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:

90 in 1695


8 June 1660SIR GEORGE DOWNING vice Widdrington, deceased
27 Sept. 1666EDWARD HOWARD, Visct. Morpeth vice Widdrington, deceased
 Joseph Williamson
24 Feb. 1679EDWARD HOWARD, Visct. Morpeth
14 Jan. 1689CHARLES HOWARD, Visct. Morpeth

Main Article

The corporation of Morpeth consisted of two bailiffs, who acted as returning officers, and seven aldermen, one for each of the trading companies crafts or guilds. New freemen were presented by the companies at the court leet of the manor in batches of 24, the proportions of the various companies being fixed. The Howards of Naworth, as lords of the manor, usually controlled one seat, but at the general election of 1660 Charles Howard seems to have given his interest to George Monck, who used it to nominate Ralph Knight, one of his most reliable officers but a stranger to the borough, and Sir Thomas Widdrington, probably the most powerful political personage in the county during the Interregnum, put forward his son. Young Widdrington died in May at The Hague, where Howard’s brother-in-law, Sir George Downing, happened to be English resident. He was returned at the by-election, and held his seat in the next four Parliaments. In 1661 he was accompanied by Widdrington’s uncle Henry, but on the latter’s death in 1665 the family interest lapsed, perhaps because the heir was a Roman Catholic. Howard, now Earl of Carlisle, promised Lord Arlington (Sir Henry Bennet) to nominate his ambitious undersecretary, Joseph Williamson, for the vacancy. The townsmen were ill-disposed to elect another stranger, and preferred Carlisle’s son, who took his courtesy title from the borough. But they were told that the young lord was under age and would be better employed in travel than in Parliament. Lord Morpeth, however, did not agree.

Neither wishing to resign nor to displease his father, [he] wrote underhand to the steward, the postmaster, and others that his father was engaged to Lord Arlington for another to serve for Morpeth; but if the town would stand upon themselves and elect him, he would faithfully serve them.

The postmaster, it was suggested, was responsible for delaying Carlisle’s letters in Williamson’s favour, and the electors, ‘demonstrating a power within themselves admitting no contradiction’, claimed that ‘they would have suffered an encroachment of their privileges, if they had not made their own choice’, and this choice was their patron’s son, not his unknown nominee. Williamson received a full account of the proceedings from his brother George:

I am so heartily vexed these people would resolve nothing till the writ was broke up, and then they told me plainly that my lord should not order them, and if Lord Morpeth would not serve them, they would make choice of another in plain terms. Pye, the postmaster, was a dissembling fellow, and, if it lie in your power, remember him. There was no person that would appear for my lord, and I was a stranger and thought my lord had dispatched this concern, for he told me he had secured it, but it is much otherwise, and they say openly that, after Sir George Downing, no courtier nor stranger shall be chosen by them. They would not give me that civility as to speak in the court where the election was ... My reply was, I understood a free election as well as they, so that passed. In fine, they do not value my lord, but are a people full of contention and absolutely against his letter. He ought to have writ to some that would inform me of the town’s intentions before the writ broke up. I find none. ... Never man came off here with more disgrace than I am put to, being the table talk of all the town; yet Colonel [Thomas] Howard, who has the command of my lord’s troop, made his whole interest. They valued him no more than a boy, at which he was very much concerned.1

No further contests are recorded in this period, though henceforward the indentures claim only the ‘consent of the major part of the burgesses’. At the first general election of 1679 Downing and Lord Morpeth were re-elected, but the latter transferred to Cumberland in the autumn, and was replaced in the second and third Exclusion Parliaments by Daniel Collingwood, an army officer of Northumberland origin. The corporation was Tory, sending loyal addresses abhorring the ‘Association’ and the Rye House Plot. Both Coilingwood and Downing were dead by 1685, when Downing’s son-in-law, Sir Henry Pickering, and Theophilus Oglethorpe, another army officer, were elected. A new charter in September 1688 restricted the franchise to the corporation, which was enlarged to consist of a mayor, eight aldermen, a recorder, and 12 common councilmen. Four of the nominees, including the mayor, were Widdringtons, and on the strength of the remodelling Sunderland recommended Oglethorpe and a certain Anthony Ayers. But the charter never came into force, and at the general election of 1689 the new Lord Morpeth, son of the previous Member, was returned with Roger Fenwick, a local gentleman, ‘with the whole assent and consent of the most of the freemen and burgesses’.2

Author: Gillian Hampson


  • 1. Hodgson, Northumb. pt. 2, ii. 382, 432; Cal. Cl. SP, iv. 626; CSP Dom. 1666-7, pp. 150, 163, 196, 308; CSP Dom. Add. 1660-85, p. 163.
  • 2. London Gazette, 12 Mar. 1682, 30 Aug. 1683; CSP Dom. 1687-9, pp. 257, 273.