Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, ed. D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley, 2002
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Background Information

Right of Election:

in burgage holders

Number of Qualified Electors:


Number of voters:

about 1001


21 Feb. 1698MAURICE BOCLAND vice Duncombe, expelled the House 
23 May 1698JOHN EYRE vice Raleigh, deceased 
28 July 1698JOHN EYRE 
8 Jan. 1701CAREW RALEIGH60
 Sir Charles Duncombe41
 Francis Coles203
26 Nov. 1701SIR JAMES ASHE, Bt. 
18 July 1702SIR JAMES ASHE, Bt. 
9 May 1711THOMAS DUNCOMBE vice Duncombe, deceased 
28 Aug. 1713JOHN EYRE 

Main Article

In 1690 the two outgoing Members for Downton, Sir Charles Raleigh of Rectory House and Maurice Bocland of Standlynch, were returned unopposed. Two other principal families resided in the locality, but neither was in a position to pose any electoral threat, Sir James Ashe, 2nd Bt., being a minor, and Sir Charles Eyre† by now a judge. By 1695, however, this situation had changed. Ashe had reached his majority and was being propelled by his widowed mother in the direction of a parliamentary seat, the family being actively involved, it would appear, in the business of accumulating burgages. Even more important, the London financier Charles Duncombe had bought the Barford estate just outside the town, an acquisition he soon consolidated with further purchases, and was also building up an electoral interest. Duncombe persuaded his new neighbour Bocland to ‘lay down’, brought Raleigh into an alliance, and baffled the Ashes by the simple expedient of winning over their local agent, John Snow. On Duncombe’s behalf, Snow first neutralized the one remaining threat, John Eyre of Brickworth, who himself controlled some seven or eight burgages and who had intended to stand against Raleigh. Snow then stood by as Duncombe and Raleigh ‘made application to stand and . . . received good encouragement so to do from the burghers of the borough’ and himself urged upon Lady Ashe that her son desist rather than ‘open a way for an expense and disappoint an interest which I have made [?secure] for the [?future] by the concurrence of all the neighbouring gentlemen concerned which will be . . . easier for him in another Parliament and with very little expense’.

In a furious reply she gave full vent to her frustration:

I had the good fortune to receive information much before I received yours . . . how you were managing the affair at Downton, and that [?enough] of money would fix you to Duncombe’s interest, better than any regard or faithfulness to your old master’s family. You have a pretty assurance to write me when the thing is fixed, without ever sending to me to know whether I would be at any expense, nay so much as inquiring of me where I would have my interest go, and had not Mr Duncombe fixed you he would have come to have joined with my son, and they two have stood, as he always told me. ’Tis little encouragement for me to buy the borough land at 30 years’ purchase, for to make your interest the greater . . . Yours . . . said they would not fix with any man till they saw their time, when, at the same time, I knew you were doing what you now write me. I thought the expense my husband had been at, and having the manor, had fixed one place to his family, if you had well managed it . . . Pray let me know what interest you have now fixed for the next session, if I make no bustle now, for if I have a mind I can spend my money as easy as any, and the more to try how you will manage yourself in a public election. You can’t think but your country would have been as well served with my son as either of these. I expect you should send me under their hands that have fixed and made sure for him for another election. I fancy ’tis only that you think, you or one of us may die before that time comes, and so you may write plausible till then.

When he tried to explain himself, she was adamant:

What would you imagine I could think of you, when before ever I heard a word of information from you I was told how things went, and I must hear it, and be able to say nothing to it, but sit as mute as if you and my estate were in Lincolnshire. Pray, what need is there to make out this, or to bring out your accusaries, except you think I live in New England. I must have my ears open, and I think Mr Bocland might have returned my husband’s civilities and mine so much to him as to have given my son the preference before a newcomer, and as [to] what you think you have done for the future I look on it not a straw, except you had it under their hands . . . You make the burgesses to look upon the men when I know a broomstick is all one to them, and what signify these two men’s words three years hence, and you say Sir James’ interest was drove on as far as it would go, when if anything for him had been intended Duncombe and you would have spoke and writ to me about it, as Duncombe promised me.

Reproached by Lord Ashley (Anthony*) and other Whigs for this ‘ill management’ and warned that ‘I have so much lost my interest at Downton that I must never expect to regain it as long as Duncombe lives, and that promises are nothing in those cases, except it were in writing’, Lady Ashe soon ceased to take very seriously the ‘articles’ Snow claimed to have obtained from Duncombe and Raleigh. She referred to them twice in 1696 on the prospect of a by-election, though not hopefully, and when a vacancy did at last occur, early in 1698, on Duncombe’s expulsion from the House, it was Bocland who was returned. True, Ashe had quarrelled with his mother, and her favoured candidate on this occasion was ‘one Gardiner, a merchant’, but the fact remains that the previous agreement was ignored. Snow, whether bribed or not, failed once more to carry out his duties as the Ashes’ agent, so that, as Lady Ashe bemoaned, ‘nothing goeth for my interest but disbursing of money’. A further by-election in May, on Raleigh’s death, saw the family interest divided. Ashe declared to Snow that ‘now I am married and my Lady Ashe has settled all that and other estates upon me . . . I am very willing to be serviceable to my country’, but behind his back his mother, still pushing Gardiner herself, was telling the agent ‘not to promote his interest’, on the obscure ground of his ‘never having had the smallpox’. Snow for once followed her instructions, but the young baronet was disheartened by his agent’s ‘lukewarmness’ and pressed on towards a contest with his erstwhile friend and fellow Whig John Eyre. For fear of being held to blame locally for her son’s defeat, Lady Ashe made some belated efforts to assist, authorizing Snow to engage someone to ‘solicit’ votes ‘from house to house’, while at the same time she continued to pour cold water on Sir James’s chances and advised against ‘splitting and increasing votes . . . although such votes have been formerly made use of by my father and others’, because ‘it will much more exasperate them to do it now, and if Mr Eyre do not bring in his Whiteparish tenants to vote it may be best not for [sic] Sir James to bring in his’. Her warnings that such a manoeuvre might result in the family being ‘flouted . . . condemned and despised by all my neighbours ever after’ may have been heeded, as Eyre was returned without there being any record of a poll. Nor did Ashe put up at the general election in July when, on the retirement of Bocland, Eyre was chosen with another Whig, Sir Charles Raleigh’s son Carew.4

Although the rift between mother and son seems to have been healed by the time of the next election, in January 1701, Ashe still did not stand, preferring to support Eyre and Carew Raleigh, whose Whiggery he thoroughly endorsed, against the Tory Duncombe and his nominee Francis Coles. Ashe’s interest did not answer his own expectation of it, but the two Whigs were successful. Duncombe’s subsequent petition against Eyre, was largely based on the accusation that Eyre and his friends, including Ashe, had been guilty of ‘multiplying of votes’ by splitting their burgages ‘just before the election’ and that these ‘trust votes’ had been wrongly permitted by the corrupt returning officer. In this he was backed by a petition subscribed by all his voters begging him to defend their rights: ‘if Mr Eyre hath such a power of dividing his land in order to make votes’, they argued, ‘he will be capable of being chosen when, and of choosing whom, he pleases, and our vote . . . will be made useless’. Apart from an allegation that the returning officer did not have a legal right to act, Duncombe’s other complaints were of ‘menaces and threats’, consisting of landlord pressure on vulnerable tenants and an incident at the poll in which ‘some gentlemen present . . . did what they could to put a terror on the electors (some of whom are poor men) by calling for a constable when a freeholder came to give his vote for Sir Charles Duncombe’. As he had been returned elsewhere, Duncombe withdrew the petition. He did not offer a contest in November when Ashe replaced Eyre with the latter’s, and Maurice Bocland’s, blessing. The lease by the Earl of Shaftesbury (the former Lord Ashley) of a half burgage in the borough in October that year, which he noted as now carrying two votes (it having been split and ‘every quarter burgage carrying a vote’), would appear to confirm that burgage-splitting continued in the borough. Duncombe’s return to the fray in 1702 may have been stimulated in part by a decline in the Raleigh interest but it also marked a revival in his own fortunes. The Whig families chose not to give battle, contenting themselves with one place. Eyre and Ashe each offered to resign to the other, the latter eventually taking the seat. Duncombe, who in 1703 sought to strengthen his influence by securing for the borough a weekly market, one of several such acts of ‘generosity’, was doubtless gratified by the Tory tone of the address he presented from Downton in October 1704, linking as it did the maritime exploits of Sir George Rooke* with the triumphs of the Duke of Marlborough (John Churchill†). Duncombe was taking the lead in a three-handed race with Eyre and Ashe to buy burgages, acquiring some 18 to 20 by 1708, and in 1705 and the two succeeding elections was returned unopposed with Eyre. So fierce had been the competition between these two in particular for ‘borough land’ that in December 1706 a truce had reportedly to be arranged between them. In this auction the Ashe interest was the loser. Ashe seems to have repaid Eyre his earlier compliment by resigning in his favour in 1705, but when he wished to stand again in the 1708 election the difficulties proved insuperable. First he was informed of a threatened revolt by the freeholders, who had resolved ‘not to vote’ unless the recently created faggot-voters were ‘cast out’, their resentment being chiefly directed against him. Then it became clear that while Eyre was willing to help Ashe, and actually wished him to stand, this did not extend to his being willing to step down himself to ensure an uncontested election. Ashe’s friends advised that not only was it ‘impossible’ for him to be returned on his own interest, it was also highly unlikely that he could carry his election with Eyre’s support against Duncombe, who intended, if Ashe stood, to ‘set up Mr Francis Coles’, the local candidate Duncombe had unsuccessfully partnered in 1701. Duncombe had ‘purchased so great an interest at so dear a rate’ that it would be ‘in vain to oppose him’, and worse still, Ashe’s agent commented, ‘I suppose [it] is too late now for Sir James ever to get an interest in the borough while Sir Charles lives’. Duncombe’s interest was not, however, so well entrenched that he could afford to neglect it, as witnessed by the ‘great borough feast . . . held at Barford’ on New Year’s Day 1708, reported by a house guest as ‘noble doings with the burghers of Downton and their wives, to the number of about 140’. Nor did he ever make an attempt on the second seat. John Eyre’s ‘man’, agreeing that Duncombe could return whom he pleased, observed that Sir Charles ‘would not offer to impose [on] his master although he could’. After Duncombe’s death the estate passed to his nephew Anthony Duncombe†, who returned a cousin, Thomas Duncombe, at the by-election in 1711 and his brother-in-law John Sawyer at the 1713 general election. He too left Eyre alone, and Eyre and Sawyer represented the borough until the end of the period.5

Author: D. W. Hayton


  • 1. Wilts. RO, Radnor mss 490/1368, notes on Downton elections.
  • 2. The election was held the day after the date on the official return, on 27 Feb.: Radnor mss 490/1292, copy of indenture.
  • 3. Ibid. 490/1298, poll.
  • 4. Hoare, Wilts. Downton, 18–21, 57, 59; Radnor mss 490/1368, 490/909, Snow to Lady Ashe, 14 Sept. 1695, Lady Ashe to Snow, 24 Sept., 14 Oct., 11 Nov. 1695, 25 Jan., 26 Feb. 1695[–6], 21 Dec. 1696, 20 Feb. 1697, 6, 10 May 1698, n.d. [c.May 1698], Sir James Ashe to Snow, 10 May 1698; Add. 70018, f. 94.
  • 5. Radnor mss 490/909, Lady Ashe to Snow, 16 Jan. 1700[–1], Sir James Ashe to Snow, 30 Nov., Dec., 13 Dec. 1700, May, 2 Dec. 1701, 6 Apr. [1702]; 490/1296, Duncombe’s case, [1701]; 490/1295, petition to Duncombe, [1701]; 490/938, [?Leonard Snow] to [–], [?c.Nov. 1706], 3, 23 Dec. 1706, 4 Jan. 1706[–7], 29 Dec. 1707, 12 Jan. 1707[–8], [?same] to Sir James Ashe, 21 July 1705, 15 Oct. 1707, 8 Feb. 1707[–8]; PRO 30/24/19/1/71; Hoare, 36, 40; CSP Dom. 1703–4, p. 379; London Gazette, 2–5 Oct. 1704.