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:


Number of voters:

at least 42 in 1695; at least 61 in 1708; at least 38 in 1710


3 Mar. 1690Sir John Fowell, Bt. 
 Henry Seymour 
14 Dec. 1692Thomas Coulson vice Fowell, deceased 
15 Nov. 1695Sir Edward Seymour, 4th Bt.34
 Edward Yarde35
 Sir Richard Gipps10
 James Bateman4
27 July 1698Sir Edward Seymour, 4th Bt. 
 Thomas Coulson 
11 Jan. 1699Francis Gwyn vice Seymour, chose to sit for Exeter 
11 Jan. 1701Francis Gwyn 
 Thomas Coulson 
1 Dec. 1701Sir Christopher Musgrave, Bt. 
 Thomas Coulson 
21 July 1702Sir Christopher Musgrave, Bt. 
 Thomas Coulson 
27 Nov. 1702William Seymour vice Musgrave, chose to sit for Westmorland 
17 May 1705Sir Humphrey Mackworth 
 Thomas Coulson 
14 May 1708Sir Edward Seymour, 5th Bt.35
 George Courtenay31
 Sir Humphrey Mackworth28
 Thomas Coulson291
12 Oct. 1710Francis Gwyn27
 Thomas Coulson28
 Spencer Cowper212
27 June 1711Francis Gwyn re-elected after appointment to office 
2 Sept. 1713Francis Gwyn 
 Stephen Northleigh 

Main Article

Totnes was ‘Sir Edward Seymour’s town’, according to Defoe, ‘though he has not one foot of land nor a house in the town’. The family had sold off property in the borough to pay fines during the Interregnum, but had retained their residence at nearby Berry Pomeroy. This, together with Seymour’s status as one of the leading west-country Tories, gave him a strong natural interest. His nominees, Sir John Fowell, 3rd Bt., and Henry Seymour, were returned without opposition in 1690. On Fowell’s death, Thomas Coulson, a London merchant, succeeded at a by-election in 1692, having been recommended by Seymour, who promised the corporation that Coulson would prove ‘a good patriot’ and ‘benefactor to your town’. Immediately after the 1695 election Robert Yard* reported that ‘Seymour, fearing he would lose at Exeter, set himself up at Totnes too, but was only returned there by the mayor disqualifying a number of legal votes against him’. Seymour and a fellow Tory, Edward Yarde, had been opposed by two Whigs: Sir Richard Gipps, a Suffolk gentleman who had married an heiress with a substantial property in Totnes, and James Bateman, a London merchant. It was later reported that ‘the first thing he [Gipps] did in that town towards gaining an interest was to single out the parson of the parish, to prove to him that there was no God’. Seymour and Yarde were returned. The defeated candidates petitioned on 29 Nov., and the case was reported from the committee of elections on 4 Mar. 1696. The petitioners had initially claimed that 32 voters had been improperly disqualified, but four of these were disfranchised on the basis of evidence presented. The remaining 28 were all freemen by virtue of a charter granted by James ii. Counsel for the sitting Members claimed that this charter was invalid, and the House upheld this interpretation. Ten disputed votes for the sitting Members by non-resident freemen were also confirmed and the right of such votes established for the future. Counsel for Seymour and Yarde also alleged that Gipps, during his canvass and at the election, had asserted that

he was commanded by the King to stand; and that if he had not one voice, he should sit; for he had as great an interest with the King as any man in England; and that he could procure £500 a year for the corporation . . . that he was commanded by the higher powers; and being desired to explain himself . . . he said he was commanded by his wife.

The petition was declared to be ‘vexatious, frivolous and groundless’ and Gipps alone was ordered to repay the expenses Seymour and Yarde had thereby incurred.3

In 1698 Seymour and Coulson were unopposed, and when Seymour chose to sit for Exeter his friend Francis Gwyn secured an unopposed return at the ensuing by-election. At the election to the first 1701 Parliament, however, the Duke of Bolton (Charles Powlett I*) and Lord Somers (Sir John*) brought forward William Cowper* as a Whig candidate. Despite their insistence that a personal canvass was essential, Cowper, who was in poor health, declined to travel to Totnes. Cowper withdrew before the poll, though it may be that his younger brother, Spencer*, was suggested as a replacement Whig candidate. A week after the date of the Totnes return Bishop Trelawny wrote that he had refused Bolton’s request for his interest at this election as ‘I look on [Spencer] Cowper as a murderer’. Trelawny may, however, have been misinformed as to the identity of the prospective candidate, and in any event Coulson and Gwyn were returned without a contest. The bitterness of party conflict at this election was reflected in two complaints to the House on 10 Apr. The first was of a breach of privilege for the arrest of one of Seymour’s servants for scandalum magnatum at the suit of the Duke of Bolton. A counter-complaint was lodged against Seymour and Coulson for ‘threats, and other indirect practices’ at the election. Both cases were referred to the committee of privileges and elections. On 17 May Lord Hartington (William Cavendish*) asked why no day had yet been appointed for hearing the case of Totnes,

it being a very undue election and corrupt practices [used] . . . and that he did not move this on hearsay only but that as he was coming into the House . . . the original letters of Sir Edward Seymour and Mr Coulson were put into his hands . . . [which] would prove them . . . Seymour . . . had not desired [t]o have the Totnes election come on out of apprehension . . . that it was brought on to expose him . . . [Hartington] desired that the letter might be read and there was a great disorder . . . some saying it was an ill precedent to have a man charged in the House with his own letter, what never [d]id before appear upon our books.

After a short delay both letters were read to the House:

Seymour’s spoke of an organ to be given to Totne[s]; Coulson’s talked of . . . the dissolution of the Parliament and of persuading them to be reconciled to . . . Seymour, and persuading them to bring in Frank Gwyn and promising them to [d]o the town a kindness in relation to the buying mills that did incommode them.

In subsequent Whig propaganda adverse comparisons were made between Seymour’s conduct at Totnes and his earlier accusations against Samuel Shepheard I* for electoral corruption elsewhere. But the allegations against Seymour and Coulson made no difference to the result of the election, and the House also declared in their favour in the privilege cases. On 12 Apr. the attorney and bailiff responsible for the arrest of Seymour’s servant were ordered into custody for a breach of privilege, and on 19 May (after the committee had been discharged from further proceedings in the election case) the recipient of the controversial letters was likewise ordered into custody for having ‘endeavoured maliciously to raise and promote reflections and scandalous reports of Sir Edward Seymour and Mr Coulson’.4

No further challenge was made to the Seymour interest until 1705, when Thomas Jervoise*, a follower of the Duke of Bolton, was brought forward by Bishop Trelawny of Exeter. Jervoise did not, however, put his candidacy to the test of a poll. Seymour’s death in February 1708 weakened the family’s interest, but his son, the 5th Bt., stood successfully in 1708 with George Courtenay, a Devonian Tory, who through his grandfather’s marriage to a daughter of Sir Edward Seymour, 2nd Bt.†, was a kinsman (first cousin once removed) of the late Sir Edward, 4th Bt. With Bolton’s support Spencer Cowper* contested the seat in 1710, but was defeated by Coulson and Gwyn. Despite appearances to the contrary, this was not a victory for the Seymour interest. It was reported shortly before the election that ‘Tom Coulson and Francis Gwyn have contrived an interest that he [Sir Edward Seymour] will have great difficulty to get the better of’. Courtenay had hopes of Totnes in 1713 but these were not realized. Gwyn was re-elected ‘unanimously’ with Stephen Northleigh, the stepson of the former Member, Edward Yarde.5

Author: Eveline Cruickshanks


  • 1. Bodl. Willis 9, f. 163v.
  • 2. Trans. Devon Assoc. xxxii. 445.
  • 3. HMC Portland, v. 270; Trans. Devon Assoc. xxxvi. 228–9; HMC 3rd Rep. 347, 349; Centre Kentish Stud. Stanhope mss, U1590/059/4, Robert Yard* to Alexander Stanhope, 19 Nov. 1695; Add. 46525, f. 60; G. Holmes, Pol. in Age of Anne, 166.
  • 4. BL, Althorp mss, Halifax pprs. box 4, Gwyn to Ld. Halifax (William Savile*), 29 Aug., 12 Oct. 1698; Herts. RO, Panshanger mss D/EP F99, Bolton to Spencer Cowper, n.d. [c.Dec. 1700], 28 Dec. 1700, Somers to same, n.d. [c.Jan. 1701]; Devon RO, Exeter dioc. archs. Bp. Trelawny to Adn. Cook, 11, 18 Jan. [1701]; Cocks Diary 135–6.
  • 5. Bodl. Ballard 21, f. 222; Bolton mss at Bolton Hall, D/47, Bolton to Thomas Coward, 13 June 1710; C115/110/8929; Add. 70220, Courtenay to Ld. Oxford (Robert Harley*), 29 July 1712; 70294, Gwyn to same, 7 Sept. 1713.