Available from Boydell and Brewer
Right of Election:
in the freemen
Number of Qualified Electors:
Number of voters:
at least 966 in 1690
|17 Mar. 1690||Sir Thomas Grosvenor, Bt.||498|
|18 Nov. 1695||Roger Whitley|
|Sir Thomas Grosvenor, Bt.|
|Sir William Williams|
|12 Jan. 1698||Thomas Cowper vice Whitley, deceased|
|27 July 1698||Sir Thomas Grosvenor, Bt.|
|8 Jan. 1701||Sir Henry Bunbury, Bt.||c.500|
|10 Dec. 1701||Sir Henry Bunbury, Bt.||455|
|[ John ] Williams||397|
|[ Roger ] Comberbach||369|
|[ Robert ] Brearwood||140|
|31 July 1702||Sir Henry Bunbury, Bt.|
|23 May 1705||Sir Henry Bunbury, Bt.|
|19 May 1708||Sir Henry Bunbury, Bt.|
|13 Oct. 1710||Sir Henry Bunbury, Bt.|
|Peter Shakerley Bt.|
|26 Dec. 1711||Bunbury re-elected after appointment to office|
|21 Sept. 1713||Sir Henry Bunbury, Bt.|
When Chester was incorporated in 1506 it was granted the status of a county in itself. Only the city’s castle remained within the jurisdiction of the county palatine of Cheshire, and consequently the borough not only possessed a large governing assembly, consisting of a mayor, 24 aldermen and 40 common councillors, but two sheriffs, elected annually and who served as the borough’s returning officers in parliamentary elections. The city’s economy had been built upon its port, particularly its extensive trade with Ireland, but by the end of the 17th century the silting up of the Dee, which linked Chester to the Irish Sea, meant that the port found it increasingly difficult to accommodate larger ships, so that it went into relative decline compared to Liverpool. Trade was not, however, the sole prop of Chester’s economy, and its importance as a market centre for north Cheshire and north Wales meant that it was able to ‘cultivate a broader service and consumer role’ that ‘cushioned’ the city ‘against long term decline’. During the Restoration period a deep fissure had emerged in the borough’s body politic. By the 1680s two distinct groups, led by local Tory and Whig gentry, had emerged, and the 1690s saw the antagonism between these groups reach new heights. Led by the Whig Roger Whitley and the Tory Sir Thomas Grosvenor, 3rd Bt., these rival groups engaged in an increasingly bitter conflict over the extent of popular participation in corporate government, a battle in which the allegiance of the freemen became the crucial factor. The freemen’s main concerns appear to have been the willingness of the two groups to preserve their rights and privileges and to mitigate the economic problems caused by the decline of Chester’s port. The popularity of Whitley and his followers among the freemen allowed the Whig interest to dominate the corporation in the early 1690s, but in 1696 Grosvenor and his allies captured the mayoralty and the following year had established a Tory dominance in the borough that was to remain in place throughout this period. From 1698 the ability to forward the borough’s economic interests became the primary qualification of Chester’s Members.3
The 1690 election saw the Whig Members Whitley and George Mainwaring opposed by Grosvenor and Alderman Richard Levinge, defeated candidates at the Convention election. The latter’s prospects of success had been strengthened by a combination of the election of eight of their allies to the assembly in 1689 and the support of the lord lieutenant Lord Cholmondeley, so that on 17 Feb. Whitley’s and Mainwaring’s supporters attempted to hold the election before Grosvenor and Levinge had been able to organize their interest. This effort proved unsuccessful and a bitter campaign ensued, allegations being made that while canvassing Grosvenor had spoken against the new monarchs. Much to the disgust of Whitley, Mainwaring and their interest, agents for the Tory candidates, including the recently removed governor of Chester, Peter Shakerley, began enrolling large numbers of freemen, their entry fees allegedly being paid by Grosvenor, so that over 120 freemen were created in late February and early March. Polling began on 17 Mar. and was soon beset by complaints from Whitley and Mainwaring against taking the votes of the recently created freemen, and by disputes between the borough’s two sheriffs, acting as returning officers. The complaints of the Whitley and Mainwaring interest reached a crescendo when the senior sheriff closed the poll, as the Whig candidates claimed they had ‘several in the crowd that called out to be polled’. When the court of election reassembled the following day requests for the poll to be re-opened were rejected, and both pairs of candidates were declared elected by separate sheriffs. Grosvenor and Levinge, who had led the poll at the end of the 17th, were returned however. Within two days of the election information was being gathered for a petition, which was presented on 27 Mar. While the petition awaited consideration by the committee of elections Cheshire’s knight of the shire Sir John Mainwaring, 2nd Bt., Whitley’s son-in-law, claimed, in the debate of 26 Apr. on the abjuration bill, that Grosvenor’s alleged declaration against the King in the Chester election proved the necessity of such a bill (see Grosvenor, Sir Thomas, 3rd Bt.). Whitley and Mainwaring renewed their petition on 6 Oct. 1690 and it came before the elections committee on 24 Nov. The petitioners argued that the admission of freemen after the teste of the writ, the admission of unqualified men to the freedom, Grosvenor’s payment of a number of freemen’s admission fines, and the partiality of the sheriff had denied them their rightful return. Grosvenor and Levinge denied these claims, and alleged that Mainwaring’s and Whitley’s supporters had committed riotous behaviour at the election, with some of them allegedly shouting ‘down with the Church’. The committee confirmed Grosvenor’s and Levinge’s return by a majority of one, and when the committee’s report came before the House on 2 Dec. the sitting Members’ return was confirmed by a single vote, in a division which ran along party lines.4
Whitley and his supporters were not, however, prepared to accept a Tory ascendancy in Chester, and in 1690 Whitley launched a campaign to gain control of the corporation, in order to establish the dominance of the Whig interest in the borough. The annual election of Chester’s mayor proved ideal for Whitley’s purposes. Mayoral elections were conducted in a number of separate rounds, voters having two votes in all but the last round. Having been previously restricted to various combinations of corporation officials, in the penultimate round voting was thrown open to the freemen, who were permitted to nominate new candidates if unhappy with those put to them by the corporation, and the two candidates with most votes in this round were then ‘housed’. In the final round of voting the aldermen chose one of the ‘housed’ candidates as mayor. The vital role of the freemen in this procedure encouraged Whitley and his supporters to nurture their interest among the freemen in an attempt to secure the mayoralty for their interest. Whitley stood unsuccessfully for the mayoralty in October 1690, but the following year he stood in alliance with Lord Warrington (Henry Booth†) and although defeated in the early, closed rounds of voting Whitley and Warrington comfortably carried the popular vote. Forced to choose between the two Whigs, the aldermen elected Warrington mayor. October 1692 saw Whitley chosen mayor and he was to hold this post for the next four years, using his position and popularity among the freemen, based upon his efforts to maintain and restore the ancient rights and economic privileges of the freemen, to alter fundamentally the nature of the corporation and threaten the survival of the Tory interest at Chester. Shortly after he was elected Whitley began to question the authority of his opponents in the assembly, and in the spring of 1693 rumours began to circulate that Whitley, with the assistance of Chester’s former Member and current recorder, Sir William Williams, 1st Bt.*, intended to establish annual, popular elections of the borough’s common councillors, claiming that this right had been granted to Chester in the charters of Henry viii and Elizabeth i and had not been revoked in subsequent charters. A petition requesting annual elections, signed by 400 citizens, was presented on 5 June 1693 and, despite opposition from Tories, including Levinge and Shakerley, such an election was held ten days later, establishing a majority of Whitley’s supporters in the assembly. Whitley’s opponents petitioned the Privy Council and initiated a legal case against the mayor, but the Council refused to involve itself, preferring that ‘the whole matter [be] left to the determination of the law’, and the mayoral election of October saw Whitley, Williams, Warrington and, as Roger Kenyon* described them, ‘the fanatic party’ succeed in Whitley’s re-election despite opposition led by Grosvenor and Shakerley. A mandamus for the restoration of the old common councillors and the swearing of a Grosvenor supporter as mayor was twice rejected by Whitley in the winter of 1693, and in June the following year between 200 and 300 ‘citizens’ participated in a common council election which strengthened the position of Whitley and his interest in the assembly. The case against popular election initiated by nine of the common councillors removed by popular election reached the court of King’s bench in the Michaelmas term of 1694, but was dismissed as the unseated councillors had filed a single, collective writ rather than individual ones. Bolstered by this victory, the dominance of the corporation by Whitley’s interest was confirmed in the common council election of 1695.5
Given the ascendant position Whitley and his supporters had established, the prospects of Tory success at the 1695 election were bleak. It was thought that Whitley would stand with Williams, and although there were reports that Levinge and Grosvenor intended to contest the election the former soon withdrew, and the latter approached Peter Legh† in the hope of being brought in for Newton. Legh repulsed Grosvenor’s advances and on 17 Oct. the baronet met Whitley in order to inform the mayor of his intention to stand at Chester in opposition to Williams. The implied offer to allow Whitley’s election provided he did not appear against Grosvenor was confirmed by three of Grosvenor’s supporters the following day, and it appears that Whitley accepted these blandishments. On 23 Oct. it was reported that Whitley was ‘at present in Sir William Williams his interest’ but was ‘under a shrewd suspicion of inclining to Sir Thomas Grosvenor’, and by 2 Nov. Williams’ supporters were urging Whitley to ‘declare more cordially for him’. Whitley was unwilling to make such a declaration and on the first day of the poll it was reported that ‘the town [is] much exasperated against Sir John Mainwaring for adhering to Grosvenor against Williams’. The same observer reported that ‘I never saw greater animosities at any election than this . . . I saw the city mob fighting in several streets, and not without severe reflections and affronts’. After a fiercely fought contest Grosvenor defeated Williams for the second seat by 104 votes. Several reasons suggest themselves for Whitley’s abandonment of Williams. One modern historian has suggested that Whitley’s change in allegiance was due to pressure from the lords lieutenants of Cheshire and Lancashire, the Earl Rivers (Richard Savage*) and the Earl of Macclesfield (Charles Gerard*, Lord Brandon). Both aligned with the Junto, in 1695 Rivers and Macclesfield attempted to bring in the moderate Tory, George Cholmondeley, for Cheshire to replace the Country Whig Sir Robert Cotton, 1st Bt., as Cotton had proved too independent in his parliamentary behaviour. Williams’ Country Whiggery and Whitley’s meetings with Rivers and Macclesfield in the months before the election certainly make such an explanation plausible. It may also be that Whitley’s abandonment of the recorder was influenced by the news he received in the middle of October that Williams was a possible candidate at Anglesey. Whitley perhaps felt that by not campaigning against Grosvenor he could avoid the expense of the election, which cost him only £5 while Grosvenor accumulated expenses of over £1,400, and still see Williams returned, though for another seat. Whatever the reason for Whitley’s desertion, Williams was clearly angered by it and his petition, heard by the Commons on 13 Dec., attributed his defeat to clandestine arrangements between Whitley, Grosvenor and Mainwaring, and to the improper use of the mayor’s powers by Whitley. This petition was dismissed by one observer as ‘purely a personal pique’, and on 20 Dec. Williams withdrew it.6
Although prepared to see Grosvenor elected, Whitley was determined to retain his own control of the corporation. The day after Williams withdrew his petition Whitley was reported to be ‘as great as ever with his old friends and favours nobody but them still’, and in the common council elections of June 1696 his supporters were again dominant. Whitley stood down from the mayoralty that October, probably due to his declining health, and, though two of his supporters comfortably carried the closed rounds of voting, the freemen returned two of Grosvenor’s supporters in the subsequent round, forcing the aldermen to elect a Tory mayor. The reasons for this sudden reversal in Chester’s political fortunes are elusive. It seems plausible that, as one historian has suggested, the popularity of Whitley’s interest rested in large part upon his personal popularity with the freemen, based upon his defence of freemen privileges, and that his failure to stand caused support to ebb. It has also been postulated that the economic difficulties caused by the decline of Chester’s port and the problems of the recoinage led to a reaction against the interest which had dominated city government since 1692. The final factor that may have had a bearing on the outcome of the mayoral election was the admission of over 120 new freemen in the two weeks before the contest, a possible repetition of the Grosvenor interest’s tactic from the 1690 parliamentary election, scouring the city for supporters eligible for the freedom who had not yet exercised this right. Whatever the reasons for this abrupt change in fortunes, the new mayor set about utilizing his position to attack the Whitley faction, and though Whitley attempted to rally his supporters his death in July 1697 signalled the demise of the Whig interest at Chester. Grosvenor’s supporters dominated the common council election of June 1697, and in October the same year annual popular election of the common council was replaced by co-option to the assembly for life. January 1698 saw the Tory Thomas Cowper chosen unopposed to replace Whitley, and the newly established Tory domination of Chester was confirmed in the general election later the same year when Grosvenor and Shakerley were returned in opposition to Francis Gell, who had proposed a scheme for the navigation of the Dee, Gell offering his candidature to the assembly but withdrawing when he could only gain the support of one member.7
For the remainder of the period Chester remained securely in Tory hands. Attention to the city’s economic interests remained vital to the maintenance of an electoral interest at Chester, and the borough’s Members, particularly Shakerley, went to great efforts to defend these interests, as for example when Shakerley and Grosvenor piloted a bill through Parliament in the 1699–1700 session granting the corporation the authority to embark upon the navigation of the Dee. Grosvenor’s death in June 1700 led Whitley’s son and namesake to put forward his name as a possible replacement, and Alderman Peter Bennet, a Grosvenor ally, was mentioned as another candidate. The anticipated contest and the prospect of a Whig revival via the candidature of Whitley probably explains the rumours in August that attempts were to be made to have Macclesfield elected alderman in the room of the recently deceased Williams, but Macclesfield’s election proved to be nothing more than a rumour and the by-election was pre-empted by the dissolution. Shakerley’s endeavours on behalf of his constituency had secured his position, his stepmother writing to him that ‘you are very sure of being chosen in Chester without trouble as long as you please to serve’, but the choice of his partner was far from clear cut. Whitley, Sir Henry Bunbury, 3rd Bt., John Grosvenor, Robert Brearwood and a Mr Latine all entered the field, but only Bunbury, Grosvenor and Shakerley pursued the contest to a poll, the Tories Bunbury and Shakerley securing victory by a large margin. The second 1701 election saw Bunbury, Shakerley and Brearwood stand again, and they were joined by John Williams, second surviving son of Sir William Williams, and Mr Comberbach, probably Roger, the city’s new recorder. Williams appears to have stood in the Whig interest, hoping that divisions among the city’s Tories would allow him to take a seat, but Tory control of the borough was confirmed by the comfortable victory of Bunbury and Shakerley.8
Tory dominance of Chester’s parliamentary representation was unchallenged in Anne’s reign. The removal of nine common councillors in August 1702 for refusing to abjure the Pretender appears to have had little impact upon Tory control of the corporation, Chester’s Dissenting minister complaining in 1705 that ‘our city is so modelled as to be condemned to its old tacking Members without opposition’, but Bunbury’s and Shakerley’s interest did not rest on domination of the corporation alone. Both men proved to be diligent guardians of Chester’s interests at Westminster, and their Toryism appears to have suited the political mood of the city. In June 1703, for example, the Duke and Duchess of Ormond received a warm greeting while passing through Chester on the way to Ireland, and six years later families of Palatines travelling on the same route were treated with hostility. The following year a newsletter claimed that in the county election all Chester citizens possessing a freehold supported the Tory candidates. The 1710 Chester election was complicated by the suggestion that Sir Richard Grosvenor, 4th Bt.†, would attempt to revive his family interest in the borough, but it appears that he was persuaded to desist and Bunbury and Shakerley were returned unopposed, as they had been in the three previous elections. The by-election caused by Bunbury’s appointment as an Irish revenue commissioner in 1711 was also unanimous and, following opposition at Westminster to Shakerley’s proposal that he stand aside in favour of Roger Comberbach, Bunbury and Shakerley were both returned unopposed in 1713. The unchallenged return of Bunbury and Shakerley was not disturbed until 1715, when Grosvenor pressed his claims to a seat at Chester, causing a vigorous contest between the three Tories. Bunbury and Grosvenor emerged victorious, and the Grosvenor interest, having reasserted itself, held at least one of the Chester seats continuously until 1874.9
Authors: Eveline Cruickshanks / Richard Harrison
Unless otherwise stated this account is based on Challinor thesis, 173–9, 188–92, and P. D. Halliday, Dismembering the Body Politic, 280–8.
- 1. Liverpool RO, 920MD 174, Sir Willoughby Aston diaries, 8 Jan. 1701.
- 2. Cheshire RO, Arderne mss DAR/F/33, Chester poll, 10 Dec. 1701.
- 3. C. H. Hodson, Cheshire 1660–1780, 116–18, 137–9; VCH Cheshire, ii. 127–8; P. Borsay, English Urban Renaissance, 128.
- 4. Cheshire RO, Cholmondeley of Cholmondeley mss DCH/M/27, Levinge to William Adams, 16 Feb. 1689–90; Bodl. Eng. hist. c.711, ff.115–16, 125–6; Chester Freeman Rolls ed. Bennet (Lancashire and Cheshire Record Soc. li), 182–5; Grey, x. 78–80; CSP Dom. 1700–2, pp. 547–8; Add. 70014, f. 219.
- 5. HMC Kenyon, 249, 277–8; info. from E. L. Whinton; Bodl. Eng. lett. e.29, ff. 103, 106, 146; Eng. hist. c.711, ff. 159, 174, 189; Chester RO, mayor’s letters M/L/531a, Levinge to Comberbach, 2 June 1693; PC 2/75, p. 248.
- 6. Eng. lett. e.29, ff. 114, 117; Eng. hist. c.711, ff. 195–8; Cholmondeley of Cholmondeley mss DCH/M/36/61, John Bradshaw to Adams, 18 Oct. 1695; NLW, Chirk Castle mss E1052, Will Eyton to [Sir Richard Myddelton, 3rd Bt.*], 23 [Oct. 1695]; 920MD 174, Aston diaries, 18 Nov. 1695; Chester RO, Earwaker mss CR63/2/691/181, Sir Willoughby Aston, 2nd Bt., to Sir John Crewe, 22 Nov. 1695; Grosvenor mss at Eaton Hall, pprs. of the 3rd Bt., acct. of election bills, 1695.
- 7. Grosvenor mss pprs. of the 3rd Bt., R. Pigot to Grosvenor, 21 Dec. 1695, Chester poll, 27 July 1698; Chester Freemen Rolls, 195–201; Chester RO, Chester bor. recs. assembly bks. A/B/3, ff. 54–61, 64–65.
- 8. Chester bor. recs. mayor’s letters M/L/4/544, 553, Grosvenor and Shakerley to Henry Bennet, 10 Jan. 1698[–9], 20 Apr. 1699; assembly bks. A/B/3, f. 74; Cheshire RO, Shakerley mss DSS, C. Hurleston to Shakerley, 20 June 1700, Comberbach to same, 29 June, 5 Aug., 31 Oct. 1700, Roger Whitley to same, 30 June 1700, Lady Shakerley to same, [Sept.] 1700, William Pennington to same, 1 Nov. 1700; Liverpool RO, Norris mss 920NOR 2/237, John Murray to Richard Norris*, 27 Nov. 1701.
- 9. Chester bor. recs. assembly bks., A/B/3, ff.101–3; Thoresby Letters, ii. 44; Add. 40803, f.115; 28946, f.461; 70421, newsletter 4 Nov. 1710; EHR, lxxxii. 478; Grosvenor mss, pprs. of the 4th Bt., Andrew Forrester to Sir Richard Grosvenor, 19 Dec. N.S. 1710; Shakerley mss, Shakerley to Comberbach, 9 June 1713; Jnl. Chester Arch. Soc. ser. 2, lxiii. 62–65.