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 inhabitants

Number of Qualified Electors:


Number of voters:

at least 533 in 1695; at least 975 in 1710


10 Mar. 1690SIR WILLIAM PORTMAN, Bt.  
10 Apr. 1690JOHN SPEKE vice Portman, deceased  
25 Oct. 1695EDWARD CLARKE510 
 Henry Portman273 
 John Sanford2 
 Thomas Dyke2 
 Richard Willoughby1 
 William Periam11 
10 Aug. 1698HENRY PORTMAN300 
 John Speke298 
 Francis Hobart2542 
8 Jan. 1701HENRY PORTMAN  
17 Mar. 1701SIR FRANCIS WARRE, Bt. vice Portman, chose to sit for Wells297 
 Thomas Baker2563 
20 Nov. 1701SIR FRANCIS WARRE, Bt.  
22 July 1702EDWARD CLARKE547 
 Major Wade2404 
14 May 1705EDWARD CLARKE  
6 May 1708SIR FRANCIS WARRE, Bt.  
12 Oct. 1710SIR FRANCIS WARRE, Bt.596597
 William Pynsent384374
 William Coward37853686
1 Sept. 1713SIR FRANCIS WARRE, Bt.  

Main Article

Taunton easily gave the impression of being one of the most Whiggish boroughs in England. The Somerset historian John Oldmixon wrote in 1711: ‘there are more fanatics in it than in any corporation in England, more Whigs than the ward of Breadstreet, more wealthy men than the whole shire of Cardigan’. But though the tradition of opposition and Dissent was deeply embedded in the town’s recent history, strong Tory influences had also held sway, and not least those represented by the Portman family, whose principal estate at Orchard Portman lay just two miles distant. Sir William Portman, 5th Bt., had been elected for the town in 1640, and his son, Sir William, 6th Bt., represented it in almost every Parliament from 1661. After 1690, however, and up to 1710, the Portman interest had to struggle hard, and made itself felt, not so much through ideological appeal, as through bribery and intimidation.7

For much of the William and Anne period the Whig interest in Taunton was dominated by Edward Clarke I, an active local gentleman whose seat at Chipley was eight miles away. Clarke had been seen as a possible contender for one of the borough seats as early as July 1679 and he stood unsuccessfully in 1685. James II’s electoral agents reported in December 1687 and again in April 1688 that Clarke was a popular choice among the Whigs and ‘fanatics’. Clarke was defeated in 1689, largely due to the sitting Tory John Sanford’s ‘hearty promoting’ of William of Orange’s cause. In 1690, however, Sanford did not seek re-election. There seems to have been an inclination towards a consensual outcome to this election with Clarke once again in the lists. His wife wrote to John Locke a few days before the election in terms which suggest that a deal had been made behind the scenes: ‘as for the Taunton people they have made not their choice as yet, but it is now thought that Portman and Clarke will carry it, if there is no tricks played by the first mentioned’. Indeed, the election passed off quietly in their favour, but within a fortnight of the return Portman was dead and speculation began upon the subject of a successor. There were no obvious candidates, as Clarke was informed on 21 Mar. by his local agent John Spreat:

the Taunton people . . . are not yet come to a resolution whom to choose to supply Sir William’s place. Some talk of Mr [John] Speke, others of Mr Dyke, a third sort, of Mr Frend, and a fourth of such a person as you would be pleased to recommend to them, so that you may easily guess what a miserable distraction the poor giddy folk of that place are under.

Frend and Dyke were local townsmen, Dyke being a Tory. William Joliffe*, a Dorset gentleman but brother-in-law of Sir John Trenchard*, veteran of previous contests in the borough, also considered standing, although Trenchard confided to his brother Henry* that he did not rate Joliffe’s chances very highly:

By letters yesterday from Taunton, I understand that there is likely to be a contest between Whig and Tory at the next election. The Whigs have nominated my brother [-in-law] Speke. The others say that Sir John Sydenham [2nd Bt.†] will stand for it. The Tories nominate either Mr Dyke (a bastard son of Dr Dyke to whom his estate is given) or else Mr Proctour, son to a late alderman of the town, who has a good estate near it. Whoever knows that place and the manner of election will judge that it is not possible to make an interest for any other person that is not well known there, and in those circumstances I presume my sister Jolliffe would not be willing I should propose my brother to them.

In the end it was Speke, lately defeated in the county contest, who was returned, but it remains unclear whether the Tories went so far as to oppose him at a poll.8

The Portman estates were inherited by Sir William’s cousin Henry Seymour, the younger and more moderate brother of the leading west-country Tory Sir Edward Seymour, 4th Bt.* Seymour also adopted the Portman surname, and in 1695 mounted a challenge to Clarke and Speke, who were seeking re-election. Clarke’s interest had undoubtedly been strengthened by his appointment in June as recorder, and the voting showed well-nigh unanimous support for him among the popular electorate, while Portman, who had evidently managed to build up some interest of his own over the previous five years, came within a hair’s breadth of Speke who took second place. Portman’s petition, presented on 6 Dec., accused Speke of bribery and undue practices, but was not reported. In 1698 Clarke and Speke defended their seats in a more conventional party contest, opposed by Portman and Francis Hobart, a senior Tory alderman. The contest was closely fought, with Sir Walter Yonge, 3rd Bt.*, Roger Hoare* and Thomas Bere* assisting Clarke, and Portman being accompanied by Nathaniel Palmer*, Sir Francis Warre, 1st Bt., Francis Gwyn* and Sir John Trevelyan, 2nd Bt.* The day after polling, 28 July, a scrutiny at the town hall revealed that Portman had obtained 300 votes, while Clarke and Speke had both obtained 298. Clarke, his syntax muddled by anger, wrote to his sister on 1 Aug. that he had been ‘opposed with all the malice and industry, and by all the ill-practices that the united strength and influence of all the gentlemen of these parts appearing personally with Mr Portman, and joining with that ungrateful and scandalous corporation could invent or the Devil himself could suggest’. The situation had been exacerbated by the mayor, ‘who [had] been perfectly overawed and frightened by the presence of so many gentlemen, and allowed several that had no good right to vote for Mr Portman, and had I had justice done me, I had infallibly carried it against him, whereas he has the majority now by two’. He now resigned himself to the irritation of a double return and an eventual determination by the Commons. During the course of the next week or so, however, the mayor sought the opinion of the eminent lawyer, Sir Bartholemew Shower* at Exeter, as a result of which he proceeded to seal the return in favour of Clarke and Portman. The explanation for this outcome was given by Under-Secretary James Vernon I* to the Duke of Shrewsbury:

Ned Clarke is come to town, who has got himself returned with . . . Harry Portman, and Mr Speke is dropped, who had a number of votes equal to Mr Clarke. He says in these cases the mayor is at liberty to return which of the two he pleases, and that those who would complain of it, ought to show they have a better title. That the solicitor-general was in the like case since the revolution, and it then appeared there were several precedents to justify such returns. In the meantime Mr Speke is very much dissatisfied at it and will complain of it as an injustice done him.

Clarke informed his agent Spreat that he was aware that a second return had been made by ‘some aldermen and corporation exclusive of the mayor’ and ‘framed by Beresford, Haskett and the rest of that party’, evidently a Tory, or at least anti-Clarke faction within the corporate body. However, the county sheriff, though ‘very much pressed to have annexed it to his writ with the other returns’, refused ‘utterly’ to accept it. Although the election appears to have been contested along straight party lines, Speke had subsequently turned his guns on Clarke. Early in September Clarke learned that the opposing faction were ‘in an agitation and taking advice’ in framing petitions to be submitted against him from both Speke and Portman. He was greatly reassured, however, by the thought that if the election were to come before Parliament, Portman’s conduct, such as his payments of 4s. a head to poor voters, would also come under scrutiny

and in all probability do him thereby much more prejudice than me, which I presume the squire [Speke], if he knows it, will hardly be prevailed on to do, least he should thereby as much disobliged his new Tory friends, as by his late behaviour in relation to the Taunton election, and that for the county he hath done the greatest part of all his old friends and acquaintance.

Clarke was convinced that Portman would ‘use his authority and interest among them to prevent so great an inconvenience to himself’. On 24 Dec. he was able to report to Spreat that no petition had been presented against him: ‘I presume ’twas the regard they had to Mr Portman’s election and the consciousness of their own illegal, arbitrary and undue practices to procure him a majority of voices and the apprehension of having it all exposed upon a trial to their utter shame and confusion that deterred them from it’.9

The circumstances in which Clarke narrowly retained his seat in 1698 were a salutary reminder to him of the precariousness of his personal interest in Taunton and of the constant need to exert himself at Westminster on behalf of his constituency. Since becoming MP in 1690 he had busied himself untiringly for the town on a host of issues, though none more troublesome than the struggle to obtain an act for making the Tone navigable between Bridgwater and Taunton. Clarke’s endeavours finally secured the much-needed Act in March 1699, and it was with this particular service uppermost in mind that his leading constituents notified him in December 1700 that they had unanimously ‘agreed to choose Mr Portman and yourself to be our burgesses in the next Parliament . . . and you may be assured we will use our utmost endeavour to preserve this union and unanimous choice’. Clarke and Portman were duly returned a month later without opposition, but Portman’s choosing to sit for Wells necessitated a by-election soon afterwards which was contested by Sir Francis Warre, 1st Bt., of nearby Hestercombe, a Church Tory who probably stood with Portman’s backing, and Thomas Baker, a local merchant who was prominent among the Whig townsmen. Baker was defeated in a fairly close poll, and in a petition accused the mayor of being ‘very partial’ in disallowing qualified voters for himself and illegal ones for Warre, and in later refusing a scrutiny. The matter was not reported on, however. A further petition from some 63 of those whose votes for Baker had been disallowed, had also been prepared but was not presented. Clarke and Warre were returned again without opposition in November.10

Anticipating stiff resistance from the Tories in 1702, Clarke’s supporters took early precautions in securing his interest, as well as deciding to set up a second Whig candidate, Major Wade, presumably a local man, who it was reckoned would have ‘a very considerable interest here’. The setting up of a second Whig candidate had prompted the Tories to contemplate similar action, and for a while it was speculated that Francis Hobart, who had stood in 1698, would be their man. One of Clarke’s correspondents notified him that the Tories were determined that ‘none of our friends who are not legal inhabitants shall vote, and I hope there will be due care taken that none of theirs under like circumstances shall be admitted to vote as they did in Mr Baker’s election’. It was soon clear that ‘old Hobart’ did not intend to contest with Warre, but hoped to bring about a unanimous agreement for the old Members. The contest finished in a poll in July at which Clarke, despite his earlier fears of failing, was a clear winner. But it is noteworthy that the combined Whig interests of Clarke and Wade proved insufficient to oust Warre and replace him with a second Whig.11

Clarke and Warre were returned unopposed in 1705 and in 1708, but the advent of a Tory ministry in 1710 encouraged the local Tories to put up both Portman and Warre against Clarke. As one political observer reported: ‘Mr Portman, Sir F. Warre and Mr Clarke stand at Taunton. The first you know has a full purse. The last has a great interest among the factious, who are a majority in that borough. Yet it’s believed Mr Portman and Sir F. Warre will be chosen.’ However, Clarke, whose health had been in decline for some time, died suddenly on 1 Oct., forcing the Whigs to look elsewhere for a candidate. They chose William Coward*, of Wells, who had been elected for that city in 1708 but had not been re-adopted, together with William Pynsent of Burton. One newswriter reported that when the Tory candidates Portman and Warre entered Taunton on 10 Oct., they were attended by ‘1,500 horse of the gentry’ and greeted with laurels of gold and silver festooned with the motto ‘God save the Queen and Church’; but when the Whigs entered, they were attended by ‘a great rabble of combers in red caps’ who were attacked by a Tory mob which then resorted to smashing the windows of Whigs who had put up illuminations. In this openly party struggle, Coward and Pynsent attracted much of Clarke’s residual support, but the earlier predictions that Clarke had been destined to defeat at Tory hands were handsomely borne out. Portman and Warre retained their seats in the 1713 election, apparently without opposition.12

Authors: Paula Watson / Andrew A. Hanham


  • 1. Som. RO, Sanford mss DD/SF 1090, 1695 poll.
  • 2. Ibid. 1094, 1698 poll.
  • 3. Som. RO, Taunton mss DD/SAS TN 159/2, 1701 poll.
  • 4. Ibid. DD/SAS TN 32, 1702 poll.
  • 5. Ibid. DD/SAS TN 159/3, 1710 poll.
  • 6. Post Boy, 17–19 Oct. 1710.
  • 7. Oldmixon, Hist. Addresses, ii (1711), 115.
  • 8. Locke Corresp. iv. 17; Sanford mss DD/SF 4515, Spreat to Clarke, 21 Mar. 1689[–90]; Dorset RO, Lane mss D60/F56, John to Henry Trenchard, 29 Mar. 1690.
  • 9. Add. 28879, ff. 227, 258; 28883, f. 70; BL, Althorp mss, Halifax pprs. Gwyn to Mq. of Halifax (Wm. Saville*), 28 Aug. 1698; Sanford mss DD/SF 3833, Clarke to Ursula Venner, 1 Aug. 1698; 3019, same to Spreat, 20 Aug. 1698; 3906, same to same, 23 Aug., 3 Sept.; 3903, same to same, 24 Dec. 1698; 290, diary of John Spreat 26, 27 July, 2, 3 Aug. 1698; Vernon-Shrewsbury Letters, ii. 153–4.
  • 10. Sanford mss DD/SF 1088/7, mayor and corp. to Clarke, 24 Dec. 1700; 1092, draft petition [Apr. 1701].
  • 11. Sanford mss DD/SF 3928, Thomas Whinne to Clarke, 20 May 1702; 3901, Hugh Speke to Clarke, 20 May 1702.
  • 12. Huntington Lib. Stowe mss 58(6), p. 214; Strathmore mss at Glamis Castle, box 74, bdle. 8, newsletters 7, 17 Oct. 1710.