Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, ed. D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley, 2002
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Background Information

Right of Election:

in the corporation

Number of Qualified Electors:


Number of voters:



2 Jan. 1692HON. HARRY MORDAUNT vice Egerton, deceased 
 Hon. Harry Mordaunt 
 John James151
 Hon. Harry Mordaunt132
 John James93
26 Nov. 1705HON. HARRY MORDAUNT vice Sydney, called to Upper House 
 John Burgh164
  BURGH vice Charles Egerton, on petition, 27 Jan. 1711 
27 Aug. 1713PAUL METHUEN195
 John Burgh14
 Henry Watkins13
  BURGH and WATKINS vice Methuen and Egerton, on petition, 20 Apr. 1714 

Main Article

Brackley’s governing body, in whom the right of election lay, was a corporation by prescription consisting of a mayor, six aldermen, sometimes called ‘capital burgesses’, and 26 ‘burgesses’. Its lord of the manor, the Egerton earls of Bridgwater, commanded at least one of the parliamentary seats throughout the period. The Wenman family had formerly enjoyed greater electoral influence, but this interest was silenced in 1690 with the death of Viscount Wenman (Richard†), followed by the long minority and later political apathy of his son. From the early 1690s, however, Hon. Thomas Wharton* began to evolve an interest in the borough which soon presented the Egertons with another source of competition. There was never any danger that Wharton’s local influence would overwhelm that of the Egertons, but it did reach a point where for a while he too could command one of the seats. By the middle of Anne’s reign this rivalry had died away and the Egertons’ move towards complete control over both parliamentary seats brought them into collision with a stalwart Tory faction within the corporate body. In the 1690s the Tory interests were largely dormant. The most important, Magdalen College, Oxford, was stated in 1714 to own ‘a great estate’ in the borough and its locale, but the fellows had long since ceased to put forward candidates. Another local Tory influence, but again largely unobtrusive, was Nathaniel Crewe, 3rd Lord Crew and bishop of Durham, whose seat at Stene Park lay to the north-east of the town.6

At the unopposed 1690 election the Whig 3rd Earl of Bridgwater (John Egerton†) returned his brother Hon. Sir William Egerton. Egerton’s partner, John Blencowe, also a Whig, was a London-based career lawyer of an ancient local family, but it is not clear if he was recommended by Bridgwater or any other figure of influence. When Egerton died at the end of 1691 his seat was taken by Hon. Harry Mordaunt, who was likely to have been proposed by his brother the Earl of Monmouth (later 3rd Earl of Peterborough), the county’s lord lieutenant. In 1695 Bridgwater returned another of his younger brothers, Hon. Charles Egerton, who represented the borough as a staunch Whig continuously thereafter until unseated in 1711. Blencowe was apparently set to stand again when Monmouth and the 2nd Earl of Sunderland prevailed upon him to step down in favour of Mordaunt. A poll was necessary in 1698, the first since 1679, to decide between three candidates. Egerton’s return seemed automatic, with the real contest being fought between Mordaunt and Sir John Aubrey, 2nd Bt. Mordaunt, the losing candidate, was almost certainly backed on this occasion by his cousin Wharton, while Aubrey, a man of Whiggish leaning, with estates in Wales and Buckinghamshire, received support either from Wharton, the brother-in-law of his kinsman Sir Charles Kemys, 3rd Bt.*, or, which is more likely, from Bridgwater. Mordaunt’s petition against Aubrey, alleging ‘contracts, bribes and other illegal practices’, was presented on 17 Dec. but was not reported on. The contest had done much to demonstrate the degree of uneasiness at this juncture between the Whig Egerton and Wharton interests. The corporation’s compliant relationship with Bridgwater was temporarily upset in 1699 when, for reasons unknown, it incurred the Earl’s ‘displeasure’ and prompted him to withdraw certain tolls and privileges enjoyed previously as a matter of custom, but these were presumably recovered following the corporation’s petition to Charles Egerton, whom they asked to mediate. The first election of 1701 went unopposed. Aubrey’s death from a riding accident in September 1700 had reduced the number of intending candidates to two. Mordaunt, who had not taken another seat following his defeat in the previous election, was returned with Egerton largely through Wharton’s influence, though possibly also with Bridgwater’s cognisance. The 3rd Earl died in March 1701. His 20-year-old son and successor proved at first to be a Tory, and though entirely acquiescent towards his Whig uncle’s occupancy of one of the borough seats, he began to seek an active influence over the other. The second 1701 election saw the appearance of a Tory challenger, John James who lived at Finmere, a parish just across the county border in Oxfordshire, though whether at this stage he had the new Earl’s goodwill is not clear. As was to be expected, the support shown in the poll for Egerton was unanimous while the burgesses divided equally in choosing between Mordaunt and James. The latter, though narrowly defeated, did not petition. By comparison, the results of the 1702 election, which were rather more decisive in James’s favour and ensured Mordaunt’s defeat, suggest that Bridgwater was beginning to exert himself to obtain control over the second seat, having requested his uncle’s supporters to cast their second votes for James.7

In 1703 Bridgwater married a daughter of the Duke of Marlborough (John Churchill†), an alliance which, together with subsequent court appointments, eventually obliged him to modify his Tory point of view. He did not do so immediately, however. When in August 1704 Mordaunt began to canvass and treat for support among the corporation men in readiness for the election due in 1705, Bridgwater’s agents were surprised to learn that the colonel had been sent a statement of promise signed by ten burgesses, they ‘being all my Lord’s friends, and I believe will continue so’. All but one of these men had voted for Mordaunt in 1702, and their supportive message to him, ‘wishing you better success than you had the last election’, seemed to imply feelings of dissatisfaction with the Tory direction the Earl was promoting. At this stage, with the election still somewhat distant, it was perhaps natural that in the absence of any directive from Bridgwater Mordaunt’s old supporters should respond warmly to his approach. Soon afterwards, however, the burgesses retreated from their open avowal of support for Mordaunt, and were made to promise that ‘they would make no promise nor sign any paper that might prejudice my L[or]d’s interest the first vote being at his honour’s disposal and their other should be reserved’. Mordaunt had nevertheless made it known to the generality of the corporation that ‘if they would please to choose him he would serve [them] in anything they ask to his power’. A week later Bridgwater’s steward was assured that ‘spending Col. Mordaunt’s guineas’ had made little impact among the corporation men, most of whom refrained from making any definite commitment. Although James’s interest appeared to be under some pressure, he did little to stir his Tory friends among the burgesses, and the prevailing caution of the corporators clearly resulted from a general preference to be led by Bridgwater’s wishes. In the immediate prelude to the election in 1705 the Earl’s antipathy towards James was made obvious. Having supported the Tack in November 1704, James was marked out by the Court for exclusion from the new Parliament, a policy with which Bridgwater was expected to conform. Mordaunt did not stand, presumably realizing he had no chance against Bridgwater’s other candidate, his cousin, Hon. John Sydney, an ex-army colonel who had served under Marlborough. Sydney mounted an early and imposing campaign; towards mid-February, for example, he was reported to have arrived in town ‘in his coach and six, and hath treated the men two or three times, and the women once’. Bridgwater’s sway over the corporation in engineering James’s overwhelming defeat is clearly visible in a comparison of results: out of the 18 burgesses who supported James in 1702, and who voted in 1705, only five voted for him on the second occasion. Those five were joined by two who had not voted in 1702, and another two who had voted for Mordaunt. Most of the nine burgesses who stood by James in 1705, resisting Bridgwater’s ‘directions’, formed the core of a steadily growing Tory faction. Before Sydney could take his seat, however, he succeeded his brother in the earldom of Leicester, and at the by-election held in November the vacancy was filled by Mordaunt. Seeing an opportunity of obtaining the seat which had eluded him in the summer, Mordaunt had engaged the Duchess of Marlborough to propose him to her son-in-law, Bridgwater. The Earl’s acquiescence in Mordaunt, hitherto Wharton’s nominee, promised to unite the two rival Whig interests both in the borough and in the county, a prospect welcomed by the Earl of Sunderland (Charles, Lord Spencer*) another Marlborough son-in-law and a principal figure among Northamptonshire’s Whigs.8

In 1708, as part of this new accord, Wharton transferred Mordaunt to Richmond, enabling Bridgwater to return unopposed both his uncle, Hon. Charles, and his brother, Hon. William. Tory members of the corporation doubtless took a dim view of this portent of total dominance by the Egerton interest over the town. The Earl’s provision of a handsome town hall, completed around 1710, represented a visible reminder of his strengthening hold. An early sign of the growing dissension within the corporation was the party dispute which erupted in 1708 when the Tories endeavoured to prevent the Whigs from filling a vacant burgess-ship. In the weeks before the election of 1710, party-inspired quarrels over the validity of new nominations to the corporation, hinging chiefly on the qualification of residence, took on a greater urgency, with the opposing factions almost equal and increasing the chances of electing a Tory representative in place of one of the Egertons. However, in offering only one candidate, John Burgh, the Tories were still evidently content to maintain the custom of returning an Egerton nominee. The parliamentary election was held on the 7th with Burgh and the sitting Egerton Members as candidates. As shown in the disposition of votes there was no questioning of the Egertons’ continued control of one seat: practically all the burgesses voted for William Egerton, though it seems the Tories preferred him to his thoroughly Whig uncle since he was known to have attracted a Tory following when standing for Buckinghamshire in 1706. Fifteen burgesses voted for Burgh and William Egerton, but none split their votes between Burgh and Charles Egerton, and only one plumped for Burgh. The extreme closeness of the result between the elder Egerton in second place and Burgh in third certainly rested on votes whose validity in the light of recent disputes could be questioned. When Burgh petitioned against Charles Egerton he attacked the very legality of the election, asserting that the ‘legal mayor’ had not executed the precept. Burgh maintained that the Bridgwater interest had unscrupulously acquired the precept and withheld it until after the mayoral office had passed from the Tory John Welshman to the Whig Richard Watts in order to ensure that a Whig majority could be obtained. Bridgwater’s steward, Francis Neal, admitted having advised William Thonger, bailiff of the hundred of Brackley and also a servant of Bridgwater, to retain the precept until the new mayor was elected, but only to ensure that ‘a free and fair election might be had’, having heard that Welshman intended either to continue himself as mayor, or to install his own nominee in order to secure a majority for Burgh. The elections committee deliberated on the case until midnight on 15 Jan. 1711, and reported to the House on the 27th. Judging from the report in the Journals, Burgh’s case concentrated mainly upon the elimination of eight voters from Charles Egerton’s poll, seven on counts of bribery, including payments by Wharton and Bridgwater’s steward, while John Howes, created a burgess after the teste, was disqualified. In contrast Egerton could establish only two instances of bribery against his opponent. The committee’s verdict in Burgh’s favour, endorsed nemine contradicente by a predominantly Tory House, was thus determined chiefly by the incidence of bribery rather than by a determination of the central problem of whether burgesses who became non-resident forfeited their right to participate in corporation and parliamentary elections.9

Over the next few years, quarrels within the corporation intensified as the Tories held fast to their conviction that the election of Richard Watts as mayor in 1710 had been invalid, that the burgesses and mayors chosen subsequently were incapacitated, and indeed that all acts of the corporation were null and void. They refused to vote in any of the ensuing corporation elections. By 1713 deference towards the Egertons among the Tory corporation men had evaporated entirely and both parties fielded candidates for the approaching parliamentary election. The Whig candidates were the sitting Member William Egerton, and Paul Methuen, a rising Whig star, who may have been introduced to Bridgwater by either Wharton or Sunderland (since both had electoral interests in Devizes for which Methuen had previously sat). The Tories, actively supported by Magdalen College, were Burgh, the other sitting Member, and Henry Watkins, an army bureaucrat who after long years abroad attached to Marlborough’s and the Duke of Ormond’s armies, now contemplated semi-retirement at his old college, Christ Church, Oxford. Although Watkins himself had no interests in the town, his brother had been a fellow at Magdalen, while another brother held property at nearby Aynho where Thomas Cartwright, the Tory MP for the county, was lord of the manor. Realizing the election would be hard fought, Bridgwater stationed himself in the town for the final two weeks before the election; his expenditure was £104. Burgh and Watkins made their way to the town, calling on Watkins’ friend Dr Stratford of Christ Church, who was unable to resist the teasing inquiry of ‘what bank bills they had’, alluding to the widely suspected venality of Brackley’s electorate. On election day, the assembled corporation filled the vacancies in their number, it being customary that no parliamentary election could be held before the ‘company’ was complete. Two corporation-burgesses were elected, but since the candidates in each case were Whigs, 13 Tories withheld their votes. Then, in a close result Egerton and Methuen defeated Burgh and Watkins. The losing candidates’ petition spoke of ‘indirect practices of illegal mayors imposed on the corporation who pretended to elect new burgesses’. The case was heard before the elections committee on 25 Mar., though it did not finish until three the following morning. The proceedings dwelt firstly upon the contentious question of the right of election. In this, the committee endorsed the Whig view, resolving that the right of election rested with resident burgesses only. The proceedings turned next to objections of various kinds made by the petitioners to the qualifications of nine who had voted for Egerton and Methuen, who in turn produced accusations mainly of ‘indirect practices’ against the petitioners. The committee resolved in favour of Egerton and Methuen by 160 votes to 38, figures which confirm that for some reason the Tory managers of the House had neglected the affair. The outcome so distressed the London Member, Sir George Newland, who had ‘warmly stickled’ for Burgh and Watkins, that he went home and took his own life. Watkins, the better known of the petitioners, had anticipated that he and Burgh would be attacked ‘touching our qualification’ and had obtained certification of his propertied status from Thomas Harley*, junior secretary at the Treasury, but this precaution proved unnecessary. Despite failing to secure a committee verdict against Egerton and Methuen, Watkins was comforted by assurances that all would go well in the House; he told Harley on 2 Apr.:

The united strength and perseverance of our enemies, together with the negligence of friends, defeated my brother Burgh and me at a committee of elections, but I am made to believe ample reparation will be made me at the report some time next week. Mr Methuen’s friends leave no stone unturned to keep him. Mr Egerton is not regarded, and several offer to vote for me and Methuen, but this proposal, I reject with scorn.

The hearing of the report was a test of party solidarity. A motion for accepting the ‘resident’ qualification of burgesses was defeated by 209 votes to 168. By this ruling, eligibility for the status of burgess, with the right to vote in parliamentary elections, was extended to non-residents. It also meant that inhabitant burgesses who subsequently moved away from the town retained their franchise. The question for confirming Methuen’s election was then defeated by 200 votes to 172; another confirming Egerton’s failed without a division. Burgh’s election was approved by 202 votes to 167, while no division was ventured on Watkins. A few days later Wharton lamented the unseating of Methuen: ‘we have a valuable friend thrown out at Brackley’. Burgh and Watkins had successfully supplanted the Egertons in both borough seats, but only by virtue of Tory superiority in the Commons. The Whigs were embittered at what was manifestly a partial outcome, one Whig diarist commenting that the sitting Members had been turned out ‘tho[ugh] every way a majority and without bribery, and voted Captain Burgh and Henry Watkins in tho[ugh] [they] offered two or more hundred pounds for a vote and notwithstanding a minority of votes’. With political circumstances radically changed by early 1715, the Tories evidently realized the pointlessness of a fresh challenge to the Egertons, and none was made. The borough remained in that family’s hands for a century to come.10

Author: Andrew A. Hanham


Unless otherwise stated, this article is based on W. A. Speck, ‘Brackley: A Study in the Growth of Oligarchy’, Midland Hist. iii. 30–41.

  • 1. Northants. RO, Ellesmere (Brackley) mss 171/3/2, poll.
  • 2. Ibid. 171/3/3(a), poll; Daily Courant, 21 July 1702.
  • 3. Ellesmere mss 171/3/4(a), poll.
  • 4. Ibid. 171/4/1(c), poll.
  • 5. Ibid. 171/3/5, poll.
  • 6. Bodl. Willis 51, ff. 157–8; Ellesmere mss 171/4/1, ‘Brief of Mr Egerton . . . 1710’; CJ, xvii. 581.
  • 7. HMC Downshire, i. 586; Ellesmere mss, Robert Hilton to Charles Egerton, 24 Oct. 1699 (Horwitz trans.).
  • 8. Ellesmere mss 171/12/1, John Garland to Mr Macastree, 3 Aug.; 171/12/3, same to same, 9 Aug.; 171/12/1, same to same, 16 Aug. 1704; Verney Letters 18th Cent. i. 223; Add. 61474, f. 144.
  • 9. Ellesmere mss 171/4/1, ‘Brief of Mr Egerton . . . 1710’; 171/4/7, ‘Case of Hon. Charles Egerton ag[ain]st John Burgh’; Verney Letters 18th Cent. 307.
  • 10. Ellesmere mss 171/4/4, ‘Brief for Hon. William Egerton and Paul Methuen . . . [1714]’; HMC Portland, vii. 165; Luttrell, Brief Relation, vi. 726; Boyer, Pol. State, vii. 268; Add. 70280, Watkins to Harley, 2 Apr. 1714; Glos. RO, Ducie mss D340a/C22/6, Wharton to Matthew Ducie Moreton*, 24 Apr. 1714; Douglas diary (Hist. of Parl. trans.), 20 Apr. 1714.