The state of Cornish towns in 1600: Part 2

As Richard Carew turned his attention westwards, his accounts of Cornish towns became noticeably briefer, probably reflecting his lack of acquaintance with places increasingly distant from his home at Antony, close to the Tamar.

St Columb was merely ‘a mean market town’, while St Austell was still too insignificant to get a mention. Despite being equally unimportant at this time ‘New Kaye’ did appear in Carew’s account. It was ‘so called, because in former times their neighbours attempted to supply the defect of nature by art, in making there a quay (for trade) … though want of means in themselves, or the place, have … only left them the benefit of … fisherboats.’

Grampound around 1900 after achieving fame by being the first parliamentary borough disenfranchised for bribery in 1820.

Grampound had its own corporation but was only ‘half replenished with inhabitants, who may better vaunt of their town’s antiquity, than the town of their ability’. Passing quickly over Tregony, which was ‘not generally memorable’, Carew found something more worth writing about at Truro. Although only consisting of ‘three streets’, it benefitted from courts, coinages and markets and ‘got the start in wealth of any other Cornish towns, and to come behind none in buildings, Launceston only excepted.’ Carew felt however that the residents of Truro needed to show a bit more entrepreneurial energy. ‘I wish that they would likewise deserve praise for getting and employing their riches in some industrious trade … as the harbours invite them.’

Down the Fal, Penryn was ‘rather passable than notable for wealth, buildings and inhabitants, in all of which … it giveth Truro the prominence’. Nevertheless, Penryn could claim the prominence over Falmouth, where there was just the manor house of Arwenack and a collection of cottages up the estuary, ignored by Carew. Another place not mentioned by Carew was Redruth, although it was a market town by this time. A relatively underpopulated hinterland with much land still unenclosed did not provide many hints of the mineral riches yet to be exploited.

Helston was ‘well seated and peopled’ but Carew had little to say about West Penwith. St Ives was ‘of mean plight’. Even a new pier had failed to have an impact, ‘Either want or slackness, or impossibility, hitherto withhold the effect’, although fish was ‘very cheap’. Across the peninsula Marazion was  ‘a town of petty fortune’, while Penzance, then a new settlement, was described as ‘a market town, not so regardable for its substance, as memorable for the late accident of the Spaniards firing’ a reference to the Spanish raid on Mount’s Bay in 1595.

A 19th century view of the raid in 1595

Why did Cornwall have 44 MPs?

Those were the days. Now Cornwall only has a feeble voice in the UK Parliament, represented by just six MPs. But before 1821 Cornwall enjoyed a representation more fitting its status, sending 44 MPs. With around 1.5% of the population it had 7-8% of parliamentary representatives. Why?

In the 1500s Cornwall was not that exceptional. Six boroughs (Bodmin, Helston, Launceston, Liskeard, Lostwithiel and Truro) had each returned two MPs since the time of Edward I in the late 1200s, with another two representing the rest of Cornwall. Things changed under the Tudors. Between 1529 and 1584 fifteen boroughs were enfranchised. Overall, this amounted to one in five of all the new boroughs granted parliamentary representation by the Tudors. The fifteen were Bossiney, Callington, Camelford, East Looe, Fowey, Grampound, Mitchell, Newport, Penryn, St Germans, St Ives, St Mawes, Saltash, Tregony and West Looe.

Several explanations have been offered for this Tudor revolution in Cornwall’s representation, none of which are entirely satisfactory. It was first suggested that Tudor monarchs used the extra MPs to pack the Commons with crown supporters. But not all the new boroughs were under royal control and several Cornish MPs either opposed Elizabethan policies or were Catholic recusants. Moreover, Parliament in this period was not continually at loggerheads with the Tudor monarchy, so such measures were unnecessary.

It’s also proposed that Cornwall’s new boroughs were a device to placate or reward its landed gentry. But why did the Cornish gentry require more cultivation than those elsewhere? The rising of 1549 is often cited. However, the first seven, or almost half, of the new boroughs had appeared by 1547, before the rising. More tellingly, the fact that up to two thirds of the MPs of the new boroughs were not Cornish suggests that any ‘accommodation’ of Cornish gentry via a seat in the Commons was indirect to say the least.

Lord John Russell

Was it the result of more short-term considerations? In his book on Tudor Cornwall, Chynoweth links the enfranchisement in 1547 of six new boroughs to the need to get support for the Duke of Somerset’s religious changes by giving the franchise to towns controlled by his new ally, Lord John Russell. Russell was a magnate in the west of England, and a man who played a key role in putting down the 1549 rising. But why Cornish boroughs? Why not boroughs further east, in Dorset and Somerset, the region where Russell exerted more direct influence?

The existence of the Duchy of Cornwall must have had a significant part to play. From 1547 to 1603 there was no duke and the Duchy was in the hands of the crown. This may have made creating the new Cornish parliamentary boroughs an easier and more logical option. Moreover, the Duchy symbolised a special relationship between Cornish gentry and the Tudor crown. This is indicated by the fact that Cornish gentry were greatly over-represented at court. In the 1510s 13% of courtiers were Cornish. Did this mean that Cornish gentry enjoyed a special influence at the heart of Tudor government and were well-placed to be favoured when parliamentary seats were being handed out?

When Cornwall had 44 MPs

Before 1821 Cornwall was properly represented, with 44 MPs, only one fewer than Scotland. All but two of them represented boroughs, each returning two members. The franchise in those days was ambiguous, being based on vaguely worded medieval or sixteenth-century charters. Basically, the vote was restricted to the householders of certain properties or the mayor and corporation, who selected any other ‘freemen’ entitled to vote.

From the 1600s onwards the larger gentry, families such as the Boscawens of Tregothnan, the Eliots at Port Eliot, the Edgcumbes of Mount Edgcumbe, had bought up most property entitled to a vote and become patrons of the boroughs. They would install tenants with a precarious tenancy or a willingness to vote for the patron’s nominees. This could easily be checked as the ballot was not secret.

In this system, open bribery of voters was rarely required, although extra payments were common, as at Grampound and Mitchell. The Cornish seat with the worst reputation for bribery was Penryn, which had one of the largest number of voters and was difficult to control by other means. Elections were therefore very welcome at Penryn, as it meant an influx of money for the town.

Grampound was the first borough in the UK to be disfranchised

The costs of this meant it was in the patrons’ interests to reduce the number of voters. The 84 at Mitchell in 1784 had become 18 by 1816; the 60 or 70 at Launceston in 1700 were just 15 in 1816. Taken to its logical conclusion in small boroughs this process could sometimes result in just one voter electing the MPs. That happened at Bossiney in 1784. In any case, in practice usually one man – the patron – effectively decided who would get elected.

Patrons would either install members of their own family or relations as MPs or sell the seat to aspiring MPs. The going price in the early 1800s was from £1,000 to £5,000, or around £100,000 to half a million in today’s money. In return patrons were expected to provide benefits for the boroughs. They might pay the local poor and church rates for example, as at Helston, or give liberally to charities – the Eliots paid for schools at Liskeard – or put on lavish entertainments.

Occasionally, bitter disputes broke out between patrons struggling to wrest control of boroughs away from each other. In 1810 the two most notorious Cornish boroughmongers of the time, Francis Basset (Lord de Dunstanville) of Tehidy and Sir Christopher Hawkins of Trewithen – fought out a duel near London. ‘The parties exchanged two shots each, neither of which took effect’ … ‘the Boroughs were the cause’, a contemporary reported.

Before 1832 Looe had four MPs, two for West Looe and two for East Looe