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 corporation

Number of Qualified Electors:

26 in 16921

Number of voters:

at least 61 in 1702


 Sir John Nicholas 
24 Oct. 1695JOHN HAWLES 
27 July 1698SIR HENRY ASHURST, Bt. 
 Anthony Burnaby 
 Sir Henry Ashurst, Bt. 
24 Nov. 1701SIR HENRY ASHURST, Bt. 
18 July 1702SIR JOHN HAWLES37
 John Gauntlett24
 Sir Henry Ashurst, Bt.24
 GAUNTLETT vice Boddington, on petition, 28 Nov. 1702 
 John Gauntlett28
 William Nicholas172
6 Oct. 1710JOHN LONDON30
 Peter Bathurst26
 BATHURST vice London, on petition, 17 Mar. 1711 
29 Aug. 1713JOHN LONDON 

Main Article

Wilton, originally the county town, now made little impression on the traveller. ‘A place of no great notice’, wrote Defoe, and Macky was even harsher, describing it as ‘poor, paltry [and] mean’. The Earl of Pembroke’s (Thomas Herbert†) ‘very fine house’ seemed to dominate the small ‘village’ at its gates, but in electoral terms Pembroke was not a dominant figure. Though powerful, he only rarely succeeded in returning both Members in this period. The clothiers in and around Wilton, and in nearby Salisbury, and the substantial Dissenting interest, between them provided the base for a strong Whig presence in the constituency, frequently tempting London merchants to venture down as parliamentary candidates. The Whig challenge in 1690, however, came from a Wiltshire country gentleman, Sir Richard Grobham Howe, 2nd Bt. Having failed to persuade his son to join him in time, Howe was left on his own against two (presumably Pembroke-backed) Tories, the outgoing Member Thomas Wyndham, and Sir John Nicholas†, the clerk of the signet and a representative of the borough in the preceding two reigns. Even so, through the assistance of the mayor, the returning officer, Howe was chosen with Wyndham. It appears that not long after this election the burgesses may have become concerned that an attempt might be made, presumably by Pembroke’s supporters, to challenge the authority of the corporation and to effect a return to King James’s charter, which had been rescinded in September 1688. An opinion was sought from the recorder, the Salisbury-born Whig lawyer John Hawles, who was able to give reassurance that the surrender of the charter in 1685 was invalid because it had not been enrolled, and that ‘the old corporation is still in being’. Hawles was then returned for the borough himself in 1695, along with John Gauntlett, a protégé of the Nicholas family and probably, like Sir John Nicholas, a Pembroke nominee. Whig and Tory shared the spoils again in 1698, though on this occasion the Londoner Sir Henry Ashurst, 1st Bt., displaced Hawles as Gauntlett’s partner.3

The general election of January 1701 witnessed a curious and mysterious alignment of candidates: there was certainly a three-cornered contest, at least, and possibly a four-cornered one. Gauntlett and Ashurst both stood, not against each other nor yet in partnership. The other two candidates, London merchant and local landowner Thomas Phipps, and the would-be political careerist Anthony Burnaby*, may have joined forces, but this is far from certain. Burnaby was subsequently a Tory, and Phipps was blacklisted as such later in the year. However, in January 1701, Phipps was acting, or so his enemies claimed, as the ‘agent’ for ‘a considerable trading corporation in London’ (conceivably the New East India Company). Whether by ‘gross bribery’ and ‘promising larger sums’ from his masters, as was alleged, or by more proper methods, Phipps was able to get himself returned with Gauntlett. Ashurst petitioned only against Phipps but there was insufficient time for his case to be heard in committee. During the summer of 1701 the Whigs in the corporation took the offensive. ‘Several’ new burgesses were sworn, and although Gauntlett managed to shrug off a challenge from Phipps prior to the November election the newly ascendant faction soon made its power felt. First the borough produced a strongly Whiggish address to the King, which was agreed upon and sent up to the town via Ashurst before Gauntlett could come down with a more moderate draft of his own; and after the election the two Members were given a set of instructions that were uncompromisingly belligerent: Ashurst and Gauntlett were to ‘have a most particular regard to his Majesty’s person and honour, and use [their] utmost endeavours to revenge all affronts and indignities offered unto him’, especially the French king’s recognition of the Pretender. Supplies were to be granted, ‘our right of petitioning’ vindicated, and a new ‘test’ or ‘association’, preferably an abjuration oath, devised: ‘we do desire that your consultations may in all things tend to the safety and honour of the King, the security of the Protestant Succession, the extirpation of popery and French tyranny’. A further eight or so new burgesses were sworn, ‘all Dissenters, and four of them little clothiers of this town’; as Gauntlett observed, ‘purposely to oppose you know whom, and to affront the neighbouring gentlemen’. According to later evidence, the mayor, John Pranker, in all probability a Dissenter himself, had declared that ‘before another election, he would make so many new burgesses, there should be no occasion for the old to attend’, and, coining a phrase that was to resonate in national politics, ‘that he would make none burgesses, that were not Dissenters from the dam’s teat, for if they chose Churchmen, they would be always against them’. In the 1702 election the outgoing Members were defeated by a Whig alliance of Hawles and George Boddington, the latter a Turkey merchant from London and a devout congregationalist. Once again the relationship between Gauntlett and Ashurst seems to have fallen short of a full partnership. Although they each polled exactly the same number of votes, they petitioned separately against both sitting Members. Ashurst withdrew his petition, but Gauntlett’s was reported on 28 Nov. 1702. Tories in the Commons were scandalized at the evidence, unchallenged by Hawles and Boddington, that no less than 21 of their voters (19 of whom had been admitted as burgesses between 1 Sept. 1701 and 25 June 1702) were Dissenters. Gauntlett based his case on the terms of the 1661 Corporation Act, and the fact that the Dissenting burgesses had disqualified themselves through their failure to take the sacrament in the Established Church during the year prior to their admission. When the sitting Members’ counsel argued that the office of burgess was an ‘inferior’ one not covered by the law, the committee and the House resolved otherwise. Gauntlett was seated, and Boddington singled out for removal, possibly because he was a Dissenter himself. In some quarters the hearing was thought to have helped trigger off the first occasional conformity bill, the vision of a squadron of Nonconformist voters returning one of their own persuasion to the Commons having greatly ‘alarmed the zeal of the Church of England Parliament’. In fact, the bill had already been ordered on 4 Nov.4

This judgment set back the Whig cause sufficiently for Gauntlett and William Nicholas to be returned unopposed on Pembroke’s interest in 1705, but three years later the ground had been recovered. A Whig was mayor again, and several Whig gentlemen were eyeing the constituency greedily. When the leading Whigs in the corporation met fellow partisans from Salisbury in January 1708 ‘to consider of what gent[lemen] to set up for Wilton at our next election, that differences might not arise among ourselves’, there was no shortage of aspirants. Besides Hawles, who had transferred to Stockbridge in 1705 and was contemplating a return to his former constituency, there were two Salisbury Whigs, James Harris and Charles Mompesson, and the diplomat Sir Lambert Blackwell, drawn to the borough by his mercantile connexions. Blackwell had stolen a march, having ‘engaged’ the Wilton men on his behalf ‘since last term’, and so the struggle was over who should partner him. The choice fell on Mompesson, the host of the meeting, and Hawles, ‘as they two should agree’. Hawles kept to Stockbridge and it was Mompesson who stood with Blackwell and was returned. The two outgoing Members, again supported by Pembroke, all of whose tenants but one voted for them, lost decisively but while bribery was alleged in private, no petition was presented.5

The 1710 election bore strong similarities to the cause célèbre of 1702. One of the Whig candidates, John London, was a London clothier, a Blackwell Hall factor, and a Dissenter who relied heavily on the Dissenting interest. The defeated Tory made this fact the central issue of his petition to a sympathetic Commons. Blackwell had not been a candidate, having been outflanked in the competition for the Whig votes among the burgesses by the stronger and more committed party man, London. On the Tory side Gauntlett was joined by Peter Bathurst of Clarendon Park. A surviving Whig canvass shows where the strengths of the two sides lay. Tenants and dependants of Lord Pembroke, together with Tories ‘in heart’ and ‘in principle’, and those who were ‘country gentlemen’, supported Gauntlett and Bathurst; Dissenters, from Wilton itself and Salisbury, and more important, those who worked for and depended on the leading Whig families on the corporation, the Prankers, Chalks and Moores, were expected to poll for London and Mompesson. There was even one voter who, though a Tory by inclination ‘depends on the Staplers of London’ and ‘is therefore split in his vote’. The influence of this tight nexus of prominent Whig burgesses, Elias Chalk (mayor in 1700–1), William Moore and John Pranker, probably all Dissenters, or at least occasional conformists, is particularly striking. Their dominance over the corporation was well illustrated in the mayoral election, which took place the day before the parliamentary election and in which the three candidates nominated by the common council were Chalk, Moore and their ally, the acting mayor John Cabell. There was no challenge from the Tory burgesses and Moore was chosen. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Lord Pembroke and his heir Lord Herbert declined invitations to the new mayor’s feast. The Tories suffered an even sharper blow the next day, when Gauntlett did not appear to maintain his candidature in the parliamentary constituency. Cabell, who until Moore’s swearing in continued to officiate as mayor, presided over a three-cornered contest which ended in victory for the Whigs. London and Mompesson were not, however, without their apprehensions as to the ultimate outcome, as shown by the alacrity with which they ‘took information’ of some unruly behaviour by Tory voters misinformed as to the result of the poll and celebrating noisily in the town, a ‘disorder’ the Whigs were keen to represent as a ‘riot’. The point was not pursued, however, and when the merits of the election came to be debated in what was now an overwhelmingly Tory Commons, the initiative lay firmly with Bathurst. He and his ‘agents’ had abandoned earlier notions of ‘going upon King James’s charter’, and concentrated on pursuing his petition on the two issues of conformity and bribery. Raising the ghosts of 1702, they showed that London himself was a Dissenter and that four of his voters (including three Prankers) were ‘reputed Dissenters, and never came to church but when the Bishop of Salisbury preached’. This time, although the offending burgesses more or less admitted their preference for meeting-house over church, they did claim to have conformed occasionally. The rest of the evidence concerned bribery and treating, which was more strongly attested against the Whigs than against Bathurst. Moore and Cabell were shown to have taken active parts on behalf of London, against whom the case was principally directed though the petition had named both sitting Members, and Moore was said to have made 15 more Whig voters in the aftermath of the election. Predictably, London was unseated.6

The High Tory triumph was again short-lived. London was returned unopposed in 1713, together with the Hanoverian Tory Thomas Pitt II, who with his father Thomas Pitt I* gained the confidence of ‘Chalk, Moor etc.’. Pembroke, by now out of sympathy with the Tory ministry, brought forward no candidate, though he may have been behind the vociferous opposition to the election of Charles Mompesson as mayor in the following October. The fears of the weavers and clothiers as to the likely economic consequences of the peace and the Treaty of Commerce with France may also have been a factor in the absence of any pro-ministerial Tory challenge.7

Author: D. W. Hayton


  • 1. Pembroke mss at Wilton House, list of burgesses, 1 Oct. 1692.
  • 2. Bodl. Willis 15, f. 57.
  • 3. Defoe, Tour ed. Cole, 193; J. Macky, Journey Through Eng. (1714–29), ii. 47; Journeys of Celia Fiennes ed. Morris, 8; Bath mss at Longleat House, Thynne pprs. 18, ff. 191–4; Pembroke mss, Hawles’s opinion, 10 Oct. 1693; Northants. RO, Montagu (Boughton) mss 47/63, Vernon to Shrewsbury, 30 July 1698.
  • 4. Add. 28887, ff. 355, 403; 17677 WW, ff. 358–9; Flying Post, 27–30 Dec. 1701; G. Holmes, Pol. in Age of Anne, 100–1.
  • 5. Bull. IHR xxxvii. 31; Pembroke mss, R. Payne to James Harris, 10 Jan. 1707[–8]; Duchess of Marlborough Corresp. i. 123; Morice mss at Bank of England, 19, Nicholas† to Humphry Morice*, 28 May 1708.
  • 6. Pembroke mss, memoranda, 16 Feb., 3, 5, 6 Oct. 1710, 17 Feb. 1710[–11], n.d.
  • 7. Pembroke mss, Sir Edward Ernle, 3rd Bt.*, to [?Harris], 2 Apr. 1713; memo. 1 Oct. 1713; Churchill Coll. Camb. Erle mss 2/12, James Craggs I* to Thomas Erle*, 21 Sept. 1713; Hants RO, Jervoise mss, ‘Mr Harris’ to Thomas Jervoise*, 30 Oct. 1713; CJ, xvii. 416; London Gazette, 11–14 July 1713.