Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1660-1690, ed. B.D. Henning, 1983
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Background Information

Right of Election:

in the freemen


90 in 1688


16 Apr. 1661SIR JOHN HOLLAND, Bt.
 John Bence
9 Nov. 1669JOHN BENCE vice Brooke, deceased
 Samuel Pepys
 John Duke
19 Aug. 1679JOHN BENCE
28 Feb. 1681JOHN BENCE

Main Article

The corporation of Aldeburgh, consisting of two bailiffs (the returning officers), 12 aldermen, and 24 common councilmen, controlled the freemen roll, though the right of non-resident freemen to vote was questionable. The cost of defence made the little town susceptible to admiralty influence, and the Howards, as lords of the manor, claimed the right to nominate one Member. In 1660, however, the lunacy of the 5th Duke of Norfolk and the Roman Catholicism of his heir disqualified this interest, and Aldeburgh was represented in the Convention by two local landowners, Robert Brooke and Thomas Bacon. Both came from Presbyterian families, connected by marriage, but both supported the Restoration. Bacon, a committeeman, did not stand again, but the corporation supported the re-election of Brooke ‘who in the last Parliament performed the trust in him reposed, not to us only but to the public concern of his Majesty, with a loyal, faithful and unwearied labour’. Henry Howard, ‘having a free offer and assurance from the town of Aldeburgh to recommend one at least’, nominated Sir John Holland, a Norfolk squire, whose brother-in-law, Sir Edward Duke of Benhall, lived nearby. However, John Bence, one of the aldermen, who had represented the borough in Richard Cromwell’s Parliament, resolved to stand as an independent candidate. On 3 Apr. 1661 Holland wrote to Howard:

Upon Thursday last I met with Sir Robert Brooke at Aldeburgh, where I entertained the bailiffs, burgesses and many of the freemen in your name ... and endeavoured to make it appear to them how much more it was to their interest to elect me upon your recommendation than it was either yours ... or mine. I minded them of those relations and obligations their predecessors had to your ancestors, what patrons and protectors they had been formerly to the inhabitants of that corporation and did assure them of your power through that interest you had in his Majesty’s favour and desires to promote all things of advantage for that corporation as well out of Parliament as in Parliament ... I told them likewise that of late years through the distempers of the times that there had been some neglect of respect both to my lord your grandfather, my lord your father and yourself by them. Nevertheless you have given them this opportunity to recover their interest in your favour and protection ... Which they seemed to take so well that they generally thereupon declared for me, though Mr Bence, one of the 12, our competitor, was present amongst them, and is said to have such a strength among the freemen as will shake either Sir Robert Brooke or me, to prevent which we have agreed with two of the most active amongst the burgesses to conceal the precept for the election until there comes a south wind to carry away the seamen upon whose votes we hear Mr Bence depends. I hope ... so to manage the business with these people, if we can carry it now upon your interest, to secure the nomination for the future.

On 7 Apr. the bailiffs wrote to inform Holland that ‘the seamen being gone we think it most convenient to have our election ... upon Monday the 15th or Tuesday the 16th’. Holland replied that he could not be present at the election in person, but he hoped that

you will be able the night before the election to find the temper of the freemen, and if you discover the least danger, I am confident you will judge it advisable to make new freemen in the morning to secure us, which both the bailiffs being entirely for us will be very easy for you to do.

He assured Brooke that all expenses incurred in entertaining the corporation and freemen ‘we will equally bear as brethren’. Holland and Brooke were returned, and in the following year Bence was removed from the corporation by the commissioners.1

When Brooke died during the summer recess of 1669 Bence, now a customs farmer and secretary to the Royal Africa Company, came forward again. He was opposed by Holland’s nephew, (Sir) John Duke, already a freeman of the borough. But on I July the Duke of York wrote to Howard, who had been raised to the peerage, on behalf of Samuel Pepys, the junior member of the navy board. It was reported, however, that ‘the corporation is generally dissatisfied with the person the Duke has named, as being wholly a stranger to them’. Pepys wrote to one of them, Captain Thomas Eliot, who was acting as his election agent:

As your favour herein will be very acceptable to his Royal Highness, so will it engage not only myself singly but the whole body of this office upon all future occasions to express their sense of kindness shown to one of its members.

Letters from (Sir) William Coventry and Matthew Wren were no doubt intended to reinforce this suggestion of official solidarity, although the former was now out of office. Rumours were spread about Pepys’s religion, and when Howard, who was abroad, wrote on his behalf, it was alleged that the letter had ‘neither his assent, hand or seal’. A letter from the Duke of York, Pepys heard, was denounced as a forgery,

a calumny so scandalous that I am sorry to find such indirect means used to prevent the Duke in his desire, who has so abundantly declared himself therein ... to Mr Duke and Alderman Bence themselves.

Duke, having been induced to stand down by a promise of his uncle’s seat when it should become vacant,

thought fit to resume his pretensions, ... urging that, your lordship [Howard] having enjoyed your influence heretofore in the election of Sir John Holland without any in that of Sir Robert Brooke, he held not himself obliged to give way to your lordship’s interposition in the present vacancy.

The new writ was ordered when Parliament reassembled on 19 Oct., but the illness and death of Pepys’s wife prevented him from attending the election in person or prosecuting his candidature with much vigour. Bence was returned, the corporation creating four non-resident freemen to secure this result.2

The Howard interest, already shaken by its defeat in 1669, finally collapsed during the Popish Plot. Howard himself took to flight, Holland did not stand again, and the manor was eventually sold to the Johnsons. Henry Johnson, a Thames-side shipbuilder from an Aldeburgh family, had already acquired the nearby manor of Friston Hall from Bacon, and was recommended by Pepys to his agent Eliot on 30 Jan. 1679, together with Sir Richard Haddock, a navy commissioner:

I can assure you that what kindness you shall express to these gentlemen upon this occasion will be greatly acceptable both to his Majesty and [his] Royal Highness (it being by their authority I take upon me to say it). So may you expect to have the same acknowledged by them to your benefits.

It is not known whether Bence, who had moved into opposition, stood for re-election, but in any case the admiralty interest triumphed. In the second and third Exclusion Parliaments, however, Haddock and Johnson were replaced by Bence and John Corrance, another Londoner who had bought a small estate in the neighbourhood. There is no evidence that either supported exclusion, but unlike their predecessors they had no connexions with the navy or the Court. The corporation was clearly Tory, and in their address abhorring the Rye House Plot they declared their adherence to the legal succession. No measures were taken against their charter before the general election of 1685, in which Bence was returned with a local Tory lawyer, Sir Henry Bedingfield, who enjoyed the patronage of Lord Keeper Guilford (Sir Francis North) and Judge Jeffreys.3

Bence’s death left the borough open, and Johnson’s son Sir Henry, seized his opportunity. He ‘almost revived the town by building three half-parts of fishing vessels (when all their shipping was lost) and adventuring them to sea with the principal of the townsmen’. In April 1688 the King’s electoral agents, who seem to have been handicapped by the weakness of dissent in the town, grossly overestimated the electorate at 300. The borough, they reported, was under the power of John Browne, the senior bailiff and ‘the only considerable trading man in the town’.

They fear a quo warranto, for stopping of which they offer to decline Sir Henry Johnson and to elect two such as your Majesty shall recommend, and to this Mr Browne hath consented, and will give satisfaction therein accordingly.

But in September they wrote that Aldeburgh proposed to elect Corrance and Duke, of whose attitude to James II’s religious policy they ‘could give no good account’. Duke, however, preferred to stand for Orford, and Corrance, although very popular as a strong churchman, excused himself on the grounds of age and infirmity. In these circumstances it occurred to Sir Edward Turnor, son of the first Speaker of the Cavalier Parliament, to claim an interest as patentee of the lighthouses on Orford Ness, which gave employment to the superannuated seamen of the port. Unfortunately the keepers were ‘pitiful creatures, scarcely men of common sense’, but Turnor employed a Yarmouth lawyer, who took over the Bence organization. He was empowered to offer ‘the lights for the benefit of the corporation, and bid them consider any other things whereby the public body of the town or any of them in particular might be gratified’. But Browne was deaf to these blandishments, declaring the corporation pre-engaged to Johnson and Corrance. When Turnor repeated that Corrance would not stand, Browne answered bluntly that his information was not well-grounded, and that by persisting he could only give himself and Mr Corrance’s friends some trouble without any advantage to himself. Bence’s former agent assembled the seamen at the town clerk’s house on Turnor’s behalf, ‘but found some opposition by a speech in town that you were for taking off the Tests and Penal Laws, which I pray clear’. As late as 21 Dec. Turnor was still resolved to stand but ‘not willing to spend much money’, and he is unlikely to have gone to the poll, even though his information about Corrance was perfectly correct. Johnson was returned with his brother William, both Tories, and they retained their seats for a quarter of a century.4

Author: Paula Watson


  • 1. Add. 41605, pp. 181-2; Norf. Arch. xxx. 130-9; N. and Q. clxvi. 420; Bodl. Tanner mss 239, ff. 116-18, 120-3, 125.
  • 2. Pepys Further Corresp. 243-61; Pepys Letters and Diary ed. Howarth, 37.
  • 3. Pepys Further Corresp. 337; London Gazette, 11 Oct. 1683.
  • 4. Copinger, Suff. Manors, v. 97; Suff. Inst. Arch. Proc. xxviii. 63; W. Suss. RO, Winterton mss, Godfrey to Turnor, 3, 5 Dec., Wall to Turnor, 14, 24 Dec. 1688; Duckett, Penal Laws (1883), 227, 247.