Available from Boydell and Brewer
Right of Election:
in the freemen of Denbigh, Holt and Ruthin
Number of Qualified Electors:
Number of voters:
772 in 1698 rising to about 1,500 by Jan. 1701
|5 Mar. 1690||EDWARD BRERETON|
|6 Nov. 1695||EDWARD BRERETON|
|1 Aug. 1698||EDWARD BRERETON||523|
|25 Jan. 1701||EDWARD BRERETON|
|2 Dec. 1701||EDWARD BRERETON|
|5 Aug. 1702||EDWARD BRERETON|
|18 May 1705||WILLIAM ROBINSON|
|14 May 1708||SIR WILLIAM WILLIAMS, Bt.|
|20 Oct. 1710||JOHN ROBERTS|
|11 Sept. 1713||JOHN WYNNE|
Although the Commons decided in 1744 (significantly, on an amendment to their original motion) that the franchise in Denbigh Boroughs was confined to resident freemen, and this after hearing evidence of elections under William III and Anne, it is highly unlikely that the qualification was ever imposed before that date. Non-resident voters were the subject of dispute at various times in this period, but so far as is known the admission of ‘foreign burgesses’ was only ever challenged as an infringement of the charter and custom of an individual borough, not as a general condition of parliamentary elections in the constituency as a whole. Political movement was restricted to the boroughs of Denbigh itself and Holt; the third, Ruthin, was under the sway of the lord of the manor, Sir Richard Myddelton, 3rd Bt.*, of Chirk Castle, the most powerful landowner in the county and the leader of the Tory gentlemen. The Myddelton influence was strong in Denbigh too, the most important of the boroughs in that its bailiffs were returning officers; and at the outset of the period Myddelton’s supporters were also well entrenched in Holt, though here a potential rival lurked in the shape of Sir Robert Cotton, 1st Bt.*, a Cheshire Whig who had inherited in 1684 the Lleweni estate, one of the foundations of the former Salusbury interest. Holt differed from Denbigh and Ruthin in terms of its medieval origins and in its government, having only a mayor and bailiffs, whereas the other two boroughs were each controlled by a common council, fixed in number, that sanctioned the admission of freemen. Holt was to prove more vulnerable to the tactic of mass admissions of freemen.2
The first scene of conflict was indeed at Holt in 1690. The Myddelton-backed candidate and outgoing Member, Edward Brereton, defeated William Williams* (later Sir William, 2nd Bt.), son and heir of Sir William Williams, 1st Bt.*, who at this stage was probably standing as a Whig. Williams’ petition disputed (on what grounds is unclear) the title of the two bailiffs of Denbigh who had made the return and accused them of ‘divers abuses, bribes, practices and menaces’. More significant was the supporting petition from various freemen of Denbigh and Ruthin, alleging that ‘great numbers of inhabitants of other counties’ had recently been admitted into the freedom of Holt, by a faction there acting in concert with the Denbigh bailiffs, ‘to serve the turns of some persons to be elected’ to Parliament, that is to say Brereton. They distinguished Holt from their own boroughs as a ‘vill’, where hitherto ‘foreigners’ had not been ‘burgesses’. It was no more than ‘a small open village’, its freemen having no rights other than the parliamentary franchise. The petitions were twice reintroduced and only lapsed when Williams was given leave to withdraw. Whether the committee had heard the freemen’s case is not known.3
After Brereton had been re-elected unopposed in 1695, conflict between the Myddelton and Cotton interests erupted in a fierce power struggle between 1698 and 1701. Cotton may originally have hoped to exploit discontent in Denbigh over the depression of its leather-related industries resulting from the imposition of the leather duty, discontent which gave rise to petitions to Parliament in January 1698 and February the following year. Cotton’s son Thomas entered the lists at the 1698 election, but once Myddelton had rejected requests to support Cotton little headway was made against Brereton, who defeated Cotton by over 300 votes. Myddelton himself spent more money on this contest, £19 14s. in all, than he ever did on any of his own elections. Subsequent complaints against ‘foreign burgesses’ showed the way the Cottons were thinking, and less than a month after the poll Sir Robert took action. A follower of his, Thomas Warburton, held the office of mayor of Holt, and according to a later petition from some Tory, or pro-Myddelton, freemen, Warburton admitted over 800 new ‘burgesses’ in two batches in late August and September 1698, ‘foreigners and strangers brought by the interest of Sir Robert Cotton’, in the teeth of opposition from the Myddelton faction among bailiffs and freemen. The following year the Myddelton interest obtained a quo warranto against Warburton, claiming that the mass admission of burgesses at Holt amounted to a breach of the borough’s charter, and in June 1699 Myddelton continued his counter-attack by seeking to match the admission of freemen at Holt by similar creations at Denbigh. His interest there was already under threat, for the ruling clique of Tory common councilmen had so long shirked the duty of filling vacancies in their ranks that their opponents had recently obtained a writ of mandamus to compel them to do so. Money was now expended at municipal elections to reinforce the sympathy of the aldermen and bailiffs, and with the support of a majority on common council assured, Myddelton’s steward made arrangements for a caravan of supporters to descend on the town on 5 June 1699. One of Sir Robert Cotton’s adherents told his patron what happened next:
Sir John Wynn [5th Bt.*], Sir Richard Myddelton and Mr Brereton, with many other gentlemen, brought lately many hundreds of the meaner sort of people from their neighbourhood to be made burgesses of Denbigh. Some of your friends and well-wishers . . . though we had but a few hours’ notice, made all the haste we could to town to observe their motion and to preserve the town’s liberty and interest by all lawful means possible. At first we could not fathom their design, but hoped they intended to obey the mandamus . . . but by the sequel it appeared that making of new burgesses was their whole design, and contriving the best excuse they could for delaying the others. Wherein they were sensible that had they proceeded they had met with an event disagreeable to their wishes, having not one part of six of the town for them. I hear they pretend . . . that they durst not proceed in their work to fill the vacancies of the . . . capital burgesses [common council] by reason they feared the townspeople, than which nothing can be more manifestly false, for in truth they made new burgesses in despite to all entreaty or opposition, and refused to proceed to fill the vacancies though often earnestly entreated to do it . . . When we first came to town the people flocked in, making lamentable complaint that they were taking away their liberty; and that the new burgesses they were about to make would take the bread out of their mouths, and desired they might venture their lives in defence of their liberty. But we always dissuaded them from using any violence, and with such success that very few transgressed, excepting some few persons and women and children, whose passion was so great upon so sudden a surprise and invasion of their liberty, that nothing we said prevailed with them. Yet it proved to their own sorrow, for the strangers being abundantly too strong for them, they soon drove them off with wounds and in the pursuit broke houses [sic] and glass windows and therein did abuse many persons that gave them not the least offence or abuse, purely to gratify their humour and passion . . . And what leaves the new burgesses and invaders of the town’s liberty more inexcusable . . . is because they had Sir John Wynn, Mr [(Sir)] Roger Mostyn [(3rd Bt.*], Mr Ellis Lloyd and Mr Peter Ellis, being four justices of the peace in the town with them, together with the alderman [sic] and bailiffs . . . and though they had persons and strength enough at their command as well as authority effectually to suppress these riotous proceedings, yet they did not at all endeavour it, for which reason many of us endured many affronts and injuries.
The day after the tumultuous events at Denbigh, Myddelton, Wynn and Brereton wrote to Sir John Trevor*, claiming that as soon as they and their ‘servants and followers’ had arrived in Denbigh they had been subjected to violent attack by a ‘mob’ whose cry was ‘a Cotton’. They blamed their failure to hold elections to the common council upon this disturbance, and requested that Trevor explain to Lord Chief Justice Holt (Sir John†) that this was the only reason they had not acted upon the mandamus. The truth of these accounts is not easy to judge. The Denbigh borough records, for example, list only ten ‘burgesses’ ordered to be admitted on that day. However, such a small number would not seem to have met the necessity, and Myddelton’s papers contain documents stating that 391 burgesses were admitted on 5 June, of whom 108 were ‘stamped’. Furthermore, little is known of the ensuing legal proceedings. Informations were laid against the ‘rioters’, on one side or the other, or perhaps both, and a trial at the assizes resulted. Narcissus Luttrell* noted the event in terms which suggest that Myddelton, Brereton and Wynn were among the defendants, but this is not borne out by the relevant entries in Myddelton’s surviving accounts. In June 1700 Warburton petitioned the Privy Council asking for a nolle prosequi in the case relating to his mayoralty, claiming that this prosecution had been ‘founded upon malice and private faction’. The attorney general’s report, however, recommended that this request be denied. The case of the unfilled places on the common council also appears to have been pursued, for in December 1699 Myddelton paid a friend’s chaplain to translate the borough charter into English. Two common councilmen were appointed in 1700: one was Sir Robert Cotton, the other a supporter of Myddelton who was promptly chosen as a bailiff. Further evidence of the continuing crisis in the borough is the fact that, contrary to custom, one of the two aldermen and both bailiffs elected in 1700, all in Myddelton’s interest, retained their offices for a second year: a ‘sinister practice’, as the Cottons noted, ‘to serve Mr Brereton in the election’. But in every respect it was to be the next general election, in January 1701, which would prove the crucial test of strength. Myddelton treated over 80 of the Denbigh freemen on behalf of Brereton, while Sir Robert Cotton, again sponsoring his son’s candidature, hoped to carry the day with his Holt freemen, arriving at the poll, or so it was said, with ‘near 500’. These were refused by the Denbigh bailiffs, and Brereton was returned. In a revealing comment one of Myddelton’s supporters wrote, ‘we have out-polled them both by good and bad burgesses’. Cotton’s inevitable petition prompted Brereton to send to Holt a counter-petition to be signed by the resident freemen. Neither was reported.4
Thus ended the Cottons’ first attack on the Chirk Castle interest. Brereton was safely re-elected, apparently without opposition, in November 1701 and again in 1702, when preliminary canvassing revealed that a number of those who had previously voted for Cotton had transferred their support to Brereton. The generality of the Denbighshire gentry, whom Myddelton was always careful to consult, endorsed him, including William Williams (now 2nd Bt.), the adversary from 1690; loyal Tories now held the Holt mayoralty as well as the chief offices in Denbigh corporation. The Cottons were isolated. So well entrenched was the Tory position that when Brereton offended ‘the temper . . . of the country gentlemen’ by his abstention over the Tack he was replaced in 1705 without fuss by a kinsman of Myddelton, William Robinson. Sir William Williams succeeded Robinson in 1708 and on his withdrawal in 1710 another client of Myddelton, John Roberts, was returned unopposed.5
The defeat of Roberts in 1713, which in the long run proved only a temporary set-back to Myddelton’s domination of the seat, can be ascribed to the treachery of one of Sir Richard’s former lieutenants in Denbigh, John Wynne of Melai. In 1710, at the first election after he had come of age, Wynne had requested Myddelton’s support at Denbigh Boroughs, having heard ‘a report, as if there was some design of changing the burgess’. Myddelton had replied that such rumours were groundless, and it seems that frustrated parliamentary ambitions led Wynne to betray the Chirk Castle interest at the 1713 election. At the same time that Myddelton was consulting Wynne in 1712 on how best to fill some common council vacancies, Wynne was simultaneously negotiating with Thomas Cotton (now 2nd Bt.), who pledged to support him if he stood against Roberts at the next general election. In 1713 Cotton himself was selected to one of the common council places. The other two common councilmen chosen in 1712–13 may also have been in his interest, and they were both immediately named as bailiffs. They returned Wynne at the poll in September.6
Author: D. W. Hayton
Unless otherwise stated, this article is based on the account of Denbighshire politics by P. D. G. Thomas in NLW Jnl. xi. 105–7.
- 1. NLW, Chirk Castle mss E1040, Edward Brereton to Sir J[ohn] T[revor], 6 Aug. 1698.
- 2. CJ, xxiv. 549–50; Chirk Castle Accts. 1666–1753 ed. Myddelton, 331, 333, 360.
- 3. Chirk Castle mss E1080, E. Thelwall to Myddelton, 1 Mar. 1689[–90].
- 4. Chirk Castle mss E1044, Jos. Eddisbury to Myddelton, 17 July 1698; E1042, Edward Broughton to same, 18 July 1698; E1040, same to Trevor, 6 Aug. 1698; C5, quo warranto, 1699; F11277, ‘case of Holt burgesses made by Warburton’, ; F1433, Myddelton, Wynn and Brereton to same, 6 June 1699; C6, list of burgesses admitted at Denbigh, 5 June 1699; F4704, list of burgesses admitted at Denbigh, 5 June 1699; E1037, petition of Thomas Warburton, ; E1082, Robert Wynne to Myddelton, 24 Jan. ; 1036, Brereton to ‘Robin’, 18 Feb. 1700[–1]; Chirk Castle Accts. 296, 298, 303–4, 306–7, 309, 311; John Rylands Univ. Lib. Manchester, Legh of Lyme mss corresp. Francis Cholmondeley† to [Peter Legh†], 23 Aug. 1699; A.L. Cust, Chrons. of Erthig, i. 59–61; Luttrell, Brief Relation, iv. 533; J. Williams, Recs. of Denbigh, 142–3.
- 5. Chirk Castle mss E1025, Williams to Myddelton, 6 July 1702; E1023, John Jones to John Myddelton, 8 July 1702; E1018, Thomas Bulkeley to Sir Richard Myddelton, 8 Sept. 1702; E4204, Brereton to same, 3 Mar. 1704[–5]; E1000, Robert Wynne to same, 21 Mar. 1705; E6066, Brereton to Robert Wynne, 29 Mar. 1705; E6064, same to Sir William Williams, 7 Apr. 1705; E6065, Williams to Sir Richard Myddelton, 13 Apr. 1705; E979, Robinson to same, ; E6128, Ellis Lloyd to Roberts, 27 Sept. 1710; A. N. Palmer, Town of Holt, 150; Williams, 143–4.
- 6. Chirk Castle mss E6126, 4064, John Wynne to Sir Richard Myddelton, 12 Sept. 1710, 29 Sept. ; E6127, Sir Richard Myddelton to John Wynne, [Sept. 1710]; E4054, 4058, 6114, John Myddelton to Thomas Lloyd, 19 July, 25, 30 Sept. 1712; E4060, E4057, John to Sir Richard Myddelton, 27 Aug. 1712, 10 Mar. 1712–3; 4055, same to [?same], 29 Mar. 1713; E6190, John Wynne to John Myddelton, 15 Jan. ; E6189, E3251, Robert Wynne to Sir Richard Myddelton, 31 Mar., 18 Sept. 1713; E3240, same to Thomas Lloyd, 25 Aug. 1713; F4747, ‘outburgesses polled for Mr Roberts last election’, 1714; Williams, 144–5.