ASTLEY, Jacob Henry (1756-1817), of Melton Constable, Norf.

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



15 Nov. 1797 - 1806
4 Mar. 1807 - 28 Apr. 1817

Family and Education

b. 12 Sept. 1756, 3rd but 1st surv. s. of Sir Edward Astley, 4th Bt., of Melton Constable by Rhoda, da. of Francis Blake Delaval of Seaton Delaval, Northumb. educ. Westminster 1765-74;1 Trinity Coll. Camb. 1776. m. 14 Jan. 1789, Hester, da. and coh. of Samuel Browne of King’s Lynn, Norf., 3s. 6da. suc. fa. as 5th Bt. 27 Mar. 1802; uncle Edward Hussey Delaval in Northumb. estates 1814.

Offices Held

Capt. E. Norf. militia 1780-94; lt.-col. Norf. fencible cav. 1794-9.


The Astleys were an ancient Norfolk family who had often represented the county. Astley’s son Jacob told Lord Melbourne in 1838, in applying for a peerage, that his family had contested the county 18 times since the Restoration and come in ten times unopposed.2 Astley’s father gave up his county seat in 1790 after 22 years’ tenure, rather than face a contest; he was an independent who deserted Pitt before the Regency crisis and concurred, by 1796, with Whig opposition to the war with France.3Jacob Astley, then on military duty in Scotland, was ‘announced by his Mamma’ as a candidate for the county on the elevation to the peerage of Sir John Wodehouse in 1797. While he relied on his family’s record and professions of independence in public, he was known to be the instrument of Thomas William Coke’s ambition to secure a Whig monopoly of the county representation. He could not afford a contest, though he was offered financial help by Coke, who proposed a subscription. Wodehouse threatened to refuse the peerage rather than let Astley in on these terms, but he was first in the field and there was no opposition to him. John Frere* wrote, ‘I fear we shall be disgraced by having that oaf Astley forced upon us’. When pressed as to his politics:

this, he apprehended, they had no right to demand of him, as he had made no promise, signed no test, but would always be guided in his parliamentary duty, by the dictates of his own conscience. How could he prove his attachment to the Constitution by committing himself to any particular persons?4

Suspicions of his Whig inclinations proved to be not unfounded, for although one commentator could write in 1802 that Astley’s ‘political character has not yet been marked by any decided political conduct’, Coke admitted that ‘a most desirable unison’ of ‘sentiments and opinions’ had existed between them since Astley came into Parliament. Astley deemed it prudent to allege that he had ‘never in his life had any political conversation’ with Coke and was ‘widely independent in his public duty’.5 Yet he voted against Pitt’s assessed taxes and land tax redemption, 14 Dec. 1797, 4 Jan., 9 May 1798, against the refusal to negotiate peace, 3 Feb. 1800, and for Grey’s censure motion, 25 Mar. 1801.

The contested election of 1802 was directed against Astley, who was vilified as a son, husband and landlord. He subsequently obtained damages of £2,000 (he claimed £10,000) for a libel that he was ‘a liar, a coward, an assassin, a scoundrel, a murderer; and he murdered his own father’; counsel for the defence asserted that Astley’s father maintained that his son’s misconduct and unkindness had broken his heart. His wife denied on the hustings that he beat her. In reply to the charge of ‘general inefficiency in a public station’, Astley admitted that he found it difficult to speak his mind in public.

His return in 1802 was secured by Coke’s assistance.6 He did not appear in the minorities against Addington’s administration. He voted with them on the Prince of Wales’s finances, 4 Mar., and his first known speech was against Pitt, 3 June 1803. On 15 Feb. 1804 he presented a county petition against the malt duties and on 20 Mar. moved for statistics on the malt trade. On Pitt’s return to power, he and Coke had an interview with him on the corn bill and were well received.7 He was nevertheless an opponent of that ministry on the additional force bill in June 1804 and 6 Mar. 1805 and was listed as a Foxite in opposition. He voted for the censure and criminal prosecution of Melville, 8 Apr., 12 June 1805.

Astley voted in support of the Grenville ministry’s repeal of the Additional Force Act, 30 Apr. 1806. By June he thought their support was declining and seemed to blame William Windham’s vagaries. In August 1806, faced with another contest, Astley withdrew and gave his interest to Windham, subscribing £2,000 to the Whig election fund. His son later claimed that he was promised a peerage in return, though this was denied at the time.8 When Coke and Windham were unseated on petition, Astley ‘lent’ himself ‘to the wishes of the county, and rescued them from the difficulties in which they were placed’, by standing as a substitute for Windham. When in April 1807 Windham tried to secure Astley’s withdrawal in his favour at the impending election, he found that Astley did not feel himself ‘at liberty to recede’.9 In alliance with Coke, he was apparently safe for life.

Having resumed his seat in the last weeks of the Grenville administration, Astley paired in favour of Brand’s motion following their dismissal, 9 Apr. 1807, but, taking two leaves of absence in 1808, did not again appear in the Whig minority lists until 21 Feb. 1809, when he voted against the convention of Cintra. On 17 Mar. he joined the minority twice on the misconduct of the Duke of York; on 1 May voted with them on the Dutch commissioners and on 11 May for Madocks’s motion against ministerial corruption. On 30 Mar. 1810 he voted for the censure on the Scheldt expedition and on 5 Apr. opposed the motion to commit Burdett to the Tower. The Whigs had lately listed him among their adherents. On 30 May he voted for Tierney’s motion on the droits of Admiralty and against the government on the Regency proceedings, 29 Nov., 1, 21 Jan 1811. His next known minority vote, 14 Apr. 1812, was against McMahon’s appointment as private secretary to the Regent and on 4 May he supported the sinecure offices bill. On 24 Apr. 1812 and throughout 1813 he favoured the Catholic claims. He opposed the vice-chancellor bill, 11 Feb. 1813, and supported the sinecure regulation bill, 29 Mar. No minority vote is known after the session of 1813, when he was a member of the select committee on the corn trade. He took leaves of absence for illness, 28 Apr. and 24 May 1815 and again on 7 Mar. and 24 Apr. 1816.

Unlike his father, Astley was nervous and suspicious, ‘forever worrying about his reputation, his support in the county and the techniques by which he might retain it’.10 He died 28 Apr. 1817.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Authors: M. H. Port / R. G. Thorne


  • 1. Harrow School Reg. claims him 1770-1.
  • 2. Ld. Hastings, Astley of Melton Constable; Panshanger mss.
  • 3. Add. 37908, f. 137.
  • 4. Morning Chron. 25 Sept. 1797; Norf. RO, Hammond mss, Astley to Hamond, 15, 16 Sept., election addresses 19, 22, 24 Sept., Salmon to Hamond, 18 Oct., Coke to same, Tues. [3 Oct. 1797]; Add. 19114, f. 4; Norf. Chron. 18 Nov. 1797.
  • 5. The Copy of the Poll (1802), 2, 12, 39.
  • 6. Add. 41854, f. 315; Bury and Norwich Post, 21 July; Hamond mss, Astley to Hamond, 27, 31 May, 13 June; Norf. Chron. 24 July 1802; The Copy of the Poll, 7-8, 31; Narrative of a trial between Sir J. H. Astley and Col. W. T. Harwood (22 Mar. 1803); Bucks. RO, Hobart mss H99.
  • 7. The Times, 8 Mar. 1803; Farington, ii. 251-2.
  • 8. Farington, iii. 246; The Copy of the Poll (1806), 6-8; HMC Fortescue, viii. 291; Add. 37908, f. 352; Norf. RO, Colman Lib. mss 632, Amyot to Browne, 30 Apr. 1807.
  • 9. Add. 37886, ff. 235, 272.
  • 10. B. D. Hayes, ‘Pols. in Norf. 1750-1832’ (Camb. Univ. Ph.D. thesis, 1957), 347.