"Unreformed House of Commons" is a name given to the House of Commons of Great Britain and (after 1800) the House of Commons of the United Kingdom before it was reformed by the Reform Act 1832 (and the Irish Reform Act 1832 and Scottish Reform Act 1832).
Until the Act of Union of 1707, which united the Kingdoms of Scotland and England to form Great Britain, Scotland had its own Parliament, and the term can be used to refer to the House of Commons of England (which included representatives from Wales from the 16th century). From 1707 to 1801 the term refers to the House of Commons of Great Britain. Until the Act of Union of 1800 joining the Kingdom of Ireland to Great Britain (to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland), Ireland also had its own Parliament. From 1801 to 1832, therefore, the term refers to the House of Commons of the United Kingdom.
The Witenagemot was the forerunner political institution (that of Anglo-Saxon England) which operated from before the 7th century in at least the Kingdom of Wessex until the 11th century by which time the Kingdom of England was long-established. It was an assembly of the ruling class whose main function was to advise the king; composed of the most key noblemen in England, ecclesiastic and secular. The institution is thought to represent an aristocratic development of the ancient Germanic general assemblies, or folkmoots. In England, by the 7th century, these ancient folkmoots had developed into convocations of the land's most powerful and important people: ealdormen, thegns, and senior clergy, to discuss matters of national and local significance.
Through missionaries (later made saints) sent by Gregory the Great (such as Augustine of Canterbury and Paulinus of York) the seven Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, mainly with quasi-Witenagemots, officially converted to the church, by the mid-7th century. The panoply of Anglo-Saxon monarchs were then free to arrange marriages into European royalty, which were likewise, from then, became more autocratic while feudal. The role of a consulting forum, overall, declined. In England, cross-sea Viking Kingdoms made raids and soon invasions – such times and places of conflict favoured stronger leadership, and effective autocracy. None more so than the Danelaw, among whose rulers were Cnut the Great, Sveyn Forkbeard and Cnut of Northumbria.
The latter's semi-relatives, being the people (predominantly men) of the Norman Conquest, swept aside the remnants of the witenagemots and replaced most of the nobility, while continuing to seize and defend settled lands, vassal states, abroad. These early Norman monarchs thus had an invasive military state ethos, and as conquerors, did not wish to consult with those conquered.
The Normans regularly seized on an orthodoxy of medieval times which ended with ascendant Roundhead philosophies at the start of the Age of Enlightenment. This was, as taught and professed by established people, that sovereignty (including the rulers of ancient tribes and modern kingdoms) was a birthright, by divine grace. Reciting the more worldly origin of kingship: upward from the people, seeing a King's glorification, crowning and ongoing assent to his rulership by successful men-of-arms, most transparent in the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy, became High Treason. The divine narrative is seized upon in sermons, the practice of orders of chivalry and the words and symbolism throughout coronation ceremonies. Leaders of the church preached that every true and Christian King, who would thus obey God's will and never irreparably defy God, had God's strong blessing. The King (or Queen) was "the Lord's anointed", due obedience from the people. The King however had a duty to act as good shepherd of his people to avoid misery and ruin. Such events were often cited as proof of an evil, illegitimate King by a challenging foreign- or nobility-sponsored kinsman pretender to the throne. Such power struggles placed de facto, but not de jure limits on monarchy. At such times there were few trite constitutional conventions and the calling of a counsel or parliament was no longer routine.
Very wealthy nobility aligned with foreign powers, for example, completely thwarted a cross-kingdom powerhold for the 18+3⁄4-year reign of Stephen, King of England. This period, the much latter-dubbed Anarchy of the 12th century, was foremost among semi-coups and great compromises. These confirmed practical limits on the non-church wealth and power a monarch could seize. From the Magna Carta of 1215 it was becoming accepted, in writing that could be construed as binding law, that a King's duties included the duty to respect and take counsel from feudal magnates.
Parliament emerged from such consultations (or parleys), representatives of local communities (the Commons) then being added to the Lords (peers: senior bishops and all those ennobled, whether for loyalty or gallantry who generally already had wealth and influence) – a process aided by the practical consideration that it was easier for the King to collect the taxes he needed if the people initially consented to pay them.
Representative men summoned by emerging custom, thus convention, fixed upon two to be selected by each (Parliamentary) Borough and two knights of each shire (county). The latter evolved into any two men whom the fairly wealthy of the county selected. The latter electorate became standardised to forty shilling freeholders. Immediately from this, there followed a relative elite who could vote for and lobby both types of representative, so enjoyed plural voting, a relative elite who had single voting, and most other men with no right to vote.
Court-attending or royally-invested nobles and the Western church created and perpetuated much historiography – including shrines and hagiography of "good kings" – such as to Edward the Confessor and Edmund the Martyr. Elaborate royal tombs and regular prayers for the dead were features of Windsor Castle, Westminster Abbey and Bury St Edmunds. Until about 1350, King Edmund the Martyr, (pope) Gregory the Great, and King Edward the Confessor were regarded as English national saints, but Edward III preferred the more war-like figure of Saint George, and in 1348 he established the Order of the Garter, him as its patron. At Windsor Castle, its chapel of Saint Edward the Confessor was re-dedicated to Saint George, who was acclaimed three years later patron of the English race or people, where he was revered in later stories and folklore. Such a narrative was orthodoxy in the semi-autocratic reign of Henry VIII – who executed a series of his leading advisors and is used today as a slur for any excessive power, "Henry VIII power", in statute. Laden with wealth from the disappropriated church, he avoided Parliamentary dissent.
The limits of this stance were reached by Charles I of England. Found to be a "tyrant, traitor, murderer, and public enemy to the good people of the nation", his 67 Commissioner-strong trial ordered his beheading after the Civil War, following much Parliamentary sidelining, particularly taxing the people against Parliamentary will. When given the opportunity to speak, Charles refused to enter a plea, claiming that no court had jurisdiction over a monarch. He believed that his own authority to rule had been due to the divine right of kings given to him by God, and by the traditions and laws of England when he was crowned and anointed, and that the power wielded by those trying him was simply that of force of arms. Charles insisted that the trial was illegal, explaining, "No learnèd lawyer will affirm that an impeachment can lie against the King ... one of their maxims is, that the King can do no wrong."
The House of Commons consisted entirely of men, increasingly of great wealth only, and from 1688 until reform entirely of Anglicans, except in Scotland. Women could neither vote nor stand for election. Members were not paid, which meant that only men of wealth could represent their counties or boroughs. Candidates had to be electors, which meant that in most places they had to have land, mills or businesses.
Virtually all members representing county seats were landed gentry. Many were relatives or dependants of peers. Others were squires with little or no blood relation to other members. These independent country gentlemen were often the chief source of opposition to government and Royal edict, since they had little motivation to gain government favour through their votes.
Boroughs also sometimes selected local squires, but more were merchants or urban professionals such as lawyers. A large number of borough members were sponsored into office by the government gave it support: these cronies were known as "placemen", and it was a long-standing objective of parliamentary reformers to eliminate them in the House of Commons. Some were men of little means, in debt or insolvent, who agreed to become placemen for government funds. All 18th century governments depended on this corrupt element to maintain their majorities. Some boroughs were under the control of particular ministers or government departments. Thus those representing the Cinque Ports were, by custom, dependants of the Admiralty and spoke for the interests of the Royal Navy.
There was no direct religious restriction on the right to vote. In practice most Catholics were prevented between the reign of Elizabeth I and the Papists Act 1778, as they could not own or inherit land, making them unable to meet the property requirement. Prominent "recusant" Catholic families such as that of the Duke of Norfolk, until this rule became redundant, circumvented this.
Even after 1778, eligibility for election to the House was restricted by the fact that members had to take an Anglican oath to take their seats. This excluded Catholics, non-Anglican Protestants (English Dissenters), Jews and atheists. (This restriction did not apply to Presbyterians in Scotland, where the Church of Scotland was the established church.)
It is a widely held view that the quality of members of the Commons declined over the 250 years before its reform in 1832. This view was one of the stimulants for reform. Sir John Neale could say of the county members in the reign of Elizabeth I: "It was not sufficient for candidates to belong to the more substantial families ... They usually had to show some initiative and will." In the boroughs, he wrote, "competition tended to eliminate the less vigorous, less intelligent and unambitious." This would not be accepted as a description of the situation in the reign of George III, when it was frequently said that the House of full of lazy time-servers, talentless dependants of peers, and corrupt placemen and government agents.
The numerical dominance of country gentlemen pervaded. In 1584 they comprised 240 members in a House of 460. Two hundred years later this proportion had hardly changed, even though the social composition of Britain had changed greatly.
The proportion of non-affiliated by blood members declined; sons or close relatives of peers rose at least fourfold. In 1584 only 24 members were sons of peers; by the end of the 18th century this number had risen to about 130 (out of 659, i.e. 19.7%), a fourfold rise in percentage.
In the 18th century about 50 members held ministerial or similar government offices. These included some who today would be career civil servants: the Secretary of the Admiralty, for example. Other members were given ceremonial Court appointments, usually sinecures, as a means of ensuring their loyalty. These included such archaic posts as eight Clerks of the Green Cloth and a dozen Grooms of the Bedchamber, aside from clerkships in government departments, posts which usually involved no actual work. This was not necessarily regarded as corrupt – in an age when Members received neither payments nor pensions, a sinecure was regarded as a legitimate reward for service, but it also served to keep the recipient loyal.
More clearly corrupt was the payment of secret pensions to Members by the Treasury. In 1762 sixteen Members were thus secretly in the pay of the government.
Opposition rhetoric at the time, however, tended to exaggerate the corruption of the 18th century House of Commons and the extent to which governments controlled the House by corrupt means. John Brooke's studies of division lists led him to comment: "The majority of Members voting with Government held no office and did so through honest conviction." The lists show, he said, "that Members were given office because they voted with Government, not that they voted with Government in order to obtain office." As he points out, at a time when there were no formal political parties and hence no party discipline in the House, governments had to resort to other expedients to secure a majority and allow the continuity of government.
|Country||BC||CC||UC||Total Constituencies||BMP||CMP||UMP||Total MPs||Population (1801)||People per MP|
|Total||263||114||3||380||467||176||5||658||16,000,000||24,316 (average population quota)|
England had been divided into counties (or shires) since Anglo-Saxon times. These formed the cornerstone of representation, from 1265. Two knights of the shire were chosen to represent each. Before 1536 England had 39 (see list below), thus electing 78 "knights". These "knights" were local landowners who could enjoy courtesy style peerages from their living father or grandfather but lacked a proper peerage (in which case they would be members of the House of Lords). Since Wales was formally annexed to England in 1536, each of the 12 Welsh counties elected one "knight". Monmouthshire, part of the Welsh Marches, became an English county, electing two members, thus making for 92 county members.
To be a candidate or elector for a county seat, a man had to own (not rent) freehold property valued for the land tax at two pounds a year. (Women could neither vote nor be elected.) This was known as the 40 shilling freehold. (There were 20 shillings to the pound). This rule was established by an Act of 1430, and as the value of money gradually declined over subsequent centuries, an increasing number of landowners were admitted to the franchise. By the early 19th century, for example, Yorkshire had more than 20,000 electors, while Kent, Lancashire and Somerset had nearly 10,000 each. By 1831 the English county electorate was estimated at about 190,000.
Such members were usually elected without a ballot/vote save amid great party strife. In every county was a group of landowning families and these would informally agree on who would stand for the county at a given election. Members were often relatives or allies of the peers who owned large portions of the county or its industries. Some counties were represented by the same two or three families for centuries (such as the Lowthers of Westmorland). Sometimes a county would not see a contest for generations. Nottinghamshire, for example, did not see a contested election between 1722 and 1832. Exceptions were: Middlesex, an odd concentration of big city merchants, financiers and industrialists for a county – it had several notable contests; and the 1784 to 1812 unbroken returns of William Wilberforce for Yorkshire.
Even in medieval times a significant proportion of the King's revenue came from taxes paid by people living in towns, and thus the House of Commons had representatives of boroughs as well as counties from an early date. A borough was a town which usually, but not always, had a Royal charter giving it the right to elect two members (known as burgesses) to the House of Commons, though some very ancient boroughs were acknowledged as having prescriptive rights. Five English boroughs elected only one member, while two boroughs - the City of London and the double borough of Weymouth and Melcombe Regis in Dorset - elected four members each. From the 16th century 12 boroughs in Wales elected one member each.
Mediaeval kings could and did grant and revoke charters at their pleasure, often to create seats in the House for their supporters, and frequently regardless of the size or importance of the town. Thus there were "rotten boroughs" (boroughs with very few voters) from very early times, but they increased in number over the years as many old towns lost population. The two most famous examples were Old Sarum, which by the 18th century had no residents at all, and Dunwich in Suffolk, most of which had fallen into the sea. The number of English boroughs fluctuated over time, until the last new borough charter was issued in 1674. From then on the number was fixed at 203, electing 405 members (see list below).
The franchise for borough seats varied enormously. In some boroughs, virtually all adult homeowners could vote. In others, only a handful of landowners could vote. In others, the default maintained, members were chosen by its corporation (council), usually elected by a small group of property owners.
The types of borough franchise were as follows:
It is not possible to calculate the size of the borough electorate with any accuracy, since many boroughs were rarely contested, and no records were made of eligible voters unless there was a contest. As well, many people owned property in more than one borough and could thus vote more than once (this was called plural voting). The total English electorate is thought to have increased from about 338,000 in the late eighteenth century to some 439,000 at the time of the Reform Act, (or perhaps about 10% of adult males). Of that total, around 45% - 188,000, or slightly less - were in 1831 eligible borough voters.
There was no secret ballot. Until the Ballot Act of 1872, the voter openly declared his vote at the Hustings, a public occasion, where it was recorded. That meant that the patron who dominated a borough knew how the qualified electors had voted. Even if the franchise was broad, as in a potwalloper or scot and lot borough, a small electorate could be controlled by a combination of patronage, bribes and threats. The relatively democratic constituencies combined a broad franchise with a numerous electorate.
The two ancient universities of Cambridge and Oxford elected two members each from 1603. The franchise was restricted to holders of doctoral and master's degrees, which excluded the great bulk of graduates (mostly Anglican clergy) holding bachelor's degrees. Both universities had about 500 electors in the 18th century, rising to 800 by 1832, but at most elections a much smaller number actually voted. After the Act of Union of 1801, University of Dublin also elected one member.
The twelve Welsh counties elected one member each, on the same franchise as English counties. Since Wales was much poorer than England, however, the county electorates were much smaller. The Welsh county electorate was about 19,000 in 1800. The twelve Welsh boroughs also elected one member each. Until the late 18th century all of them were very small towns. The franchises for the Welsh boroughs were freemen, scot and lot and corporation but in practice they were under the control of local patrons and contested elections were rare.
The Act of Union of 1707 brought 45 Scottish members to the House of Commons, of which 30 were elected by the 33 Scottish counties, while 15 were elected from the Scottish boroughs (called burghs in Scotland). The electoral system which had operated in the Scottish Parliament since its creation was preserved for the election of Scotland's representatives at Westminster.
Twenty-seven counties elected one member each (this included Orkney and Shetland, which were strictly speaking not counties but fiefs of the Crown, but were treated as if they were a county). The six smallest counties were grouped together into three groups of two (Buteshire and Caithness, Clackmannanshire and Kinross-shire, and Nairnshire and Cromartyshire), with one of each pair electing a member at alternate elections.
The Scottish county franchise was even more restrictive than for the English counties. A voter either had to own land worth the equivalent of two pounds sterling "of old extent" - meaning that the land had to have had that value since the creation of the Scottish Parliament in the 13th century - or to hold as a Crown tenant land to the value of 35 pounds sterling. This restricted the franchise to a handful of wealthy landowners, small privileged sets who might not even represent the county's true landed wealth. In most counties there were fewer than 100 voters, and in some even less: in Sutherlandshire the Duke of Sutherland owned almost the entire county, and all the voters were his tenants, while in Orkney and Shetland there were seven voters in 1759. The total Scottish county electorate was fewer than 3,000 in 1800.
The 15 Scottish burghs consisted of the city of Edinburgh, where the 33 members of the city corporation elected a member, and 14 groups of four or five smaller burghs, each group electing one member between them. The franchise in the groups of burghs was held by the corporations of each of the burghs making up the group, the corporations being self-co-opting oligarchies. Each burgh corporation would choose a delegate, and the delegates would then meet to elect the member. The representation tended to rotate among the burghs in each group. Since most of the burghs were little more than villages, the leading county families could usually bribe the corporation members to get their nominees elected.
Government patronage in Scotland early ensured a docile parliamentary following; and by mid-century the government of the day could usually count on a solid phalanx of Scottish supporters. Subsequently under Pitt, Henry Dundas, the Scottish agent of the Tory party, had little difficulty in manipulating the Scottish representation in similar fashion, spending government funds and using Indian patronage to ensure that Tories were elected. This was one reason why the Scottish members were unpopular at Westminster, being regarded as corrupt even by the standards of the day, as well as uncouth.
On the eve of Reform, Lord John Russell estimated that a Scottish electorate of some 3,600 would undergo an increase of around 60,000 voters. Later figures suggest an increase from 4,579 to 64,447 voters actually took place. Either way, G. M. Trevelyan's conclusion seems justified that "The Reform Bill, in England an evolution, in Scotland was a revolution, veiled in the form of law".
The Act of Union of 1801 brought 100 Irish members to the House of Commons. The 32 Irish counties elected two members each, while 33 boroughs elected 35 members (all elected one member except Dublin and Cork, which elected two). The remaining seat was given to the University of Dublin. The franchise in the counties was the same as for England, and the total Irish county electorate, at about 220,000 in 1801, was actually larger than the English county electorate (Ireland had a larger population relative to England than it has today, and had a larger rural gentry). But the franchise was drastically raised in 1829 when Catholics were allowed to sit in the House of Commons, in order to deprive the mass of Irish Catholics of the vote and minimise the impact of this concession.
The exclusion of Catholics from the House of Commons was of most consequence in Ireland, where 80% of the population were Catholic. At the time of the Act of Union, the Irish were promised that the restriction on Catholics would be lifted but this promise was broken because of the opposition of George III. This meant that except in the Protestant northern counties, most Irishmen, no matter how wealthy, were excluded from politics until Catholic Emancipation was finally achieved in 1829.
Since the distribution of seats in the House of Commons among the boroughs was based on medieval demography and economy, much in it was already anomalous under 18th century circumstances. Thus for example 1/4 of the House was elected by only five counties in South-West England (Cornwall alone having 44 Members); while almost 1/3 of boroughs consisted of (often decayed) seaports.
With the industrial revolution of the early 19th century, the numbers and weight of those outside the system increased further. While an uninhabited hill such as Old Sarum elected two members of Parliament, great cities such as Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield, Bolton, Bradford and Huddersfield had no direct representation. Residents of these cities who met the 40 shilling freehold test could vote in their respective counties, and this explains why the county electorate in industrial counties like Yorkshire and Lancashire grew rapidly, but the bulk of the fast-growing urban middle class remained voteless.
In addition, Glasgow - which grew into a major industrial and commercial centre in the 18th century, increasing in numbers from some twelve thousand to eighty thousand - although technically represented in the House of Commons, was part of a district of burghs that meant it was in practice without representation, and since none of its citizens met the county franchise none of them had a direct vote. Some other industrial towns which elected members but with a very narrow franchise were in the same situation: Wigan, for example, had 10,000 people in 1800 but only 100 electors, while residents of the fast-growing London suburbs were also unrepresented unless they met the county franchise to vote in Middlesex, Surrey or Kent.
The English Civil War of the 1640s produced a series of debates over reforming the electoral system - involving the franchise, the distribution of the House of Commons seats, and the abolition of the House of Lords. At the Putney Debates of 1647, radicals led by Thomas Rainborough argued for manhood suffrage; conservatives, led by Oliver Cromwell and Henry Ireton, maintained that the vote should rather go only to those they regarded as having a 'stake' in the country. The Cromwellian system that eventually emerged featured a modest increase in the franchise, and a sharp reduction in the overall number of seats, with a shift in balance to county over borough members. There was also a redistribution of borough seats from the West and South-West to Eastern England.
With the Restoration of the monarchy of 1660, however, came a restoration of the pre-revolutionary system in its entirety, thereafter sanctified as the Ancient Constitution; and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 saw no attempt to re-open the question. There followed a long period during which any challenge to the system of representation was equated with republicanism and treason; and the political classes remained largely content with the alliance of landowners, urban merchants, and small town electorates which underpinned it.
A reform movement began in the mid-18th century, with the Yorkshire Association attempting to increase county representation at the expense of the rotten boroughs; but with the failure of Pitt's Reform Bill of 1785 it came to an end. Thereafter new reformist strands arose, with Nonconformists looking to improve their civil position through Parliamentary reform, a radical working-class campaign which demanded manhood suffrage (or even universal suffrage), and support from some in the Whig party like Fox and Earl Grey through the Society of the Friends of the People (1792). However Tory resistance, and the English reaction against the excesses of the French Revolution, stifled all real attempts to raise the issue until the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815.
With peace came a renewed call for reform in the shape of the spreading Hampden Clubs, but government reaction called a swift halt to them, and soon the pamphleteer William Hone concluded that "Parliamentary reform is not perhaps dead, but it is dying".
1822-3 saw agricultural distress leading to a short-lived movement for strengthening the counties at the expense of the boroughs. The disenfranchisement for corruption by Lord Liverpool's of Grampound in Cornwall, when the borough's patron had been convicted of bribery, saw its two seats given to Yorkshire, which thus elected four county members from 1826 to 1832. A few years later East Retford was also disfranchised but its seats were transferred to the neighbouring hundred of Bassetlaw rather than to one of the new cities.
As late as 1829, however, parliamentary reform remained a marginal issue for most people, both inside and outside parliament. Even those - like county landowners in those counties which contained the unrepresented cities, such as Yorkshire, who were increasingly finding themselves outvoted in their own counties by urban voters, or Whigs like Lord John Russell - who favoured reform, did so not for democracy, but to make the system a better reflection of national interests (that is to say, property), rather than numbers. This, and not a desire for democracy, was why most Whigs and even some Tories turned against the old system during the 1820s.
The issue which brought parliamentary reform to the forefront once more was Catholic Emancipation in 1829, which removed barriers to Roman Catholics being elected to the House of Commons, and which led many Anglican conservatives, the Ultra-Tories in particular, to favour abolition of the rotten boroughs so as to make Parliament more truly representative of (Anglican) county, squire and parson. Similarly, it was a Tory, Thomas Attwood, who in 1830 founded the Birmingham Political Union to press for reform. The accession of a new, and less hide-bound monarch precipitated a general election, which – galvanized by news of the French Revolution of 1830 with its middle-class power-brokers – produced a swing of 30 seats against Wellington's Government, to a coalition (including the Ultras) on 15 November.
Earl Grey formed a ministry pledged to reform. In March 1831, the bill passed second reading by a single vote; forces were about balanced. When a hostile amendment was passed by eight votes, Grey sought and was granted a dissolution of parliament, asking for a fresh mandate in April 1831. At this election the Whigs won a landslide – a result that, as Elie Halevy put it, "by its condemnation of the existing franchise went near to justify the plea of its Tory defenders". In 35 of the 40 English counties they won both seats and in the boroughs where electors were able to decide they made an almost clean sweep. Of the 230 seats the Tories held after that election, most were in rotten or "closed" boroughs or else in Scotland, which had almost no broad-based electorates. By one reckoning, the Tories seats held 50,000 voters, while the four Whig members for Yorkshire held 100,000 voters. After the decisive electorate's mandate, the House of Lords rejected the Second Reform Bill. A barrage of popular protests and a constitutional crisis followed, before the King's agreement to create the necessary number of new peers to pass the Reform made the Lords give way, and the Great Reform Act was passed.
The Reform Act extended the franchise from about 435,000 to about 652,000 voters in Great Britain. Setting itself out explicitly as a final settlement of the reform process, it disfranchised many rotten boroughs (56 boroughs were abolished, while another 30 were reduced from two members to one), gave seats to new boroughs and additional seats to the more populous counties, reformed the electoral system in Scotland, and introduced a uniform borough franchise. While pockets of landlord influence, voter deference, corruption, and pocket boroughs were left and still a far cry from universal suffrage of men (perhaps 1 in 5 of whom could vote in 1833), the Great Reform Act was – at least to Whig and Radical historians like G M Trevelyan – the decisive step in ending the old system.
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