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 corporation

Number of voters:

about 25


c. Apr. 1660THOMAS WHITE
4 Nov. 1673JOHN HALL vice Butler, called to the Upper House
 John Hall
 HALL vice Berkeley, on petition, 27 Nov. 1680
 Henry Bridges
17 Jan. 1690WILLIAM COWARD, vice Wyndham, deceased

Main Article

James II was told in 1687 that ‘the committee of elections have sometimes admitted Members chosen by the mayor, aldermen and burgesses only, and sometimes Members chosen by the whole town’. However, all the returns in this period are in the name of the mayor, the seven ‘masters’ or aldermen, and the 16 ‘burgesses’ of the common council. The corporation interest was very strong, and except in the Cavalier Parliament the recorder always filled one seat. Little is heard of the cathedral interest, which cannot have been negligible in so small a city; but it is at least clear that non-Anglicans stood little chance. John Buckland believed that he would have been elected in 1660, ‘if he would have appeared to stand’; but as a prominent figure in the Interregnum, he preferred to keep a low profile, probably on the advice of his brother-in-law Robert Phelips. William Prynne also refused an invitation to stand from the local Presbyterians, and Thomas White, the recorder, was returned unopposed with his brother-in-law, Henry Bull, a country gentleman who came from a family prominent in municipal life before the Civil War. These obscure figures gave way in 1661 to Lord Richard Butler, the lord lieutenant’s younger son, and Sir Maurice Berkeley, also a younger son of a prominent Cavalier family. When Butler was raised to the peerage he was succeeded by John Hall, a well-connected Wiltshire gentleman of ancient family who lived on his wife’s property in the town. Moreover his sister was married to William Coward, White’s successor in the recordership.1

It is not known whether there was a contest in February 1679, but it may be significant that neither of the sitting Members found a seat in the first Exclusion Parliament. Hall was replaced by his brother-in-law Coward, and Berkeley, who stood unsuccessfully for the county, by his cousin Edward, from a junior though more local branch of the family. Moreover both Members, though from royalist families, voted for exclusion. They were reelected in September, though by then Edward Berkeley had probably rejoined his cousin in the court camp. But Hall petitioned, claiming a majority of the scot and lot payers, and Berkeley gave up his seat rather than hazard a decision by the House in favour of the wider franchise. Coward and Hall were re-elected in 1681 ‘with the whole assent and consent of the masters and burgesses’.2

The corporation failed to express any public satisfaction with the King’s reasons for dissolving Parliament, and in 1682 an attempt was made to procure the voluntary surrender of the charter, but the mayor was obdurate, being fortified by ‘the subtle and canting insinuations of Mr Coward, the recorder, and the rest of the factious party’. After the Rye House Plot a loyal address in moderate terms was presented, but it was signed only by a section of the corporation. But the ‘inhabitants’ subscribed to a thoroughly Tory address, ‘a worthy, good mayor’ was sworn in at Michaelmas, and in November 1683 the charter was surrendered. Wells was rewarded by an order returning the winter meeting of quarter sessions from Bruton, to which it had been removed in 1680. The new charter was granted on 8 Dec. It gave the crown the nomination of the recorder and the right to dismiss members of the corporation. The mayor was confirmed in office with three of the aldermen. Of the 15 common councilmen, ten were confirmed, while Coward was replaced as recorder by the Tory Thomas Wyndham. There was another contest in 1685, the Tories Wyndham and Berkeley defeating Henry Bridges, son of the old Cavalier, Sir Thomas Bridges of Keynsham. Bridges’s petition was not reported.3

In December 1687 the Roman Catholic lord lieutenant, Lord Waldegrave, reported that Bridges and his father had a good interest at Wells, as did Coward. ‘Two of them will probably be chosen by the corporation, if purged, and returned, if there be a good mayor.’ Waldegrave was clearly envisaging an election on a wide franchise to confirm the corporation’s nominees; but after two purges which removed Wyndham from his recordership, together with the mayor, five aldermen, and seven common councilmen, the King’s electoral agents thought otherwise:

The election is always by the magistrates and burgesses. The former magistrates have made many burgesses of gentlemen in the country to serve a turn to secure the election. It is necessary that there be a new charter, which they are inclined to. They propose to choose Harry Bridges and William Coward, both right.

However, instead of a new charter a third purge followed the report, in which one of the court candidates, Coward, was removed, with the new mayor, the town clerk, seven aldermen, and 12 common councilmen. When the new charter was issued in August, it confirmed these purges. Only one of the aldermen and common councilmen appointed in 1683 remained in office, and a dispensation from the oaths of allegiance and supremacy was provided. No address of thanks for the Declaration of Indulgence was produced, however, and the King’s electoral agents seem to have become so confused that they omitted Wells from their next survey of the Somerset boroughs in September. Presumably the general election of 1689 was held under the previous charter, for the Tories Berkeley and Wyndham were re-elected, though the latter was not described as recorder. On his death Coward was unanimously chosen to fill the vacancy; but he had not returned the indenture to the clerk of the crown when Parliament was prorogued ten days later.4

Author: Irene Cassidy


  • 1. Duckett, Penal Laws (1883), 16; Ludlow, Voyce from the Watch Tower, 109; Collinson, Som. iii. 176; W. Prynne, Brevia Parliamentaria Rediviva, 332.
  • 2. Bath mss, Thynne pprs. 24, f. 165, Davis to Ld. Weymouth, 1 Mar. 1690; CJ, ix. 664.
  • 3. CSP Dom. 1682, pp. 543-4; 1683-4, pp. 1, 35, 43, 73, 131, 134, 140-1; London Gazette, 2 Aug. 1683; CJ, ix. 718.
  • 4. Duckett, Penal Laws (1883), 16, 230; PC2/72/581, 628, 667; CSP Dom. 1687-9, pp. 252-3; T. Serel, Wells Recorders.