Available from Boydell and Brewer
Right of Election:
in the freemen
Number of Qualified Electors:
Number of voters:
|11 Mar. 1690||RICHARD HOPKINS|
|19 Nov. 1695||GEORGE BOHUN|
|26 July 1698||SIR CHRISTOPHER HALES, Bt.||802|
|7 Jan. 1701||SIR CHRISTOPHER HALES,|
|24 Dec. 1701||EDWARD HOPKINS||771|
|SIR CHRISTOPHER HALES,||777|
|Thomas Gery Bt.||615|
|Double return of Neale and Hales. HALES declared elected, 24 Feb. 1702|
|22 July 1702||SIR CHRISTOPHER HALES, Bt.|
|22 May 1705||SIR CHRISTOPHER HALES, Bt.||827|
|Sir Orlando Bridgeman, Bt.||597|
|Election declared void, 5 Feb. 1707|
|25 Feb. 1707||SIR ORLANDO BRIDGEMAN,||693|
|Sir Christopher Hales, Bt.||631|
|18 May 1708||SIR ORLANDO BRIDGEMAN, Bt.||707|
|Sir Christopher Hales, Bt.||572|
|17 Oct. 1710||ROBERT CRAVEN||638|
|Sir Orlando Bridgeman, Bt.||4704|
|26 Dec. 1710||CLOBERY BROMLEY vice Craven, deceased|
|24 Apr. 1711||SIR CHRISTOPHER HALES, Bt. vice Bromley, deceased|
|1 Sept. 1713||SIR CHRISTOPHER HALES, Bt. ||49|
|SIR FULWAR SKIPWITH,||42|
Coventry, as Sir John Perceval (John, Viscount Perceval†) observed on his visit there in 1701, was ‘a very populous and trading place’ in which the manufacture, dressing and marketing of cloth was an economic mainstay. The organization of most of the city’s trades into companies endowed the wide freemen electorate with a semblance of political infrastructure. This impression obtains particular weight from the flow of petitions from these trades to Parliament concerning their various economic grievances. Coventry’s population was sharply polarized along confessional lines into Churchmen and Dissenters, which throughout the period sustained the electorate in a state of acute political agitation. The size of the Nonconformist community cannot be estimated accurately, though it has been reckoned that in 1703 something like a quarter of the city’s households contained Dissenters. The Dissenting presence in the city was such as to give visitors the mistaken impression that in toto the sects outnumbered churchgoers. Perceval, for example, noted that both churches were well attended, ‘though the major part of the inhabitants are Quakers, Anabaptists and Presbyterians’. The dominant sect economically and politically was the Presbyterians, and their congregation or ‘Great Meeting’ provided an organizational base for active grass-roots Whiggery. These politico-religious tensions were amplified in the unceasing, frequently litigious struggles between opposing elites of Whigs or ‘Williamites’ and Tories or ‘Jacobites’ for control of the corporation. For most of the period, from 1696 onwards, control was exercised by the Whigs, though the Tories constantly contrived to humiliate and supplant them. Those holding the reins of civic office had access to a fund of petty patronage and the lucrative city charities. The latter were shamelessly tapped and manipulated by corporation officials for their own personal uses, for meeting the expenses of office-holding and of their legal battles, and for promoting party advantage at elections. Inevitably, elections in the city were extensions of the party strife that subsisted perennially between supporters and opponents of the corporation, and provided local notables with opportunities to prosecute their political (and personal) vendettas to heights of violence and extremes of partiality. The candidates, all of them town or local gentry, were no less absorbed in the heady atmosphere of party conflict.6
Two Whigs were returned in 1690: the outgoing Member John Stratford, and Richard Hopkins, a representative of an influential city gentry family, who had last represented Coventry in the third Exclusion Parliament. The election was also contested by Thomas Gery, an ambitious Tory lawyer and son of a city alderman, who in the process was alleged to have spent over £500. At this stage the balance of power in the corporation was held by the Whigs. The Dissenters were noticeably active; one Tory commentator noted in February 1690 that Coventry was one of several Midlands constituencies where Dissenting ‘zeal, malice and money’ were much in evidence. Gery lost the election but petitioned, alleging partiality by the Whig returning officers, the two sheriffs, in closing the poll before ‘several hundred’ more of his supporters had the chance to vote. The elections committee failed to report on the matter, and neither was a renewed petition from Gery any more successful. The following year the Tories overturned the Whig corporation and installed themselves in power. In October the city’s leading Whigs, headed by the steward, Thomas Hopkins, petitioned the King against what they argued had been an improper election of officials. On the King’s commands the case was referred to law but the Whigs were unsuccessful and for the next five years, as the city’s annalist records, the Tories kept out ‘all those they called Whigs or Williamites and brought in men to be mayors and sheriffs of small estates’. In 1695 the composition of the corporate body seems again to have been a singular factor in determining the political complexion of the city’s representatives. A month before the election, when the King stayed with the Earl of Sunderland at Althorp, the ‘Jacobite’ mayor Catesby Oadham had refused outright to ‘pay his duty’ by inviting the King to Coventry as the Whigs had done in June 1690, the corporation having then accorded the monarch a rapturous welcome. In an apparently uncontested election two Tories were returned: George Bohun, a London merchant who maintained strong Coventry connexions, and Gery, the unsuccessful candidate in 1690. Though low-key, this election seems not to have been entirely devoid of struggle since the election date was ‘artificially deferred’, as one correspondent wrote, until the third week in November.7
The Whigs regained control of the corporation in 1696 in circumstances similar to those in which they had lost it in 1691. The ‘Jacobite’ mayor Thomas Palmer fell foul of his own party when they reversed an earlier council decision to defray his expenses in a private legal action. He and his friends thereupon turned to the ‘Williamite’ leaders in the city and ‘effected a revolution in the chamber’. The displaced Tories soon afterwards took the case for trial to King’s bench but failed to prove that their own election of a mayor and other officers had any validity under the city charter. The victorious Whigs, no more scrupulous than their opponents in their management of civic money, settled their legal fees out of the city coffers. The Tories contested the issue again at King’s bench the following year and once more lost. The import of the 1697 proceedings among the citizenry was demonstrated in the triumphant welcome accorded the Whig mayor, Edward Owen, and his party on their return from London when they were conducted into the city by a procession of 300 horse. Thus when Celia Fiennes visited the city in 1697 she found that most of the council members were Dissenters. It was not surprising that there soon developed a symbiotic relationship between the corporation and the Presbyterian ‘Great Meeting’; there are indications, for example, that the construction of a new meeting-house was partly financed out of corporation funds. With the approach of the 1698 election the Whigs could contemplate both seats with confidence. Their candidates were the Hopkins brothers, Richard (the elder), who had represented the city in several previous Parliaments, and Thomas, former steward of the city and now an under-secretary of state. The Tories put up the sitting Member Gery, and Sir Christopher Hales, 2nd Bt., a man with strong local connexions who also happened to be Hopkins’ nephew. The joint candidacy of two members of the Hopkins family may well have appeared as an attempt to entrench their already considerable influence in the city, but it is possible to see the situation in a different light. Thomas Hopkins was ambitious to represent Coventry in the next Parliament; in 1696 he had tried unsuccessfully to increase his political capital with the city electorate by using his bureaucratic connexion with the Duke of Shrewsbury, the secretary of state, to obtain ministerial approval for the city’s application to house one of the mints then being established in several principal towns. Richard Hopkins, according to his son Edward’s memoir, had decided to quit the Commons after long years of service and being ‘weary of the attendance’, but on finding that his ungrateful nephew Hales intended to stand ‘at the instigation of a violent party’ with Gery, ‘an inveterate enemy to our family’, he quickly changed his mind, ‘to show his nephew that our family had a superior interest for one of them to any other in the opposition’. As the election drew near Thomas Hopkins fully expected victory, but in what was undoubtedly a close poll, he was defeated by a mere 45 votes. The instruments of his defeat were most likely to have been a small proportion of electors who split their votes between his elder brother, as the senior of the two Whigs, and Hales. Richard Hopkins can only have been irritated at having to share the return with his Tory nephew, though he had indeed demonstrated his superiority of interest by obtaining a ‘considerable’ overall majority. (On this premise it was thus Hales in second place who had out-distanced Hopkins by 45 votes with a total of 802.) Thomas Hopkins attributed his failure to the machinations of Thomas King, a leading Tory citizen and former mayor. In his petition against the return Hopkins made it plain that the ‘threats and riotous practices’ of Hales’s men had prevented more of his own supporters from voting, while he had informed a Coventry acquaintance that he would seek the first opportunity to find a good lawyer ‘and consider what can be done ag[ains]t King’. On the Tory side, Gery alleged in a petition that one of the sheriffs had exercised ‘great partiality’, adjourning the poll without consulting him. However, neither petition was reported.8
The first election of 1701 seems to have passed by with minimal fuss, receiving barely a mention in the otherwise full contemporary coverage of the city’s electoral affairs during these years. Alongside Hales, Thomas Hopkins was elected unopposed in his brother’s stead. Party animosities had become revitalized, however, by the time of the second 1701 election at the end of the year. Hopkins had quickly sickened of his parliamentary seat and declined to seek re-election. At first his brother Richard hesitated over the Whigs’ request that he allow his son Edward to stand, being ‘a good deal averse to it’ on account of the expense and trouble it would entail, but he relented after agreement on the candidature of Henry Neale, a gentleman of nearby Allesley. Since Hales was standing again with Gery, the younger Hopkins was anxious to continue the private warfare between their two families. He later recalled having no motive on this occasion ‘so strong as my resentment to my kinsman Sir Christopher for his treatment of my father and I was determined to try whether our family had not as good an interest as his’. The election period saw ‘great fighting by the mob encouraged by the gentry in and about the city’. A fortnight before polling was due to begin, a smear campaign was started against Hales by a Nonconformist minister who published a report that the former Member had vindicated the French king’s honour in proclaiming the pretended Prince of Wales. This had probably originated from the inclusion of Hales’s name in a ‘black list’ of opponents of the preparations for war with France, copies of which were also liberally circulated in the city. In evidence given later at the elections committee, a Whig alderman was said to have expressed publicly his relief ‘that the last Parliament was dissolved, for otherwise we should have been brought under the French power and of the Prince of Wales’. There was much eye-witness evidence that Whig agents and bailiffs used threats of ejection from corporation tenancies to extract votes. The Tory candidates refused to co-operate with the aldermen in their capacity as magistrates who, fearing escalations of disorder and attacks on themselves during the election, looked for assurances that there would be no Tory mobbing. The magistrates, failing to obtain such promises, had little option but to decree that only those with a legitimate right to vote would be admitted to the poll. But, as the corporation men must have anticipated, this proved ineffective. On the first day of polling a crowd of some 600, amassed by Hales and Gery, clashed with around 200 supporters of Hopkins and Neale. Hales himself took command of his men, at one point ordering an assault on his and his partner’s opponents. The poll was taken at the guildhall amid constant unruliness and intimidation on either side, and afterwards many told how they had been discouraged from attending. On casting up the votes there appeared majorities for Hales and Hopkins, but Neale demanded a scrutiny on the grounds that Hales was ahead of him by only a handful of votes the validity of which was dubious. The scrutiny, in which each freeman’s qualification to vote was examined, took up ‘several’ more days and even then was not properly completed. Continued bickering and even fisticuffs among the ‘inspectors’ obstructed these proceedings, while Hales grew increasingly impatient and ‘oft demanded a return which the sheriffs oft denied’. The sheriffs eventually declared for Hopkins ‘certain’ but ‘by reason we have not time to go through the scrutiny, Sir C[hristoper] Hales having many to examine, we will return Mr Neale and Sir C. Hales double and Mr Gery not at all’. As Hopkins later recalled, the sheriffs refused in the end to trouble themselves with ‘the nicety’, preferring to leave that task to the House. Proceedings on the return were initiated by petitions presented from Neale, Hales and their respective voters. Hales’s supporters claimed that their opponents, especially the sheriffs, had used ‘illegal practices’ to wrest votes from those wanting to vote Tory. On the other hand, Neale’s supporters emphasized that the turnout and result had been determined by the violence perpetrated by their Tory opponents. The Coventry double return was among the first three cases heard by the elections committee in the new Parliament. Beginning on 21 Jan. 1702 it occupied six more ‘tedious’ night-time sittings and finished on 11 Feb. One Member reported hearing that the ‘trial’ had cost Hales £1,000. Initially, the proceedings dwelt upon the dispute between Hales and Neale over the right of election. Hales’s counsel argued that the franchise lay in freemen not receiving alms or charity money, while Neale’s insisted that it rested in all freemen regardless of such receipts. The committee resolved the question in favour of Hales. Each side then concentrated upon undercutting the other with evidence of corrupt and criminal behaviour at the election and on invalidating large numbers of each other’s votes. The proceedings were conducted with a disorderliness that in the opinion of one Whig compared with the Carlisle election hearing. Hales’s counsel had even attempted at one stage to call Hopkins’ return into question, upon which Hopkins vigorously protested the impropriety of such a move and brought the committee to divide on the matter. On the last night, the 11th, the committee was observed to have proceeded with ‘little moderation and wisdom . . . for the greatest part of the other side [i.e. Hales’s Tory supporters] came drunk’ and prepared with a resolution ‘to cut short the evidence that was made against them’. The question of whether Hales was duly elected was thus put to the committee and passed before there had been any declaration as to the final state of votes on either side. The committee’s verdict, when reported to the House on 24 Feb., met with acrimonious criticism from several Whigs. Robert Dormer, who like Neale enjoyed the patronage of Lord Wharton (Hon. Thomas*), said that
he hoped he should never have lived so long as to see such injustice at the committee confirmed at the House: the case was very hard. They refused Neale from disqualifying of Sir Christopher Hales’s votes because they were not in the lists of charity they had tho[ugh] they had all they demand[ed] or were ordered them[;] they gave in the committee Hales leave to object against what votes he pleased of Neale but tied Neale down to such restrictions that made it impossible for him to object as he ought and cou[ld].
Dormer was ‘seconded’ by Sir Richard Cocks, 2nd Bt., the Whig knight for Gloucestershire, who spoke even more provocatively:
I could not say that I wished not to live so long as to see such things; I had seen them and hoped to live to see them rectified; that I was at the committee and was witness to the several hardships complained of and that I did not see any right, any colour of a majority unless that his [Hales] being one of the black list that I had lately heard so much commended within doors and without by the historian of the late Parliament would create him right to be a Member.
These remarks caused an angry stir, particularly among those Tories who before the elections had themselves been blacklisted as opponents of war, but when Cocks pressed his opinions further the agitation died down and the question was put and carried for agreeing with the committee that Hales had been duly elected. The Tories then delivered a coup de grâce by ordering the sheriffs and under-sheriff into custody as guilty of making a double return unnecessarily, ‘and divers indirect practices’. One Whig MP noted that despite the fact that Neale had ‘a very good case’, it was nevertheless lost ‘by the neglect of our own people . . . who went away’. In his memoir Hopkins recalled: ‘Upon the whole, Mr Neale thought, and I believe not without reason, that he did not meet with justice.’ Hales brought a successful action against the two sheriffs at Queen’s bench in May the following year for not properly returning him a Member though ‘lawfully chose’ and recovered £600 ‘damages’ in addition to ‘costs’. At about the same time Hales also indicted the under-sheriff, Alderman Edward Owen, for distributing the black-list ‘libel’ in and about Coventry. Owen was apparently kept on four assizes before being tried and then acquitted. Looking back many years later Hopkins could not help but consider that the double return had been ‘an ill-advised step’ prompted by the ‘inconsiderate zeal of some of our friends . . . whereas if the sheriffs had returned Sir Chr[istopher] Hales and petitioned, or returned Mr Neale and been petitioned against, they had acted more safely, and avoided the trouble w[hi]ch afterwards ensued’.9
The next election following so closely upon the troubles of the last, Hopkins was hopeful of an ‘amicable composition’ in which the two parties might each return one Member unchallenged. The proposition was all the more desirable since the chances of the Whigs returning two Members in the current climate of party fury seemed unpropitious, and to complicate matters further Neale was unenthusiastic about contesting another election in Coventry. Hopkins therefore thought in terms of an arrangement with his cousin Hales, and so enlisted his mother to initiate negotiations with ‘my Aunt Hales’ and ‘furnished her with arguments to this effect’:
That it was very visible to all the world that our family had an undoubted interest, that likewise the second of the Tory candidates, be he who he would, was always in contests greatly distanced, that the chief contention lay betwixt the first Tory candidate and the second Whig. This for several years appeared to be the temper of the town. That therefore to put an end to the violent party rage and prevent future great expense and vexation to both our families it might be amicably compounded, and that Sir Christopher and I might join. That I was disengaged now from any partner, and that it was supposed he was too, he should, if this proposition was received, engage with nobody and that it was not to be doubted that such a scheme might easily take place when the considerable leaders on each side came to see the advantage of it.
Some days later Lady Hales apprised Mrs Hopkins ‘that her son could not leave his party, and that with them only he should take his measures’. Thus Hales stood once more with Gery, who had lately become a master in Chancery. This response drove Hopkins to an ever stronger hatred of his cousin and his principles, but as Edward Hopkins later recalled in his memoirs, although ‘our friends, many of whom had more zeal than judgment . . . would cry up the names of Mr Neale and myself and demand a poll’, it was becoming clear to their more temperate supporters that ‘a country and town mob would not let the poll be free’, and outbreaks of violence beforehand suggested serious consequences if a poll were to be held. Consequently, ‘our warm people submitted to reason and desisted’. There is some indication, however, that Hopkins and Neale did in fact attempt to stand a poll, but were quickly forced to retreat by renewed fighting and mobbing. Hopkins himself recorded that ‘the riots gave just handle to petition but no redress could at this time be expected’, which would suggest that the poll books must at least have been opened for the possibility of petitioning to have arisen. John Ellis* in the secretary of state’s office was told that the election ‘was very tumultuously carried against Mr Hopkins and Neale, who ’tis said will petition’. Such was Tory fervour at this outcome that by night-time, as Ellis’ informant complained, that ‘the whole town was drunk and the women, and bells rang like mad all night, so that I slept not a wink’.10
In terms of sheer licentiousness and mayhem the 1705 election in Coventry far exceeded those of December 1701 and 1702. The candidates began to emerge in February. Hales haughtily communicated his intention of standing to the Presbyterian mayor, boasting of his own and his forefather’s services to the city, and concluded with unmistakable irony: ‘I doubt not of your interest, and that of your brethren’. Gery also put himself forward. The gentlemen initially proposed as Whig candidates were Hopkins and Sir Orlando Bridgeman, 2nd Bt., another native of the city, but initially there were differences between them over electoral expenditure. It was reported to the Earl of Sunderland (Charles, Lord Spencer*) by George Lucy, who at the time was endeavouring to secure adoption as Whig candidate for Warwickshire, that Hopkins was unwilling to spend money in canvassing, while Bridgeman would not foot any bill unless ‘assured of the preference in the election’. Accordingly, it was then proposed by some 20 or 30 of ‘the chief of the Whig interest’ and with the consent of Hopkins’ father, to set up Bridgeman with a Tory, either Sir Fulwar Skipwith, 2nd Bt., a local gentleman, or, if he refused, Sir Francis Dashwood, 1st Bt.*, the father of both Bridgeman’s and Skipwith’s wives. Lucy trusted that Sunderland would ‘invigorate the undertaking’. However, within a few days, on 25 Feb., Lucy was writing to one of Sunderland’s agents to advise that Bridgeman and Hopkins had ‘united and are now actually making an interest at Coventry’. The Whig candidates arrived in the city to begin canvassing on 6 Mar. while Hales and Gery were still attending the parliamentary session. On the 8th they paraded the streets in the company of several aldermen, attended by a multitude of supporters, one purpose being to extinguish persistent Tory-inspired rumour that they would not be standing. A Tory eyewitness said later in evidence to the elections committee that the Whigs had likewise given out on this occasion that Hales and Gery would retire. Tory supporters had meanwhile gathered in an adjacent street and within a short time violent clashes broke out between the rival mobs. Some several hundred were involved in the affray in which one man was alleged to have died. As might be expected each side cast blame for the riot on the other. Hopkins wrote, typically: ‘We only defended ourselves, but they, the aggressor, came off worst.’ Apprehensive of more trouble during the days of the election, particularly as there were reports that local gentlemen intended to bring in their tenants ‘to back and support the respective parties’, the mayor, Samuel Billing, and his brethren agreed to petition Secretary Harley (Robert*) for a proclamation to forbid strangers meddling in the election and the voters from carrying clubs, sticks or other weapons, and calling on all citizens to conduct themselves peaceably. When Harley eventually responded to this request on 14 May, just nine days before the election, he did not provide the desired proclamation but merely reminded Billing that he, his sheriffs and ‘subordinate officials’ already had the protection of law and must perform their respective duties accordingly; any instances of neglect or complicity were to be notified to either of the secretaries of state for legal proceedings to be initiated. As to the anticipated rowdiness of unenfranchised outsiders the mayor was told to liaise with the lord lieutenant. Notwithstanding, the corporation issued a proclamation of its own, although three aldermen refused to sign it. In the last remaining weeks before the contest the Whig corporators were continually worried by premonitions of violence and by the possibility of subsequent prosecutions by leading Tories for failing to maintain order. Billing tried to bring the parties to an undertaking that their supporters would not turn up en masse and armed. It is quite possible he was concerned above all that the Tory sheriffs, Thomas Smyth and Thomas Chiswell, would, as returning officers, facilitate the obstruction of Whig voters. However, Hales and Gery refused to countenance Billing’s proposals, to which Hopkins and Bridgeman had agreed, for polling each ward separately. Gery was afterwards reported by Billing to have been particularly defiant, accusing him of intending to ‘busy’ himself at the election. He warned that as a deputy lieutenant he too ‘had a share of power’ in the city, and if the mayor deployed the constables, he too would raise men to take care of the peace. According to Billing’s own later testimony to the elections committee he set a ‘strong watch’ the night before the election consisting of about 30 to 40 men armed with ‘halberds’. Tory eyewitnesses swore there were many more, all handpicked as being supporters of the Whig candidates. Evidently, in the course of the night large numbers of others attached themselves to the watch spoiling for a fight. Disturbances broke out in the early hours involving small parties of armed men: at 3.00 a.m. Gery appeared leading 100 supporters, and by 5.00 a.m. a full-scale riot was under way. Billing and several aldermen made ineffectual attempts to support the watch, and to disperse the 400 or so rioters, but were beaten off. The throng ‘marched about the city in riotous manner till nine of the clock and then they possessed themselves of the guildhall’. By this time they numbered between 600 and 700, and for the three-day period of election (22–24 May), controlled the admission of voters. Those favouring the Tory candidates were admitted unhindered, but ‘they were ready to eat’ any offering themselves for the Whigs. ‘A poll was carried on’, one corporation witness recorded, ‘in a tumultuous and partial manner, all being admitted that offered for them [Hales and Gery], and hundreds on the other side refused and deterred from coming; such as came being many of them horsed, viz. carried on men’s shoulders upon cowl staff and dragged upon the ground.’ The sheriffs did nothing to prevent these ructions, having somehow ‘indemnified’ themselves, while the mayor and his cohorts were powerless to do more than ‘observe’. The extremes of partiality were well reflected in the abnormally high majorities for the victorious candidates, Hales and Gery. Billing complained bitterly and at length to Harley on 27 May and exonerated himself and his colleagues, but there is no evidence that Harley ever replied. Towards the end of September Bridgeman was in communication with Whig heads in the city, especially Edward Owen, over the terms of a petition against the return: ‘I desired you [when here] that you would take the trouble to digest under heads what on a petition we could prove, of the riot, partiality of the sheriffs, disqualifying our antagonists’ votes and qualifying of numbers we had not liberty to poll’. Hopkins was recuperating from a serious leg injury sustained before the election and was unavailable to sign a candidates’ petition with Bridgeman. In any case the chances of reversing the return in favour of Bridgeman and Hopkins were believed to be minimal and would entail enormous costs. It was therefore agreed that the best course was for a petition to come from the ‘most substantial freemen’, complaining that the election had been severely disrupted by riot. The new Parliament, so it was thought, promising to be strongly Whiggish, might well prove sympathetic and declare the election void. Friends of Bridgeman versed in parliamentary business assured him that the process of ‘proving the riots’, which was all that was necessary to invalidate the election, would be comparatively inexpensive, requiring no more than ten witnesses including the mayor and several alderman. Moreover, if the House would accept a hearing at the bar on a particular date, the expense would be further minimized since referral to the elections committee would result in costs arising from maintaining witnesses in London until the committee was ready to hear the case. On 1 Nov. Thomas Hopkins, presumably having consulted his ministerial friends and contacts, wrote to Owen, ‘I have great encouragement for setting aside the election’, though in a cautionary afterthought added, ‘further I can’t promise. It must be your business to look to it hereafter.’ The freemen’s petition was presented on the 13th, but a motion to hear it at the bar was defeated by 199 votes to 172. It had been decided beforehand not to pursue it in the elections committee. However, both sides went ahead with their indictments against each other for riot, with charges against almost 150 individuals. The cases were heard at the Coventry assizes in July 1706 before Baron Price (Robert*). The Tories were hopeful that, if successful, their prosecution of the Whig civic leaders for criminal provocation of the disturbances would enable them to recover their former superiority in the corporate body. At the trial Price found party animosities running high, ‘the mob so violent’, as he informed Harley, ‘that I despaired of doing justice there’. He was probably apprehensive of a potentially inflammatory situation when he warned the jurors ‘that if they found them [the magistrates] guilty they must overthrow the government of the city’. Billing and his fellow party-men were acquitted, while only a limited number of provocateurs received substantial sentences. With evident self-satisfaction, Price was able to conclude his report on the matter to Harley: ‘I have brought both sides to so much temper that there is a prospect of fair weather.’ The outcome must have fortified the defeated Whig candidates and encouraged them to petition anew. This was done on 4 Dec. and a report made to the House on 5 Feb. 1707. In their testimony to the committee the Tories made ludicrous claims that the poll ‘was as high as at any time within 20 years’ and that they had never seen a Coventry election ‘so peaceably’ or so ‘fairly’ conducted. The House agreed that Hales had not been properly elected, and then reached the same conclusion about Gery without trying the question. Another motion was carried, declaring the election to have been ‘a notorious riot and tumult in contempt of civil authority and in violation of the freedom of elections’. Writs were issued on the 7th, and the same candidates as in 1705, Hales and Gery for the Tories, Bridgeman and Hopkins for the Whigs, began electioneering. Both sides strained every nerve to capture votes. Hopkins, reporting to the city’s Whig recorder, the 2nd Earl of Coventry, on 20 Feb., wrote that:
we meet with a very vigorous opposition, so that every vote is of consequence. It is of advantage to endeavour to prevail with those that stay at home who are bigoted to the contrary principle. We have no reason to apprehend the strength of our antagonists, provided we can have fair and impartial proceedings.
Hales was apparently attacked by a band of ‘the Whiggish fanatical party’ and incarcerated in a local gaol as he journeyed towards Coventry for the election. Beginning on the 25th, the poll was closed on 27 Feb. and a return made of Hopkins and Bridgeman. The results show that the contest had been very close, with only 46 votes separating Hopkins in second place from Hales in third. As Hopkins recalled much later, many of ‘that scum of the people who had been admitted by the former sheriffs [in 1705], had not so much as the assurance to tender their votes at this second poll’. Tory freemen petitioned against ‘many illegal practices’ employed by the mayor and aldermen on the Whig behalf: in particular the Whig sheriffs were supposed to have controlled admissions to the poll. However, the elections committee did not proceed on the allegations.11
Little more than a year later the city was once again feverishly preparing for the polls. With the election set for the third week of May 1708, Hopkins reported to his uncle Thomas on 24 Apr. that no Tory opposers had yet materialized to challenge him and Bridgeman, but it was understood ‘they design something by their violent partisans reserving their votes, at least one’. He hinted that Gery’s credibility among the Tories was under strain, as it had evidently been in the previous by-election contest, and from this he, Hopkins, stood to benefit: ‘those Tories who pretend to try their strength for Gery give out that they’ll vote for me and I find my interest much greater amongst the people than ever or than I could have expected’. Hopkins believed that Gery’s position, and whether he would stand, depended entirely on the successful outcome to the long Chancery case initiated in 1695 against the corporation for its misuse over many decades of the Sir Thomas White charity funds, upon which a decision was known to be imminent. Appropriately, it had been Gery in his capacity as a Chancery master who had supervised the case in its later stages and it was clearly hoped that a report incriminating the Whig-dominated corporate body would serve his own cause. However, as the case foundered upon further complication, Gery appears to have judged it imprudent for him to stand. Instead, Hales was partnered by Robert Craven, whose family, the lords Craven, were seated at nearby Coombe Abbey and held a substantial interest in the city. At the election, however, the Tories were again outpolled by the Whigs, this time with slightly larger majorities. Craven duly petitioned, complaining that the sheriffs had acted with ‘great partiality’ for the winning candidates. The merits were heard at the bar on 1 and 3 Mar. 1709 but efforts to disqualify Whig voters, centring on recipients of White’s charity, only resulted in confirmation of the original return.12
The outcome of the Sacheverell trial in March 1710 naturally invigorated the morale of city Tories. During his summer progress around the Midlands the doctor was jubilantly welcomed into Coventry by a crowd of some 5,000 and during an entertainment presided over by Lord Leigh, a local peer, ‘prosperity was drunk to the Church and health to the Queen, the 52 lords and the doctor by that noble lord’. News of the dissolution of Parliament following the dismissals of Whig ministers was joyously received in Coventry on 22 Sept. and celebrated by a ‘ringing of bells’ which lasted throughout the next day. For the forthcoming contest the Tories put up Gery and Craven, who, as Dyer reported on 7 Oct., were ‘sure of being elected’. Threatened by this buoyant Tory mood, the corporation Whigs, in what was clearly an election stunt, invited the newly appointed recorder, Sunderland, to receive the freedom of the city and to propose the adoption of Bridgeman and Hopkins as Whig candidates. From the corporation’s point of view the death in August of the previous recorder, Coventry, was highly fortuitous as it allowed them to select in his stead a senior Whig politician who, in the remaining weeks before the contest, might be depended upon to boost Whig morale. In Tory circles, however, it was known that Sunderland had been one of the chief advocates of Sacheverell’s impeachment, and after the election it was reported in the Post Boy that he had been responsible for the choice of two sheriffs ‘chosen on purpose to serve the Whig interest’. When he arrived on 2 Oct., however, Sunderland was so much mobbed and vilified that he was forced to leave hurriedly next day without having partaken of the hospitality planned for his visit. Polling began on 17 Oct. and the Tories quickly developed a steady lead over the Whigs, emerging victorious on the 19th. The Post Boy commented on the incongruity of the result, given that the result was declared
by two sheriffs chosen on purpose to serve the Whig interest . . . The issue of this election is the more remarkable because the government of this corporation is in the hands of professed Dissenters, who have of late been notorious for electing officers with a desire to procure the return of their old Members, and its thought at the instigation of a gentleman lately gone for London [i.e. Sunderland].
Whereas local High Church gentlemen and clergy had turned out in force to support the Tory candidates, the Whigs were said to have comprised those of ‘mean tradesmen and the scum of the rabble’. Not surprisingly the Whigs took out indictments for disorderly behaviour against several of Craven’s supporters and the trials were held at Coventry the following March. It was said in court ‘that the prosecution were malicious and the grand jury had a sort of reprimand for finding the bills, being a party business’. Craven died shortly before the new Parliament opened, and on 5 Dec. two petitions were submitted from the Whiggish freemen who complained of Tory favouritism in the conduct of the poll, but this cut little ice in a Tory-dominated House. At the ensuing by-election towards the end of December 1710, Clobery Bromley, the eldest son of the new Speaker, was returned apparently without opposition. Another by-election was necessitated by Bromley’s sudden death in March 1711. This unforeseen event enabled Hales, out of the House since 1708, to resume his seat alongside his old friend Gery with minimal expense. On 13 Dec. a group of freemen, mainly of the city’s fullers’ company, renewed a separate complaint to the House that at the 1710 election they had been debarred from exercising their traditional voting rights, on account of the resolution of 1 Mar. 1709 restricting the franchise to freemen who had served apprenticeships within the city. Many lived in the ‘suburbs’ outside the city limits where the fulling mills tended to be situated but still paid Church and poor rates. The petition was taken up by the elections committee and its resolution, approved by the House allowed members of the company to vote.13
The Whig hold on the corporation was loosened in 1712 by the latest developments in the legal saga concerning White’s charity. On 4 Mar. Lord Keeper Harcourt (Simon I*) ordered the entire White charity estate and the administration of its £900 annual yield to be placed in the hands of a group of trustees. This drastic measure was imposed owing to the corporation’s failure to comply with Harcourt’s order of February 1711 to restore £2,241, the total amount which it had continued to milk from the estate in disregard of the Lords’ decree of 1703 that surplus profits from the estates should be devoted solely to the charitable purposes for which it had originally been constituted. The new 31-strong trust consisted entirely of Tory gentlemen and citizens, all recommended by Gery, and included himself, Hales and Speaker Bromley. At a stroke, therefore, the corporation was suddenly deprived of a source of patronage which for years had guaranteed it the electoral allegiance of large numbers of freemen. A memorandum on the case drawn up in April 1715 by or for Edward Hopkins stated that in consequence of the Tory trustees having full control of disposable income of the White estate, ‘the dependence of the freemen is altered’. There was no doubt in Hopkins’ mind, as he stressed to Sunderland in May 1715, ‘that these troubles have been stirred up by some persons to revenge themselves of the magistrates for concerning themselves pretty zealously in the election of Members of Parliament’. Most sinister of all, he continued, was the fact that
this affair happened to pass through the hands of Mr Gery who acts in concert with his party at Coventry, who is known in everything to be a party man and though I would be very far from reflecting upon him in the execution of his office, yet I must leave everybody to judge whether he can wish well to people he has treated so ill upon other occasions and whose resentment he has felt.
The crisis felt within the corporate body at this juncture was doubtless exacerbated by the recent passage of the Occasional Conformity Act (1711). A sequence of resignations from the corporation occurred during March 1712 though it is not clear whether these were related to the White case or were the result of objections by Dissenters to the new sacramental requirements.14
This weakening in the Whigs’ armoury, boosting Tory confidence, dictated the outcome of the 1713 election. Two Tories were put up, Hales, the outgoing Member, and in Gery’s stead Sir Fulwar Skipwith, who had come into a Warwickshire estate through marriage and whose connexion with Coventry stemmed from his being the uncle and guardian of the young 3rd Lord Craven. The Whigs, however, saw fit to enter only one candidate, John Neale of Allesley, son of the Member who had sat earlier in the period. The poll on 1 Sept. closed after only an hour during which time five freemen who had voted for Neale were publicly abused and subjected to ritual barbarity by a Tory gang. Chased and beaten, they were hauled onto a nine-foot high wooden horse placed outside the guildhall, ‘and instead of tying muskets (as the soldiers used to do) there were several men hung with their weight upon each leg’. Neale quickly realized the hopelessness of his cause, and with the Tories so obviously geared to terrorize his would-be supporters, he withdrew from the contest, enabling the sheriffs to declare the return of Hales and Skipwith. A petition of ‘many hundreds’ of Coventry freemen, protested at the intensity of bullying which had prevented a fair and proper election, but the Tory bias of the new Parliament precluded its consideration. Within a short space of time, however, the Hanoverian succession heralded the restoration of a Whig electoral hegemony in the city which was to endure well into the 18th century. The corrupt and well-tried techniques of poll manipulation by Whig corporators proved especially difficult for Tories to challenge effectively under an oligarchical regime.15
Author: Andrew A. Hanham
- 1. Post Boy, 1–4 Mar. 1707.
- 2. Daily Courant, 4 Mar. 1707.
- 3. Post Man, 27–29 May 1708.
- 4. Post Boy, 21–24 Oct. 1710.
- 5. Flying Post, 8–10 Sept. 1713.
- 6. Add. 47057, f. 55; 11364, ff. 25–30; T. W. Whitley, Parl. Rep. Coventry, 123; Journeys of Celia Fiennes ed. Morris, 113–14; Midland Hist. iv. 17, 28–29; VCH Warws. viii. 251, 267; Acct. of Loans, Benefactions and Charities Belonging to . . . Coventry (1802).
- 7. Harl. 7017, ff. 293–4, 296; Add. 11364, ff. 25–26; Whitley, 120–1; Surr. RO (Guildford), Midleton mss 1248/1, f. 232; Folger Shakespeare Lib. Newdigate newsletter 21 Nov. 1691; Bodl. Ballard 25, f. 20.
- 8. Whitley, 123–4; Add. 11364, f. 27; CSP Dom. 1696, p. 254; Journeys of Celia Fiennes, 114; Midland Hist. 28–29; Hopkins mss, ‘Travels and Mems. of . . . Ed. Hopkins’ (Hist. of Parl. trans.); Add. 28883, ff. 11, 72, 92; BL, Trumbull Add. mss 98, John Bridges to Sir William Trumbull*, 5 Aug. 1698; Coventry AO, Coventry bor. recs. Ford coll. A79/308B, Thomas Hopkins to Jeremiah Wither, 13 Sept. 1698.
- 9. Hopkins mss, ‘Travels and Mems.’; Add. 11364, ff. 29–30; 70075, newsletter 15 May 1703; BL, Lothian mss, ‘Sir Christopher Hales’ case upon the double return for Coventry’; Cumbria RO (Carlisle), Lonsdale mss D/Lons/W2/2/5, James* to Sir John Lowther, 2nd Bt. I*, 10, 12 Feb. 1702; Cocks Diary, 223–4; Liverpool RO, Norris mss 920 NOR2/216, Thomas Johnson* to Richard Norris*, 24 Feb. 1701[–2]; Luttrell, Brief Relation, v. 297, 307–8.
- 10. Hopkins mss, ‘Travels and Mems.’; Add. 28890, f. 337; 11364, f. 30.
- 11. Ford coll. A79/309, Hales to mayor of Coventry, 24 Feb. 1704–5; Add. 61496, ff. 84–85; 70040, f. 139; 70264, mayor of Coventry to Harley, 21 May 1705; Hopkins mss, ‘Travels and Mems.’; Nottingham Univ. Lib. Portland (Harley) mss Pw2 Hy 545, Harley to mayor of Coventry, 14 May 1705; EHR, xxxiv. 501–2; Warws. RO, Mordaunt of Walton Hall mss CR1368/iv/42, William Clerke to Sir John Mordaunt, 5th Bt.*, 23 May 1705; Coventry bor. recs. 1946–9, ‘Letters 3’, Sir Orlando Bridgeman to Edward Owen, 22 Sept., 20, 27 Oct., Thomas Hopkins to same, 30 Oct., 1 Nov. 1705; Luttrell, v. 611; vi. 135; Hearne Colls. i. 283, 336–7; HMC Portland, iv. 320; Whitley, 134; Beaufort mss at Badminton House, Coventry pprs., Edward Hopkins to [E. of Coventry]. 20 Feb. ; Folger Shakespeare Lib. Newdigate newsletter 8 Feb. 1706–7; Daily Courant, 1 Mar. 1707.
- 12. Hopkins mss, Edward to Thomas Hopkins, 24 Apr. 1708; Add. 61655, ff. 153, 156; 36868, f. 10.
- 13. G. Holmes, Trial of Sacheverell, 246–7; Atterbury Epistolary Corresp. i. 28; Add. 70421, newsletter 7 Oct. 1710; Northants RO, Isham mss IC 3759, John to Sir Justinian Isham, 4th Bt.*, 7 Oct. 1710; Post Boy, 19–21, 24–26 Oct. 1710; Nottingham Univ. Lib. Mellish mss 144–83/44, Jonathan Johnson to Sir Thomas Parker*, 10 Mar. 1710[–11].
- 14. Acct. of Loans, Benefactions and Charities Belonging to . . . Coventry (1802), 150–63; Add. 61655, ff. 153–6; Whitley, 139–40; Midland Hist. 30, 47n, 75.
- 15. Whitley, 140; Flying Post, 8–10 Sept. 1713; Ford coll. ‘Informations’ [1713 election]; VCH Warws. 267.