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 the inhabitants paying scot and lot

Number of Qualified Electors:


Number of voters:

about 240 in Jan. 1701


 Francis St. John160
 Hon. Sidney Wortley Montagu 

Main Article

Peterborough’s governors did not constitute a corporate body. The dean and chapter of the cathedral were lords of the manor and the city officials were elected annually at a court leet held at the town hall. The city’s ‘chief gentry’, with the addition of some merchants and principal tradesmen, formed a body of ‘feoffees’ responsible primarily for administering the various charities and guild properties, but they also oversaw other matters of a municipal character. The more senior of them served as members of the magisterial bench under the nomination of the earls of Exeter as custos rotulorum. Several of the city gentlemen exercised considerable influence in settling the outcome of elections. The earls of Exeter were ‘lords paramount’ of the whole soke and hundred of Nassaburgh in which the soke and liberty of Peterborough lay. In the elections of the 1670s and 1680s the right of making the returns of representatives to Parliament had been a matter of ongoing dispute between the earls and the dean and chapter, and at different times the bailiffs acting for either one authority or the other had executed the returns. Between 1689 and 1708, however, the conflicting claims were not prosecuted and the returns were made each time by the chapter bailiff. This was possibly because the 5th Earl (John Cecil†), who died in 1700, was a non-juror who spent much of his time abroad, and because his successor was, to begin with, concerned in other constituencies. Only in 1710 were the Cecil claims reasserted by the Tory 6th Earl (John Cecil*) for the purposes of ensuring the election of his preferred candidate. By the late 1690s the Whig Fitzwilliam interest was an appreciable, though by no means pervasive, influence in the city’s elections.1

There was no contest in 1690, when William Brownlow, a Court Whig, and Gilbert Dolben, a Tory, retained their seats. Unlike Brownlow, Dolben’s association with the Peterborough area had been negligible before his initial election for the city the year before, but as the eldest son of John Dolben, the late archbishop of York, and a proven Tory, he was well qualified to serve the city in the eyes of its ecclesiastical authorities. Even so, his candidature in 1690 was not welcome to an anti-Tory minority who, as he told Sir Justinian Isham, 4th Bt.*, displayed ‘malice and hatred of my principles’. In the election of October 1695, Brownlow and Dolben were again chosen. The previous month Dolben had been apprehensive that the claims of Exeter’s bailiff with regard to the ‘privilege’ of making the return would once more come into play and jeopardize his election. To Isham he wrote on 28 Sept.:

I am now returned from Peterborough whence my L[or]d B[isho]p [Richard Cumberland] and the principal inhabitants prevailed with me to appear for a burgess. Our applications have already been so successful as to have clearly obtained a majority of votes, so that the election will (I think) be out of dispute. But the great difficulty I meet with is occasioned by the partiality of my lord of Exeter’s bailiff who contests the privilege of returning the precept with the bailiff of the dean and chapter, and it falls out in fact that sometimes one has returned it, sometimes t’other according as they could get the precept into their hands. Tho[ugh] the original right seems strongly to be with the dean’s bailiff who is alway[s] styled ballivus libertatis burgide Sto Petro, the other being styled ballivus hundredi de Nassenburg or some such name, whereof the town of Peterborough is no part. But to end this dispute it will be proposed to Mr High Sheriff that both the bailiffs may be admitted to make a return of the precept, which I take to be the likeliest means of preventing the inconveniences which have formerly ensued upon this contest. But my lord of Exeter’s bailiff is entirely devoted to the interests of Captain Orme and if the precept is lodged in his hands will undoubtedly play foul both in the election and in the return.

‘Captain Orme’, probably Thomas Orme, a son of Humphrey Orme who represented the city in the Cavalier Parliament, was clearly canvassing for votes with backing from Exeter. In the same letter Dolben entreated Isham to intercede with the sheriff and advise him ‘how dangerous a risk I shall run if my adversary become master of the precept who will both surprise me in the time of election and will not suffer the dean’s bailiff to join in the return’. But as was later revealed in the election of 1710 Dolben’s suggested compromise arrangement involving both bailiffs was not put into practice in 1695 or in any subsequent election.2

In 1698 Brownlow transferred to Bishop’s Castle and Dolben was faced with opposition from two Whigs, Hon. Sidney Wortley Montagu of Walcot Hall and Francis St. John of Longthorpe, near Peterborough, each of whom, according to Lord Fitzwilliam (William†), had ‘but small estates in our hundred’. Fitzwilliam, who was a moderate Whig, mobilized his interest on behalf of his friend Wortley Montagu well in advance of the election, instructing his steward, Francis Guybon, in December 1697: ‘If Mr Wortley [Montagu] of Walcott has any occasion of our assistance for the [?next] election for Peterborough, pray speak to all our friends to be for him’. Lord Nottingham (Daniel Finch†) suggested as a suitable partner for Dolben, Sir John Johnson, a Tory financier ‘of Cheapside’ who had ‘an interest’ in Peterborough. The course of the election is obscure, although Dolben appears to have remained without a partner. It is not even clear if there was a poll on election day, though the tenor of Fitzwilliam’s letters to his steward in the days before certainly suggest that one was expected. Earnest that there should be every effort made for Wortley Montagu, he was certain that St. John was ‘safe enough’. On the day itself, however, Dolben was either defeated or, which seems more likely, gave up on observing that the weight of opinion was against him. At the first election of 1701 the accord that had been apparent between Wortley Montagu and St. John in 1698 was no longer in evidence; the ‘Country’ Whig St. John now operated in partnership with Dolben. Though Fitzwilliam was no doubt aware of this changed alignment, he disregarded it entirely, desiring his steward late in November 1700 to secure, unobtrusively, a maximum number of ‘single votes’ for Wortley Montagu, whom he had reason to fear might lose the election, ‘and when his election is secured, set all my friends to vote for Mr St. John, though I am satisfied he is secured enough’. Evidently, Fitzwilliam thought no less of St. John for joining forces with a committed Tory. By the end of November, when the certainty of a dissolution was clear, Fitzwilliam’s commands to Guybon were more explicit; those who were not prepared to plump for Wortley Montagu were to be urged to pledge their second votes for St. John, rather than Dolben. On 5 Dec. he declared, ‘as for Mr Dolben I have not the good fortune to be known to him, and being a stranger to him, I shall sooner be for my acquaintances and good neighbours’. He added that he would ‘take it ill if any that works for me and takes my money, or that owe me any money, will not vote for my friends’. At the end of the month Fitzwilliam was annoyed to discover that several persons obliged to him intended to vote solely for Dolben:

You mention you have done all you can to serve Mr Wortley [Montagu] and Mr St. John in the election, how does that appear when Peter Rainsford and his son, and Mr Willis and my saddler Bates, and Mr Pemberton’s nephew vote for Mr Dolben; positively (I shall take it very ill of these . . . if they give not one vote for Mr Wortley, or else go out of town the day of the election and vote for nobody) I shall not be easily reconciled to them, and you may let Mr Willis know, I have been (and my thanks also) as good customers to him, as Mr St. John, and therefore expect one of his votes before Mr Dolben, or that he votes for nobody and go out of the way.

On the day before the election, Fitzwilliam asked Guybon to make it known to those who had not been reconciled to Wortley Montagu and St. John that he would prefer them to abstain by ‘going out of town’. Much to Fitzwilliam’s surprise, however, St. John was defeated, though only by the narrowest margin: ‘I could not imagine but his interest was so good, that there was no manner of his losing.’ Dolben and St. John’s campaign had been expensive; with 41 of the city’s publicans they had run up accounts totalling nearly £400, while it later emerged in the elections committee that St. John’s ‘friends’ had spent ‘20 s[hillings] a house’. St. John petitioned against Wortley Montagu on the grounds that the latter had procured votes ‘by bribes and entertainments’ after the teste, and accordingly the matter was referred to the elections committee. The report made on 16 June showed that St. John’s counsel had attempted to reduce Wortley Montagu’s slender majority by objecting to votes obtained through bribery. But counter-evidence was produced to show that the transactions in question were legitimate and bore no relationship to the election. The charge that Wortley Montagu had treated after the issue of the teste was denied with evidence from the keepers of the city’s public houses, notably the Talbot and the Goat, who affirmed that no money was spent on Wortley Montagu’s account ‘on election day or any time after the teste was out’. After hearing the report, the parliamentary diarist Sir Richard Cocks, 2nd Bt.*, commented that ‘there appeared nothing of a ground for a petition, but that St. John, the petitioner, would have voted the other way’ had he been returned. The committee’s determination in Wortley Montagu’s favour was ratified by the House. St. John’s desertion of Wortley Montagu in order to stand with the losing Tory candidate of the previous election had undoubtedly been an important contributory factor in his defeat, his conduct liable to have raised strong impressions of insincerity, making him less acceptable than formerly to the city’s electors. At the second 1701 election the leading gentlemen of the city were agreed upon the candidatures of Wortley Montagu and Dolben and no challenge was mounted. In spite of his misgivings about Dolben the previous December, Fitzwilliam willingly endorsed the proposed re-election of the outgoing Members. Rumours that he intended his heir to stand were quickly denied. A few days after the election, Fitzwilliam heard in London an inaccurate report that St. John had in fact stood again and lost, and his comments to Guybon on this subject are interesting for the light they shed on St. John’s continuing ill-reputation in Peterborough. He wrote on 4 Dec.: ‘I am sorry the town of Peterborough is so set against Mr St. John, though I hear he did not stand this time, but only some hot-headed men would make a show of it without his order.’3

The sitting Members were returned in 1702 in an uncontested election. Two of the city’s principal inhabitants, Thomas Deacon, a Tory, and Roger Pemberton, a Whig, appear to have proposed setting up Fitzwilliam’s heir, but at this time the peer was seemingly reluctant to interpose himself and his family more prominently in the city’s political affairs, a course which would probably have meant supplanting his friend Wortley Montagu. On 22 Oct. 1704 Dolben, recently created a baronet, presented an elegant address from the city offering congratulations on the victory at Blenheim in which Queen Anne’s accomplishments as protector of the Church of England were effusively compared with those of Elizabeth I. There was no challenge in the general election the following spring. However, Dolben grew particularly concerned about the lack of support in the Peterborough area for the Tory campaign in the county. He strongly counselled one of the candidates, his friend Isham, to make a personal visit to Lord Exeter, and to call upon the city’s leading Tory lights, Charles Parker and Thomas Deacon, whom he described as having ‘a great influence, not only in the city, but in the soke, and they are extremely desirous you should satisfy the freeholders by your presence’. But neither Isham nor Thomas Cartwright* troubled himself, and it was probably in consequence of this that Parker, Deacon and several other gentlemen of the locality, who had voted for them in 1702, refrained from doing so in 1705. At the 1708 general election the balance of opinion within the city prevailed once more without dispute in favour of the sitting Members.4

The relationship between the cathedral chapter and the lay members of the manor court whom they appointed to govern the city’s administrative affairs had so far been harmonious, although the chancellor of the diocese Dr Richard Reynolds prophesied trouble on the horizon. He put the situation to Dean Kennett in a letter of December 1709:

I cannot but think it the standing interest of our church at Peterborough to carry fair with the neighbouring borough, and rather to join with the more considerable burghers for the good government of the whole city, than by slighting, dividing measures to incense them against us, and lose thereby their esteem and friendship. As matters have been hitherto carried, by mingling with them, and managing particular persons, our interest is considerable and we are courted for it. But if we put a public slur upon the whole town by filling up the present vacancies [in the manor court] with foreigners when there are several townsmen sufficiently qualified and well recommended, we shall have the tables turned upon us, lose ground in the town, and render our body less significant.
I do not contend that the friendships and commendations of great men should fill our vacancies either with scandalous or ignorant persons, that want either ability or application suitable to their respective offices. But if Mr Sparks, Mr Langton or Mr Orme appear sufficiently qualified to execute our steward’s place, and have, moreover, the general vote of the neighbourhood or the commendation of the Duke of Devonshire [William Cavendish*], Lord —[sic], or Mr Wortley [Montagu], I see no reason why the commendation of friends, especially of great men who have formerly befriended us, may not be allowed their proper measure of weight and influence with us.
I am not apprehensive that the rights of our Church are in danger of being trampled upon, whilst we have men of sense and substance of our body, and a learned and acting Dean at our head. But put the case that the lord of the Soke [Exeter] should invade us again, our remedy should lie in Parliament rather than Westminster Hall . . .

For reasons which are unclear Dolben transferred to Yarmouth, Isle of Wight, in 1710. Apart from Wortley Montagu, two new candidates put up: Fitzwilliam’s heir, Hon. John, a Whig, and one of the city’s leading Tory figures, Charles Parker. Somewhat paradoxically, Parker had been Wortley Montagu’s chief agent in the first 1701 election and as such had liaised with the Fitzwilliam interest. Fitzwilliam’s election seems not to have been in question owing to his family’s position in the city, though it is not clear whether his father could realistically have expected to see both him and Wortley Montagu successfully returned. Having made no attempt to influence the outcome of previous elections in the city, Exeter now engaged himself on Parker’s behalf. Wortley Montagu’s recent support for the impeachment proceedings against Dr Sacheverell had presumably made him specially abhorrent to Tory sentiment, but he had the backing of White Kennett, the Low Church dean of the cathedral who had been installed in 1707. At the election itself no poll seems to have been held. But in contravention of re-established practice the Tory high sheriff, Lucy Knightley of Fawsley, had directed the precept to Exeter’s bailiff whose subsequent return of Fitzwilliam and Parker was accepted by Knightley, while that submitted by the dean’s bailiff, in favour of Fitzwilliam and Wortley Montagu, was refused. The news writer John Dyer reported that Fitzwilliam and Parker, both ‘very loyal gentlemen’, had been chosen without opposition. The aggrieved parties petitioned on 10 Dec., the dean and prebendaries against the usurpation of their rights, and Wortley Montagu against an unjust return, but though referred to the elections committee, the matter received no further attention. This was precisely the situation Dr Reynolds had most feared when he had written to Kennett in 1709. Towards the end of 1711 Exeter began intervening in city affairs still further by purging the magisterial bench of prominent city Whigs, including Dean Kennett, his sub-dean Richard Bennett, and his archdeacon Richard Cumberland, replacing them with Tories. Not surprisingly, Exeter was a central figure in the city’s celebration on 21 May 1713 of the proclamation of peace, and he was attended by ‘several hundreds’ of gentlemen and clergy from Rutland, Lincolnshire and the Isle of Ely, as well as from elsewhere within Northamptonshire. Fitzwilliam and Parker were returned unopposed in the election later in the summer, but it is not apparent which bailiff made the return. The cathedral chapter had commenced a legal suit against Exeter over their franchise rights and in June 1712 voted £100 towards costs. The case was still pending at the beginning of August 1713 when Kennett wrote gloomily:

I have had here great difficulties in a suit with my lord of Exeter for the rights and privileges of our church, wherein we have the law hitherto to create us vexation, rather than do no right. We got one judgment by default; but as matters stand I doubt we shall never be able to get a fair trial: and there is such a spirit in people, that everything is turned to party cause.

It was not until 1717 that the chapter obtained judgment in their favour, though in fact Exeter’s influence in Peterborough evaporated quickly after the Hanoverian succession. The magisterial bench was remodelled along the Whig lines recommended by John Fitzwilliam, who branded the Earl’s nominees as violent Tories, while in 1715 Exeter was dismissed as custos and replaced by Lord Fitzwilliam.5

Author: Andrew A. Hanham


  • 1. Bodl. Willis 48, f. 42; 51, f. 145; VCH Northants. ii. 427–8; G.R. Dennis, House of Cecil, 135–7.
  • 2. Northants. RO, Isham mss IC 4704, 4747, Dolben to Isham, 25 Feb. 1690, 28 Sept. [1695].
  • 3. Northants. RO, Fitzwilliam mss F(M)C 1024, 1049, 1050, 1077, 1152–4, 1157–9, 1191, 1193–4, Fitzwilliam to Francis Guybon, 9 Dec. 1697, 14, 21 July 1698, 23 Mar. 1698–9, 26, 28 Nov., 5, 26 Dec. 1700, 2, 9 Jan. 1700[–1], 20, 27 Nov., 4 Dec. 1701; BL, Althorp mss, Nottingham to Ld. Halifax (William Savile*), 25 Apr. 1698; J. R. Woodhead, Rulers of London (London and Mdx. Arch. Soc.), 99; Cambs. RO (Huntingdon), Manchester mss dd M56 A/2, election expenses, Jan. 1701; Northants. Poll Bks. 1702–1831, p. 45; Cocks Diary, 176; Add. 28887, ff. 378, 405.
  • 4. Lansd. 1038, f. 35; Fitzwilliam mss F(M)C 1226, Fitzwilliam to Guybon, 23 July 1702; London Gazette, 23–26 Oct. 1704; Isham mss IC 2745, Dolben to Isham, 21 Apr. 1705; Northants. Poll Bks. 1702–1831, p. 45.
  • 5. L. K. J. Glassey, Appt. JPs, 215–16, 247; G. V. Bennett, White Kennett, 200–1; Add. 70421, newsletter 10 Oct. 1710; Post Boy, 30 May–2 June 1713.