Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1604-1629, ed. Andrew Thrush and John P. Ferris, 2010
Available from Cambridge University Press

Background Information

Number of voters:

over 2,600 in 1614


22 Oct. 1610JOHN POULETT vice Hastings, deceased 
 Sir Robert Phelips* 
1 Jan. 1621SIR HENRY PORTMAN , bt. 
 ?William Seymour* , Lord Beauchamp 
26 Mar. 1621CHARLES BERKELEY vice Portman, deceased 
c. May 1625JOHN STAWELL 
 ?Sir Henry Berkeley 

Main Article

Somerset was a wealthy and exceptionally populous county with a wide range of economic interests. The vale of Taunton Deane was well known for its cattle; and inferior Irish imports were resented less as competition than as a threat to the breed. The shire’s most celebrated product, Cheddar cheese, was used by local politicians to gratify their metropolitan contacts. Much arable land was already enclosed, but large-scale improvements were still possible on Crown estates, where Charles I promoted the drainage of the Sedgemoor levels and the disafforestation of Neroche and Selwood, with varied success. During this period, coal and lead mining reached its peak in the Mendips, though among the magnates Robert Hopton* is the only ironmaster to be identified. There were two areas of cloth manufacture of more than local importance, one in the south-west and the other along the eastern border, where the demand for labour occasioned the building of many cottages and a loosening of control by the traditional ruling class. ‘Somerset’s yeomanry were many in number, fairly prosperous, and decidedly ambitious’, and adept politicians like Sir Robert Phelips* and Hugh Pyne* did not neglect even non-voting copyholders, who could be used to swell the ‘cry’ for a popular candidate on election day.1

It has been reckoned that some 25 major gentry families effectively governed the county, from whose ranks came those who aspired to the coveted honour of knight of the shire. There was no resident peer until John Poulett* of Hinton St. George was ennobled in 1627, and throughout the period the lieutenancy was combined with Wiltshire. Both the 1st earl of Hertford, who held office until his death on 4 Apr. 1621, and his successor, William Herbert, 3rd earl of Pembroke, were Wiltshire residents, and neither seems to have been popular in Somerset. Possibly the most influential landlord in the county was the bishop of Bath and Wells, who could muster 300 freeholders ‘besides the vestry’.2

The absence of contests between 1571 and 1614 was probably the result of preliminary meetings held among members of the gentry at which the names of two candidates to be presented to the freeholders would have been agreed. In 1604 Sir Edward Phelips of Montacute was elected for the second time in a row, but Sir Maurice Berkeley of Bruton, his colleague in 1601, was obliged to find a seat at Minehead, the least respectable of the Somerset boroughs, in order to make way for Sir Francis Hastings, an ardent puritan of high birth but inconsiderable estate. Phelips, appointed king’s serjeant at the outset of the reign, was probably already identified as Speaker-designate, in which capacity he was able to draw the attention of the Commons to such local matters as the disastrous floods of March 1607. Hastings’ death in September 1610 caused a by-election, his place being taken by John Poulett, who came from a similarly godly background but was very young. He claimed to revere Speaker Phelips as a father, but had scarcely time to familiarize himself with the Commons before the dissolution.3

By convention, a former Speaker never sat as an ordinary Member in the House over which he had presided – and Phelips, as master of the Rolls, may also have expected a summons to the Lords as a legal assistant. Therefore, when a fresh Parliament was called in February 1614, he was prepared to listen to the overtures of Sir Maurice Berkeley, who had been approached to stand for the senior seat (which he had held in 1601). Phelips politely declined Berkeley’s offer to pair with him – which must have been pro forma – and stated that he had no intention of promoting the candidacy of his son Sir Robert, who swiftly confirmed that ‘at that present I did not intend to have been of the House at all’. However, Berkeley’s news that Poulett, Sir Robert Phelips’s exact contemporary, intended to stand again, prompted a change of heart, as Sir Robert now accepted the offer to pair with Berkeley. This deliberate misconstruction of a courtesy placed Berkeley in an awkward position, from which he attempted to extricate himself by asking Sir Robert or his father to write to Poulett ‘to entreat his furtherance’ – in other words, to stand aside. However, Berkeley made it clear that Poulett, having asked first, had the prime claim to his support: ‘though to be a knight of the shire be a thing I desire, and even the highest mark of my ambition, yet I would be loath to purchase it with the unnecessary loss of such a friend’. Following this exchange, Sir Robert persuaded his father that Berkeley’s offer of a pairing had been more than a courtesy. Thus satisfied, Sir Edward, who warned that business would keep him in London, allowed his son to stand, provided that he notified Berkeley and Poulett in writing of his intentions.4

After spending some time on his Wiltshire estates, Berkeley arrived in Somerset to find Phelips’ canvassing in full swing, under the direction of Thomas Hughes† and Francis James*, the chancellor of Bath and Wells diocese. Meanwhile, Poulett, returning from a visit to Devon, was approached by Sir Edward Phelips’ servant John Seward, who assumed that Sir Robert had contacted him to ask him to stand down. Poulett insisted that he had received no such letter, but to avoid giving offence declared that he was happy to see Sir Robert Phelips and Berkeley paired for the county. However, he added that if Sir Edward and Sir Robert decided not to stand he would do so himself, in accordance with his former promise to Sir Maurice Berkeley. He also urged Seward to procure a letter from Sir Robert confirming the tenor of this conversation.5

Matters turned sour at the county court at Ilchester on 7 Mar., when Poulett and Berkeley appeared with their supporters only to find that the writ had not yet arrived, Phelips was still absent in London, and no election was to be held. Poulett, who had carefully avoided declaring himself a candidate beforehand, later indignantly declared to Sir Edward Phelips that if he ‘had met Sir Robert or any letter from him’ he would have ‘entreated all my voices to cry out for him’. Berkeley, for one, clearly suspected that the writ had been detained in Chancery by Sir Edward Phelips’ means; and he and Poulett promptly agreed to join forces against Sir Robert.6 The angry exchange of letters which ensued finally persuaded Sir Edward Phelips to throw his weight wholeheartedly behind his son in order to avert an electoral humiliation. Sir Edward wrote to ‘the knights, justices of peace, and gentlemen of the county of Somerset’ meeting at the Chard assizes, asking them to exercise their ‘worthy and discreet moderation … without dividing the country or putting it to the public question; whereby love may continue, and sedition be prevented’. This letter proved so efficacious that none of the magistrates except Robert Hopton* and John Symes* ultimately voted against Phelips’ son. Sir Edward also approached the Scottish favourite, Robert Carr, earl of Somerset, but through Viscount L’Isle (Robert Sidney†) he received only advice to desist. Bishop James Montagu of Bath and Wells, however, pledged his support: detained in London by his duties as dean of the Chapel Royal, he urged his chancellor to redouble his efforts in the constituency, and undertook that if any of his tenants went the wrong way ‘they shall smart for it’. Other non-resident landlords, such as Sir Mervyn Audley*, were successfully approached, though the earl of Hertford and Sir Nicholas Halswell* would only promise the ‘second voice’ of their tenants – in other words, they would back Phelips against Poulett, but not Berkeley.7

Sir Robert Phelips went down to Somerset to make careful preparations for the hustings, which were conveniently located near the family seat at Montacute. Early on the morning of the election his supporters, efficiently marshalled by Thomas Warre*, took possession of almost the whole town of Ilchester, so that the sheriff and the other candidates had to struggle through them to reach the market place. ‘The cry "A Phelips! a Phelips!" was so great and violent for three-quarters of an hour at least that at the cross and all about it I heard no other voice nor sound’. Much to the credit of Sheriff Still, the candidates, and the voters, there was no disorder; but in other respects, after six weeks’ campaigning, no holds were barred. The sheriff was momentarily ‘staggered’ by Berkeley’s assertion that Phelips was ineligible because he was not resident in the county at the date of the writ; while on the other side six lawyers gave their opinion that Poulett, as a mere esquire, could not be allowed to challenge a genuine knight like Phelips. Yet the sheriff proved fully equal to the occasion – when the poll was demanded he adjourned the court from the over-crowded market place to a field on the outskirts of the little town. Phelips, at the suggestion of his father, now played his last card, proposing that the voters should be separated into three groups, one for each candidate, thereby nullifying the Berkeley-Poulett alliance and eliminating second choices. But the sheriff would have none of it, and Phelips left the scene, accompanied by many of his supporters. Some, like Halswell, were no doubt reluctant to commit themselves further, while others were deterred by the requirement that they should be sworn to a 40s. freehold. Sir Francis Popham* and Sir John Malet remained, however, to supervise the poll on Phelips’ behalf, while Symes and his brother-in-law Sir John Horner* performed the same service for the confederates. The exact figures do not survive, but Still’s under-sheriff estimated that only about 1,150 voters were sworn for the victors, and it was claimed that ‘Sir Robert Phelips had at the time of the election 1,500 votes more’.8

Upon his defeat, Phelips immediately drafted a petition to his father’s immediate superior, lord chancellor Ellesmere (Thomas Egerton†), which was signed by his closest allies: Sir Francis Popham and his uncle Edward Popham*, (Sir) Thomas Thynne*, Thomas Southworth*, Francis James, Thomas Hughes and Thomas Warre. Lists of freeholders who had attended at Ilchester to vote for Phelips, to the number of 500, were obtained from their landlords. However, Ellesmere was unwilling to risk a confrontation with the Commons by quashing the election return, as this would have reopened the controversy over the Commons’ right to judge of returns without reference to Chancery. On 26 Apr. the Privy Council ordered a general reconciliation, to which Phelips replying on behalf of the county bench, complained of Berkeley, ‘who is reported to have affirmed to divers men in public places that those who say the election was not duly made are knaves, and such as believe it are fools’. By this time Phelips had been returned for a Cornish borough, and his behaviour in the House gave such offence (not least to his father) that no one felt any inclination to protect him.9

The temporary eclipse of the Phelips interest did not render the Somerset gentry more amenable: the demand for a Benevolence which followed the angry dissolution of the Parliament was opposed by Berkeley, Halswell and Poulett, who were summoned before the Privy Council on 2 Nov. 1614, when Sir Edward Coke* bludgeoned them with precedents. The seditious writings discovered on the unfortunate clergyman Peacham, who held a Poulett family living, were supposed for a time to be evidence of a conspiracy, in which Berkeley was implicated.10 Berkeley died in 1617, scarcely 40 years of age, shortly after Sir Robert Phelips had been restored to local office. There seems to have been no difficulty in restoring cordial relations between the two families; but Poulett and Phelips remained estranged.

At the 1621 election Poulett found a borough seat at Lyme Regis, Dorset, but prevailed on the gentry to nominate his ally Robert Hopton as junior colleague to Sir Henry Portman. Phelips may be suspected as the architect of the earl of Hertford’s unprecedented attempt to secure the return of his grandson and heir William Seymour*, Lord Beauchamp, as a counterpart to the election of his younger grandson, Sir Francis Seymour*, as knight for Wiltshire. Poulett and his allies Sir John Horner and John Stawell*, having conferred with Sir Francis Seymour at Wells, firmly rejected this proposal: ‘we are persuaded that every gentleman that hath not fear nor faction in his heart will join with us’, they wrote, and the gentry candidates carried the day. Phelips may have gained some consolation from the fact that when Portman died of smallpox a few weeks later, the by-election saw the return of Sir Maurice Berkeley’s son Charles, one of his most loyal supporters. Phelips himself sat for Bath, which enabled him to speak for the county on such subjects as charitable briefs, alehouses, common lands, and Irish cattle. But his role in galvanizing the Commons over the freedom of speech debate with which the session ended in December brought him eight months imprisonment in the Tower.11

Before the 1624 election Phelips, having reconciled himself with Buckingham and the anti-Spanish party at Court, felt sufficiently rehabilitated to stand for the county again. Poulett’s steward, Hackshaw, wrote to Sir Edward Hext*, Stawell’s father-in-law:

I hear of a secret labouring about Petherton, Martock, and the adjacent parts to Ilchester for the election of Sir Robert Phelips for one of the knights. … I also hear the country is well inclined to join my master with him for the second, which I know my master will utterly mislike, and so much he hath signified to me by his letters. … I have heard some speech that Sir John Sydenham hath laboured about Yeovil for voices from Mr. Stawell, who I doubt not is able to carry it if it please him to stand for the place, and he shall not want the best help Mr. Amyas Poulett and my poor endeavours can afford.

Hext immediately transmitted this letter to Phelips, commenting:

I hope there will be no opposition to you. I once heard that it was intended to be laid upon my son[-in-law] and young Mr. [Ralph] Hopton*, but Mr. Hopton in great modesty refused it. ... My cousin [John] Malet* piddles for freeholders about Taunton, who will all go from him to my son if he will stand.

Montagu’s successor, Bishop Lake, found ‘such silence among the gentlemen that I cannot tell whether they purpose at all to meddle, or leave the country to do as they will’. Stawell was apparently indisposed before the election, and the Poulett interest went to John Symes instead, who protested to Phelips that he had been much importuned to stand.12 There were about 20 signatures on the election indenture, including those of Sir George Speke, who had originally proposed Symes, Phelips’ loyal henchman Charles Berkeley, and Phelips’ uncle Sir Henry. Phelips’ attempts to support the ‘patriot’ cause in the Commons were not always productive; but he was able to attack the heralds who had visited Somerset in the previous year under the authority of Buckingham’s rival, Thomas Howard, 21st or 14th earl of Arundel.13

The 1625 election produced the most unruly scenes of the period, though it is not clear whether there was a contest. On 14 May 1625 the Privy Council issued a warrant for the arrest of Poulett’s kinsman, Edmund Kenn, for his ‘unadvised behaviour’ at the hustings, and for ‘giving out scandalous speeches’ against Phelips ‘to hinder his election’. Kenn was committed to the Fleet, and released only after undertaking to make a public acknowledgment of his offences in Phelips’s presence. Perhaps it was as well for him that Phelips again disdained the elections committee, and had offended Buckingham over his conduct in Parliament. Stawell, also implicated, could not be charged, for he had been elected senior knight of the shire, taking precedence of Phelips, though a mere esquire. In Hilary term 1626 Phelips and Thomas Wyndham, who had presided over the election as sheriff, travelled to London ‘to take advice by their learned counsel for framing the information’, and attorney-general (Sir) Robert Heath* commenced a Star Chamber suit against Stawell ‘for giving the lie to the plaintiffs sitting on the bench’. Stawell was ultimately convicted and fined £200, a Pyrrhic victory for the plaintiffs, whose costs totalled £243 9s.10d.14 This suit may have deterred Stawell from standing again in 1626; while on this occasion Phelips was one of several troublesome MPs deliberately rendered ineligible by being pricked as sheriff of Somerset. In this capacity, Phelips had the satisfaction of returning his devoted supporter Sir Henry Berkeley for the senior seat. The second place was bestowed upon Sir John Horner, who was presumably a Poulett candidate, though among those who signed the return only Hopton can be identified with this faction.15

At Court Poulett was now in the ascendant: he was raised to the peerage in the following year, while Phelips, again stripped of local office, ignominiously sneaked out of the county to avoid committing himself for or against the Forced Loan. By contrast, Poulett and his allies did not equivocate, denouncing the seekers after ‘popularity’ who obstructed the king’s wishes.16 By 1628 Phelips had recovered his confidence, writing from London about his concerns

for the prevention of any tumultuous combustion which might happen in our country by reason of the election of knights for this Parliament. It is true I have declared myself to stand for one of those places in case the gentlemen of the county should think me fit for it, and [provided] that I might obtain it with peace and without noise; and for that purpose (not knowing of any other that did stand) I offered myself to Sir Hugh Portman*, from whom as yet I have received no direct answer. And now from the country I am advertised that there is a party made to oppose me.

On his return to Somerset he wrote to a more committed supporter:

The people we have to deal with are a subtle generation; and all the east and northerly parts are laboured for double voices, and all about me for one, so to weaken me that if [Sir John] Stawell or Sir Ralph Hopton shall appear upon the place they will hazard me. And being thus spitefully bent as they are, to whisper it in your ear, if I find our party strong enough to carry both, we will (if you like it) exclude a deputy lieutenant, and choose an honest, faithful countryman and your servant, Sir Henry Berkeley. But this reserve to yourself, and come as strong as you may for my purpose; and for voices that will give but one, give them leave to save their journey. Only if another move them therein, that then they will be also for me.

Stawell’s agents had been so active, not to say abusive, in soliciting ‘double voices’ among the Taunton freeholders that it was clearly his intention to join with another of the deputy lieutenants whom Phelips had consistently obstructed. But it was not until three days before the election that the other candidate was identified as Sir John Rodney, who offered Hopton his seat at Wells in return. Rodney was apparently too strong for Berkeley, for whom Phelips found a seat in his pocket borough of Ilchester. Stawell, on the other hand, was no match for Phelips, and it is not surprising that he seized the opportunity of revenge by billeting soldiers on the wealthier inhabitants of Taunton, who had rejected him. The matter was raised in the Commons, provoking angry exchanges between Phelips and Rodney; but Stawell, having done no more than follow the orders of the Privy Council, was discharged without penalty.17

Authors: John. P. Ferris / Simon Healy


  • 1. Agrarian Hist. Eng. and Wales ed. J. Thirsk, iv. 72-80; T.G. Barnes, Somerset 1625-40, pp. 2-6, 11, 13, 22; D. Underdown, Revel, Riot and Rebellion, 7-8, 113, 122-3.
  • 2. Som. and Dorset N and Q, xxxi. 351; E. Farnham, ‘Somerset Election of 1614’, EHR, xlvi. 590, 597; SP16/40/58.
  • 3. Som. RO, DD/PH224/8; CJ, i. 346a; M. Kishlansky, Parlty. Selection, 91.
  • 4. Kishlansky, 85-7; Som. RO, DD/PH216/84, 87-8.
  • 5. Kishlansky, 88-9; Som. RO, DD/PH216/82-4, 87-9.
  • 6. Kishlansky, 89-90; Som. RO, DD/PH216/86, 89.
  • 7. Kishlansky, 90-8; Som. RO, DD/PH216/81, 83-4, 86-9; Chamberlain Letters ed. N.E. McClure, i. 518, 524.
  • 8. Kishlansky, 98-100; Som. RO, DD/PH216/95, 115; DD/PH224/8-9; Farnham, 595.
  • 9. Kishlansky, 99-101; Som. RO, DD/PH216/116; DD/PH228/19.
  • 10. APC, 1613-14, p. 611; S.R. Gardiner, Hist. Eng. From Accession of Jas. I, ii. 266, 274.
  • 11. HLRO, HC/LB/1/19; CD 1621, ii. 109; iii. 186, 214; v. 95; SIR ROBERT PHELIPS.
  • 12. T. Cogswell, Blessed Revolution, 157-8; Som. RO, DD/PH219/32; DD/PH224/12; DD/PH227/16.
  • 13. C219/38/205; CJ, i. 701b.
  • 14. APC, 1625-6, pp. 53, 75, 104; Som. RO, DD/PH198, DD/PH216/12; Historical Collections ed. J. Rushworth, iii. (app.), 26-7.
  • 15. C219/40/129.
  • 16. CSP Dom. 1629-31, p. 120; R. Cust, Forced Loan, 107-8, 210.
  • 17. Som. RO, DD/PH216/108, DD/PH221/2-3; CD 1628, iii. 419-20.