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

Number of Qualified Electors:


Number of voters:

at least 3,224 in 1705; at least 2,256 in 1713


18 Feb. 16901EDWARD HYDE, Visct. Cornbury 
 Henry Hare, Ld. Coleraine [I] 
26 July 1698SIR EDWARD ERNLE, Bt. 
 Richard Grobham Howe 
 Robert Hyde 
 Hon. Maurice Ashley 
 William Ashe1540
 Sir Edward Ernle, Bt.14302
 Edward Ashe781
 Thomas Pitt7743

Main Article

Defoe heartily approved of Wiltshire, its agriculture and industries, especially weaving, making it in his view ‘one of the most important counties of England’. The northern and western parts, ‘infinitely populous’ and ‘full of . . . manufactures’, where Dissenting interests were especially well entrenched, pleased him best, but it was in the south-east, at Wilton, that the knights of the shire were elected, and there ‘the clothing trade’ and Nonconformity were much less in evidence. For most of this period the Tories dominated county elections. They enjoyed stronger aristocratic leadership: the principal Tory magnates, Lord Weymouth (Thomas Thynne†), the dukes of Beaufort and the Bruces of Tottenham Park, were frequently active, while on the Whig side the efforts of the dukes of Bolton and Somerset, and the earls of Shaftesbury and Kingston (Evelyn Pierrepont*) were less regular and less effective. Not even the energetic electioneering of Bishop Burnet in Salisbury could make up the balance. The principal influence on Wiltshire elections was not, however, the resident peerage, but ‘the gentlemen’, and it was they who usually decided upon the candidates. In 1690 the first to put up was one of the outgoing Members, Lord Cornbury, though it was felt that he was unlikely to carry his election in the event of a contest, and he found it difficult to secure a partner. Lord Abingdon informed Weymouth that

nothing is wanting but your lordship’s presence to fix my Lord Cornbury and a good man with him. I endeavoured to persuade Colonel [Richard] Lewis* to stand with him but he wholly declined it; though he will use all his [interest] for his lordship and I gave him leave, if he found it necessary, to make use of my son’s name till the gentlemen meet and fix another good man.

When the Country Whig Sir Walter St. John, 3rd Bt., came forward as a second candidate he put off joining with Cornbury, even though he was himself looking for support from Tories, and even though it was reported that ‘those who are for Sir Walter St. John are likewise for Lord Cornbury’. There was a prospect that another Tory candidate would appear, for ‘the north Wiltshire men’ had declared for Sir Edmund Warnford†, ‘if he’ll stand’. Nor was this the only possibility, as Cornbury wrote to Weymouth on 1 Mar.:

I received a letter this morning from Sir Walter St. John in which he tells me . . . he cannot yet tell whether he can join with me or not, till he sees the gentlemen that are to come from the north of this county. He likewise says he has been pressed to join with others but would not do it, because, as he says, he would do nothing against me. But notwithstanding these fair words I am afraid somebody has a mind to play a trick, and in order to that have dissuaded him from joining with me . . . Just as I was going to make up my letter, here is one come in that tells us that the freeholders hereabouts have had an invitation this morning to come over to Sir Richard [Grobham] Howe’s [2nd Bt.*] to a breakfast, in order to persuade them to vote for Sir Walter St. John, and, they think, for Sir Richard Howe.

The third candidate, however, was not Howe but the Tory Lord Coleraine [I]. It was reported after the election that St John joined with Coleraine, but Cornbury had ‘the good luck to be of the clergy’s side’. Despite ‘great opposition’, ‘great trouble and expense’, Cornbury was returned, with the help of Weymouth, Lord Pembroke (Thomas Herbert†) and his own father, who mobilized the Hyde interest at the last minute. Coleraine petitioned, blaming his defeat on ‘undue practices’ by the under-sheriff and county clerk, in particular their adjournment of the county court from Wilton to Salisbury, where fear of a smallpox outbreak had ‘restrained and discouraged’ some of his voters. The petition was not reported and despite Coleraine re-introducing it in the second session, on 8 Oct. 1690, it was not heard. At the next election Cornbury switched over to a safe borough, and St. John’s son Henry I was returned with the Tory Sir George Hungerford. There was an echo of Coleraine’s petition on 24 Feb. 1696 when an unsuccessful attempt was made to insert a clause into the bill to prevent irregular proceedings at parliamentary elections. This clause was aimed at limiting the powers of the Wiltshire sheriffs to adjourn the county poll: it would have made it possible to adjourn from Wilton, at the request of a candidate, but only to Devizes.4

The 1698 election promised a contest but in the event one does not seem to have taken place. There had already been a bitter dispute, and violent scenes, at the election of a county coroner in June. In the parliamentary election St. John withdrew to his family borough, and was replaced by Sir Edward Ernle, 3rd Bt., once a Tory but now a Court Whig, who had lost his interest at Devizes and turned his eyes towards a county seat after receiving ‘general encouragement’ from ‘all the gentlemen’ on his ‘side of the county’. His father-in-law, Thomas Erle*, offered to bring him in at Wareham but further canvassing in Wiltshire fixed his resolve: ‘all the gentlemen about Sarum’, he wrote, ‘have declared at a meeting where I was . . . for me . . . I don’t know above one gentleman that will be against me in that division, and he is sorry that he was engaged before he knew of my standing’. According to Ernle the doubt concerned the second seat:

There stands Sir George Hungerford, Mr [Richard Grobham] Howe, Sir Edmund Warnford, Sir William Pynsent [1st Bt.†] and myself; Sir Edmund Warnford is a north Wiltshire man and must bring his votes 30 or 40 miles. So must Sir George Hungerford most of his, but he will have some in this part of the country. The generality of these parts . . . being for me, they are divided in the other between Mr Howe and Sir George. Mr Howe has been these five or six weeks writing to gentlemen and making an interest, but most of his interest is in the north. Sir W. Pynsent is but newly come into the country and I believe will make little of it.

Ernle warned his father-in-law not to come:

I should be glad of your company . . . but you know at this time some people are squeamish and I don’t know what exceptions they may make if you should appear at the election, for they say already that I married a courtier’s daughter and may be influenced by him.

The advice seems to have been accepted, and Ernle and Hungerford were returned, though in the election of January 1701 Ernle gave way to Richard Grobham Howe, a Tory, perhaps because of the suspicions about his Court connexions, or because of some repercussions of the crisis in the woollen industry, which had affected Wiltshire manufacturers acutely. In December the Whigs were able to mount a successful counter-attack. The outgoing Tory Members were faced on this occasion with a strong Whig opposition, behind which may be detected Lord Wharton (Hon. Thomas*); early in November Wharton had gathered together some Wiltshire friends to discuss ways of obtaining ‘better knights of the shire’. William Ashe I, the long-serving Whig MP for Heytesbury, was first in the field, but Whig hopes only rose significantly when, in response to an offer made by the gentlemen in the northern division of the county, Maurice Ashley, brother of Lord Shaftesbury (Anthony, Lord Ashley*), agreed to stand. Ashe and Ashley were at an initial disadvantage, despite support for Ashley among the freeholders, because the Tories had had a head start. The possibility of Ashley’s candidature had hitherto been discounted and many, especially ‘the southern gentlemen’ had already agreed to support Howe and Hungerford. But the Tory cause was weakened by the appearance of a third Tory candidate, Robert Hyde, and soon afterwards Shaftesbury was able to persuade Hungerford to step down in favour of Maurice Ashley. Hungerford’s retirement, under cover of illness, was accompanied by his endorsement of Ashley, with whom, however, he coupled not Ashe but Robert Hyde. Whig commitment was strong – ‘Ashe and Ashley is the word’, wrote the Whig Henry Blaake* – and various local gentlemen were given responsibility for canvassing particular districts. Wharton seems to have been active, Lord Peterborough was ‘working for Mr Ashley’, Bishop Burnet ‘mightily’ recommended the two Whigs, and in particular Shaftesbury was busy, making interest through friends and agents, and finally paying a personal visit to Wiltshire. Some saw the contest in religious terms: such was the view of Thomas Naish, sub-dean of Salisbury, whose support for the Tories brought Burnet’s displeasure upon him, the bishop upbraiding him as a ‘pert and saucy person’ for behaving ‘very disrespectfully’ in ‘voting against me after you knew for whom I had declared myself’ and later preventing his preferment on account of it: ‘all Dissenters bustle mightily’, wrote Naish in his diary, ‘and call all Jacobites that are for any of the old Members . . . Mr Ashe and Mr Ashley . . . lie under great mistrusts of favouring Dissenters and making alterations in the Church’. Whig and Dissenting endeavours were rewarded, Shaftesbury claiming all the credit for himself, and the two new Members were equipped with ‘instructions’, vehemently Whig and warmongering in tone, recommending them to ‘do all you can to protect and defend the person of our King, maintain his honour at home and support his interest abroad’, especially in securing the Protestant succession and readily assisting King William with supplies ‘for the support of his allies and the deliverance of Europe’. They were also to represent to the King

that he would hearken to no peace, or treaty with so perfidious a power as that of France, till having restored the balance of power in the house of Austria, and having forced from France all its unjust acquisitions . . . he has at last reduced that exorbitant power.5

This Whig success was not repeated in 1702 when Ashley put up alone against Howe and Hyde. Ashley appears to have enjoyed the continued backing of Hungerford, who ‘made a successful progress’ on his behalf through the north-west of the county ‘accompanied by a friend clothed in reverend gown and cassock’. The ‘northern division’ was still where the bulk of Ashley’s support lay, and he himself reported successful canvassing in Devizes, Trowbridge and, thanks to the Duke of Somerset’s imprimatur, Marlborough. Shaftesbury again put in a personal appearance at Salisbury, where the election was held, but this time the Tories, for whom Weymouth was once more active, turned the tables. Shaftesbury’s steward claimed that this had been a Pyrrhic victory, since the financial costs had been so high as to dissuade both Howe and Hyde from seeking re-election, and certainly in 1704 Hyde appeared decided on the matter, though he told an agent of Lord Bruce (Charles*), who had designs on a seat, ‘that he was advised by the neighbouring gentlemen his friends not to declare himself one way or other’ in case ‘all the votes on Lavington and Warminster side (which are very numerous) would go off entirely’ to the Whigs, for whom William Ashe was already a declared candidate. By January 1705, however, Hyde had changed his mind, and Lord Bruce accepted that both outgoing Members would be putting up. The Whigs were anxious to find a partner for Ashe. Ashley’s enthusiasm had obviously wilted, but early in 1705 Lord Somers (Sir John*) made a powerful appeal to Shaftesbury to urge his brother to stand again:

The Duke of Somerset, Duke of Bolton [Charles Powlett I*], Lord Kingston and Lord Wharton have met with several gentlemen of the county who are in town, and they all agree that there is a fair prospect of success, and bid me assure your lordship . . . that they cannot think of anybody else to join with Mr Ashe, whose son has been pressing Mr Ashley in the most earnest manner from his father to stand with him, but as yet he is not to be prevailed upon.

Shaftesbury was no more successful, despite repeated pressure from Somers and Somerset, and eventually Sir Edward Ernle stepped into the breach. However, in March one observer considered that Howe’s interest was ‘very secure’ and ‘we do not despair of Mr Hyde’s’, and indeed the two Tories were re-elected, Ernle coming bottom of the poll. Afterwards Defoe offered one suggestion to weaken the power of the Tories: the removal from the receiver-generalship of the county of Sir Francis Child’s* brother, ‘whose influence so rules by lending money, that whoever is needy is sure to be bought off’. The ministers raised their sights higher, and in May 1706 replaced Weymouth as custos by Kingston. This did not prevent Howe and Hyde being returned again in 1708, when Wharton attempted to delay the sending down of the writs for Wiltshire, intending in some way to assist the local Whigs. Equally ineffective was the extensive purge of Tories from the Wiltshire commission of the peace carried out in 1708 and 1709. The address from the grand jury in April 1710 bore a vigorous Tory message, ‘that if her Majesty would dissolve this Parliament we would continue our choice of honest men, that should support her prerogative and the Church’; soon afterwards Dyer noted that ‘a very loyal address is come from the clergy of north Wiltshire’; and in the general election the ‘loyal’ candidates, as Dyer described them, Howe and Hyde, were unopposed.6

The return of Weymouth as custos in 1712 and counter-purges of the commission of the peace further strengthened the Tory position. Despite opposition from a Hanoverian Tory, Thomas Pitt I*, as well as a Whig, Edward Ashe*, and despite Whig efforts to exploit the issue of the French commercial treaty (against which Wiltshire clothing interests had earlier petitioned), Howe and Hyde were elected in 1713 by a wider margin than in 1705. There was some violence at the poll: ‘the Whig party’, ran one Tory account,

appeared, all of them, with wool in their hats at the place of election. The Tories hooted them, called them wolves in sheep’s clothing, surrounded them by parcels and whipped many of them, and knocked down others, in so much that the Whigs were soon forced to pull all the wool out of their hats.

Burnet’s son Thomas had, it was alleged, quarrelled furiously with one Tory squire, ‘and a challenge passed, but the bishop locked up his son next morning’ to prevent the duel. Pitt, eventually joined by Ashe, petitioned against the return of the Tories, claiming ‘illegal practices’ by the under-sheriff, especially his postponing the poll to the afternoon, whereby many of Pitt’s supporters ‘were necessitated, by reason of the harvest, to go away without voting’, and his tendering the abjuration oath only to Quakers, the majority of whom were on Pitt’s side. The burden of his complaint was, however, ‘that a mob was raised, and paid by the sitting Members, appearing with clubs and drums, marching round the place of polling, till the close thereof, to the great terror of the electors’. There was little optimism behind the petition, the main purpose of which was admitted to be ‘to keep up the spirit of the governor’s [Pitt] friends in Wiltshire’, and on the death of one of the sitting Members for Andover, where Pitt had also been a defeated candidate and where he had also petitioned, he withdrew both petitions on 17 Mar., though in the event he did not stand at the ensuing by-election.7

Author: D. W. Hayton


  • 1. The election took place after the official return, between 1 and 10 Mar.
  • 2. Flying Post, 24–26 May 1705.
  • 3. Evening Post, 10–12 Sept. 1713.
  • 4. Defoe, Tour ed. Cole, 193–4, 196, 260, 264; W. A. Speck, Tory and Whig, 11–12; G. M. Trevelyan, Eng. under Q. Anne, iii. 263; Clarendon Corresp. ed. Singer, ii. 304, 306, 308; HMC Portland, viii. 27–8; Bath mss at Longleat House, Thynne pprs. 12, f. 97; 24, ff. 158, 161, 164, 168; Newberry Lib. case mss, Clarendon to Abingdon, 15 Feb. 1690; Som. RO, Clarke mss DD/SF 3901, Thomas Stringer to Mary Clarke, 10 Mar. 1689[–90]; Bodl. Locke mss c.20, f. 87; Add. 70018, f. 94.
  • 5. Wilts. Arch. Mag. xlvi. 71–72, 79–80; Churchill Coll. Camb. Erle mss 2/19, Ernle to Erle, n.d., [c.July 1698]; CJ, xiii. 99; HMC Portland, iv. 26; PRO 30/24/22/1/91; 30/24/20/89, 91, 93; Diary of Thomas Naish ed. Slatter (Wilts. Arch. Soc. recs. br. xx), 46–48; Hants RO, Jervoise mss, Stringer to Thomas Jervoise*, 16 Nov. [1701]; Wilts. RO, Radnor mss 490/909, Sir James Ashe, 2nd Bt.*, to John Snowe, 2 Dec. 1701; Shaftesbury mss at Wimborne St. Giles, Shaftesbury’s daybk. 19 Nov. 1701; Orig. Letters of Locke, Sydney and Shaftesbury ed. Forster, 119–20; Flying Post, 13–16 Dec. 1701.
  • 6. PRO 30/24/22/1/95–97; 30/24/21/231; 30/24/20/207, 211, 213; Thynne pprs. 25, f. 188; Wilts. RO, Ailesbury mss 1300/1309, Charles Becher to Ld. Bruce, 6 July 1704; Bodl. Rawl. lett. 92, f. 312; HMC 15th Rep. VII, 188–9; HMC Portland, iv. 244–5; Add. 17677 BBB, f. 283; 70421, newsletters 25 May, 10 Oct. 1710; Speck, 80; L. K. J. Glassey, Appt. JPs, 188, 215; Naish Diary, 67–68.
  • 7. Glassey, 215; Trevelyan, 263; Letters of Burnet to Duckett ed. Nichol Smith, 59.