A Constitutional and Legal History of England

By Goldwin Smith | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XVIII
Courts and Cabinets: the politics of power

ELECTIONS AND INFLUENCE

EIGHTEENTH century England was ruled by the aristocracy and the landed gentry. Those who possessed land had political power. The lords and the gentry designated most of the members of Parliament and shamelessly influenced elections by bribery, pressures, and many other corrupt practices. Complicated systems of bargaining and blackmail prevailed.

In the middle of the century 51 peers and 45 commoners made or effectively influenced the return of nearly 200 members of Parliament. The Duke of Norfolk controlled 11 seats; Sir James Lowther, 9; Lord Darlington, 7. About 75 interrelated families really governed the House of Commons. In some cases, the great landowners owned whole boroughs. Thus they had the right to choose the representatives of those "pocket" boroughs, so called because the landowners carried the nominations in their pockets. In other cases, the population of the boroughs was so small that it was easy for a wealthy landowner to manage the elections-hence the descriptive words "rotten" boroughs.

There had been no redistribution of seats in Parliament since the early seventeenth century. No new boroughs had been made after 1667. Because the population had been largely concentrated in southern and eastern England when boroughs were being created in the period from the Middle Ages to the seventeenth century, these areas contained 115 out of the 203 boroughs. Borough members of Parliament were more numerous than county members; 203 boroughs returned 483 members; 40 counties returned 82 members. One quarter of all the members of the House of Commons came from the area covered by the counties of Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Somerset, and Wiltshire.

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