Magazine article History Today

The Malmesbury Elections of 1698 and 1701

Magazine article History Today

The Malmesbury Elections of 1698 and 1701

Article excerpt

This month's column focuses not on the life of a Member of Parliament, but on how some of them were elected. Parliamentary elections before the Reform Act of 1832 were often purely formal affairs, with the most prominent local gentry or citizens coming to an arrangement among themselves about who might represent them in the House of Commons. In the borough towns the entitlement to vote was governed by local arrangements: sometimes it was held by all the inhabitants; sometimes by all the freemen; sometimes only by the corporation or part of it. Frequently a wealthy nobleman would have sufficient influence within a local borough to be able virtually to dictate to his neighbours how they should vote in the polls.

But such arrangements were prone to break down, and particularly hard to maintain at times of political tension--such as after the Revolution of 1688, when the ideological struggle between Whig and Tory parties was at its height. In Malmesbury, Wiltshire,Thomas, Lord Wharton, exercised a powerful influence by virtue of the family's local estates. Wharton, a prominent Whig politician as well as a playboy whose passion for the turf and skill at duelling were renowned, was adept at nursing constituencies. In 1695, he was said by his enemies to have 'the sole control and influence of ... elections of Members of Parliament [in the town], which he brought about from time to time by fair and large promises to the town and to the electorate, and if at any time that failed, then he made use of threats and ... force'. In fact, his influence came under severe pressure at the election that year, and Wharton had to make strenuous efforts to try to recover it. In February 1696, the discovery of a conspiracy to assassinate William III provided the Whigs with the excuse, by means of a declaration of loyalty--the Association--tendered to all local office-holders, to purge town government. Wharton seized the opportunity in Malmesbury: many refused to subscribe to the partisan text of the Declaration and were removed from the corporation, and he was able, as a result, to obtain from the King a new charter for the Town, drastically changing the legal basis under which it was governed, and elections were held. An electorate of over a hundred in 1689 had now been reduced to thirteen.

But reducing the electorate actually made elections less predictable. …

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