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 ‘burgesses’, i.e. freemen

Number of Qualified Electors:


Number of voters:

45-56 in 1690-1702; 32-42 in 1705-131


18 Feb. 1690SIR JOHN ERNLE 
24 Jan. 1695THOMAS BENNET  vice Willoughby, deceased25
 William Daniell20
 Sir Giles Long, Bt.23
25 July 1698RICHARD JONES, Earl of Ranelagh [I]44
 Thomas Bennet28
3 Jan. 1701JOHN JEFFREYS48
 RICHARD JONES,  Earl of Ranelagh [I]33
 Thomas Bennet24
22 Nov. 1701ROBERT YARD 
18 July 1702HON. ROBERT BRUCE42
 Robert Yard28
25 Nov. 1702EDWARD JEFFREYS vice Jeffreys, chose to sit for Breconshire33
 Robert Yard19
11 May 1705EDWARD ASHE34
 Hon. Robert Bruce22
27 Nov. 1705ALGERNON SEYMOUR, Earl of Hertford vice Ashe, chose to sit for Heytesbury33
 Hon. Robert Bruce12
7 May 1708ALGERNON SEYMOUR,  Earl of Hertford31
 John Jeffreys20
10 Dec. 1708SIR EDWARD ERNLE, Bt. vice Ld. Hertford, chose to sit for Northumberland25
 John Jeffreys12
9 Oct. 1710CHARLES BRUCE, Ld. Bruce22
 John Pratt18
 William Grinfield6
 John Jeffreys2
23 Jan. 1712RICHARD JONES vice Charles Bruce, called to the Upper House18
 John Wallop16
26 Aug. 1713HON. ROBERT BRUCE 2 

Main Article

With the former Seymour estates at Tottenham and Savernake, which came into their possession in 1678 on the marriage of the 2nd Earl of Ailesbury (Thomas Bruce†), the Bruce family had acquired the lordship of the manor of Marlborough and a predominant influence over elections there. From at least 1698 onwards this position was under strenuous challenge as the 6th Duke of Somerset, aided by the ‘Whigs and Dissenters’ in the town, and exploiting the cupidity of many leading ‘burgesses’, resurrected a Seymour interest. The two outgoing Tory Members returned in 1690, Sir John Ernle and Sir George Willoughby, presumably enjoyed the backing of Lord Ailesbury, though neither was without some following of his own. It is even possible that Ailesbury did not concern himself at all in the by-election of January 1695, caused by Willoughby’s death, when the contenders were two local Tories, Thomas Bennet and William Daniell. In the next general election of the following November, the Earl supported both these men against a third candidate, the under-age baronet Sir Giles Long. One local historian has dated the revival of party division in the borough to this election. Certainly there is evidence of serious conflict three years later, with the first attested appearance of Somerset in a starring role in Marlborough politics. In May 1698 there was the prospect of a by-election, when Daniell died, but although a writ was ordered no election seems to have taken place. Besides several other interested gentlemen, one of whom was busy spending money, the Whig MP Henry Blaake reported that a ‘Mr Seymour’ considered himself ‘sure of it’ if he deigned to give himself ‘the trouble’ to stand ‘for so small a time’. It is possible, however, given his later involvement in the borough, that this was the Tory Edward Seymour* (later 5th Bt.), the son of Sir Edward, 4th Bt.*, and not a representative of the ducal branch. At the general election itself, Somerset, taking advantage of the disarray that Ailesbury’s implication in Jacobite plotting, arrest and finally exile had wrought among the Bruces, recommended the paymaster-general, Lord Ranelagh, who was chosen with a Wiltshire Whig, William Grinfield, over Bennet, the sole Bruce candidate.3

In January 1701 there was a three-cornered contest: Ranelagh was put up again by Somerset, Bennet by Bruce, and a second Tory, the London merchant John Jeffreys, appears to have stood on his own interest. Jeffreys, who eventually acquired ‘his own house’ in the town, was to be a powerful element in several succeeding elections. At his first attempt, having probably lubricated the electoral machinery with money, he secured all but eight of the votes cast. Bennet’s weakness among the 18 senior burgesses or ‘councillors’ (the governing body of the corporation) cost him the second seat. Only one voted for him. Whether because of this disappointment, or because Bennet was no longer available, the Bruces seem not to have fought the second election of 1701, when Jeffreys and a Somerset nominee, Robert Yard, were returned. However, the survival of a residue of Tory sentiment in the borough was demonstrated in the address of congratulation drawn up on Queen Anne’s accession, and in the 1702 general election Jeffreys and Hon. Robert Bruce, probably standing together, easily defeated Yard. The margin of victory was even greater at the by-election in the following November, John Jeffreys’ nephew Edward polling 14 votes more than Yard. From this point onwards the Bruces took an even closer interest in Marlborough elections, more often than not figuring as candidates themselves. Ailesbury’s son and heir, Lord Bruce, had now assumed charge of the family’s affairs, assisted by his uncle Hon. Robert, and infused a new vigour and determination into their direction. With Somerset’s presence also more intrusive, the two great proprietorial interests gradually came to dominate the constituency. This development was accompanied by a steady decline in the size of the Marlborough electorate, though it is not easy to see if, and how, the two processes were linked. The tightening of the aristocratic grip was, however, frustrated by the continued presence of John Jeffreys, who seems to have been responsible for sowing the seeds of venality in the admittedly fertile ground of the corporation. His ‘lavish proceedings’ in 1705 had the effect of rendering the voters ‘very mercenary’, as Lord Bruce’s agent, Charles Becher, bemoaned. They had, he reported, ‘resolved to serve the highest bidder, for they had no sort of honour and conscience, being now grown as corrupt as any other borough’. A ‘Mr Kimm’ (?Abraham Kimber), subsequently elected as mayor from 1705–6, could, it was thought, be won over permanently, merely by the gift of a dozen bottles of wine and four or six pieces of beef. Worse still, Jeffreys and his supporters among the local Tory gentlemen disrupted a potential accord between the Somerset and Bruce interests. There is evidence that in the council, or ‘magistracy’, as Becher termed it, where Somerset’s faction was strong, considerable support existed for a settlement splitting the representation between Edward Ashe, Somerset’s nominee, and Robert Bruce. But when ‘the gentlemen’, canvassing by ‘all fair and rough means’ for Jeffreys, and trying to take advantage of Tory antipathy to Ashe (grounded on the fact that his father had previously put up as a Whig for knight of the shire), sought promises for two votes instead of one, implying that Jeffreys and Bruce had joined forces, there was a sharp backlash of resentment against Bruce, who had announced, and still claimed, that he could not join with anyone. Ashe, for all that ‘the Church party’ opposed him ‘to a man’, was able to head the poll comfortably, Jeffreys pipping Bruce to second place. Again, the Whigs were strongest and the Bruces weakest among the councillors, all of whom gave a vote to Ashe. The mayor was one of Somerset’s most active adherents. Ashe’s function was openly stated to be that of a caretaker until the Duke’s eldest son, Lord Hertford, reached his majority in the following autumn. Having also been returned for his father’s pocket borough of Heytesbury, Ashe resigned the seat at Marlborough in November 1705, so that Hertford could come in at a by-election held just over a fortnight after his 21st birthday. The campaign had begun in earnest in midsummer, when the inhabitants had been ‘in an uproar almost, buzzing and talking about what a ruggle it would make, and that the town was never put to their trumps so before’. Although Lord Bruce’s men spent large sums, in one instance laying the ‘round price’ of 20 guineas for a ‘sorry piece’ of cambric, and visited each burgess at home, Robert Bruce made little impression, and Hertford registered a crushing victory. Somerset took an absurdly pious view of the proceedings:

It is so sure that they will at the day give it up [he told a fellow Whig], since they have tried all ways to carry it, by threats and bribery, so barefaced that notes was given to go to such a man and he will give 30 guineas for your vote for Bruce, but in vain. Such virtue I have found in the burgesses of this town nowhere to be paralleled.

But he too had shot ‘a fresh volley of golden arrows’ among the voters. An example of ducal electioneering was recounted to Robert Bruce: Somerset had approached a Tory burgess and ‘put him upon setting up a brick-hill, and has promised to take all his bricks off him for building his house. This fellow knows no more of brick-making than a hobby-horse, but upon the Duke’s promise is now erecting a brick-kiln.’ Successes of this kind with individual burgesses, combined with the solid backing of the council, not only secured Hertford’s return in 1705, but made Somerset’s interest appear ‘immovable’ a year later.4

Jeffreys again interfered at the next general election. He had in the meantime plied the burgesses with ‘treats’, and had engaged the assistance of a cabal of the same ‘gentlemen’ who had helped him before, headed, or so Becher suspected, by Sir Edward Seymour, 5th Bt. These Tory squires, whose backing the Bruces had enjoyed in the by-election of November 1705, now deserted within a few weeks of the poll and declared instead for Jeffreys, on the pretext, as explained by Seymour, that Lord Bruce’s uncle Hon. James, who was to replace his brother Robert as candidate, was unlikely to be able to carry the day. Had Lord Bruce himself stood, it would have been a different matter, or so said Seymour: ‘the gentlemen’ would have ‘come in’. But as things were, they had pledged themselves to Jeffreys and were not prepared to revoke their promises to no purpose. In fact they began to ‘make all the interest possible’ against James Bruce. Becher saw it as an ‘underhand’ plot, but endorsed the view of one of his co-adjutors in the borough that the wisest course for Lord Bruce would be not to react to this provocation. Since the Bruces had friends in both other camps, more indeed in Jeffreys’ than Somerset’s, they should ‘stand perfectly neuter’. The loss of ‘the gentlemen’ might not make much difference, since they had been of little help to Robert Bruce earlier. The danger lay in Jeffreys’ head start in canvassing the burgesses, the nomination of James Bruce having arrived late, and in the efficacy of Jeffreys’ wealth. ‘Lavish’ was the most frequent description of electioneering efforts on all sides. High prices were paid for poor quality timber and cloth; one burgess was promised an ensign’s commission for his brother; Somerset’s men obtained another vote by paying off £30 worth of debts. Straight cash transactions also occurred. As polling day neared, Becher wrote of the great ‘confusion’ the town was in. It was not simply a struggle between Jeffreys and James Bruce to be second. Somerset had blundered twice, first by a wholly characteristic flush of arrogance in the preliminary letters of recommendation he sent the corporation, and secondly in proposing as a candidate Sir Edward Ernle, 3rd Bt., ‘who is the most disagreeable person he could have named, for the burgesses ever voted against him for the county’. The final manoeuvres between the three parties are far from clear, but it seems most probable that Somerset had intended to substitute Ernle for Lord Hertford as his sole candidate at a late stage, leaving Hertford to contest the county of Northumberland. The day before the election the Duke entered into a surreptitious agreement with the Bruces, and when this came to light and Jeffreys’ ‘friends’ threatened retribution, he dropped Ernle, reinstated Hertford and asked his own supporters to plump. The gains the Bruces made among the councillors this time may reflect the agreement with Somerset, or the vigorous backing they had enjoyed from the mayor, who had given a treat on James Bruce’s behalf and had ordered all his officers to poll for him ‘or clear out’. In explaining to Ernle’s father-in-law why he had acted as he did, Somerset did not categorically deny that he had been ‘in concert with Mr Bruce’, but only called the report ‘unlucky’, while a letter in the Ailesbury papers points to its having been true. The outcome was that James Bruce was able to squeeze out Jeffreys, and at the by-election in December, after Hertford had opted for Northumberland, Jeffreys was soundly beaten once more, by Ernle. Somerset had learned the lessons of the general election, and had come to Marlborough in good time to direct operations on Ernle’s behalf, against the ‘corrupt practices’ of Jeffreys, who was leaving ‘no stone untried’ and ‘bribing high’. This ended in Jeffreys’ worst showing yet in the borough, and an unalloyed triumph for the Duke. Perhaps significantly, the Bruces had stood aside from the contest.5

The popularity in Marlborough of Dr Sacheverell, who had paid a visit to the town, his birthplace, in the preceding summer, may have been substantially responsible for the sharp reverse suffered by Somerset in the 1710 election. Soon after the trial the Duke’s local agents had endeavoured to dissociate their master from the impeachment. His candidate in 1710, however, was Serjeant John Pratt, who had refused a defence brief for Sacheverell, and on that score, according to Dyer, was ‘upbraided and ill-treated by the people . . . and rejected by them with scorn, though hitherto they had always paid his grace the compliment to elect one burgess that he named’. As before, the Bruces were stronger among the ‘burgesses’ at large than among the seven councillors, only one of whom gave a vote both to Lord Bruce, standing for the first time himself at Marlborough, and his uncle Robert. Another important factor was the absence of a Whig partner for Pratt. There were other independent candidates, the maverick Whig William Grinfield, and John Jeffreys, making his last effort, but their candidacies had little impact. Thus the fact that eight votes were split between Pratt and one or other of his main rivals may have been critical in losing him the election: only two councillors plumped for him.6

After his defeat Pratt petitioned, charging the Bruces with various ‘illegal practices’, but, presumably in view of the Tories’ ascendancy in the Commons, the petition was dropped. Attention focused instead on the corporation itself, where a struggle was developing between the Tory majority among the burgesses and a controlling Whig oligarchy of councillors, headed by the current mayor, Roger Williams, a long-time ally of Somerset. According to an Elizabethan bye-law, the mayor was chosen from three candidates pre-selected by the council. Prior to the mayoral election of August 1711 Williams recruited two more Whigs to vacancies as councillors, giving his faction a majority of seven to one. Three safe Whig candidates were then selected, two men-of-straw and Williams’ right-hand man, John Horner. The burgesses, however, primed by Lord Bruce’s money, gave their votes by a ratio of three to one to the Tory councillor, Abraham Kimber, who was thus elected by a clear margin, only to be disqualified by Williams as an illegal candidate. Despite vigorous Tory protests Horner was installed as mayor, and other Whigs were placed in the offices of bailiffs and serjeants. Kimber’s moral victory none the less boded ill for Somerset’s prospects at the parliamentary by-election in January 1712, following Lord Bruce’s elevation to the peerage. The Duke had difficulty in finding a candidate. He first contacted Paul Methuen, recently unseated on petition at Devizes, promising a good chance of success, although at the same time adjuring both secrecy and, should Methuen accept, his personal attendance at the election. When Methuen declined, Somerset’s nomination eventually descended upon John Wallop† of Hurstbourne Park in Hampshire, a well-connected young Whig but not a very happy choice. Somerset made his customary approaches to voters. Becher recorded one incident in which the Duke had ‘offered Solomon Clarke a pension of £20 per annum for his life and his wife’s, and to make him porter of Sion House besides, but Clarke rejected the offer and vowed he would not serve him if he would give him the Castle and Barton farm’. None of the inducements on offer, including up to £100 in cash, tempted the Tory burgesses, most of whom had voted for Kimber in the mayoral election only months or so before. At the poll the skeletons in Wallop’s family cupboard were rattled. His grandfather had been

one of King Charles’ judges, and condemned to be drawn once a year on a hurdle to Tyburn during his life, and was so drawn in the year 1661, and to prove it Edward Jones produced an almanac wherein it is remarked so, and read it in open court, which caused great laughter.

The Bruce candidate, Tory country gentleman Richard Jones, himself a late replacement, narrowly won the day in the lowest poll recorded in Marlborough in this period. Afterwards Becher observed that ‘the Whigs and Dissenters droop strangely upon this election, since all their pains (which were prodigious) succeeded so ill’. The next mayoral election would be crucial to the balance of power in the borough, since the Whigs intended, if successful, to admit enough new burgesses of their own persuasion to turn the scale against the Bruces and, if possible, secure Somerset’s interest for the foreseeable future. To prevent this the Tories, advised by Lord Bruce, sought to repeal the bye-law restricting the nomination of candidates, so that they might ‘choose a mayor out of the burgesses’, where their strength lay. In June 1712, therefore, at a ‘court of morrow speech’, Kimber proposed an appropriate order and the 18 Tory burgesses who had supported Jones in the January by-election voted it through in the teeth of the efforts of Williams and his Whig friends. They were able to follow this up with an address of thanks to the Queen for communicating the peace terms, which provoked in Williams ‘a violent passion’ and much ‘ill language’. At this stage the Whigs did not dispute the legality of the repeal, and the 1712 mayoral election was conducted according to the new arrangements, Somerset putting his faith in traditional tactics. Becher found on arrival in Marlborough that

the Duke himself had been driving very high bargains with the burgesses for the next mayor and Parliament men, and advised them to submit all differences to him as the fittest person to set them right, intimating as if the affairs of this corporation properly belonged to him to determine, and told them if they did not take care to oblige him this time, he would never come among them more, and bid them mind that. He offered Mr Meggs to become his servant in the nature of a surveyor, and to settle £40 per annum upon him and his wife for their lives and to make his place worth £40 a year more to him. To John Clarke he promised to put him into a place in the Bluecoat Hospital worth £50 or £60 per annum to pay his debts and employ him in all his business at his farms. This not prevailing, he offered Clarke £200 ready money. To Solomon Clarke he proposed settling £20 per annum on him and his wife for life, to give him £30 in hand, and to lend him more to increase his present stock of wire for pin-making, to merchandise and to take off all the pins he should make and pay his debts. To William Garlick he offered what ready money he would ask and to pay all his debts.

Another report held that Somerset ‘declares publicly he will give £50 a man’ to anyone that would come over to him from the Bruce interest, and that ‘he has actually given John Smith £100 down, and engaged to be at the charge of educating a son of Smith’s of seven years old at school and at the university, and to present him to a good living when he is capable of it’. The Post Boy claimed that ‘so great was the honesty and loyalty of the magistrates, that they scorned to be bribed out of their liberties, by base contrivances’, but in fact the Bruces were counter-bribing with equal ferocity, holding out promises of money and places. ‘We have got Flurry Bowshire for 40 guineas (which he owed the Duke)’, exulted Becher, ‘and Richard Rogers for £13, and £8 more in case his bailiff’s salary be not paid, both of which are much cheaper than John Smith’. Becher took care to get the best legal advice he could, which was to put up the councillor Kimber rather than a mere burgess, as ‘less liable to objection and dispute in case of a new trial’, and on another point, that three Tories who had refused the Abjuration ‘are good burgesses and votes notwithstanding’: they, however, were to be kept in reserve. Fortunately they were not needed, as Kimber defeated the Whig councillor Edney by four votes. All the council, bar the candidates themselves, voted for Edney. ‘I never saw more rejoicing in all my life’, wrote Becher, ‘than all the Church party showed at carrying this point, when they were so violently attacked. It is hardly possible to express the Duke’s passion or credit his extravagant expressions if report does not bespatter him.’ Somerset’s slightly more considered reaction was to ‘give out as if this election of Kimber will be adjudged as it was before, of no validity, because he was not one of the three nominated for election’. To this end Williams and the other Whig councillors seceded from the corporation, carrying with them one of the town seals. They appear to have played no part in corporation business until the mayoral election the following year. Taking place on 14 Aug. 1713, this was a dry run for the forthcoming parliamentary election. With Somerset and his ‘party’ remaining mysterious and ‘very private’ about their intentions, Becher had first to cope with a ‘little mutiny’ among the Tory burgesses, some of whom were clearly hoping to extort more than they already had from Lord Bruce. Having informed them that, in the general election, ‘your lordship intended to recommend two gentlemen to them, whereof Mr Bruce would be one, and the other your lordship was not yet ready to name’, Becher was faced with a display of pique: ‘Thomas Hunt and Ed[ward] Jones said this looked like the usage the Duke used to give them, not to let them know the man till the day before the election.’ He managed to persuade all except two to pledge both votes. Of the unconvinced pair, he later wrote:

I had a long discourse with them and patiently heard all their frivolous and shameful reflections and expectations of the woodwards’ and keepers’ places which they thought was the least your lordship could do for them that was offered better places by the Duke as they pretend. It would be endless to recite all that passed in their haughty corporation style. I urged how handsomely they had been qualified, and would always be so; how they had engaged their hands and words to stand by your lordship, etc. They made slight of all, and regarded no ties of honour, gratitude, oaths or promises. At least I brought them to promise one vote absolute, and to traffic for the other, and not to engage it from your lordship till we met again.

The mayoral election, however, settled everything. After Edney, the defeated Whig in 1712, had claimed the right to act as mayor and been ‘forbidden’ by the body of the burgesses, he and his six fellow Whig councillors, and a further six burgesses, walked out of the hall to stage their own election elsewhere, choosing Roger Williams. Kimber and the 17 Tory burgesses stayed behind and elected the burgess ‘Wat’ Shropshire. So wide was the disparity between the two sides in terms of votes, however, and so weak was the Whig case against the legality of Shropshire’s election, especially in the discouraging conditions presented by the national political scene, that Somerset did not propose candidates in the parliamentary election, and Williams did not make any return. Lord Bruce’s nominees were elected unopposed. Richard Jones having quarrelled with his former patron about a demand for a contribution to expenses at his election in 1712, to such an extent that for a while he had ‘talked very Whiggishly’ and even entertained Roger Williams at his home, possibly with a view to standing with Somerset’s endorsement, the second candidate was an outsider, Gabriel Roberts, an associate of the Bruces from Bedfordshire. Even in these circumstances Becher was obliged to pay out money to Marlborough burgesses, nearly £100 in all, and £40 of it to the perennially expensive Flurry Bowshire. The dispute in the corporation dragged on, with rival elections and an unsuccessful Whig quo warranto against Shropshire, until a compromise settlement in 1715, which eventually resulted in the division of the borough between the Seymours and Bruces.7

Author: D. W. Hayton


  • 1. Wilts. RO, Marlborough ct. bks. 1684-1721, G22/124-5, pp. 27-28.
  • 2. Marlborough ct. bks. 1684-1721, G22/1/24, p. 104; G22/1/25, pp. 48, 50, 59, 82; G22/1/27, pp. 64-65; G22/1/28, pp. 4-5; A.R. Stedman, Marlborough and the Upper Kennet Country, 160-5.
  • 3. Stedman, 160, 201–2, 205; Wilts. Arch. Mag. xlvi. 70; CSP Dom. 1698, p. 368.
  • 4. Stedman, 160–2; Marlborough ct. bks. 1684–1721, G22/1/25, pp. 40–41; Wilts. RO, Ailesbury mss 1300/1020, 1050/1, 1310–11, 1315–17, 1322, 1325, 1331, 1334, 1336, Robert to Ld. Bruce, [22 Sept. 1710], Edward Seymour to same, 13 July, 10 Nov. 1705, Becher to same, 2 Mar., 12 Apr., 25 Aug., 13 Sept., 3 Nov. 1705, 12 Dec. 1706, same to Robert Bruce, 23 May, 24 Oct. ‘Saturday morning’ [Nov.], 22 Nov. 1705; R. Walcott, Pol. Early 18th Cent. 207; London Gazette, 2–6 Apr. 1702; HMC 15th Rep. VII, 189–90, 195–6; Herts. RO, Panshanger mss D/EP F56, ff. 66–67.
  • 5. Ailesbury mss 1300/1336, 1342–3, 1345–6, 1348–9, Becher to Ld. Bruce, 25, 26 Apr., ‘Thursday night’ [28 Apr.], 6 May, ‘Sunday night’ [May], 30 Nov. 1708; HMC 15th Rep. VII, 200; Stedman, 162–3; Churchill Coll. Camb. Erle mss, Somerset to Thomas Erle*, 9 May 1708; Walpole mss at Wolterton Hall, Somerset to Robert Walpole II*, 8 Sept., 5, 9 Dec. 1708.
  • 6. G. Holmes, Trial of Sacheverell, 4, 248, 253; Ailesbury mss 1300/1433, F. Perry to [?Becher], 17 Apr. 1710; Stedman, 163; Add. 70421, newsletter 14 Oct. 1710.
  • 7. Stedman, 164–71; J. Waylen, Hist. Marlborough, 352–6; HMC 15th Rep. VII, 204, 206–11, 213; G. Holmes, Pol. in Age of Anne, 320; W. A. Speck, Tory and Whig, 57; Methuen mss at Corsham Court, Somerset to [Methuen], 7, 9 Jan. 1712; Beaufort mss at Badminton House, Becher to Ld. Bruce, 23 Jan. 1711[–12]; London Gazette, 3–5 July 1712; Add. 19773, ff. 185–95; Post Boy, 21–23 Aug. 1712; Marlborough ct. bks. 1684–1721, G22/1/28, pp. 4–5.