Available from Boydell and Brewer
A single Member constituency
Right of Election:
in the corporation, past and present, and the honorary freemen
Number of voters:
56 in 1673
|13 Apr. 1660||THOMAS FOLEY I|
|15 Apr. 1661||SIR HENRY HERBERT|
|Sir Ralph Clare|
|7 Nov. 1673||THOMAS FOLEY I||34|
|HERBERT vice Foley, on petition 10 Mar. 1677|
|14 Feb. 1679||PHILIP FOLEY|
|22 Aug. 1679||PHILIP FOLEY|
|14 Feb. 1681||PHILIP FOLEY|
|12 May 1685||SIR CHARLES LYTTELTON|
|11 Jan. 1689||HENRY HERBERT|
A charter of 1605 conferred on the corporation of Bewdley, consisting of the bailiff, 12 ‘capital burgesses’ or aldermen, and 25 common councilmen, the right to elect a single Member. By custom, however, retired members of the corporation continued to exercise the franchise, even if no longer resident, and during this period the electorate was further increased by making the local gentry ‘free burgesses’. The dominant interests in this period were in a cadet branch of the Herbert family, which had acquired the adjoining manor of Ribbesford in 1627, and the Foleys of Witley Court, who had built up a great estate in Worcestershire even more recently.1
As a Royalist in the Civil War Sir Henry Herbert was debarred from standing at the general election of 1660, and the Presbyterian Thomas Foley, who had been disappointed in the county election, was probably returned without a contest. He did not stand in 1661, when the courtier Herbert defeated a ‘country Cavalier’, Sir Ralph Clare. In his petition Clare revived the claim to the franchise of all the ‘burgesses’, first made at the recruiter election of 1647, on the ground that rights derived from custom could not be abridged by charter. But the House accepted the report of (Sir) Job Charlton from the elections committee in favour of the sitting Member, ruling that ‘the new burgesses appointed by the said charter only, exclusive to all others ... had the right to elect a burgess for Parliament’. The commissioners for corporations visited Bewdley on 1 Aug. 1662, ejecting four aldermen and 11 of the common council. A fortnight later four more common councilmen and six others of undefined status were similarly removed. Presumably it was intended to deprive the latter group of their right to vote. Nevertheless the town remained a nonconformist stronghold.2
In April 1673, with Herbert suffering from a ‘remediless distemper’ in London, Foley let it be known in Bewdley that the seat would be ‘most acceptable’ to him, though ‘he would not himself move while Sir Henry Herbert was living’. Herbert wished his son to succeed him, though he was under age; but a letter to the bailiff from the latter after his father’s death found most of the voters pre-engaged. Foley ‘for some years past by placing four of their boys yearly in his hospital and sending money to the poor preparatory to this election ... hath at this present at the least three parts in four of their votes’. Owing to the recess the writ could not be authorized until 27 Oct.; but Herbert made little headway. When his kinsman Lord Newport was approached for his interest, he grumbled: ‘I do not love to play after-games, especially where there is not a probability of prevailing’. Herbert was handicapped by his youth, and perhaps by suspicions of aristocratic patronage and dislike of the Court, though his politics were to prove more flexible than could have been expected. Religion, on the other hand, was not at issue. Despite Foley’s evident nonconformist sympathies, his principal agent in the borough was the rector of the mother church at Ribbesford. Of the 17 ‘burgesses’ nominated by the commissioners in 1662, all presumably sound churchmen, no less than ten were to vote for him. On the other hand 12 of the corporation who had probably not taken the sacramental test voted for Herbert, and only ten for Foley. The poll lists 56 electors, of whom 13 were former members of the corporation and five honorary freemen. Foley had large majorities both in this group of ‘other burgesses’ and on the bench; but the Twenty-Five were evenly divided, with the narrowest possible edge to Herbert. In a last desperate effort to hamper his opponent’s election, Herbert asked (Sir) Edward Turnor to have him pricked as sheriff of Worcestershire; but Foley’s son was allowed to serve instead, and he was triumphantly returned. There remained only a petition, which Herbert entrusted to Charles Cornwallis II, but owing to the brevity of the ensuing sessions it could not be determined till 10 Mar. 1677. Herbert seems to have lulled his opponent into a false security by circulating an attack on the ‘other burgesses’, whose votes had been regularly allowed, notably in favour of Herbert’s father in 1661. Next, he objected that seven of Foley’s voters had failed to qualify themselves for office by receiving the sacrament; but this test would actually have increased Foley’s majority, since 12 of Herbert’s supporters were in the same boat. But before the committee he unmasked his batteries by basing his case on a charge of bribery, presumably with reference to Foley’s charities, and the House, perhaps prejudiced against the sitting Member as a manufacturer and a new man, unseated him.3
Meanwhile the character of the electorate was changing. Vacancies on the common council were left unfilled, while the numbers of honorary freemen increased to 14. Herbert, defeated in the first election of 1679 by Foley’s younger son Philip, petitioned for a wider franchise. He claimed that all inhabitants paying scot and lot had the right to vote, and may have found considerable support in the elections committee, for it was not until the last day of the first Exclusion Parliament that Sir John Trevor reported in favour of the sitting Member, and the recommendation was upheld by the House by a large majority. Foley was re-elected in the autumn by ‘the major part of the burgesses’, and Herbert’s petition was never reported. Foley was probably unopposed in 1681, when Herbert was returned for Worcester.4
Bewdley surrendered its charter in July 1684, but the replacement was not received till 12 May 1685. The number of aldermen was increased to 15, and as residence ceased to be a necessary qualification seven of those nominated were local gentry. The recorder’s powers were enlarged, but with the usual proviso that he and all other officials could be removed by order-in-council. Meanwhile the lord lieutenant had written: ‘I am to find one to oppose Mr Herbert at Bewdley’. Presumably he chose Sir Charles Lyttelton, an army officer from a local magnate family, who was nominated alderman under the new charter, and on the same day returned, doubtless without a contest, to James II’s Parliament. He was approved for re-election as court candidate by the lord lieutenant in March 1688 and by the King’s electoral agents in September, and ordered by Sunderland to stand. Nevertheless the corporation was purged on 12 Sept. in the dissenters’ interests, when the recorder and three aldermen were displaced. It is unlikely that Lyttelton stood in 1689. Philip Foley was returned for Stafford, and the electors ‘unanimously made choice’ of Herbert, ‘which is all the charter of the said borough enableth us to do’. A resolution was passed to petition for a new charter, presumably with the right to elect a second Member, but no action was taken.5
Author: Edward Rowlands
This article is based on P. Styles, ‘Corp. of Bewdley under the Later Stuarts’ in Univ. of Birmingham Hist. Jnl. i. 92-115.
- 1. VCH Worcs. iv. 308, 372.
- 2. CJ, viii. 414-15; D. Hirst, Rep. of the People, 226, 281.
- 3. Epistolary Curiosities of Herbert Fam. ed. Warner, i. 97-100; Bath mss, Thynne pprs. 18, f. 217; CSP Dom. 1677-8, pp. 8, 11; CJ, ix. 397.
- 4. CJ, ix. 564, 634, 638.
- 5. SP44/56/435; CSP Dom. 1685, p. 23; Duckett, Penal Laws (1882), 240, 442; CSP Dom. 1687-9, p. 275.