The politics of elections – and the risk of disobedience

Gate into the Easter Field with Cottingwood beyond
Gate into the Easter Field with Cottingwood beyond

WE first hear of the existence of the burgesses of Morpeth in a charter given to them by Roger de Merley II, probably between 1188 and 1200. In 1266 they were renting the borough from his successor, Roger de Merley III, for £10 a year. They had a common seal by 1282, and the first reference to bailiffs as chief officers of the corporation comes in 1310.

Parliament as we know it began in 1265 with the summoning of representatives from the counties and a limited number of boroughs.

Each county elected two ‘knights of the shire’ to represent it in Parliament. At first the choice was a matter for the sheriff and the local gentry to work out between them, but in 1430 the franchise was fixed by Act of Parliament.

From then on, any man possessing freehold land worth 40/- a-year could vote in a county election.

Nobody in those days bothered about democracy, but as it happens the 40 shilling franchise was relatively democratic.

It meant that the House of Commons wasn’t elected only by magnates, but by modest yeomen as well, provided they owned their own land.

Boroughs were different. In some, such as Westminster, all male householders (‘pot-wallopers’) had the vote, but the majority were controllable in some way. For instance, the qualification might be to occupy one of a small number of ‘ancient burgages’.

Or, as in Morpeth, the process for electing burgesses might be under the control of the lord of the manor.

Boroughs and counties had to pay their MPs in the Middle Ages so sending members to Parliament was a burden rather than a privilege.

Happily for itself, Morpeth was never invited to send burgesses to Parliament in the early days. But Corbridge and Bamburgh were, and their inhabitants were no doubt glad when they were eventually excused.

A potent combination of religion and politics finally conferred upon Morpeth the dubious honour of representation. Henry VIII began the reform of religion in England, but it was his son, the boy king Edward VI, who took the country far along the road of Protestantism. It found favour with some of his subjects, but not all, particularly the rural gentry.

His sister Mary came to the throne in 1653, following his death. She needed support in Parliament to bring England back into the Roman Catholic Church, and made Morpeth into a parliamentary borough returning two members.

It was a great honour for the lord of the manor, William Lord Dacre, but there is no reason to think that the burgesses welcomed this enlargement. Nor is it clear if Dacre himself gained anything by it, or expected to. It may have been just one more means of demonstrating his loyalty to the reigning monarch.

As for Mary, there were good reasons for choosing Morpeth. William Lord Dacre was a loyal supporter of the crown and a conservative in matters of religion.

The corporation had been re-organised some 30 years before so that the burgesses, who were to be the new electors, were a well-defined body.

And since Morpeth was open to attack from Scotland, they would no doubt be only too willing to elect whoever their chief protector might recommend to them.

Gordon Watson’s The Border Reivers gives us a dramatic example of this.

In 1558, ‘a Scottish foray penetrated as far south as Morpeth. Here they aroused the various inhabitants by name, but, instead of threatening what they themselves would do, told them that a whole army of Scots were approaching who would undoubtedly take all their gear. If the victim would give his hand through the window and swear to be a true prisoner of the blackmailer, and appear when required in order to pay the agreed price, he would be left alone.’

If true (and unfortunately I can find no contemporary source for this story) the striking thing about it is that the Scotsmen not only knew their way to Morpeth, but knew the householders by name, and where they lived.

The obvious implication is that they were accustomed to come here on more peaceful occasions, and this despite the fact, as Alec Tweddle tells us in his Town Trail No. 4, that Thomas Lord Dacre had in 1520 forbidden the people of Morpeth to ‘keep or relieve any Scots or such vagabonds’ on pain of a fine of six shillings.

One might think that after 38 years the order would have been forgotten, but Mr Tweddle gives other examples of the danger from the Scots during that time.

And as late as 1597, only six years before King James united the thrones of England and Scotland, watches were still being set around Morpeth.

This insecurity is enough to explain why there were no contested elections, or none that we know of, in the reigns of Queens Mary and Elizabeth I.

But in fact the same seems to have held true throughout the reigns of James I and Charles I as well.

Indeed, the first contested election we know of was in 1695, when the Howard of Naworth papers at Durham University show that the freemen who ‘opposed my Lord’ (i.e. voted for the wrong man) were punished by having their cattle turned off Cottingwood Common. In 1703, some men broke down the common gate, probably in an attempt to put their cattle back into Cottingwood following the eviction of 1695. The case was tried in the manorial court, when the freemen and free-brothers duly submitted and promised to behave in future.

Another result of the affair of 1695 was a writ of mandamus brought by several free-brothers against the corporation, demanding to be admitted to the freedom. To be clear about this, a freeman (or burgess) was a full member of the corporation, but a free-brother was not.

You became a free-brother on completing your apprenticeship and reaching the age of 21. This gave you almost all of the privileges of a freeman, except the vote.

Hodgson dates this writ to 1695, but I take it rather to be a petition to the King dated June 29, 1696, now held at Woodhorn. Either way, it shows that the freelege was being interfered with, and probably for the sole purpose of restricting the number of electors.

There was another contested election in 1714, when again the freemen who voted against the Earl of Carlisle’s candidates had their cattle turned off.

The men’s stints – their right to graze cattle in Cottingwood – were not restored for many years.

Blatant coercion ceased after 1714. Instead, the Earl controlled elections by keeping the number of freemen down to 100 or less and bribing them into voting as he wanted.

There were different ways of restricting the number, some crude, some subtle. Either way, the freemen could do little to defend themselves against the machinations of the Earl and his servants, and the free-brothers even less.

Indeed, the interests of the Earl and the freemen coincided to a degree because neither wanted there to be too many electors.

Websites to look up: historyofparliamentonline.org and historyhome.co.uk