Voting in Regency England: Who Could Vote? And Who Could They Vote For?

I’ve always found the process of democracy—and elections in particular—rather fascinating. And as we head into the month of November here at Regency Reflections, we’re going to talk a bit about government.

In Regency England, I’m afraid voting options were rather limited. Britain’s Parliament is (and was) divided into two houses, the House of Lords and the House of Commons. The House of Lords was composed of peers who were approved membership by their fellow peers, and these positions in the House of Lords were handed down through heredity. Your regular English coal miner or weaver or farmer had no voice in anything that happened in the House of Lords.

The House of Commons was a little more democratic in nature. These members were “elected,” by counties and boroughs, though a lot of corruption was embedded in the electoral process. When Regency characters in novels and movies mention purchasing a seat in the House of Commons, that’s because the electoral process was so crooked individuals could well “purchase” seats that were supposed to be “elected.”

Further complicating the issue, a Member of Parliament representing a county had to have a yearly income of 600 pounds. And a Member of Parliament representing a borough had to have a yearly income of 300 pounds. Thus election to and involvement in parliament was unattainable for the average Englishman. In fact, lower born sons of peers filled a good number of the seats in Commons for this very reason.

Even more disparaging, all voting was done open ballot, and oftentimes retribution could occur if you voted for the wrong person. For example, if an earl’s third son was running for a seat in Commons and you farmed the earl’s land, you could go cast your vote for the opposing candidate. But you might well loose your rights to farm as a result.

Elections were hardly honest or fair. It was a world where the most elite and wealthy controlled the government and gave the bulk of the country’s citizens very little power. Most citizens were not even allowed to “vote.”

To vote in county elections, a person had to be:

1). Male

Though offensive to most people living today (myself included), this was completely normal for the time period. Women’s suffrage wasn’t even thought of yet.

2). A Property Holder with land worth 40 shillings or more per year

This is known as the forty shilling freehold.

To vote in borough elections, you had to be:

1). Male

2). A resident of the “right” county or borough.

There were a lot of populated cities in Regency England that didn’t get any representatives in the House of Commons. The designated “boroughs” were delineated during the Middle Ages and not changed until 1832. So numerous cities that sprang into existence due to industrialism were denied members to the House of Commons, while some extremely small communities that had been thriving 400 years earlier got to elect officials.

3). Owner of a certain amount of wealth or property.

The degree of wealth and property ownership varied from borough to borough. In some places, the forty shilling freehold stood. In others, not receiving alms or poor relief earned you the right to vote. And in others, simply owning a home gave you opportunity to vote.

So now I’m curious. If you’d been living during the Regency days, do you think you (or your husband) would have been able to vote? I daresay my husband would not own enough property to qualify.

The Napoleonic Wars–Who Started Them?

Whenever I read a Regency novel set during the Napoleonic Wars, I’m interested to see how the war and France are portrayed. Of course France was hated. They were, after all, the bad guys, trying to invade England, take over Europe, and end the world in with some sort of nuclear holocaust (well, maybe not quite that extreme, but you get the picture). And then after you look at France the country, there’s it’s leader: Napoleon Bonaparte, the Corsican Monster , tyrant, etc.

Yet as the British are sitting on their nice little island, thinking of names to call France’s new ruler, they quite happily forget that Napoleon was much less of a tyrant to the French people than King Louis XVI. Or King Louis XV. Or King Louis XIV. In fact, the average Frenchman and Frenchwoman had a much better life under Napoleon’s rule than under Louis XVI’s.

(Heaven forbid we actually let the French people choose their own ruler rather than foist another wasteful, birth-ordained monarch on them.)

French citizens aside, anyone familiar with the Napoleonic Wars will tell you Napoleon had a lust for power. Though he never claimed to be a king, he did aim to conquer much of Europe.  And so, it stands to reason that we’re all lucky England was around to protect the rest of the world from the big, bad Mr. Bonaparte. Correct?

Not exactly.

At the beginning of the Napoleonic Wars, England was much more of a big, bad bully than France. In fact, England—with all its outrage against the Corsican Monster—was the one to start the Napoleonic Wars.

Yes, that’s right. England picked a war with France, not the other way around.

England and France had been enjoying a tenuous peace, as delineated in the Treaty of Amiens, which lasted from the spring of 1802 to 1803. Neither France nor England was doing any of the things it promised to do in that treaty. In fact, England was much more aggressive than France, gathering another coalition of nations to fight France. Napoleon, however, withdrew troops from certain territories he’d agreed to evacuate. In all fairness, both countries signed a treaty that neither intended to honor.

When this finally became clear to England, the country did what it was so very fond of doing two hundred years ago. It declared war. Then the British navy promptly captured two French ships within a matter of days. I can just imagine the conversation between the British and French soldiers as the French were once again losing two of their ships to the Brits.

Frenchman: “But you can’t capture our ship. We’re at peace. Remember that treaty our countries signed last spring?”

Brit: (Laughs cruelly) “We decided to call off the treaty and declare war two days ago. Hadn’t you heard?”

Frenchman: “No! We’ve been at sea for the past three months.”

Brit: “Oh well, we’re taking your ship anyway, and you’ll need to come with us. I’m sure you’ll have a nice time moldering in one of our prison hulks until you die in about three months time.”

Ah yes, England was quite the picture of benevolence two hundred years ago.

So in retaliation, Napoleon rounded up all the Brits visiting France on holiday and interned them in a citadel located in northwestern France.

England was outraged, of course. How dare Napoleon actually fight back!

And so there you have it, the story of how England started the Napoleonic Wars.