St. Albans


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


about 600 in 1660-81; under 100 in 16851


 Alban Cox
 Sir Henry Coningsby
15 May 1668SAMUEL GRIMSTON vice Jennings, deceased
 Samuel Grimston
 (Sir) Samuel Grimston
 (Sir) Thomas Pope Blount

Main Article

Under the charter of 1554 the corporation of St. Albans consisted of the mayor, who acted as returning officer, and ten ‘principal burgesses’. All returns before the Revolution were made in the name of the ‘burgesses’, though it was claimed that the inhabitants at large customarily exercised the franchise, as at Hertford. The Gorhambury estate, bought by Sir Harbottle Grimston in 1652, provided the strongest traditional interest, but its owner preferred to sit for Colchester. Hence the borough was dominated by Richard Jennings of Sandridge until his death in 1668.2

Jennings and Alban Cox, who had represented the borough in Richard Cromwell’s Parliament, stood again in 1660. There was no opposition to Jennings, but the mayor declared William Foxwist, the recorder, returned for the other seat. Cox petitioned, and produced an unofficial poll, which was rejected by the elections committee. All three candidates had been active supporters of Parliament in the Civil War, and Foxwist had held office under the Protectorate as a Welsh judge. He resigned his recordership before the next election in 1661, when there was a contest for the junior seat between Thomas Arris, a physician who owned considerable property in and around the borough, and Sir Henry Coningsby of North Mimms, one of a prominent local Cavalier family. Arris was returned, and eventually became a court supporter; but his opponent petitioned on the grounds that almsmen had been allowed to vote. However, the elections committee reported that they ‘had had voices time out of mind’, and the House declared Arris duly elected on 25 Jan. 1662. The borough was granted a new charter in 1664, whereby the corporation consisted of 12 aldermen and 24 assistants. A by-election resulted from Jennings’s death in 1668, and Samuel Grimston, heir to the Gorhambury estate, was returned. He stood unsuccessfully for re-election as a country candidate in February 1679, but was said to have lost ‘by being too close-fisted’, and not entertaining till the day of the election. With the Sandridge interest in abeyance, John Gape, a local tradesman of cautious political views and twice mayor of the town, was returned with Thomas Pope Blount, an exclusionist who had just succeeded to the nearby estate of Tittenhanger. Grimston ousted Gape in August and was returned unopposed with Blount. The sitting Members were returned in their absence and without a contest in 1681.3

In October 1684 the mayor, Selioke, surrendered the charter ‘without the consent ... of the gentlemen, burgesses, or commonalty’, and on the accession of James II, ‘notwithstanding the spiteful contrivances of those that designed an interruption to your just and undoubted succession’, a congratulatory address was sent. Electioneering began before the receipt of the new charter, with an announcement by Selioke that John Churchill II, who had married Jennings’s daughter, would stand on the Sandridge interest. Most of the townspeople, it was said, would prefer Grimston and Blount; but Selioke threatened to quarter Churchill’s dragoons on recalcitrant innkeepers and to withdraw their licences, while Whig canvassers, he said, would be prosecuted for riot. On 19 Mar. Churchill delivered the new charter, under which he was appointed high steward and Selioke confirmed as mayor. The number of aldermen was increased to 18, of whom 11 were not only new but non-resident. The mayor and any nine aldermen were empowered to create freemen, both resident and nonresident. The crown reserved the usual right to remove officials, and the mayor and burgesses were to elect Members of Parliament ‘according to the first charter of incorporation by Edward VI’. This clause was, however, interpreted in its narrowest sense during the campaign. Churchill’s followers dared anyone to cry ‘a Grimston or a Blount’, and when some of them did they were gaoled or bound over. On 20 Mar. the 24 assistants were sworn, and five days later, the election was fixed for the last day of the month. At this stage Churchill was sent abroad on a diplomatic mission, and replaced as candidate by his brother George. On the day before the election

the mayor, with these new aldermen, went to the town hall with their servants and others whose names they had in writing, and there called them by their names into the council chamber ... and made about 46 of them free to serve their design and to outvote all that were before made free, from some whereof they took security that they should take no advantage as to their toll, save only in order to their election of Parliament men, and refused to make any townsmen free, telling them that in good time if they behaved themselves well, they might be made free.

Early on election day before the townsfolk were stirring, the mayor read the precept

and got up in chairs one Captain Churchill, a person never before seen or known by the townsmen, and also one Mr Docwra, a stranger also, and were hastening into the mayor’s house to have the two elected; but some of the townsmen accidentally hearing of it came and required a poll, which they denied, saying they were not freemen under the new charter.

But one of the newly created assistants demanded a poll, which could not be refused. Only the new freemen were allowed to vote, and Churchill and Docwra were duly returned. The townsmen petitioned, complaining of the narrow interpretation of the elective clause, and declaring that ‘there were not 100 voices in all, and above one half strangers, newly made free; whereas at former elections, there were not less than 600 voices’. Grimston also petitioned on 30 May, but Parliament was dissolved before a report was made. Some years later a witness at a disputed election maintained that ‘they never knew honorary freemen made till King James’s charter’4

Sunderland recommended Churchill for re-election as court candidate in September 1688. The general election of 1689 was conducted ‘according to the ancient and former usage and custom’, though for the first time the ‘commonalty’ were named on the indenture. No contest is known, and it is possible that Grimston and Churchill agreed to divide the borough.5

Authors: E. R. Edwards / Geoffrey Jaggar


  • 1. HMC Verulam, 101; Luttrell, i. 341; CJ, vii. 351.
  • 2. A. E. Gibbs, Corp. Recs. of St. Albans, 3; VCH Herts. ii. 481; Luttrell, i. 341; CJ, xiii. 395.
  • 3. CJ, viii. 39, 351; Clutterbuck, Herts. i. 445; Cal. Comm. Comp. 854; Gibbs, 6; VCH Herts. ii. 482; BL, M636/32, John to Sir Ralph Verney, 10 Feb. 1679; Smith’s Prot. Intell. 8 Feb. 1681.
  • 4. VCH Herts. ii. 482; London Gazette, 12 Mar. 1685; HMC Verulam, 99-101; CSP Dom. 1685, p. 73; H. C. F. Lansberry, ‘Politics and Government in St. Albans, 1685-1835’ (London Ph.D. thesis, 1964), p. 204; CJ, ix. 722; xv. 37.
  • 5. CSP Dom. 1687-9, p. 276; Lansberry thesis, p. 205.