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

Number of Qualified Electors:


Number of voters:

at least 3,596 in 1705


 Sir John Sydenham, Bt. 
 John Speke 
28 Oct. 1695SIR JOHN SMITH, Bt. 
 Henry Portman 
 John Pigott 
10 May 1699NATHANIEL PALMER vice Phelips, deceased 
15 Jan. 1701SIR JOHN TREVELYAN, Bt. 
 Edward Berkeley 
 John Pigott 
 John Speke 
 John Hunt 
 George Horner1327
 Francis Hawley, Baron Hawley [I]8291
26 Apr. 1710SIR WILLIAM WYNDHAM, Bt. vice Prowse, deceased 
25 Oct. 1710SIR THOMAS WROTH, Bt. 
2 July 1711SIR WILLIAM WYNDHAM, Bt. re-elected after appointment to office 
13 July 1712SIR WILLIAM WYNDHAM, Bt. re-elected after appointment to office 

Main Article

In his History of Addresses (1711), John Oldmixon described Somerset as ‘the Attica of England, the seat of good sense, good manners, good politics, good English and good land’. How Oldmixon, himself a native of the county, reconciled his own distinctly Whiggish outlook with the dominant Toryism of Somerset’s gentry elite is not immediately apparent, but he would not have been alone in his belief that its uncomplicated politics, seen in the comparative absence of party acrimony, was undeniably to the county’s advantage. Genuine party strife made few appearances in the elections of this period. Disharmony arose more usually from the county’s elongated geography, with electoral tensions between the eastern and western sides of the county, each intent on having its own representative in Parliament. A matter of much complaint by the early 1700s was the age-old practice of holding elections at Ilchester, considered an inconvenient location in view of the new social importance of more accessible towns such as Taunton and Wells. Continuity was an important element in Somerset’s Tory hegemony. Not only did most of the families who had featured prominently in elections in the post-Restoration era continue to do so in the reigns of William and Anne, but links between them were often reinforced through intermarriage. Aristocratic influence was not uniformly evident throughout the period. Viscount Weymouth (Thomas Thynne†), in the Tory interest, chose to exercise no more than a watching brief over elections in the 1690s, but from the end of the decade the more active interventions of the Tory Lord (later 1st Earl) Poulett tended to favour the Tory cause on the eastern side of the county, his seat at Hinton St. George being close to Ilchester. Several MPs were Poulett’s kinsmen and enjoyed his active support.2

Despite their significant showing in the campaign for the abortive election in 1688, the Whigs had not sought the county seats in the election to the Convention in January 1689. Their ardour revived, however, in 1690. Initial approaches were made to several Tories to replace the two outgoing Tory knights until it was decided that the county representation be vested in gentlemen of each party denomination. Accordingly, the Tories put forward Sir Edward Phelips, previously MP for Ilchester and generally regarded as a ‘pillar’ of the Church in the West country, while the Whigs had fielded Sir John Sydenham, 2nd Bt.†, one of Somerset’s most senior Whig figures during the Cavalier Parliament and a leading member of the ‘disaffected’ party within the county in the mid-1680s. The arrangement rested on an undertaking of mutual support but was soon afterwards threatened when a declaration to stand was made by another Whig, John Speke*, a maverick figure in the Whig cause, now in earnest for the seat which had been his late father’s during the Exclusion Parliaments. It had been partly in anticipation that he would stand that the county gentlemen, thinking ‘he would be a shame to them when he appeared’, had agreed upon a joint Tory–Whig return. The temptations of an unalloyed Whig candidacy and the sudden opportunity to run the Tories to ground were too great for Sydenham, and shortly before 24 Feb., when polling was due to begin, he announced his partnership with Speke. ‘Never were any people so tricked as we have been’, Phelips wrote disgustedly to Weymouth, and asked for whatever assistance could be spared. At this eleventh hour Nathaniel Palmer, a kinsman of the Harleys and former MP for Minehead, was hurriedly recruited to stand with Phelips. The Whigs, meanwhile, had made good progress, and it was even conceded by a Tory source that ‘the fanatics are very sedulous’. The Tories, reeling from their setback and now uncertain of either seat, profited from the sheriff’s adjournment on the 25th, after two days’ polling, until 4 Mar. Ostensibly, this initiative was to accommodate the fact that the writ had been received only a few days earlier and notice of the election had been short, but the sheriff was Sir John Smith, 2nd Bt., a Tory MP for the county in James II’s Parliament, and he may well have intended to provide his party brethren with a breathing-space to rally supporters following Speke’s intervention. Phelips wrote again to Weymouth on the 26th, apologizing for the ‘rudeness’ of his previous letter and condemning Sydenham as ‘one that betrayed the country by joining Speke contrary to his promises to me’. He was confident that victory was within his and Palmer’s grasp, but only ‘by about a 100’. So far, however, the opportunities for canvassing had been few, and the Whigs, too, had grounds for optimism. It was only during the week’s adjournment that any real semblance of a campaign was launched, and the Whigs quickly fell into difficulty, lashing out with complaints of foul play. John Locke, one of Somerset’s most eminent sons, was informed by the wife of one aggrieved Whig before the poll re-opened that ‘there has been all the foul practices imaginable . . . and ’tis thought there will be a false return at last against Sir John Sydenham and Mr Speke in order to set up Sir Edward Phelips’. Phelips and Palmer carried the day. Although the figures are lost, Speke’s petition against the return, alleging that the sheriff’s adjournment had prevented ‘several’ freeholders from voting for him, indicates that he was probably close behind in third place.3

A week before the 1695 election four candidates were in the field. Of the outgoing Members, only Palmer had declared himself, though two Tory baronets had also put themselves forward: Smith, the sheriff of 1690, and Sir John Trevelyan, 2nd Bt. The fourth candidate was the Whig Sydenham. In the event Palmer pulled out, having been returned for Bridgwater on 23 Oct., and Sydenham followed suit a day or two later, leaving Trevelyan and Smith to be returned ‘without any opposition’. The next election in 1698 produced a contest. In the weeks before the election there emerged four Tory contenders: Trevelyan, seeking re-election; Phelips, knight of the shire in the 1690 Parliament; John Hunt, a scourge of Somerset Dissenters, formerly MP for Milborne Port and now withdrawing at Ilchester; and Henry Portman, younger brother of the High Church leader Sir Edward Seymour, 4th Bt.* (having assumed the name of Portman in 1690). A Whig, John Pigott, also entered the fray. Trevelyan’s chances were thought to be particularly weak, quite possibly due to his having refused to subscribe in the first instance to the Association two years previously, and after apparently conducting a preliminary canvass he withdrew. There seemed little doubt, certainly in Francis Gwyn’s* mind, that Portman would be ‘unanimously chose’, an impression reinforced by his popularity at Taunton, where he was successful a week later. Consequently, his defeat caused much surprise, for as Gwyn noted afterwards, ‘everybody declared for him, yet there were two, Sir Edward Phelips and Jack Hunt, that had the majority’. A contributory factor in Phelips’ case may have been his earlier removal from the commission of the peace following an Admiralty complaint, enabling him, perhaps, to claim he had been subject to unreasonable victimization by the Court. Phelips’ death early in April 1699 occasioned a by-election. The Whig John Speke, who had lately lost his seat at Taunton, wasted no time in publicly declaring ‘his readiness and good intentions’, while at a ‘conclave’ at Wells the Tories nominated Palmer, Phelips’ partner in the 1690 Parliament. The election on 10 May was speedily determined in Palmer’s favour without the necessity of a poll, Speke ‘making an inconsiderable appearance and less opposition’ and failing even to rouse moderate forces of support from among his friends at Taunton.4

Poulett’s electoral debut in the county came in the election of January 1701. His intervention in December 1700 on behalf of Weymouth’s son, Hon. Henry Thynne*, led to a flurry of activity and speculation among Somerset’s gentry, and his zeal for Thynne was such that ‘he had in person spoke to most of the gentlemen hereabouts’. Poulett also gave backing to Portman, and it was generally reckoned that Thynne and Portman were ‘both very honest gentlemen and have the best stakes to joust with in this county’, and would be adopted at ‘the general meeting’ at Wells. It soon emerged, however, that this particular Tory partnership was failing to inspire approbation among key sections of gentry opinion, not least in Thynne’s case where there were objections to his non-residence in the county. When the gentlemen convened at Wells they agreed on the safer choice of Trevelyan and Hunt, both of whom had represented the county in the recent past and who were now returned without opposition. In December 1701 Palmer was elected once more, this time with Sir Philip Sydenham, 3rd Bt., himself a Tory despite the fact that his father, Sir John, had contested several county elections for the Whigs. Hunt’s unpopularity prevented him from standing. Ilchester’s role as venue for the county’s elections came to the fore in the Commons towards the end of this Parliament when Palmer presented a petition ‘from the gentlemen of the remoter parts of the county’ complaining about the town’s inaccessibility, lying ‘on the extent of the county’, and its ‘want of entertainment’, and requesting a bill empowering the sheriff to hold the poll additionally at Wells and Taunton. Palmer, in the opinion of the diarist Sir Richard Cocks, 2nd Bt.*, ‘had the right of his side by the arguments’, but came in for heavy opposition from Seymour, who appears to have been defending the interests, not of his brother Portman whose estates at Orchard Portman were located close to Taunton, but of the High Church Phelips family whose immediate sphere of influence was in the vicinity of Ilchester. The motion was defeated, 173–132.5

Nothing is known of the 1702 election except the identity of six candidates; it is not even certain if the contest finished in a poll. A Whig bid for the county seats was made by Pigott and Speke, both veterans of earlier elections, but in this traditionally Tory preserve it was doomed to failure given the euphoric Tory mood of the opening months of Queen Anne’s reign. More serious, however, was the rift which had opened up among the Tories, between High Churchmen and moderates. The former had set up Edward Berkeley, no doubt remembered for his refusal to sign the Association in 1696, and John Hunt, ‘an extraordinary honest gentleman’. There can be little doubt that Poulett was largely responsible for the campaign for the ministerial candidates, the outgoing Members Sydenham and Palmer, whose affinity with the Court could hardly have been closer, Sydenham being a kinsman of Poulett and Palmer a relation of Robert Harley*. In due course the Court Tories took both seats. The division among Somerset’s Tories was more pronounced in the 1705 election. Oldmixon testified as to the intense ideological skirmishing, recalling that ‘the pretended danger of the Church, the doctrine of tacking, the occasional business and the rest of that scent were as early broached in this shire and as zealously prosecuted as in any in England’. Backed by Poulett, Palmer stood for re-election. Sufficient support was also found to sustain the candidacy of John Pigott, a kinsman of Poulett, hitherto untried in Parliament but who had campaigned for the Whigs in 1698 and 1702. Pigott may well have been a surprise proposition at first, but as a moderate Whig beholden to Poulett his attraction for the Court Tories lay in the fact that he could be counted upon to support the administration. The ‘tacking party’ set up George Horner, returned for the county in 1685 and 1689, and Lord Hawley (Francis*), a young Irish peer with extensive estates in Somerset and elsewhere in the West country. A key focus of High Church support was the Phelips family whose power-base in the Ilchester area was adjacent to Poulett’s. Following Sir Edward Phelips’ death in 1699, the family’s electoral influence was now wielded by his brother William, whom Palmer took particular pains to placate. However, Palmer’s lobbying and voting against the Tack the previous November had antagonized the High Tories to such a degree that Phelips was warned that ‘his assurances not to attempt any thing in Parliament any more against Ilchester and also his promises as to the Church are neither of them to be relied upon in the opinion of several [of] his brother Members of Parliament’. Overwhelming victory by the Court candidates provoked an inflamed reaction from the High Tories who were no doubt particularly aggrieved at the election of a Whig, the only one elected for the county during this period. Poulett wrote to Edward Harley* on 30 June:

I will write you nothing of the confounded practices of our opposers at the election since you have seen Mr Palmer who can tell you a great deal of his part; but since their defeat they flame more fiercely as if only a little water was thrown on them, and they rage with the overcoming hopes this next session to destroy our friends and their moderate interests as they phrase it; but here their loudness proved but a sign of weakness in reason and numbers, and I believe they are made of the same stuff [as] all their party.

High Tory mischief-making continued well into 1706, so much so that by the autumn Poulett was forced to deal summarily with the ringleader, whom he reported to Robert Harley as ‘so much the officious drudge of the tacking party that he very insolently thwarts your friends here in everything’, and strongly advised his removal from the commission of the peace. Although Harley accepted this advice, no further action was taken.6

Palmer did not stand in 1708. His closeness to the Court and downfall of his kinsman Harley were both vital factors which seriously compromised his suitability in the eyes of many county Tories. Pigott showed himself inclined to stand for re-election having been encouraged to do so by Smith and ‘others of the eastern gentlemen’, but withdrew on failing to secure Poulett’s ‘approbation and interest’. This might have been forthcoming had it not been for the subtle persuasions of senior Tory managers, most notably Gwyn, who told Poulett that he thought ‘it was time to consult about another’. Poulett, whose influence had been weakened by the Tories’ recent removal from office, concentrated his efforts on securing the candidacy of Trevelyan in a partnership with Portman. There was now, however, much less reason for the Tory gentlemen to defer to Poulett’s wishes. Already, a month or so before the election, much support had been mustered among them for John Prowse (son-in-law of Dr George Hooper, bishop of Bath and Wells), and Portman, and it was Gwyn’s main concern that the forthcoming assembly of gentlemen at Wells would endorse the partnership and ‘prevent a farther trouble’. This outcome was duly obtained and ensured that Prowse and Portman were returned unopposed. Prowse’s sudden death in April 1710 triggered a by-election. The gentry might easily have chosen to reinstate one of their former knights, but instead opted for the politically promising Sir William Wyndham, 3rd Bt., a 22-year-old who, having recently married a daughter of the Duke of Somerset, was an eminently acceptable choice. In the general election later that year Wyndham was returned with Sir Thomas Wroth, 3rd Bt., a former MP for Bridgwater whose uncle was Nathaniel Palmer. Wroth stood down in 1713, preferring a seat at Wells, and was replaced by Thomas Horner, son of the 1705 candidate. This election, as Wyndham contentedly informed Lord Treasurer Oxford (Harley), ‘passed without opposition’.7

Authors: Paula Watson / Andrew A. Hanham


  • 1. Post Man, 2–5 June 1705.
  • 2. Oldmixon, Hist. Addresses, ii. 301.
  • 3. Bath mss at Longleat House, Thynne pprs. 24, ff. 152, 156, 174; Locke Corresp. iv. 17; Bodl. Ballard 38, f. 126; Som. RO, Sanford mss DD/SF 3901, Thomas Stringer to Mary Clarke, 10 Mar. 1689[–90].
  • 4. Add. 70018, ff. 94–5; 28879, ff. 227, 258; 28883, f. 70; BL, Althorp mss, Halifax pprs. box 4, Gwyn to Ld. Halifax (William Savile*), 1, 10 Aug. 1698; Sanford mss DD/SF 290, diary of John Spreat, 3 Aug. 1698; L. K. J. Glassey, Appt. JPs. 125, 127; Sanford mss DD/SF 3110, Thomas Dyke to Edward Clarke I*, 8 Apr. 1699; DD/SF 3864, Spreat to same, 13 May 1699.
  • 5. Thynne pprs. 25, ff. 47–8; 26, ff. 417–18; Cocks Diary, 211–12.
  • 6. Bean’s notebks; Oldmixon, i. 241; ii. 302; Som. RO, Phelips mss DD/PH/224/63, Richard Gorges to William Phelips, 21 Apr. 1705; HMC Portland, iv. 200, 330; Glassey, 181–2.
  • 7. Phelips mss DD/PH 219/80, Pigott to Poulett, 18 Apr. 1708; Thynne pprs. 25, ff. 441, 443; Add. 70263, Wyndham to [Oxford], 12 Sept. 1713.