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 inhabitant freeholders not receiving alms

Number of Qualified Electors:


Number of voters:

753 in 1704; at least 987 in 1708


20 Feb. 1690SIR THOMAS SAMWELL, Bt. 
 Sir Justinian Isham, Bt. 
9 Mar. 1694SIR JUSTINIAN ISHAM,  Bt. vice Samwell, deceased 
21 Feb. 1701THOMAS ANDREW vice Thursby, deceased 
 John Conant 
17 July 1702SIR MATTHEW DUDLEY, Bt.472
 Christopher Montagu331
 Sir Robert Hesilrige, Bt.3021
2 Nov. 1704FRANCIS ARUNDELL  vice Tate, deceased445
 Christopher Montagu3082
 William Wykes582
 Francis Arundell 

Main Article

Visitors to Northampton towards the end of the 17th century were impressed by its wide streets and well-appointed stone buildings. The town had been almost entirely rebuilt following the devastating fire of 1675, and its appearance was an undoubted source of pride to its civic masters. In 1701 a gentleman tourist, Sir John Perceval†, remarked on the many gentrified families living within the town and its outlying districts who were a vital ‘support’ to the local economy, and they, rather than leading townsmen, supplied the candidates for the borough seats. The regular change of MPs suggests there was some obeisance, though not strict adherence, to the principle of rotating the borough’s representation among them. When he stood in 1698, William Thursby expressed the view that Sir Justinian Isham, 4th Bt., was wrong to ‘press’ the town to select him again, but should be willing to allow other neighbourhood gentlemen to serve county and town ‘in turn or who have deserved as well of the town, as he hath done, and think themselves able to serve them’. Despite such views, the Montagus, seated five miles distant at Horton, held a tightening and, but for one interlude, a largely unchallengeable hold over one of the seats, displaying a capacity to exploit their interests in the town much more effectively than they had in the post-Restoration decades. A degree of influence was exerted by the borough’s recorder, the 4th Earl of Northampton. The Earl, whose seat at Castle Ashby stood to the east of the town, served in this office uninterruptedly from 1698 to his death in 1727. Though he was not a heavyweight politician, his loosely Tory disposition seems to have chimed happily with the corporation’s own prevalent mood. His deputy regularly attended the corporation’s proceedings, while the Earl himself had the final say in the wording of loyal addresses. The Earl’s gifts of game and his presence at corporate gatherings helped to maintain a cordial relationship. A telling indication of the corporation’s political preferences, certainly after Anne’s accession, was that its loyal addresses were presented on each occasion by the Tory Member, successively Francis Arundell and William Wykes, and never by the Whig Member, George Montagu. From 1702 onwards there was a habit of selecting committed Tories to hold the mayoral office during election years. The corporation’s conception of itself as a local pillar of the Established Church seems to have sharpened during Anne’s reign, and in 1711 it took the extreme step of ejecting three of its number for ‘forsaking the Church and going to conventicles’.3

In the 1690 election it appeared at first that there would be no Tory to oppose the Whig candidates, Sir Thomas Samwell, 1st Bt., and Sir William Langham. Sir Justinian Isham, the outgoing Tory Member, had set his sights on one of the county seats, but the strong current of opinion against him aroused by his having recently stood bail for his Jacobite friend and neighbour, Lord Griffin, compelled him to restrict his attention to the town, where he found ‘encouragement’ to serve again. But even here Isham was aware that his prospects of success were limited by the ‘powerful’ Whiggish coalition. Lord Nottingham (Daniel Finch†) assessed the situation more optimistically, having heard that Langham had disregarded an instruction from the mayor and bailiffs to oppose the disabling clause in the late corporations bill which was bound to weaken his position. However, Nottingham’s view did not take account of popular anti-Tory reaction which seemed to be focused on Isham, both in the county town and in the rural parishes. One report told how a peer who visited Northampton to lend support to Isham found himself threatened by a mob protesting that ‘they would have no brandy bottle [Francophile] nor any that was bail for my Lord Griffin’. Edward Harley* reported the success of Langham and Samwell to his father, Sir Edward*, describing them as ‘honest’ gentlemen.4

Samwell’s death in February 1694 necessitated a by-election. The earliest intimation of his illness had stirred some activity on behalf of Christopher Montagu, elder brother of Charles*. However, Lord Northampton’s polite denial of support for him in favour of Isham, a week or so before the election, appears to have been instrumental in forcing Montagu to rest his aspirations for the time being. Montagu bowed out gracefully with promises to discourage any who dared ‘molest’ Isham’s election, while Lord Northampton expressed his hope of serving him at some other time, all seeming to suggest the form of a pact intended to become operative at the election due in 1695. As the election approached, however, it seemed that the arrangement would be complicated, possibly upset, by an unwelcome challenge from the wealthy London-based lawyer, William Thursby, a Whig inclined to the ‘Country’ viewpoint. The ‘industry’ shown by Thursby’s well-wishers forced Montagu to propose that he and Isham meet at the town to concert tactics with their own cohorts in preparation for a poll, while Montagu would dine with Lord Northampton ‘to procure his countenancing our pretensions either by his presence at the election or by his letter to his friends’. Thursby was later to claim, however, that Isham had kept him in ignorance of his pact with Montagu, and had expressly promised shortly before the election that he would join no one to oppose him. Encouraged by this, Thursby had proceeded to solicit votes for Isham, but his subsequent discovery of Isham’s duplicity prompted him to announce his withdrawal, thus enabling the unopposed return of Isham and Montagu.5

Several months before the 1698 election Isham dismissed suggestions that he contest for the county and made known his intention of continuing to represent Northampton. It was probably envisaged that the electoral accord established between himself and Montagu would hold good and discourage the intervention of others. At a late stage, however, Thursby announced that he too would stand, anxious to register his strong objections to this manner of fixing the town’s representation. When the election was little more than a week away Isham attempted to coax him into withdrawing his candidacy, pledging full support and co-operation should he wish to stand in 1701. But, as Thursby unreservedly informed Isham’s father-in-law, Sir Edmund Turner, who acted as intermediary in these negotiations, Isham had already demonstrated his untrustworthiness: ‘if I should accept his proposal I have no power to bargain for the town’s choosing of him now or he his bargain for their choosing me three years hence. We ought to leave the town fresh (as ever I did and will do) to choose whom they please.’ A last-minute development operated in Thursby’s favour, however. On 17 July Isham accepted a late invitation to stand for the county, where a second Tory opponent was urgently required to supplant the sitting Whig MP John Parkhurst*. Isham’s renunciation of his interest in the town, ‘where I had a fair prospect’, allowed Thursby to be returned alongside Montagu without hindrance. This election shifted the town’s representation from a Tory–Whig balance to one featuring the Court and Country poles of Whiggery, personified in Montagu and Thursby respectively. Although this new alignment no longer included a Tory element, it easily withstood the next three elections, indicating an acquiescence by both the corporation and Lord Northampton, who might certainly have sought other candidates had the sitting Members not been to their liking. The by-election of February 1701, occasioned by Thursby’s death, resulted in bribery allegations by the unsuccessful candidate, John Conant, a civil lawyer and native of the town, against Thomas Andrews, a Country Whig like his predecessor. The matter was referred to the committee of elections on 4 Mar. but no report was issued.6

The 1702 election, the first general election to be contested since 1690, was fought on classic party lines with two candidates appearing for each side. There is almost no commentary on the campaign, but it was one of the most energetic seen in the town for many years. The decisiveness of the Tory victory surprised even Tory observers: James Griffin, son of the Jacobite peer, reported to Viscount Hatton (Christopher†) that ‘contrary even to our expectations, and the assurance of the Whigs, we have thrown them both out at the election for this town by a great majority and Sir Matthew Dudley [2nd Bt.] and Mr Tate are chose . . . Both sides having appeared with great vigour for their friends.’ The totals polled underline the fact that the Tory disposition in the town at Queen Anne’s accession was emphatic enough to oust even the deep-rooted Montagu influence. In November 1704 Christopher Montagu failed in an attempt to recapture his former seat at the by-election to replace Tate, and in 1705 relinquished his interest in the town’s election to his young nephew George, who had come of age that year and who in Robert Harley’s* opinion opted ‘to spend money at Northampton in order to play the fool in St. Stephen’s Chapel’ in preference to the post of envoy at Vienna. In February 1705 Dudley made an early declaration that he would not be seeking re-election. He may well have found that his parliamentary services to the town had ceased to be acceptable, having lately severed all association with his Tory brethren. The younger Montagu’s unopposed return with Francis Arundell restored the pre-1698 accommodation between the established Whig interest and a Tory which was in fact to endure until 1722. The ‘Tack’ did not occasion a contest in Northampton in 1705 but the prevalence of High Church sentiment was exemplified in August when Lord Wharton (Hon. Thomas*), on a visit to the town, was insulted with musical renderings of ‘health to the Tackers’. The town did go to the polls in 1708, however. Again, little is known of this contest, but it would seem that while Montagu’s position was safe, the emphasis of the campaign lay between two Tory candidates, Arundell and William Wykes, the latter of whom was defeated.7

In the last months of 1709 the corporate elite attracted considerable condemnation among the town’s population for failing to deal with acute shortages of bread and to punish ‘forestallers and regraters’ of corn, some of whom were known to be aldermen or their associates. Reflecting this upsurge of popular opinion in Northampton, The Observator questioned early in January 1710, ‘what can we expect, while we have so many men in the magistracy, who want the qualifications which the divine legislature requires, viz. that they should be persons who fear God, and hate covetousness’. This locally inspired clash of Tory and Whig was soon magnified by the national dimensions of the Sacheverell trial and the opposed viewpoints of the sitting MPs. The consensual situation in which Montagu and Arundell were ‘both true Churchmen and loyal to the government’, was no longer valid, and the corporation and its Tory sympathizers, ‘a restless faction’ headed by the mayor and several of the clergy, now embarked on a determined campaign to oust the Whiggish Montagu interest. Following the result of the Sacheverell trial, the corporation submitted a pointedly anti-Whig address, expressing their ‘utmost detestation and abhorrence of that pernicious doctrine of resistance’ and promising in any future election ‘to choose such members only who shall truly represent them in an unhindered loyalty’. Wykes was brought in by ‘the faction’ purposely to oppose Montagu and to fight the election on the Church issue. Arundell’s position was less certain. Serious pecuniary difficulties restricted his electoral activity on behalf of the Tories. Despondingly, he wrote to his brother-in-law, the diplomatist Lord Raby: ‘Mr Wykes and Mr Montagu . . . spend a great deal of money[;] whether my friends are proof against so tempting a charm, the event must show.’ However, the Earl of Dysart (Lionel Tollemache*), writing to Isham, saw things differently and expressed concern that Wykes’s resolution ‘to be at any expense if that would prevail’ was more likely to lead to the defeat of another Tory than of the Whig rival. According to the Whig press, the Tories perpetrated numerous ‘shams and devices’ in the weeks preceding the election. Apart from ‘treats and gifts’, threats were made to evict tenants, and arrest others for small debts, which in some cases were carried out; others were ‘affrighted’ with the loss of custom and trade, and corporation employees, even members of the ‘town music’, were threatened with dismissal if they voted for Montagu. At the poll itself, the clergy behaved to the point of indecorum in their bid to secure votes, ‘half-filling the poll book (though several of them had no votes), brow-beating and discouraging the electors’, and ‘certain rude janissaries were always at hand to tread on the toes of Mr Montagu’s men, and to insult and hinder ’em from coming to poll-book’. Although the total votes cast for each candidate are unknown, the outcome, as reported by the Flying Post of 2–4 Nov., was close, though it left Arundell rather than Montagu in the losing third place:

Mr Montagu was found to have 71 before Mr Arundell and the new Member [Wykes] to have about 12 before Mr M[ontagu]. And though the matter was very clear, yet would not the M[ayor] be prevailed upon to declare the choice; and a scrutiny being demanded for Mr Arundell, it was granted. But the people in the meantime would not be pacified unless they might chair the two foremost which occasioned a long and frivolous debate; and at last it was concluded . . . that they should all be chaired. And this violent part would force Mr Arundell into the chair, even against his inclinations . . . and went huzzaing about the town after a childish manner.

The scrutiny, which took three days, appears to have occurred some time after the poll on 6 Oct., for it was not until the 23rd that Lady Cave noted that it was ‘at last’ completed and the return made out for Montagu and Wykes. Dissatisfied with this verdict, Arundell lost little time in petitioning against Montagu when the new Parliament met, his supposed intention being to ‘prove indirect practices used by both the others that may make the election void, and so let himself in and set those two to struggle again for it’. In fact Arundell’s petition was levelled solely at Montagu, while another from ‘several freemen and the housekeepers’ made claims of electoral impropriety against Wykes. Proceedings were started in the committee of elections, but on appointment in March 1711 as surveyor of the outports, a post incompatible with a seat in Parliament, Arundell withdrew his petition.8

The election of 1713 took place some six weeks after the town’s elaborate celebration of the peace. These festivities had begun with a thanksgiving service of ‘great solemnity’ at All Saints Church, and as if to emphasize the fact that the day was an occasion of Tory jubilation, only Wykes of the town’s MPs took part with the mayor, ‘a hearty lover of the Established Church’, and the rest of the corporation. At a county meeting it was agreed that no opposition should be attempted in the town if none materialized in the county. As the election drew near, however, these arrangements were briefly disrupted, much to the annoyance of local gentlemen, when another Tory, William Washbourne of Pytchley, declared his intention to stand. Sir Thomas Samwell, 2nd Bt.†, set himself up purposely to ‘lessen’ Washbourne’s interest, and the latter soon afterwards yielded, having ‘had the satisfaction of making a bustle, the thing in the world he loves best’. In the preparations for the 1715 election the Montagus were determined that there should be an end to the days of accommodation between themselves and Tory candidates, and that for the future they would only co-operate with Whigs. The prime mover was Lord Halifax, George Montagu’s uncle, who, as Lord Strafford reported to Isham, ‘seems resolved to do his utmost to have Mr Montagu and Mr [William] Wilmer† Members for Northampton at the exclusion of Mr Wykes’. Halifax’s intervention was unfruitful, however, and Wykes was re-elected with Montagu without opposition.9

Author: Andrew A. Hanham


  • 1. Northants. RO, Isham mss IC 3297, ‘Poll for Northampton, 1702’.
  • 2. Post Man, 4–7 Nov. 1704.
  • 3. Defoe, Tour ed. Cole, 406; Journeys of Celia Fiennes ed. Morris, 116; Bodl. Willis 51, f. 145; Add. 47057, f. 55; P. R. Brindle, ‘Pol. and Soc. in Northants. 1649–1714’ (Leicester Ph.D. thesis, 1983), 69; Isham mss IC 1583, Thursby to Sir Edmund Turner, [14 July 1698]; IL 5275, diary of [Sir] Justinian Isham† (later 5th Bt.), 9 Aug., 29 Sept. 1708; J.C. Cox, Northampton Bor. Recs. ii. 110, 553; Northants. RO, mayor’s accts. 1690–1750, ff. 37, 39; corp. mins. 1694–1752, p. 45; Northants. Poll Bks. 1702–1831, pp. 52–54; London Gazette, 1–5 Aug. 1706, 10–12 July 1712, 30 May-2 June 1713.
  • 4. Add. 29544, ff. 194, 196; 29568, f. 60; Compton mss at Castle Ashby, bdle. 1091, mayor and bailiffs of Northampton to Ld. Northampton, 12 Jan. 1689–90; BL, Verney mss mic. 636/44, Anne Nicholas to Sir Ralph Verney, 1st Bt.†, 11 Mar. 1690; Add. 70014, f. 294; Isham mss IC 4704, (Sir) Gilbert Dolben (1st Bt.)* to Isham, 25 Feb. [1690]; Jnl. Brit. Studies, xi. 86.
  • 5. Compton mss, bdle. 1091, Ld. Northampton to Christopher Montagu, 28 Feb. 1693–4, same to mayor of Northampton, 28 Feb. 1694 [copy], mayor and aldermen to Ld. Northampton, 1 Mar. 1693[–4]; Isham mss IC 4707, John Holman to Isham, 1 Mar. 1693–4; IC 1512, Arundell to same, 1 Mar. 1693[–4]; IC 1473, mayor and corp. to same, 1 Mar. 1693[–4]; IC 1425, John Isham to same, 17 Oct. 1695; IC 1583, Thursby to Sir Edmund Turner, [14 July 1698].
  • 6. Isham mss IC 1575, Henry Benson to Isham, 21 Mar. 1697–8; IC 1583, Thursby to Turner, [14 July 1698]; IC 1585, Turner to Isham, 14 July 1698; IC 1609, Edward Stratford to same, 12 Nov. 1701; Add. 29567, f. 66; G. D. Squibb, Doctors’ Commons, 184.
  • 7. Add. 29568, f. 114; 61123, Harley to Duke of Marlborough (John Churchill†), 13 Apr. 1705; Isham mss IC 4987, Edward Morpott to Isham, 24 Feb. 1704–5; Bodl. Ballard 35, f. 102.
  • 8. Add. 61609, ff. 59, 60, 114, 115; 61652, f. 199; 31143, ff. 563, 582; 31144, f. 20; Observator, 4–7 Jan. 1709[–10]; Flying Post, 2–4 Nov. 1710; Oldmixon, Hist. Addresses, ii. 186–8; Isham mss IC 2948, Dysart to same, 27 Sept. 1710; Verney Letters 18th Cent. i. 306.
  • 9. Post Boy, 14–16 July 1713; Isham mss IC 4902, Vere to Justinian Isham, 28 Aug. 1713; IC 3021, Strafford to Isham, 21 Dec. [1714].