Tag Archives: General Election

Parliament in the 16th Century – How Members of Parliament were elected to the Commons

To be elected a Member of Parliament in the 16th Century was different to what we know today. There were no polls for the inhabitants of towns to cast their votes instead things were different.

Parliament was only held when called together by the Crown, who was also the only one who had the authority to end it. Parliament was a lot more occasional than the King’s Council which was in court throughout the year. Henry VII only held seven Parliaments’ over the space of 24 years and Henry VIII held nine in 37 years on the throne. One of Henry VIII’s Parliaments’ sat for seven sessions before being dissolved. The reason for Henry VIII holding a lot more Parliaments’ was due to the Reformation and the need to pass laws to recognise Henry as the head of the church. Continuing on from Henry VIII, his son, Edward only held two Parliaments’ over his short reign of six years. Mary held five Parliaments’ over four years and finally in the 45 years on the throne Elizabeth held ten Parliaments’ over 13 sessions. Each session could vary in length from just a couple of days to weeks on end.

Each Parliament had a unique reason for being called from Henry VIII’s Reformation needs to Elizabeth needing to raise funds to support the defence of the country against the Spanish Armada. England could not go to war without the support of Parliament as the Crown could not fund a war on their own without the aid of additional funds from taxes.

In the commons there were 310 seats these were made up of 74 Knights of the shire and then 236 burgesses that represented the 117 parliamentary boroughs. It was normal that each borough sent two representatives with the exception of London who had four.

With each borough sending two representatives how were they chosen if not by public polling? In many boroughs influence was a key factor. Many boroughs were within the influence of the King as he had control over the electorate but in other areas if there was a major noble family had control of large portions of land then they would represent the borough. If there was no influential family then merchants or members of guild families were selected. In some cases though the position was almost hereditary with it being passed down the male line of a family.

Some boroughs did hold a type of election but only a select few were able to vote. In London, two of the four M.P.s were named by the aldermen and the other two by the common council. However, in York, M.P.s were decided by election and the only ones eligible to vote were the mayor, aldermen, sheriffs and a council made up of 24 men.

With the Commons in session they were able to oppose acts as well as pass them. Some notable acts that were opposed during Henry VIII’s reign were the Annates Act, the Royal Supremacy and Treasons Act and the Proclamations Act. Although they were opposed initially they eventually went through and they were sometimes modified in order to appease the Commons. During Elizabeth’s reign Parliament were unsuccessful in getting Elizabeth to name a successor but did secure the execution of Mary Queen of Scots.

It was not uncommon for the monarch to attend Parliament; they were viewed as the Manager of Parliament. Henry VIII attended on three or four occasions and Elizabeth attended at times but preferred to send messages or even began rumours if certain topics would displease her, such as talk of her successor.

by Joseph Sympson (Simpson), line engraving, probably 18th century