The development of the franchise in England

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.  ( 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.

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One Response to The development of the franchise in England

  1. Pingback: The development of the franchise in England | England calling « Franchisingez

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