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

Number of voters:



 ?Sir Robert Bevill
 Sir Robert Cotton , bt.
 (Sir) Sidney Montagu*
 Sir Robert Payne
 ?Sir Oliver Cromwell
10 June 1626NAME ILLEGIBLE 1 vice Montagu, called to the Upper House
16 Feb. 1628SIR CAPELL BEDDELL , bt.

Main Article

Although the second smallest county in England, seventeenth-century Huntingdonshire contained three distinct agricultural economies: cattle fattening on the fens in the east; corn and sheep farming on the heavy clay uplands in the north and west; and a mixture of the two in the Ouse valley in the south. Most of the county’s market towns lay within the last of these areas, but none achieved a position of economic dominance: Huntingdon drew a limited prosperity from its role as the county town and its position on Ermine Street, but the markets for the key local trades in livestock and corn were situated at St. Ives and St. Neots respectively.2

The exact size of the Huntingdonshire electorate is unknown: polls were held in 1584 and 1621, but no count is recorded. Another in 1673 was adjourned before voting was complete, but it was claimed that there were about 1,100 freeholders present.3 A partial estimate is provided by a list of Sir Oliver Cromwell’s supporters from Godmanchester at the 1625 or 1626 election. This records 107 voters from the town, whose inhabitants comprised about five per cent of the county’s population, which gives a potential county electorate of about 2,000. However, this figure may be overstated, as modern research suggests that 20 of the 107 men listed were not freeholders possessed of lands worth 40s. p.a.4

Neither the knights of the shire nor their constituents showed any significant interest in sponsoring legislation to deal with local concerns during the early Stuart period. Sir Oliver Cromwell, who owned large tracts of Ramsey Fen, supported several proposals for fen drainage during the course of the 1604 Parliament, but none reached the statute books, and the work was ultimately completed by a chartered company during the 1630s.5 Another important local project, which the Bedford corporation undertook to further by legislation in 1628, was the improvement of the navigation of the River Ouse between St. Ives and Bedford. Again, nothing was achieved, and the works were maintained by private patentees from 1617 until their inclusion in the River Navigation Act of 1665.6 Three private bills relating to local estates – for the benefit of the Smiths of Water Newton, the Dyers of Great Staughton and the sale of Fletton manor – also came before the Commons during this period.7

Huntingdonshire underwent a massive upheaval at the Dissolution of the Monasteries, when the Crown acquired extensive estates in the east and north of the shire. The best were purchased by the Cromwell family, who amassed an estate of 66,000 acres in the eastern half of the county.8 This made them the shire’s largest landowners, but did not guarantee control of the parliamentary representation: in 1584 their candidate was defeated by a supporter of the then sheriff, Sir Henry Darcy†, and in subsequent elections they had to content themselves with the junior seat. Sir Oliver Cromwell succeeded to the family estate only six weeks before the general election of 1604,9 when he was returned for the senior county seat. There is no evidence of a contest on the day of the election, but the apparent absence of a challenge to Cromwell from Darcy’s son-in-law Sir Gervase Clifton†, senior knight in 1597 and 1601, is surprising. Moreover, the fact that the only important figures cited in the election indenture were Cromwell’s brother Henry* and his friends Sir George Walton† and Christopher Hodson* suggests that there was some disagreement.10 Clifton’s estates were much more modest than Cromwell’s,11 but he had strong support within the county, and may only have abandoned plans to stand after interference by the king, who visited Cromwell’s house at Hinchingbrooke a few days before the election. At the time of this visit, the Chancery clerk William Ravenscroft* reported that his clerk had prepared a patent granting Cromwell a barony for James’s signature.12 The warrant was never signed, and may only have been drafted as a ploy to help Cromwell: news of the apparent offer, which must have spread quickly, emphasized Cromwell’s pre-eminence within the shire and provided justification for his claim to the senior county seat. Having yielded precedence to Cromwell, Clifton could hardly accept the junior seat, which went to Sir Robert Cotton, who had courted royal favour since the accession by playing upon his distant kinship with James.13

The 1614 election provides further circumstantial evidence for an abortive contest in 1604, as the field seems to have become divided between representatives of the same rival camps. Clifton was no longer eligible to stand, having been elevated to the peerage since the previous election, but he probably sponsored Sir Robert Bevill, who had become a trustee of his estates in 1613, and Sir Robert Payne, whose father had bought Midloe manor from Sir Henry Darcy in 1590. The pair may also have secured the support of the lord lieutenant, Oliver, Lord St. John†, whose son (Sir) Oliver I* was another of Clifton’s trustees.14 Cromwell, by contrast, was in a weaker position than in 1604: he was mired in debt, despite recently assigning Weybridge Forest to the Crown for £16,000, and could no longer rely on James’s wholehearted support, as Clifton now had his own Court contacts following his daughter’s marriage to the king’s cousin Lord Aubigny.15 Bevill and Payne appear to have mounted a particularly effective canvass, and Cotton must have been alarmed when he discovered that Sir James Wingfield, to whom he was connected through the Montagu family, declined to promise his tenants’ voices to Cromwell and claimed to be unaware that Cotton was a candidate.16 Cromwell resolved the problem by cutting a deal with his rivals at Cotton’s expense, whereby Bevill stood aside in favour of Cromwell, whose followers then either supported Payne or abstained in the contest for the second seat. Payne duly trounced Cotton, whose brother protested that ‘this false ploy must needs return to somebody’s much discredit’, and suggested a petition to the Commons against the sheriff, who was already in trouble for his conduct of the Cambridgeshire election and was later accused of conspiring with the victorious parties in both counties. However, Cotton’s brother conceded that Cromwell’s desertion meant that ‘[if] in wading in it you [Cotton] should bring it to a new election, you would come off with small amends’; there is no evidence that any formal protest was made to the Commons.17

The price Cromwell apparently paid for his unopposed return in 1614 was an agreement that he would not stand for the shire at the next election, when he used his membership of Prince Charles’s Council to secure a nomination for the duchy of Cornwall borough of Saltash.18 Bevill and Payne were duly returned for Huntingdonshire in December 1620, although they had to fight off a challenge from (Sir) Sidney Montagu. The latter held only a small amount of land at Little Stukeley, but must have been endorsed by his brother lord treasurer Mandeville (Sir Henry Montagu*), who had a much larger estate at Kimbolton, and Sir Robert Cotton, whose sister was married to his eldest brother Sir Edward Montagu*, and on whose behalf he had apparently lobbied in 1614.19 The 1620 contest belatedly gave rise to further controversy in May 1624, when Francis Bedell, one of Sir Sidney’s supporters, prosecuted the sheriff, Thomas Maples, in Star Chamber for rejecting the voices of some of the freeholders. However, as the Parliament had long since been dissolved the allegations were of little consequence to the erstwhile candidates, and the action appears to have been brought as part of a longstanding feud between Maples and Bedell.20

There is no evidence of a contest in 1624, which suggests that Bevill and Payne stood aside, allowing Cromwell to be returned unopposed. However, he was obliged to yield the senior seat to Mandeville’s eldest son Edward Montagu, who had recently come of age. The same pair were returned again in 1625, although on this occasion a letter from one of Cromwell’s supporters indicates that Cromwell had intended to stand with Payne, who must have ceded the second seat to him when Montagu took the first.21 Cromwell and Payne probably paired against Montagu once again in 1626, but if so, Cromwell stood aside to allow Payne the junior seat. Montagu was summoned to the Lords in May 1626, and a by-election was held on 10 June. The surviving indenture is badly damaged and consequently the result of the election is unknown, but it is likely that Cromwell was returned in his stead. If so he would only just have had time to take up his seat before the dissolution.

With Montagu in the Lords, his younger brother Walter, a diplomat, was the family’s obvious candidate in 1628, but at the time of the election he was languishing in the Bastille. His brother James, who may have been considered too young for the county seat, was returned as a burgess for Huntingdon on the interest of his uncle Sir Sidney Montagu, who had recently purchased Hinchingbrooke House from Cromwell.22 Although Cromwell retained a considerable estate at Ramsey, the sale of Hinchingbrooke delivered a heavy blow to his local prestige, and curtailed his electoral influence within the shire. Payne was returned once again, but the senior seat went to a newcomer, Sir Capell Bedell, who had recently assumed control of 5,000 acres in the west of the county after a long minority.23

Author: Simon Healy


  • 1. C219/40/68.
  • 2. M. Carter, ‘Town or Urban Society? St. Ives, Hunts. 1630-1740’, Societies, Cultures and Kinship, 1580-1850 ed. C. Pythian-Adams, 79-84, 93-8, 121-8.
  • 3. STAC 5/A41/32; STAC 8/47/7; HP Commons, 1660-90, i. 272-3.
  • 4. Hunts. RO, Godmanchester bor. recs. Box 3, bdle. 15; Carter, 81; D. Hirst, Representative of the People?, 40-1.
  • 5. CJ, i. 207b, 277a, 382a, 413a, 1043a; SIR OLIVER CROMWELL; SIR ROBERT BEVILL.
  • 6. D. Summers, Gt. Ouse, 47-50.
  • 7. CJ, i. 440b, 489b, 544b, 606b.
  • 8. M. Wickes, Hist. Hunts. 62-3; Add. 33462, ff. 40-3.
  • 9. C142/283/106.
  • 10. C219/35/1/48.
  • 11. C142/555/83.
  • 12. HMC Hastings, iv. 1.
  • 13. K. Sharpe, Sir Robert Cotton, 114-15.
  • 14. CP sub Clifton of Leighton Bromswold; C142/555/83; 142/281/53.
  • 15. Hunts. RO, D/DM50/1, 3; CSP Dom. 1611-18, p. 190; HMC Downshire, iv. 231; CP (earl of March).
  • 16. Harl. 7002, f. 308.
  • 17. Procs. 1614 (Commons), 38, 103, 239-41; Cott. Julius C.III, f. 115; K. Sharpe, Sir Robert Cotton, 161-2.
  • 18. DCO, Letters and Patents 1620-1, f. 39v.
  • 19. STAC 8/47/7; Harl. 7002, f. 308.
  • 20. STAC 8/47/7. See also STAC 8/208/15; 8/285/20.
  • 21. Add. 33461, f. 61, which can be dated to 1625 from internal evidence.
  • 22. CSP Dom. 1627-8. p. 473; 1628-9, p. 81; VCH Hunts. ii. 136.
  • 23. C142/337/100; 142/338/54.