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Sir Francis Burdett (1770 - 1844)

Francis Burdett was born on 25 January 1770 in Wiltshire. The son of the Baronet of Foremark, he was educated at Westminster School and Oxford University. After completing his education, Burdett went off on his Grand Tour through Europe, returning to England in 1793 and soon afterwards married Sophia Coutts, the daughter of the banker, Thomas Coutts. On her marriage, Sophia received a dowry of £25,000, making her husband a very rich man. In 1797 Coutts purchased the rotten borough of Boroughbridge from the Duke of Newcastle for £4,000; he gave the seat to Burdett who became its independent MP, since he refused to join either the Whigs or Tories

Burdett was influenced by the ideas of the French Revolution and opposed Pitt's suspension of Habeas Corpus; he was critical of the government's efforts to suppress individual freedoms. However, Britain was at war with France at this time and Pitt's policies were intended to prevent revolution in this country. Burdett denounced Great Britain's war with France. Burdett was one of the few members of the House of Commons who supported the idea of parliamentary reform at that time and became one of the leaders of the opposition to Liverpool's ministry in the 18-teens. Radicals in London approached Burdett and asked him to stand as their candidate for Middlesex. He was elected there in 1802, but was defeated in the election held in 180. In the 1806 election he lost because of a disputed result. It has been estimated that Burdett spent £100,000 during these two elections. He was returned to parliament in 1807 by the Westminster voters in what is said to be the first unquestioned reform victory in a British parliamentary election. The seat had become vacant on the death of Charles James Fox: Westminster had a reputation for electing radical MPs and at this time had one of the largest electorates in England. Most of the 14,000 voters were shopkeepers and artisans who had a disliked aristocratic privilege. Sir Francis Burdett easily won the election, polling more votes than the combined total of the other three candidates.

 In 1810 his speech against the imprisonment of another radical by the House of Commons was published in William Cobbett's Weekly Political Register, and Burdett himself was imprisoned for this alleged breach of parliamentary privilege. In 1820 he was heavily fined and again imprisoned for criticising Lord Liverpool's ministry for the events at the 'Peterloo Massacre' where a large crowd assembled to hear speakers in favour of parliamentary reform on 16 August 1819.As a result of the actions of the local magistrates, eleven people died and hundreds were injured.

Burdett was an advocate of religious toleration and introduced several Catholic Emancipation Bills. The Catholic Emancipation Act was finally passed in 1829. Burdett also campaigned for parliamentary reform. However, as he got older, Burdett became more conservative and he began to argue that the Catholic Emancipation Act and the 1832 Reform Act had gone too far. These opinions upset the radicals and his thirty years as MP for Westminster came to an end in 1837.

Burdett's enthusiasm for reform waned long before the Reform Bill of 1832 was enacted. His views were increasingly very conservative and he was approached by the Tories to be their candidate in North Wiltshire. Burdett accepted their offer and remained the Tory MP for North Wiltshire until his death in London on 23 January 1844.

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Last modified 5 January, 2011

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