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

Background Information

Number of voters:

over 2,200 in 1675


 John Strode I 
18 Oct. 1675JOHN DIGBY, Lord Digby vice Strangways, deceased Thomas Moore520
30 Apr. 1677SIR NATHANIEL NAPIER, Bt. vice Digby, called to the Upper House 
  Double return. Election declared void, 28 Jan. 1678 
17 Feb. 1681THOMAS FREKE I 

Main Article

Most of the successful candidates for Dorset came from the western divisions during this period, and in particular the representation of the county became ‘in a manner hereditary’ in the Strangways family. The concentration of freeholders in the crown manor of Portland, mostly engaged in supplying stone to the Office of Works gave special importance to the sinecure office of captain (or governor). Freeholders were also numerous in the former crown forest around Gillingham, where the Nicholas interest was powerful.1

The 1660 election was exceptional, as none of the county magnates was sufficiently uncompromised by royalist, rumper, or militarist backgrounds to appear as a candidate, except Sir Anthony Ashley Cooper, who preferred to stand for Wiltshire. But there can be little doubt that, as in 1659, John Fitzjames and Robert Coker enjoyed his support, and that of his henchman Arney, who was governor of Portland. By 1661 the island had been committed to the crypto-Catholic Humphrey Weld, who was given £1,000 p.a. from secret service. The Cavaliers Giles Strangways and John Strode I were elected, probably unopposed.2

The by-election following the death of Strangways on 20 June 1675 is the best recorded of the period. Strode came out for John Digby; Sir Nathaniel Napier had some thoughts of standing, but soon rallied to the support of his brother-in-law. Shaftesbury at first considered it hopeless to oppose the Digby interest, unless Thomas Freke would agree to stand. On Freke’s refusal, Shaftesbury went so far as to propose a meeting with Digby. Even Michael Harvey, generally accounted a dissenter, whose name had been mentioned as another possible candidate, announced his support for Digby, and George Fulford also stood down. But, encouraged by Henry Whitaker, Shaftesbury began to develop doubts about Digby’s associates, and renewed the search for an opposition candidate. Thomas Browne declined to stand, and in desperation Shaftesbury sent a message to Thomas Moore, who was taking the waters at Tunbridge Wells. Moore, the principal supporter of conventicles in the county, was regarded by Williamson’s correspondent as a formidable candidate. But as late as 18 Aug. he had not yet formally entered the contest, by which time Digby had a two months’ start. Nevertheless the news came as a shock to him, and meeting Shaftesbury by accident, he reproached him for his bad faith, adding: ‘You are against the King, and for seditions and factions, and for a commonwealth, and I will prove it, and, by God, we will have your head next Parliament’—remarks which were to earn Shaftesbury £1,000 damages for scandalum magnatum. Shaftesbury and his son (Hon. Anthony Ashley) now began to canvass actively for Moore, and gained considerable support among the commonalty. But the gentry were mostly for Digby. (Sir) John Nicholas, though personally unknown to Digby, instructed his tenants to vote for him, and the bishop of Bristol took an active part in dispersing propaganda against Moore. The result was a Tory landslide, which much disconcerted the dissenters. Moore polled only 520 votes, against over 1,700 for Digby. Shaftesbury’s candidate was ill-chosen; his modest estate lay in the extreme west of the county, and he did not belong to one of the recognized magnate families.3

Digby succeeded to the peerage in March 1677, and the result of the ensuing by-election surely reflects a major swing in public opinion in barely 18 months. Both candidates, Napier and Browne, were men of wealth, position and experience; Napier was a free spender, but Browne was resolved to ‘put himself to no charge’ in his campaign. What tipped the balance in his favour was the support of his cousin, Thomas Strangways, the leading loyalist commoner in the county. The poll lasted at least four days and each candidate claimed the victory two or three times. Eventually the sheriff, John Every, closed the poll abruptly with the consent of both parties, and made a double return. The election was declared void, and despite a vicious smear campaign Browne was returned unopposed in the fresh election, his opponent ‘laying down’.4

The exclusion elections set a pattern which endured for the rest of the century, with the unopposed return, despite their differing politics, of Strangways and Freke. Strangways wrote on 29 Jan. 1679:

This day several of the eastern and western gentlemen of this county met at Captain Coker’s at Mappowder where we had some discourse of the approaching elections, amongst which they were pleased to pitch upon my cousin Freke and myself for knights of the shire, which my cousin Freke readily embraced upon condition that I would join with him, wherein, although I endeavoured much to avoid it, and to have continued my cousin Browne, I was overborne by Sir William Portman and others then present.

The appointment of Wadham Strangways as captain of Portland consolidated the family interest. For the August election, on Freke’s proposal, electoral premises were shared, and in 1681 no opposition was offered to the alliance, though Freke was returned as senior knight of the shire. They were re-elected in 1685, but in 1688 James II’s agents hoped to supplant Strangways by Harvey. The new governor of Portland, one of the Somerset branch of the Strangways family and a kinsman of Edmund Ludlow, was expected to bring out the republican vote for the court candidates. In April it was reported that:

Mr Freke will be chosen, who is moderate, and Mr Michael Harvey will be set up by the dissenters, who are numerous, and others, as well in the county as in the respective corporations, and about 150 freeholders in Portland that are in the governor’s devotion, who will attend the election. Besides, these two gentlemen have so great interest in the county that it is not to be supposed any can oppose them.

But by September, Harvey had transferred his candidature to Weymouth (where he was successful in 1689) and the prospects for the shire could only be described as ‘very doubtful’—a masterpiece of double-talk, for at the election four months later Freke and Strangways were returned as usual.5

Author: John. P. Ferris


  • 1. Hutchins, Dorset, iv. 367; Ailesbury Mems. 101; Dorset Hearth Tax ed. Meekings, 14.
  • 2. CSP Dom. 1660-1, p. 280; 1661-2, p. 311; Northumberland (Alnwick) mss 552, f. 70; Christie, Shaftesbury, i. p. xvii.
  • 3. CSP Dom. 1675-6, pp. 232, 235, 245, 331, 355; Christie, ii. 215-19; Hatton Corresp. (Cam. Soc. n.s. xxii), 123; Eg. 2540, f. 24.
  • 4. CJ, x. 24; CSP Dom. 1677-8; p. 80; Dorset RO, D124 (letter of 13 May 1677); CJ, ix. 424, 439; CSP Dom. 1677-8, p. 106; 1678, p. 16.
  • 5. Dorset RO, D124, Freke to Strangways, 12 Aug. 1679; Prot. Dom. Intell. 22 Feb. 1681; Cal. Treas. Bks. v. 1001; vii. 979; Duckett, Penal Laws (1883), 221, 242.