxi. 190-1.
  • 12. HMC Hatfield, xxiv. 209.
  • 13. APC, 1613-14, pp. 105-6; Portsmouth Recs. 155.
  • 14. L. Levy Peck, Northampton, 36-7.
  • 15. C219/37/216.
  • 16. Oglander Mems. ed. W.H. Long, 17; CSP Dom. 1623-5, p. 93.
  • 17. APC, 1625-6, pp. 165, 184, 244.
  • 18. V.A. Rowe, ‘Influence of the Earls of Pembroke on Parlty. Elections, 1625-41’, EHR, l. 243.
  • 19. C231/4, f. 195.
  • 20. APC, 1626, p. 33; 1627, p. 390; CSP Dom. 1627-8, p. 205; R. Lockyer, Buckingham, 375.
  • 21. Portsmouth Recs. 585.
  • 22. Procs. 1628, vi. 159.
  • 23. C219/41A/85.