Available from Cambridge University Press
Right of Election:
in the burgesses and commonalty
Number of voters:
15 between 1614 and 1626
|27 Feb. 1604||SIR ROBERT MELLER|
|c. Mar. 1614||SIR WILLIAM BAMPFIELD|
|21 Dec. 1620||JOHN STRODE|
|JOHN BROWNE II|
|23 Jan. 1624||ROBERT BROWNE|
|3 May 1625||(SIR) JOHN STRODE|
|SIR LEWIS DYVE|
|12 Jan. 1626||SIR LEWIS DYVE|
|SIR RICHARD STRODE|
|5 Mar. 1628||FRANCIS DRAKE|
|JOHN BROWNE II|
|5 Apr. 1628||Election declared void, 12 Apr. 1628|
|22 Apr. 1628||THOMAS POWLETT|
Bridport received its first charter in 1253, and was represented in the Model Parliament. Cordage and linen thread formed the town’s staple products, and the Act of 1529 requiring local farmers to sell all their hemp there was among the statutes renewed in 1624 and 1628. Though Bridport hosted the Dorset quarter sessions until its incorporation in 1619, and was home to nearly 1,500 communicants, its houses were ‘more old than fair’, and its harbour ‘altogether choked with the sands’ by the early seventeenth century.1 The franchise was vested in the burgesses and commonalty. Judging from a leet book of 1638, the potential voters may have numbered over 400. However, between 1614 and 1626 elections were monopolized by the chief burgesses or corporation, a body of just 15 men. Parliamentary returns were made by the two bailiffs ‘with the whole assent and consent of the burgesses’.2
The borough’s principal electoral patron was Sir George Trenchard† of Wolveton, one of Dorset’s leading gentlemen, who secured at least one seat in every election during this period. His nominee in 1604 was his step-sister’s husband, Sir Robert Meller. The second place went to John Pitt, the only townsman returned in the early seventeenth century. Over 40 of the commonalty participated in this election, apparently because Pitt required parliamentary wages from the borough. At the opening of the second session of 1610 it was claimed that one of the Bridport Members was incurably sick. However, the motion for a new writ was defeated on 24 Oct., and it is not known whether Meller or Pitt was the anonymous invalid. Both men lived on for a number of years.3 In 1614 the borough elected Trenchard’s brother-in-law, Sir William Bampfield, who was partnered by John Jeffery, the younger brother of a local gentleman.4
Over the next few years religion began to play a significant role in Bridport politics. By 1613 a flourishing conventicle, attracting over 100 worshippers, had been established there under the spiritual guidance of John Traske, ‘a young, hot-headed and excommunicated minister’, and John Sacheverell, ‘a young schoolmaster and preacher of the same sect or opinion’. Lay leadership was provided by a feltmaker called Robert Millar, who by sheer force of character achieved a dominant position in the borough.5 It was later alleged that ‘Millar, whiles he lived, bore the greatest sway of any in the said town of Bridport’, and that ‘he and his friends most prevailed in electing [as] the bailiffs of the said town [such] as best pleased him’. It was Millar who obtained the incorporation of the borough in 1619 at a cost of £150, more than twice the sum he was authorized to spend. In the new charter the town clerk and four ex-bailiffs were dropped from the council, and of the 15 ‘capital burgesses’, who formed a self-perpetuating body, ten were members of Traske’s congregation. Controversially, the charter also permitted the bailiffs to act as justices of the peace within the borough, on the grounds that there were no county magistrates resident in the neighbourhood. John Strode, Sacheverell’s ecclesiastical patron, had already been appointed recorder in 1618, and now retained this position.6
At the election of December 1620, Strode himself took the first seat, while the second went to Trenchard’s son-in-law, John Browne. In 1624 Sir George secured the nomination of both burgess-ships, his choice falling on Browne’s cousin, Robert Browne, and William Muschamp, the brother-in-law of Trenchard’s step-son, Bampfield Chafin. With Millar acting as senior bailiff in the following year, Strode regained his seat, but he was accompanied by Sir Lewis Dyve, stepson of the 1st earl of Bristol (Sir John Digby*), and the husband of Trenchard’s granddaughter. In 1625 Bridport’s commonalty requested the right to participate in the election, but were denied.7
The 1626 election saw competition for Bridport’s seats. Dyve was again returned, smoothing his path by bestowing on the borough ‘one silver salt-cellar … to be delivered from elder bailiff to elder bailiff at the end of their year for ever, to serve to stand upon their tables at their court dinners and feasts’. However, shortly after the corporation had promised Dyve a place, it received a letter from Bristol’s enemy, the duke of Buckingham, asking them to elect the latter’s servant Edward Clarke* and Sir Richard Strode, a Dorset gentleman. Although Strode had long been at odds with his kinsman John Strode over a disputed inheritance, he was also one of John Traske’s patrons, which rendered him acceptable to the rest of the corporation. Accordingly, Sir Richard secured the junior seat ‘by the consent of all that have here voices in our election, he being a man whom we well know, and did incline to make choice of him before’. Curiously, on this occasion the election return was dated 12 Jan., four days before Buckingham’s nominations arrived, and two days before the corporation claimed to have chosen Dyve. Perhaps this was an attempt to avoid subsequent complaints. The duke was not notified of Clarke’s rejection until 28 Jan., and the news was evidently not well received. When the Parliament met, Sir Richard Strode accused Dyve of obtaining his seat by corruption, but on 21 Feb. Dyve was cleared, having satisfied the House that his gift to the borough had not influenced the result.8
Millar died in the plague which struck Bridport in the following autumn, and his removal from the scene emboldened his enemies there, for in Michaelmas term 1627 the new charter was challenged in the Exchequer, though not overturned.9 Consequently, at the next election in 1628 the corporation was again opposed. Its preferred candidates were John Browne, representing the Trenchard interest, and Francis Drake, who had possibly been nominated by his cousin, John Drake*, another of Traske’s admirers. As usual the commonalty were not summoned to the election, but they attended anyway, and threw their support behind rival candidates, Thomas Powlett, a minor local gentleman, and another Trenchard kinsman, Bampfield Chafin.10 The corporation returned Browne and Drake regardless, but were forced to defend the narrow franchise after a petition was lodged with the Commons. They presented to the privileges committee ‘a certificate of disclaimer under the hands of 80 commoners, … and affirmed they could have proved it by 40 commoners more’. In response, the rival camp produced four earlier returns which demonstrated that the commonalty had participated in former elections, and one of the bailiffs was alleged to have conceded this point privately. Accordingly, the election was declared void on 12 Apr., and Powlett and Chafin were returned at the ensuing election.11
Author: John. P. Ferris
- 1. Hutchins, Dorset, ii. 7; T. Gerard, Survey of Dorset, 19, 22-3; SR, iv. 1235; v. 28; E134/3Chas.I/Mich. 48.
- 2. CD 1628, ii. 428-30; Dorset RO, B3/E6; Hutchins, ii. 7; C219/37/92.
- 3. Hutchins, ii. 10; iii. 326; Vis. Hants (Harl. Soc. lxiv), 10; CD 1628, ii. 428; Procs. 1610 ed. E.R. Foster, ii. 387.
- 4. Hutchins, iii. 565; Som. Wills ed. F. Brown, v. 61.
- 5. STAC 8/214/2; PROB 11/150, f. 281.
- 6. E134/3Chas.I/Mich. 48; Hutchins, ii. 7; Dorset RO, MW/M4.
- 7. Hutchins, ii. 556; iii. 565; iv. 43; Oglander Mems. ed. W.H. Long, 80; C219/39/90; Vis. Dorset (Harl. Soc. xx), 94; CD 1628, ii. 429.
- 8. Hutchins, ii. 12; SP16/19/69; C78/534/2; C3/415/119; D.S. Katz, Philo-Semitism and Readmission of Jews to Eng. 31; C219/40/216; Procs. 1626, ii. 60, 62, 82.
- 9. PROB 11/150, f. 281; CSP Dom. 1625-6, p. 483; E134/3Chas.I/Mich. 48.
- 10. Vivian, Vis. Devon, 297; Katz, 19; Hutchins, ii. 281.
- 11. CD 1628, ii. 37, 397, 404, 428-30.