Politics and power in late 17th century Mitchell

James Harris, ‘Partisanship and popular politics in a Cornish ‘pocket’ borough, 1660-1714’, Parliamentary History 37.3 (2018), 350-68.

James Harris provides a detailed empirical account of parliamentary politics in the small borough of Mitchell, based on a run of polling sheets from 1673 to 1714.  Despite its specialised focus this is a significant addition to our knowledge of Cornwall in the later Stuart period, an under-examined period of Cornish history.

Mitchell was a parliamentary borough returning two MPs and was controlled by the Arundells of Lanherne. Like other small Cornish boroughs with electorates amounting to just a score or two, Mitchell’s voters have been regarded as either selling themselves to the highest bidder or supinely deferring to their landlord. Harris notes how there has recently been more stress on the role of popular political agitation in the Stuart period, although much of this has been limited to London and the larger towns. His research on Mitchell however reveals an active conflict over the franchise from the 1670s and a divided and multifaceted community. Indeed, Mitchell was more politically active than most other Cornish boroughs; three quarters of elections between 1660 and 1714 were contested there in contrast to less than a quarter elsewhere.

Mitchell in 1879, probably not much bigger than in 1679

Conflict in Mitchell revolved around the franchise and the right to vote. Traditionally, the Arundells controlled this through a complex and archaic system whereby they selected two men who in turn appointed a jury of 22 who did the voting. Meanwhile, the portreeve acted as returning officer, this post rotating among five major landowning families, including the Vyvyans of Trelowarren and Boscawens of Tregothnan.

From 1679 this traditional system was under challenge from a group of individuals who demanded a wider franchise, whereby all (male) adult householders who were resident could vote. The struggle over who could vote then continued through the 1680s and 1690s with the faction pushing for a wider franchise gaining victory in 1689. The importance of this is that it shows that a ‘popular political culture’ was not limited to the towns but could exist even in small rural communities such as Mitchell.

The narrative of the article neatly divides the story into three parts. First, between 1660 and 1679 the Arundell control was rarely disturbed. Then, in the years from 1679 to 1681, another 35 or so men turned up at the poll in addition to the select jury and demanded their votes be included. At that point they were rebuffed. But in 1689, after insufficient inhabitants had been found willing to serve on the jury, the popular vote was validated by the House of Commons committee for elections and privileges.

During the second phase from 1689 to 1701 Mitchell was transformed from a pocket borough into an open borough. Elections were fiercely contested and results disputed, with regular referrals to the House of Commons for a final decision. The Commons, acting in a partisan way, consistently upheld the wider franchise of 1689. Open boroughs were notoriously susceptible to bribery and it is estimated that an election in Mitchell at this time could have cost £1,200, or around £120-140,000 in modern terms.

But how had those pushing for a broader franchise succeeded? They were able to make use of a period of unusual uncertainty. Tensions over James II’s accession to the throne and the claims of William and Mary meant that the late Stuart tory-anglican ruling coalition in Cornwall was disintegrating. Earlier, the first challenge to Arundell control significantly came at a time when the Roman Catholic Sir John Arundell had fled to France for four years after a catholic plot to murder Charles II put increased pressure on recusants.

What were the motives of the those wanting a wider franchise? The answer is unclear. It may have been the hope of profiting from the greater financial opportunities of an open borough. Equally, there may have been some wider ideological aspect in the 1690s when those arguing for a broader franchise identified with the whigs against the ruling tories. Yet this was not clear cut and Harris finds no particular alignment in Mitchell with ideology or party. Indeed, while the borough tended to return tories before the 1700s, Boscawen, by then Viscount Falmouth, was able to secure the uncontested return of a string of ministerial whig candidates after 1714 and into the 1730s.

By the new century things had in any case quietened down politically. The Commons now gave its approval to a new scot and lot (ratepayer) franchise at Mitchell which was significantly less broad than the 1689 householder franchise. As a result, the portreeves assumed more control over who could and could not vote. Power shifted back from the electorate to Sir Richard Vyvyan and then Hugh Boscawen. These men determined the candidates and reduced the electorate again to an insignificant role.

Mitchell shows that an active popular political culture could exist even in small Cornish boroughs as early as the late 1600s. But the electorate’s power to determine outcomes was precarious. The local gentry were able to reassert their control once circumstances reverted to a degree of normality. This article complements work on the politics of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, notably that of Mark Stoyle on the tory-high anglican gentry hold over Restoration Cornwall and Ed Jaggard’s corpus of work on parliamentary politics in late eighteenth and nineteenth century Cornwall. The latter notes the later emergence of popular politics in some of the larger Cornish boroughs such as Liskeard and Truro but perhaps we should seek this phenomenon rather earlier.

Curiously, neither Stoyle nor Jaggard are cited in this article. Coincidentally, Ed Jaggard’s article on the venality rampant in elections at nearby Tregony in the later 1700s also appeared last year in the Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall. While the view from Oxford apparently does not extend as far as Stoyle or Jaggard, the view from the RIC’s Journal more generally also stubbornly, and rather childishly, refuses to encompass the insights provided by Cornish Studies scholars. But that’s a critique that needs airing on another occasion. As they say ‘big fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ‘em’.