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 corporation

Number of voters:



22 Oct. 1669JOSEPH WILLIAMSON vice Gawdy, deceased 
 (Sir) Joseph Williamson 
 WILLIAMSON vice Heveningham, on petition, 17 June 1685 
15 Jan. 1689SIR HENRY HOBART, Bt. 
 Sir Joseph Williamson 
14 Feb. 1689SIR FRANCIS GUYBON vice Hobart, chose to sit for Norfolk 
 Adam Felton 
20 June 1689JOHN TRENCHARD vice Harbord, chose to sit for Launceston 

Main Article

The franchise at Thetford was enjoyed by the corporation, consisting under the Elizabethan charter of the mayor, who acted as returning officer, ten ‘burgesses’ or aldermen, and 20 common councilmen. To the great inconvenience of most of the county it was an assize town; and the proximity of the sporting delights of Newmarket and Thetford Chase ensured a strong gentry interest in a town that was otherwise little more than a posting station and a cluster of medieval ruins on the Norwich road. In 1669 three of the aldermen were peers and one a baronet, while of the six remaining commoners at least half were tenants of the Howard family, who owned all the manors in the borough. Henry Howard and Sir Horatio Townshend may each have returned one Member in 1660 and 1661. But Townshend depended solely on his ‘acquaintance’ at Thetford, and the Howard interest was not well managed. They gave way first to Lord Arlington (Sir Henry Bennet), who had acquired the great estate of Euston, and then to two ambitious officials: Arlington’s under-secretary, Joseph Williamson, and William Harbord, whose father and brothers were Norfolk landowners.1

At the general election of 1660 Thetford returned two supporters of the Restoration, though Sir Philip Wodehouse had sat for the county under the Protectorate and Robert Paston had been added to the commission of the peace in the previous year. Although Wodehouse had a good interest in the borough, where he owned one of the largest houses, and probably enjoyed Townshend’s support, he did not stand in 1661, and Paston transferred to Castle Rising, another and easier Howard borough. Their successors were William Gawdy, who was advised to apply to Howard, and the courtier Sir Allen Apsley, who seems to have been a friend of Townshend. When Gawdy died in August 1669 Howard was on a visit to Tangier, and the management of the family interest at Thetford fell into the incompetent hands of the recorder, Thomas Povey. ‘Everything done by Povey is done with a fatal folly and neglect’, wrote Samuel Pepys, and he proved quite as unequal to controlling the Thetford corporation as to rendering intelligible accounts of expenditure at Tangier. Faced with an application from Arlington on behalf of Williamson, who had made several unsuccessful attempts to enter Parliament, he lamented:

Wodehouse begins to pretend as a neighbour, and Sir Allen Apsley and others are busy declaring (and writing also) that my impotency makes me civil to my Lord Arlington and Mr Williamson, and that the more prevalent interest of Kendall [the mayor] can do them effectual service, and do therefore offer their services to my Lord Arlington, as if from them Mr Williamson were to receive his preferency.

Recognizing a broken reed when he saw one, Williamson applied to (Sir) George Reeve, who could claim no interest in the borough, but offered excellent advice:

If Lord Arlington will write to Lord Howard, now at Tangier, he may secure his interest at Thetford before the election. ... I am confident that on his lordship’s return at Michaelmas he will go to Thetford, and [two of the aldermen] Burrage Martin and Osmond Clark, his tenants, will then so settle the business that you need not doubt the result; though I hear Sir John Knyvett will stand for it. If my lord will write to Lord Townshend to employ Capt. Kendall, another of Lord Howard’s tenants living at Thetford, to join the other two on your behalf, you might sit still and fear no opposition.

It was Townshend who found the key to the situation by recommending Williamson as a particularly suitable person to promote legislation on behalf of the borough, especially a bill to revive Thetford as a port. A hurried canvass on behalf of the sheriff, Sir George Vyner of Fordham, a Londoner who may have inherited sympathy with dissent, revealed no support, and it is not clear whether Knyvett (the father of Thomas Knyvett) went to the poll. Parliament was in recess till 19 Oct., when a new writ was authorized. Three days later Williamson was returned by Kendall’s successor, Robert Tyrrell ‘and the burgesses and commonalty’. The corporation promptly applied to Williamson and Apsley for a new charter. According to Povey, their aim was to complete their emancipation from the Howards by extending the franchise to the freemen. They went on to assert that:

From time out of mind Thetford has been the place for loading and unloading commodities from the upper counties to our borough, and from thence to divers counties down the stream, such as Cambridge, Huntingdon, Bedford, Lincoln, etc., to the great advantage of our poor corporation and the maintenance of the inhabitants. But divers parts of our channel are rendered unnavigable by accumulation of sand and have become useless. We therefore request an Act of Parliament empowering us to cleanse it so as to revive former advantages, and granting that all future benefits arising therefrom may be settled upon our corporation in perpetuity.

Nothing more is heard of the new charter, but a bill ‘for making navigable the rivers of Brandon and Waveney’ was reported from committee by Sir Robert Carr on 12 Mar. 1670 and received the royal assent at the end of the session. The measure proved to be of great benefit to the town.2

Arlington, now lord chamberlain, was ‘very earnest’ on behalf of Apsley after the dissolution of the Cavalier Parliament, and procured a letter from Townshend to the corporation. Although Williamson lost his post before the general election, he had quite eclipsed his former patron. His town house was soon to become one of the sights of Thetford, and he was re-elected to all the Exclusion Parliaments. The second seat went to Harbord, whose octogenarian father added a codicil to his will for a rent-charge of £30 p.a. for the poor. According to Harbord, before the August election:

My lord chamberlain, thinking it very hard that his servant, Sir Joseph, should so constantly be chosen under his nose and quite exclude him, writ to him to desist in favour of his brother; and in answer that worthy gentleman begged his pardon as for himself, but offered his assistance to bring Sir John Bennet into my place. Whether he could have effected it or no, I know not, but my lord chamberlain most generously declined that motion ... [and] Sir Joseph and myself were unanimously chosen.

Halcyon days followed for the local building industry. Harbord gave tangible form to his father’s bequest by putting up half-a-dozen alms-houses; Williamson, who had married a wealthy widow, added a new court room and grand jury chamber to the guildhall. Though both Members had opposed the first exclusion bill, their paths thereafter diverged and Harbord became a violent Whig. It was deposed that his brother-in-law William Cropley said that he and Harbord would ‘govern’ Thetford and ‘have the choice of making burgesses for Parliament’. It is not surprising, therefore, that, despite a loyal address approving the dissolution, the borough was the first to be attacked by a quo warranto. The surrender of the charter was announced in December 1681; but after the Revolution a protest was produced, signed by 17 of the corporation. It was alleged that the mayor only obtained the requisite majority by disqualifying two of them under the Corporations Act and swearing in his adolescent son and a local atheist. The new charter, naming Williamson as recorder, was apparently obtained by a local squire and coffee-house wit, Henry Heveningham. The remodelled corporation returned thanks in an address abhorring the ‘Association’ and abusing the Whigs for using Parliament to invade the prerogative. A further address abhorred the Rye House Plot in 1683.3

Williamson stood again at the general election of 1685, but Heveningham, as mayor, returned himself with another Tory squire, William de Grey. This was too much even for so compliant a Parliament, and Williamson’s petition was ordered to be heard at the bar of the House, while another petition from the ‘burgesses and inhabitants’ was committed. On 2 June the Commons resolved unanimously that no mayor could return himself for his own borough. Next day Williamson produced an indenture in his favour which Heveningham had rejected. A motion to hear evidence at the bar was narrowly rejected in a full House, and the merits of the election referred to the committee. On 17 June Sir Christopher Musgrave reported that ‘commonalty’ must be interpreted to mean only the common council, and the House declared Williamson elected. Two years later he presented the corporation with a magnificent gold sword and mace, and it was with his concurrence that they produced an address after the first Declaration of Indulgence, pointedly thanking the King for his promise to maintain the Church. In April 1688 the royal electoral agents reported:

Thetford is a corporation. The election is in the body corporate, consisting of 30 [sic]. There is great need of a regulation. The town is under the power of the Duke of Norfolk and Lord Chief Justice [Robert] Wright. They will choose whom your Majesty will name.

With only two dissentients, the corporation resolved on an address, approved by Wright, promising to elect Members who would concur with the ‘royal purposes’. Nevertheless in September it was again urged:

A regulation [is] requisite; otherwise Sir Joseph Williamson will be chosen. If the regulation be passed, they will choose Lord Chief Justice Wright’s son and Mr Vincent.

The junior court candidate was apparently Samuel Vincent of Buckenham, a partner with (Sir) John Parsons and Nicholas Barbon in the Fire Insurance Company, and perhaps unfairly remembered by the county historian as ‘a very great humorist’ who constructed a fishpond on the roof of his house. Sunderland accordingly wrote to Wright, who had property in the county, to instruct his son to stand; but nothing seems to have been done about the corporation, though on 6 Nov. they boldly demanded that no new charter should pass without notice to the mayor or Williamson. The 7th Duke of Norfolk, though a Protestant, does not seem to have inherited even the limited interest exercised by his father, and Wright was thrown into the Tower during the Revolution. De Gray had died in 1687, and Heveningham had probably left the county. Hence the general election of 1689 brought the long rivalry of Harbord and Williamson to a head. Harbord, who had returned from exile with William of Orange, strengthened his interest by putting up Sir Henry Hobart, the leader of the Norfolk Whigs, for the other seat. They were elected under the Elizabethan charter, although its surrender had been enrolled, and on 1 Feb. they both chose to sit for other constituencies. New writs were ordered, but only a single by-election was held, presumably because a petition from Williamson against Harbord was pending. Sir Francis Guybon defeated Adam Felton, who also petitioned. On 13 May it was moved unsuccessfully to defer the hearing of both cases. The report of John Birch was almost wholly confined to the circumstances in which the charter had been surrendered in 1682; but on his recommendation the House decided in favour of Harbord and Guybon, and a new writ was again authorized to fill the former’s seat. After an unexplained delay of almost a month John Trenchard, the prominent Whig lawyer and conspirator, was elected, doubtless on Harbord’s interest. Perhaps the corporation had belatedly discovered that they had no power to act except under the charter of 1682, for on 6 Dec. they presented a petition for redress, which was ordered to be taken into consideration on the second reading of the bill to restore corporations.4

Author: Eveline Cruickshanks


  • 1. T. Martin, Thetford, 45; A. L. Hunt, Capital of East Anglia, 124-5, 319; Add. 29447, f. 398.
  • 2. HMC Gawdy, 190; Pepys Further Corresp. 258; Pepys Diary, 26 Mar. 1664, 24 Mar. 1665; CSP Dom. 1668-9, pp. 457, 490, 535, 549-50, 572, 607; Blomefield, Norf. vii. 368; Hunt, 127.
  • 3. Add. 27447, f. 398; HMC Egmont, ii. 205; Sidney Diary, i. 78-79; Blomefield, ii. 137, 138; Hunt, 138-9; London Gazette, 19 Feb. 1681, 13 Apr. 1682, 12 July 1683; CSP Dom. 1680-1, p. 612; 1682, pp. 15, 72; Jan.-June 1683, p. 276; CF, x. 140.
  • 4. CJ, ix. 716, 721; x. 140, 302; Hunt 289, CSP Dom. 1687-9, pp. 33, 137, 276, 341; London Gazette, 3 Oct. 1687, 4 June 1688; Duckett, Penal Laws (1882), 314, 315; Blomefield, ii. 268; PCC 194 Dyke.