New Woodstock


Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Background Information

Right of Election:

in the freemen

Number of voters:



(1801): 1,322


21 Oct. 1795 SIR RALPH PAYNE, Baron Lavington [I] vice Spencer, deceased 
27 May 1796SIR RALPH PAYNE, Baron Lavington [I] 
28 Jan. 1799 CHARLES MOORE vice Lavington, appointed to office 
 William Camac27
 Arthur Annesley44
10 Mar. 1810 HON. GEORGE EDEN vice Eden, deceased 
10 Nov. 1813 HON. GEORGE EDEN vice Thornton, vacated his seat 
14 June 1814 WILLIAM THORNTON vice Eden, called to the Upper House 

Main Article

Woodstock, ‘adjoining to the wall of Blenheim park’, had offered no opposition to the dukes of Marlborough’s patronage since 1727.1 The 4th Duke continued to nominate members of his family and friends, expecting them, like himself, to support the government of the day. His neighbour and connexion by marriage Sir Henry Watkin Dashwood, a ruined man who had to be in Parliament, was Member from 1784 until 1820. The other seat was intended for his family, if and when eligible. Francis Burton (recorder of the borough) was switched to Oxford in 1790 and, after rejecting the idea of returning his brother Charles (then in opposition) or one of the latter’s sons, the duke nominated his second son, then abroad and under age.2 Shortly before Lord Henry’s death in 1795, the duke was considering Vicary Gibbs* as his next nominee for Woodstock, ‘as they love lawyers’, but Gibbs demurred. Lord Charles Spencer had an eye to the vacancy, but it was Lord Lavington who filled it. At the general election of 1796, Lady Bessborough reported a rumour that

they did not like Lord Lavington’s face and manner at Woodstock and would not choose him, and William Spencer [Lord Charles’s second son] is gone to see if he may be more acceptable; but do not repeat this, for I heard it from an embellisher.3

Lavington was in fact returned.

When Lavington vacated his seat in 1799, the duke’s youngest son Lord Francis Almeric Spencer* was not of age. On the advice of his former nominee and confidant William Eden*, Lord Auckland, the duke returned Charles Moore, but ‘only till Francis was of age or till the end of this Parliament’. As Lord Francis obtained the county seat, the duke was able to fulfil his engagement to Charles Abbot, to whom he had promised preference after his son, at the election of 1802. There was a contest, started by an Irish nabob William Camac and directed against the Blenheim monopoly. It was not particularly successful, but the duke took the precaution of returning Abbot on his interest at Heytesbury as well, and only when no petition emerged did Abbot choose to sit for Woodstock. Meanwhile the duke appointed James Blackstone as recorder in place of the absentee Burton and secured the election of his son Francis to the corporation to strengthen his interest against further opposition.4

There was another contest in 1806, when the duke’s new nominee was Auckland’s heir, William Eden; Charles Moore would not do, as he was ‘not popular at Woodstock’. Arthur Annesley*, his opponent, a local country gentleman, caused Eden some alarm. He informed his father:

Sir Henry Dashwood is naturally very popular in this place and the neighbourhood and most of the freemen who vote for Mr Annesley give their second vote to Sir Henry. The consequence is that he will stand very high on the poll—and if I am very hard run by Mr Annesley, to the possibility of which we must always look, our only resource will be to neutralise some of the hostile votes by changing them from Annesley and Dashwood to Annesley and Eden—and Mr Blackstone is now writing to the duke to desire him to provide conveyance for the voters from London of the latter description but not of the former. The fact is that Sir Henry from his long residence here and his frequent election for Woodstock is growing independent. I believe he is too honourable a man to have any concert in this business with Annesley but they are near neighbours and the families are very intimate. He is not therefore so strenuous in his opposition to Annesley as might be wished.

To add to Eden’s difficulties, there were only about 60 resident voters, while the outlying voters in the county were ‘in general, independent of the duke’. Annesley had ‘been busy among them’ and had also arranged transport for his supporters among the freemen resident in London. Finally, as Eden indignantly informed his father (25 Oct. 1806), Annesley ‘had the modesty to apply to the duke ... after he had canvassed the town against him’. Eden was more optimistic at the conclusion of his canvass and doubted whether Annesley could muster more than 35 votes; he also alerted the duke’s family, who were hoping for places from Lord Grenville’s ministry, of the danger that the borough would be ‘wrenched’ from them, ‘for though we feel secure in point of votes, it is desirable with a view to the future comfort of the duke to carry our victory with a high hand’.5

Nevertheless, Eden realized that he could not forego the expense of a contest: ‘though Mr Annesley is a weak man, I cannot say I have great hopes of his retiring from the contest—he has gone to great lengths already’. He added, ‘the most violent men on the side of Mr Annesley are those who have received favours from the duke and his friends’—he cited the instance of one Brookes, ‘who now owes a considerable sum of money to the duke’. Eden forecast the following result: Dashwood 105, Eden 76, Annesley 33: it was remarkably accurate, except that Annesley got 11 more votes, before he ‘handsomely declined giving any further trouble’. He had ‘obliged us’, wrote Eden’s father, ‘to send down all non-resident voters’ (1 Nov. 1806). At the election of 1807 Eden was somewhat apprehensive of opposition, again from Annesley. There was a rumour that the duke had abandoned him because he was a ‘Pope’ (i.e. supported Catholic relief), but Eden scotched an attempt by the corporation to submit him to a test on the subject. The duke was approached by the prime minister the Duke of Portland with a view to getting his support, but would not make any promises.6

The duke’s political doubts enabled William Eden and, after his death in 1810, his brother George initially, to act with opposition with impunity. George Eden was preferred by the duke to Richard Wellesley*, whose father wanted him to have the vacant seat, and he was chosen in absentia. Blackstone’s canvass on his behalf met ‘with most perfect good humour and unanimity, and even promises where we least expected it’. His expenses were more than £400 (Burton had paid £300 in 1784 and Lord Charles Spencer estimated ‘towards £400’ in 1795).7 Late that year, on the Regency question, the duke was disposed to rally to government and to object to Eden’s line, but when in August 1811 Eden had the chance of a seat for Calne on the Lansdowne interest, he declined it, preferring, as the duke’s godson, to accept his assurance of retaining Woodstock on the basis of ‘private friendship’, without sacrificing ‘independent judgement’ or the advantage of keeping out ‘a political antagonist’. He was disillusioned when in June 1812 the duke switched him to Oxford, but acquiesced, stipulating that Woodstock should be kept open for him. This proved ‘impracticable’ and the duke returned a ministerialist, Gen. Thornton. Eden believed that Lord Francis Spencer’s jealousy of Blackstone, who disliked Thornton’s candidature, was to blame for his exclusion. After his defeat at Oxford, he and his father pressed the duke to get Thornton to vacate his seat, rather than buy a compensatory seat for himself: that would probably cost £5,000, whereas a Treasury borough for Thornton would cost £2,000. The duke, who was looking forward to his grandson’s being of age to come in for Woodstock, made difficulties about Thornton’s early vacation of the seat. On 2 Apr. 1813 Lord Francis Spencer promised Auckland that if no seat had been found for George Eden by the start of the next session, Thornton would vacate in his favour. Eden, who was sure that he was popular at Woodstock, obtained Blackstone’s co-operation in forcing the duke’s hand by the threat of a freemen’s petition in his favour in October 1813, and his return, for which he paid half the expense, was secured soon afterwards.8 Before the session was over, he succeeded to the title and Thornton resumed his seat. Much light is thrown on treating arrangements and the expectations of freemen at election times by his correspondence with Blackstone.9

The death of the 4th duke in 1817 provided an opening for his veteran Whig brother Lord Robert Spencer, who had taken the 5th Duke’s part during his estrangement from his father. Thornton retired in his favour and there was no disturbance in 1818, but ‘the devil to pay’ thereafter.10

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. Oldfield, Boroughs, ii. 23; Rep. Hist. iv. 362.
  • 2. Fortescue mss, Auckland to Grenville, 4 Apr. 1807; Add. 34430, f. 12.
  • 3. Add. 34453, ff. 177, 184; Portland mss PwF8514; Leveson Gower, i. 122.
  • 4. Add. 34455, f. 112; PRO 30/9/32/567, Abbot to Burton, 29 Apr., Marlborough to same, 1 May; 568, Abbot to same, 12, 20 Nov., Marlborough to same, 18 Nov. 1800; 569, Abbot to Marlborough, 14 Feb. 1801; 30/9/1, pt. 2/2, Abbot memo 18 Feb.; pt. 3/4, Abbot to Marlborough, 10 May; 30/9/15, Marlborough to Abbot, 2 Dec.; The Times, 7 Aug. 1802.
  • 5. Add. 34457, ff. 81, 117, 122, 123, 125, 130; HMC Fortescue, viii. 153, 396; Morning Post, 28 Oct. 1806.
  • 6. HMC Fortescue, viii. 417; Add. 34457, ff. 125, 287, 289; Fortescue mss, Auckland to Grenville, 4 Apr. 1807.
  • 7. HMC Fortescue, x. 17; Add. 34458, ff. 47, 188; Colchester, i. 62; Portland mss PwF 8514.
  • 8. Add. 34458, ff. 194, 264, 284, 360, 361, 408, 413, 419, 425, 470, 476, 482, 505, 512, 526, 587, 593, 599, 603.
  • 9. Blenheim mss, 30 May, 4, 8, 10, 18 June, 15 July, 21 Sept., 28 Nov., 2, 7, 14, 21 Dec. 1814, 18 Jan. 1815.
  • 10. Grey mss, Tierney to Grey, 27 Feb. 1820.