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 inhabitants paying scot and lot 1690-1702; in inhabitants not receiving alms after 1702

Number of Qualified Electors:


Number of voters:

about 130


22 Feb. 1690SIR EDWARD WYNDHAM, Bt. 
 Sir Francis Wyndham,  Bt. 
 Edward Allen 
21 July 1702SIR FRANCIS WYNDHAM,  Bt.72
 John Webb66
 Giles Hayne28
 William Bellamy61
12 Oct. 1710SAMUEL MASHAM 
2 June 1711SIR JAMES BATEMAN vice Masham, appointed to office 
26 June 1711PHELIPS re-elected after appointment to office 

Main Article

Ilchester, despite its unprepossessing appearance, was an important political focus in Somerset, being the local field of influence of several of the county’s most prominent families, and also the venue for the election of knights of the shire. Four miles to the south was Montacute, belonging to the Phelipses, who had dominated the borough for much of the 17th century and had held the office of high steward on almost a hereditary basis. Second to them were the Wyndhams who, though based at Orchard Wyndham on the western side of the county, had established a primary interest in Ilchester from the mid-1680s. Also well established in the area was the aristocratic Poulett family of Hinton St. George, though the electoral involvement in the borough of the 4th Lord (later 1st Earl) Poulett did not begin until the end of the 1690s. The borough franchise, over which there had been some residual uncertainty, had been clarified as a result of the disputed election case of 1689 as vested in the inhabitants paying scot and lot, but evidence given at a further hearing in 1703 suggested that it had since become accepted that all the inhabitants might vote except those receiving alms.

In 1690 the Tory Sir Edward Wyndham, 2nd Bt., was returned with John Hunt of Compton Pauncefoot. Hunt had represented Milborne Port since 1677, but took the Ilchester seat at the request of William Helyar†, who, though returned there in 1689, was not seeking re-election. Hunt probably benefited from support from the outgoing Member, Sir Edward Phelips, and both Hunt and Wyndham were returned without challenge. The death of Wyndham in June 1695 created the need for a new candidate to be found for the general election in October. Just a few days before the election, one of Robert Harley’s* informants noted the expectation that Phelips would resume his seat, either with Sir Francis Warre, 1st Bt.*, or Hunt, or whomever else he chose to nominate. But in fact Phelips declined to stand anywhere during this election, though he did give his support to Hunt for the other seat. Phelips seems to have declared his final intentions almost at the last minute, and in his stead nominated one of the late Sir Edward Wyndham’s distant kinsmen, Sir Francis Wyndham, 3rd Bt. In 1698 Hunt was put up for the county, leaving room for Phelips’ brother John to be returned at Ilchester with Sir Francis Wyndham.2

The death of Sir Edward Phelips in April 1699 was the signal for a revolt in the borough, led by one of the corporation, John Burford, against the influence of the Phelips family. The usual deference paid to the senior representative of the family, of choosing him as high steward, was denied to Sir Edward’s brother, William Phelips, inducing their brother John, the sitting Member, to protest to the corporation in the strongest terms. He later explained to William that he had done so

upon a just resentment of the many reflections and affronts they have put upon our family of late to Sir Edward Phelips and yourself in not choosing you their high steward (but to fill the place with a shopkeeper and no friend to government), which had been in our family for so many generations as great-grandfather, grandfather, father and brother, and this done by Burford . . . who with others were very busy to stir up another interest against you in that county and some of these could say they had been so long under the government of our family. For my part, to myself . . . they have done nothing, only some slights the last winter when their worthy steward and bailiff were in town, but these I regarded not, but am glad to know them. For my part, I am still of opinion that our family have suffered not a little upon the account of courting little people and not showing just and honourable resentments when affronted, which I am sure you will never be guilty of, so I do assure you that I never have been or will be.

The situation was complicated by a bitter family feud which had developed between John Phelips and Sir Edward’s widow, apparently over the question of the occupancy of the extensive Montacute estate. Although the estate had been devised for eventual inheritance by Phelips’ son Edward, who had lately married one of Sir Edward’s daughters, Lady Phelips appears to have refused to allow her daughter and son-in-law to take up residence there. Burford’s faction, in league with Lady Phelips, tried to exploit this difference by offering to return John Phelips’ eldest son at the next election. John Phelips was convinced that ‘it’s their way and their design to divide the family, for can anyone with common prudence believe that they can affront the uncles and design an honour to him?’ He sternly warned his son, a student at Lincoln’s Inn, against accepting the offer, and the advice was taken. The vacuum thus temporarily created by the collapse of the Phelips interest was quickly filled first by Poulett, leader of the local Tories, who now began to play a more active role at Ilchester, and by the operation of money.3

These changes were apparent in the first election of 1701. Sir Francis Wyndham stood for re-election, but for the first time two outsiders put up under the auspices of the New East India Company, who under Samuel Shepheard I’s* lead were promoting candidates in a number of boroughs. At Ilchester the Company’s candidates were Edward Allen, one of its directors, and James Anderton, a lawyer and duchy of Lancaster official from Wigan, whose wife had family connexions at nearby Yeovil. Poulett put up his kinsman, Sir Philip Sydenham, 3rd Bt. The campaign was conducted amid considerable and flagrant bribery, at the end of which Anderton and Sydenham were returned. Wyndham duly petitioned against Anderton. The election and Wyndham’s petition provoked an embittered John Phelips to observe to his brother: ‘as for bribers and receivers of bribes, I hope they will meet their due deserts and then Tyburn . . . for I find somebody was to have 50 guineas rightly to dispose of, and place 240 guineas; . . . Mr Shepheard is much talked of and if what is said be true his money was at Ilchester.’ Although the petition itself was not separately reported upon, Ilchester featured glaringly in the proceedings on 15 Mar. relating to Shepheard’s overall role in the election. The House acquitted Shepheard of any direct involvement in this particular borough but resolutions were passed pronouncing Allen guilty of ‘notorious bribery’ and ordering him into custody. No contest occurred in November 1701. Sydenham’s transfer to the county enabled Wyndham to regain his seat, and Anderton was returned a second time, having made promises, it was later claimed, of two or three guineas a vote.4

Wyndham and Anderton stood for re-election in 1702, but Anderton, a Tory, was challenged by John Webb, a local landowner, whose estate at Butleigh was some nine miles from the borough. Webb was well supported by Burford, leader of the main corporation faction in the town, probably because he was prepared to bribe openly, whereas Anderton’s promises of payment in the previous two elections had not always been honoured. However, Webb, despite achieving a superiority of votes, was not returned. Both he and his agent Burford lodged petitions alleging partiality on the part of the bailiff, the returning officer, who before the election had declared he would return Anderton even ‘if he had but five votes’. In the election committee’s proceedings, as reported on 28 Jan. 1703, both sides agreed the franchise to be in the inhabitants not receiving alms despite the ruling of 1689. Webb’s counsel claimed that he had not been represented at the scrutiny, and pursued allegations that the bailiff had been offered £100 to return Anderton. On the other side it was maintained that Burford, on Webb’s behalf, had indulged in the wholesale and unashamed purchasing of votes, and that many of these had been afterwards subtracted from the voting figures. The House concurred with the committee, finding for Anderton, while Webb and his two agents, including Burford, were found guilty of ‘notorious bribery’ and ordered into custody. In spite of this outcome, the bailiff, too, was voted guilty of ‘arbitrary and illegal proceedings’ for his transparent partiality towards Anderton. The same day Edward Phelips, whose father John had died the previous year, lamented to his uncle William upon the family’s predicament at Ilchester:

I am even as sensible of, and afflicted at, the present mean condition of the place of our ancestors and would set about nothing more willingly than the endeavouring a reformation there. If you now, or at any time will be pleased to propose an expedient, it should be religiously pursued by me as long as I live.

Despite his disgrace, Webb was successful at the 1705 election, both he and Edward Strode, Poulett’s candidate, being returned unopposed. Strode, like Webb, was a Whig, but unlike him, was a committed government supporter, which explains the backing he received from Poulett who, as a Court Tory, found himself challenged elsewhere in the county by the High Tories and Tackers.5

It took until the election of 1708 for the Phelips family to recover its former electoral footing in the borough. Edward Phelips may well have been assisted in this by Poulett, whose own candidate was another Tory, James Johnston, the husband of Poulett’s aunt. There was opposition of sorts from two Whigs, William Bellamy†, a London lawyer, and Giles Hayne, a senior alderman of the town, both of whom were also challenging a well-entrenched interest at Milborne Port, but in both towns they were unsuccessful. They petitioned alleging bribery, but before the hearing at the bar, Bellamy’s withdrawal of his petition closed the case. In 1710 Phelips was returned with another of Poulett’s candidates, Samuel Masham, a Tory and husband of the Queen’s favourite. In 1711 when Poulett heard that Masham was to be made cofferer of the Household, thereby necessitating a by-election at Ilchester, he wrote to Harley asking:

If you intend to give Mr Phelips anything I beg it may be at the same time that the Queen’s favour is declared for Mr Masham because it will be all one trouble in another election, and though you choose Mr Masham at Windsor at the same time, it will make a new election at Ilchester . . . I have nobody to propose for Ilchester and therefore hope you will appoint one there in Mr Masham’s stead. My managers of that business are now in town, so if you can think of any before next post I beg you would let me know.

Masham did indeed transfer to Windsor after his appointment, allowing Poulett to bring in, at Harley’s request, Sir James Bateman, a London financier, who, despite being a Whig, was a leading collaborator with the Harley ministry’s financial policies. In the event, Phelips was appointed to office in June 1711, securing an unopposed return at the ensuing by-election. Late in 1712 some attempt was made, in which the 2nd Duke of Beaufort was involved, to persuade Poulett to lay aside Bateman on the grounds that he was ‘a stranger and not at all liked by the gentlemen of the county’. Bateman, however, was far too useful to the ministry to be offended by being denied his seat, and accordingly local misgivings were surmounted.6

Authors: Paula Watson / Andrew A. Hanham


  • 1. Post Man, 13–15 May 1708.
  • 2. Bodl. Ballard 38, f. 126; Add. 70018, ff. 94–95; 28883, f. 70.
  • 3. Som. RO, Phelips mss DD/PH 224/61, John to William Phelips, n.d. [1700].
  • 4. Ibid. DD/PH229/24(c), John to William Phelips, 22 Feb. 1700–1; W. A. Speck, Tory and Whig, 54; Cumbria RO (Carlisle), Lowther mss D/Lons/W2/2/4, James* to Sir John Lowther, 2nd Bt. I*, 15 Mar. 1700[–1].
  • 5. Phelips mss DD/PH229/25, Edward to William Phelips, 28 Jan. 1702[–3].
  • 6. Add. 70252 (unfol.) Poulett to Harley, 24 Apr., [4 June] 1711; Beaufort mss at Badminton House, Beaufort to Poulett, 10 Nov. 1712.