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 freemen

Number of Qualified Electors:

over 1,000

Number of voters:

at least 1,068 in 1695; 867 in 1706


19 Feb. 1690HON. HENRY BERTIE573
 William Wright423
 Thomas Horde2611
 William Wright515
 Henry White4062
25 Nov. 1701THOMAS ROWNEY511
 William Wright69
 Sir Thomas Wheate, Bt.433
17 July 1702THOMAS ROWNEY 
8 May 1705THOMAS ROWNEY551
 Richard Carter232
 Michael Cripps574
11 Dec. 1706SIR JOHN WALTER, Bt. vice Norreys, deceased536
 Richard Carter3315
3 May 1708SIR JOHN WALTER,  Bt. 
4 Oct. 1710SIR JOHN WALTER, Bt. 
26 Feb. 1711SIR JOHN WALTER, Bt. re-elected after appointment to office 
22 Aug. 1713SIR JOHN WALTER, Bt. 

Main Article

A hotbed of party dissension during the 1680s and much of the 1690s, Oxford was emerging as a Tory stronghold by the end of King William’s reign. The city’s large body of freemen, entitled to vote in both parliamentary and corporation elections, constituted a potentially unruly electorate. None the less there were higher forces at work which kept them largely in check. The earls of Abingdon, as high stewards, were the principal instruments of Tory dominance in the city, keeping a magisterial eye on municipal affairs and, in particular, acting to ensure that Tory superiority was maintained within the corporate body. The mayoral elections each September were staged in such a way as to guarantee that none but Tories were selected. Not only did the civic elite attend, but also many neighbouring gentry ‘under the command’, as Hon. Henry Boyle* noted in 1696, ‘of my Lord Abingdon, who treats them all, and is usually very magnificent upon these occasions’. The gentlemen drafted in were usually Tories whom the corporation had sworn as freemen. These events proceeded on similar lines under the 2nd Earl (Montagu Venables-Bertie*, Lord Norreys), who succeeded his father in 1699. From time to time the corporation relied upon their high steward to defend them in the councils of state in the often lengthy ‘town and gown’ disputes with the university, particularly in cases where the latter claimed rights to levy certain taxes within the city. When engaged in these ‘constitutional’ squabbles with the academic authorities the corporation men were usually able to rise above the party differences between them. By around 1700 the activism of city Whigs was diminishing, a final ebbing from the high tide of their prominence during the Exclusion crisis when both parliamentary seats were in their hands.6

In 1690 the two Tories who had represented the city during the Convention were returned again. Both were Abingdon connexions: Hon. Henry Bertie I of Chesterton was the 1st Earl’s brother, while Sir Edward Norreys of Weston-on-the-Green was his first cousin once removed and was also Bertie’s father-in-law. Their Whig opponents were Thomas Horde† and William Wright. Horde was a squire of Low Church sympathies who had represented the county during the Exclusion Parliaments. In contrast, Wright was very much a creature of the city. A municipal politician, appointed recorder in 1688, he aspired to represent Oxford at Westminster as his father had done during the Exclusion period. He was foremost among a younger generation of Oxford Whigs, typically ‘esteemed no friend to the Church of England’, and, if one is to believe his Tory critics, the sizable Dissenting community featured prominently among his following. The election campaign succeeded in creating an impression of creditable Whig strength: Dr Charlett remarked afterwards with predictable disdain that Wright had ‘pretended to great numbers who appeared at last to be only Dissenters and some of the rabble’. Even so, in numerical terms Wright’s voters were by no means inconsiderable. The divergence between his vote and Horde’s suggests that they did not stand jointly and that Horde fought a less conscientious campaign.7

Within the corporation the Whigs appear to have been in the minority, though it is clear that party-based factionalism continued to simmer. In 1694 the political passions of the townsmen at large were engaged over the election of a town clerk. In April, following ‘a great canvass’ of freemen, Job Slatford, a Whig backed by Wright, defeated a Tory candidate for the office by a narrow majority. However, in July it emerged that Slatford had been unqualified to stand, having failed to take the sacramental test, and a new election was called. In this second contest Slatford lost to a Tory, Samuel Thurston, by a mere seven votes. Abingdon aroused fury among the ‘commons’ by bringing in a number of gentlemen freemen to vote for Thurston, and both Abingdon and Lord Norreys, were branded as Jacobites. This political trial of strength was renewed in the autumn of 1695, the mayoral election of that year taking place amid the increasing certainty of a dissolution of Parliament. According to one correspondent the intensity of canvassing exceeded anything in living memory: ‘what makes this office so courted now, a place formerly rather avoided than desired, is the stroke it gives in the election of burgesses, for whichever of the opposite parties proved more numerous in freemen in the election of the mayor would be like in choosing new Parliament men’. Abingdon personally directed the Tory effort. The seriousness of the Whig threat, which appears to have been headed by Philip, 4th Lord Wharton, was such as to prevent Abingdon from leaving Oxford to attend important electoral meetings in Berkshire. He himself complained of being ‘hindered by the troublesomeness of unreasonable men in Oxford’. The election of a Tory mayor passed off quietly on 23 Sept., though an entertainment laid on a few days later by Recorder Wright developed into a drunken rampage through the town. Leading Tory townsmen, including the new mayor, were verbally abused, and in some cases their property attacked. The Oxford chronicler Anthony à Wood had nothing but contempt for the Whig rioters and their principles: ‘these are the fanatical or factious sort and show what they will do when they are in authority’. Campaigning for the parliamentary election began soon afterwards. The two Tory candidates were Norreys and Thomas Rowney, a wealthy young Oxford lawyer. While there appears no very clear reason for Bertie’s standing down, the recent party animosity, and in particular the obloquy levelled at the Bertie interest, may well have persuaded Abingdon that a townsman was likely to make a more acceptable Tory choice. The prominence of Rowney’s family and his tenure of the county shrievalty in 1691–2 made him eminently suitable. The Whig candidates also had intimate connexions with the city, both being senior members of the corporation: Wright, the recorder and effectively the head of the Whig interest, and Henry White, an alderman. The poll produced a close result with only 80 votes separating Norreys in second place from Wright in third. The following day, the victors treated all the citizens at the town hall regardless of their political colouring, an attempt, perhaps, to calm the tense atmosphere which had prevailed in the town for the previous year. High Tories of both town and university could note the outcome with relief and satisfaction, as did Charlett, gratified that ‘the interest of the Church has lately very much prevailed’, though evidently not caring to admit how close the result had been. The election of Rowney introduced into Oxford’s affairs a man of solid, though not excessive, Tory views, who over the next 27 years established himself as an almost indispensable link between the town, the university and the Commons. The issue of the town clerkship, which had aroused so much partisan acrimony, continued to fester until the end of the decade. The matter became heavily enveloped in legal process as Slatford endeavoured to overturn Thurston’s election via the courts. Despite the fact that Thurston had the full backing of the corporation, Slatford secured in June 1696 a writ of mandamus to be sworn as town clerk. Subsequently, he was able to pursue his case against the corporation on the grounds that he, not Thurston, had the King’s approval of his appointment as was required under the charter of 1664. On a number of occasions during this legal battle Slatford’s supporters mobbed and harassed corporation officials, including the mayor. The case was finally decided in Thurston’s favour in June 1700.8

The almost total absence of surviving reports of the 1698 election in the city probably indicates that there was no concerted Whig action against Norreys and Rowney. According to the council records some opposition was offered on the day of election, but ‘upon casting up the votes it appeared that Norreys and Rowney were elected by a large majority’. It is likely that one of these opposers was Wright; several months before, on hearing that the Whigs were already campaigning for the county, Rowney assumed that Wright was doing the same against him in the city. On the death of Abingdon in May 1699 the corporation acted swiftly to ensure continuity in their relationships with the Bertie family, and arrangements were made for the prompt election of the Earl’s son and successor, Lord Norreys, as high steward. The Whig element put up Lord Chancellor Somers (Sir John*), though his candidature appears not to have been vigorously pursued, being rather a token gesture of opposition to what they undoubtedly perceived as the Bertie family’s sway over the city. However, the new Earl was elected unanimously. Large numbers of Tory gentlemen turned out to signify their concurrence and to ensure that the proceedings, soon after the late Earl’s funeral, were dignified. There was no contest in the first election of 1701. Sir Edward Norreys transferred to the county and was replaced in the borough seat by his son Francis. The second election provoked opposition of sorts from the Whigs and, though they went as far as to force a poll, only very paltry totals were achieved by their candidates, Wright and (Sir) Thomas Wheate (1st Bt.)*, of Glympton Park. The next election, in 1702, was unopposed. In 1705 the Whigs renewed their efforts to seize the city’s parliamentary seats, encouraged, it would seem, by the improving fortunes of their party at Court. One of the two Whig contenders, the current mayor, Michael Cripps, seems not to have campaigned actively, judging by the low turnout for him. His fellow Whig, and the more assiduous of the two, was Richard Carter, a brewer’s son and a member of the city council, described by Hearne, the Oxford antiquary, as ‘a man of half wit and a conceited Whig’. The Whig campaign made only a moderate impression, and the Tories won an easy and overwhelming victory. The following December, in a by-election brought on by the death of Norreys, the Whigs made an improved showing, possibly owing to the fact that they were aiming at one seat, rather than both. The new Tory nominee was Sir John Walter, 3rd Bt., of Sarsden. Though he had no obvious claims to represent Oxford, he was a colourful and outspoken Tory personality with previous parliamentary experience. The opportunity of undermining the Tory monopoly over the city’s representation was not lost on leading Whigs, several of whom, including the Duchess of Marlborough and the Earl of Wharton (Hon. Thomas*) appear to have given some form of backing to Walter’s opponent, Carter. At the poll the Whigs were by no means overwhelmed by Tory voters, but their overall result failed to strike convincingly at Tory confidence. Not long afterwards Hearne reported that Recorder Wright, evidently still considered the titular head of the Whig interest, was in disfavour with the Duchess, Wharton ‘and other great persons at Court’ for not espousing Carter’s candidacy; had he done so, it is conceivable the Whigs would have fared better. There were no further contests in this period, the elections being no more than matters of form to return the old Members. In 1710, for example, at the height of the Tory euphoria in the nation at large following the Sacheverell trial, the election process was over ‘in a few minutes’. Harmonious relations continued to subsist between the Members and the corporation: at the election of 1715 the council expressed their satisfaction with Rowney and Walter for having proved themselves for some years past ‘our faithful and just representatives’.9

Author: Andrew A. Hanham


  • 1. Oxford Council Acts (Oxford Hist. Soc. n.s. ii), 219.
  • 2. Ibid. 259.
  • 3. Ibid. x. 5.
  • 4. Ibid. 35–36.
  • 5. Ibid. 45.
  • 6. Add. 70018, f. 142; Bodl. Ballard 20, f. 12; Oxford Council Acts (Oxford Hist. Soc. n.s. ii), pp. xxix, xxxii, 226, 231–2; x. 20, 22.
  • 7. Wood, Life and Times, iii. 325; CSP Dom. 1693, p. 449; Surr. RO (Guildford), Midleton mss 1248/1, f. 239.
  • 8. Wood, 450, 462, 489, 492; VCH Oxon. iv. 125–6; HMC Le Fleming, 338; Oxford Council Acts (Oxford Hist. Soc. n.s. ii), pp. xxxvii-xl, 257, 263; Add. 18675, ff. 39, 42; BL, Trumbull Misc. mss 30, Abingdon to Sir William Trumbull*, [Oct. 1695]; Lambeth Pal. Lib. mss 942, f. 110, Charlett to Abp. Tenison, 25 Oct. 1695.
  • 9. Oxford Council Acts (Oxford Hist. Soc. n.s. ii), 278, 287–8, 302; ibid. (Oxford Hist. Soc. n.s. x), 5, 13, 35–36, 45, 91; Ballard 38, f. 186; Bodl. Tanner 21, ff. 69, 71; Add. 70019, f. 195; Hearne Colls. i. 160; HMC Portland, vii. 20.