The ‘transformation’ of representation, 1386-1558

Last month, Dr Simon Payling spoke at the final ‘Parliaments, politics and people’ seminar on the ‘Transformation of the Commons, 1386-1588’. Here is Simon’s summary of his paper…

The paper described the changing composition of the Commons between the majority of Richard II and the death of Mary I, a significant period in its evolution. The most apparent change was the reversal of an earlier one: in the early fourteenth century the Commons had contracted in numbers as some of the smaller boroughs abandoned representation but, at an accelerating pace from the late fifteenth century onwards, the Commons expanded with the creation of many new seats. The Parliament of 1386 had 262 members; that of 1558 more than 50% more at 396. Yet, although these new seats expanded representation geographically, most notably into Wales, this did not mean that the Commons, conceived as a body of individual MPs, became more geographically representative.

The expansion of numbers was matched by the erosion of the historic link between representation and locality. From the late 14th century local merchants and tradesmen, who had traditionally represented the smaller boroughs, were replaced by men whose horizons extended beyond the local. In many cases, this new generation of MPs’ locality, as lawyers or government officials, was Westminster. As a result the corporate standing and professionalism of the Commons was markedly improved but at the cost, or so it might be argued, of their independence from the Crown. As the principle of local representation came to be increasingly flouted, despite the statutory protection given to it in 1413, it became easier for royal servants to find seats and they did so in increasing numbers. In the 1380s they took only a small number of seats, but in the Reformation Parliament of 1529-36 some 40% of the Commons were (on a broad definition that included those employed outside the royal household) servants of the Crown. It would, however, be wrong to attribute their emergence as so large a grouping to any politically-contentious electoral engineering on the part of royal government. Into the sixteenth century and beyond, freedom of election remained a meaningful concept in the counties and larger boroughs.

It was, therefore, in the smaller and some of the new boroughs that the pattern of representation was transformed. These provided the Crown with a sufficient and, with new creations, an expanding reserve of seats. In these there was no uncomfortable tension between the ‘nomination’ of members and freedom of election, for to nominate was to provide a constituency with a member where none (or none of suitable standing) could be found by the unaided process of local election or selection. Further, the seats of most small boroughs could be filled with royal servants without the Crown’s direct intervention. With the electoral patronage institutionally available through the regional councils in the north, the marches of Wales, the duchies of Cornwall and Lancaster and also informally through sympathetic regional magnates and the networks of friendship and kinship, the Crown could leave its own men to find their own seats.  The Commons that emerged from this transformation was more unwieldy than that of the late-fourteenth century but it was also corporately better informed about the processes of government and thus better able, at least from the perspective of the Crown, to discharge its legislative and financial function.

S.J.P.

We’re still on the lookout for potential speakers for our ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar, which will return again in the new academic year. For more information, see our website.

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