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

Number of voters:

about 2,900


c. Apr. 1660JOHN STEPHENS 
 William Penn 
1 Apr. 1661JOHN KNIGHT I 
 THOMAS BUTLER, Earl of Ossory 
  Double return of Lord Ossory and Hooke. OSSORY allowed to sit, 16 May 1661 
 HOOKE vice Ossory, on petition, 30 Oct. 1666 
11 Feb. 1678SIR ROBERT CANN, Bt. vice Hooke, deceased 
10 Feb. 1679SIR ROBERT CANN, Bt. 
25 Aug. 1679(SIR) JOHN KNIGHT I 
 Robert Henley 
Jan. 16811THOMAS EARLE vice Cann, election declared void1200
 Robert Atkyns1180
7 Mar. 1681THOMAS EARLE1491
 Robert Atkyns1435
 (Sir) John Knight I1301
Dec. 16852SIR RICHARD HART vice Churchill, deceasedc.900
 (Sir) John Knight IIc.700
 John Romseyc.200

Main Article

In the eyes of Samuel Pepys, Bristol was the only provincial centre which could be compared with London, either in the urbanity of its atmosphere or the wealth and dignity of its merchants. Despite its large electorate it was generally amenable to government influence, exercised first by the Duke of Ormonde and later by the Marquess of Worcester (Henry Somerset). Ormonde’s son, Lord Ossory, is the only known candidate who was not a Bristolian either by birth (William Penn and Sir Humphrey Hooke), office (the recorders, John Stephens, Robert Atkyns and Sir John Churchill), or residence. All the others were merchants, and of these only Robert Henley, Thomas Earle and Sir Richard Crumpe were not Bristol born. None of them could be described as self-made men, with the possible exception of Crumpe, and even he claimed to be the son of a gentleman. Earle came of sound yeoman stock, inherited an estate, and founded a parliamentary family, as did Henley, who was of Dorset gentry origin. The remainder all came from established patrician families, and, with the exception of Crumpe and the elder Knight, either inherited or acquired a country estate. Sir Robert Cann and Sir Richard Hart, like Earle, succeeded in founding minor county families, and only Hooke (who had no male heirs) and the younger Knight can be shown to have declined in financial status after election. But, as one unsuccessful candidate remarked, ‘ever since they grew rich and full of trade and knighthood, too much sail and too little ballast, they have been miserably divided’. There was abundant political feeling among the electors, based largely on religious differences; but among their leaders, such as Cann and the elder Knight, it seems to have been faction rather than principle that ruled.3

In 1660 the electors rejected Penn, who must be called the government candidate since he was recommended by George Monck. His ‘fanatic’ background was probably known in his birthplace, but not his secret royalism, though Stephens, the senior Member, had followed a similar course. Of the Anglican zealot Knight there could be no doubts. He was unopposed in 1661, while Stephens stood down to facilitate the return of Ossory. Resentment at the imposition of an outsider was too strong, however, and the majority voted for Hooke, whose royalist credentials were impeccable and who, as a nearby resident, maintained at least a tenuous connexion with the borough. The result was a double return, but when Parliament met, Hooke, who had subscribed Ossory’s indentures, withdrew his claim. The corporation purged itself in October, removing 34 of its intruded or notoriously disaffected members, and the commissioners had little to do. The charter was confirmed in 1664 without the disfranchisement of the freemen which had been requested. When Ossory received an English peer age in 1666, Hooke renewed his petition. John Maynard I and ‘all the old Parliament gang were for a new election’; but the royalists carried it for Hooke by four votes in committee. The House accepted the recommendation without a division, and the former sheriff (now mayor) had to spend a night in the custody of the serjeant-at-arms for making a false return.4

Cann was elected on Hooke’s death with the support of the dissenters, and apparently without opposition. He and Knight were successful at the general election. Neither voted for exclusion, and in August 1679 they were opposed by a radical merchant, Robert Henley, who was not even a freeman. He was defeated, but the election caused a breach between the violent Knight, now fully as hostile to Papists as to dissenters, and his colleague Cann. Cann was probably no more discerning in political matters than his fellow Member, but he was in contact with more sophisticated circles through Sir Dudley North II, and was heard to declare that ‘there was no Popish Plot, but a Presbyterian Plot’. When the second Exclusion Parliament met, determined on the severest measures against Abhorrers, both within the House and without, evidence was given against Cann both by Knight and by Rowe, sword-bearer to the corporation, who was clearly hoping to strike at Cann’s patron, Lord Worcester. ‘As for the credit of Sir John Knight’, Cann told the House, ‘it is such that a jury of twelve men, his neighbours, will not believe his testimony’, adding, in an unfortunately audible aside: ‘God damme, ‘tis true’. He was duly expelled, but not even the partisan elections committee could persuade the House that Henley ought to be seated in his place. Cann’s election was declared void, and there followed the closest electoral contest of the period, in which Earle, a merchant of similar moderate views, defeated the exclusionist recorder Atkyns by 20 votes, or less than 1 per cent of the poll. For the general election two months later the local opponents of the Court published one of the earliest election pamphlets, in which it was suggested that only experienced Members could serve the city by ‘getting an Act for merchandizing to the East Indies and Turkey’. The danger from the Popish Plot was alluded to, but exclusion was not mentioned. A triumphal procession was formed for Knight when he returned from Westminster, but when Atkyns arrived three weeks later he was greeted by a hostile mob and a riot ensued. The country candidates were defeated by Earle and his colleague Hart, but Atkyns alleged that the mayor had created 400 new freemen for the occasion, and promised a parliamentary investigation. Not to be outdone, the court party published the address presented to the successful candidates before they left for Oxford. In it they were commended for their loyalty to church and state, and urged to vote for an adequate supply and to preserve the prerogative.5

With the dissolution of the Oxford Parliament, conflict shifted to the municipal field. The corporation was sufficiently loyal to present addresses approving the dissolution and abhorring the ‘Association’, and to elect an unbroken succession of Tory mayors. But the younger Knight, sheriff in 1681-2, outbid them in royal favour by harrying the dissenters and preparing the ground for an attack on the charter. The first step was the removal of Atkyns, who had laid himself open by various irregularities, notably by presiding at the election of the leading Whig, Thomas Day, as alderman. A quo warranto soon followed. Knight told Lord Worcester (who had just been created Duke of Beaufort) that he had secured a majority on the corporation for the surrender of the charter; but Earle and Hart refused to comply, and the motion was defeated in the chamber by 27 votes to 22. A few months later the corporation learnt to their embarrassment that Rowe was implicated in the Rye House Plot. They produced an address in abhorrence of the plot, and in November 1683 voted unanimously for surrender, though half the members did not attend. While negotiations for a new charter proceeded, Knight ‘set himself up for a Parliament man, personally desiring votaries with promises and menaces, whereby he put our city into a great ferment by dividing the loyal men’. Whigs, such as Day, were naturally displaced under the new charter; but all Knight’s moderate opponents except Earle were continued in office, and he resigned in chagrin. The new charter provided as usual for royal approval of the recorder and town clerk, but the other members of the corporation were appointed for life, and vacancies were to be filled by majority vote. The 1685 election was ‘more peaceable and unanimous than had been heretofore known’. Churchill, who had been confirmed in office as recorder, was returned with Crumpe, a Tory merchant. This election marked the acme of Beaufort’s influence. After Monmouth’s invasion and Jeffreys’ ‘Bloody Assizes’, in which he berated Cann and other leading citizens for kidnapping felons to serve on their West Indian plantations, the atmosphere changed. On Churchill’s death, Beaufort spurned an application from Hart, and recommended Romsey, the town clerk. Jeffreys (newly promoted lord chancellor), Lord Treasurer Rochester (Laurence Hyde I) and the bishop also wrote on his behalf. The unpredictable Knight, though no longer a member of the corporation, emerged from his self-imposed retirement, but Hart defeated him by 200 votes. Romsey finished a bad last, about 300 of his supporters not daring to cast their votes, ‘for about two hundred that had voted for him were so beaten and trod under foot that he rather chose to send in a protest against their tumultuous behaviour’. Sir Robert Southwell commented to Ormonde:

The worst is that there has been nothing of Whig and Tory on this matter, but an under-valuing the recommendation given, a sort of revenge for ill treatment by the lord chancellor and the soldiers, and as if it were high time for Protestants of all sorts to be friends.

It was in vain that Hart was removed from the cor poration and Knight prosecuted for seditious practices. No Bristol jury could be found to convict, and the Declaration of Indulgence was welcomed only by Presbyterians and Quakers.6

In February 1688 Romsey was replaced by another Rye House plotter, an attorney called Wade, who had been taken prisoner at Sedgemoor and saved his life by giving evidence against his comrades. The mayor, the sheriffs, six aldermen and 18 councilmen were also removed. In April the King was told:

They propose Thomas Day, the mayor, who hath declared himself both to Mr Wade and Mr Jones to be right, notwithstanding his former denial. He is very popular and will carry it. They propose also to choose Sir Robert Atkyns, who hath great interest, and hath fully declared himself to Mr Wade, and ‘tis supposed will do the like to your Majesty; but if your Majesty is not satisfied with Sir Robert, they will choose Sir Richard Crumpe, who is right, and for whom they will make an interest. The dissenters here are very numerous.

Canvassing began in earnest in September, when Knight and Hart declared their intention to stand. It was believed that Atkyns would make a third attempt, but Day was now more doubtful, and Wade pinned his hopes on a certain Alderman Browne, promising only that ‘they can without doubt choose one right man, of which he will give a further account’. In October, a mandamus rnandarnus ordering the admission of 65 new freemen, which had been received six months before, was at last read in the council chamber, but further action was prevented by the withdrawal of the new charter. After electing Ossory’s son as high steward, the restored corporation welcomed the Revolution, resolving ‘to stand by the Prince of Orange in defence of the Protestant religion and the laws of the land’. But at the general election of 1689, two Tories, Knight and Hart, were returned, probably unopposed, no doubt as the principal sufferers under James. Their firm churchmanship suggests that Wade had considerably overestimated the strength of dissent in the city.7

Author: John. P. Ferris


  • 1. CSP Dom. 1680-1, p. 137.
  • 2. HMC Ormonde, n.s. vii. 404.
  • 3. Pepys Diary 13 June 1668; Sayer, Mems. Bristol, ii. 517-20.
  • 4. Bristol RO, common council proceedings 1659-75, pp. 15, 17; CJ, viii. 250, 631, 644-5; Bristol Charters (Bristol Rec. Soc. xii), 36-41, Milward, 16.
  • 5. CSP Dom. 1677-8, pp. 423-7; 1680-1, p. 137, CJ, ix. 642, 684; Grey, viii. 381-5; Reasons for Choosing Atkyns and Knight for Bristol (1681); J. Latimer, Bristol in the 17th Century, 400; Bristol Address to Hart and Earle (1681); Prot. Dom. Intell. 15 Feb., 11, 15 Mar. 1681.
  • 6. London Gazette, 6 May 1681, 9 Mar. 1682, 27 Sept. 1683, 30 May, 21 Oct. 1687; Sayer, ii. 517-20; CSP Dom. 1682, pp. 563, 678; Jan.-June 1683, p. 151; July-Sept. 1683, p. 418; 1683-4, pp. 248-9, 363; SP29/422/127; Bath mss, Thynne pprs. 22, f. 6, letter of Robert Henley, 29 Mar. 1683; J. Evans, Hist. Bristol, 232; Bristol RO, common council proceedings 1670-87, f. 214; 12964, no. 2; HMC Ormonde, n.s. vii. 404; HMC Egmont, ii. 172.
  • 7. Latimer, op. cit. 446-7; Duckett, Penal Laws (1883), 228-9, 243; Bath mss, Thynne pprs. 24, f. 41, Henley to Ld. Weymouth, 15 Sept. 1688; Bristol Charters, 55-56; Bodl. Carte 40, f. 494; English Currant, 12 Dec. 1688.