British Social and Political History: Innovatory online 'lecture'

Popular politics: elections, 'selections' and 'the mob' in British Politics

Monday, 26th February 2001

What follows is designed to be a bit like a lecture. That is you are supposed to start at the beginning and read through it like a traditional book or an article. However, it also contains links which lead to asides, individual biographies, relevant contemporary documents or illustrative prints and paintings. Such asides or hyperlinks open in separate windows. Once you have looked at them, close them, and you will be back with the main 'lecture'.

When you have finished the lecture, you should do two things

  1. Write a one paragraph summary of the importance of those below the rank of the gentry in the political life of this period

  2.  Complete the online survey posted in Blackboard.

Remember you can take notes by selecting, copying and pasting the text into a Word processing package. Like all lectures, the views and opinions in it are my own. You might disagree with some or all of the arguments and the interpretation of the historical evidence herein. Lectures are supposed to be guides to the subject, to outline topics of current historical interest, and hopefully to entertain.

This symbol will take you back to the Contents:


Aims of this lecture


The growth of popular political consciousness in early Stuart England

Election and Selection in early seventeenth-century England.

Direct action, mob violence and intimidation


Further Reading

Contemporary documents (some these are also available as links in the text)


The aim of this lecture is:

To argue that politics was, increasingly, not something that concerned only the gentry and aristocracy. The period sees the development of 'political consciousness' amongst a broad stratum of people, that we might loosely define as being members of the 'middling sort'.

To argue that by the 1640s the phenomenon of 'issue politics', with seats often contested by a large number of rival candidates, had developed.




Lets begin with some quotes, regarding the degree to which some contemporaries thought that popular political participation extended.

Idea that common people had no allegiance to either side in the English Civil War.


The poor ploughmen understood but little of these matters; but a little would stir up their discontent when money was demanded


There were very few of the common people that cared much for either of the causes, but would have taken any side for pay or plunder

Some contemporaries argued that the common people's political awareness was extremely limited:.

They were neutralist and detached from the political issues of the day:

It were no matter if the King and Queen and all were hanged unless the price of corn do fall

Common people backed Parliament something claimed by the Clarendon, an allegation designed to blacken the parliamentary cause...

Clearly, then, many people thought that politics below the gentry did not matter.


The growth of popular political consciousness in early Stuart England?

Yet there are a number of reasons, which we have already touched on, to indicate that there may have been increasing numbers of Englishmen able and willing to express an opinion on political life.

Crucial to understanding growth of popular political consciousness is development of politically aware crowds in London and towns: development of popular literacy.

London: rise of pop. political culture, growth of pol. consciousness amongst ordinary Londoners., reflection of high pop. literacy.

Cust growth in demand for news from 1620s, and again in 1640s.

Politicisation: extensive literacy, even app. 70-80% literate. Majority in London, able read and write.

placards posted Enemies of Justice, and Straffordians  listing MPs who had voted v. Attainder.

Meant that censorship crucial: Censorship broke down 1640, re-imposed 1660

Second important point is the high level of participation in local government and legal system crucial to understanding nature of popular involvement in political crises/debate.

recall local office held by m/sort in towns and villages, executive experience.

JPs and Sheriffs for eg. controlled policing of crowd disturbances and election returns respectively.

Widespread participation in local office. 1/9, 1/10, 1/3. Southwark/Westminster wide parlt. franchises.

Widespread participation in law enforcement., hired watchmen = status as crowd.

knowledge of law/enforcement shows in symbolism: ie. trained band format, mimicry of legal forms. Burning docs, tracts in imitation of official measures.

Constables refused suppress crowds 1640-2, therefore Ch I unable control streets.

puritans dominating local offices. how ambitious were the faction of those places, even to a constableship in 1641

Another general theme of this period is that there was considerable evidence in episodes of riot and disorder of traditional popular defense of legitimate rights and privileges.

notions of 'moral economy' v. soci/econ. innovations.

nb. that this tradition might easily carry political connotations.

esp. hostility to religious innovations when such hostility meant implied/explicit critique of Govt/regime policy.

Also see that much of politically motivated/led disturbances took over/borrowed from theatre of protest, involving carnivalesque air/ritualised inversion and whole host of popular symbolism.

Format of petitioning authorities prior to riot/direct action also widespread and crucial in this period.

Religion a v. powerful factor in explaining popular allegiances and movements. Religious division and fragmentation after 1640:

Fear of papists was organising principle of agitation in early months of political breakdown in London.

in 1641 petition in favour of Grand Remonstrance/v. bishops.

Intensified anti RC helped support for puritans according to Manning.

Also a theme is that pulpit another source of political propaganda: eg. in 1640-1, ..clergy urging support of puritan/high church mobs.

Another theme is the growing political importance of middling sort in political life.

less able to be ignored: first group to benefit from widening literacy, occupiers of local office and experience of local govt/admin.

Hence evidence that 'the people' does not mean the 'plebs', many crowds/petitions directly involved this respectable group.

Petition 'Root and Branch', Nov. 1640 signed by 15,000. 17. 'a world of honest citizens, in their best apparel' presented it. (Manning)

3 May 1641: 5-10,000 crowd at Westminster, through which peers had to pass to get to House. Justice and Execution

Lilburne led crowd. 'for the most part men of good fashion'

Many apprentices in Stuart London: but these not pleb.: many high status.

So we know that there may have been growth in political awareness below ranks of gentry. That many ready to resort to protest and riot in defense of riots and liberties, or organize petitions to those in authority. But to what extent did they participate in the political process of early seventeenth century?

Two parts to lecture: the extent of participation, and nature of, elections and the electoral process., Secondly is part played by street politics in the political events of our period. Two forms of direct involvement by those below ranks of the normal ruling elite.


Election and Selection in early seventeenth century England.

Work of Hirst, Representatives of the People?, Kishlansky, Parliamentary Selection (1986) vital here.

Old argument of Hirst:

  • that the years before 1640 see an intensification of electoral politics. Growth in numbers of contested elections, with extraordinary number in 1640. Coupled with evidence for MPs accountability to their constituents, and an extraordinary growth in the size of the potential electorate, suggested an inexorable growth of political consciousness, leading to ideological elections for Short and Long Parliament.
  • Kishlansky:

    Personally, although Kishlansky's case is overstated, I think he is convincing. So lets look at the contours of the parliamentary selections in our period.

    1. Contested elections were very unusual.

    Year of election Number of recorded contested elections in 241 constituencies
    1604 14
    1614 14
    1621 24
    1624 42
    1626 28
    1628 34
    1640  Short Parliament 62 in Short Parliament (perhaps 70)
    1640  Long Parliament 92 (perhaps more)

    Hence before 1640 relatively unusual to get elections. Only a handful before 1620s.

    Most MPs were chosen, or selected, without open competition in a poll.

    Most of the electorate, therefore, never voted or gave voice, in a competitive election.

    2. Second basic feature of the political system before the 1650s was the complex franchises available and the inequitable distribution of available seats.

    Need to know some basic facts before discussing the implications of contests and selections.

    By 1640 there were some 509 MPs representing England and Wales.

    Of these, 90 were returned by counties, which usually returned two each (a senior and a junior seat, knight of the shire) and 419 were returned by boroughs.

    Most MPs therefore were representing boroughs (until a temporary reform in the 1650s).

    Franchise arrangements varied widely. Most constituencies returned two MPs.

    In counties all could, in theory, vote or give voice, who was a 40s freeholder.

    In boroughs the power to vote varied according to a number of complex franchise arrangements.

    Burgage: vote belonged to a particular piece of property

    Corporation= electorate was the corportaion

    Freemen=electorate was the freemen of the borough

    Inhabitant=franchise spread among all householders, normally all ratepayers.

    In many cases representation no longer bore any resemblance to the current distribution of money and people

    3. Third feature of representation in our period was the expansion in the electorate and in the number of boroughs returning Mps.

    Ie. the electorate was growing in size. According to Hirst, by 1640, potential electorate was about 300,000 people, perhaps 1:4 to 1:6 of all adult males. Why?

    Inflation increased the number of people possessing the 40s freehold qualification in Counties (the amount had been fixed in 1429)

    Boroughs franchise widened to more inclusive social groups, Goodwin's Case 1604  H/Commons confirmed that able to decide franchise questions. The Commons always widened franchise in those constituencies where it was disputed. Wider franh.=more difficult to control. Pressure from gentry for more patronage meant an increase in the number of constituencies.

    Towns deciding to enfranchise freemen.

    Revival of bor. representatives: initially by gentry seeking increase local power base/patronage.

    Plumb: By 1640 electorate 'reached down not only to the minor gentry and rich merchants, but to yeomen, craftsmen, shopkeepers in the majority of towns and all the counties'.

    However, we must remember that most of this large electorate never took part in a competitive election. In 1640, even the most widely fought elections, only saw actual contests in about 92/241 constituencies, or about two thirds, never saw a contest.

    Clearly important, therefore, to understand the process of selection, and the way in which social history intersected with political to eliminate the electorate's influence in choosing MPs as they did before 1640.

    The following points are important features of choosing MPs before 1640:

    A. Firstly, important to clear up some semantic problems. Need to rid ourselves of notion that elections in past anything like today's, adversarial, competitive and mature political system.

    Election in religious terms meant pre-selection by God for salvation.

    Vote: means usually, voice of affirmation, delivered as a shout.

    Free election: meant freely chosen without any opposition as well as external or internal constraints:

    ie. Aldermen of Thetford selected Sr Robt Cotton as MP 1625:

    Notwithstanding you are a stranger to us, yet upon the commendation of the right honourable, the Earl of Arundel, our most worthy Lord we have made choice of you to be a burgess for our borough of Thetford.... Our election being so free and general that you had not one voice against you

    B. In fact it is clear that before 1640 elections avoided by the political elite. MPs chosen or selected in a number of different ways, by elite in county, by a borough corporation. But always the emphasis was on avoiding a disastrously divisive electoral contest. As we can see from figures, this policy largely succeeded until 1640.

    In such choices, patronage, deference to patron's wishes, local custom and tradition, the local power structure all might held sway in the selection of MPs. Normally all that happened was that electorate turned up at polls to acclaim the choice already made, unanimously.

    That was their role: Elections symbolised unity of a constituency.

    County selections: reflected local precedence and hierarchy.

    Sometimes elaborate rotation systems amongst leading gentry.

    Free for alls prevented by conventions that evaluated candidates.

    More honour to lose by losing than gain by winning.

    Hence potential division or competition defused by pre-election meeting by the county elite.

    Generally, local elite in larger counties met formally to decide on the selections.

    Sometimes might take notice of local patrons or institutions.

    Rutland: Earl of Huntingdon, Ld Lieutenant of Rutland wrote, just before 1624 Parliament:

    I have thought good (out of my love and care of that county ...) to recommend Sir William Bulstrode and Sir Guy Palmes ... So shall I take it as an assurance of your loves and respects towards me.

    Slow process of selection gave other candidates time to drop out. Then selected MPs presented to voters for acclamation.

    Role of patrons and patronage, treating choice of MP as a right or grant of a favour was integral to the process of choosing MPs in the majority borough constituencies.

    Selection fell on town officials, but they often sought or gave into, to requests from gentlemen, or aristocratic patrons to nominate MPs.

    In fact avoidance of costs led increasing tendency of boroughs to accept outside nominations.

    Some boroughs chose own recorder, and gave other seat to nomination of patron.

    In fact commonest method of choice of MP was to accept patron's nomination. A typically reciprocal relationship:

    Barnstaple 1637 (after local magnates died)

    We have many burdens laid upon us ... and are yet like to be without remedies unless we may procure the assistance of some great man, who is powerful at the court and council board .

    In a few boroughs, a lottery system was designed to reduce the chance of electioneering before the choice was made.

    In all this, the electorate, as in the counties, were only presented with a fait accompli, after the selection procedure was over.

    More or less true that elections seen as a disaster.

    Divided local elites

    Breakdown in selection procedures

    Socially dangerous: much pressure from sheriff and others to avoid it.: meant diff. of counting,in counties often large numbers, and mean humble's vote equalled great gentry. ie. they were socially dangerous and corrupt, where fellows without shirts challenge as good a voice as mine (Maynard 1640).


    Last point is to not go overboard, since Kishlansky's account of elections may underplay the potential role of the electorate.

    Freeholders wishes might be taken account of in selection process.

    Clear that selection criteria included abstract notions of morality, including 'godliness' or individual personality or reputation of the candidate.

    Candidates had to be, at least publicly, defenders of public good and of the Protestant faith.

    In 1628 opponents of Charles I's Forced Loan were overwhelming returned to the Commons

    It seems likely, however, that events of 1640 and after definitely accelerated the progress of England towards genuinely political and contested elections.

    In 1640 and after, clear that many elections fought on ideological grounds, or between groups of elite divided over political or religious questions.

    Case study: Kent election 1640 and Sir Edward Dering:

    Edward Dering failed to get into the Short Parliament in 1640. His personal notes on the local electorate, and his failure to win, are recorded in a personal note book. He blamed the chicanery of the local sheriff, and the obscure and puritanical that are separatists and lovers of separation did make it there cause to have a child of theirs in the House. He also recorded the following destructive (and often contradictory) rumours spread by his opponents... These surely indicate the arrival of issue politics..

    Entered opposition to Lord Chamberlain, Sir Henry Vane; Deputy Lieutenant.

    Was commissioner for knighting money

    Was the cause that the 'shipping money' was paid

    Is another Buckingham

    Will not go up to the rails at communion

    Is a papist

    Is a patentee for wine

    Called ministers hedge-priests

    Cannot endure Bishops

    Set up first altar in Dover Castle

    My wife keeps popish pictures

    Is a courtier


    You should note that some of these rumours were inconsistent. Dering noted rumours that he was a papist, but that, like a puritan he would not go up to the rails at communion and 'cannot endure Bishops' and denigrated ministers.

    Apart from arrival of issue politics  the following features should be noted:

    There was an explosion of potential candidates: 

    In the 1654 London election: 6 MPs chosen from 47 nominees

    Rising costs of elections, as electorate bribed and feted:

    By the Restoration, the costs were staggering. Worcestershire election of 1659 cost 614 in inn charges alone. Costs included pre-election charitable gifts. Increasingly the ability to bear such costs was another qualification for election

    Increasingly those hoping for a seat had to set about building of an interest: votes controlled counted and canvassed.

    Increasing numbers of candidates were identified by their personal program or policies, religious orientation.


    The Question is, however, why was there increased competition for parliamentary seats after 1640?

    Parliament seen as a permanent and powerful institution after 1640

    Existing of conflicting political loyalties after 1640 might affect political temperature: did so in 1659, 1660, 1661.

    More particularly, the revolutionary changes in the political regime were partly focused on the extent of political participation: heightening its importance.

    Basically, after 1640, narrowing of political participation, excluded some natural leaders and upset selection procedures.

    Royalists barred from sitting as MPs or from voting.

    Secondly, Instrument of Government, 16 December 1653, Cromwellian written constitution, revised base of political participation in such a way as to restrict the electorate.

    Debarred all Royalists

    But also reduced number of MPs: from 509 to 400 in England and Wales.

    Also greatly reduced number of borough seats in favour of redistribution to counties: 419 to 136 borough seats, 90 to 264 county MPs.

    Only electorate should be those of 200 or more.

    Two elections: 1654, 1656 under these new rules.

    The Instrument helped to narrow participation in elections, fewer voters turned up, but at same time it heightened competition for the smaller number of seats, and disrupted old selection procedures: old elite often disbarred, more seats to choose from.

    Some counties put forward rival slates of candidates.

    Increased tendency to fight elections rather than accept consensus.

    In essence, Cromwellian reforms, reversed 1659, increased electoral conflict because they focused attention on the importance of participation: logically followed from notion of popular sovereignty on which written experimental constitutions based.

    Although selection remained important method of choosing an MP, Restoration popular politics shaped greatly by the experience of Revolution. From henceforth contests and efforts to win a seat rather than notions of personal honour and community consensus were what mattered.

    Last part of lecture should examine, briefly, the other method by which people below ranks of gentry might participate in political process: namely by direct action, mob violence and intimidation.

    Direct action, mob violence and intimidation

    Basically, there is no doubt that 1640s saw introduction of the London mob as a potent factor in national political life.

    1. Fear of upsurge in pop. protest/political activity helped to create a party of order 1641-2 around Charles I.

    2. Crowd action prob. directly intimidated MPs. and members of H/Lords at crucial moments in voting/decision making procedure.

    3. Crowds were peculiarly susceptible to crude anti popery propaganda: rabid anti RC helped Pym's propaganda to succeed.

    4. Crowd hostility and London's. opposition caused Ch. I make fatal miscalculation (Arrest of 5 Members) and loss of capital/streets meant loss of war.

    Lets take each of these points in turn:

    1. Crowd activity in London increased political pressure on Ch I admin in 1640. Directly resp. for execution of Strafford/helped reception of Root and Branch Petition.

    'Root and Branch', Nov. 1640 signed by 15,000

    H/Com. responding to London pressure, abandoned impeachment and turned to attainder.

    placards posted Enemies of Justice, and Straffordians' listing MPs who had voted v. Attainder.

    pulpit agitation, 3 May 1641: 5-10,000 crowd at Westminster, through which peers had to pass to get to House. Justice and Execution

    2. It also seems to have been during agitation v. Strafford that first raised fears of mob. rule v. notion of a 'free' parlt.

    'no man of judgement, that will think it fit for a parliament, under a monarchy, to give countenance to irregular, and tumultuous assemblies of people' Digby.

    royalist propaganda began charge of mob rule v. Parlt. Shocked many MPs and Peers.

    3. Point that external political events and their skilful exploitation by Pym et al further heightened political tension/crowd activity: largely via rabid fear of Catholicism:


    Much of opposition to Grand Remonstrance derived less from its (moderate) principles that from fact that it was a direct appeal to people.

    Grand Remonstrance: an appeal to people (via petitions) v. Lords and King. this seemed to be an instrument to the people, in the nature of an appeal to them..

    Split h/Commons, despite only moderate appeal/demands.


    5. Increasingly, then, popular fear of counter action by Ch I Dec 1641 rallied popular support.

    6. Fundamental miscalculation of Ch I of attempt to arrest 5 members seems to have derived from his erroneous belief that he could control streets of London.

    Privileges of Parliament Lord Mayor pulled off horse. The king had the worst day in London...that ever he had.

    offers to defend 5 members from all over London, apprent/trained bands/1000 mariners and seamen (foreshadowed loss of fleet)

    So we can identify the point at which the actions of street demonstrations and extra parliamentary direct action impacted on the political process.

    7. Again, in 1647-8, the London mob played an important part in the cities counter-revolution versus the Army and Independent MPs.

    Great hostility from mob, in support of Presbyterianism and against army and its sectarian, taxation policies.

    Royalist recruitment for army in London.

    mid Jan 1648 royalist riots in Fleet St.

    27 March anniversary of Ch I coronation: bonfire celebrations.

    City gates shut for fear that the multitude would have gone from their bonfires to the beating the Saints out of Westminster Hall.

    2 April Easter Sunday 1648: attacks on army nominated City magistrates.

    App. riot in Finsbury fields., 3-4000 marched down Fleet st, Now for King Charles.

    City militia refused suppress insurrection. for God and King Charles.

    Royalist pressure from city govt. King Fairfaxs bastards  a street name for the Army. A popular insult of the day was  Kiss my Parliament... directed against the Rump Parliament


    Increasing part played in political life by individuals below rank of gentry, especially after 1640.

    Caused by increase in literacy, increasing political consciousness

    London mob to be a feature of national politics after Restoration of 1660

    New political life; where electoral propaganda, canvassing and building electoral interests important.

    Where street support would be assiduously canvassed and where attitudes of crowd: religious orientation and prejudices esp. would be exploited.


    Further Reading

    You should obviously consult the relevant thematic breakdown from your reading list, however the following are of particular note.

    John Walter, The Colchester Plunderers, represents an exhaustive analysis of popular violence in the 1640s. A review of this book is available online in the Robinson Library Online Electronic Journals of the Robinson Library Website, in Continuity and Change


    Contemporary documents