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 320 in 1689


8 May 1660ANDREW HENLEY vice Norton, chose to sit for Hampshire
15 Feb. 1679GEORGE LEGGE
26 Aug. 1679GEORGE LEGGE
28 Feb. 1681GEORGE LEGGE
 Sir Richard Stephens

Main Article

Under the charter of 1627 the corporation of Portsmouth consisted of the mayor and 12 aldermen. This body controlled the freeman roll, and hence the composition of the electorate; but their attitude can hardly be described as restrictive. It is true that in 1661 Mayor Lardner drew the line at granting the freedom to the junior member of the navy board; but Samuel Pepys was successful on his second application only a year later, and found the charge very moderate. ‘It cost me a piece of gold to the town clerk, and 10s. to the bailiffs, and [I] spent 6s.’ on a round of drinks to the corporation in a tavern. Even humbler naval officials were admitted, and also officers of the garrison. Except in 1685 the governor Richard Norton was always able to control one seat. At the general election of 1660 his son-in-law Henry Whithed was returned with him. Norton was also elected knight of the shire by agreement with the Royalist Andrew Henley, and when he chose to sit for the county he ensured that Henley would be returned for the borough at the by-election. At the Restoration Norton was replaced by the Duke of York, who remained the nominal governor of the town until the Test Act. But the effective control of the government interest rested with his lieutenant-governors. The first of these was Robert Legge, Norton’s brother-in-law. Hence Norton, despite his Cromwellian connexions, was elected as senior Member in 1661. Whithed, whose attitude to the Restoration was probably much cooler, transferred to Stockbridge, where he was involved in an unsuccessful double return, and the Duke of York nominated Sir George Carteret, the treasurer of the navy, for the other seat. It is not known whether Henley stood again, but there was evidently some disposition among the electors to ignore the Duke’s letter. On 16 Mar. he wrote again:

When lately I wrote to you recommending to your choice to serve as one of your burgesses in the approaching Parliament Sir George Carteret ... I did not think I should have had occasion for a repetition on that business, but being informed that some endeavours have been used to persuade you that my letter was only a matter of form, and that I was indifferent in the success of it, I find it necessary to let you know the contrary and to repeat to you the assurances that very many reasons induce me to be so much concerned in it that I shall look on your compliance with my desires as a particular mark of your respect.

This sharp reproof was sufficient, and Carteret was duly returned. But the commissioners for corporations drastically purged the electorate, removing four aldermen (including the discourteous Lardner) and 88 freemen.1

Carteret retired at the dissolution of the Cavalier Parliament, and Norton was soon assured of the county seat. This left both seats at Portsmouth at the disposal of the governor, George Legge. He may have entertained some distrust of the mayor, a dockyard official who was compelled to resign on his transfer to Deptford. He was replaced by Robert Shales, whose brother (later the notorious Commissary Shales of the 1689 Irish campaign) had unsuccessfully contested Hull in the previous autumn. John Shales was Legge’s first choice as a partner, but he declined almost by return of post in favour of Pepys ‘who s by the King and Duke [of York] recommended to join with the governor for your choice’. Pepys was soon assured of an easier seat at Harwich, and gave his interest to Sir John Kempthorne, the resident naval commissioner. However, the King became aware that (Sir) John Ernle, the chancellor of the Exchequer, was unlikely to be re-elected at Cricklade, and must ‘indispensably be otherwise provided for.’ Pepys accordingly wrote to Kempthorne:

His Majesty being greatly concerned in the securing a place in Parliament for Sir John Ernle, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and not knowing where he may depend upon meeting more certain success in it than at Portsmouth, Colonel Legge ... claiming to have the entire disposal of the place ... his Majesty has commanded me to let you know in his name that it is his pleasure you should decline standing for burgess for the place yourself and assist Sir John Ernle all that is possible for the compassing thereof for him.

Legge, who had given his promise to Kempthorne, deeply resented this interference, and particularly Pepys’s share in it, and lost no time in telling him so. The latter, equally angrily, replied:

Whatever inequality you may fashion yourself between your interest and mine in Portsmouth, I think we owe them both equally to the credit derived to us from his Majesty, and that were it fit for us ... to contend about superiority of interest, that of the navy (however you may think yourself secure of the contrary), will, I doubt not, whenever another election shall come, be found to stand upon the higher ground to that of the garrison, if that corporation go by the same measures of profit in disposing of their favours, which other no less wise bodies do.

Enclosed was a letter from Lord Treasurer Danby, also urging Legge to do his utmost to secure Ernle’s return. Despite this, and despite his constant loyalty to the Court, Legge refused to break his promise, and had Kempthorne nominated with himself. The election was contested by John Peachey, ‘a disaffected person’ who exercised ‘great awe over seamen and fishermen’ as deputy vice-admiral of Sussex, and bore a grudge against the corporation for refusing to employ him as recorder. His petition was referred to the elections committee, but the corporation successfully obstructed his request to examine their records, presumably to establish a wider franchise, and the case was never reported. Kempthorne died before the next election, when Norton, who had abstained on exclusion, replaced him. In 1681 the sitting Members were opposed by Sir Richard Stephens, an Anglo-Irish lawyer who had just made a down payment for the Warnford estate formerly owned by Thomas Neale. Legge and Norton were re-elected by the freemen, but Stephens, who enjoyed ‘a great interest with the fanatic party’, polled the inhabitants and petitioned. His case could not be heard during the brief session of the Oxford Parliament.2

The corporation produced a loyal address with 70 signatures approving the dissolution, and in 1682 they surrendered their charter to reduce the influence of the ‘restless party’. The replacement gave the crown the usual right to displace officials, and reduced the number of freemen from 332 to 60, although new grants of the freedom quickly followed. When Legge, who had been raised to the peerage as Lord Dartmouth, embarked for Tangier in 1683, ‘the mayor and several aldermen of Portsmouth visit my lord with the compliment of a promise to choose William Legge, my lord’s brother, to the next Parliament’. He was duly elected in 1685 with Henry Slingsby, the lieutenant-governor. In February 1688 the corporation sent an address thanking the King for the Declaration of Indulgence and promising to elect candidates who would vote for ‘the repealing of such laws as obviate your gracious intention’, and two months later the royal electoral agents wrote: ‘Portsmouth has promised not to choose any but such as shall vote for repealing the Test and Penal Laws, so that this corporation will need no change’. By September, with the electorate reduced to 73, they were even more compliant: ‘the mayor and magistrates have assured our agents that they will choose two such as your Majesty shall recommend’. On 1 Dec. Slingsby was able to inform the corporation that the new charter had been withdrawn and writs ordered for a general election. ‘As I have served formerly by your favour and made it my endeavour on all accounts to oblige you and the town of Portsmouth, I can’t doubt of your continued kindness to me as long as I may deserve it.’ But Legge had apparently decided not to stand for re-election, although his brother was actually in the town as commander of the Channel fleet. With Slingsby’s consent Francis Gwyn applied to Lord Dartmouth for a letter of recommendation, ‘which letter I will not make use of unless Colonel Norton will give me way’. Totally bewildered by the pace of events, Dartmouth is unlikely to have used his interest at the general election of 1689. The surrender of the old charter had never been enrolled, and the freemen created before 1682, estimated at upwards of 320, recovered their rights. The Whig Norton and the Tory Slingsby were elected to the Convention, probably unopposed.3

Author: Paula Watson


  • 1. R. East, Portsmouth Recs. 168-9, 587; Pepys Diary, 3 May 1661, 30 Apr. 1662; Sloane 813, f. 16; Adm. 2/1745, ff. 29, 34.
  • 2. East, 181, 696-7; Pepys Further Corresp. 334-50; HMC Dartmouth, i. 329; London Vis. Peds. (Harl. Soc. xcii), 108; CSP Dom. Jan.-July 1683, p. 49; CJ, ix. 570, 706; xi. 411; HMC Ormonde, n.s. v. 591; vi. 32; HMC Lords, iv. 275.
  • 3. London Gazette, 9 May 1681; 6 Feb. 1688; East, 187, 309, 365, 607; Pepys Life, Jnls. and Corresp. i. 337; Duckett, Penal Laws (1882), 429, 432; HMC Dartmouth, i. 223, 237; iii. 142.