Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1604-1629, ed. Andrew Thrush and John P. Ferris, 2010
Available from Cambridge University Press

Background Information

Right of Election:

in the burgesses

Number of voters:

at least 11 in 1625


3 Mar. 1621(SIR) FRANCIS ASHLEY vice Edmondes, chose to sit for Bewdley
19 Apr. 1626WILLIAM WHITEWAY II vice Humfrey, deceased

Main Article

Originally a Roman settlement, Dorchester returned two Members to the Model Parliament, and received its first charter in 1337. It was described in 1610 as ‘an ancient and populous borough where the assizes for the county are usually holden, and whither the knights and gentlemen of the shire do often repair upon sundry occasions of service of the king’s majesty and the county’, including the Dorset elections. As the shire town, it housed the county gaol, rebuilt in 1624. It also boasted a free school, a bookseller, and, from around 1631, a municipal library.1 The richest town in early Stuart Dorset, with a population of around 2,000, Dorchester operated weekly markets and four annual fairs. Operating through the nearby port of Weymouth, its merchants were particularly active in the cloth trade, exporting local fabrics to much of the Continent, especially France. In 1621 a company of freemen was established specifically to prevent the interference of London mercers.2

Dorchester was governed by two bailiffs and 15 capital burgesses, an arrangement preserved by the borough’s 1610 charter of incorporation, which also provided for a recorder. The bailiffs, elected annually, also presided over parliamentary elections, in which the franchise lay with the wider body of burgesses, later defined as contributors to scot and lot. Surviving election returns for the period give no real clue as to the number of voters, but it must have been considerably higher than the 11 or 12 men who signed the 1625 indenture. Ordinarily the returns were devoid of signatures, and except in 1604 did not even supply the bailiffs’ names.3

With one exception, George Horsey, all of Dorchester’s Members during this period were men with strong local ties. However, in 1604 the borough experienced some difficulty in finding enough candidates, eventually settling on two experienced former bailiffs, John Spicer and Matthew Chubbe. The latter, who had already represented the borough in 1601, was most reluctant to do so again, ‘alleging … the disability of his body to endure that service’, and ‘offering to some other to be chosen five pounds towards his charge to serve therein’. His objections overruled, he applied for leave shortly after the Parliament opened, and when this strategy also failed, he persuaded the borough in June 1604 to write to the Speaker, requesting a writ for them to elect a replacement. If this letter was actually delivered Chubbe’s proposal must have been rejected, as he thereafter seems to have fulfilled his obligations. However, his recalcitrance might explain why parliamentary wages were apparently paid only to Spicer, who received £60 at some point during this Parliament.4

In 1605 Dorchester’s Holy Trinity parish acquired a new rector, the fervently Calvinist John White, with whom Chubbe was soon at odds.5 This antagonism was manifested in the Commons during the first session of 1610, when Dorchester promoted a bill to re-allocate the revenues of the depopulated parish of Frome Whitfield, Dorset to charitable purposes in Dorchester. Chubbe, who was then a trustee of these funds, must have consented to the bill, which proposed that the money should be used for ‘the maintenance of a preacher, a free school, and nine poor people of the almshouse’. The measure was committed on 16 Feb. and reported ten days later by William Hakewill. However, it then met with objections in the Lords, where it was described as ‘so full of imperfections, as the same could not well be proceeded in’. Accordingly, a new bill was drafted, which specified that the money would be used to augment the living of Holy Trinity parish, with a proportion reserved for the benefit of the school and almshouses. When the bill was brought down to the Commons, Chubbe vigorously opposed it ‘with a long speech’ during the second reading debate on 7 June. He was added to the committee, but despite his obstruction the measure passed with only minor amendments, receiving the Royal Assent at the end of the session.6

John White was by now proving to be an inspirational preacher, who attracted a devoted following both in and around Dorchester. His objective was a thoroughgoing reformation of the town, and his opportunity came when a devastating fire in 1613 consumed nearly half the houses there. This disaster was widely seen as an act of divine punishment for ungodly behaviour, and local puritans began to promote White’s programme more energetically. This included some impressive acts of philanthropy, but also involved a crackdown on the idle poor, symbolized by the establishment of a workhouse in 1616. A number of the key figures behind this new institution, such as John Parkins*, William Whiteway I*, and Richard Bushrod*, soon achieved prominence within the corporation, which by the early 1620s was dominated by puritan reformers.7 Many of this close-knit group were also heavily involved in another of White’s projects, the Dorchester New England Company, which aimed to establish a puritan colony in America. Bushrod obtained the initial licence in 1623, while the governing committee included William Whiteway II* and John Hill*.8

The impact of these changes was not felt immediately at Westminster. In 1614 the borough elected Francis Ashley, who had become Dorchester’s recorder three years earlier, and George Horsey, a prominent Dorset gentleman whose ties to the borough have not been established. Although Ashley strongly admired White, later leaving him £100 in his will, there is no firm proof that their friendship helped his cause on this occasion.9 Again, the election for the 1621 Parliament was probably not entirely to the reformist corporation’s liking. Although John Parkins was returned on 13 Dec. 1620, he was paired with Sir Thomas Edmondes, treasurer of the king’s Household. The latter had been nominated by Prince Charles’s Council, on the basis that the lordship of Dorchester had been granted to the prince three years earlier. According to William Whiteway II, Ashley had been intended to take that seat, but stood aside in favour of Edmondes. However, when the treasurer subsequently opted to sit for Bewdley, Ashley was returned in the resultant election.10

For the remainder of the decade, Dorchester’s godly leaders were free to advance their own favoured candidates. William Whiteway I sat in both 1624 and 1625, partnered by Bushrod and Ashley in turn. In 1626 the corporation again opted for Bushrod, who was returned with Michael Humfrey, father of the Dorchester Company’s treasurer. When Humfrey died during that Parliament, he was replaced by William Whiteway II. John Hill took the junior seat in 1628, the senior place going to Ashley’s son-in-law, Denzil Holles. By now Dorchester’s population was growing increasingly angry at abuses committed by soldiers billeted in the local district, and the damage to the town’s trade caused by war and piracy. Accordingly, when Holles was imprisoned for protesting against the government on the riotous final day of the 1629 session, he retained the borough’s support. John White attempted to visit him in the Tower, and after his release the corporation presented him with a standing-cup worth 20 marks, in recognition of ‘his service done [during] the last Parliament’.11

Authors: John. P. Ferris / Paul Hunneyball


  • 1. D. Underdown, Fire From Heaven, 7, 99, 188; OR; Brit. Bor. Charters 1307-1660 ed. M. Weinbaum, 29; HLRO, Lords Parchments, f. 32; Municipal Recs. of Dorchester ed. C.H. Mayo, 413, 564, 581-2.
  • 2. Underdown, 8, 11; T. Gerard, Survey of Dorset, 69; Municipal Recs. of Dorchester, 385-91.
  • 3. Underdown, 7, 23; Hutchins, Dorset, ii. 356; C219/35/1/131; 219/39/88; 219/41A/41.
  • 4. Not. Parl. ii. 415-16; CJ, i. 152a; Hutchins, ii. 356.
  • 5. Underdown, 25-7; STAC 8/44/17.
  • 6. J. Savage, Dorchester, 186-7, 191; CJ, i. 394a, 400a, 435b, 436b; LJ, ii. 563b, 567b, 605a, 614b.
  • 7. F.R. Troup, John White, 40, 257-8; Harl. 6715, ff. 18, 20; T. Fuller, Worthies, iii. 25; Hutchins, ii. 330, 341; Savage, 219-20.
  • 8. Troup, 59; William Whiteway of Dorchester (Dorset Rec. Soc. xii), 61.
  • 9. Municipal Recs. of Dorchester, 452; PROB 11/171, f. 11.
  • 10. C219/37/85, 89; P.M. Hunneyball, ‘Prince Charles’s Council as Electoral Agent, 1620-24’, PH, xxiii. 325; E371/724/126; William Whiteway of Dorchester, 33-4. Whiteway mistakenly states that Ashley was elected in Dec. 1620, and then resigned his seat on 13 Jan. 1621.
  • 11. William Whiteway of Dorchester, 61, 108; Municipal Recs. of Dorchester, 675-6; Strafforde Letters (1739) ed. W. Knowler, i. 40, 42; CSP Dom. 1628-9, p. 543.