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

Number of Qualified Electors:


Number of voters:

about 60


 William Coward I
 John Hall
 Henry Bridges
2 Sept. 1713SIR THOMAS WROTH, Bt.

Main Article

The state of confusion surrounding the right of election in Wells had been exploited for political advantage in several post-Restoration elections and remained subject to intermittent dispute during the succeeding period. The central issue was whether the corporation franchise embraced a wide or narrow definition of the term ‘burgess’. Throughout the reigns of William and Anne, the civic elite, a staunchly Tory body, succeeded in upholding the narrow definition, that only ‘sworn burgesses’, those townsmen who had applied for and been admitted to the freedom of the city on the agreement of a majority of the common council and who accordingly had been sworn, might legitimately vote. At elections the corporation could create additional freemen as required, and through its dominion over a small and self-contained electorate, ensured that its parliamentary interests remained in the hands of Tory representatives. The corporation’s position was strengthened still further by the fact that the mayor, as returning officer, was able to supervise admissions to the poll on the day of election. In the 1690s these arrangements were vigorously challenged by the larger numbers of townsmen who claimed to be freemen, and thus entitled to vote, by virtue of their birth, marriage or apprenticeship in one of the city companies, but who had not obtained nomination by the corporation and been sworn at a ‘convocation’. Although after 1695 the question of the ‘popular’ vote was not brought to bear in Wells elections again until the years following the Hanoverian succession, the argument over the qualification of freemen continued to fester in civic politics.1

The after-effects of the political dislocation in the city of the 1680s, in which a sizable Whiggish element had emerged in the corporation favouring the wider franchise, continued to be felt in the 1690s. In 1690 a contest of sorts was fought along party lines. The recorder, William Coward I, who had been returned at a by-election shortly before the close of the Convention, stood with his brother-in-law and fellow townsman, John Hall†, against two local Tory landowners, Edward Berkeley, the other sitting MP, and Hopton Wyndham, son of the recently deceased Member Thomas Wyndham†. Coward and Hall, with their Exclusionist pasts and previous experience as MPs for the city, found support among the majority of the corporate body, while Berkeley and Wyndham had on their side the mayor, John Davis, just six other corporation men, and a majority of the sworn freemen. Coward, fearing his strength insufficient, ‘set up himself and Mr Hall by the scot-and-lot men’. At the poll the mayor declared Berkeley and Wyndham duly elected after he had counted the votes of the ‘sworn burgesses’, but to protect himself then took the votes of the scot-and-lot men because a precedent of a sort had been established in November 1680 when Berkeley, having been petitioned against by Hall, had opted ‘to leave the House, and save the burgesses’ right than have it determined against him and preserve their future right’. This had given some semblance of validity to Hall’s election in September 1679 by the wider franchise, though since then, as Davis mentioned to the local Tory grandee Viscount Weymouth (Thomas Thynne†), ‘we have had no trouble but the sworn burgesses have always elected, the other freemen appeared and (I presume) liking our choice made no opposition nor were any of their votes taken’. However, the mayor was now faced with the scot-and-lot voters’ choice of Coward and Berkeley, plus the fact that the common council were refusing to make a return by the sworn burgesses and instead had ‘voted that they were of opinion that the right of election is in the populace’, and that Coward rather than Wyndham had been duly elected. Turning for advice to Weymouth on 3 Mar., Davis wrote:

I cannot possibly come at the common seal, the other key thereof I shall never get by the consent of him that keeps it (who is the chamberlain) . . . There was never such a pack of knaves and fools together in so little a place, for most of those very men who oppose me were surrenderers of the old charter and Coward, whom they would put up, would destroy them all if he could and so hath often told them, though at that he was underhand as bad as any of them.

Davis resolved his dilemma by sealing the indentures for Berkeley and Wyndham with only the mayor’s seal of office attached, which he did with ‘one magistrate, four common councilmen and the majority of sworn burgesses’. Not surprisingly, this proceeding was challenged by Coward and a group claiming to be the ‘majority of the burgesses, freemen and inhabitants’ of Wells who petitioned, alleging that over 140 electors voted for Coward and Hall, ‘whereas Mr Berkeley had not above 100 and Mr Wyndham not above 80 legal voices’. The case was not heard, however, and the two Tories, Berkeley and Wyndham, held on to their seats.2

In 1695 Berkeley and Wyndham were opposed by Coward and Henry Bridges, a son of Sir Thomas Bridges of Keynsham, Somerset, who as one of the town’s burgesses had contested against Berkeley in 1685. Wyndham pulled out before the poll, leaving the mayor no option but to return Berkeley along with Coward, who was still in office as the corporation’s recorder. In his subsequent petition against Berkeley, Bridges claimed that he and Coward had been elected by ‘the majority of rightful voters’. At the committee hearing, counsel for Bridges insisted that the right of election lay in the ‘mayor, burgesses and inhabitants paying scot and lot’, and that after the sworn freemen had voted, the mayor refused to poll 150 ordinary freemen then present, despite earlier demands on their behalf. For the sitting Members it was claimed that the three candidates had agreed to stand by the vote of the sworn freemen; that Bridges himself had voted as such and made no complaint either during or after the poll; while finally, a freeman who, on behalf of his fellows, had demanded to be polled, had not pursued this demand once the votes of the sworn burgesses had been taken. The House accepted the committee’s resolution that the right of election lay in the ‘mayor, masters and burgesses’, declaring Berkeley duly elected. But in the absence of a much-needed definition of the term ‘burgess’, the right of election remained unclarified.3

For the rest of the period elections in Wells were routinely conducted without the appearance of opposition. Berkeley and Coward (who may have become a Tory) were returned again in 1698 and Coward continued to hold his seat until his death in April 1705, a month before the election of that year. In the first 1701 election Berkeley made way for another Tory, Henry Portman of Orchard Wyndham, near Taunton, a younger brother of Sir Edward Seymour, 4th Bt.* In 1690 Portman had inherited the estates and taken the name of his kinsman, Sir William Portman, 6th Bt.*, and his influence in Wells was reckoned sufficient ‘to procure the election of any desired candidate’. In 1705 Coward’s seat was taken by Edward Berkeley’s son, Maurice, whose paternal grandmother was a cousin of Portman, who once more took the other seat. Portman moved to the county for the 1708 election while Berkeley stood down, possibly because the death of his father the previous year had weakened his own position and rendered his own re-election unfeasible for the time being. One of the new MPs was Edward Colston I, a London merchant whose uncle was the eminent Bristol philanthropist and Tory High Churchman, Edward Colston II*. Colston’s links with Wells do not appear to have been as close as its other MPs during this period, although his uncle was the owner of the manor of Lydford West, a few miles away. Moreover, the Colston name was a safe guarantee of his Tory credentials. The other new Member, William Coward II, did not, however, fulfil the corporation’s expectations in quite the same way and soon turned out to be a Whig, the only one returned at Wells during this period. The younger Coward’s politics prevented him from establishing the commanding position in the town enjoyed by his father and he did not survive the swing to the Tories in 1710, when Berkeley regained his seat, partnered by Colston.4

Lingering disputes and uncertainties in the city over the question of who might legitimately claim the status of freeman, particularly in relation to parliamentary elections, came to a head in 1712. An ordinance of the common council, passed on 30 Sept., effectively confirmed the corporation’s tight control over the electorate by decreeing that the corporation had the sole right to nominate, choose and elect freemen or ‘inferior burgesses’, a ruling which was made retrospective with the assertion that this had been the customary manner for the past 20 years. A penalty of £100 was to be inflicted upon any mayor who nominated a burgess without the consent of ‘the major part of the corporation’, and £50 upon any person claiming freedom in any other manner; ‘all elections of inferior burgesses to the contrary’ were deemed void. In 1713 Berkeley was returned with Sir Thomas Wroth, 3rd Bt., a prominent Somerset Tory. The Tories continued to maintain their hold over the corporation and the parliamentary seats after 1715 but were challenged at every opportunity by the Whigs to whom the as yet unresolved question of the voting qualification consequently remained crucial.5

Authors: Paula Watson / Andrew A. Hanham


  • 1. CJ, xviii. 452–3; xx. 204–7.
  • 2. Bath mss at Longleat House, Thynne pprs. 24, ff. 165, 174.
  • 3. Add. 28879, f. 227.
  • 4. HMC Cowper, ii. 421.
  • 5. CJ, xviii. 452.