Available from Boydell and Brewer
Right of Election:
in the resident holders of burgages on which scot and lot was paid
Number of Qualified Electors:
Number of voters:
49 in 1691; at least 77 in 1701
|28 Feb. 1690||John Birch I|
|5 June 1691||Thomas Foley||26|
|John Birch II vice Birch, deceased||231|
|Double return. FOLEY seated, 12 Nov. 1691|
|23 Oct. 1695||Robert Price|
|26 July 1698||Robert Price||55||55||55|
|John Birch II||352||393||354|
|Double return of Foley and Birch. FOLEY declared elected, 13 Jan. 1699|
|9 Jan. 1701||Henry Cornewall||51|
|John Birch II||50|
|Hon. Henry Thynne||44|
|27 Nov. 1701||Robert Price|
|John Birch II|
|21 July 1702||Henry Cornewall|
|John Birch II|
|14 May 1705||Henry Cornewall|
|John Birch II|
|6 May 1708||John Birch II|
|Hon. Henry Thynne|
|13 Dec. 1708||Henry Gorges vice Thynne, chose to sit for Weymouth and Melcombe Regis|
|?Sir John Germain, Bt.|
|9 Oct. 1710||John Birch II|
|31 Aug. 1713||John Birch II|
While failing to attain the national notoriety achieved by other spectacularly rotten boroughs, Weobley enjoyed a considerable local reputation for venality. The susceptibility of the Weobley voters to bribery was so well known that an elector in Leominster anxious to sell his own vote to the highest bidder could advertise himself as ‘a Weobley man’; while the fondness of the population for alcoholic entertainment led to the description of the town by one candidate as ‘our liquid metropolis’. The franchise was unusual, combining the elements of burgage tenure and payment of scot and lot, and adding a residential requirement. Those entitled to vote were the inhabitants, either owners or tenants, of ‘vote-houses’ on which an annual rent of 20s. was payable, a value which also qualified the owner to pay the poor rate. Provided this tax was paid on the property, either by the owner or the tenant, and entered in the ‘Lewn’ book of the borough, the householder was permitted to poll. The end product was an electorate of middling size, in which individual votes could be purchased relatively cheaply, for a guinea or less, or for a pair of shoes. Paradoxically, these characteristics seem to have militated against the domination of the borough by any single interest, even that of the lord of the manor, Viscount Weymouth (Thomas Thynne†) who in any case was disadvantaged by the fact that he resided not in Herefordshire at all, but in Wiltshire. Because candidates were encouraged to spend money by the prospect of comparatively easy pickings, the electors were awakened to the commercial value of their franchise and sought to turn every election into an auction. Usually there were enough potential bidders among the greater gentry of the county to make a contest. Some of the strongest candidates came from families with estates in the immediate vicinity, but with the possible exception of the Prices of Foxley, who in normal circumstances could be sure of one seat for themselves, no landed interest was powerful enough to guarantee success for its nominee.6
To the disappointment of the Weobley burgage-holders the 1690 general election was one in which, despite their best efforts, a contest was averted. The first two candidates in the field, John Birch I and Robert Price, established a position of such strength, with all but 30–35 of the potential electorate of ‘about an hundred’ pledged to them, as to deter any rivals. Once ‘Captain’ John Booth, a former MP for the borough and like Birch and Price a local landowner, had ‘declined it’, the best hope of the anxious townsmen was the young Thomas Foley II, whose father Paul I* wished to see him settled in a parliamentary seat. The drawback, as far as the electors were concerned, was the degree of caution exercised by Paul Foley. ‘This being the first public action of mine’, wrote Thomas, ‘my father thinks . . . I ought not to venture upon an uncertainty.’ Forestalled from making an early canvass himself by the trickery of Birch, who reneged on a promise to ‘propose’ him ‘to the town’, Thomas Foley could do little when visited by some burgage-holders with an invitation to put up, but to send them home ‘with thanks for their kindness but no encouragement that I would appear in the town’. Besides, he considered them to be ‘persons so mean that I could not think it any encouragement to appear there on their invitation’. The only circumstances in which his father would countenance a candidate would be ‘if Mr Price could be prevailed with voluntarily to decline it’. Price was a Tory, and at one time had been an enemy of the Foleys, but now his friendship and political support (at both local and national level) was required. When he declined to step down Thomas Foley withdrew, and Price and Birch were returned, without opposition and with little appreciable expense to themselves or material advantage to the voters.7
With this unhappy experience behind them, the townsmen were determined to make the most of the vacancy brought about by Birch’s death in May 1691. The very next day Thomas Foley ‘received an invitation from the town to stand’. His father was once more reduced to uncertainty by the fear of failure, but was inclined to blame the advice of his allies and marital connexions, the Harleys, for what he now saw as a missed opportunity the year before, and resolved to take a strategy of ‘his own invention’. Other potential candidates had also been approached. Price reported that ‘[t]he good Christians at Weobley are laying in cider and brewing apace’ and ‘[t]hey have sent to several places’. Booth may have been one of those spoken to, and there was also talk that Uvedale Tomkyns, a representative of the family responsible for the borough’s incorporation in 1628, was thinking of standing. Price himself had been besought to remain neutral, but had hopes of putting up his brother-in-law, a Mr Wardour, and so refused a request from Foley for his interest. As for the Harleys, they were at first considering whether the head of the family, Sir Edward Harley*, at present without a parliamentary seat, should put himself forward, but on second thoughts would not trust to the ‘knaves and drunkards’ who made up the Weobley electorate. Instead, perhaps peeved at Paul Foley’s attitude towards them, they encouraged yet another alternative candidate, John Birch II, the nephew and testamentary heir of the deceased Member. Impelled by a desire ‘to keep Colonel Birch’s heirs-at-law from an estate which fell to them, not being in the colonel’s will’, and possibly invited by the voters, Birch announced that he would stand. The Harleys then sought to mediate between Birch and Foley. A meeting was held at the Harley seat of Brampton Bryan, where both parties conversed politely yet without any real willingness to concede. As Sir Edward Harley recorded:
cousin [Foley] told Mr Birch if he had known of his standing he would not have come out of town, that now his reputation was engaged; and that if he [Birch] joined his interest now he would readily another time confer it upon Mr Birch, who said that the necessity of his affairs obliged him to stand now and were there not a cogency in that he would much rather cousin Foley should be chosen than himself, and was greatly constrained to appear against one likely to do more service for the public.
This outcome ‘greatly troubled’ Sir Edward, who feared for the difficulties a contest might bring to both candidates, to himself and to the county. But worse was to come. Birch, anxious to neutralize Price, or even to win him over, betrayed to Price the proposal that Foley had made at Brampton Bryan. The outraged Price was told that Foley ‘offered Jack Birch, if he would desist this time, that [Foley] would acquiesce the next if he and Birch could not turn me out’. He taxed Foley with this ‘train laid to blow me up’ and received the explanation that it was done ‘upon a pretence that I had refused him my interest’. It was now Foley’s turn to be outraged, at Birch’s betrayal of a confidence, and his determination to stand the contest was redoubled. A further meeting between the two men was agreed upon, however, this time at Weobley and in the presence of Price, Booth, Tomkyns and other interested parties. At this encounter matters were clarified a little. Price, who had thought things over, took a more discreet line: he ‘waived’ his brother-in-law’s candidature and declared that he would ‘stand neuter’. The election was now between Foley and Birch, and after Price’s announcement the principals present began to take sides. A declaration in favour of Birch by Booth threatened to have a decisive effect upon the Weobley voters. A number who had previously pledged themselves to Foley suddenly became ‘very shy’ and forgot their promises, until one of Foley’s supporters ‘went among them’ and pointed out that if they were to desert Foley ‘no other gentleman would ever spend any money amongst them’ and that from henceforth Birch and Price would ‘always’ be returned without opposition. This melancholy prospect so alarmed them that as many as 39 immediately confirmed their earlier engagements and went up to Birch and Booth to ‘hallow’ in their faces with the slogan ‘Foley and freedom’. No pains or expenses were spared in the week or so that remained before the poll. Extensive treating was reported, while Sir Edward Harley noted that ‘all tools [are] employed’. Bribery was alleged by Foley against Birch, in the form of cancelling debts owed him by burgage-holders of sums ranging from £6 up to £20. Not surprisingly Birch had similar charges to lay at Foley’s door. The night before the election the two candidates agreed that only those burgages entered in the Lewn book as paying scot and lot would be admitted to confer a right of voting. On the day itself, however, Birch ‘would not show’ the Lewn book, and on being asked to prove that one of his voters was entitled to poll stormed out in great indignation and would not return for over an hour, leaving the poll ‘in great confusion’ before eventually being obliged to come back and withdraw that particular name. After another similar incident one of the two constables, the returning officers, declared Foley elected; the other declared Birch elected. Both candidates were ‘chaired’ and a double return made. Foley’s poll, which is the only one to survive, gave him a majority of three votes (26 to 23). Birch is said to have claimed victory by 54 votes to 35. Neither candidate was disposed to give way, Foley relying, or so it was said, on his father’s interest in the Commons ‘for the present’ and his purse ‘for the future’, Birch counting ‘on the justness of his cause and interest in that town’. Among Birch’s more colourful allegations was that ‘men brought from Hereford lay with some of the townsmen’s wives, who prevailed with their husbands to oppose him’. Foley for his part was confident that the worst that could happen would be for the election to be declared void, and ‘as I will not befriend or oppose any man by halves, I do protest it shall cost him as much then as it has done now’.8
Not everyone shared the pugnacity of the two candidates in the pursuance of ‘justice’. The Harleys were deeply embarrassed by what had occurred, and fearful of the consequences. Robert Harley*, Sir Edward’s elder son, and the husband of Paul Foley’s niece, was busy soon after the election ‘endeavouring a reconciliation’, but his ‘propositions’ were rejected. Late in August these peacemaking efforts were revived, at the instigation of Paul Foley, whose old anxieties had been reawakened, and who perhaps repented his earlier repudiation of the Harleys’ ‘management’. ‘Uncle P[aul] is in great concern about Weobley’, Robert Harley wrote to his father, ‘and earnestly desires you will endeavour to take off Mr Birch. I shall, for the public’s sake and for both their sakes, be very sorry to have it heard at the committee.’ A fortnight later, on 8 Sept., Robert sent his father some ‘instructions’ dictated by Paul Foley, which were to be presented to Birch. These constituted various reasons as to why Birch should consider dropping his defence in the election case, or, as Robert Harley put it, ‘to work Mr B[irch] into a compliance’. There was the danger to the Country interest which Birch, like the Foleys, espoused; both locally, by dividing men of the same political views, and nationally, by depriving ‘the public’ of a vote in the Commons should the election be declared void. And there was a danger to Birch himself of an expensive case whose determination was ‘uncertain’, and of the expense of a new contest in which he might face not one opponent but two: ‘Captain B[oo]th could not forbear expressing his dislike of both, though he appeared for Mr B[irch], therefore on a new election will be glad of a third man to turn them both out.’ It would thus be in Birch’s best interests to comply ‘this time’ in order to give himself a better chance for the future. Foley was cautious of dealing with Birch directly, or of making him any offer, ‘having an ill impression’ of Birch after his son’s previous experience and apprehending that Birch would take advantage of any new slip to improve his case in the committee. The Harleys, father and sons, seem genuinely to have hoped for an amicable settlement, anxious that neither side should run into lasting difficulties. Sir Edward ‘sent for Mr Birch, urged to him all I could, desired him to put in writing what his purpose was concerning this affair’. To Sir Edward’s ‘exceeding grief’ Birch’s written reply was unyielding. At this news Robert, equally concerned, wrote to Birch to reinforce the arguments Sir Edward had used. He protested (probably quite sincerely) his own impartiality, and (with less honesty) that the idea behind the initiative was entirely his own and had nothing to do with Foley. Birch was urged to consider his self-interest. To run ‘the hazard of a hearing in Parliament’, against ‘a great interest, fixed in the House and you without doors’, would be foolhardy in the extreme. ‘The best you can hope for is to drink dear ale another time after an expensive trial here [in Parliament].’ The alternative, to back down, would entitle him to ‘a beneficial and lasting friendship . . . a securer and cheaper interest at Weobley . . . [and] many other advantages sufficient to overbalance the damages suggested by you’. In addition he hinted strongly that Birch ‘need not despair coming into the House next session upon these considerations, which in the other method is very remote from probability’. Once more Birch demurred. There was nothing, he claimed, that could effect a reconciliation. Yet a month later, in October, Robert Harley tried again and ‘with much pains’ at last succeeded in ‘composing the differences between Mr Birch and Mr Foley’. Birch was persuaded to withdraw his petition, in return for a promise from Foley, guaranteed in writing by Robert Harley, that
all possible means shall be used to procure . . . Mr Birch to be elected a Member for the House of Commons during the present session of Parliament, and in case the said endeavour shall not succeed the sum of £260 shall be paid to . . . Mr Birch.
When the case was heard Birch’s counsel did not dispute the legality of Foley’s return, denying now that Birch had been returned by a constable at all. Nor did they question that ‘on an examination’ Foley appeared to have a majority by ‘three or four’ of those qualified to vote. The decision of the committee, and the House, was therefore a formality. Complete secrecy was maintained over the agreement. As Birch was not found a seat during the lifetime of the 1690 Parliament it must be assumed that he took the monetary compensation.9
In the 1695 election the interest of the lord of the manor, Weymouth, was exerted for the first time since 1679. Though of considerable weight, the manorial influence was by no means preponderant, since the constables, who might have been the key figures in the borough, seem still to have been elected by the inhabitants rather than appointed by the lord. Without this advantage, and having to campaign from long range, Weymouth was reduced to the level of his rivals in the competition for buying votes. His motive in involving himself in 1695 was to begin a parliamentary career for his eldest son, Hon. Henry Thynne, who had almost reached his majority, and who in April 1695 had married an heiress, an event celebrated in Weobley with bell-ringing and inevitably, the drinking of healths. At first, Weymouth’s ‘design in putting his son up there’ was kept secret. Price, who enlisted himself in Weymouth’s cause, wrote to the local attorney acting as Weymouth’s agent to ‘caution him to be very private, for he was not to appear any way openly against Foley (but Birch) but underhand to make what friends he . . . could for Mr Thynne, and to send an account how it would be received’. It would seem that Weymouth’s plan was to try to divert Foley into another constituency, after which Thynne and Price would join forces against Birch. When this did not work, Thynne’s supporters were obliged to canvass openly and begin treating in earnest. They had secured the services of perhaps the most influential of the townsmen, Alban Thomas, who had been Foley’s chief agent in 1691, but in other respects Foley had improved his position. As he reported to Robert Harley in June 1695:
I find Alban Thomas is quite gone off from me; but I can’t hear of anybody else but those he immediately influences, which I take to be about nine . . . Mr Bennet and Tho[mas] White, who were last time the chief managers against me, have both come and assured me of all the interest they can make for me . . . They all advise me to join with nobody at all.
The following month he was even more confident:
A great many more have promised me, and thus far I believe they are secure, unless somebody else spends more money upon them. I find Mr Birch has entirely lost his interest there; I do not think above one third that were for him last time will now give him their votes; most of them have promised me. Mr Thynne has hitherto gained very little ground, and never will but by the dint of expense. His interest seems only to be what Mr Thomas and Mr Henry Jones can influence. I believe Mr Price is very secure . . . The other most likely man to carry it, in case he stands, is Col. Cornewall [Henry*], but he seems hitherto fixed upon standing for the county, though many of Weobley have applied themselves to him to stand there.
A crucial factor affecting the balance of the contending interests was the attitude of Price, who as the election approached began to loosen the ties which bound him to Weymouth. His more accustomed position of neutrality was best suited to the preservation of his own seat, while he was equally anxious not to endanger his important connexions at Westminster, in particular his friendship with Robert Harley, who was now strongly backing Foley at Weobley. Through Harley, Foley established amicable relations with Price, which must have been a serious blow to Weymouth. Combined with the risk of putting up a minor in a contested election, and possibly some reluctance on his son’s part, the loss of Price’s active support probably deterred Weymouth from persevering with his efforts. Early in October he was reported to be ‘very still’, and shortly afterwards he terminated the candidature of his son, though not with an especially good grace, as may be seen in the exchange of letters between Weymouth and Paul Foley which signalled Thynne’s withdrawal. Foley was informed by a third party that Weymouth was willing to oblige him in the matter, but required a ‘particular application’. He therefore wrote in the following terms:
I am very sorry my son’s being engaged at Weobley is any hindrance to your son Mr Thynne’s standing there. If I knew where else to provide for my son, whose presence with me in Parliament is very convenient for me, and I hope no prejudice to the public, I would use all my interest in him to serve Mr Thynne . . . if your lordship will please to make my son’s election easy to him I shall take it for a great favour and obligation.
Weymouth’s reply was frosty and only grudgingly compliant:
You . . . are under a mistake in thinking your son’s standing for Weobley hinders my son from doing it, for could I prevail with him (without interposing my authority) to be of the Parliament I assure you that reason would be far from discouraging me, though such methods are used to force an interest as may very well make your son’s election uneasy, but he hath voted so well in this present Parliament that in hopes of his perseverance I will direct my officers not to oppose him, which I suppose is what you mean by making his election easy.
Foley was obliged to be satisfied. He wrote:
Whatever I have to say to support what I writ to your lordship, I choose rather to waive it and to submit to your lordship’s correction than to enter into any further dispute, since you conclude so kindly from the good opinion you have of my son, . . . and therefore humbly return your lordship my hearty thanks for your favour.
Weymouth was not as good as his word, for he ‘turned over’ all his interest to Birch, to Thomas Foley’s dismay. Despite the alienation of some of his former supporters, allegedly through his own neglect of them, Birch had been campaigning strongly on a platform of defending the Church against Dissenters, relying on ‘the prayers of the faithful’, as Price cynically described it. ‘To show you how honourable Mr Birch is’, spluttered Foley, ‘the argument he uses is that he will nail up the meeting-house doors, that I constantly go there and . . . he hopes they will not be for one so much against the Church.’ Although all the candidates shared the same political predilections, favouring the Country opposition against the Court Whig ministry, there was some tension between the Presbyterian-inclined Foleys and staunch Anglicans like Weymouth and Price, a tension that Birch was able to exploit with some degree of success in that it helped him (along with Weymouth’s resentment towards the Foleys) to capture the support of the Thynne interest. However, it did not do him any good as far as Price was concerned, nor did it cut much ice with the townsmen of Weobley, ‘such inconstant men’ and influenced by more mundane considerations. Foley’s existing financial investment in the borough, and his evident capacity to out-spend his rivals, frightened Birch into backing off before the poll, so that Foley and Price were returned unopposed.10
The Act of 1696 to prevent treating after the teste of the election writ threatened to deprive the Weobley electors of one of their chief pleasures. Price reported the following year that, as usual, ‘they are for money’, but were now ‘under great difficulties how to repeal the bill against expenses’. He was himself confident that ‘next to money, I have their good graces’, a belief that was to prove well founded in the 1698 election. Then the spending battle was once more a duel between Foley and Birch. Although later allegations claimed the payment of bribes (at a rate of between £1 and £2 per head), it would appear that many of the inducements on offer were of a negative kind, for the most part the remission of debts and tax liabilities. Birch was accused of widespread intimidation, including a threat to burn out those of his tenants who would not do as they were bidden. He may also have attempted to play the High Church card again, which would be one interpretation of an odd exchange between the two candidates on the streets of Weobley, as narrated by Alban Thomas (who in the absence of a Thynne nominee had turned his allegiance back to Foley):
Mr Birch meeting Mr Foley and Mr Thomas . . . Mr Foley told Mr Birch he did well to take a popish priest along with him, to absolve those that were to break their words, to which Mr Birch replied a popish priest was as good as the Protestant one went along with him, meaning the parson of the parish.
The election itself was a scene of ‘great confusion’, excused by Birch as the consequence of adopting ‘a new method of callers and inspectors, who disturbed each other’, but attributed by his opponent to the excesses of one of the constables, a determined supporter of Birch, who conducted the mob in a chorus of ‘Hallow’, for or against, whenever a doubtfully qualified elector presented himself. The poll closed with Price at the head, and Foley five votes in front of Birch. Both Foley and Birch, however, claimed four extra votes, which in every case had been accepted by one but not both of the constables. As in 1691 the constables were divided in their allegiances, one to each side, and again as in 1691 the two made separate returns, of Price and Foley, and of Price and Birch, the latter despite the fact that even with his additional four votes the poll taken on behalf of Birch still did not give him a majority. It did, however, put him close enough to Foley to enable him to make something of a case to the Commons when the double return was heard following petitions from both men. This was not a good enough case to stand much chance of success, for his accusations of bribery against Foley, the keystone of his counsel’s arguments, were only ‘weakly supported’ and his witnesses gave a ‘scandalous’ impression. Although Foley’s counsel ‘did not manage for the best’, their client was voted duly elected by the committee of privileges ‘with only one negative’, and by the House without a division.11
Foley had been ‘almost weary’ of the importunities of the Weobley voters even before 1698, and his experience in that election did nothing to relieve his fatigue. By 1700 he had resolved to abandon the borough in favour of Hereford, his late father’s constituency. This left only two declared candidates at Weobley, Price and Birch, and an opportunity that Weymouth, more than ever anxious to see his son in Parliament, was keen to exploit. Encouraged by Robert Harley, with whom he was now in a close political alliance at Westminster, Weymouth took soundings from his bailiff at Weobley, none other than Alban Thomas, and from Price. According to Thomas the Weobley townsmen were ‘longing to hear of a third candidate’. They would ‘rejoice they were not tied to two persons’, and if Henry Thynne would ‘please to come and request Colonel [Henry] Cornewall and Mr Foley and what other gentlemen your lordship hath an interest in to give him the meeting at Weobley with all assistance I humbly conceive may be the best way to make his interest’. Above all, Thynne must ‘appear in person’ to take advantage of the fickleness and instability of the electorate, who were by no means committed to Birch, whatever pledges might have been given. Price, on the other hand, for whom the appearance of a Thynne-supported candidate was a mixed blessing, given the potential embarrassments to his own position, was more cautious. He had already asked Weymouth to give his interest to Birch rather than to a ‘stranger’, in case it should thereby be ‘lost’ permanently. He now pointed out that
Mr Birch has established himself in a very secure interest and not to be shaken without a very great expense. If your lordship will honour Weobley with the recommendation of your son, inclination as well as obligation will oblige me to serve his father’s son, and it would be an extraordinary trouble to me to see Mr Thynne foiled, and I have but one expedient for it, which is, that if Mr Birch outpoll him I will give Mr Thynne the return, and if Mr Birch outpoll me, there will be no occasion of my compliment. There are so many poor rogues that there is no hold of them . . . there are about 65 voters, 30 of them will be for anybody or anything, and many of them are associated to . . . have . . . anyone who will spend money.
Were Weymouth still to proceed in spite of these warnings, Price proposed a strategy identical to that of Thomas, that Thynne should come down to Weobley ‘and let Mr Thomas have half a dozen gentlemen of the country, and some of the best of the town, to meet Mr Thynne and treat him’. He added that this should be done ‘without the least notice’ and while both he himself and Birch were absent. Further expenditure could not be avoided: ‘a guinea in every alehouse for treat’, and a further sum to be distributed among the electors. ‘Intimidation’ was, however, to be avoided. Having weighed this advice, Weymouth decided to press on with his son’s candidacy and ‘set all hands at work in Weobley’. He told Robert Harley he would ‘push it as far as it will go, and not spare the prevalent methods there’, despite his own scruples and the peril of the 1696 Elections Act, but, in what may have been a fatal misjudgment, he decided ‘not . . . to send my son thither till the time of the election’. Meanwhile he despatched ‘a servant’ to the town ‘to give me a more certain account of matters’, aware of his disadvantage at being so far from the borough, and not entirely trusting himself to either Thomas or Price. Once Weymouth had announced his intention, the difficulties of the enterprise began to bear in upon him. Harley, who had previously been sanguine as to Thynne’s prospects, sounded a note of warning and regretted that a more thorough preparation had not been made. His information was that
the voters are about 70. Mr Price hath an undoubted majority, Mr Birch hath about 30 firm to him, so that, three standing, he that would carry it must be sure of more than 40 votes, for, supposing 70 the number of electors, the case may stand thus, A47, B46, C46. I mention only this that your lordship’s agents may not be misguided.
Then came a detailed report from Stephen Lewis, an agent in the borough, which in spite of recording the delight of Churchmen that they had a staunch Anglican to vote for rather than ‘a phanatick and a stubborn enemy to our Church and constitution’ (a somewhat exaggerated description of the moderate Whig and former hammerer of Dissent, John Birch), dwelt on the treating and bribing that both Birch and Price had already engaged in. Birch was ‘very solicitous and eager, giving out that where Mr Thynne spends 3d. he will spend a groat’, or, rather more realistically, that he would pay 7s. 6d. to every 5s. of Thynne’s, a sum he had already offered to his more ‘doubtful’ voters. He had also secured the support of three of the five alehouses ‘that have votes’, and designed to leave 10s. in each alehouse in the town to provide drinks for the voters. As for Price, he had distributed £10 in the town, treated to the value of £3 and had given £2 to the poor. Worse still there was the prospect of a fourth candidate, Colonel Henry Cornewall. Already a small ‘confederacy’ of burgage holders had attempted to persuade Cornewall to stand, and several of Weymouth’s correspondents had expressed concern that he might intervene. A deeply duplicitous individual, Cornewall was also engaged in a tortuous scheme to bring in his cousin Charles Corn(e)wall* for the county, where he needed Weymouth’s support, so at first his ambitions at Weobley were kept hidden. The first inkling came when Lewis wrote that one of Cornewall’s relations had approached Alban Thomas with an offer to buy his services. This being rejected, the emissary ‘sent his agent to town to desire the votesmen not to dispose of their votes till the Colonel came to town’. Cornewall duly presented himself as a candidate, his ‘men’ making a loud cry, that ‘whatever any spent his master would double it’. At first Price regarded this move by Cornewall as ‘but a feint – possibly to oblige me to declare for his cousin’ in the county: he still saw the contest as a three-horse race. However, Cornewall’s agent continued to be prodigal with promises and, more to the point, with hard cash, as the election proceeded in ‘the prevailing method’ of the borough, a rapidly escalating auction of bribes, accompanied by lavish and repeated treating, and culminating in an extraordinary gesture by Cornewall, who gave ‘a guinea to every votesman, and half a crown to every votesman’s child, and 12d. apiece to every servant’. The irruption of Cornewall thoroughly confused the tentative alignment of candidates. Cornewall seemed to seek Weymouth’s friendship, and succeeded for a while in sowing mistrust between Weymouth and Price, whom Weymouth’s agents suspected of having made an underhand alliance with Birch. In fact, no two candidates had formally joined their interests, although a vestigial connexion remained between Weymouth and Price, to the extent that those major figures who supported Thynne, like the bishop of Hereford and Thomas Foley, also supported Price. The situation was clarified a little when Cornewall made the mistake of telling Price that ‘he did not come to Weobley to oppose him, but my Lord Weymouth, with whom he would never be reconciled’. This was duly reported to Weymouth’s agent by Price, anxious to clear himself of suspicion of betraying the Thynne interest, with the result that Weymouth broke off all association with Cornewall, refusing to back his cousin in the county election. This seemed to leave the two High Tories Thynne and Price happily placed in an informal partnership while the other two candidates, Birch and Cornewall, the latter a Tory but a political maverick, stood ‘separately’. However, Weymouth’s troubles were far from over. In early December 1700 he received some unwelcome news from Weobley. He informed Robert Harley that
by this mismanagement of my agents our cake is dough at Weobley, who did not distinguish between giving drink and money, but following the example of the other candidates have given money to all the electors when they asked their votes, and promised more on condition they would vote for my son. This I think has made him incapable of sitting, if returned, and even the others also; for if he carry it one of them will certainly petition and set forth his bribery. For this reason I think to stop my hand as to more expense, but yet keep up the canvass, and possibly a small time before the canvass set up another freeman, who with ten votes will have a majority . . . if you know any gentleman of that country every way fit for the place pray name him to me, for I think he should seem to stand on his own legs and not come in upon my interest because it will be received with prejudice above.
The advice he received on consulting Robert Price was uncompromising. Since Cornewall was resolved to ‘go higher’, in the belief that if the election were to be declared void his expenditure would still ‘serve him a second time’, there was little to do but ‘take that method’ themselves or ‘give it up’. Cornewall might still be ‘undone’ if Birch could be persuaded to step down, and even if the four were to stand there would be a chance that Price’s interest, together with Thynne’s continued financial investment, would carry the day, in which case Price did not believe that either Birch or Cornewall would have the brass neck to petition, knowing themselves to be guilty of bribery as well. Presented with these alternatives, and urged by Sir Edward Seymour, 4th Bt.*, not to be browbeaten by Cornewall, Weymouth resolved to ‘carry it on to the last’, though he made sure his son enjoyed the insurance of a seat elsewhere. Price was empowered to write to Birch to ‘give up his interest’ to Thynne, but was rebuffed: Birch was prepared to join with Thynne against Cornewall, but not to support Thynne if Price still stood as a candidate, his resentment at earlier dealings focusing apparently on Price. In retrospect this might have been a sensible treaty for Weymouth to have made, but Price would not accede to it. And so the auction went on, Cornewall’s agent appearing in the town with a purseful of money, and his master giving a feast for over 40 electors at which each was presented with ‘a new hat and feathers’; Birch ‘proceeding but slowly and with nothing but fair promises’; Price making slower headway still. Weymouth’s agents were confident, the more so when, just before Christmas, Price came to town and the two interests canvassed together. The absence of Thynne himself, attending his other contest, was a drawback, ‘some saying they will not choose him unless he comes in person’, but as late as Christmas Eve the Thynne camp claimed they could still rely on 53 votes. Soon afterwards the blow fell: Price ‘desisted’, leaving Thynne to stand on his own. In response Weymouth, his anger inflamed by the reports he was receiving from his servants, chiefly perhaps Alban Thomas, let fly at Price, accusing him of a ‘sordid prevarication’ and of ‘deserting’ his son. What appears to have infuriated Weymouth more than anything else was the suggestion that Price had withdrawn as part of a ‘secret assignment or contract’ with Birch, whose interests his resignation had in practice served. In reply Price explained his difficulties, in coming late to the borough to play ‘an after game’, and protested that since his arrival there he had been careful to promote and not to impinge upon Thynne’s interest. At last, finding himself ‘too short to stand a poll’, he had ‘resolved to desist’, but in a way not to damage Thynne’s prospects: ‘I resolved to . . . go round the town and to try my interest and to engage as many as I could for Mr Thynne, which I accordingly did’. The problem remained, however, of where to ‘dispose of’ the second preference of ‘them who were for Mr Thynne, if it must be to Cornewall or Birch, or oblige them to a single vote’. The suggestion of plumping was flatly refused by most of Price’s supporters; to give the second votes to Cornewall would be in Price’s view ‘to sell powder and ball to our enemy in that particular’, while to pass on these votes to Birch would be ‘to give it to him that were not grateful in principle’. In the last resort, Price considered Birch preferable to Cornewall, since the latter was ‘a person who made a public profession that he stood to oppose Mr Thynne’ and was also at that stage regarded by Price as the weakest of the three candidates. Giving his second votes to Cornewall would threaten Thynne, while Birch’s position was so strong that a further addition of support would make no difference to the outcome of the poll. Indeed, Price believed that if a conjunction between Thynne and Birch could be brought about, the two men would be sure to carry the day. Evidently Alban Thomas did not share this view, preferring Cornewall as the recipient of any second votes, and Price countered the insinuations made against him with innuendoes of his own against Thomas, as acting in collusion with Cornewall. This division over strategy between Price and Thomas was blamed by Weymouth’s other principal agent, Stephen Lewis, for the loss of the election. ‘I cannot imagine whether there could be any mistakes on our side’, he wrote,
unless by Mr Price’s espousing a little too far Mr Birch’s part in opposition to Colonel Cornewall, and by Mr Thomas’s tacitly the colonel’s against Mr Birch, giving his vote for the colonel, with which I ver[il]y believe some of our votesmen were offended, expecting he should give his single voice for Mr Thynne.
Naturally, Price put the blame for Cornewall’s late surge to the head of the poll chiefly on the shoulders of Thomas, whose sudden declaration in Cornewall’s favour had dismayed Thynne’s voters. This coup de théâtre by the Cornewall interest had been combined with another unexpected move, the last-minute candidature of Charles Cornwall, intended solely to draw off voters from his cousin’s opponents and successful to a limited but significant degree, his four votes, allegedly taken from Thynne, making a disproportionate impact in a close contest. And of course there was Cornewall’s continued campaign of treating, which took off ‘16 or 18 votes’ from Thynne over the last few days of canvassing. While Birch’s votes remained fairly steady, Cornewall moved from a deficit of 35 votes to 63 in relation to Thynne to a majority of 51 to 44 in less than a week. An attempt by Price to secure a double return, on the basis of the notorious bribery and infractions of the 1696 Elections Act that had taken place, was foiled when none of the greater gentry of the county who were present would support him. Having been safely returned at Weymouth and Melcombe Regis, Thynne did not petition, but the election did not go unchallenged. There were petitions from the ‘burgesses’ of the borough (one styled ‘from some of the unbribed burgesses’) against Cornewall and Birch respectively, and, somewhat surprisingly, a petition from Charles Cornwall against both sitting Members and probably seeking the voiding of the election since it also accused Thynne of bribery. Cornwall had not been successful in the county and may well have blamed his cousin’s dubious tactics in Weobley and elsewhere for his own defeat there. Fortunately for the borough, none of these petitions was heard, and Weobley’s remarkable display of venality was not given the publicity that boroughs like Hindon and Stockbridge suffered.12
Weymouth had burnt his fingers so badly in this election that he did not involve himself at all in the second general election of 1701, other than giving his interest to Robert Price, now fully restored to Weymouth’s good graces, though evidently not at the expense of Alban Thomas, who remained in Weymouth’s employ. Without the complication of a Thynne candidacy, yet with the family’s backing, Price was able to secure his own return. Birch and Cornewall fought for the second seat, and apparently according to the customary rules, for Cornewall’s petition on against his successful rival alleged extensive ‘treating and bribing’ subsequent to the teste of the writ. As before, the case was not heard. The following summer Cornewall turned the tables. Price, now raised to the bench, was succeeded by his eldest son, Thomas, and Cornewall defeated Birch for the other seat after ‘bribing the major part of the electors with £5 a man’, according to Birch’s petition of 4 Nov. Birch also petitioned against Thomas Price, with whom he claimed to have tied for second place behind Cornewall, alleging that both constables had acted partially against him, in admitting and excluding votes, and at the end in denying him the double return to which he was entitled. Yet again the petition went unheard.13
The decision of Thomas Price to travel abroad rather than seek re-election in 1705 realized the unthinkable catastrophe for the Weobley ‘votesmen’ of an uncontested election, Cornewall and Birch being returned together. Cornewall’s decision to stand down three years later produced a similar outcome. His replacement was Henry Thynne, who thus succeeded belatedly in obtaining one of the seats at Weobley, alongside Birch, only to resign it swiftly in favour of another constituency. The ensuing by-election did give rise to a contest, ‘to the great joy of that noble corporation’, as Robert Harley’s sister sarcastically put it. Misled by his son’s unopposed success in the general election, and flattered no doubt by the various applications made to him over the vacancy on behalf of Tories like Henry St. John II* who had lost their seats in the Whig victory, Weymouth gave his countenance to one such carpet-bagging High Churchman, Charles Caesar*, who went down to Weobley as the Thynne nominee. He was not the only outsider, for the Whig Sir John Germain, 1st Bt.*, also appeared, ‘who with the help of Captain Charles Cornwall hopes to do wonders’. The more serious opposition, however, came from a local Tory squire, Henry Gorges, who stood in part on a platform of resisting the ‘foreigner’. As Gorges’ ‘cousin’ and chief backer, Hon. James Brydges*, observed, ‘I think the putting up of Mr Caesar is as great an affront as could be offered to our county’. Gorges seems also to have secured the support of Robert Price, who at any rate was active in opposition to Caesar. Indeed it was reported that ‘most think and hope Gorges will be the man, his being the superior interest in the town, and all the gentlemen of the country by letters and otherwise declare themselves his friends’. Besides their resentment at outside interference, many Herefordshire gentlemen were anxious for Gorges’ election in the hope that this would ‘quiet matters in the country’, Gorges being a turbulent individual whose meddling in several constituencies in the preceding general election had given rise to animosities and unnecessary conflict. His opponents on this occasion seem to have given up before the poll. Gorges himself crowed, ‘notwithstanding a great deal of talk I have carried without the least opposition’, while Dyer’s newsletter bragged that ‘Henry Gorges, a very honest gentleman . . . is unanimously chosen for Weobley’, adding, ‘that which makes it worth notice is that this corporation used to be the violentest in the country the other way’, a comment that, if intended seriously, must have harked back to Charles ii’s reign. A certain amount of sharp practice on the part of Gorges’ agents had, however, been necessary to deter Caesar and Germain, in particular the very short notice given by the under-sheriff before polling was to begin, about which ‘several burgesses and voters’, either prompted by one of the defeated candidates or themselves disappointed in hopes of a poll, vainly complained in a petition to the House on 10 Jan. 1709.14
The two remaining general elections in the period both promised a contest before ending in an unopposed return. In 1710 Henry Cornewall unexpectedly returned to the fray. He displaced Gorges, who declined to stand upon finding that no intermediary could persuade Cornewall to withdraw. In 1713 Cornewall was in turn succeeded by the younger son of Robert Price, Uvedale. Until the day of the election the issue was in doubt, because of the involvement of ‘one Carpenter, a diminutive justice of the peace, of £160 per annum’ who for some six months ‘kept up a ferment in the borough’, either on his own behalf or ‘to serve the general [George†] of that name’. But ‘after two or three warm skirmishes he vanished’. As Robert Price noted, Carpenter’s campaign was directed solely against Birch, and ‘if Carpenter could have “Cornewallised”, by scattering some guineas illegally’, Price believed that Birch ‘would have been sent to grass’. The nature of the electorate had not changed. ‘There is no going to Weobley for any agent’, a prospective candidate was advised the following year, ‘without money in his pocket to set taps a running in the public houses and a large sum to deposit in a safe hand as a certain reward and purchase for those votes you can be promised.’15
Author: D. W. Hayton
Unless otherwise stated, this article is based on J. Hillaby, ‘Parlty. Bor. of Weobley, 1628–1708’, Trans. Woolhope Club, xxxix. 104–51.
- 1. Harl. 6846, ff. 290-1.
- 2. Constables' poll.
- 3. Birch's poll.
- 4. Foley's poll.
- 5. Bath mss at Longleat House, Thynne pprs. 25, f. 55.
- 6. CJ, xiii. 472; xxii. 769–70; Add. 70018, f. 50; T. Heywood, Bor. Elections, 269–70.
- 7. Add. 70014, f. 196.
- 8. Harl. 6846, ff. 290–1; Add. 70015, ff. 72–73, 79, 81, 83, 85, 89, 107; 70275, Price to Robert Harley, 13 May 1691; 70226, Thomas Foley to same, 23 May, 9 June 1691; 70234, Sir Edward Harley to same, 12, 15, 27 May, 2 June 1691; HMC Portland, iii. 469.
- 9. Add. 70015, ff. 112, 117, 163, 176, 178, 186–8, 194; 70128, Sir Edward Harley to [–], 15 Sept. 1691; 70234, same to Robert Harley, 22 Sept., 3 Nov. 1691; HMC Portland, iii. 474–5, 478.
- 10. Add. 70252, James Powle to Robert Harley, 3 June 1695; 70226, Thomas Foley II to same, 21 June, 31 July 1695; 70117, Abigail Harley to same, 5 July 1695; 70018, ff. 50, 62, 79, 81–82; Harl. 6846, ff. 290–1; Thynne pprs. 25, f. 15.
- 11. Thynne pprs. 24, f. 331; Bodl. Carte 79, f. 758; Add.70305, Foley’s case ; 70019, f. 55; HMC Portland, iii. 600.
- 12. Thynne pprs. 24, f. 331; 25, ff. 6, 10, 13, 15, 17–18, 20–21, 23–25, 27–29, 31–33, 36–37, 39–40, 43, 45–46, 49–50, 55–58; 26, ff. 285–6; Add. 70019, ff. 253, 270–1, 275; 70226, Thomas Foley II to Robert Harley, 9 Dec. 1700; 70020, f. 38; HMC Portland, iii. 634, 636–7; iv. 11.
- 13. HMC Portland, iv. 26.
- 14. Ibid. 513, 515; Add. 70254, Robert Harley to Robert Price, 27 May 1708; Huntington Lib. Stowe mss 57(2), pp. 120, 133; 58(3), p. 109; Thynne pprs. 25, f. 451; 45, ff. 262–3.
- 15. HMC Portland, v. 326–7; Add. 70226, Thomas Foley II to Ld. Oxford (Harley), 19 Aug. 1713; Hereford and Worcester RO (Hereford), Brydges mss A81/IV, Francis to William Brydges, 13 Sept. 1714.