In the latest blog for the Georgian Lords, Dr Stuart Handley, examines the case of the Viscounts Montague, who in spite of being unable to sit in the Lords, retained their influence over their Sussex borough of Midhurst.
The Browne family were ennobled as viscounts Montague in the mid-sixteenth century, the first Viscount taking his seat in the House of Lords in 1554. The 3rd Viscount last sat on 29 November 1678, having been disabled by the Test Act due to his Roman Catholic religion.
One constituency influenced by the Brownes was Midhurst, a burgage borough in Sussex with about 125 votes in 1711. Traditionally, the family’s influence was based on the ownership of the lordships of the borough and manor, and exercised from their estate at nearby Cowdray. When the 6th Viscount Montague succeeded to the title in 1717, the family’s influence was in eclipse and the influence of the Knight family was exercised in tandem with the duke of Somerset.
In 1721 Montague sold off Battle Abbey, but retained the family estates adjacent to Midhurst, and in 1722 he successfully defended his right to elect the bailiff of Midhurst (the returning officer in parliamentary elections). By 1734 he seems to have been selling burgages.
However, as a peer based in Sussex, Montague was used to having cordial relations with Thomas Pelham-Holles, duke of Newcastle, and his brother, Henry Pelham. By the 1740s he was a frequent correspondent of Newcastle’s, usually soliciting patronage for his relatives and tenants, in a similar manner to any other eighteenth-century aristocrat.
Politics in Midhurst was in flux in the later 1740s. The decision of the Pelhams to call an early election in 1747 (one year before the statutory limitation under the Septennial Act), caught Frederick, Prince of Wales by surprise. This led the Prince to believe that the ageing Somerset’s interest at Midhurst was under threat and with it the return to the Commons of one of its MPs, his servant and office-holder, Thomas Bootle. The threat does not seem to have materialized, but following Somerset’s death in 1748 (in his will he bequeathed his burgages to Bootle) we find Montague keen to protect his right to select the bailiff (and hence returning officer) for the borough.
Years later, Montague attributed his involvement in Midhurst elections to Henry Pelham:
when I embarked in elections, Mr. Pelham encouraged me, it was his own proposition, and it was in so kind, so friendly a manner, I would not but undertake what he thought would be of advantage to his and to your administration. He indeed embraced me, adding he meant to give me, tho a Roman Catholic, a credit in my own country.
In 1752 Montague had a state of the votes at Midhurst drawn up. The technique of dividing burgages had seen the electorate grow to 217 voters (with a further 14 “bad” votes). He claimed to have 104 votes, plus 45 independents and the 14 votes claimed by his opponents ‘having the fee thereof.’ The sitting Members, Sir John Peachey (sitting on the old Knight interest) had 40, and Bootle 17, with 15 independents (a total which included the 14 claimed by Montague). In conclusion, Montague informed Newcastle that ‘whatever two persons you are pleased to name, excepting the Peacheys, they shall have my interest at Midhurst.’
Montague’s numerical superiority and determination to retain control of the election of the bailiff ensured that at the by-election which took place in January 1754 (following Bootle’s death) his candidate, John Sargent, recommended to him by Henry Pelham, was returned unopposed.
In the 1754 general election, Montague and Peachey elected to compromise and avoid a contest, each nominating one candidate in an unopposed return. At the end of 1755 Montague alerted Newcastle that he had recently purchased the 20 burgages belonging to the Bootle interest, thereby consolidating his interest.
In 1760 Peachey sold his interest to Sir William Peere Williams, who also purchased some independent votes, and who now claimed to Newcastle that he had a ‘clear’ majority. John Page, however, reported to Newcastle that, on the contrary’ the ‘clear’ majority lay with Montague.
A further examination of the state of the borough took place after the accession of George III when an election was imminent. It gave Montague 75 ‘indisputable votes’ to 64 for Peere Williams. However there were 20 ‘dubious votes, three ‘independents unpurchased’, and six ‘burgages vested in trustees’.
The uncertainty of a contested election saw much effort exerted to promote a compromise, Newcastle (at his most flattering), Henry Fox and John Stuart, 3rd earl of Bute, all played a part in ensuring that Montague and Williams returned one Member each.
From this point, if not before, Montague took a back seat and left matters to his son, also Anthony, the future 7th Viscount Montague, whose political ambitions became apparent when he succeeded his father in 1767. He promptly took the oaths and resumed the family’s seat in the House of Lords after an absence of almost 90 years.