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Elections and Voting Behaviour in the First Age of Party

Contested Elections, 1701-1715 (England and Wales)

(source, W A Speck, Tory and Whig)

  • 1701: 92
  • 1702: 85
  • 1705: 119
  • 1708: 97
  • 1710: 120
  • 1713: 94
  • 1715: 111
The House of Commons
  • 513 MPs England and Wales 314 Constituencies
  • 45 MPs Scotland 45 Constituencies

From a social range which represented 0.5% of the population

Property Qualifications Act, 1711 restricted membership of Commons to those possessing land worth £600 per annum for county seats and £300 for borough seats

Tory MPs overwhelmingly landed gentry; Whigs also contained merchants, lawyers, army officers and other professionals


English counties: Uniform qualification, those possessing a 40 shilling freehold could vote. 'Freehold' included leases for lives, annuities, rents and mortgages on freehold property; ecclesiastical benefices and appointments in government service. There were 40 counties.

County boroughs: cities like Lincoln and Hull which had county status conferred upon them and thus the franchise was a 40 shilling freehold

Inhabitant boroughs: 55, where any resident could vote. Included scot and lot boroughs where those who paid the poor rate could vote and 'potwalloper' boroughs where anyone resident for the last 6 months and not a charge on the poor rate could vote

Burgage boroughs: 41 where the possession of a piece of property known as a 'burgage' entitled you to vote

Corporation boroughs: 19 where only members of a corporation possessed the vote

Freemen boroughs: 100 where all freemen could vote

University boroughs: Oxford and Cambridge universities also returned 2 MPs each, Doctors and Masters of Arts could vote

Wales: 12 one member counties and 12 one member boroughs. The county franchise was 40 shilling freehold. The boroughs were divided into 1 corporation borough; 9 freemen boroughs and 2 inhabitant boroughs, with electorates ranging from 80-2000

Scotland: joined the English system after the Act of Union in 1707. Were 30 one member counties and 15 burghs returning one Member each. In counties the qualification was based on the 'old extent' - land worth £70 or £130 per annum. In burghs there was a method of indirect election. Voters at the first stage were members of the self electing burgh corporations


Most elections fought on party tickets: the typical 2 member constituency produced a contest with 3 or 4 candidates, with both parties fielding personnel. Voters possessed 2 votes and by measuring voting patterns it is possible to see whether they voted along party lines, split their vote between the two parties or plumped for a single candidate.

Party Organisation

Both parties had election managers within the party who supervised large numbers of constituencies. On the Whig side these included Lord Wharton, the duke of Newcastle and the duke of Somerset. For the Tories there was the duke of Beaufort and Sir Edward Seymour.

The Electorate

Plumb gives an estimate of 200,000 voters in William IIIs reign to around 250,000 by 1715, although Holmes demonstrates that this was done by measuring the number of people who actually voted rather than those entitled to vote, thus the total electorate was probably 340,000 by 1715. This gives a total of 1 in 4 adult males. Growth was achieved by an increase in 40 shilling freeholders because of inflation and artificial means of increasing the vote. Although there were geographical anomalies the population was more fairly represented than later in the century. The Triennial Act of 1694 ensured there were contests on average every 2 years and the number of contests was never lower than 85 with only 30 seats having no contests between 1691 and 1715

Voting Behaviour

Speck argues that there was a substantial floating vote which changed party between elections and who were swayed by events and issues to vote either Tory or Whig. Holmes argues that there was a body of 'public opinion' in the weather vane constituencies around 113 seats

Historians and Voting Behaviour

Namier: views voters as a dependent class that could seldom exercise a free choice

Speck: freeholders participated in the electoral process in their own right and had free choice to make up their minds, where tenants voted en bloc with their landlord this was because of a community interest rather than fear of reprisals

Landau: looks at the influence JPs wielded over voters and comes up with a novel conclusion that voters were simultaneously deferential and independent

Clark: deplores the search for democracy where none existed and views turnout patterns as reflecting the efforts of warring magnates

Baskerville: looks to the ideology of paternalism and due subordination which bound landlords and tenants together