Unreformed House of Commons - County Members

County Members

England had been divided into counties (or shires) since Anglo-Saxon times, and these formed the first basis of representation. Two knights of the shire were chosen to represent each county. Before 1536 England had 39 counties (see list below), electing 78 knights of the shire. These "knights" were local landowners who did not hold peerages (in which case they would be members of the House of Lords). When Wales was formally annexed to England in 1536, each of the 12 Welsh counties elected one knight of the shire. Monmouthshire, previously part of the Welsh Marches, became an English county, electing two members, thus making a total of 92 county members.

In order to be either a candidate or an elector for a county seat, a man had to own (not rent) freehold property valued for the land tax at two pounds a year. (Women could neither vote nor be elected.) This was known as the 40 shilling freehold. (There were 20 shillings to the pound). This rule was established by an Act of 1430, and as the value of money gradually declined over subsequent centuries, an increasing number of landowners were admitted to the franchise. By the early 19th century, for example, Yorkshire had more than 20,000 electors, while Kent, Lancashire and Somerset had nearly 10,000 each. By 1831 the English county electorate was estimated at about 190,000.

County members were usually elected without an actual ballot taking place. Only at times of acute party strife did many counties see contested elections. In every county there was a group of landowning families, usually with a peer at their head, and these families would informally agree on who would stand for the county at a given election. They were frequently relatives or allies of the leading peers of the county. Some counties were represented by the same two or three families for centuries (the Lowthers of Westmorland being a good example). Sometimes a county would not see a contest for generations. Nottinghamshire, for example, did not see a contested election between 1722 and 1832. A notable exception was Middlesex, the county which contained much of suburban London, and which had some famously contentious elections.

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