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§ 14. “And Commons.”

ORIGIN.—It would be difficult to condense into a brief note an adequate summary of the beginnings of that great and renowned parliamentary assembly whose name is thus officially given in the Imperial Act. The House of Commons was originally the legislative chamber in which were represented, not the common people of England, nor the English churls, nor the English plebeians, as those expressions are generally understood, but the various communities (Communitates) of the Kingdom. Communitates meant aggregations of persons residing in the same neighbourhood, entitled to the enjoyment of common rights, subject to common duties and burdens, having common interests; groups of population organized and localized; assemblages of persons liable to the same feudal obligations, and occupying the same relation to the King. Foremost in numerical strength among these Communitates were—(1) the communities of the counties, which included the knights of the shires, formerly the lesser barons and lesser Crown vassals; and (2) the communities of the cities, towns and boroughs, including the citizens and burgesses thereof. According to the theory of the Constitution, even in the middle ages, the maxim prevailed that “what touched all should be approved by all;” that no change should be made in a law affecting any class, order or community, and certainly that no tax could be imposed, without the consent of the group of persons immediately concerned. Hence the knights of the shires, when they became differentiated from the greater barons, who were summoned in person by special writ to attend the Magnum Concilium, began to meet, either in person or through their delegates, in an assembly of their own, to vote aids to the Crown and petition for redress of grievances. Similarly, the cities and boroughs, being called upon by the King to grant aids and subsidies, sent delegates to represent them and to do their business in a gathering of their own.

The growth of these two middle classes, and their gradual representation for the discharge of public functions, was at times actually encouraged by the Crown in order to facilitate the collection of revenue or to counterbalance the increasing influence of the barons and prelates; at other times the popular tendency was supported by the leaders of the nobility, in order to gain support in their contests against the Crown.

ELECTION AND REPRESENTATION.—“The ideas of election and representation, both separately and in combination, had been familiar to the nation, in its legal and fiscal system, long before they were applied to the Constitution of the National Parliament. The English Kingship was always in theory, and to a great extent in practice, elective. The bishops and abbots were supposed to be elected by the clergy, of whom they were the representatives. In the local courts of the hundred and the shire, the reeve and four men attended as representatives from each township; and the twelve assessors of the sheriff represented the judicial opinion of the whole shire.” (Taswell-Langmead, p. 229.) It must be remembered that the national Government was a mere skeleton, whilst county government was highly organized; so that the extension of the representative system to the Parliament meant the centralization of popular institutions.




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The Great Council was not a representative, but a constituent body. All the King's immediate tenants—both the greater barons and the lesser barons, or knights— had a right to attend. This right is expressly recognized by Magna Charta, by which the King promised, when calling a Council for the granting of extraordinary feudal aids, to summon all tenants-in-chief—the greater barons (lay and spiritual) individually, and the others by writs addressed to the sheriff. This difference in the mode of summons— which had existed for some time previously—marks the inferior position of the lesser barons, or knights. As a matter of fact, owing to the difficulty of attendance, their right gradually became more formal than real; until the Great Council became practically an assembly of the greater barons. (Taswell-Langmead, p. 226.)

The financial necessities of the Crown, however, required that the knights should attend, in person or by deputy; and the representative system already existing in the counties was naturally resorted to for this purpose. The first instance of the extension of the representative system to the National Council was at the Council of St. Albans, in 1213, which was attended not only by the bishops and barons, but also by the reeve and four men from each township on the royal demesne. Four instances of county representation, by writs directing the sheriff of each county to send to the Council a certain number of “discreet knights of the shire,” occur before Simon de Montfort's famous Parliament of 1265. (Taswell-Langmead, pp. 230–5.)

The knights of the shire, however, representing as they did the landed gentry, were only a portion of the commonalty. The towns had already risen to wealth, liberty, and importance; and the representation of the prosperous and progressive class of burghers was necessary as a basis for really popular institutions.

To Simon de Montfort, in the reign of Henry III., belongs the glory of taking a step which led to the systematic representation of the boroughs as well as the counties. In December, 1264, he laid the foundations of the House of Commons, by issuing writs directing the sheriffs to return not only two knights from each shire, but also two citizens from each city, and two burgesses from each borough. (Hearn's Govt. of Eng., p. 48.) This famous Parliament met at London on 20th January, 1265, to deal not merely with the granting of supplies, but with the business of the nation generally. (Gneist, Eng. Const., p. 270.)

At the battle of Evesham, which took place shortly afterwards, Simon de Montfort was killed by the Royalist troops, and the party of the barons was broken up, but the precedents established during his triumphant career were never obliterated. During this period the county freeholders were, for the first time, associated with the mercantile and trading community, in a body which was destined within less than 100 years to become organized in strength and individuality, and to assume its position as the popular chamber in a national Parliamentary system. The precedent of 1265, although it was not regularly followed for many years afterwards, distinctly foreshadows the dawning outlines of the House of Commons.

There was a transition period of 30 years before Edward I.'s “Model Parliament” in 1295, in which the three estates were represented, and which sat and voted in three bodies—the knights sitting with the greater barons, and the clergy and burgesses sitting separately. The last great stage in the evolution of the House of Commons was the gradual detachment of the knights from the greater barons, their union with the burgesses, and the consequent division of Parliament into two Houses; the House of Lords being the aristocratic and official chamber, and the House of Commons the representative chamber, consisting, as it does to this day, of representatives of the shires and representatives of the boroughs. The exact date of this development is uncertain, but it was certainly complete in the year 1347. (Taswell-Langmead, p. 262.) During the long reign of Edward III. (1327–77) the power of the Commons was consolidated, and they succeeded in establishing the three great principles that taxation without the consent of Parliament is illegal, that the concurrence of both Houses is necessary for


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legislation, and that the Commons have a right to inquire into abuses of administration. Two events, in particular, occurred which marked the complete consolidation of the once separate communities, by their representation in a united House, as well as by the assimilation and unity of the taxpayers in the counties, cities, and towns; one was in 51 Edw. III. (1378), the appointment of a permanent Speaker, Sir Thomas Hungerford; and the other was the imposition of a poll-tax on every adult person in the kingdom, except beggars. (Hearn's Gov. of Eng. 432; Gneist, Eng. Parl., 171.)

THE STATUTE OF GLOUCESTER.—The Act 9 Hen. IV. (1407) contains the first authoritative recognition and delimitation of the several functions of the King, Lords and Commons, and establishes the principle that the parliamentary bodies may deliberate apart from the King. “It shall be lawful for the Lords to treat among themselves, in the absence of the King, respecting the state of the Realm, and about the necessary means to help. And in like manner it shall be lawful for the Commons to advise among themselves in respect of the before-mentioned state, and means, &c. Saving always that the Lords, on their part, shall not report to the King any matter resolved on by the Commons, and assented to by the Lords, before the Lords and Commons have come to one opinion and concurrence in such matter, and then in the wonted way and form, to wit, through the mouth of the Speaker.” (Gneist, Eng. Parl., p. 172.)

QUALIFICATION OF ELECTORS.—Laws relating to the qualification of electors are first met with during the reigns of Henry IV. and Henry VI. At first the deputies from the counties were nominated or appointed at general public meetings, held in connection with the County Courts, presided over and conducted by sheriffs, appointed by the King, and attended by all free men, or at least all freeholders. Proposals were put to these gatherings and carried by the assent and acclamation of those present, “termed the bystanders.” This custom is said to have been a survival of the ancient method of doing public business, followed in those antique German assemblies described by Tacitus, in which the people of the community expressed by “acclamation” their approval of propositions submitted by their leaders. There is historical evidence that during the reigns of Edward I. and Edward II. all the freeholders of the counties, without regard to the tenure or value of their lands, were accustomed to vote at such meetings. The writs were directed to the sheriffs to hold the elections in “full county,” when all the freeholders were in duty bound to attend.

By 7 Hen. IV. c. 15 (1405), a uniform and general franchise for the county was distinctly recognised; “all persons present at the County Court, as well as suitors duly summoned for any cause or otherwise,” were required to attend to take part in a choice of members, and to contribute towards the wages of the chosen representatives, fixed at 4s. per day.

The first contraction of the county franchise is found in 8 Hen. VI. c. 7 (1429), which provided “that in future only freeholders of 40s. income shall take part in the elections.” Shortly afterwards, by 10 Hen. VI. c. 2. it was provided that only 40s. free-holders “within the county” should be entitled to vote at county elections. By 23 Hen. VI. c. 14, it was enacted “that only notable knights and notable esquires and gentlemen of the county are to be elected, who might become knights (consequently possessed of £20 income from land), but not any yeomen thereunder.” The reasons for these restrictive laws were thus stated in one of the above statutes: “that elections of the delegates have of late been made from among too large a number of people living in the same county, most of them having small fortunes, but fancying that each had the like right to vote as the knights and esquires, which may easily occasion murder and rebellion, strife and dispute, between the gentlemen and the rest of the people, if measures be not speedily taken to improve this state of things.” (Gneist, Eng. Parl., p. 176.)

Those limitations in the county franchise lasted down to the Reform Act 2 and 3 Wm. IV. c. 45 (1832). With respect to the franchise for cities, towns, and boroughs, some difference of opinion exists, and the subject is somewhat obscured by the absence of


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definite legislative provisions. The right to take part in elections in these communities seems to have depended upon charters, writs, customs, and municipal constitutions, in force in the respective places which had the right of returning members. It is believed by competent authorities that the old members for cities, towns, and boroughs were chosen by the free inhabitants and householders of those localities who were liable to borough rates (scot and lot). On the other hand Lord Holt was of opinion that only those were burgesses who held that description of freehold known as “burgage tenure,” the original tenure under which freeholds in town, “formerly parts of the ancient demesne of the Crown,” were held; under this system the right of voting was annexed to some existing tenement or house or to some spot of ground upon which a house had stood in ancient times. But it seems that, whatever was the original qualification, the control of elections in cities and towns eventually fell into the hands of Municipal Corporations, or wealthy landowners; hence the origin of so-called “rotten boroughs.” The question as to who were, or ought to be, electors in boroughs, frequently became the subject of debates in the House of Commons. In 22 Ja. I. a resolution was passed to the effect that, where there was no charter or custom to the contrary, the election in boroughs was to be made by all the householders, and not by the freeholders only. The defects, abuses and anomalies were not attacked until most of them were swept away by the Reform Act, 1832.

By the Reform Act, 1832 (2 and 3 Wm. IV. c. 45), important changes were made, both in the qualifications of electors and in the delimitation of constituencies. “The number of English county constituencies was increased from 52 to 82; 56 boroughs, containing a population of less than 2,000 each, were totally disfranchised, and 31 other boroughs, of less than 4,000 each, were required to send one representative instead of two. On the other hand, 22 new boroughs acquired the right to return two members, and 24 to return one member. In Scotland the town members were increased from 13 to 23—making 53 in all; while the Irish representatives were increased from 100 to 103. The next great change in the constituency of the House of Commons was made by the Reform Act of 1867–68 (30 and 31 Vic. c. 102). By this Act England and Wales were allotted 493 members, and Scotland 60, while the number for Ireland remained unaltered, and household suffrage was conferred on boroughs in England and Scotland. A still greater reform was effected by the Representation of the People Act, 1884 (48 Vic. c. 3), and the Redistribution of Seats Act, 1885 (48 and 49 Vic. c. 23). The former introduced a ‘service franchise,’ extending to householders and lodgers in counties the suffrages which in 1867 had been conferred upon householders and lodgers in boroughs, and placed the three Kingdoms on a footing of equality as regards electoral qualifications; while the latter made a new division of the United Kingdom into county and borough constituencies, and raised the total number of members to 670, England receiving 6 new members, and Scotland 12.” (Statesmen's Year Book, 1900, p. 7.)

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