Bedfordshire

County

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

Number of Qualified Electors:

unknown

Number of voters:

2,563 in 17051

Elections

DateCandidateVotes
27 Feb. 1690Hon. Edward Russell 
 Thomas Browne 
2 Nov. 1695Lord Edward Russell 
 William Duncombe1108
 Thomas Browne9062
20 July 1698Lord Edward Russell 
 Sir William Gostwick 
 William Duncombe 
 Thomas Bromsall 
c.Jan. 17013Lord Edward Russell 
 Sir William Gostwick 
11 Dec. 1701Lord Edward Russell 
 Sir William Gostwick 
22 July 1702Lord Edward Russell 
 Sir William Gostwick 
23 May 1705Sir Pynsent Chernock, Bt.1408
 Sir William Gostwick1276
 Lord Edward Russell1239
 John Harvey7644
19 May 1708Lord Edward Russell1457
 Sir William Gostwick1363
 John Harvey9505
5 Oct. 1710Lord Edward Russell1239
 Sir William Gostwick1217
 John Harvey11786
2 Sept. 1713John Harvey1264
 Sir Pynsent Chernock, Bt.1261
 John Cater1254
 William Hillersden1241

Main Article

In the terms of the political sympathies of its greater gentry, Bedfordshire was a strongly Whiggish county, ‘the least addicted to Jacobitism of all England’ according to the 2nd Earl of Ailesbury (Thomas Bruce†), who in later life reflected on his own and his father’s inability to command widespread respect there even when holding the lord lieutenancy under Charles II and James II. Ailesbury’s involvement with James’s government, both at court and in the country, had left him politically compromised and out of favour after the Revolution, and deprived the Tory minority in the Bedfordshire squirearchy of effective leadership. On the Whig side, by contrast, there was no shortage of active aristocratic magnates. The St. Johns of Bletsoe were losing their former pre-eminence to the Russells, earls and, from 1694, dukes of Bedford, but in 1690 this process was still under way. The leading offices in county administration were shared between the two families, with the Earl of Bedford (Sir William Russell†), lord lieutenant, and the Earl of Bolingbroke (Paulet St. John†) as custos, and in 1690 the parliamentary representation seems similarly to have been divided, between Bedford’s son Edward Russell and a connexion of the St. Johns, Thomas Browne. Although residing in the neighbouring county of Hertfordshire, Hon. Sir Henry Capel* (later Lord Capell) also exercised some influence over the Bedfordshire Members in this Parliament and perhaps over electoral politics in the county too.7

The 1695 election was marked by the reappearance of William Duncombe of Battlesden, who had sat as knight of the shire in the Convention but had been abroad, as ambassador to Sweden, in 1690. Although formerly a Whig, Duncombe had recently quarrelled with Lord Capell in their joint government of Ireland and when chosen for Parliament in 1695 enlisted with the opposition, possibly out of pique at being recalled from his Irish lord justiceship without any alternative post offered in compensation. Whether he had stood on an opposition platform in Bedfordshire is not clear. Both the two outgoing Members were Court Whigs, but there was now some difference between the political standpoints of the Russell and St. John families: the Duke of Bedford adhered to the Court, while Lord Bolingbroke had given support to Country issues such as the place bill of 1692–3. Whatever the reasons, each candidate seems to have stood singly, with Duncombe defeating Browne for the second seat. Russell, now Lord Edward, spent over £125 on his election, compared with less than £100 in 1689, paying for entertainments, the delivery of hogsheads of ale and cases of tobacco to the freeholders in their various hundreds, the transportation of voters from Woburn, and even a small dole in charity to the poor in the parishes of Bedford itself (which contained about 10 per cent of the county electorate). The sum of these expenses pales beside the £6,000 allegedly spent on a county election at the time of Exclusion, but it sufficed to secure Russell first place in the poll. The contest three years later was more clearly between the Bedford interest and Duncombe, who had voted consistently against the Whig administration during the 1695 Parliament. Russell was partnered by Sir William Gostwick, whose financial embarrassments seem to have propelled him towards seeking the refuge of a parliamentary seat; Duncombe by another local gentleman, Thomas Bromsall. What is not clear is the part played in this election by the Tories. Ailesbury, whose memory in exile was often confused, claimed in his memoirs and in a letter written many years later to Lord Treasurer Oxford (Robert Harley*) that following his release from imprisonment in 1697, on suspicion of involvement in Sir John Fenwick’s† plot, his popularity in Bedfordshire climbed to an unexpected peak. During the summer and autumn of that year

the nobility honoured me with their company, and I was at their houses also, and more of the gentry than usual, and more often than customary, and I dined at many of their houses also. And that county . . . had now a real respect for me, and some gentry northward always averse to our family, and had there been an election for the county at that time I could have had the whole sway.

How seriously these boasts are to be taken is open to question. The fact that at one point Ailesbury’s recollection had become so fuddled that he claimed to have carried the election against the Bedford interest, whereas the result had been quite the reverse, should act as a sharp warning. It seems improbable that Ailesbury would have ‘won over’ the ‘factious party’ had he stayed any longer in England and not gone into a continental exile, but the detail he gives of a meeting with various Whig gentlemen at Sir William Gostwick’s house has the ring of truth. There may have been some fleeting dissatisfaction with the ascendancy of the Russells or, more probably, Gostwick and others may have been trying to avoid the expense of a contest by arranging an accommodation. In fact, the election was so bitterly contested that afterwards Duncombe and Bromsall petitioned twice against their opponents’ return (12 Dec. 1698, 16 Nov. 1699), the committee reporting to the House on 21 Dec. 1699. After the committee had summarily rejected a protest against the conduct of the sheriff in refusing, quite properly, to readmit to poll voters who had already plumped for one of the anti-Bedford candidates, the petitioners rested their case on allegations of treating against Russell and Gostwick. This was indeed a vulnerable point, as Russell’s election accounts demonstrate, and efforts had already been made by the Duke of Bedford’s agents to secure evidence for a counter-charge of treating against Duncombe. As no such accusations were made, it must be assumed that the evidence was not forthcoming. Instead the sitting Members’ counsel produced witnesses to deny that money had been offered on their behalf. Only two were heard, however, before the committee declared itself satisfied, and one of these produced the unlikely story of an election agent offering to pay bills without, he said, any assurance of reimbursement. The statement that ‘Sir William Gostwick had refused to pay him’ is plausible enough, but to trust that the Russells had also refused stretches credulity. While the committee found for the sitting Members, the House as a whole was less happy with their case, and disposed of the petition not by a direct vote but by an adjournment, after which the case was quietly dropped. The petitioners’ supporters cannot have been encouraged by the size of the majority at the poll, about 600 votes between the second and third candidates, and despite the strength of the Country party in the House, and the weakness of some of the sitting Members’ evidence, they clearly did not wish to carry on with the affair.8

Russell and Gostwick were returned unopposed at the three subsequent general elections, but by 1705 there had been a revival in the fortunes of the Tories in Bedfordshire, related to the emergence as a political force in the county of Ailesbury’s heir, Lord Bruce (Charles*), who attained his majority in 1703 and in the continued absence of his father abroad set about the task of reorganizing the family’s finances. Bruce resisted pressure to put himself forward for knight of the shire but clearly lent his support to the Tory candidates, as in all probability did another recently arrived magnate, Lord Ashburnham (John†), who had backed the Bedford interest in 1701 but subsequently returned to his former Tory allegiance. The reinvigoration of Tory spirits had showed up in 1704 when the county address of congratulation on the military triumphs of that summer had mentioned the ‘bravery’ of Admiral Sir George Rooke* alongside the ‘wise and matchless’ conduct of the Duke of Marlborough (John Churchill†). Significantly, the address was presented not by either of the county Members but by Thomas Bromsall, one of the defeated candidates from 1698. Capitalizing on this mood, a Tory squire, Sir Pynsent Chernock, 3rd Bt., was first in the field to announce that he was putting up at the next election, and had made such good progress by January 1705 that he was confidently expected to carry all before him. The 2nd Duke of Bedford (who had succeeded his grandfather in 1700) was certainly aware that the outgoing Members faced a stiff fight, the more so when Chernock at last found after some refusals a Tory partner to mop up some of his supporters’ second votes. Chernock in fact topped the poll by a majority of well over a hundred. The second Tory, John Harvey of Ickwell Bury, finished well down, with little more than half the Whig vote, the disparity mainly owing to Chernock’s advantage in having begun his canvassing much earlier: this was reflected in the high number of electors who plumped for him, 373 in all. The printed pollbook also reveals the strength of clerical support for the Tories, especially Chernock, who claimed the votes of 69 of the 87 clergymen who polled. It does not explain why Russell should have been the Whig candidate to be rejected, albeit narrowly. Possibly the higher profile of the Russells attracted more Tory hostility. Not even the parish of Woburn itself was unanimous in the Whig interest.9

Startled by this defeat, Bedford took pains to put matters right. There were overtures to the Bruces, presumably in vain, and perhaps some kind of appeal to Chernock, who at any rate did not seek re-election in 1708, leaving Harvey to take on the Whigs single-handed. The clerical element in the electorate was also analysed, and through the bishop of Lincoln, William Wake, and archdeacon of Bedford, Thomas Frank, both Low Churchmen, some pressure was brought to bear. Bedford even took pains to publicize his denial of a Tory rumour that Lord Edward Russell ‘went to meetings’: ‘he never heard that my lord was at a conventicle in his life’. It is not known whether any efforts were made to muzzle local Dissenters, whose enthusiasm for the Whig cause had been an important factor in infuriating and thus politicizing the local clergy. The Whig interest was also assisted by the recruitment of another landed magnate: the Duke of Kent, formerly a Tory, but tied to the Court by his office of lord chamberlain, appeared at this election alongside Bedford. The result was a clear victory for the Whigs, with Russell this time at the head of the poll. It was the same outcome two years later, with the same three candidates, though this time the contest was much more closely fought. Clergymen, and Tory voters generally, were galvanized by the Sacheverell affair. In May 1710 the clergy of Bedfordshire had addressed the Queen in support of the doctor, and Harvey set himself up, or so he claimed, ‘at the request of the whole body of the clergy in Bedfordshire’. The Whigs’ countering tactic was the same as before, to mobilize the influence of the diocesan establishment to suppress clerical enthusiasm for Harvey. It proved highly effective, for some 40 clergymen polled for Russell and Gostwick, almost exactly the margin of Harvey’s defeat. He did have his own phalanx of clerical supporters, however, for 20 or so of the clergy came to plump for him ‘in a body triumphant’ headed by the High Church dean of Gloucester, who resided locally. Tory explanations for Harvey’s failure preferred to ignore the question of the clergy’s votes. The Post Boy, having first remarked on the aristocratic assistance given to Russell and Gostwick, attributed the outcome to Harvey’s ill-luck in being obliged to stand on his own. He polled ‘930–odd single votes’, but ‘his double votes’, nearly 250 by this reckoning, ‘did him no service’. The dean of Gloucester, in a private letter, put an even brighter gloss on the result: Harvey had in reality, he claimed, enjoyed ‘a great majority’:

Many were coming from Royston fair (which fell out unluckily on that day) and my Lord Salisbury, I mean the good Salisbury [i.e. the 19th Earl, not the bishop], had mustered 30 votes for him in his parts; and yet tho’ the poll was so rashly closed, it was lost but by about 20, and a far greater number voted against him who had no right, so that he will have relief in the committee, and the Whig interest is broken in one of its strongest holds.

The dean also recalled how ‘a bulldog fell, or was set upon, Harvey in a neighbouring town. It fastened on his horse, which ran away, and threw him against a gate, and endangered his life.’ Nor could he resist a reference to his own contribution, which throws more light on the Whigs’ efforts to deter the clerical vote. ‘My Lord of Kent sought me out’ he wrote,

and earnestly pressed me to relinquish his [Harvey’s] interest, which I refused, but he at length prevailed with me to be absent, which his lordship, though I desired the contrary, declared everywhere, which Mr Harvey told me . . . cost him more votes than I thought myself able to make in the whole kingdom.10

Harvey did not follow the dean’s advice and take advantage of the Tory majority in the Commons to petition against the return. However, the High Church interest in the county did make significant progress over the next three years, helped by two dynastic accidents which befell the Russell and St. John families. The dukedom of Bedford went into a minority with the death in May 1711 of the 2nd Duke, while with the death of Lord Bolingbroke in the following October the St. John estates descended to a cousin, the 8th Lord St. John of Bletsoe (grandson of Sir St. Andrew St. John, 2nd Bt.*), who, to judge by his conduct at the 1715 election, was an active Tory. Leadership of the Bedfordshire Whigs devolved upon the Duke of Kent, Bedford’s replacement as lord lieutenant. Kent’s nomination was a disappointment to the Tories, who probably hoped, along with Ailesbury, that the lieutenancy would be given to Lord Bruce, in order to advance ‘the Queen’s service’, that is to say Tory electoral prospects. None the less, they were able to make some progress in changing the balance of county opinion, to judge by the county addresses on the peace, which provided a test of political strength. In 1712 two rival addresses were presented, one by the Members and the other by the sheriff, which couched their responses to the communication of the peace conditions in conflicting terms, the one cool and restrained, the other warmer and more violent in its denunciation of warmongers. The conclusion of the treaty in the following year was greeted by only one congratulatory address from Bedfordshire, the phrasing of which speaks for itself:

It is with the greatest satisfaction we have observed . . . Parliament so eminent in their returns of duty and gratitude to your Majesty. We beg leave to assure your Majesty that in the ensuing elections we shall endeavour to return such Members as shall rival them in their loyalty and zeal for your Majesty, and cheerfully concur in satisfying such well digested schemes of commerce as have rendered your Majesty’s endeavours for the prosperity of your people most effectual.

This pledge was made good, but only just, for the margins by which Harvey and Chernock defeated their nearest Whig rival were only ten and seven votes respectively, and 23 votes separated first from last in the poll. In part the Tory victory was a reflection of the national swing away from Whiggery since 1710; but it was also a tribute to the improvement in Tory organization in Bedfordshire. The Tory ‘noblemen’ and greater gentry gave a further demonstration ‘at the opening of the first sessions’ of the Parliament, when they dined in London for the purpose of establishing an ‘engagem