The Burgesses

The larger group in the Commons were the 222 burgesses, two from each town allowed to return representatives, known as a borough. Another 12 joined after 1536 when Wales was united to England.

Burgess selection

The selection of burgesses depended on the will of the King. He could make a town into a parliamentary borough through a royal charter. This could be granted to any settlement, regardless of its size or importance, and also set out the ways in which representatives were elected for each borough: that is, who had the franchise. In some, only the mayor and town governors, perhaps only ten people, would elect the representatives, while in others the right to vote was extended to all the many inhabitants who had been given the freedom of the city.

Pocket boroughs

A statute of 1413 stated that burgesses should inhabit the boroughs for which they were elected. Already by that time this law was of little use, for, just as peers and landowners influenced the selection of knights of the shire, so they were also invading the boroughs, and tried to get their own followers elected, even if they had no connection with the place. By 1422 one-quarter of the burgesses did not live in the borough for which they were elected and over the centuries aristocrats increasingly influenced elections, sometimes choosing members for both seats themselves.

This system, which could give tiny villages the right to return Members to Parliament while the huge growing cities of the industrial revolution had no representation, provided for inconsistent methods of election, and allowed aristocrats to place their non-resident followers in parliamentary seats. This was one of the principal targets in the agitation for reform of Parliament in 1832.

Did you know?

Some of the boroughs limited their voting to those who owned burgages, property in the town with a vote attached. Those with the money could easily buy all the burgages in a town to control the elections.

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