New Radnor Boroughs


Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, ed. D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley, 2002
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Background Information

Right of Election:

in the freemen of New Radnor, Cefnllys, Knighton, Knucklas, Rhayader

Number of voters:

345 in 1690


17 Mar. 1690SIR ROWLAND GWYNNE2511 1722
 Robert Harley173 
 ROBERT HARLEY vice Gwynne, on petition, 12 Nov. 1690  
28 Oct. 1695ROBERT HARLEY  
1 Aug. 1698ROBERT HARLEY  
13 Jan. 1701ROBERT HARLEY  
29 Nov. 1701ROBERT HARLEY  
27 July 1702ROBERT HARLEY  
21 May 1705ROBERT HARLEY  
21 May 1708ROBERT HARLEY  
9 Oct. 1710ROBERT HARLEY  
16 July 1711EDWARD HARLEY, Ld. Harley, vice Harley, called to the Upper House  
8 Sept. 1713EDWARD HARLEY, Ld. Harley  

Main Article

Although New Radnor itself exceeded in size any of the other out-boroughs the disparity was not so great as to afford it an easy dominance within the constituency; nor did the fact that its bailiff acted as returning officer give the corporation the power to control parliamentary elections. There was an alternative focus of influence in the person of the steward of the crown manors in the county, who admitted freemen to three of the four remaining boroughs (the exception was Cefnllys) at his courts leet. Yet, as the 1690 election was to demonstrate, the resources of the corporation and the stewardship might not always be sufficient, even if combined, to overbalance a major landed interest, backed by powerful parliamentary connexions. Only if deployed in conjunction with the superior authority of a territorial magnate could their full weight be felt: such was the case after 1690, when possession of the stewardship and ascendancy over the New Radnor corporation assisted in placing the seat entirely at the disposal of Robert Harley.

The contest in 1690 lay between Harley and the outgoing knight of the shire, Sir Rowland Gwynne, who had relinquished his pretensions to the county representation in the belief that his ally Richard Williams, Member for the Boroughs in the Convention, would stand a better chance of winning widespread support from gentry and freeholders. For his part Gwynne seemed himself to hold the trump cards in the Boroughs: he was steward of the crown manors, and a common councilman in New Radnor. Moreover, at first sight the coast seemed clear: Harley, the most dangerous of his potential rivals, was occupied elsewhere. By the time Harley decided to withdraw from the contest at Leominster and ‘to hasten and secure Radnor’ Gwynne either felt he had gone too far to retreat or was temporarily enjoying enough confidence in his own position to resist moral blackmail from the Harleys. So great was the family’s local prestige, and in particular the reputation of Robert’s father Sir Edward*, that Gwynne found considerable embarrassment in rejecting their lofty demands for him to give way, couched as they were in terms both of personal obligation and party loyalty, to the Whiggism that each of the candidates had traditionally professed. With typical self-righteousness the Harleys interpreted his obstinacy as the effect of an intrigue practised by their Herefordshire enemy Thomas Coningsby*, an inference unsupported by any surviving evidence. As they indignantly brought their own forces into play, Gwynne’s self-confidence seems to have wavered. Delaying tactics from both the county sheriff and the bailiff of New Radnor, supporters of Gwynne, put off the election by almost a month, and in that time Gwynne’s deputy in the stewardship allegedly did all he could to ‘terrify’ Harley’s voters. Gwynne seems also to have contemplated various permutations of the franchise which might have turned to his advantage, notably the inclusion of three further out-boroughs which were within his jurisdiction as steward: Norton, Painscastle and Presteigne. At the election itself, according to Harley’s version of events, Gwynne was given the option of polling either all ‘sworn’ freemen or all that ‘had burgage hold’ (presumably freeholders) in the boroughs. He opted for the former, and on this basis the five customary boroughs were polled. When it became clear that the majority would fall to Harley, Gwynne produced the freemen from the three new boroughs: 45 from Presteigne (at least half of whom had been sworn since the teste of the writ), 34 from Painscastle and an unspecified number from Norton. Because of Harley’s protests these votes were not enrolled in the town clerk’s poll book but kept separate. The bailiff then declared Gwynne elected, and when a scrutiny revealed Harley to have a majority of three in the poll book, the bailiff promptly disallowed two of his votes, polled himself for Gwynne and having thus evened out the totals reiterated his original declaration and made the return. The inevitable petition turned on the question of the inclusion of the three extra boroughs. Other tactics contemplated by Gwynne in defence of his position proved abortive. An insistence that freemen be inhabitants or at least freeholders was evidently not pursued, documents among the Harley papers demonstrating that not only were some of Gwynne’s supporters in Rhayader outsiders and two of his principal henchmen in New Radnor had ‘no estate anywhere’, but also that on a calculation of inhabitant voters in the five boroughs Harley would have enjoyed a majority of 69 votes to 39. Gwynne did make some efforts in committee to ‘disqualify’ more of Harley’s voters but ‘upon hearing two witnesses of the other [Gwynne’s] side, and the weakness of Sir R. G.[’s] defence, the committee were so satisfied not to hear any more proofs’. In fact, Harley was able to respond more successfully in kind, his evidence striking off almost a third of Gwynne’s voters. The central point of the debate, the extra boroughs, went equally badly for Gwynne. His counsel relied upon a strained interpretation of a Henrician statute (27 Hen. VIII, c.26) on the levying of the ‘burgess fee’; an Elizabethan return, which proved to be so ‘torn and obliterated’ as to be illegible; and a copy of the 1680 indenture, which was said to have included the Painscastle bailiff among the parties to the return. Against this Harley offered the testimony of two aged freemen of New Radnor, one of whom had served for 20 years as town clerk, that only the five customary boroughs had ever been known to participate in elections. The presentation of an unreadable document, and the surprising information that Gwynne had been desperate enough to cast a vote for himself, reduced the House to laughter. Gwynne compounded the farce by speaking from the floor in his own behalf (one of only three members openly to espouse his cause), and Harley, whose canvassing of his father’s manifold connexions in the House paid handsome dividends, carried the decision with ease. The outcome of the report to the Commons was an even greater humiliation for Gwynne, Williams’ being the only voice raised against acceptance of the committee’s resolutions.3

For all that the Harleys affected to regard this parliamentary triumph as a further providential dispensation, they quickly grasped the levers of power within the constituency in order to settle Robert’s occupation of the seat. The struggle over the petition had been too time-consuming and financially exhausting (costing in all £500) for them to contemplate a repetition. New Radnor corporation was their first target. Already, during the summer of 1690, Robert Harley had been admitted a freeman of the borough in what seems to have been a preliminary incursion into Gwynne’s domain. Then, almost concurrently with the hearing of the election petition, the Harleyite faction in the corporation made a dramatic advance. Having achieved the election of a sympathizer, John Davies, as bailiff, they succeeded in removing Gwynne and Richard Williams from the common council. To this the ‘adverse party’ responded by moving for a mandamus to have their own claimant to the bailiff’s office sworn instead. Although losing their case, both at King’s bench and at the local assizes, where the suit was revived, they came close enough to success to maintain their morale and to induce one of the Harleys’ most trusted advisers, Robert Price*, to advocate a compromise. The anti-Harleyites were also emboldened by the intervention of the Herefordshire Tory Sir John Morgan, 2nd Bt.*, who in the spring of 1690 announced his intention to stand for one of the Radnorshire seats at the next election. Despite his partisan affiliation Morgan was willing to throw in his lot with Gwynne and Williams in a coalition whose sole purpose was to prevent the Harleys from engrossing the county and Boroughs representation. The bailiff’s election in the autumn of 1691 witnessed a major test of strength between the rival groups. Hugh Stephens, the Harleys’ candidate, was opposed by one of Gwynne’s lieutenants, Henry Vaughan, ostensibly in a conflict of personalities arising from some local quarrel, but in reality part of a campaign directed by Morgan and Richard Williams to undermine the Harley interest. The result was a victory for Stephens, ‘notwithstanding the vapour of enemies’, as Sir Edward Harley put it. But once again the Harleys’ opponents were far from downcast. Vaughan followed his party’s previous strategy of pursuing a claim to be the lawfully elected bailiff, hounding his rival with ‘a riotous rabble’. To be sure of their position the Harleys required control of the crown manors as well, and, advised by his brother Edward*, Robert now embarked upon a court intrigue to relieve Gwynne of the stewardship. This proved a decisive blow: at the news of his appointment ‘the minds of the adverse party were extremely sore’, as one of Harley’s agents told him. In a convenient demonstration of the fact that the scales of local political power had now dropped decisively in the Harleys’ favour, a by-election for the county in November 1692, in which the same sets of principals were involved as in the Boroughs, ended in the return of Robert Harley’s nominee. On this occasion the backlash reached new depths of violence. Two brothers, Thomas and Nourse Lewis, their resentment aggravated by an unwarranted belief that Robert Harley had been responsible for their recent exclusion from the commission of the peace, worked out their grudge in an armed assault on their tormentor in the streets of New Radnor. Having survived what he felt to have been a plot to murder him, Harley took a legal revenge, part of which consisted of demanding Thomas Lewis’ removal from the corporation of New Radnor. The peremptory tone in which he addressed the bailiff and common councilmen on this occasion illustrates vividly the authority he could now command:

I look upon this attempt [to be] of so base a nature . . . particularly upon examination of some circumstances which make manifest the villainy of the design. I therefore desire and expect that you summon a chamber with all convenient speed and there remove Mr Thomas Lewis from being a common councilman . . . with express mention of the cause . . . And it is the interest of all your gentlemen to do it speedily, that when this matter comes to be examined in a proper place it may appear you have been tender of the privileges of Parliament, and I cannot imagine any of you by opposing this little instance of justice will give the world or myself ground to suppose they had any hand in abetting such a wicked attempt, or do now approve of it.

The corporation complied.4

An unfounded rumour in the winter of 1693–4, that a petition was being drawn up in Radnor against Harley for ‘overthrowing their charter and bringing people into the corporation unduly’, and the violent destruction in 1695 of the booth hall, which stood on Harley’s land, show that local resistance to this new monopoly of power did not suddenly become extinguished, but at no subsequent election in this period was a challenge mounted in the Boroughs. Harley’s tenure survived untouched his own spells of disfavour at court between about 1693 and 1700, and again between 1708 and 1710, not least because of the disappearance of his erstwhile rivals, the Morgans reconciled with him as a result of his change of party allegiance, and Gwynne deprived of the wherewithal to fight by accelerating indebtedness. By 1700 even Thomas Lewis had made his peace. A judicious distribution of alms to the poor and similar benefactions were an almost superfluous insurance. Elections became a formality. In 1710, for example, Harley’s sister reported to Robert that he had been chosen ‘with all the expressions imaginable of their satisfaction in your doing them the honour to represent them’, and when in the following year Harley was elevated to the peerage his eldest son succeeded to the vacancy as of right.5

Author: D. W. Hayton


Unless otherwise stated, this article is based on the account of the constituency provided in D. R. L. Adams, ‘Parl. Rep. Rad. 1536–1832’ (Univ. of Wales M.A. thesis, 1969).

  • 1. Including the freemen of Painscastle and Presteigne.
  • 2. Excluding Painscastle and Presteigne.
  • 3. Trans. Rad. Soc. xlvi. 10–18; Add. 70229, Gwynne to Robert Harley, 1 Mar. 1689–[90]; 70114, ff. 284, 308, 346, 350, 357; 70233, Sir Edward to Robert Harley, 28 Oct., 4, 11 Nov. 1690; 70254, William Probert to same, 31 Dec. 1690; 70270, Robert to Elizabeth Harley, 13 Nov. 1690; HMC Portland, iii. 446, 448, 451; Nottingham Univ. Lib. Portland (Harley) mss PW2 Hy 392–3, 397, 404, 408, lists of voters [1690], petition from Rhayader [1690].
  • 4. Add. 70233, Sir Edward to Robert Harley, 30 Dec. 1690; 70079, autobiog. fragment of Robert Harley, 11 Sept. 1723; 70015, f. 209; 70247, Thomas Lloyd to Robert Harley, 15 Nov., 5 Dec. 1690, 21 Apr. 1691; 70222, John Davies to same, 4 Dec. 1690; 70236, Edward Harley to same, 16 Mar., 18 Sept., [?Oct.] 1691; 70238, Elizabeth Harley to same, 16 Apr. 1691; 70275, Robert Price to same, 13 May 1691; 70234, Sir Edward Harley to same, 20 Oct. 1691; 70264, Robert Harley to New Radnor corp., 3 Oct. 1693; Portland (Harley) mss PW2 Hy 409, Price to Robert Harley, 17 Apr. 1691; 410, John Walshman to same, 15 Oct. 1692; Trans. Rad. Soc. xxvi. 50–53.
  • 5. Add. 70235, Sir Edward to Robert Harley, 17 Jan. 1692[–3]; 70115, Abigail to Sir Edward Harley, 4 Dec. 1693; 70277, Robert Harley to New Radnor corpn. 4 Oct. 1707; 70019, f. 20; 70239, Martha to Robert Harley, 10 Oct. 1710; HMC Portland, iv. 12, 186.