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 1,000 in 1626


 Sir Nathaniel Napper 
25 Apr. 1625(SIR) WALTER EARLE 
30 Jan. 1626SIR GEORGE MORTON , bt. 
 John Browne II 
  Morton’s election declared void, 17 Feb. 1626 
27 Feb. 1626Sir George Morton , bt.511
 John Browne II498

Main Article

One of the smaller English counties, Dorset in this period largely depended for its prosperity on its ‘great flocks of sheep’, the basis of the local cloth trade, though it was also the country’s leading producer of hemp and flax, the raw materials for rope and fishing nets. The extensive coastline boasted several good harbours, notably at Poole and Weymouth. Although its ports were less important than those of neighbouring Devon and Hampshire, there were strong trading links with France, while Poole was a major base for the burgeoning Newfoundland fisheries. Shire elections were held at Dorchester, the county town, which was notable principally for its ancient earthworks and the puritan leanings of its residents.2

Predictably, the men who represented Dorset in this period were drawn from the county’s wealthiest families. All nine had already received the honour of knighthood by the time of their election, except for John Williams, who was dubbed before the 1604 Parliament met, and Sir George Morton, the county’s first baronet. A lengthy pedigree was doubtless also an advantage, but it was not essential. Though Sir John Strangways’ ancestors had owned land in Dorset since the fifteenth century, Sir Thomas Freke was a second-generation resident, whose father had purchased his estates with the proceeds of a successful Exchequer career.3 For administrative purposes the county was split into Eastern and Western divisions, but this bifurcation had no effect on the selection of the knights of the shire, which was normally agreed in advance by the leading gentry in order to avoid contests.4 In contrast to the Elizabethan era, when local peers apparently influenced some elections, there is no firm evidence of aristocratic pressure during the early seventeenth century. The earls of Suffolk, who held the lieutenancy for most of this period, were non-resident, while the 1st earl of Bristol (Sir John Digby*), who lived at Sherborne, was a newcomer who spent much of his time abroad on embassies, or at home in disgrace.5 Indeed, the disputed 1626 election, in which Dorchester residents almost imposed their own candidate, suggests that the gentry’s grip on the selection process was threatened more from below than from above.6

Dorset’s first three Jacobean elections passed off without incident, the county’s choice falling each time on men linked in some way to Sir George Trenchard†, arguably the leading local gentleman of the late Elizabethan period. His son Sir Thomas was returned to the 1621 Parliament, while his son-in-law Sir John Strangways sat both in that assembly and that of 1614. Sir Thomas Freke and John Williams, who served in the 1604-10 Parliament, were evidently also on close terms with Trenchard, for they each subsequently married one of their children to Sir George’s offspring. Only Sir Mervyn Audley, the senior knight in 1614, did not belong to this kinship group. However, he was a close friend of Strangways, and may also have been encouraged to stand by his relative Sir Francis Bacon*, then attorney-general.7

The electoral dominance of this gentry alliance was finally challenged in 1624. By now Sir George Trenchard was in his mid-seventies, his mantle of leadership having apparently passed to Strangways, who was elected for a third consecutive time. Although the latter’s grandfather had achieved the same feat in the 1550s, no one since had sought to monopolize a Dorset seat to this extent, and Sir John’s latest success effectively triggered a contest for the second place. According to Edward Pitt*, most observers expected Strangways’ partner to be Freke’s son-in-law, Sir George Horsey, who himself came from a long line of Dorset shire knights. However, a challenge was mounted by Sir Nathaniel Napper, an increasingly active figure in county government, who did not belong to the Trenchard-Strangways clique.8 Although from the outset Napper’s chances looked slim, his opponent took no chances. As William Whiteway II* recorded:

Sir Nathaniel Napper stood for the place, being promised that Sir George Horsey should not stand, and thereupon leaving most of his freeholders behind. The cry was very confused, so that the sheriff swore the freeholders that came to give their voices, and Sir Nathaniel lost it by 70 voices. But the contrary faction had such a blot cast upon them for their double-dealing that they will not easily wipe it off.9

Not surprisingly, the 1625 election marked a sea-change in local politics. Strangways opted for a borough seat, his reputation now further diminished by his close association with the earl of Bristol, who was then effectively under house arrest for his part in the abortive Spanish Match negotiations. Horsey, presumably still in bad odour from his earlier trickery, seems not to have sought membership of the Commons at all. In their place, the county returned Napper and Sir Walter Earle, another independent figure within Dorset’s elite. This verdict was shortly afterwards endorsed by the 1st earl of Suffolk, who promoted both men to the rank of deputy lieutenant at the expense of Strangways and Sir George Trenchard.10

Notwithstanding this double snub, in 1626 an unrepentant Strangways achieved a remarkable comeback. Although he again chose to represent a borough, he also made a determined effort to manipulate the shire election. His preferred candidate was his relative Sir George Morton, who at the time was not actually living in Dorset, and was therefore unlikely to be a popular choice. Accordingly, when the gentry gathered at Blandford Forum to settle on two nominees, Strangways left the meeting before any decision had been reached, and instead primed his supporters simply to vote at Dorchester as directed on the day. However, this strategy almost backfired. When the voters gathered on 30 Jan., there was general agreement that the senior place should go to Sir Thomas Freke, ‘in respect of his age and gravity’, but Strangways was slow to announce Morton’s candidacy. With the second seat apparently still wide open, the Dorchester freeholders seized the initiative, and nominated one of their own neighbours, John Browne II*. From the surviving accounts of this election, it is unclear whether Browne himself was expecting this development. As the clamour increased for him to be chosen, he ‘disclaimed the place and got out of the company’, encouraged by his father, Sir John Browne, who was reportedly reluctant to offend Strangways and his allies. Browne’s position was indeed difficult, for he was both Strangways’ brother-in-law and Morton’s kinsman. Nevertheless, the Morton camp proved unable to shout down Browne’s supporters, and a poll became necessary to settle the result. Strangways was clearly rattled by the turn of events, and pressured the aged sheriff, Francis Chaldecot, into agreeing that voters must swear that they had actually been present at the reading of the election writ. This oath was then rigidly applied to Browne’s supporters, but not to Morton’s. Even so, despite further frantic efforts to recruit additional voters for Sir George, and with the final count conducted in a local tavern to restrict the number of witnesses, Morton was eventually deemed to have beaten Browne by a single vote.11

When the Parliament met, Browne’s friends petitioned the Commons, which ruled on 17 Feb. that Morton had not been properly elected, not least because of the imposition of an illegal oath on the voters. The resulting election was again fought between Morton and Browne, but Strangways’ manoeuvring had alienated some members of his own circle, including Sir George Trenchard, who now threw his support behind Browne, his son-in-law. However, Strangways remained resolutely behind Morton, who was also supported by Sir Thomas Freke. Once again the election went to a poll, and as before the sheriff demonstrated bias towards Morton. Browne allegedly mustered more votes than his rival, only to have many of them suppressed, but at the end of the day ‘Mr. Browne was found to have but 498 voices and the baronet 511’. This time the result went unchallenged.12

Strangways’ actions in dividing his own supporters might have been expected to end his own hopes of representing the county again. However, the political climate was transformed in the next 18 months by the introduction of unpopular government measures. In July 1626 the Dorset bench confounded the Privy Council by presenting a constitutional argument against a new levy of shipping, securing a reduction of one-third in the assessment on the county. Soon afterwards, the Forced Loan pushed both Strangways and Sir Walter Earle into the role of martyrs, as they were imprisoned for publicly opposing this arbitrary taxation. Earle achieved particular fame as one of the Five Knights who contested their detention in the courts. Billeting of soldiers in the county proved to be another oppressive burden, and by the time of the 1628 election the clamour for reform had become deafening. As the two Dorset men most closely identified with resistance to the Crown’s policies, Strangways and Earle were returned unopposed, living up to expectations in the Commons by delivering vigorous attacks on billeting and the Forced Loan.13

Authors: John. P. Ferris / Paul Hunneyball


  • 1. SP14/7/82 II.
  • 2. Camden, Britannia (1772), i. 169, 171; J.H. Bettey, Dorset, 48-9, 75, 77, 80, 102; William Whiteway of Dorchester (Dorset Rec. Soc. xii), 71.
  • 3. Hutchins, Dorset, ii. 660-1; iv. 89, 99.
  • 4. Dorset Q. Sess. Order Bk. ed. T. Hearing and S. Bridges (Dorset Rec. Soc. xiv), p. ix; J.K. Gruenfelder, ‘Dorsetshire Elections, 1604-40’, Albion, x. 2.
  • 5. HP Commons, 1558-1603, i. 149; CP, ii. 320; xiiA. 464, 467.
  • 6. Gruenfelder, 8.
  • 7. HP Commons, 1558-1603, iii. 526-7; Vis. Dorset (Harl. Soc. xx), 94; The Ancestor, x. 198; Hutchins, ii. 524, 714; C.B. Herrup, A House in Gross Disorder, 12.
  • 8. OR; Add. 29974, f. 76.
  • 9. William Whiteway of Dorchester, 58.
  • 10. Ibid. 72.
  • 11. Vis. Dorset, 79, 94; Hutchins, ii. 595; Som. and Dorset N and Q, iv. 23.
  • 12. Procs. 1626, ii. 55, 61-2; Som. and Dorset N and Q, iv. 24.
  • 13. APC, 1626, pp. 130-1; R. Cust, Forced Loan, 167, 233; Gruenfelder, 10-11; CD 1628, ii. 286, 361.