The election of debtors to the early Stuart House of Commons

Facing up to the consequences of Christmas spending is a common problem in January, but for some in serious financial straights the past, parliament provided a solution. Dr Andrew Thrush, editor of the House of Lords 1603-60 section, tells us more about early 17th Century debtors in the Commons…

Not all of those who entered the Commons in the early seventeenth century did so from the noblest of motives.  While many were undoubtedly eager to enter St Stephen’s Chapel because they wished to serve the interests of their constituents, or to promote religious reformation, others were rather more self-serving.  Some, desirous of employment, hoped that conspicuous service in the Commons would bring them to the notice of the crown; others merely sought to continue the family tradition of sitting at Westminster.  Among the least edifying reasons for seeking election was the need to escape debtors’ prison.  In order to prevent the business of either House from being disrupted, all members of Parliament enjoyed immunity from arrest.  However, this necessary privilege created a perverse incentive for election among those who were unable or unwilling to pay off their debts.  In the Addled Parliament of 1614, at least eleven members gained seats so as to defeat their creditors.  They included such notable figures as Sir William Cavendish, returned as junior knight of the shire for Derbyshire.  Heir to the future earl of Devonshire, Cavendish racked up enormous debts because he declined to restrict his spending to his formal allowance.  Other conspicuous spendthrifts who sought refuge in the Commons that year included both representatives for Lancashire, Sir Cuthbert Halsall and Sir Thomas Gerrard, 1st bt.  In 1625 the Devon gentleman Arthur Bassett was actually languishing in debtors’ prison when he was elected to serve for the Cornish borough of Fowey.

In theory, it was illegal for those who had been outlawed for debt to serve in the Commons.  As early as the mid fifteenth century the judges had ruled ‘that matter of outlawry was a sufficient cause of dismission of any member out of the House’.  However, despite the risk of damage to its reputation, the Commons consistently refused to expel outlaws.  In 1559, for example, they declared that John Smith, though outlawed, ‘should still continue a member of the House’, while in 1593 they refused to unseat Thomas Fitzherbert, even though he had twenty-two judgments against him for debt.  During the early seventeenth century the only debtors to whom the Commons denied admittance were Sir William Cope, elected for Banbury in 1625 despite having been put in execution for debt, and Sir Thomas Monck, returned for Camelford in 1626 while in prison.

The Commons’ reluctance to root out those of its members who had been outlawed for debt was not entirely unreasonable, as the case of Ferdinand Huddleston, returned for Cumberland in 1624 despite there being twenty-four outlawries against him, demonstrates. During the debates on this case in the Commons’ committee for privileges, it was observed that outlawry ‘may happen to the best man in a county’. Most men of means needed credit at some time or another, if only to tide them over until the next quarterly rents were due. Under such circumstances, it was understandable if payments to creditors were sometimes late and court action ensued.  Members of the committee also observed that it was wrong to deprive the commonwealth of the services of those deemed most able by their electors to serve in Parliament for something as trivial as debt.  They also noted that ‘outlawries … are for the most part gotten behind men’s backs and without their privity’.  This fear, that members ambushed by their creditors might find themselves expelled from the Commons, was of long standing, for in 1604 a bill to prohibit ‘lurking and secret outlawries’ received two readings.

In essence, the House of Commons believed that its composition should be decided by electors rather than by private moneylenders.  However, the crown took a starkly different view.  In 1604 the new king, James I, issued a proclamation forbidding the election of outlaws to the forthcoming Parliament, ‘for wee may well foresee, how ill effects the bad choice of unfit men may produce, if the House should bee supplied with Bankrupts and necessitous persons that may desire long parliaments for their private protections’.  James was almost certainly encouraged to issue this proclamation by the lord chancellor, Lord Ellesmere, who believed that outlaws were unfit to be lawmakers and that it was the role of Chancery, not the Commons, to determine who was eligible to sit at Westminster.  During the course of the ensuing parliamentary elections, Sir Francis Goodwin was returned for Buckinghamshire, only to be disqualified by the attorney general on the (mistaken) grounds that he was an outlaw and replaced by the privy councillor Sir John Fortescue.  However, in the ensuing struggle between the Commons on the one hand and the king and the privy council on the other, it was the latter who came off worse.  The Commons, horrified that ‘a chancellor may call a Parliament of what persons he will, by this course’, declined to turn their attention to the king’s plan to unite the kingdoms of England and Scotland until their claim to jurisdiction was upheld. Faced with the prospect of unwelcome opposition to his pet project, an alarmed James was forced to concede that the lower House, as well as Chancery, was entitled to validate returns.  In so doing, he effectively handed victory to the Commons, whose right to determine the outcome of elections was never again challenged by Chancery.  The Commons thereupon quietly abandoned their promise to pass legislation that would prohibit outlaws from sitting in future.  To have done otherwise would have been tantamount to making a rod for their own backs.


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