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 mayor, jurats and freemen

Number of Qualified Electors:


Number of voters:

at least 34 in 1702; at least 46 in 1710


14 Mar. 1690SIR JOHN AUSTEN, 2nd Bt.19 
 Thomas Frewen18 
 Caleb Banks18 
9 Feb. 1694THOMAS FREWEN vice Darell, deceased  
25 Oct. 1695SIR JOHN AUSTEN, 2nd Bt.  
22 July 1698SIR JOHN AUSTEN, 2nd Bt.  
 ?Thomas Frewen  
23 Jan. 1699SIR ROBERT AUSTEN, 3rd Bt. vice Austen, deceased  
6 Jan. 1701SIR ROBERT AUSTEN, 3rd Bt.  
24 Nov. 1701THOMAS FAGG  
20 July 1702THOMAS FAGG401232
 Edward Southwell2524
 EDWARD SOUTHWELL vice Offley, on petition, 19 Dec. 1702  
 Charles Fagg19 
 Phillips Gybbon19 
2 Dec. 1707PHILLIPS GYBBON vice Herbert, appointed to office  
 Edward Southwell  
 Hon. John Ashburnham  
10 Oct. 1710SIR JOHN NORRIS29 
 Edward Southwell17 
 John Ellis17 
28 Aug. 1713SIR JOHN NORRIS28 
 Samuel Lynn9 
 John Chamberlayne9 

Main Article

In the 1690s Rye was beginning to feel the effects of decline from its former prominence as a port. The corporation could still boast in 1701 that it was the only harbour on the long coastline between Dover and Portsmouth large enough to accommodate ships, though it was by now heavily silted and only suitable for fishing vessels. The town’s governors attached great importance to restoring the harbour to its ‘ancient goodness’, which they saw as the key to a rejuvenated local economy, but though there was much discussion of the subject, little headway was made. They were equally concerned at the town’s vulnerability to French attack, and made frequent representations to successive secretaries of state for improved protection. By virtue of Rye’s tradition of religious radicalism, there was a strong Whig faction in the corporation which throughout the period retained the upper hand. The corporation enjoyed an autonomy in electoral matters during the 1690s which gave way in the early 1700s to the beginnings of renewed ministerial influence. By 1708 the customs establishment at Rye consisted of over 20 officials, many of whom would have been freemen. Even so, the election of Whig MPs for the port in 1710 and 1713 indicates quite clearly that the Harley ministry was wholly unsuccessful in bringing its local influence to bear.3

Shortly after the dissolution in February 1690, the corporation was told by the deputy lord warden, Hon. John Beaumont*, acting on instructions from Secretary Nottingham (Daniel Finch†), that one seat would be taken by a nominee of the King. For the next two or three weeks it seemed that this would be the eminent lawyer Sir John Trevor*, until almost at the last minute Trevor declared his interest in another seat. Beaumont then recommended Caleb Banks*, a Tory, for whom Nottingham had ‘a particular respect’ (his sister was married to Nottingham’s brother, Hon. Heneage Finch I*), together with another local gentleman of Tory views, Thomas Frewen, of whom ‘I need not say anything, being so well known to you all for a most worthy, honest gentleman’. Frewen had been returned for the town in each election since 1679, until unseated in favour of Sir John Austen, 2nd Bt., in April 1689. Beaumont, in appealing for support for the Court interest, promised the corporation that he would engage Trevor ‘towards what I know is most necessary for your advantage as the clearing of your harbour, the establishing of your fishery and improving your protection’. The outgoing Members, Austen and Sir John Darell, also stood; both were local Whigs, and particularly disposed towards the Court. The poll was close and indicative of intense canvassing, the mayor returning Austen and Darell, even though the latter had one vote fewer than either Frewen or Banks. The return was disputed by Frewen and Banks in a petition, but it took a second petition, presented the following session on 6 Oct. 1690, for the matter to be taken up in the elections committee. However, the House rejected their claim to have obtained the majority of legal votes and disqualified six of their supporters on the grounds that these had obtained their freedom in 1682 from a mayor judged by the courts to have been illegally elected. At the same time, the validity of three votes cast for the sitting Members was confirmed, and Austen and Darell agreed to have been duly returned. Thus, despite its efforts, the Court failed in its objective of securing at least one MP who was a Court client.4

One of the losing candidates in 1690, Frewen, was returned unchallenged at a by-election early in February 1694 on the decease of Darell. Austen’s earlier ‘Country’ sympathies had given way soon after the Revolution to a pro-Court stance, thus effectively fulfilling the government’s earlier wish for one of Rye’s MPs to be a dependable ally. His protracted pursuit of a customs commissionership (eventually given in 1697) may have been conceived at least partly as a means of consolidating his influence over the town. Frewen soon proved himself an opponent of the Court, nursing a personal financial grievance against the government, and in 1695 he and Austen secured an unopposed re-election. A new candidate appeared at the election of 1698 in the form of Joseph Offley, a Whiggish lawyer from London, who, apart from his recent purchases of property in the neighbourhood, had no previous connexion with the town. The corporation’s ‘assembly book’ records that Offley and Austen were elected ‘by the most votes’, a sign that there had been a contest, in which the third contender was probably Frewen. However, the circumstances of Offley’s intrusion in the election and Frewen’s displacement remain unclear. It was a measure of Austen’s hegemony in Rye that within a few weeks of his death early in January 1699 his son Sir Robert, 3rd Bt., was immediately elected in his place. At the first election of 1701 Austen was again returned unopposed with Offley, but in the second election of that year he did not stand. Possibly he had by then fallen under the corporation’s displeasure after twice failing to obtain vital legislation for repairing the harbour, for which the corporation had petitioned in December 1699 and again in May 1701. This suggestion of a sudden breach is made all the more plausible by the fact that Austen showed no subsequent interest in regaining his electoral hold over the town. In his place was elected Thomas Fagg, a Dissenter and a local man.5

As with the other Cinque Ports, the incoming Tory administration attempted in 1702 to renew ministerial involvement in Rye’s elections. These efforts were co-ordinated by the recently appointed deputy lord warden, the 4th Earl of Winchilsea, although the former Tory MP Lord Ashburnham (John†) was anxious to press his own pretensions as the leading local magnate by backing or promoting government candidates in the adjacent constituencies of Hastings, Rye and Winchelsea. In Rye he put up his cousin Edward Southwell, a career bureaucrat and moderate Tory whose election he had unsuccessfully tried to engineer at Hastings in January 1701. Southwell was a particularly apt choice, for with his access to the highest levels of government, and in particular his closeness to, not to mention kinship with, Secretary Nottingham, he was well placed to solicit local appointments on Ashburnham’s behalf. Ashburnham’s interest in Rye was based primarily on his influence and connexions with several men of ‘good interest’ in the town, such as John Stevens, for whom in June 1702 he had sought from Winchilsea the local post of serjeant of the Admiralty for the Cinque Ports. In the weeks preceding the election Ashburnham made several visits to the town on Southwell’s behalf. At the first he found ‘a very good number’ of the corporation inclined towards Southwell. He felt he had ‘gained some and offended none for I avoided all distinctions of parties and encouraged them to be unanimous in their choice’. There is an authentic ring to the evidence cited in the elections committee’s subsequent report that Ashburnham had treated the freemen about a month before the poll, promising that Southwell would provide ‘the way to have a good harbour, and to have convoys and protections, in which [he], being at court, would be more capable of another to serve them’. But in a community in which Whiggish opinion prevailed, it was the only line that could promote a Tory government candidate. One of the corporation men, Nicholas Mannooch, who had been post-master of Rye since 1689, took the lead in securing votes for Southwell, and before the end of June there were 18 ‘sure’ voices, while of the remaining 40 ‘some will give for you also and divide between Mr Offley and Mr Fagg’. However, the mayor, Francis Young, viewed Ashburnham’s intervention with displeasure. In the months following the King’s death, Young had admitted an additional 20 freemen, clearly in anticipation of a general election, and, as Ashburnham warned Southwell, he ‘expects something to be done for him which you can do in the government’. Ashburnham believed that Southwell’s chances against the old Members, Offley and Fagg, would be strengthened if he was partnered by another suitable candidate, and attempts were made to cajole Phillips Gybbon of Hole Park, Kent, into pursuing an earlier intimation that he might stand. Since Gybbon was a Whig, his partnership with Southwell would facilitate Ashburnham’s express desire for a ‘unanimous’ election. Shortly afterwards, however, a better accommodation seemed possible with one of the outgoing MPs, Fagg. Writing to Southwell in London on 11 July, Ashburnham reported having discussed the election with Fagg, who ‘declared that if he had been so well satisfied of you as he is now, he should not have made interest against you . . . I have hopes he will not appear against you’. Gybbon’s public declaration on the 13th that he would stand the poll was backed, as Ashburnham suspected, by only a ‘very small’ interest in the town, and he shortly afterwards withdrew. With Southwell’s success still uncertain, and Winchilsea worrying that the outcome would be ‘a near business’, Ashburnham tried to coerce the mayor into disqualifying a large number of opposition freemen from voting. A week before the election he confronted Young with evidence that the 20 new freemen, some of whom were Dissenters, had been ‘illegally chosen’ and were therefore not properly qualified to vote. During canvassing it had become clear that these new electors had been admitted in order to support the Whiggish interest on which the old Members stood. By withdrawing them, Ashburnham advised, the old Members would have the benefit of their original voters in their bid for re-election, while the two new candidates would be satisfied in having the electorate more or less as it was at the last general election. By taking such a ‘prudential’ step, the new freemen might afterwards be received into the corporation ‘with honour’ and have ample opportunity to qualify themselves in accordance with the law and participate in later elections. Ashburnham warned Young that he would otherwise face censure by the Commons for having admitted freemen ‘only to serve a turn’, while the freemen concerned would each be liable for a fine of £500. Young was ‘shaken’ by these arguments, and promised to do what he could to persuade the unqualified freemen to absent themselves from the poll. When Southwell arrived in Rye from London, accompanied by George Clarke*, the government’s candidate at Winchelsea, he found, as Ashburnham had forewarned, that the mayor had done nothing to fulfil his earlier promises and was still disposed against him. As expected, when the poll took place, Southwell came last, the new freemen voting for Fagg and Offley almost to a man, though Southwell obtained a majority of votes from the old freemen and protested against Offley’s return. None the less, the mayor returned Fagg and Offley, and Southwell petitioned. In the elections committee his counsel pressed for the disqualification of 23 votes for the sitting MPs, cast by the ‘illegally chosen’ freemen whom Ashburnham had wished to exclude. It was revealed that five were Dissenters who had not received the sacrament according to law in the year prior to their admission. Another four had been admitted by Young in breach of a custom whereby townsmen proposed by the current mayor, but rejected by a majority of freemen at a corporation assembly, could not be proposed again in the same mayoralty. This meant that the admission of 13 others, whose freedom had been approved by corporation majorities in which these nine had participated, was also invalid, and that their votes for the sitting Members could likewise be discounted. One more voter was excepted for not paying scot and lot. A deliberately Whiggish pose was struck during the proceedings when counsel for the sitting MPs argued that the mayor had deliberately set out to increase the number of freemen, apprehending that the Commons ‘designed the increasing numbers of electors in those places where they did not exceed 50’. Southwell won his case, however, and though the report (made on 19 Dec.) does not record the number of votes rejected, those eliminated gave him first place, with Fagg in second, while Offley was declared not elected. The election of 1702 marked the end of more than a decade of electoral peace and the beginning of renewed factional strife and confusion over the franchise, reminiscent of the 1680s.6

In 1705 the ministry promoted two Tory candidates, Southwell and Winchilsea’s brother-in-law, Philip Herbert, even though Winchilsea had recently been replaced as deputy lord warden by the Whiggish Earl of Westmorland. Prospects for the Tory interest were favourable, since the occupant of the mayoral chair was Mannooch, who had ably championed the Court interest in 1702. Opposing the government candidates, Gybbon was joined by another local Whig, Charles Fagg, whose father, the outgoing Member, had decided to stand instead at Lewes. Southwell and Herbert were returned after a close contest, but the losing candidates petitioned, alleging blatant partiality on Mannooch’s part in favour of the Court interest. The complaint received no consideration, however, until a second petition was submitted on 4 Dec. 1706. The case gave rise to a ‘great struggle’, as Southwell’s sister described it, in the elections committee on 13 Jan. 1707. It was widely thought that Gybbon had ‘a very good cause’. The petitioners claimed that Mannooch had barred several from the poll as being improperly qualified as freemen. These were mostly men whose freeman status Southwell had questioned in 1702: six who had not taken the sacrament in the year prior to their admission, and ‘several others’ who had been proposed for admission, rejected, and then accepted during the same mayoralty. One witness testified that they had been told by Mannooch on offering their votes that ‘they might be free to some purposes, but not to choose Members of Parliament’. The House had already in effect ruled on the issue in 1702, in rejecting the votes of freemen who were not qualified, either on the count of not having taken the sacrament, or having been proposed more than once in the same mayoralty. But as the 1707 report shows, subsequent developments now called this determination into question. Fresh evidence, in the form of ‘an ancient book of the customs of the corporation’, was produced showing that there was in fact no custom against admitting persons on a second proposal by a mayor. Moreover, several ‘freemen’ who had been disqualified on these grounds in 1702, had brought writs of mandamus against the mayor and jurats in 1704 demanding their instatement as freemen, only to be told that they had always been regarded as enjoying ‘all the privileges of freemen’; while another, in 1705, had obtained a verdict in his favour in Queen’s bench. The committee was almost equally divided on the merits of the dispute, but in the end resolved in favour of Gybbon and Fagg, Southwell losing by a narrow majority. The verdict was overturned when the case was reported ten days later, 23 Jan., but again only by slender majorities. In November, however, Herbert was turned out of his seat when the House was alerted to the fact that his post as a commissioner for sick and wounded was incompatible with his seat in Parliament. A ‘mandate’ from Prince George, the lord warden, requesting the election of Gybbon and ‘publicly read’ on the day of the by-election, ensured that he was elected ‘unanimously’.7

Although Southwell stood for re-election in 1708, the ministry, now predominantly Whiggish, no longer accorded him its backing. He continued to enjoy the benefit of his cousin Ashburnham’s interest, however, and was partnered by the peer’s younger son John. The lord warden’s candidates were Gybbon and Vice-Admiral Sir John Norris, second-in-command of the Mediterranean fleet. The contest, presided over by a Whig mayor, Thomas Grebell, favoured the government candidates, though Southwell complained that he had obtained ‘a majority of the old votes, and such as have been twice approved in Parliaments to be the good votes’. He and Ashburnham petitioned, but the hearing at the bar never took place and the complaint was pursued no further. The installation of an exclusively Tory ministry the following year made no impact on electoral politics in Rye, and in the next two elections the Whig Members Gybbon and Norris retained their seats. Although in 1710 there were two Tory candidates, Southwell and John Ellis* (one of Southwell’s old colleagues in government office), the Whig lord warden, the Earl of Dorset, apparently acting according to his personal predilections, issued his ‘mandate’ in favour of fellow Whigs Gybbon and Norris, who were duly returned. In their petition, complaining about the conduct of the election, Southwell and Ellis alleged that votes had been cast by townsmen who had not been properly admitted as freemen. The case came before the elections committee in February 1711. The petitioners objected to 16 of the 29 votes cast for the sitting MPs, but the committee could only agree to their objections in the case of 12, which was not enough to give them an overall majority of the votes cast. The determinations of 1702 and 1706 against freemen admitted on a second proposal during the same mayoralty were upheld. (In their draft ‘case’ of the dispute Southwell and Ellis had expressed the hope that Parliament would not consider itself bound by several adverse determinations on this issue given by ‘the courts below’ in response to mandamuses from those excluded previously.) Four votes were thereby eliminated, together with three more cast by townsmen made free at assembly courts in which the majority had been ‘occasioned’ by these four; another had been given his freedom by a similar combination of illegal votes; a further four had been made free by the present mayor Walter Waters, who himself had been judged an illegal freeman in a previous elections committee, and the hearing concurred with the petitioners that all his acts must therefore be invalid. The committee did not see fit, however, to eliminate four freemen elected by Dissenting assemblymen who had not taken the sacrament, resolving that it was ‘not necessary’, which reversed an earlier determination. Confirmation of these votes, somewhat surprising in a House with a large Tory majority, enabled Gybbon and Norris to retain their seats. In August, however, the corporation assembly took the precaution of formally re-electing 11 of the 12 ‘new freemen’ who had been disqualified in order that no future dispute could be initiated about their status.8

In 1713, with the Tory Duke of Ormond now lord warden, there was some attempt to impose Tory representatives upon the town. The sitting MPs were confronted with opposition from Samuel Lynn, a senior clerk in the secretary-at-war’s office, and a John Chamberlayne, almost certainly the London-based antiquary and publisher of Magnae Britanniae Notitia . . ., who was also a gentleman of the privy chamber. It was reported in the press that ‘a majority of the old corporation’ had voted for Lynn and Chamberlayne, but that the mayor had refused to return them. They petitioned, alleging that the presiding mayor, once again Walter Waters, was not in fact the legal mayor, and had used ‘threats and bribery’ to obtain votes for Gybbon and Norris. The petition was withdrawn, however, within a day.9

Author: Andrew A. Hanham


  • 1. Including newly admitted freemen.
  • 2. Excluding newly admitted freemen.
  • 3. Egerton 2087, f. 88.
  • 4. Add. 42586, ff. 78, 85.
  • 5. E. Suss. RO, RYE 1/17, Rye assembly bk., p. 232; C. Brent, Georgian Lewes, 169.
  • 6. E. Suss. RO, Ashburnham mss ASH 844, pp. 20, 34, Ashburnham to Winchilsea, 12 June, 8 July 1702; pp. 21, 30, 35–36, 37–39, 41, same to Southwell, 12, 27 June, 11, 14, 19 July 1702; p.34, same to Daniel Luff, 8 July 1702; Add. 61689, f. 31; 29588, ff. 93, 102, 104.
  • 7. Add. 47025, ff. 66, 70; Som. RO, Sanford mss DD/SF 3109, (Sir) Joseph Jekyll* to Edward Clarke I*, 24 Dec. 1706; Luttrell, Brief Relation, vi. 127, 131; RYE 1/17, Rye assembly bk. p. 305.
  • 8. NLW, Penrice and Margam mss L597, Southwell to (Sir) Thomas Mansel I*, 11 May 1708; RYE 1/17, Rye assembly bk., pp. 318, 322; Add. 29848, ff. 162–3.
  • 9. Scots Courant, 2–4 Sept. 1713.