Oxford University


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 doctors and masters of arts

Number of voters:

1,116 in 1805


21 June 1790SIR WILLIAM DOLBEN, Bt. 
23 Mar. 1801 SIR WILLIAM SCOTT vice Page, vacated his seat 
 Richard Heber275
10 June 1817 ROBERT PEEL II vice Abbot, called to the Upper House 

Main Article

The representation of the university was a much coveted honour reserved time out of mind for ‘that good old sort ... an independent country gentleman, a true friend to Church and King, unconnected with any party, of a good old family’. In this respect Oxford was anxious not to ‘sink’ to the level of Cambridge, where ministerial influence was held to prevail, and looked to Midland squires ‘like the Palmers, the Pages, the Newdigates, the Dolbens’ for its Members. Contests were disliked and, once chosen, Members held ‘a seat for life free of any expense’.1 The ‘lex loci’ did not allow them to be ‘volunteers’ for the representation: they neither addressed the university, nor canvassed it.2 This left the issue in the hands of their influential friends in the constituent 25 colleges. The dominance of Christ Church may be seen in the following list of potential voters drawn up in 1805: Christ Church 213, Magdalen 97, Queen’s 83, St. John’s 81, Oriel 67, University College 61, Brasenose 53, All Souls 52, New College 51, Worcester 46, Merton 46, Corpus 44, Jesus 43, Trinity 38, Exeter 29, Pembroke 29, Lincoln 26, Balliol 23, St. Edmund Hall 14, St. Alban Hall 9, St. Mary Hall 8, Hertford College 3. Christ Church claimed one Member, reinforcing its superiority by voting en bloc, but was careful to avoid an alignment of all the other colleges against it: no college could expect to carry both Members.3

Of Sir William Dolben and Francis Page, Oldfield wrote in 1792, ‘the present Members will be continued in the same honourable situation as long as they are able to perform the duties annexed to it’.4 The question was which of these respectable veterans would first make a vacancy: in anticipation of it there were ready candidates, whose merits were canvassed. In January 1793, when Page was believed to be dangerously ill, they were Thomas Francis Wenman, regius professor of civil law and of a county family; Lord Worcester, heir of the Duke of Beaufort; the Speaker, Henry Addington; and the King’s advocate Sir William Scott, who had staked his claim as early as 1780, but had found a seat elsewhere. Wenman declined, though the bishop of Oxford thought ‘he must have been elected’, Lord Worcester’s prospects were thought poor and the effective choice lay between Addington and Scott. Addington was assured: ‘No encouragement will be given to any person, however dignified or distinguished, whose public principles and conduct are not unequivocally declared to be in favour of the present administration’. Page’s recovery put an end to the speculation and he warned Addington, 20 Apr. 1796, that he was not retiring at the dissolution. Dolben, despite an announcement to that effect in the House, 18 May 1796, did not retire either.5

It was not until March 1801, on Page’s retirement, that a vacancy arose. Sir William Scott replaced him unopposed, by then believed to be ‘a single instance of a professional man representing the university’.6 He gratified his clerical electors by safeguarding the interests of the Church of England. Dolben’s retirement was also anticipated at the dissolution. Believed to be waiting in the wings, Addington having meantime opted out, were Thomas Grenville*, William Windham* and John Coker of Bicester, colonel of the university volunteers. Coker had declined in March 1801 and Grenville and Windham were then embarrassed by their stand for Catholic relief. Grenville was a Christ Church man, like Dolben, but no longer well inclined to government; and there were reports that Christ Church ‘dictating’ Dolben’s successor would be resisted. In any case, Dolben did not retire: he wished to be replaced, unopposed, by a Christ Church man when it could be arranged. Conversely, as Cyril Jackson, Dean of Christ Church, wrote, 5 Jan. 1805:

If ... a vacancy be made by Sir William Scott, during Sir William Dolben’s continuance as representative of the university, Christ Church can do nothing for any of its members—no, not even put them in nomination.

His correspondent, Speaker Charles Abbot, was by then an aspirant to the representation and the dean eager—and Pitt willing—to assist him.7

A vacancy was expected in the summer of 1805 on the report that Scott would obtain a peerage. The contenders were reported to Pitt as William Dickinson II*, who was, however, ‘by some place tied to the ministry’; William Windham, ‘avowedly hostile’ to ministers and hampered by his pro-Catholic views and the hostility of Dean Jackson; Richard Richards*, ‘once a Mitchell fellow of Queen’s, now a Chancery lawyer’, a protégé of Sir William Scott’s brother, Lord Chancellor Eldon; John Coker and Richard Heber, a Brasenose man, recommended to Pitt by his former tutor Archdeacon Ralph Churton as the ideal choice—a well-to-do and cultivated country gentleman. Heber’s friends began a canvass on his behalf, whereupon Dickinson’s and Windham’s followed suit, one of the latter remarking of Heber, ‘so young a man, if wise, will only show himself and retire’. Windham was of the same college as Sir William Scott, and while some objected to rigidity on this point his chief ally, Dr David Hughes of Jesus, found difficulty in quelling alarm about his protégé’s views in favour of the Catholics. Windham was warned by his nephew, sent to survey the scene for him, that the times were such that the junior fellows would be glad of a pretext to rebel against their seniors. If Richards stood, Windham would lose many supporters; and if Christ Church insisted on unanimity he was sunk, despite the encouragement given him by the Prince of Wales and by the Whig leader Fox, who wrote:

You will easily suppose that the reputation of the University of Oxford is not very dear to me, but if they really should choose such a fellow as Dickinson or Coker in preference to Windham I think they will disgrace themselves more than they have ever yet done.

The canvass was broken up when Scott did not obtain an anticipated peerage.8

During the canvass, Dean Jackson had secured Christ Church support for Charles Abbot as successor to Dolben. Thomas Grenville was assumed to be out of the question for the same political reasons as Windham (who was not regarded as eligible for the Christ Church vacancy). On 12 May 1806 Jackson talked over with Abbot ‘the propriety of Sir William Dolben resigning at the next general election and the difficulties of bringing him to do so’. Following a strong hint from Jackson, Dolben offered to retire, 11 July 1806, adding that he was prepared to remain in harness to avert a contest. Before he informed the vice-chancellor, Jackson had promoted Abbot as the Christ Church candidate, brushing aside the supposition that the Speaker’s being recorder of Oxford disqualified him. Abbot himself alleged that, on the precedent of George Knox’s* election for Trinity, Dublin, ‘any stranger to the university may be elected to represent it in Parliament’.9 Richard Heber emerged as Abbot’s opponent; his previous canvass of 1805 and the possibility of the other colleges allying against Christ Church, admitted to be Abbot’s only stronghold, were his trump cards. But it was a Christ Church vacancy, and Abbot could count on the prime minister Lord Grenville’s support, his brother Thomas being agreed by his family to be a non-starter. Lord Grenville aspired to be chancellor of the university and hoped for Abbot’s assistance—though he could obtain only his neutrality. So Grenville’s nephew Charles Williams Wynn* was unable to induce the premier to back Richard Richards* who, to Abbot’s indignation, allowed his name to be canvassed. (Abbot supposed Richards out of the question until Sir William Scott retired.) Finding that Heber was stronger than he, Richards declined, 29 Oct. 1806, and, through friendly arbitration, made his peace with Abbot.10

In the poll of 1806 Sir William Scott secured a vote from all but 30 of the record number of 681 electors who attended and there were only 34 plumpers in all, the majority for Heber; 392 split their votes between Scott and Abbot (including 146 out of 148 from Christ Church) and only 255 between Scott and Heber. Heber’s strength derived chiefly from his own college Brasenose and from Magdalen, Oriel, Jesus, Trinity and University College. Only Christ Church (as usual) and Brasenose voted en bloc. One of Heber’s disappointed friends claimed that Abbot would not have succeeded if he had not ‘resorted to such measures as the university was ever a stranger to before’. As Speaker, he had ‘such a knowledge of various interests, as few others would have possessed and these were exerted to the utmost degree’. They included ‘government, the Duke of York, [and] the East India Company’, combined with ‘the natural strength of Christ Church’. Dean Jackson had obtained a start for Abbot over Heber, ‘and the poor old heads of colleges who are generally the weakest parts of those bodies, were gained over to the Christ Church interest’. Another friend of Heber’s complained that ‘the university is turned into a dirty rotten minister’s borough’, in returning ‘a mere cast off tool of the Duke of Marlborough’: Abbot had been again returned on the duke’s interest for Heytesbury as a security. As it was, a slight attempt had been made in convocation to deny Abbot’s eligibility: as the English tongue was allowed, the debate went on for two hours over whether the recordership of Oxford disqualified him under the university statute de simul fruendis. Abbot’s mind was set at rest by Heber’s assurance that he would discourage a petition against the return and the Speaker made doubly sure for the future by resigning the recordership.11

At the dissolution of 1807 there was another rumour of Sir William Scott’s becoming a peer. In that case, Heber’s friends hoped he would be backed by the Portland ministry, of which he was ‘a warm friend’. It was supposed that Richard Richards might oppose him and that he was probably a ‘Grenvillean’.12 The ‘Grenvilleans’ secured a notable triumph on the death of the Duke of Portland, chancellor of the university, when, after a sustained canvass, Lord Grenville narrowly secured election against Lord Eldon, the ministerial nominee, and the Duke of Beaufort, whose intervention spoilt Eldon’s chances. Such a blow for freedom of conscience against the high church party was quite out of character and Sir William Scott, writing to his colleague to express his hope that they would not be opposed at the general election, 18 Sept. 1812, was cautious: the university ‘appeared to have taken a more political aspect than it had ever done before’.13 George Canning, a Christ Church man, who aspired to a seat for it (and therefore wished a peerage on the Speaker) was nevertheless clear early in 1812 that his Catholic sympathies would lose him Oxford, at least ‘out of office’, even if both seats were opened at the dissolution. He hoped the Catholic question would be settled before a vacancy occurred, but it was not, and there was no change in 1812. Nothing name of a rumoured opposition to the sitting Members which reached the ears of Sir William Scott: ‘to him on the score of the [clergy] residence bill’, and to Abbot, because he had appointed a Cambridge chaplain to the House. Curiously, the Speaker reported, 25 Mar. 1812:

At Oxford the Christ Church plan was not to propose a candidate from Christ Church for the next vacancy, whether mine or Sir William Scott’s, but to let that be contended for between Heber and Richards, or Sir John Nicholl*, who had been suggested.14

In the spring of 1814 there was a fresh rumour of Scott’s peerage, followed by another of Abbot’s obtaining one. Heber was again in the running, but not Richards who had accepted a barony of the Exchequer. Charles Wetherell* was now Lord Eldon’s protégé. Sir John Nicholl was urged by his friends to offer (as a leading anti-Catholic) but demurred, as did Robert Peel II* for the present. Charles Bragge Bathurst’s* claims were promoted by his New College friends. Sir William Scott, finding the canvass going on, ceased denying that he was about to become a peer and asked Lord Liverpool to make him one, 27 June 1814, but the request was politely rejected. If Abbot were to obtain a peerage, the line-up would be quite different: the Christ Church candidature was sought by George Canning (who watched Abbot like a hawk), by Nicholas Vansittart*, a ministerialist, and by Joseph Phillimore*, a Grenvillite. There were rumours of Canning’s vacating Liverpool in September 1814 to contest the university, and (more farfetched) of his reaching agreement for reciprocity of support from Heber’s Brasenose friends. Such a junction of Christ Church and Brasenose could not fail to be resented by the other colleges and it did not take into account Eldon’s preference for Wetherell.15

When the Speaker agreed to vacate the Christ Church seat with a peerage, 28 May 1817, Canning was at a disadvantage: although he was again in office, the Catholic question was once more a burning issue. Christ Church was not even prepared to consider a pro-Catholic Grenvillite such as Joseph Phillimore or Charles Williams Wynn. Vansittart fell by the wayside. The dean of Christ Church proposed Canning to his chapter, claiming for him the support of Worcester College and of Heber’s friends, but he had ‘personal dislikers’: his pro-Catholic views and his government office could both be used against him. He found it ‘a most grievous disappointment’. William Corne, the proctor, a champion of Vansittart’s pretensions, had threatened to resign if Canning were adopted. The chapter was told that ‘hardly one out of ’ of the resident masters of arts would support Canning. This statement of senior common room opinion came from Dr Charles Lloyd. He pressed the claims of his former pupil Robert Peel, another Christ Church man, whose anti-Catholic speech still rang in Oxford ears and who was president of the Pitt Club. Peel was adopted and nothing came of a bid by Canning’s disappointed friends to enlist the services of John William Ward* (not a Christ Church man). It was admitted that Christ Church’s influence had been at stake: Dr Lloyd assured Peel, 5 June 1817,

I am not sure that by dint of our own influence and the collateral influence of ministers, that we might not have forced Mr Canning into his seat; but I am quite sure that we should not have been able to do it a second time; besides it could only have been done by an union of Heber’s friends with Christ Church and the university would have been at once disgusted with the appearance of a job. Now all is well, everybody is pleased, and Christ Church is herself again.16

Even so, Peel, the youngest ever choice of his university, thanks to his ‘attachment to the Tory principles and the true interests of the Church of England’, was obliged to refute allegations (in the Whig Morning Chronicle) that his election was a ministerial job, involving the Speaker’s giving notice to Christ Church before he informed the vice-chancellor of his resignation. Canning believed that the Speaker ‘was, as I always suspected, a dirty little mongrel’, but Abbot’s denial was obtained (it was Sir William Scott who forewarned Christ Church with the deliberate intention of preventing Canning’s election) and Peel’s status as the free choice of the university rehabilitated. He himself admitted that a ‘combination of time and circumstance’ which ‘could scarcely have been imagined by his most zealous friends’ had gained him the day.17 It was not until 1821 that Sir William Scott’s peerage materialized, to give Heber his opportunity; even then he had to fight for the vacant seat.

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. Sidmouth mss, Churton to Sidmouth, 31 Oct. 1806; PRO 30/9/16, Dr Smith to Colchester [June 1817]; Grey mss, Goodwin to Grey, 19 Oct. 1814; Colchester, ii. 78.
  • 2. PRO 30/9/16, Sir W. Scott to Abbot, 22 Sept. 1812.
  • 3. Add. 37909, ff. 1, 9, 207-49; 47575, f. 166; The Times, 22 Jan. 1802.
  • 4. Boroughs, ii. 22.
  • 5. Sidmouth mss, Prosser to Addington, 9 Jan., bp. of Oxford to ?, 20 Jan. 1793; Pellew, Sidmouth, i. 166; Debrett (ser. 2), xliv. 714.
  • 6. PRO 30/8/181, f. 124.
  • 7. Add. 37909, ff. 5, 7, 9; PRO 30/9/33, f. 48; Colchester, i. 197; ii. 17; Bucks. RO, Grenville mss D54/13, Buckingham to Grenville, 15 Dec. 1801; The Times, 22, 27 Jan. 1802; PRO 30/9/15, Jackson to Abbot, 5 Jan. 1805, Dolben to Jackson, 11 July 1806.
  • 8. PRO 30/8/181, f. 124; Heber Letters, 197, 263; Add. 37909, ff. 14-199; 47575, f. 164; Windham Pprs. ii. 257.
  • 9. PRO 30/9/33, Abbot diary, 24 May, 29 June, 10, 11 July 1805; 30/9/34, diary, 12 May, 1, 8, 13 July; 30/9/15, Dolben to Jackson, 11, 15 July 1806; Add. 41851, f. 284.
  • 10. PRO 30/9/34, Abbot diary 13-29 Oct. 1806; HMC Fortescue, viii. 386; Colchester, ii. 45; Buckingham, Court and Cabinets, iv. 87-88; Sidmouth mss, Le Mesurier to Sidmouth, 21 Oct., Churton to same, 31 Oct.; Add. 34457, ff. 102, 127; 34460, f. 346; Lonsdale mss, Stonard to Lonsdale, 22 Oct. 1806.
  • 11. Lonsdale mss, Stonard to Lonsdale, 10 Dec. 1806; Heber Letters, 197-200, 214; PRO 30/9/15, Smith to Abbot, 4, 9 Nov., Heber to same, 9 Nov. [1806].
  • 12. Lonsdale mss, Stonard to Lonsdale, 28 Apr. 1807.
  • 13. PRO 30/9/16.
  • 14. Colchester, ii. 328; Harewood mss, Canning to his wife, 20, 22 Feb., 30 Mar. 1812.
  • 15. Merthyr Mawr mss L/178, Dr Marlow to Sir J. Nicholl, 22 Mar., reply 28 Mar. 1814; Heber Letters, 244, 263; Colchester, ii. 374, 375, 384; Add. 34459, f. 57, 81; 38258, ff. 100, 261; 40286, f. 113; Haddington mss, Canning to Binning, 1 Apr. 1815; Grey mss, Tierney to Grey, 15 Oct., Goodwin to same, 16 Sept., 19 Oct. 1814.
  • 16. Colchester, ii. 478, 610; Ward, Letters to Bishop of Llandaff, 145; PRO 30/9/16, Smith to Colchester [June]; Gaisford St. Lawrence mss, Dr Lloyd to T. Gaisford, 5 June (ex inf. Dr J. F. A. Mason); Haddington mss, Canning to Binning, 3 Aug.; Add. 40266, ff. 149, 206; 51597, Shuttleworth to Lady Holland, Fri. [13 June]; Bagot mss, Wellesley Pole to Bagot, 6 June, 25 Sept. 1817.
  • 17. Parker, Peel, i. 250-3; N. Gash, Mr Secretary Peel, 211-17; Colchester, ii. 619, 620; iii. 4-7; Twiss Eldon, ii. 295-6; PRO 30/9/16, Abbot to Smith, 6 June, Smith to Abbot, 8, 16 June 1817; Add. 40265, f. 248; 50266, ff. 145-151; 40267, f. 225; 40293, ff. 94-96; 40342, f. 207.