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:

under 50


  Double return. Election of Hewes and Howe declared void, 14 June 1660 
20 June 1661JOHN BERKENHEAD vice Nicholas, chose to sit for Ripon 
23 Mar. 1685(SIR) JOHN NICHOLAS 

Main Article

Although the original county town of Wiltshire, Wilton in 1660 had shrunk to little more than the outbuildings of the Earl of Pembroke’s splendid house, expensively rebuilt during the Interregnum. It is said to have been incorporated under Henry VIII, with a mayor, recorder, town clerk, five aldermen, three capital burgesses and 11 common councilmen; but the ‘corporation’, in whom the franchise lay, was held to consist of mayor and ‘burgesses’ only. The townsmen could not afford to quarrel with their powerful neighbour; but they were almost as reluctant to displease the sheriff, who alone could regain for them the county court, transferred to Devizes under the Protectorate. However, the Pembroke interest was apparently not exercised in 1660. Francis Swanton, a local lawyer, named on both indentures, was presumably allowed to sit. The corporation seal, with 14 signatures, was attached to the return of William Hewes, the mayor, while seven ‘burgesses’ attested the election of Richard Grobham Howe, a local gentleman. The House apparently agreed that Hewes had the majority of the legal votes, but decided that he had no power to return himself, and declared the election void as to the second seat. At the by-election Howe was returned ‘in the absence of the mayor ... with the unanimous assent and consent’ of the electors.1

On 2 Dec. 1660, a member of the Wilton corporation wrote to the sheriff (Sir James Thynne) to assure him that they were ‘already very sensible of your good inclination towards them in returning your county court unto them ... and as a witness of their gratitude for so noble a favour they do unanimously promise to elect upon your commendation unto them one burgess to sit in an ensuing Parliament’. Perhaps the corporation reckoned on the passivity of the 5th Earl of Pembroke, a ‘pious nonentity’; but he had turned his interest over to the locally born secretary of state, Sir Edward Nicholas, who nominated his eldest son together with his former ward, Thomas Mompesson. Difficulties arose when it was hinted that Salisbury might be prevailed upon to elect John Nicholas, and Pembroke may have asserted himself enough to indicate a preference for the courtier John Denham, whom he had sheltered during the Interregnum. Nicholas’s agent wrote on 24 Mar. 1661:

I find all at Wilton very contented to their first resolutions as to yourself and Mr Mompesson, and am afraid that if you should be chosen at Salisbury it would be a very hard matter to get Mr Denham elected at Wilton; by which means my lord’s interest will be utterly laid aside there, and some other unknown person on the sheriff’s account elected, who hath upon the matter signified to the borough that in case they refuse to pleasure him in that election, he will take his course, which they understand to be the removing of the county court, lately brought by him thither from the Devizes.

It does not appear that Thynne carried out either of his threats. Denham was returned for another Pembroke borough, and when John Nicholas chose to sit for Ripon, his father asked for Thynne’s favour and assistance on behalf of John Berkenhead, ‘who hath given singular testimony and proof of his loyalty and integrity to his Majesty’s person and interest’. Berkenhead was returned, probably unopposed. An outsider, he spared no pains to ingratiate himself with his constituents; he obtained the grant of two fairs at the personal cost of over £60, secured the return of the county court, made gifts to the poor, and feasted the corporation. But this was insufficient to secure the return of so prominent a courtier in 1679. In February Wilton returned ‘with unanimous assent and consent’ Thomas Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke’s heir, and Thomas Penruddock, a local gentleman whose father had led the royalist rising in 1655. It is pos sible that they paired on the exclusion bill, but whatever the reason Penruddock was replaced by Nicholas (now Sir John) in the second and third Exclusion Parliaments. The borough was quick to present addresses approving the dissolution of these Parliaments and abhorring the Rye House Plot.2

Wilton surrendered its charter during the closing months of the reign, and petitioned for a replacement on 14 Jan. 1685. After congratulating James II on his accession, they received a new charter, in which Herbert, who had succeeded as 8th Earl in 1683, was named high steward, and all his rights in the borough expressly reserved. Besides the mayor, recorder and town clerk, 31 ‘burgesses’ were named. They included two clergymen and eight country gentlemen, but no attempt was made to pack the ‘corporation’. Alongside the Tories Sir John Nicholas, John Bowles, Robert Hyde and Oliver Nicholas served Howe, Mompesson and Alexander Thistlethwayte, who had voted for exclusion, and Penruddock, who had abstained. The ‘corporation’ duly elected two courtiers a week later; but whereas Sir John Nicholas was presumably Pembroke’s own nominee, Oliver Nicholas was probably imposed on him, and showed his gratitude by presenting a mace. Lord Yarmouth (William Paston), who was appointed joint lord lieutenant with Pembroke, expected the sitting Members to be re-elected to James II’s abortive second Parliament, but noted that his intractable colleague had the chief interest. The royal electoral agents reported in April 1688: ‘The election is in the body corporate. The regulation being passed, they will choose John Read and Mr Grove, both dissenters. They have no inclination to their former Members.’ The court candidates were probably John Read of Porton, an Independent, and Thomas Grove, a Presbyterian. But three regulations were necessary before their election could be considered assured. In the first Penruddock, Hyde, and seven other burgesses were removed; seven more, including Richard Kent, followed in July, while the town clerk and three more burgesses were displaced in September. Presumably the old corporation resumed office at the Revolution, for the election to the Convention was conducted ‘according to the ancient usage of the said borough, before the seizure or surrender of charters’. Penruddock was returned on the Pembroke interest, together with a Tory lawyer, Thomas Wyndham, from the Salisbury branch of the family.3

Author: John. P. Ferris


  • 1. Hoare, Wilts. Branch and Dole, 55; Wilts. Arch. Mag. xxvii. 113-20; CJ, viii. 9, 63.
  • 2. Bath mss, Thynne pprs. 10, ff. 57, 112; CSP Dom. 1660-1, pp. 529, 530; Wilts. Arch. Mag. xxvii. 120; VCH Wilts. vi. 18, 28; London Gazette, 2 June 1681, 19 July 1683.
  • 3. VCH Wilts. vi. 22; CSP Dom. 1684-5, p. 286; 1685, p. 99, 1687-9, p. 256; London Gazette, 26 Feb. 1685; Wilts. Arch. Mag. xxviii. 57; Duckett, Penal Laws (1882), 208, 224; G. L. Turner, Orig. Recs. of Early Nonconformity, 1075; PC2/72/678, 721, 733.