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 ratepayers

Number of voters:

140 in 1688


26 Jan. 1624(SIR) RICHARD WYNN
c. Feb. 1624EDMUND WALLER vice Tomkins, chose to sit for Christchurch
27 Apr. 1625(SIR) RICHARD WYNN
c. Mar. 1626(SIR) WILLIAM BEECHER vice Kirton, chose to sit for Marlborough
 ROBERT CAESAR vice Seldon, chose to sit for Great Bedwyn

Main Article

Ilchester was the county town of Somerset, having not only the county gaol but also hosting regular meetings of the shire and circuit courts.1 However, it failed to develop an economic base to match its administrative importance: under Henry VIII, John Leland observed that the town ‘hath been a very large thing’, but ‘at this time it is in wonderful decay, as a thing in a manner razed with men of war’.2 The borough’s charter of incorporation, granted in 1556, was intended to restore ancient rights, the lapsing of which had brought the borough ‘near to ruin’; to raise funds for the county gaol; and perhaps to pre-empt a proposal to make Glastonbury the county town.3 Few signs of revival were detectable under the early Stuarts, when it was still a ‘decayed town’.4 It retained the county gaol and remained the venue for the spring quarter sessions and the shire court, in which the county elections were held.5 Yet brewing was said to be the town’s only notable economic activity, serving those who attended the prison and the courts;6 visiting magistrates complained of the town’s lack of facilities.7 As the local proverb went, ‘all Ilchester is gaol, say prisoners there’.8

Ilchester had returned Members to Parliament from 1298 to 1361, but thenceforth its representation lapsed, doubtless as a consequence of the town’s decline.9 The 1556 charter established an oligarchic government by a bailiff and 12 capital burgesses, but made no reference to parliamentary representation.10 The town owed its revival as a parliamentary borough to the influence and ambitions of Sir Robert Phelips*, of nearby Montacute, who served as Ilchester’s high steward from 1615. Having been defeated by John Powlett in a bruising contest for the county election 1614, he apparently thought that a pocket borough at Ilchester would be an effective safety net, as well as a valuable addition to his patronage.11 However, his petition for Ilchester’s re-enfranchisement, submitted to the Commons on 26 Mar. 1621, struggled to present a logical case.12 It stated that Ilchester had returned Members in the distant past, but ‘being grown poor’, the town had ‘forborne to send burgesses’. It interpreted the 1556 charter as evidence that the town had ‘grown into a better estate’; but insisted that it was not until ‘a few years past, searching among the records of the Tower’ that it was realized that these privileges included parliamentary representation.13 This unlikely story was accepted by the House, as one historian has remarked, with ‘remarkably little discussion’; the only recorded objection came from Sir Humphrey May, chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster.14 The acceptance of this petition, and another submitted at the same time for the re-enfranchisement of Pontefract, Yorkshire, constituted a significant precedent for the expansion of the Commons’ membership by reviving the obsolescent franchises of medieval boroughs.15 The nature of the renewed franchise was not recorded, but in 1688 it was described by the king’s electoral agents as ‘popular’.16 This may have suited Phelips personally, since he seems to have been at odds with the ruling oligarchy: by the end of the decade he was ‘championing’ the cause of the ‘inferior burgesses’, in direct confrontation with some of Ilchester’s leading businessmen.17

Although Ilchester’s corporation may have wished to challenge Phelips’s electoral influence, there is no evidence that they did so – the early years of Ilchester’s representation are a chronicle of Phelips’s electoral patronage. The choice of candidates in 1621 was relatively small, as most of those who wanted seats had already found them at the general election. Sir Richard Wynn, a Welsh courtier who had suffered a humiliating defeat in the Caernarvonshire election, had already been disappointed in his approach to Sir Thomas Wentworth*, for a seat at Pontefract. He may have been more fortunate at Ilchester because of a recommendation from Nathaniel Tomkins, Phelips’s Court correspondent, who was, like Wynn, a member of Prince Charles’s Household. The other Member, Arthur Jarvis, was an Exchequer official who had information about the activities of Henry Spiller*, clerk of recusancy fines, who some in Phelips’s circle hoped to investigate during the session.18 Following its enfranchisement, Ilchester was mentioned once more in debate in 1621: when the bill for the paving of Colchester was debated on 5 May, it was cited as an example of a town which had previously benefited by such a measure; yet this seems to have been a garbled reference to another town.19

As part of the preparations for the 1624 Parliament, Prince Charles and the duke of Buckingham sought the support of Phelips, among others, in pursuing an anti-Spanish foreign policy. It was thus particularly appropriate that Wynn, a committed hispanophobe, should have been returned for Ilchester once again. Phelips offered the other seat to Tomkins, but when the latter opted to sit for Christchurch, Dorset, the place went to Tomkin’s brother-in-law Edmund Waller.

Wynn had hopes of securing a seat in Wales in 1625, but in the event he was returned for Ilchester once more. While attending the Oxford sitting he shared a house with Tomkins. Phelips bestowed the other seat upon his brother-in-law Sir Robert Gorges of Redlynch, Somerset. During the brief session Phelips obstructed Buckingham’s efforts to secure a large grant of supply to fund war with Spain, and in November 1625 he was pricked as sheriff of Somerset in order to prevent him from sitting in the next Parliament. On this occasion, the return of Edward Kirton of Castle Cary, Somerset, and the prominent lawyer John Selden, both of whom went on to play a significant part in Buckingham’s impeachment, looks very much like a gesture of defiance – though in the event, both men opted to sit for constituencies controlled by their chief patron, William Seymour*, 2nd earl of Hertford.20 Phelips’s endorsement of two known troublemakers for the Ilchester seats may have earned him a rebuke from the favourite, as Kirton was replaced by the Privy Council clerk William Beecher, one of Buckingham’s few defenders during the session. Selden’s replacement, however, was the Chancery clerk Robert Caesar, who had been employed by the Commons in 1625 to check the enrolments of the oaths of the treasurers of the 1624 subsidies, with a view to establishing whether funds had been misused.21

1628 saw the election of two of Phelips’s closest local allies. The first was Sir Henry Berkeley of Yarlington, Somerset, an ‘old friend and most constant supporter’,22 who had replaced Phelips as knight of the shire in 1626, and with whom Phelips had initially hoped to pair for the county seats. The second seat went to Sir Robert Gorges, who had been returned for Taunton in 1626, who seems to have shared Phelips’s political sympathies: both men had been expelled from the Somerset commission of the peace in the government purge following the dissolution of the 1626 Parliament.23

Author: George Yerby


  • 1. VCH Som. iii. 185.
  • 2. Ibid. 185-7; J. Leland, Itinerary ed. L. Toulmin-Smith, i. 156.
  • 3. VCH Som. iii. 192.
  • 4. T. Barnes, Somerset 1625-40, p. 9.
  • 5. VCH Som. iii. 185.
  • 6. Ibid. 189.
  • 7. Barnes, 69.
  • 8. J. Stevens Cox, Ilchester Monographs, 92.
  • 9. VCH Som. iii. 188, 194.
  • 10. Merewether and Stephens, Hist. Boroughs, iii. 1591.
  • 11. E. de Villiers, ‘Parlty. Boroughs Restored by the House of Commons’, EHR, lxvii. 188.
  • 12. CJ, i. 572b.
  • 13. Nicholas Procs. 1621, i. 221.
  • 14. Villiers, 177; CJ, i. 572b, 576a.
  • 15. Villiers, 176.
  • 16. G. Duckett, Penal Laws, ii. 230.
  • 17. VCH Som. iii. 192-3; Barnes, 216.
  • 18. Strafforde Letters (1739) ed. W. Knowler, i. 14; CAERNARVONSHIRE; ARTHUR JARVIS.
  • 19. Nicholas, Procs. 1621, ii. 25. Such Acts had previously been passed to benefit Ipswich (13 Eliz.I, c. 24) and Chichester (18 Eliz.I, c. 19).
  • 20. CJ, i. 821b; J.K. Gruenfelder, Influence in Early Stuart Elections, 181 n. 75.
  • 21. R. Cust, Forced Loan, 192-3; W. Prest, Rise of the Barristers, 239.
  • 22. Barnes, 217.
  • 23. CJ, i. 891a.