Electoral Independence in Tudor England

As the election campaign continues, so does our series of blogposts on historic campaigning. Today, all constituencies are contested and the electorate freely cast their votes. In Tudor England the concept of electoral freedom was honoured more in principle than in practice, as Dr Simon Payling, Senior Fellow of the Commons 1422-1504 section, explains…

Tudor elections were functional rather than competitive, in other words, they were designed to secure the return of MPs with as little contention as possible. Most were uncontested, at least openly so on the day of the hustings. Thus, although the franchise in county elections was comparatively broad, including very minor landholders, and in some boroughs might extend to all the resident freemen, the electorate was infrequently called upon to vote.

In such a system there were very obvious opportunities for the Crown to secure the return of its own servants to the House of Commons. It is fair to ask what the concept of electoral independence, which was protected by fifteenth-century statutes, meant in these circumstances. One answer is that it existed only in its denial. In other words, it was widely considered as acceptable to avoid potentially disruptive electoral contests by informal local negotiations before the hustings. Yet it was not seen as acceptable for the Crown or a peer to attempt to influence these negotiations from outside. Although the surviving evidence of parliamentary elections in Tudor England is partial and contradictory, much of it supports this hypothesis, at least in the most important parliamentary constituencies, those of the counties and larger boroughs.

There is certainly evidence that county constituencies could jealously guard their electoral freedom. Take, for a well-known example, the Privy Council’s efforts to secure a county seat for its Speaker-designate, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir John Baker, in the Parliament of 1547. Having written to the sheriff of Kent, where Baker lived, instructing him to promote Baker’s election, the Council then rebuked him for representing this request to the electors as a commandment. It was, the Council piously remarked, not its intention to deny the shire its ‘liberty of election’. Baker duly went unelected for Kent. However, he was returned for Huntingdonshire, a county in which he was landless, undermining this impression of local resistance. In general, however, there is enough evidence to show that nominations for counties, when made directly by the government as in 1547, were an infrequent resort, and that they were made with due reverence to local sensibilities. In any event, nominations by the Crown were too rare to have a statistically significant impact on the composition of the Commons, and there is no evidence of any systematic attempts by the Crown to determine county representation.

Likewise, most of the largest boroughs – the cathedral cities and the county towns – guarded their electoral independence as an essential expression of civic pride. In 1555, for example, Gloucester refused to elect its own Recorder (its principal legal officer) John Pollard even though the Crown had designated him as Speaker in the forthcoming assembly. In 1557 the Cambridge authorities, on receiving a latter from Thomas Howard, duke of Norfolk, asking for the return of his servant, Sir Nicholas Lestrange, grandly replied that, as statute determined, its MPs must be ‘continually and daily resident’ in the borough. This is not to say that all large boroughs were successful in keeping both their seats fairly firmly in their own hands. Even in large boroughs, economic decline diminished the ability to pay MPs their wages and so threatened electoral independence. Both Lincoln and Reading periodically surrendered one of their seats to nomination in the Tudor period. Yet, taken as a whole, the greater boroughs provided only occasional opportunities for the nominees of Crown and peers.

In the numerous smaller boroughs, however, many of them newly created in the Tudor period, it is hard to argue that the concept of electoral freedom had any meaning. Often an MP of high enough standing could not be found locally, so a ‘nomination’ of a suitable candidate by an outsider did not directly contradict electoral freedom. This electoral vacuum was, not surprisingly, filled with royal servants. As a consequence, the Crown had no need to court unpopularity by attempting to deny the counties and the larger boroughs their freedom of election. It could still ensure that the Commons contained a very significant proportion of its men. In the Reformation Parliament of 1529-36, the most important of the sixteenth century, some 40% of the membership had places of one sort or another within the service of the Crown. One of its MPs, the chronicler, Edward Hall, sitting for the Shropshire borough of Much Wenlock, was thus guilty of pardonable exaggeration when he judged that, ‘the most parte of the commons were the kynges seruantes’. Yet all this the Crown achieved without apparent political controversy: it could honour the concept of electoral freedom in constituencies where it mattered because that concept did not matter in so many others.


You can read all in our series on historical elections here – watch out for more posts as the campaign continues!

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