PORTMAN, Sir William, 6th Bt. (1643-90), of Orchard Portman, Som. and Bryanston, Dorset.
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Family and Education
b. 5 Sept. 1643, o.s. of Sir William Portman, 5th Bt., of Orchard Portman by Elizabeth, da. and coh. of John Colles of Barton, Pitminster. educ. All Souls, Oxf. 1659. m. (1) 14 Nov. 1661 (with £30,000), Elizabeth (d.1673), da. and coh. of Sir John Cutler, 1st Bt., of Westminster, s.p.; (2) 23 Oct. 1674, Elizabeth (d.1680), da. of Thomas Southcote of Buckland Tout Saints, Devon and h. to her bro. George, s.p.; (3) 19 Apr. 1682 (with £10,000), Mary, da. and h. of Sir John Holman, 1st Bt., of Banbury, Oxon., s.p. suc. fa. 10 Aug. 1645; KB 23 Apr. 1661.2
Commr. for assessment, Som. 1661-4, Som. and Dorset 1664-80, 1689-d.; dep. lt. Som. 1666-87, 1689-d., Dorset Oct. 1688-d.; j.p. Som. 1668-Feb. 1688, Oct. 1688-d., Dorset 1677-June 1688, Nov. 1688-d.; col. of militia ft. Dorset 1668-87, Oct. 1688-d.; recorder, Taunton 1685-Sept. 1688, Oct. 1688-d.3
Commr. for preventing export of wool 1689-d.
One of Portman’s ancestors represented Taunton as early as 1302, but the family did not become landed till early in the 15th century, when Orchard, just outside the town, was acquired by marriage. Portman’s father sat for Taunton in the Long Parliament until disabled as a Royalist. He was taken prisoner at the battle of Naseby and died in the Tower. His losses in the Civil War were computed at £30,000, not including a delinquency fine of £7,000 paid by his executors.4
When Portman was returned for the family borough in 1661 he must have been one of the Members of the Cavalier Parliament whom Charles II vowed to keep till their beards were grown. But at no time did he become active, and none of his 31 committees, five tellerships, and three recorded speeches was of prime political importance. He was named to the committees to confirm the restoration of the dukedom of Somerset (26 Nov. 1661) and to consider the method of assessing peers for the militia (7 May 1662). A long minority and three fortunate marriages not only made good the losses suffered in the Civil War but enabled him to purchase Bryanston, one of the greatest estates in East Dorset, and to exercise boundless charity: ‘we all know Sir William Portman is so noble a spirit that the absolute poor do not use to want what he has’. He was named to the committees to consider a bill regulating hospitals and free schools (24 Sept. 1666) and to bring in a bill preventing John Lenthall from defrauding his stepchildren of their portions (2 Apr. 1668). Sir Thomas Osborne included him in 1669 among those Members who usually voted for supply, and he defended the right of his cousin Edward Seymour to combine the Speakership with other offices in 1673. He was among those appointed to consider a bill to link his constituency to Bridgwater by a navigation canal (29 Mar. 1674) and to report on grievances against the militia (22 Apr. 1675). He moved for a vote of thanks to the King on 5 June for his efforts to reconcile the two Houses, and acted as teller for the adjournment when an attempt was made to revive the dispute in the autumn. But he was too independent to be fixed; Shaftesbury marked him ‘doubly worthy’ in 1677, in which year he was named to the committee on the bill for relieving poor debtors and acted as teller for adding a corn bounty clause to the excise bill. He was attacked in A Seasonable Argument as ‘much priest-ridden’ and ‘in hopes to be a lord’, an unlikely ambition for a childless man; but from the government whips there were complaints early in 1678 that he was missing from a vital debate. He warned Osborne (now Lord Treasurer Danby) on 20 Nov. that the Opposition hoped to attack him over the release of (Sir) Joseph Williamson, and on the following day he endeavoured to avert the ‘ill consequences’ of the fracas in the House between (Sir) Jonathan Trelawny I and William Ashe. He was sent to the Lords a week later with William, Lord Cavendish, the Hon. William Russell and Ralph Montagu* to desire the Lords to sit again in the afternoon in order that a conference about the Popish Plot might be held. On 23 Dec. he was given leave to go into the country.5
At the first general election of 1679 Portman was ‘under some difficulty to be chosen, as being not thought fanatic enough’. He was unsuccessful at Minehead, and a week later at Taunton it was reported that he had lost to the radical John Trenchard by one vote; but fortunately the returning officer under the new charter could be relied on. Free from anxiety over his own seat, Portman could attend the Corfe Castle election on behalf of his cousin, Sir Nathaniel Napier. In the first Exclusion Parliament he was marked ‘worthy’ by Shaftesbury, and proved a moderately active Member. On 8 Mar. he argued that the King’s rejection of Seymour as Speaker was unprecedented, and that the Commons should address in favour of their choice. He was appointed to six committees, including those to ask the King to entrust the safety of the informer Bedloe to the Duke of Monmouth, to inspect the disbandment accounts, to prevent illegal exactions, and to extend the prohibition of cattle imports from Ireland. He voted for exclusion.6
Portman was still distrusted by the extremists, on the grounds that ‘though he is against Popery and the Duke of York, yet he is firm to King and Church’. Nevertheless, not only did he move up to the county seat at the second general election of 1679, but he was able to nominate the outsider Sir John Cutler, his first wife’s father, as his successor at Taunton. During the summer of 1680, he entertained Monmouth at Orchard Portman. In the second Exclusion Parliament he was appointed to the committees of elections and privileges and to inquire into abhorring. On 27 Oct. he asserted that the Somerset address against petitioning had been subscribed only by the grand jury, not by the gentlemen of the county as a whole. He spoke against the motion to declare Seymour a promoter of Popery and the French interest. He retained his seat at the general election of 1681, and in the Oxford Parliament he was appointed to inspect the Journals relating to Danby’s impeachment as well as to the elections committee. He denied a change of heart over exclusion, and remained ‘vigorous against the Duke of York’. ‘Does not do amiss’, wrote a court supporter on the list of deputy lieutenants, ‘anywhere but in the House.’ But in the following summer he signed the loyal address from Somerset, and on 15 Oct. it was reported that ‘Sir William Portman begins now to drink the Duke of York’s health, and wishes he had never spoken those words in Parliament’. In expectation of another election, he gave out that he would not join with any party, but stand by himself. He was thanked for his care and diligence in disarming the disaffected in Taunton at the time of the Rye House Plot, but he took no part in the destruction of the nonconformist meeting-houses.7
Portman sat for Taunton in James II’s Parliament and was listed by Danby among the Opposition. He was appointed only to the committee of elections and privileges.
He led the East Dorset militia at Sedgemoor and subsequently took part in the capture of Monmouth, his former guest. He gave negative replies on the repeal of the Test Act and Penal Laws and was removed from all county office. He was one of the first to join William of Orange in 1688 and was active in raising a loan for him. He again sat for Taunton in the Convention, and voted to agree with the Lords that the throne was not vacant. On 6 Feb. 1689 he called for exemplary justice on the ‘Popish solicitor’, Robert Brent. But the ‘great cold’ which he contracted as a result of his exertions during the Revolution had probably undermined his health, and on 9 Mar. he was given leave to go into the country. His only committee was on the bill for regulating elections (19 June). He was re-elected for Taunton in 1690, but within ten days he was reported dead. He left his estate, valued at £8,000 p.a., to Henry Seymour II, who was four times returned for Taunton and sat for Somerset from 1708 to 1710.8