Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Background Information

Number of voters:

about 4,000


24 June 1790GEORGE SPENCER, Mq. of Blandford
 PHILIP WENMAN, Visct. Wenman [I]
6 Mar. 1801 LORD FRANCIS ALMERIC SPENCER vice Spencer, appointed to office
8 Nov. 1806JOHN FANE
12 Oct. 1815 WILLIAM HENRY ASHHURST vice Spencer, called to the Upper House
24 June 1818JOHN FANE

Main Article

There had been no poll for the county between 1710 and 1754, when there was such a contest as discouraged any further disturbance of the peace of the county until 1826. George, 4th Duke of Marlborough, imposed a compromise with the county Tories in 1761, returning his brother Lord Charles Spencer. Viscount Wenman, with the support of his brother-in-law Lord Abingdon, the Earl of Macclesfield and the principal country gentlemen, held the other seat from 1768. The only disturbing feature in this period was the domestic disunity of the Duke of Marlborough’s family. In 1790 he displaced his brother (then in opposition to ministers) in favour of his heir, but the latter offended him so much that he reversed the situation in 1796. At that election, Wenman retired. The Treasury survey had queried whether Sir C[hristopher] Willoughby of Baldon, chairman of the quarter sessions, might stand. Henry Curson of Waterperry offered to replace Wenman, but the choice of the county fell upon John Fane of Wormsley, Macclesfield’s brother-in-law. Lord Abingdon appeared at the nomination meeting, ‘but Mr [John] Coker observed that the presence of a peer of the realm was a violation of the privilege of the freeholders. He withdrew.’1 Fane held his seat until 1824, when his son was his successor, such dissatisfaction as there was being directed against the house of Blenheim.

The duke’s favourite son, Lord Francis Almeric Spencer, was returned in March 1801 when his uncle vacated to take office; but on 27 Oct. Francis Burton* reported, ‘I am sorry to say that an opposition to Lord F— in the county is the common talk’. The Marquess of Buckingham had this to add, 15 Dec. 1801:

Mr Coker, whose pretensions to parliamentary situation appear to be very unmeasured, has lately been reported to have nibbled at the county of Oxford, in opposition to the Duke of Marlborough whose personal indolence, as well as the situation of his family seem to court a contest.

John Coker of Bicester desisted; and a report that George Frederick Stratton of Great Tew would offer was contradicted in April 1802. So there was no opposition to Lord Francis Spencer then, or subsequently, although his aloofness was a matter for unfavourable comment during the Grenville ministry and his father’s response to the Duke of Portland’s blandishments in 1807 was chilly.2

The only contretemps occurred in 1815 when Lord Francis, at his father’s request, was awarded a barony with part of the Blenheim estate. The duke had intended in 1812 to replace him as Member by his brother Charles in such a case, but now George, Earl of Sunderland, the duke’s grandson was eager to stand. His situation was precarious. His father’s quarrel with the duke and the supposition that he would act with the Whigs (which they certainly had reason to believe) divided the Blenheim interest.3 As Thomas Grenville informed Lord Grenville, 27 Aug. 1815:4

Lord B[landford] tells me he will do all he can for Lord Sunderland [his son], and I quite agree with you that there are very many motives which ought to make him wish for the success of the Blenheim family in Oxfordshire. The prevailing opinions of the present days are very unfavourable to the influence of large landed proprietors, and the success of them in Oxfordshire would probably be soon found to pass the limits of that county: added to this view of the subject, I really feel no small indignation at seeing the second son of that family [Lord Francis] plundering the family inheritance and carving out of it a subordinate peerage ... while he seems to have abandoned all concern for the county seat, which he derived from that family, and which he gives them back in a condition hardly promising enough to invite them to try to renew the tenure of it ... upon this consideration alone I should be an eager Sunderland and a very undecided anti-Churchill.

Whether or not this last sentence implied that Lord Francis was to blame for the emergence of a candidate hostile to the Blenheim interest, such an opposition existed: Lord Charles Spencer, writing to his cousin Earl Spencer on 6 Aug. 1815 to ask for his support for ‘my nephew Lord Sunderland, whom I proposed at our county meeting ... in the room of Lord Francis’, added ‘we have a very severe contest. Mr Ashhurst was proposed in opposition to our family.’ William Henry Ashhurst of Waterstock was an independent country gentleman of the same stamp as John Fane. Writing to Lord Liverpool in denial of the latter’s suspicion that there existed some pact as to the county seats, the Earl of Macclesfield pointed out, 6 Aug. 1815, that ‘the neglect of measures necessary for keeping up the interest’ had fatally weakened the Blenheim party:

Mr Ashhurst is far from feeling his ground from any views of his own. He had on the morning of the nomination, recalled the consent he had reluctantly given the night before, to be set up, but being named by a gentleman of the other part of the county, it set fire to a train, and produced a general explosion. And I really believe it impossible for the Blenheim interest to stem the torrent, and doubt the policy of attempting it. Lord Sunderland is not personally known to six gentlemen of the county, nor has he, I believe, been attended on his canvass by one.

He added that the fear that the Marquess of Blandford might influence his son’s views had also prejudiced Sunderland’s cause. Ashhurst commanded sufficient support to oblige Sunderland to forego a contest and retreat. Sunderland’s uncle Lord Shaftesbury, canvassing Lord Holland on his behalf, 17 Aug. 1815, reported that he had promises of support from ‘Lord Grenville, Lord Buckingham, Lord Jersey and many of your political friends’.5 Fane and Ashhurst were unanimously approved at the county meeting of 1818.6 The main event of this period therefore, in which none of the county Members acted with opposition in Parliament, was the eclipse of the dukes of Marlborough’s influence, through family dissension, if not, as Thomas Grenville believed, because of the temper of the times.

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. Oldfield, Rep. Hist. iv. 346-50; A. L. Rowse, The Later Churchills, 169; True Briton, 24 May; Bodl. mss Top Oxon d247, f. 84, Fletcher diary, 26 Apr. 1796 (ex inf. Mrs C. Colvin).
  • 2. PRO 30/9/1, pt. 1/2, Burton to Abbot, 27 Oct. 1801; Bucks. RO, Grenville mss D54/13; The Times, 15 Apr. 1802; Add. 34456, f. 534; Fortescue mss, Auckland to Grenville, 4 Apr. [1807].
  • 3. Add. 38249, f. 221; Grey mss, Tierney to Grey, 22 July; Fortescue mss, Lady Blandford to Grenville, 5 Aug. [1815].
  • 4. HMC Fortescue, x. 404-5.
  • 5. Spencer mss; Add. 38458, f. 200; 51827.
  • 6. The Late Elections (1818), 249.