Available from Boydell and Brewer
A single member constituency
Right of Election:
Right of election: before 1708 in householders not in receipt of constant alms; after 1708 in inhabitants paying scot and lot and not in receipt of constant alms1
Number of Qualified Electors:
Number of voters:
516 in 1698
|19 Feb. 1690||Simon Harcourt I|
|23 Oct. 1695||Simon Harcourt I|
|21 July 1698||Simon Harcourt I||252|
|3 Jan. 1701||Simon Harcourt I|
|20 Nov. 1701||Simon Harcourt I|
|16 July 1702||Sir Simon Harcourt|
|10 May 1705||Grey Neville|
|Sir Simon Harcourt|
|4 May 1708||Sir Simon Harcourt|
|Hucks vice Harcourt, on petition, 20 Jan. 1709|
|4 Oct. 1710||Sir Simon Harcourt|
|13 Dec. 1710||James Jennings vice Harcourt, called to the Upper House|
|22 Aug. 1713||Simon Harcourt III|
Our view of Abingdon’s political history is partially obscured by the absence of a clearly defined parliamentary franchise. On 23 May 1660 the Commons ruled between two rival interpretations, deciding that the franchise was vested in the inhabitants of the borough not receiving alms, rather than in the corporation alone. Although the House did not define the term ‘inhabitant’, it seems likely from later disputes that householders were meant, as the questions at issue revolved around the payment of scot and lot, residency and ownership. When, on 7 May 1689, the Commons took into consideration the disputed election to the Convention, it was reported that both candidates had agreed that the franchise lay in the payers of scot and lot. However, after the House had ordered a new election and a fresh dispute had been brought before the Commons on 8 Jan. 1690, the only resolutions passed with reference to the franchise concerned the ineligibility to vote of those receiving ‘constant’ alms. Such was the state of the case at the onset of our period.
The disputed elections to the Convention of 1689 were symptomatic of a borough deeply divided by the events of James ii’s reign. The surrender of the old charter, and the installation of a Tory corporation by the new charter of 1686 inflamed passions. Several purges followed, in line with the King’s policy of forging an alliance with the Dissenters (a powerful group in Abingdon with a congregation of over 800 Presbyterians in George i’s reign), so that on the eve of the Revolution the Whigs were in control of the borough. Whig dominance did not last long, however, Tory power being cemented on 1 Oct. 1689 when Simon Harcourt I replaced Thomas Medlycott† as recorder. A letter written later in October 1689 to Alderman Robert Blockaller confirms this Tory resurgence. Its author refers to ‘your proceedings in reforming your corporation’, before counselling support for Harcourt in order to prevent ‘the early disrespects and little indignities that your opposite party, restless in themselves and by this last doubtless more enraged, will be continually contriving to put upon him’. If achieved, such unity would soon blunt the Whigs’ ‘constant methods of rudeness and disturbance’. Whether or not the Tories followed this advice, the 1690 election was a quiet affair, Harcourt being returned ‘by the Church interest’. His influential backers probably included the Earl of Abingdon and Sir John Stonhouse, 2nd Bt.†, the retiring Member (whose stepdaughter Harcourt had married before 1695). However, the borough records at Abingdon show that conflict within the corporation did not cease in 1690. In August 1692 James Curteen was removed from the corporation for obstructing the local poll tax commissioners. It is not known whether this dispute was politically motivated, but it resulted in legal proceedings which saw Curteen restored in November 1693 and elected mayor the following September. Tranquillity had once more descended on the borough by the 1695 election when Harcourt was returned unopposed.2
Harcourt’s growing reputation as a parliamentary performer, which led to rumours that he might be elected Speaker in the new House, may have been responsible for the sharply contested election in 1698. Evidence reported from the committee of elections on 3 Mar. 1699, and embodied in a manuscript state of the case, suggests that William Hucks was encouraged to stand against Harcourt, probably by Lord Wharton (Hon. Thomas*). The carrot dangled before Hucks was a place on the excise commission (of great use to a brewer), which Hucks in turn offered to the voters as a reason to vote for him. Other inducements placed before the electorate were a pledge to use his new influence with the Admiralty to protect the Thames bargemen from impressment and to ensure that the town’s views on the quartering of troops were acted upon. Furthermore, Harcourt faced a great opposition, ‘the fanatic interest of all parties and sects combining’, and accusations that he was disaffected to the government. Some of these activities were to form an important part of Harcourt’s defence against the petition delivered into the Commons by Hucks on 12 Dec. 1698, which alleged that he had the majority of legal votes and should have been returned by the mayor, John Sellwood. In fact, Sellwood had been placed in an invidious position, partly because the intended scrutiny of the poll foundered on the unwillingness of either party to agree on nominees to oversee the procedure, and partly because Sellwood was Hucks’s brother-in-law. In the three to four weeks it took Sellwood to decide in Harcourt’s favour, the mayor was subjected to intense pressure, not least from his own father, who threatened to disinherit him if Hucks were not returned. Indeed, it seems that only fear of being accused of having fallen under the influence of the Tory Earl of Abingdon at a corporation dinner to be held at Rycote brought Sellwood to send in his return. The report of the committee of elections on 3 Mar. 1699 indicates that the committee itself had undertaken a scrutiny of the poll on the basis of the previous determination, excluding those in receipt of constant alms, but also using the payment of scot and lot and of 'housekeeping’ as proof of eligibility to vote. The House agreed with the committee’s resolutions which declared Harcourt duly elected and found Hucks guilty of prosecuting a ‘frivolous, vexatious, groundless and scandalous’ petition. The House then agreed to a further resolution condemning the use made by Hucks during his campaign of governmental authority which, it declared, tended ‘to subvert the freedom of elections’, and decided to punish him by placing him in custody. This outcome seems to have caused considerable bitterness in Abingdon and for a short time led to a breakdown in municipal government. The mayoral election held on 1 Sept. 1699 saw ‘such heats between the two parties, that they could not decide the matter’, ending in an unseemly brawl. In November all meetings of the common council were suspended until a new mayor was sworn in, an event which only took place in May 1700.3
After the events of 1698–1700 Harcourt paid careful attention to Abingdon in the run-up to the January 1701 election, telling Robert Harley* on 14 Dec. 1700 that correspondence should be directed to him there. By 21 Dec. Harcourt was confident enough to predict correctly his own unopposed return. Things did not go quite so smoothly in November 1701, with the appearance of an unexpected opponent, Wharton Dunch* (Lord Wharton’s nephew), which confounded expectations of an uncontested return. However, Dunch’s ‘underhand’ interest ‘proved so inconsiderable, having not above 15 or 20 voices’, that the plan to present Harcourt with a list of impeccably Tory ‘instructions’ for action in the new Parliament went off without disruption. The general election of 1702 saw Harcourt, now knighted and in office as solicitor-general, returned unopposed. In a complete reversal of fortune, Harcourt lost the 1705 election to his Whig opponent, Grey Neville. Although Lord Halifax (Charles Montagu*) informed the Duchess of Marlborough that Neville had ‘revenged Cadogan’s (William*) quarrel on the solicitor’, thereby implying that some of the animus generated by the Marlboroughs’ attempt to impose their candidate at New Woodstock, where Harcourt was steward, had had some bearing on the Abingdon campaign, it seems more likely that Harcourt’s defeat owed much to his difficult position as a Tory office-holder: in the previous session his failure to vote for the Tack had alienated many of his supporters without gaining a corresponding increase in Whig support. Henry St. John II* certainly analysed the result in these terms, noting that ‘there is so much merit in being against the Tack, whatever some wise men may think, that Neville was not to be opposed’. Another contemporary remarked more pithily that Harcourt ‘lost because he has no friends of either party’, an observation which probably explains why Harcourt’s petition presented to the House on 2 Nov. 1705 against the return of Hucks was allowed quietly to drop. On the other hand, Neville, a Nonconformist sympathizer, had the advantage of a large Dissenting vote which rallied to his cause and which no doubt went some way to nullifying the £1,000 Harcourt was rumoured to have spent on his campaign.4
With Harcourt’s resignation from the ministry in February 1708, and subsequent rehabilitation in Tory eyes, the scene was set for a fierce contest at Abingdon at the general election which followed in May. Harcourt was returned, but his Whig opponent, Hucks, petitioned the Commons on 24 Nov. claiming a majority of legal votes. Harcourt now faced the same scenario as ten years before, but this time in front of a hostile House, prepared to put political advantage above the justice of his cause. Fears of a purge of Tory Members, including Harcourt, were being voiced as early as 3 Dec. 1708 by the young Edward (Lord) Harley*. When the Commons considered Hucks’s petition on 18 Jan. 1709 the Tories suffered a major defeat, it being decided by 187 votes to 172 that the right of election lay in those paying scot and lot and not in receipt of alms or charity, a significant narrowing of the franchise as traditionally interpreted, and one which, as Luttrell surmised, ‘seems to favour the petitioner’. Two days later the Whigs, determined to press home their advantage, emerged victorious at 2 a.m., carrying by 180 votes to 121 a resolution that Hucks had been duly elected. Tory views of the case may be summed up with reference to Harcourt’s ‘dying’ speech which was quickly published:
Had it been the pleasure of the House to have construed the charter, under which this election is made, according to the natural and plain words of it, as the inhabitants have always understood it; in such a sense all former Parliaments have frequently expounded it. Had you declared the right of election to be in those persons who have without any interruption exercised it these 150 years, you would not then have heard it insisted on that I had not the majority. Even as you have determined the right, my majority is still unquestionable. No gentlemen with reason can disprove my assertion [that he had been duly elected], whatever reason he may have to refuse me his vote.5
Given the extent of Harcourt’s humiliation it is a measure of the swing of opinion behind the Tory cause that he was unopposed at Abingdon in 1710. Harcourt’s short stay in the Commons before his elevation to lord keeper necessitated a by-election in December 1710 in which another Tory, James Jennings, was returned unopposed, a Whig challenge from Grey Neville failing to materialize. The 1713 general election saw the return to the hustings of Harcourt, now lord chancellor, in support of his son, Simon III, who proved far from popular. In May 1713 a labourer was prosecuted for haranguing the lord chancellor with the slogan ‘a Knapp, a Knapp, a Neville, a Neville, no Harcourt, no Harcourt’. Unfortunately for the labourer, neither of these men could be persuaded to stand, Richard Knapp, the borough recorder, reportedly having been offered a Welsh judgeship in return for his interest. Thus, the view of Dr Stratford that Harcourt ‘would lose it too at Abingdon, should there be any opposition’, was never tested.6
Author: Stuart Handley
- 1. Add. 70305, Abingdon election case.
- 2. B. Challenor, Abingdon Municipal Chrons. 80–81, 176–81; Add. 39989, f. 21; Surr. RO (Guildford), Midleton mss 1248/1, f. 239; Abingdon bor. recs. 1 Sept. 1694.
- 3. Vernon-Shrewsbury Letters, ii. 148; Add. 70305; 30000C, f. 179; NLW, Kemeys-Tynte mss 333, Thomas Lloyd to Sir Charles Kemys, 3rd Bt.*, 3 Mar. 1698–9; Bodl. Tanner 22, ff. 119, 191, 202; Challenor, 183; Abingdon bor. recs. 7 May 1700.
- 4. HMC Portland, iv. 9–10, 180; HMC Cowper, ii. 440; CSP Dom. 1700–2, p. 452; Add. 28887, f. 382; 61458, f. 159; A Letter from Abingdon to a Friend in London (1701); H. Horwitz, Parl. and Pol. Wm. III, 298; Univ. Kansas Spencer Research Lib. Methuen-Simpson corresp. C163, Simpson to Methuen, 1 May 1705, 7 Jan. 1705[–6].
- 5. HMC Portland, iv. 511; Luttrell, Brief Relation, vi. 397; Camb. Univ. Lib. Cholmondeley (Houghton) mss 65/6, Robert Walpole II* to Duke of Marlborough (John Churchill†), 21 Jan. 1708–9; Huntington Lib. Stowe mss 57(3), p. 153; Chandler, iv. 111.
- 6. Berks. RO, Braybrooke mss D/EN/F16/2, Edward Forde to Grey Neville, 19 Oct. 1710; D/EP7/80, biog. notes on Abingdon MPs; Herts. RO, Panshanger mss Ld. Cowper’s (William*) diary, 3 Mar. 1712[–13] (Speck trans.); HMC Portland, vii. 158; Add. 15949, ff. 52–55.