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:

before 1701 in the freemen; after 1701 in the ‘freemen not receiving alms or charities’1

Number of Qualified Electors:


Number of voters:

at least 650 in 1710


24 Feb. 1690SIR THOMAS TAYLOR, Bt. 
 Sir Thomas Seyliard, Bt. 
 Caleb Banks 
25 Oct. 1695SIR JOHN BANKS, Bt. 
17 Feb. 1696THOMAS RIDER vice Taylor, deceased 
22 July 1698SIR ROBERT MARSHAM,  4th Bt. 
 Sir John Banks, Bt. 
 Thomas Rider 
6 Jan. 1701SIR ROBERT MARSHAM, 4th Bt. 
25 Nov. 1701SIR ROBERT MARSHAM, 4th Bt. 
 Thomas Colepeper 
17 July 1702SIR ROBERT MARSHAM,  4th Bt.410
 Thomas Bliss293
 Sir Thomas Twisden, Bt.131
  Election declared void, 8 Dec. 1702 
 Sir Thomas Roberts, 
 William Emmerton 
 Hon. Heneage Finch 
 Edward Knatchbull2272
 Hon. Heneage Finch323
 Richard Beale433

Main Article

Maidstone was the county town of Kent and continuous vigilance was expected from its MPs to keep it so. Thus in 1695 Sir Thomas Taylor, 2nd Bt., wrote to Lord Chief Justice Sir George Treby*, who had been appointed to the Home Circuit, to ensure that the assizes were held in Maidstone as ‘it is the most convenient place and has good accommodation [and] assizes have been generally held there at least 50 times to once elsewhere’. Convenient it certainly was, for although it staged the quarter sessions for west Kent, it was centrally placed to serve the whole county. Ruled by a mayor, 12 jurats and a common council, it was more than an administrative centre, being a marketing centre for agricultural produce and also for the cloth, iron and timber of the Weald.4

The precise nature of the freeman franchise at Maidstone is unclear. All the candidates at the disputed elections of December 1701 and 1702 agreed that freemen in receipt of alms or charity could not vote. Before then they were probably admitted, and even afterwards their votes may have been allowed, for in 1716 Richard Forster informed Browne Willis* that there were ‘not less than’ 800 freemen who could vote even if non-resident or in receipt of alms. Later in the century it seems to have been assumed that all freemen could vote. As with so many other boroughs the attitude of the candidates and returning officer was crucial to the interpretation of the franchise and in this case opposing parties do not seem to have disagreed on the right to vote.5

The freemen electorate at Maidstone made contests potentially very expensive. In the 1690 election Sir Thomas Seyliard, 2nd Bt., a ‘Whig collaborator’ of James II and brother-in-law of Hon. Thomas Wharton*, lost, ‘they say by 130’ votes, despite spending over £600. Although he threatened to petition, there was no opposition to the return of Sir Thomas Taylor, 2nd Bt., and Thomas Rider. In 1695 the Banks interest in the borough revived, allowing the unopposed election of Sir John Banks, 1st Bt., in company with Taylor. Rider, who had not stood in 1695, came in upon the vacancy caused by Taylor’s death in 1696.6

In late March 1698 Banks reported to his son-in-law, Hon. Heneage Finch I*, ‘there is much labouring [in] most places, though I think we are not [y]et like to leave our seats’. So relaxed was Banks about Maidstone that at one point he was speculating on the possibility of importing as a candidate a Finch or even one of his Savile in-laws. Rumours of hard electioneering in many places should have warned Banks to be on his guard, but it seems that he let the over-confidence of his supporters lull him into a false sense of wellbeing, only to find that he was beaten on the day. Given that on 13 July Banks had detailed the close nature of the contest between the two Whigs, Rider and Sir Robert Marsham, 4th Bt., noting the difficulty of predicting the result, ‘there being so many electors’, it was negligent of him not to have campaigned more energetically. After the poll, which saw Marsham and a Tory, Thomas Bliss, returned, Banks was left to lament that ‘the distance was little as to votes and no relief now but by petition, which is not pleasant’. Later, Banks clearly decided against a petition, writing in November, ‘I think it not proper for me to petition and go through that fatigue .?.?. though the townsmen are willing’. Although Finch received a letter from a relation the week after the election in January 1701 in which it was stated that ‘we have been in so great a hurry about elections in this town, that business has been but little minded’, there seems to have been no contest for the borough, Marsham and Bliss being returned.7

The election of November 1701 was a three-way fight, with Sir Robert Marsham, 4th Bt., being the clear winner, but a mere two votes separating Bliss from Thomas Colepeper, a Whig. Bliss had also laboured under the handicap of a smear campaign which accused him of Jacobitism, one Mrs Elizabeth Wattle, the wife of a former mayor of Maidstone, deposing that Bliss had called King William a usurper. The charge was deemed sufficiently serious for the attorney-general to proceed against him, although nothing came of it. When Colepeper petitioned the Commons on 5 Jan. 1702, he may have had an inkling that this was not the wisest course, as in the prayer of his petition he asked that the House make an order to ensure a ‘just’ hearing for his cause. In response the Tories narrowly failed to secure a hearing at the bar of the House. Despite this apparent setback, Bliss was in a strong position, owing to Colepeper’s notoriety as one of the five gentlemen imprisoned for presenting the Kentish Petition to the House. Examination of the case also gave the Tories a chance to exact further punishment on a tiresome political enemy, who had caused pamphlets disparaging the record of the previous Parliament to be distributed as part of his campaign. When the committee of elections considered the case at a well-attended meeting on 22 Jan., which lasted until 3 a.m., Colepeper was declared guilty by 153 votes to 76 of ‘corrupt, scandalous and indirect practices’. In an attempt to forestall further punishment and to ‘bespeak clemency’ from the House when it considered the report on 7 Feb., Colepeper wrote a letter to the Speaker. Far from having the desired effect, this merely inflamed the House against him. It came as no surprise that the Commons endorsed the committee’s findings and declared Bliss duly elected. However, the Members went further, condemning A Letter to the Free-holders and Freemen of England (the tract which Colepeper had ordered distributed) and amending their resolution to incorporate a reference to Colepeper’s promotion of ‘the scandalous, insolent and seditious [Kentish] petition’. They then added further resolutions, condemning the charges levelled at Members in A Letter and committing Colepeper to gaol.8

Just over a month before the 1702 election, the son of Sir Robert Marsham, 4th Bt., wrote, ‘I am glad to hear my father is in no danger of his election’. This proved a trifle over-confident, for five days before the 1702 election the Earl of Winchilsea, whose family owned the lordship of the manor, predicted a ‘hard fought’ contest because the two Tory candidates, Bliss and Sir Thomas Twisden, 4th Bt., of Roydon Hall, faced a united Whig challenge. Winchilsea remarked on the religious basis of much of the Whig support, noting that Sir Thomas Roberts, 4th Bt., ‘is much a stranger to the town and must come in on no other merit than being a Dissenter’. As Winchilsea had feared, ‘the strength of bribery joined to a factious disposition of that town’ produced a Whig victory, but ‘some proofs of money dispersed are to be made appear and more will probably come to light to be a sufficient ground for petitioning’. Twisden and Bliss petitioned. When the House considered the report of the committee of elections, all four candidates were declared not duly elected and the mayor ordered into custody. A new writ was not moved, presumably as a punishment to the town for giving in to bribery. When a motion for a new writ was eventually made on 16 Nov. 1703, it was negated without a division. Indeed, Maidstone had to wait until the following session before a new writ was moved, a delay which provoked the author of Legion’s Humble Address to the Lords to include this episode in his general accusation that the Commons was not protecting the people’s liberties. Whether through accident or design the timing of the by-election saw Whig ranks in Maidstone in some disarray. The death of Marsham had left a 17-year-old in control of the family interest, and Roberts was not an ideal candidate, given his religious views, at a time of heightened tension over occasional conformity. As a result Roberts and his brother-in-law through marriage, William Emmerton of Chipsted House, Chevening, were defeated by Bliss and Hon. Heneage Finch II (son of Heneage Finch I, now Lord Guernsey), who had inherited much of the Banks estate in the town.9

The dismissals which followed in the wake of the defeat of the Tack had a significant bearing on the outcome of the 1705 election. In February Robert Harley’s* notes had indicated the likely re-election of Finch and Bliss, with Roberts as the only challenger. However, the removal of Winchilsea in April 1705 from the lord lieutenancy of the county encouraged Sir Thomas Colepeper to enter the contest, albeit rather late in the day. The effect of his intervention was to oust Hon. Heneage Finch II from the representation. The Whigs captured both seats in 1708, Colepeper being joined by Sir Robert Marsham, 5th Bt. (now of age). The defeated Tory was Edward Knatchbull*. A contemporary description has survived of Marsham’s procession through the town behind a flag ‘with these words wrought in gold, Church and State, Liberty and Property’. Despite propitious circumstances for a Tory revival, both Marsham and Colepeper were returned in 1710, the only serious challenge coming from Hon. Heneage Finch II, although Richard Beale, whose family came from Maidstone, received token support. One reason for the failure of the Tories to mount a successful challenge may be gleaned from the corporation records for late October 1710, which suggest that the Whigs had some time previously gained control of the corporation. On 28 Oct. the mayor received a mandamus to reinstate Thomas Bliss as an alderman. When the full council re-admitted him into that office two days later only two other aldermen attended, eight staying away, and on the same day six new common councilmen were elected, only for the incipient Tory counter-revolution in the municipality to be crushed on 12 March 1711, when the mayor and the ‘greater part’ of the jurats declared Bliss not duly chosen an alderman and discharged the new common councilmen as well. In 1713 the Tories found an acceptable candidate in Sir Samuel Ongley, although his main estate was in Bedfordshire, and he shared the representation with Marsham. However, in 1715, Colepeper in turn ousted Ongley to return both seats to the Whigs.10

Author: Stuart Handley


  • 1. CJ, xiii.732
  • 2. Bodl. Willis 51, f. 62.
  • 3. Post Man, 10–12 Oct. 1710.
  • 4. HMC 13th Rep. VI, 32; D. C. Coleman, Sir John Banks, 4.
  • 5. CJ, xiii. 732; xiv. 71; Willis 48, f. 342.
  • 6. NLW, Kemeys-Tynte mss 163, Lady Mary Kemys to Sir Charles Kemys, 3rd Bt.*, 17 Mar. 1689–90; CSP. Dom. 1687–9, pp. 141, 228.
  • 7. Devonshire mss at Chatsworth House, Finch-Halifax pprs. Banks to Lady Elizabeth Finch, 29 Mar. 13, 21, 26, 29 July, 18 Nov. 1698, John Banks to Finch, 13 Jan. [1701].
  • 8. Tom Double Returned Out of the Country (1702), 7; CSP Dom. 1700–2, pp. 454, 461; Add. 28946, f. 375; 17677 XX, ff. 183–4, 207–8; Luttrell, Brief Relation, v. 134; Cocks Diary, 203–4; Ralph, Hist. Eng. ii. 1015.
  • 9. Centre Kentish Stud. Romney of the Mote mss, U1300/C3/2 (Sir) Robert Marsham (5th Bt.*) to his mother, 12 June 1702; Add. 29588, ff. 93, 104; 42587, f. 113; Boyer, Anne Annals, iii. 4–5; Atterbury Epistolary Corresp. iii. 254.
  • 10. Add. 70334, Harley’s notes 14 Feb. 1704–5; 61458, f. 160; HMC Portland, iv. 179; info. from Prof. W.R. MacLeod; Post Man, 10–12 Oct. 1710; Berry, Kent Gens. 18; Centre Kentish Stud. Maidstone burghmote mins. Md./ACm1/4, 30 Oct. 1710, 12 Mar. 1710–11.