Great Yarmouth


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 1660-84, 1689; in the corporation 1685

Number of voters:

about 600 in 1678; 54 in 1685


12 Apr. 1660SIR JOHN POTTS, Bt.
  Double return. POTTS and DOYLEY declared elected, 18 May 1660
12 Feb. 1678SIR THOMAS MEDOWE vice Doyley, deceased
 Richard Huntington
 Sir James Johnson
 Sir Thomas Medowe
 Sir Thomas Medowe
4 Mar. 1685SIR WILLIAM COOK, Bt.
 George England
 Richard Huntington

Main Article

‘The multitude’ at Yarmouth had shown unmistakable royalist sympathies during the second Civil War, and, though the freeman roll did not rise above 600 in a population of many thousands, it was thought wise during the Protectorate to restrict the franchise to the corporation, which under the guidance of the recorder Miles Corbet (the regicide) was purged of all except Independents. At the general election of 1660 three of the candidates were so little known in the borough that they had, as a preliminary, to take out their freedom. The fourth was Corbet, whom the corporation, with extraordinary fatuity, nominated as their candidate, together with the more presentable Sir John Palgrave, a parliamentarian colonel who had sat for the county as a recruiter until Pride’s Purge. The freemen elected Sir John Potts, an even more moderate Parliamentarian, and Sir William Doyley, a royalist commissioner of array whose eligibility could scarcely be questioned since he had represented Norfolk in all the Protectorate Parliaments. With Corbet on the run, the elections committee of the Convention had no difficulty in reporting in favour of the wider franchise. The stricken corporation produced an abject address of loyalty, which was presented at Whitehall by the Anglican Sir Thomas Medowe together with all the fee-farm rents due from the town since they had been purchased in the sale of crown lands. Knighted for his services, Medowe proceeded to drive a wedge between the Independents and Presbyterians, who were led by James Johnson, Doyley’s agent, and by the end of the year Corbet’s henchmen had been eliminated from the corporation. Johnson, whose father had led the royalist disturbances in 1648, was rewarded with the post of admiralty agent in the port. Potts, a reluctant politician, probably had no desire to stand again, and was replaced in 1661 by William Coventry, who as the Duke of York’s secretary was the most powerful figure in naval administration. He was elected unopposed with Doyley, now also an official, who, it was said, owed his seat to Richard Huntington ‘and his cabal’. Under the Corporations Act it was now the Presbyterians’ turn to lose municipal office; even Johnson’s official status could not protect him. Lord Chancellor Clarendon became high steward, and the next few years were long remembered by the Yarmouth churchmen as their halcyon days. As a special favour Clarendon omitted the usual clause in the new charter of 1663 requiring crown approval of high steward, recorder, and town clerk. He explained to the King:

I have never recommended anything to that place which in my judgment might advance your Majesty’s service but they have cheerfully complied with my advice and made great professions of entire fidelity and zeal to your Majesty.

In 1664 the merchants were alarmed by a farsighted project for the development of Little Yarmouth (Southtown). (Sir) Robert Paston introduced a bill to incorporate his property there with Great Yarmouth, which was opposed so strenuously by the two Members that the corporation rewarded each of them with a gift of £25. The bill passed on the Speaker’s casting vote; but the project never took effect.1

The municipal elections of 1666 marked the turn of the tide in Yarmouth. Huntington and another ‘partial conformist’, Edmund Thaxter, were elected bailiffs, and proceeded to drive a coach-and-six through the Clarendon Code. The Independent preacher William Bridges was allowed to return, despite the Five Mile Act, and with the assent of Lord Townshend, the lord lieutenant, the corporation were no longer required to renounce the Covenant. Huntington and Johnson, with the support of the Members, successfully promoted a bill to enable the corporation for ten years to levy a duty on all goods laden and unladen in the port to pay for the upkeep of the pier and haven. Huntington’s promotion to captain in the militia in 1670 so infuriated Medowe that Townshend was able to find good grounds for replacing him by Thaxter. It was particularly ominous for the church party that the Presbyterians and Independents were able to heal their long-standing breach, and organize a joint house-to-house collection for their ministers. The royal visit to Yarmouth in 1671 brought them no comfort; on Townsend’s recommendation the King knighted Johnson, his host, and Thaxter’s father-in-law, George England senior, who probably supplied the herrings on which the King was ‘observed to feed very heartily’. But in 1676 Townshend was replaced as lord lieutenant by Paston, now Lord Yarmouth, who had already succeeded Clarendon as high steward of the borough; and consequently when Doyley died the by-election was held under much more favourable circumstances for the churchmen. ‘The town will not hear of any stranger’, wrote a government informant on 7 Dec. 1677, and the contest lay between Medowe and Huntington,

the first being a person ever loyal to the King and true to the Church, the latter one that has been in office under all the late usurped governments, the only friend to the factious, by whose means they are grown so numerous and insolent that it is become dangerous for us to speak our danger. The factious generally cry high and say he shall carry it, threatening the poor tradesmen here that are free, that, if they will not be for Capt. Huntington, they shall take none of their money, telling them they will be all ruined.

The election was probably decided when Medowe, ‘by his great interest in the corporation’, obtained a resolution deferring the admission to the freedom of 50 supporters of Huntington until after the election. The court candidate was returned with a majority of 15, putting the nonconformists ‘quite out of countenance’, and in August he rubbed salt in Huntington’s wounds by carrying an order in the council chamber that both new members and new freemen must be ‘conformable to the Church of England’.2

On the dissolution of the Cavalier Parliament the real fragility of Medowe’s position soon became apparent. Lord Yarmouth, normally one of the most adroit electioneers among the court peers, chose to revive the old fears among the merchants of the borough by proposing that a custom house should be erected at Little Yarmouth. Moreover the Popish Plot enabled the country party to fix on him the fatal stigma of ‘a friend to the Duke of York’s interest’. Indeed their chief problem was to settle on candidates to oppose him. Coventry was with difficulty induced to stand again, with Thaxter as his agent and election expenses up to £40 guaranteed by the corporation. The government informer, in the last of his long and rather pathetic series of reports, wrote on 3 Feb. 1679 that at a meeting of the dissenters three ‘partial conformists’, Huntington, Johnson and George England, all appeared determined to stand, as well as Coventry:

This number was thought too great, whereby they would be so divided that Sir Thomas [Medowe] would be sure to be one. Therefore it was moved that the number might be lessened, but none of them would be prevailed with to lay down, only they all agreed to join their interest in opposition to Sir Thomas; yet last Saturday, England, finding he could do little good, laid down.

Coventry and Huntington were returned, and voted in opposite lobbies on the exclusion bill. Before the next election William Jephson informed the Hon. Thomas Wharton that a number of the voters had been ‘displeased’ at Coventry’s election, ‘and since, by his carriage, more, so that, with consent of ... Mr Huntington (a very honest gentleman), they were inclined to choose a stranger’. In fact Coventry was now determined to retire; he was replaced, not by Jephson, who sat for East Grinstead in the second Exclusion Parliament, but by England, a resident of the borough and a freeman since 1663. Two exclusionists were again returned in 1681, England and Johnson; it is not known why Huntington, whose politics were identical, stood down.3

Once again it was Medowe who led the loyal reaction, presenting addresses approving the dissolution of Parliament and abhorring the ‘Association’. On 3 Sept. 1682 he reported satisfactory municipal elections. He hoped for a voluntary surrender of the charter, but it was opposed by Thaxter, Huntington, and his son-in-law Samuel Fuller, and lost by a single vote. However, the borough was peculiarly open to pressure because the Yarmouth Pier Act, which had been renewed in 1677, was due to expire. The corporation duly expressed their abhorrence of the Rye House Plot, and on 15 Feb. 1684 the bailiffs reported to Lord Yarmouth:

On Thursday last at our common council then held we gained an ordinance for dis-franchising about 100 Whigs... unless they prove their baptism by certificate from the register or by affidavit within 28 days (which we believe very few will be able to do). This when first proposed was opposed only by two aldermen, but when the names were read and perceived to be all on the Whiggish side it received more debate; but being put to the question not above ten voted against it. This ordinance will, we doubt not, make the loyal side much the strongest.

Next month the charter was voluntarily surrendered. The new charter reduced the number of aldermen to 18 and the common council to 36, all to be removable at will by order-in-council, appointed a mayor instead of the two bailiffs as returning officer, and confined the franchise to the corporation. A correspondent reported to Lady Yarmouth that when the Hon. William Paston brought the new charter to Yarmouth

about 400 horse attended it to town and five coaches attended my Lord’s, so that things appeared very well. Only the discontented party hung their heads, and who could blame their unwillingness to see so plain an evidence of their own downfall? The charter was carried by the chamberlains quite round the town, and saluted with about 150 great guns and with the shouts of the multitude.4

For the first time since 1661 neither of the candidates returned at the general election of 1685 was resident in the borough. As mayor, Medowe, ‘with the whole assent and consent of the rest of the aldermen and common councilmen’, signed indentures in favour of Sir William Cook, a moderate Tory country gentleman, and a wealthy London brewer Sir John Friend, who had married Huntington’s niece. It appears, however, that Huntington himself had been elected with England ‘by the freemen at large’; but the matter was not pressed to a petition. With Medowe’s assistance in the lobbies the two new Members succeeded in passing through this short-lived Parliament a measure for the renewal of the Harbour Act for 14 years. In October 1687 the corporation produced a cautious address of thanks for the Declaration of Indulgence; but in two regulations of January-February 1688, Medowe (who died soon afterwards) and eight other aldermen, 21 common councilmen, and both chamberlains were removed. In April the King’s electoral agents reported:

Great Yarmouth is a corporation. The election is in the body corporate. ... There is a great need of a regulation, otherwise their pier and harbour will be lost. They will choose Mr Paston [probably a younger brother of the 2nd Lord Yarmouth] and Sir James Johnson, right men, for whom they have great value; but, if your Majesty shall require it, they will choose Sir John Friend instead of Sir James Johnson.

Another purge followed in August, with the displacement of three more aldermen and four of the common council, and on 10 Sept. the royal agents reaffirmed their confidence in Paston and Johnson as court candidates, though they added significantly: ‘In order to secure their election, ’tis desired that the precept may be sent to Sir James Johnson and not executed until the change of mayor’. On the same day, however, Sunderland recommended Friend to the corporation. In October the 1663 charter, and with it the broad franchise, was restored, and it seems that England and Huntington were returned to the abortive Parliament. But at the general election of 1689 Huntington was replaced by Fuller, possibly for health reasons. Cook was returned for the county, Friend was an ardent Jacobite who ultimately gave his life for the cause, and the free-spending Johnson had exhausted his resources. The two Whigs, England and Fuller, were returned by the bailiffs, ‘with the whole assent and consent of the rest of the burgesses’.5

Authors: Eveline Cruickshanks / Basil Duke Henning


  • 1. Yarmouth Indep. Church (Norf. Rec. Soc. xxii), 36, 39; CJ, viii. 35, 594; CSP Dom. 1668-9, p. 100; 1670, pp. 473-4; 1677-8, p. 531; 1678, p. 21; H. Swinden, Hist. Yarmouth, 303-8, 335, 475-6, 579, 584; C. J. Palmer, Hist. Yarmouth, 212-13; HMC 9th Rep. pt. 1, p. 321; R. W. Ketton-Cremer, Norf. Portraits, 28-32.
  • 2. CSP Dom. 1667-8, pp. 145, 232-3; 1668-9, pp. 95-96, 100, 466; 1670, p. 540; 1671, p. 517; 1676-7, p. 221; 1677-8, pp. 496, 555-6, 559, 625; 1678, pp. 2, 21, 373; Add. 27447, f. 324; SP29/233/50; Swinden, 896-910.
  • 3. CSP Dom. 1679-80, p. 66; HMC 6th Rep. 377; Foxcroft, Halifax, i. 141; Palmer, 214; Bodl. Carte 103, ff. 221-2.
  • 4. London Gazette, 2 June 1681, 11 Dec. 1682, 23 July 1683; CSP Dom. 1682, p. 363, Jan.-June 1683, p. 69; Add. 27448, ff. 231, 279, 281.
  • 5. Palmer, 214-15; London Gazette, 20 Oct. 1687; PC2/72/570, 616, 728; Duckett, Penal Laws (1882), 314, 315; CSP Dom. 1687-9, p. 271.