For this month’s local history focus we are looking at the borough constituency of York. A city not unfamiliar with hosting parliaments, it was even suggested by the Prime Minister last week as a possible location for a temporary chamber during Westminster’s Restoration and Renewal works. In the first of two blogs, today Dr Stuart Handley, senior research fellow in our Lords 1715-1790 project, looks at the city and its representation at the start of the Georgian period…
On 13 July 2020, the Londoner column in the Evening Standard (Ayesha Hazarika) reported on the persistent rumours that the House of Lords would be relocated to York. Although Lord Fowler, the Speaker of the Lords, discountenanced such a move, it would seem that York was often rumoured as a possible venue should Parliament be moved out of London.
For many York was ‘the second city in the kingdom,’ owing to its historic role as a centre of government. Although, no longer extant, the Council of the North had been based in York, and it retained a role as a centre of ecclesiastical and judicial administration; the venue for the assizes, the quarter sessions and shire and borough elections. Part of York’s attraction was its growth as a social centre – the resort of many gentry families in search of entertainment and diversion during the winter “season”. Indeed, it was a prime example of the ‘urban renaissance’ of the post-Restoration and early eighteenth-century periods as conceptualized and popularised by Peter Borsay. The mix of assemblies, concerts, plays, race-meetings and “walks” about town all added to the attraction. Indeed for some it was more of a marriage market than anything else. As Lady Mary Pierrepont (the future Lady Mary Wortley Montagu) wrote of York assemblies in 1713, for men seeking wives ‘there’s extraordinary good choice indeed. I believe last Monday there were two hundred pieces of women’s flesh (fat and lean).’
The Minster was, of course, one of the most notable features of the city, according to Daniel Defoe, ‘so noble and so august a pile, that ’tis a glory to all the rest’. The archbishop of York’s episcopal palace at Bishopthorpe lay a few miles south of the city on the river Ouse. Many of the archbishops were reticent in pressing their political opinions on the borough. John Sharp, Archbishop of York (1691-1714), claimed in 1702 that it was:
very improper for me to meddle in Parliament elections, either for the city or county: that I foresaw great inconveniences would come upon it with respect to myself, and yet I should do no great good; and therefore I made it a rule to myself not to be concerned in these matters, unless there was an absolute necessity for it, as in the case of a notorious bad man that should offer himself … I would promise then, that though I could not serve them by making any votes for them, yet I would never disserve them by espousing any interest against them.
However, perhaps this desire to avoid controversy was assisted by the knowledge that as archbishop he was also lord of the manor of Ripon, and able to provide for family and friends in that borough. From 1661 a succession of figures associated with the archbishop were returned – Thomas Burwell, the chancellor of the diocese in 1661; Richard Sterne the archbishop’s son for all three of the Exclusion parliaments 1679-1681; Gilbert Dolben, son of the archbishop in 1685. After a hiatus caused by the vacancy in the archbishopric and the undistinguished tenure of Thomas Lamplugh, from 1701 the husband of Archbishop Sharp’s niece, John Aislabie, often sat in tandem with the archbishop’s son, John Sharp. This episcopal influence only came to an end when control of the burgages in Ripon fell to the Aislabie family after 1722.
In contrast to the limited franchise at Ripon (where 153 voted in 1708), the freeman franchise at York was prone to manipulation and expansion at election time, and competition for seats made campaigning potentially very expensive. At least 1450 voted in the 1690s, at least 1500 in 1713, at least 1900 in 1722, at least 2600 in 1741, and 2233 in the 1758 by-election. An analysis of the freemen registers in the eighteenth century reveals that York admitted 9,079 freemen between 1700 and 1799, at an average of just over 90 per year. Very high totals of admissions were recorded during the year preceding an election or during an election year itself. The highest total, 527 in 1758, was the result of an unexpected by-election held in December after the death of Sir John Armitage in action the previous September. With a general election due under the Septennial Act, 810 freemen were admitted in 1740-41, as the 1741 general election was followed by a by-election in July 1742.
And what of the Members elected by the freemen?
Some had a link with the Church, such as John Scott MP from 1661-4, who was the son of a dean of York, although one that had died in a debtors’ prison in 1644. In the Restoration period, some had a link with the borough’s high steward, George Villiers, 2nd duke of Buckingham, such as Scott’s successor, Thomas Osborne, the future earl of Danby and duke of Leeds, who secured a seat at York in a by-election in 1665 ‘encompassed by your grace’s favour’, as ‘the greatest number of the best citizens (and particularly all the aldermen bar one) were very ready to give me their assistance upon your grace’s account.’ For the Convention of 1689, Danby’s somewhat wayward son, Peregrine Osborne, known then as Viscount Dunblane, and eventually 2nd duke of Leeds, was chosen, although he was soon called up to the House of Lords.
Others were involved in the city’s wine trade. Edward Thompson, a wine merchant, MP 1689-90, and 1695 to his death in August 1701, owned the most commodious house in the city, which he refused to lend to the duke of York on his visit in 1679, and when pressed to relent, he removed all the furniture and refused to wait on the duke.
In 1722, Sir William Milner, son-in-law of Sharp’s successor as archbishop, William Dawes, was chosen, amid fears that he intended to make York, ‘a Church borough’, although the early death of Dawes in 1725 put pay to any such plans.
In a by-election of 1742, the son-in-law of Lord Bingley (himself a former MP for York), George Fox, was elected, and retained his seat until 1761, having changed his name to Fox Lane in 1751, he was created Baron Bingley in 1762. In the general election of 1761, his son, Robert Lane (the defeated candidate in the 1758 by-election) became York’s MP.
In the event, York did not host a session of Parliament after 1660, but it did retain its allure as a social centre. Lord Burlington’s “Egyptian Hall” constructed in 1731-2 may even have shown London the way in terms of architecture designed for leisure. One thing was for sure, in 1732 the duchess of Marlborough remained in agreement with Lady Mary over York’s social role when she noted that ‘all the young women lay out more than they can spare to get good husbands.’
For more blogs in our ‘Local History’ series, click here.