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:

Right of election: in the burgesses, freemen and inhabitant householders not receiving alms

Number of Qualified Electors:


Number of voters:

573 in 17051


13 May 1690Thomas Christie290291
 Thomas Hillersden284285
 Sir William Francklyn249254
 Sir Anthony Chester, Bt.2182132
  Double return of Christie and Francklyn. CHRISTIE declared elected, 12 Apr. 1690  
5 Nov. 1695Thomas Hillersden  
 William Farrer  
18 Mar. 1698William Spencer vice Hillersden, deceased  
20 July 1698Sir Thomas Alston  
 William Spencer  
c.Jan. 1701Samuel Rolt  
 William Spencer  
21 Nov. 1701William Farrer  
 William Spencer  
17 July 1702William Spencer  
 Edward Carteret  
11 May 1705William Farrer385 
 Sir Philip Monoux, Bt.340 
 Samuel Rolt225 
 William Spencer1513 
15 Dec. 1707William Hillersden vice Monoux, deceased  
5 May 1708William Farrer  
 William Hillersden  
14 Apr. 1710Farrer  re-elected after appointment to office  
6 Oct. 1710John Cater  
 William Farrer  
 Edward Carteret  
27 Aug. 1713John Cater  
 Samuel Rolt  
 William Farrer  

Main Article

The ‘large, populous and thriving’ town of Bedford was encompassed by numerous landed interests, though not entirely dominated by them. ‘There is pretty many gentry about the country near neighbours’, reported Celia Fiennes, ‘and many live in the town.’ The bowling green by the River Ouse was ‘well kept with seats and summer-houses in it for the use of the town and country gentlemen, of which many resort to it’. The parliamentary representation was almost always contested between local squires rather than townsmen, and most of the greater gentry of Bedfordshire were admitted to the rank of burgess of the corporation. Moreover, the recordership was reserved for one or other of the leading aristocratic interests in the county, and each recorder had the right to nominate his deputy, who invariably took an active part in the political life of the borough and in doing so built up an influence of his own there. The other offices in the corporation, however, notably those of mayor and bailiffs, the returning officers, together with the court of aldermen and common council, were controlled by townsmen. The power enjoyed by the common council over the admission of burgesses and freemen conveyed some electoral interest besides the natural authority that substantial merchants and professional men might be expected to exert. Since the Restoration the oligarchic nature of the corporation had been reaffirmed, the essence of which was the distinction between burgesses and freemen. While the freemen participated in the election of the mayor and common council, in the assembly known as common hall, they could only choose from the ranks of the burgesses, and in the case of the mayoralty from two burgess-candidates put forward by the aldermen and common council respectively. The aldermen themselves, bailiffs and recorder were chosen by the court of aldermen. The government of the borough was thus in the hands of a relatively select body of townsmen, and the strength of the corporation interest may explain why Tory parliamentary candidates seem to have stood some chance of success even during periods of Whig domination in the county at large. High Church prejudices were naturally aroused by the presence in the town of Bunyan’s and other Dissenting congregations, while loyalist sentiments had been inculcated in some quarters during the recent ascendancy in borough affairs of the Bruces, earls of Ailesbury. Both nationally and locally, the position of the 2nd Earl of Ailesbury (Thomas Bruce†) had received a hard knock with the Revolution, and in Bedford he had lost the recordership of the corporation to his old rival Paulet St. John†, now Earl of Bolingbroke. That the Tory interest had not been entirely overthrown, however, was evident from the outcome of the election to the Convention, which saw the representation shared between a protégé of Ailesbury’s, the Bedford attorney Thomas Christie, and a connexion of the St. Johns, Thomas Hillersden.4

The outgoing Members both put up for election in 1690, when they were joined by two other former representatives of the town, Sir Anthony Chester, 3rd Bt., a High Church Tory and neighbour of the Bruces, who had sat in King James’s Parliament, and Sir William Francklyn, a vehemently anti-Catholic Exclusionist. Although it would seem reasonable to suppose that Chester partnered Christie and Francklyn Hillersden there is no evidence to support this assumption and it may be that the four candidates stood separately. Francklyn seems to have concentrated his attacks on Christie, and before the poll ‘dispersed several scandalous reports of Mr Christie . . . on purpose to alienate Mr Christie’s friends’. These efforts were clearly unsuccessful, for both sets of surviving figures for the poll, taken by clerks appointed by the mayor, who was on Francklyn’s side, place Christie first and Francklyn himself third, behind Hillersden. All was not yet lost, however, since Francklyn enjoyed the support of two out of the three returning officers, the mayor and one of the bailiffs. After the other bailiff and some of the burgesses had signed an indenture returning Christie and Hillersden, which they deposited with the under-sheriff, the mayor together with the junior bailiff and more burgesses signed a second indenture returning Hillersden and Francklyn, attached this to the precept, which was in the mayor’s possession, and delivered it to the clerk of the crown. When the under-sheriff subsequently arrived at the clerk’s office with his indenture, he at first thought he had been forestalled, but on hearing from the clerk, or so he claimed, that it was not necessary to return precept and indenture together he tore away the precept from the first indenture and added his own, thereby making it a double return. Francklyn’s petition, presented to the House on 29 Mar. 1690, complained only of the under-sheriff tampering with the precept. It was referred to the committee of elections after a close division and then undermined when Christie obtained ‘an order of the committee’ that the merits of the election would be heard at the same time as the merits of the return. Even worse, as far as Francklyn was concerned, the committee at its hearing made no decision on the return but having taken its evidence went straight on to the question of election, confirming that the franchise lay with burgesses, freemen and inhabitant householders ‘not taking the collection’, which Francklyn may have considered disputing, and declaring Christie duly elected. When the committee reported to the House on 12 Apr. Francklyn protested against the decision to hear the merits of the election. He had already refused, in disgust he implied, to instruct counsel or provide materials for his defence on this point. But a motion to recommit the report was rejected by an overwhelming majority on a division and Christie was declared duly elected. Both the under-sheriff and the mayor spent some time in custody for what the House regarded as their ‘misdemeanours’ in the affair.5

This was the last contest in Bedford for 15 years, largely because of the difficulties encountered by the Tory interest in the county at large. Lord Ailesbury’s arrest in 1696 on suspicion of involvement in the Fenwick (Sir John†) plot, and his subsequent exile on the Continent and conversion to Catholicism, were hammer-blows to the Tory cause in Bedfordshire, and until his son Lord Bruce (Charles*) came of age in 1703 and was able to take charge of and reorganize the family estates the party lacked leadership and coherence. The weakening of Tory fortunes that accompanied the eclipse of the Bruce interest was already becoming apparent before Ailesbury’s arrest in 1696. At the general election the previous year neither of the two Tories who had put up in 1690 was willing to stand again, because of age and infirmity. Christie, who had enhanced his local prestige during the Parliament by the diligence with which he had tried to safeguard the economic interests of the borough, received a formal vote of thanks from the corporation for his efforts. On the Whig side, Hillersden had also strengthened his position by his ‘readiness to serve the corporation . . . in Parliament’, and he in contrast was willing to stand again. His partner this time was the deputy recorder, the Whiggish William Farrer, Francklyn having died shortly after the failure of his petition over the 1690 election. Farrer, whose influence in the town was mostly owing to his office, reinforced by the prestige of the St. Johns, represented the borough intermittently throughout the period, generally either accompanied by, or replaced by, a succession of local Whig squires. Evidently Farrer was not well enough entrenched to be able to command a seat for himself. What is not clear is the role of the Russell family in bolstering the Whig ascendancy in Bedford at this time. Money from Woburn was spent in the town to further Whig candidatures in county elections, but there is no proof of Russell involvement in the borough itself until much later. None the less, as successive chieftains of the Whig party in Bedfordshire, the 1st and 2nd Dukes of Bedford could expect at least to be consulted as to proceedings in elections for the town. In Bedford itself the Tory faction began to revive in the first general election of 1701, at which a Tory country gentleman, Samuel Rolt, was, somewhat surprisingly, returned. Although the Whig monopoly was restored at the next two elections, Tory sentiment continued to manifest itself in the corporation. The congratulatory address on the accession of Anne echoed the Queen’s controversial reference in her speech from the throne to her ‘entirely English’ heart, and made a point of praising her ‘zeal’ for the Established Church. Two of Lord Ailesbury’s brothers were admitted burgesses in October 1702, and in December the common council arranged a banquet to celebrate military and naval victories, coupling the feats of the Duke of Marlborough (John Churchill†) with those of the Tory heroes the Duke of Ormond and Sir George Rooke*. This Tory revival culminated in a challenge for the borough representation in 1705, when Rolt again bore the Tory standard. He was helped by a division of the Whig interest between several candidates. William Spencer of Cople, one of the outgoing Members, decided to seek re-election after at first announcing that he would step down; Farrer was coming back to the fray after withdrawing in 1702; and another neighbouring Whig gentleman, Sir Philip Monoux, 3rd Bt., of Wootton, was trying his luck for the first time. There had even been a possibility that Lord Peterborough’s son Lord Mordaunt (John*) would be put up, but this came to nothing. Probably because of Spencer’s uncertainty at the outset, his candidature ended badly and he obtained less than half the number of votes polled for the other two Whigs, who in turn finished comfortably ahead of Rolt. ‘Bribery, menaces and other indirect practices’ on the part of his opponents were considered by Rolt to be the explanation for his own defeat, and he petitioned to this effect on 2 Nov. 1705. The petition, however, went unheard.6

After Farrer and William Hillersden, son and heir of the former Member and also a Whig, had been returned unopposed in 1708, the Tory interest tried again in 1710, in the person of Edward Carteret, a London lawyer from a local family who had previously sat for the borough as a Whig in the 1702 Parliament. Despite the countrywide enthusiasm for Dr Sacheverell, which boosted Tory morale everywhere, the local portents for a Tory candidature in Bedford were not good. The corporation had recently been showing a more Whiggish countenance. Addresses drafted by Farrer had lauded the union with Scotland and the military victories of 1709 respectively, and in November 1709 a sum was voted to enable a more regular observance in the borough of the day of thanksgiving appointed for the successes of the preceding campaigns, which included the battle of Malplaquet. Besides Farrer and Carteret, the other candidate was the Whig John Cater of Kempston. At the election ‘Mr Cater was first elected and Mr Farrer next; Mr Carteret lost it by 44’. A year later, however, came a remarkable turn-around in Bedford politics. On the death of Lord Bolingbroke the aldermen chose Lord Bruce for their new recorder, and he in turn nominated Carteret as his deputy ‘by the recommendation of the loyal interest of the town’. This was followed in 1712 and 1713 by congratulatory addresses on the peace, praising ‘the wise conduct of the present ministry’. They were prepared elsewhere, possibly by Carteret, and accepted readily by the corporation without amendment. Significantly, neither Member of Parliament was willing, or was permitted, to make the presentations to the Queen, which were undertaken in the first case by Carteret and in the second by the mayor, accompanied by Carteret. The 1713 address promised that

in ensuing elections we will exert ourselves to the utmost, that this your ancient borough may be truly represented by such as shall signalize themselves in their loyalty to your Majesty, in their affection for the Protestant succession, in their opposition to faction, and in their zeal for the Church of England as established by law.

For some reason Carteret did not seek to capitalize on his official position by putting up again in 1713, when he could have been assured of the corporation’s support. Rolt was once again the sole Tory candidate, faced by Cater and Farrer. Others had been interested, including an Irish army officer, Brigadier Richard Waring, and Lord Treasurer Oxford (Robert Harley*) had tried unsuccessfully to persuade the lord chief justice, Lord Trevor (Sir Thomas*), the new owner of the Bromham estate on the outskirts of Bedford, to consider putting up his own son for the borough. Despite being the odd man out Rolt was able to defeat Farrer for the second seat, with the help of Lord Bruce, Lord Ashburnham (John*) and the other Tory gentlemen of the county, and with the aid of his own purse. ‘After the election was declared’, reported the Tory Post Boy, ‘there were illuminations all over the town, and a general rejoicing and satisfaction in it, the Whigs excepted, who used their combined interest to hinder . . . [Rolt] being chosen.’ An attempt by Farrer to have the election set aside, on the grounds that Rolt was allegedly unqualified according to the terms of the 1711 Landed Qualification Act, foundered because his petition, presented on 5 Mar. 1714, was never reported. Tory joy was short-lived, however. In November 1714 it was reported that ‘the quarrels in Bedford run very high. The Dissenters have dressed up the Pretender and Dr Sacheverell, and burnt them; and the Tories Ben Hoadly, and burnt him, and coloured the maypole black.’ The Whigs counter-attacked in 1715, led on this occasion by the Russells, and regained both seats, and it was only after the 3rd Duke of Bedford had turned towards the opposition in the late 1720s that the Tories once more made any headway in the borough.7

Author: D. W. Hayton


  • 1. W. A. Speck, Tory and Whig, 125.
  • 2. Separate polls taken by officers appointed by the mayor.
  • 3. Speck, 125.
  • 4. Defoe, Tour ed. Cole, ii. 512; Journeys of Celia Fiennes ed. Morris, 340–1; Bedford Corp. Recs. 22, 67; Beds. Hist. Rec. Soc. xxvi. pp.ix–x; N. Beds. Bor. Council, Bedford bor. recs. B2/3, corp. act bk. 1688–1718, f. 7.
  • 5. The Case of Thomas Christy . . .; CJ, x. 392.
  • 6. Bedford bor. recs. B2/3, ff. 29, 34, 45, 69, 71; Beds. RO, Bedford mss, election acct. 1695; London Gazette, 26–30 Mar. 1702; Bodl. Rawl. lett. 108, f. 134; Add. 70335, memo. by Harley, 7 Feb. 1704–5.
  • 7. Bedford bor. recs. B2/3, ff. 83, 88, 98–99, 111–13, 117; Add. 29599, f. 119; 70200, David Kennedy to Thomas Harley*, 18 Aug. 1713; 70261, Sir Thomas Trevor to [?Ld. Oxford], 19 Aug. 1713; Post Boy, 1–4 Dec. 1711, 29 Aug.-1 Sept. 1713; London Gazette, 10–12 July 1712, 30 May-2 June 1713; VCH Beds. iii. 45; Wilts. RO, Ailesbury mss 1300/1437, Rolt to Ld. Bruce, 27 Aug. 1714; Christ Church, Oxf. Wake mss 5, f. 81; HMC 15th Rep. VII, 217.