Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1660-1690, ed. B.D. Henning, 1983
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Background Information

Right of Election:

in the freemen

Number of voters:

1,152 in 1673


8 Apr. 1661SIR THOMAS SMITH, Bt. 
10 Feb. 1673ROBERT WERDEN vice Ratcliffe, deceased601
 William Williams551
14 June 1675WILLIAM WILLIAMS vice Smith, deceased 
11 Jan. 1689ROGER WHITLEY 
 Sir Thomas Grosvenor, Bt. 
 Richard Levinge 

Main Article

Chester, on the outbreak of the Civil War, had declared for the King, and much royalist sentiment persisted during the Interregnum. The franchise was technically vested in the freemen, but in the disputed election of 1673 it was stated, on behalf of the successful candidate, that

the right of election hath been always in the inhabitants as well as freemen. The last burgesses were so chosen, and all elections in the memory of man have been by the scot and lot inhabitants and freemen promiscuously, and never questioned until Mr Williams found himself reduced to the necessity of making it a question.

The form of the returns and the size of the polls seem to indicate that sometimes the legal franchise may have been ignored. Of the successful candidates John Ratcliffe, William Ince, Roger Whitley, and George Mainwaring were residents; but Sir Thomas Smith and Robert Werden came from families long intimately associated with the municipality, and William Williams, like Ratcliffe, had served for several years as recorder. When Sir Thomas Grosvenor began to cherish parliamentary ambitions in 1675, his first attempt to qualify himself by obtaining the freedom was rebuffed by a majority in the corporation; but his request was granted two years later, he was almost immediately called to the bench, and was returned at the next election.1

In 1660 Chester returned Ratcliffe, a Presbyterian, and the moderate royalist alderman, Ince. In 1661 the Duke of York recommended to the corporation Sir Edward Savage, a courtier ‘whose ancestors have well deserved’ from the city; but Ratcliffe was re-elected, and with him the Cavalier Smith. The by-election on Ratcliffe’s death in 1673 produced the heaviest casualties recorded in any constituency in the period. Three candidates entered the field; Williams, the son of a royalist clergyman, Werden, another old Cavalier, and James Bradshaw, whose father had represented the city in the second Protectorate Parliament. Werden, the son of a Chester attorney, obtained a letter of support from his master, the Duke of York, while Lord Chancellor Shaftesbury unsuccessfully urged Williams to desist. As a government correspondent wrote:

We are like to have a great bustle about it. I look on this city to be two-thirds of the royal party and one-third fanatics. The colonel and the recorder divide our party and the other has the fanatics. I wish our dividing does not make way for him. Our hopes were the recorder might have been taken off by means of the lord chancellor, and then Colonel Werden would, without dispute, have carried it, but the recorder will not be persuaded to desist; he is a Welshman.

In the event it was Bradshaw who stood down; but when it became clear that a poll would still be necessary, the election was adjourned from the hall to Roodee field.

The recorder immediately after the adjournment threw off his gown, leaped on men’s shoulders, and commanded his party to carry him to the field, doing this without commanding the multitude to avoid the hall, which is usual on such occasions, which caused such a crowd that nine men were smothered going down the stairs, and many others crushed, some of whom are since dead.

In a further report Joseph Williamson was told that:

the recorder is an obstinate competitor. By his policy he withdrew the under-sheriff from the court, so that the return of the writ is only by the King’s sheriff. The mayor was a great stickler for the recorder, and made many freemen to vote for him after the writ was opened and the election going on, near thirty as I am informed. Now the recorder, having seventeen more freemen’s votes than the sheriff, makes him bustle and make the under-sheriff certify for him. But if the freemen the mayor made during the election were withdrawn, as they ought to be, the colonel would have [the] major votes of freemen. But it has always been practicable here for all inhabitants that pay duties to King and Church to vote.

After three days’ polling it was announced that Werden was elected by a margin of 50. Williams’s petition was finally rejected by the House on 27 May 1675, the day after a new writ had been ordered to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Smith. Three weeks later he was returned, apparently unopposed.2

Williams was elected to the first two Exclusion Parliaments, again without a contest, with Grosvenor, a wealthy local baronet. Both were at this time regarded as members of the Opposition. By 1681, however, Grosvenor seems to have transferred his allegiance to the Court, and in the Oxford Parliament his place was taken by Whitley, a former placeman who had joined the Opposition. Williams was ‘chosen unanimously in his absence (and without any charge)’. In August an address approving the dissolution of Parliament was signed by about 800 citizens of Chester and another address abhorred the ‘Association’. But a year later the city gave Monmouth a rapturous and riotous reception, in which Whitley and a number of the local leaders of the country party joined. Bonfires were lit, and the mob shouted: ‘Let Monmouth reign, let Monmouth reign’. On the issue of a writ of a quo warranto, the surrender of the charter was mooted, which Williams passionately opposed, urging the right of the freemen to decide, and asking:

Shall Chester be afraid to meet the King in his own courts and defend its just rights? ... It were better the charter were lost by judgement than by surrender, because they had the advantage of writs of error, etc. A surrender would be self-homicide.

The grand jury declared that ‘all lawful means should be used to defend the rights and liberties’ of the city, but (according to Williams) Judge Jeffreys procured the surrender of the charter at a packed meeting of the common council after the mayor had left the chair. A new charter was issued in November 1683 and carried down by Grosvenor, the new mayor. Whitley and Williams, together with the leading Whig alderman George Mainwaring, were specifically excluded from the freedom of the city.3

In March 1685 Grosvenor and Werden were returned unopposed to James II’s Parliament, and the latter carried up an address from the corporation congratulating him on his accession. Later in the same month the bishop of Chester and the dean and chapter thanked the King for his promise to preserve the established religion, sentiments which they repeated in May 1687. In June the corporation sent an address of thanks for the first Declaration of Indulgence, and in August Bishop Cartwright recommended the recorder, Richard Levinge, as court candidate. On 12 Aug. 1688 the Government conducted a massive purge of the corporation, including Grosvenor and Werden, though in the new charter issued on 28 Aug. Werden was appointed deputy recorder. The officials named in this new charter refused to serve, and the ancient charter was restored. Chester was the scene of the only spontaneous resistance to the Revolution. On the news of the landing of William of Orange, the Roman Catholic Lord Molyneux with two Irish regiments seized the castle; but on 18 Dec. the Earl of Derby entered the city, which had declared for the Prince, and Molyneux’s forces were disarmed and disbanded.4

At the general election of 1689 Whitley and George Mainwaring stood for the Whigs against Grosvenor and Levinge, who were proposed by Thomas Cholmondeley. Before the corporation Williams argued that Grosvenor, as sheriff of the county, was ineligible. According to Whitley:

The mayor said he would take his poll, but would not then resolve to return him (the use and practice being against it), unless he would bring it under the hand of some able lawyers that he might safely do it and would leave him harmless. The poll was demanded; there polled two for Grosvenor and two for Levinge and four or five for me and George Mainwaring. Then the poll was adjourned to a convenient place in the Row in the Bridge Street; some hundreds now polled for me and Mainwaring, but not a man more for the other two, neither would they nor Cholmondeley come to the place, though the mayor sent his officers three several times to let them know the poll was begun, and to journey to it, but they refused. Also proclamation was made that if anybody would poll for them, they should be received; but none appearing for them and some hundreds being polled for Mainwaring and myself, the court was again adjourned to the Common Hall, and notice sent (from the mayor) that if they or any would appear for them they should be received. But they still refusing to come or send, the poll was ended, and in open court George Mainwaring and myself declared to be duly elected, and the return was accordingly made by the mayor under hand and seal, and many aldermen, citizens and gentlemen witnesses.5

Authors: Gillian Hampson / Basil Duke Henning


  • 1. VCH Cheshire, ii. 127-30; Thurloe, iii. 245; Add. 33579, f. 235v.
  • 2. Adm. 2/1745, f. 30; 1746, f. 133v; Cheshire Vis. Peds. (Harl. Soc. xciii), 12; CSP Dom. 1672-3, pp. 505-6, 559, 587; K. H. D. Haley, Shaftesbury, 316; Nottingham Univ. Lib. Pw 2/Hy 199.
  • 3. J. Hemingway, Chester, ii. 386-7; Prot. Dom. Intell. 18 Feb. 1681; London Gazette, 8 Aug. 1681; CSP Dom. 1682, pp. 383, 389-90, 406; July-Sept. 1683, p. 188; 1683-4, pp. 165-6, 200; HMC 8th Rep. pt. 1 (1881), 309; Chester corp. assembly bk. 2, f. 197v; Grey, ix. 515.
  • 4. London Gazette, 8, 16 Mar. 1685, 13 June, 5 Sept. 1687; Cartwright Diary (Cam. Soc. xxii), 75; PC2/72 723, 752; CSP Dom. 1687-9, pp. 256, 324, 382; Cheshire Sheaf (ser. 3), lvii. 29.
  • 5. Bodl. Eng. C711, f. 100; Whitley diary, 11 Jan. 1689.