Serious disquiet with the Commons’ electoral qualifications, provisions and practices began in Elizabeth’s reign and reached its highest pitch, prior to the 1640s, during the years 1621 to 1623.
The discontent was provoked primarily by the situation in the boroughs rather than the counties, Since 1430, the county electorate had been restricted to the forty shilling freeholder, which qualification had become almost sacrosanct by the end of the sixteenth century – only one proposal before the 1640s (in 1621) was made to raise or lower it. Tudor inflation had greatly lowered the barrier it represented (40 shillings in 1600 was worth perhaps 15 shillings at 1430 values) and it is reasonable to suppose this considerably increased the rural electorate. Also, there is evidence to suggest that the qualification was not always enforced and some county electorates may have had a very broad manhood franchise indeed prior to 1640.
Borough franchises were anything but uniform. In some the whole ‘commonalty’ (all householders) or even all ‘potwallers’ (men with their own hearths) voted. In others the vote was restricted to all taxpayers (‘scot and lot’), freemen of the town, or those in possession of burgage property. In extreme cases the vote might be restricted to the ruling corporation. Such discrepancies of representation were aggravated by a distribution of borough seats which took insufficient account of the demographic changes of the past two centuries, during which time England’s population increased very substantially, especially during the 16th century, perhaps by as much as a third. These facts prepared a well mulched political soil for agitation for more equal borough representation, both in terms of the breadth of the franchise and in the number of seats.
Tudor monarchs, not unnaturally, did not favour larger electorates. The existence of ‘rotten boroughs’ was a source of patronage and, if the monarch could control the oligarchies who returned the MP, a means of reducing opposition to the Crown. As there was a significant number of such boroughs, this was no small advantage to the monarch.
The attitude of Parliament to the franchise was mixed. The Lords had a similar interest to the Crown in distrusting broad franchises. The peers often effectively controlled seats in the Commons. They also had a natural inclination to deny the ‘commonality’ any voice in the affairs of the kingdom. Conversely, it was obviously in the Commons’ interest to increase electorates, where such increases reduced the Monarch’s’ and the Lord’s opportunities for patronage.
There is particular evidence that the Puritans favoured larger electorates, at least in so far as it suited their own purposes. At Warwick in 1586 Job Throckmorton was elected after he threatened to invoke the right of the ‘commonality to vote. In 1587 John Field remarked to colleague ‘seeing we cannot compass these things by suit or dispute, it is the multitude and people that must bring the discipline to pass which we desire.’ (J.H. Plunb. The Growth of the electorate 1600-1715). As Puritans displaced many court nominees and the creatures of aristocrats, this is significant in view of the attitude of the Commons towards electoral qualifications between 1621 and 1628.
By 1621, the Commons had gained the right to decide disputed elections and to revive lapsed borough seats and even make new creations, The tendency until 1628 was to decide in favour of wider franchise and to allow all the ‘commonality’ to vote. At Bletchingly (1624) and Lewes (1628) ‘all the inhabitants,’ were to be electors’, and at Cirencester (1624) all ‘resients:’. In the case of Pontefract in 1624 a general principle was formulated:
‘There being no certain custom nor prescription, who should be the electors and who not, we must have recourse to common right which, to this purpose was held to be, that more than the freeholders only ought to have voices in the election, namely all men, inhabitants, householders resient within the borough.’ (J.H, Plunb. The Growth of the electorate 1600-1715).
Further, in the case of Boston (1628) it was asserted that the election of burgesses belonged by common right to the commoners and only prescription or ‘a constant usage beyond all memory’ could rob them of this. (K. Thomas, The Levellers and the Franchise p.62).
It is true that when the Commons revived or created borough seats, they concentrated, as the Tudors had done, on small towns to promote their own advantage. But, even so, they granted ‘scot and lot’ franchises in every case (except Weobley) which meant that even small towns such as Great Marlow or Hilbourne Port had electorate of around 200.
Bills were introduced to regulate electionsand standardise,the franchise in 1621, 1623, 1625, 1628 and 1640, The 1621 Bill is of particular interest because it proposed that the 40/- freeholder qualification be increased to £4 and to admit £10 copyholders by inheritance. The borough proposals add no more than the various decisions on individual cases (in fact even less), for electors were to be freemen except where they numbered less than twenty-four, in which case all inhabitants not in receipt of alms were to be included,
In 1640 the franchise was raised again by Sir Simonds D’Ewes. It was he who first uttered the idea later made famous by Rainsborough ‘that the poorest man in England ought to have a voice, that it was the birthright of the subjects of England and all had voices in the election of Knights etc. previously.’ (K. Thomas, The Levellers and the Franchise p.63).
In 1641 a bill had reached second reading but was then lost. D’Ewes favoured its contents except that he ‘desired that whereas it was provided in the bill that none that took alms should have voices in elections, which I well allowed, we would likewise provide that no more monopolizing elections might be in cities and boroughs, that all men resients might have voices.'(K. Thomas, The Levellers and the Franchise p.64)
It is also noteworthy, both for its own sake and the part it played in Leveller literature, that many believed that the Statute of 1430 had disenfranchised people. William May, in 1621, said ‘Anciently, all the commonality had voice, but because such a multitude made the election tumultuous, it was after reduced to freeholders’.
The religious radical William Prynne put it even more plainly,’Before this Petition and Act every inhabitant and commoner in each county had voice in the election of Knights, whether he were a freeholder or not, or had a freehold only of one penny, six pence or twelve pence by the year as they now claim of late in most cities and boroughs where popular elections are admitted’ (K. Thomas, The Levellers and the Franchise p.64).
It is a sobering thought that if the Statute of 1430 did disenfranchise large numbers of county electors, the county franchise may have been wider in medieval England than it was to be again before the end of the nineteenth century and conceivably wider than the Franchise before the 1918 Representation of the People Act.
What of the position of those deemed to be dependents: the servants, wage-earners and almstakers? Resident household servants were generally considered beyond the electoral pale, although ‘servants’ were said to have voted in the Worcestershire county election of 1604. Wage-earners certainly did so, for those in the ‘potwaller’ and ‘scot and lot’ constituencies were granted the right to vote. Almstakers were excluded in the 1621 and 1640 bills, yet at Great Marlow in 1604 77 of the 245 voters were said to be almstakers, nine of them inmates of the almshouse. In 1640 the right of the Bember inmates to vote was said to have been sustained and in 1662 the St. Albans almsmen were said to have ‘had voices time out of mind’.
It is clear from all this that those who promoted the radical or democratic cause in the 1640s, most particularly the Levellers, did not enter untilled ground. There are also three points of particular interest. First, the Commons, or at least an influential part of it, was not unduly disturbed by the prospect of an enlarged electorate. Second, those deemed to be dependent such as servants and almstakers – were included on occasion in the franchise long before the Civil War. Third, that there existed even gentlemen (such as Sir Simonds D’Ewes) who had an active and unambiguous democratic spirit. The latter point is particularly pertinent because the chief Leveller, John Lilburne, was also of gentle-birth, albeit “small gentry”, a fact he never ceased to emphasise. Clearly, democratic ideas and feeling were not foreign political bodies suddenly introduced by the Levellers and others in the 1640s.
After ferment of the Civil Wars and their aftermath had quietened, the voices of those who sought a broad franchise (especially the Levellers) faded and the Restoration in 1660 placed the franchise in aspic until 1832 when the Great Reform Act granted a franchise much narrower than that envisaged in the 1640s, with about one in six adult men being enfranchised. Indeed, the years between the Restoration and 1832 saw a squeezing of franchises as rotten boroughs with minute numbers of electors increased and the populations of the new great urban developments such as Manchester and Birmingham went largely enfranchised. The 1832 Act removed the most glaring examples of rotten boroughs and allocated seats to places such as Manchester).
In 1867 the Second Reform Act enfranchised around two in five adult men, still well short of that demanded in the 1640s. The third Reform Act of 1884 doubled the electorate. This produced the breadth of franchise wanted by the mainstream democratically inclined advocates in the 1640s. (There were those who would have gone further).
All 19th century electoral reform was based on property qualifications and women were excluded, although ironically before the 1832 Act women arguably had the right to vote because the gender of voters was not laid down. The 1832 Act altered that by referring to males not persons. (http://www.historyofwomen.org/suffrage.html). It was not until the 1918 Representation Act that full manhood suffrage at the age of twenty-one was granted and women aged thirty were definitely enfranchised. The final Act of full adult suffrage did not occur until 1928, although the qualification was not reduced to its present age of eighteen until 1969.