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"Unreformed House of Commons" is a name given to the House of Commons of Great Britain and (after 1800) the House of Commons of the United Kingdom before it was reformed by the Reform Act 1832.
Until the Act of Union of 1707, which united the Kingdoms of Scotland and England to form Great Britain, Scotland had its own Parliament, and the term can be used to refer to the House of Commons of England (which included representatives from Wales from the 16th century). From 1707 to 1801 the term refers to the House of Commons of Great Britain . Until the Act of Union of 1800 joining the Kingdom of Ireland to Great Britain (to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland), Ireland also had its own Parliament. From 1801 to 1832, therefore, the term refers to the House of Commons of the United Kingdom .
In medieval political theory it was believed that sovereignty flowed down from God, not upward from the people, and that monarchy was the form of government ordained by God: the King (or Queen) was "the Lord's anointed", due obedience from the people.The King however had a corresponding duty to rule for the people's benefit, and from an early date it was accepted that this included the duty to listen to the advice of his feudal magnates. Parliament emerged from such consultations (or parleys), representatives of local communities (the Commons) then being added to the Lords or magnates - a process aided by the practical consideration that it was easier for the King to collect the taxes he needed if the people initially consented to pay them.
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The House of Commons consisted entirely of men, mostly of substantial property, and since 1688 entirely of Anglicans, except in Scotland. Women could neither vote nor stand for election. Members of Parliament were not paid, which meant that only men of wealth could serve. Candidates had to be electors, which meant that in most places they had to have substantial property, usually in the form of land.
Virtually all members representing county seats were landed gentry. Many were relatives or dependants of peers, while others were independent squires. These independent country gentlemen were often the only source of opposition to the government of the day, since they had no need to gain government favour through their votes in the House.
Members for borough seats were sometimes also local squires, but were more frequently merchants or urban professionals such as lawyers. A large number of borough members were placed in their seats by the government of the day in order to provide support to the government: these were known as "placemen", and it was a long-standing objective of parliamentary reformers to eliminate placemen in the House of Commons. Some borough members were men of little means, sometimes in debt or insolvent, who agreed to become placemen in return for government funds. All 18th century governments depended on this corrupt element to maintain their majorities. Some boroughs were under the control of particular ministers or government departments. The members representing the Cinque Ports, for example, were traditionally dependants of the Admiralty and spoke for the interests of the Royal Navy.
Although there was no religious restriction on the right to vote, in practice most Catholics were prevented from voting between the reign of Elizabeth I and the Papists Act 1778, because they could not own or inherit land, making them unable to meet the property requirement (although many Catholic families circumvented this prohibition). Even after 1778, eligibility for election to the House of Commons was restricted by the fact that members had to take an Anglican oath to take their seats. This excluded Catholics, non-Anglican Protestants (English Dissenters), Jews and atheists from the House. (This restriction did not apply to Presbyterians in Scotland, where the Church of Scotland was the established church.)
It is a widely held view that the quality of members of the House of Commons declined over the 250 years before its reform in 1832, and this belief was one of the stimulants for reform. Sir John Neale could say of the county members in the reign of Elizabeth I: "It was not sufficient for candidates to belong to the more substantial families ... They usually had to show some initiative and will." In the boroughs, he wrote, "competition tended to eliminate the less vigorous, less intelligent and unambitious." This would not be accepted as a description of the situation in the reign of George III, when it was frequently said that the House of full of lazy time-servers, talentless dependants of peers, and corrupt placemen and government agents.[ citation needed ]
What did not change was the numerical dominance of country gentlemen in the House. In 1584 they comprised 240 members in a House of 460. Two hundred years later this proportion had hardly changed, even though the social composition of Britain had changed radically over that time. But the proportion of independent members had declined. The proportion of these members who were sons or close relatives of peers rose considerably over this period. In 1584 only 24 members were sons of peers: by the end of the 18th century this number had risen to about 130 (in a House of 659, i.e. 19.72%), a fourfold proportional increase.
In the 18th century about 50 members of the House held ministerial or similar government offices. These included a number of officials who today would be career civil servants: the Secretary of the Admiralty, for example. As well, a number of members were given ceremonial Court appointments, usually sinecures, as a means of ensuring their loyalty. These included such archaic posts as eight Clerks of the Green Cloth and a dozen Grooms of the Bedchamber. Many more members held other sinecures of various kinds, mostly clerkships in government departments, posts which usually involved no actual work. This was not necessarily regarded as corrupt – in an age when Members received neither payments nor pensions, a sinecure position was regarded as a legitimate reward for service, but it also served to keep the recipient loyal. More clearly corrupt was the payment of secret pensions to Members by the Treasury. In 1762 sixteen Members were thus secretly in the pay of the government.
Opposition rhetoric at the time, however, tended to exaggerate the corruption of the 18th century House of Commons and the extent to which governments controlled the House by corrupt means. John Brooke's studies of division lists led him to comment: "The majority of Members voting with Government held no office and did so through honest conviction." The lists show, he said, "that Members were given office because they voted with Government, not that they voted with Government in order to obtain office." As he points out, at a time when there were no formal political parties and hence no party discipline in the House, governments had to resort to other expedients to secure a majority and allow the continuity of government.
Monmouthshire (1 County constituency with 2 MPs and one single member Borough constituency) is included in Wales in these tables. Sources for this period may include the county in England.
Table 1: Constituencies and MPs, by type and country
|Country||BC||CC||UC||Total C||BMP||CMP||UMP||Total MPs||Population (1801)||People per MP|
Table 2: Number of seats per constituency, by type and country
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England had been divided into counties (or shires) since Anglo-Saxon times, and these formed the first basis of representation. Two knights of the shire were chosen to represent each county. Before 1536 England had 39 counties (see list below), electing 78 knights of the shire. These "knights" were local landowners who did not hold peerages (in which case they would be members of the House of Lords). When Wales was formally annexed to England in 1536, each of the 12 Welsh counties elected one knight of the shire. Monmouthshire, previously part of the Welsh Marches, became an English county, electing two members, thus making a total of 92 county members.
In order to be either a candidate or an elector for a county seat, a man had to own (not rent) freehold property valued for the land tax at two pounds a year. (Women could neither vote nor be elected.) This was known as the 40 shilling freehold. (There were 20 shillings to the pound). This rule was established by an Act of 1430, and as the value of money gradually declined over subsequent centuries, an increasing number of landowners were admitted to the franchise. By the early 19th century, for example, Yorkshire had more than 20,000 electors, while Kent, Lancashire and Somerset had nearly 10,000 each. By 1831 the English county electorate was estimated at about 190,000.
County members were usually elected without an actual ballot taking place. Only at times of acute party strife did many counties see contested elections. In every county there was a group of landowning families, usually with a peer at their head, and these families would informally agree on who would stand for the county at a given election. They were frequently relatives or allies of the leading peers of the county. Some counties were represented by the same two or three families for centuries (the Lowthers of Westmorland being a good example). Sometimes a county would not see a contest for generations. Nottinghamshire, for example, did not see a contested election between 1722 and 1832. A notable exception was Middlesex, the county which contained much of suburban London, and which had some famously contentious elections.
Even in medieval times a significant proportion of the King's revenue came from taxes paid by people living in towns, and thus the House of Commons had representatives of boroughs as well as counties from an early date. A borough was a town which usually, but not always, had a Royal charter giving it the right to elect two members (known as burgesses) to the House of Commons, some very ancient boroughs were acknowledged as having prescriptive rights. (Five English boroughs elected only one member,while two boroughs – the City of London and the double borough of Weymouth and Melcombe Regis in Dorset – elected four members each.) From the 16th century 12 boroughs in Wales elected one member each.
Mediaeval kings could and did grant and revoke charters at their pleasure, often to create seats in the House for their supporters, and frequently regardless of the size or importance of the town. Thus there were "rotten boroughs" (boroughs with very few voters) from very early times, but they increased in number over the years as many old towns lost population. The two most famous examples were Old Sarum, which by the 18th century had no residents at all, and Dunwich in Suffolk, most of which had fallen into the sea. The number of English boroughs fluctuated over time, until the last new borough charter was issued in 1674. From then on the number was fixed at 203, electing 405 members (see list below).
The franchise for borough seats varied enormously.In some boroughs, virtually all adult homeowners could vote. In others, only a handful of landowners could vote. In still others, no-one could vote and the borough's members were chosen by its corporation (council), which was usually elected by a small group of property-owners.
The types of borough franchise were as follows:
These were commonly known as "potwalloper" boroughs, because (it was said) anyone who owned a hearth which could boil a pot could vote. In these boroughs all resident male householders who were not receiving alms or poor relief could vote. There were about 12 of these boroughs,including Northampton which had over 1,000 voters even in the 17th century, Preston and other substantial towns, although some were very small, such as St Germans in Cornwall, which had only 20 voters.
While the householder boroughs were in theory the most democratic, they were in practice very corrupt, notorious for bribery of voters by candidates and their patrons, frequently with liquor, which made for riotous and expensive elections. At Aylesbury in 1761, the successful candidate simply paid the electors five pounds each for their votes. Sometimes the voters banded together and openly sold the borough to the highest bidder. This usually meant that only the rich and the corrupt could win these seats.
These were boroughs in which the franchise was restricted to "freemen of the borough". There were roughly 92 of these, the largest single group of boroughs.The property qualifications to be a freeman varied widely from place to place. The City of London had about 7,000 freemen in the 18th century, and about 25 other freeman boroughs had at least 1,000 electors, but about 30 boroughs had fewer than 200 electors, and these boroughs were in practice under the control of the town corporation.
In practice the larger freeman boroughs were the most democratic part of the unreformed political system. They were contested at most elections, and the contests were frequently about political issues rather than just about who had the most money to spend. Some of these boroughs were corrupt, and others were controlled by aristocratic patrons, but many freeman boroughs valued their independence. Bristol, the seat of Edmund Burke, was the most notable of these. Most of the larger county towns such as Chester, Gloucester, Leicester, Norwich, Nottingham, Worcester and York were of this type. But some large freeman boroughs, such as Cambridge, had small and undemocratic electorates because the right to be a freeman was restricted to a small group.
These were 37 boroughs in which the franchise was restricted to those paying scot and lot, a form of municipal taxation. These boroughs ranged in size from the most democratic borough of all, Westminster, which had 12,000 famously radical voters in the late 18th century and was held by the Whig leader Charles James Fox, down to a rotten borough such as Gatton in Surrey, which in 1831 had a total of two voters. Some of these boroughs were in practice owned by aristocratic patrons, while others were notoriously corrupt.
These 27 boroughs restricted the right to vote to members of the borough corporation. In none of them was the electorate larger than 60, and in most it was much smaller. Apart from Salisbury and Bath, they were mostly small towns. As a result, these boroughs were rarely contested, since the corporation members usually decided among themselves who would be elected. They were usually known as "pocket boroughs" because they were frequently "in the pocket" of a wealthy patron, although they were not as corrupt as the rotten boroughs.
In these 29 boroughs, the right to vote was attached to ownership of certain properties known as burgages – whoever owned a certain house or field had a vote in the borough. Since burgage properties could be bought and sold, these were the easiest boroughs for wealthy patrons to control.In a small burgage borough, a patron who bought all the burgages had absolute control. At election time he would simply convey the burgages to his relatives and friends, and thereby in effect nominate two members of Parliament. These boroughs included the notorious Old Sarum, which had no resident voters at all. As a result, these boroughs were rarely contested, and even more rarely successfully contested.
In the remaining six boroughs, the right to vote was held by all freeholders. This was in theory quite democratic, but since they were all small towns none of them had electorates larger than 300 even in 1831.
It is not possible to calculate the size of the borough electorate with any accuracy, since many boroughs were rarely contested, and no records were made of eligible voters unless there was a contest. As well, many people owned property in more than one borough and could thus vote more than once (this was called plural voting). The total English electorate is thought to have increased from about 338,000 in the late 18thC to some 439,000 at the time of the Reform Act, [ citation needed ] Of that total, around 45% - 188,000, or slightly less - were in 1831 eligible borough voters.(or perhaps about 10% of adult males).
The two ancient universities of Cambridge and Oxford elected two members each from 1603. The franchise was restricted to holders of doctoral and master's degrees, which excluded the great bulk of graduates (mostly Anglican clergy) holding bachelor's degrees.[ citation needed ] Both universities had about 500 electors in the 18th century, rising to 800 by 1832, but at most elections a much smaller number actually voted. After the Act of Union of 1801, University of Dublin also elected one member.
The twelve Welsh counties elected one member each, on the same franchise as English counties. Since Wales was much poorer than England, however, the county electorates were much smaller. The Welsh county electorate was about 19,000 in 1800. The twelve Welsh boroughs also elected one member each. Until the late 18th century all of them were very small towns. The franchises for the Welsh boroughs were freemen, scot and lot and corporation but in practice they were under the control of local patrons and contested elections were rare.
The Act of Union of 1707 brought 45 Scottish members to the House of Commons, of which 30 were elected by the 33 Scottish counties, while 15 were elected from the Scottish boroughs (called burghs in Scotland).The electoral system which had operated in the Scottish Parliament since its creation was preserved for the election of Scotland's representatives at Westminster.
Twenty-seven counties elected one member each (this included Orkney and Shetland, which were strictly speaking not counties but fiefs of the Crown, but were treated as if they were a county). The six smallest counties were grouped together into three groups of two (Buteshire and Caithness, Clackmannanshire and Kinross-shire, and Nairnshire and Cromartyshire), with one of each pair electing a member at alternate elections.
The Scottish county franchise was even more restrictive than for the English counties. A voter either had to own land worth the equivalent of two pounds sterling "of old extent"– meaning that the land had to have had that value since the creation of the Scottish Parliament in the 13th century – or to hold as a Crown tenant land to the value of 35 pounds sterling. This restricted the franchise to a handful of wealthy landowners, small privileged sets who might not even represent the county's true landed wealth. In most counties there were fewer than 100 voters, and in some even less: in Sutherlandshire the Duke of Sutherland owned almost the entire county, and all the voters were his tenants, while in Orkney and Shetland there were seven voters in 1759. The total Scottish county electorate was fewer than 3,000 in 1800.
The 15 Scottish burghs consisted of the city of Edinburgh, where the 33 members of the city corporation elected a member, and 14 groups of four or five smaller burghs, each group electing one member between them. [ citation needed ]The franchise in the groups of burghs was held by the corporations of each of the burghs making up the group, the corporations being self-co-opting oligarchies. Each burgh corporation would choose a delegate, and the delegates would then meet to elect the member. The representation tended to rotate among the burghs in each group. Since most of the burghs were little more than villages, the leading county families could usually bribe the corporation members to get their nominees elected.
Government patronage in Scotland early ensured a docile parliamentary following;and by mid-century the government of the day could usually count on a solid phalanx of Scottish supporters. Subsequently under Pitt, Henry Dundas, the Scottish agent of the Tory party, had little difficulty in manipulating the Scottish representation in similar fashion, spending government funds and using Indian patronage to ensure that Tories were elected. This was one reason why the Scottish members were unpopular at Westminster, being regarded as corrupt even by the standards of the day, as well as uncouth.
On the eve of Reform, Lord John Russell estimated that a Scottish electorate of some 3,600 would undergo an increase of around 60,000 voters.Later figures suggest an increase from 4,579 to 64,447 voters actually took place. Either way, G. M. Trevelyan's conclusion seems justified that "The Reform Bill, in England an evolution, in Scotland was a revolution, veiled in the form of law".
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The Act of Union of 1801 brought 100 Irish members to the House of Commons. The 32 Irish counties elected two members each, while 33 boroughs elected 35 members (all elected one member except Dublin and Cork, which elected two). The remaining seat was given to the University of Dublin. The franchise in the counties was the same as for England, and the total Irish county electorate, at about 220,000 in 1801, was actually larger than the English county electorate (Ireland had a larger population relative to England than it has today, and had a larger rural gentry). But the franchise was drastically raised in 1829 when Catholics were allowed to sit in the House of Commons, in order to deprive the mass of Irish Catholics of the vote and minimise the impact of this concession.
In 1801, Ireland had about one-third of the population of the United Kingdom (5.5 million people lived in Ireland and 10.5 million in Great Britain) but only 15% of the MPs (100 of 658) were Irish.
Of the Irish boroughs, only Dublin, Cork, Kilkenny, Londonderry and Waterford had a mass electorate. Belfast’s member was elected by the city corporation and the seat was never contested.
The exclusion of Catholics from the House of Commons was of most consequence in Ireland, where 80% of the population were Catholic. At the time of the Act of Union, the Irish were promised that the restriction on Catholics would be lifted but this promise was broken because of the opposition of George III. This meant that except in the Protestant northern counties, most Irishmen, no matter how wealthy, were excluded from politics until Catholic Emancipation was finally achieved in 1829.
Since the distribution of seats in the House of Commons among the boroughs was based on medieval demography and economy, much in it was already anomalous under 18th century circumstances. Thus for example 1/4 of the House was elected by only five counties in South-West England (Cornwall alone having 44 Members); while almost 1/3 of boroughs consisted of (often decayed) sea-ports.
With the industrial revolution of the early 19th century, the numbers and weight of those outside the system increased further.While an uninhabited hill such as Old Sarum elected two members of Parliament, great cities such as Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield, Bolton, Bradford and Huddersfield had no direct representation. Residents of these cities who met the 40 shilling freehold test could vote in their respective counties, and this explains why the county electorate in industrial counties like Yorkshire and Lancashire grew rapidly, but the bulk of the fast-growing urban middle class remained voteless.
In addition, Glasgow - which grew into a major industrial and commercial centre in the 18th century, increasing in numbers from some twelve thousand to eighty thousand [ citation needed ]- although technically represented in the House of Commons, was part of a district of burghs that meant it was in practice without representation, and since none of its citizens met the county franchise none of them had a direct vote. Some other industrial towns which elected members but with a very narrow franchise were in the same situation: Wigan, for example, had 10,000 people in 1800 but only 100 electors, while residents of the fast-growing London suburbs were also unrepresented unless they met the county franchise to vote in Middlesex, Surrey or Kent.
The English Civil War of the 1640s produced a series of debates over reforming the electoral system – involving the franchise, the distribution of the House of Commons seats, and the abolition of the House of Lords. At the Putney Debates of 1647, radicals led by Thomas Rainborough argued for manhood suffrage; conservatives, led by Oliver Cromwell and Henry Ireton, maintained that the vote should rather go only to those they regarded as having a 'stake' in the country.The Cromwellian system that eventually emerged featured a modest increase in the franchise, and a sharp reduction in the overall number of seats, with a shift in balance to county over borough members. There was also a redistribution of borough seats from the West and South-West to Eastern England.
With the Restoration of the monarchy of 1660, however, came a restoration of the pre-revolutionary system in its entirety, thereafter sanctified as the Ancient Constitution; and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 saw no attempt to re-open the question. There followed a long period during which any challenge to the system of representation was equated with republicanism and treason; and the political classes remained largely content with the alliance of landowners, urban merchants, and small town electorates which underpinned it.
A reform movement began in the mid-18th century, with the Yorkshire Association attempting to increase county representation at the expense of the rotten boroughs; but with the failure of Pitt’s Reform Bill of 1785 it came to an end.Thereafter new reformist strands arose, with Nonconformists looking to improve their civil position through Parliamentary reform, a radical working-class campaign which demanded manhood suffrage (or even universal suffrage), and support from some in the Whig party like Fox and Earl Grey through the Society of the Friends of the People (1792). However Tory resistance, and the English reaction against the excesses of the French Revolution, stifled all real attempts to raise the issue until the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815.
With peace came a renewed call for reform in the shape of the spreading Hampden Clubs, but government reaction called a swift halt to them, and soon the pamphleteer William Hone concluded that “Parliamentary reform is not perhaps dead, but it is dying”.
1822-3 saw agricultural distress leading to a short-lived movement for strengthening the counties at the expense of the boroughs.The disenfranchisement for corruption by Lord Liverpool's of Grampound in Cornwall, when the borough's patron had been convicted of bribery, saw its two seats given to Yorkshire, which thus elected four county members from 1826 to 1832. A few years later East Retford was also disfranchised but its seats were transferred to the neighbouring hundred of Bassetlaw rather than to one of the new cities.
As late as 1829, however, parliamentary reform remained a marginal issue for most people, both inside and outside parliament.Even those - like county landowners in those counties which contained the unrepresented cities, such as Yorkshire, who were increasingly finding themselves outvoted in their own counties by urban voters, or Whigs like Lord John Russell - who favoured reform, did so not for democracy, but to make the system a better reflection of national interests (that is to say, property), rather than numbers. This, and not a desire for democracy, was why most Whigs and even some Tories turned against the old system during the 1820s.
The issue which brought parliamentary reform to the forefront once more was Catholic Emancipation in 1829, which removed barriers to Roman Catholics being elected to the House of Commons, and which led many Anglican conservatives, the Ultra-Tories in particular, to favour abolition of the rotten boroughs so as to make Parliament more truly representative of (Anglican) county, squire and parson.Similarly, it was the Tory Thomas Attwood who in 1830 founded the Birmingham Political Union to press for reform. The accession of a new, and less hide-bound monarch precipitated a general election, which - galvanized by news of the French Revolution of 1830 with its middle-class power-brokers - produced a swing of some 30 seats against Wellington's Government, which fell to a coalition (including the Ultras) on the 15th November.
Earl Grey formed a ministry pledged to reform. In March 1831, it passed its second reading by a single vote, so closely were forces balanced in the House. When a hostile amendment was passed by eight votes, Grey sought and was granted a dissolution of parliament, asking for a fresh mandate in April 1831. [ citation needed ] Despite this decisive verdict, the House of Lords rejected the Second Reform Bill; and a barrage of popular protests and a constitutional crisis followed, before the King's agreement to create the necessary number of new peers to pass the Reform made the Lords eventually give way, and the Great Reform Act was passed.At this election the Whigs won a landslide - a result that, as Elie Halevy put it, "by its condemnation of the existing franchise went near to justify the plea of its Tory defenders". In 35 of the 40 English counties they won both seats and in the boroughs where electors were able to decide they made an almost clean sweep. Of the 230 seats the Tories held after that election, most were in rotten or "closed" boroughs or else in Scotland, which had almost no broad-based electorates. By one reckoning, the Tories could claim to represent only 50,000 voters, while the four Whig members for Yorkshire alone represented 100,000 voters.
The Reform Act extended the franchise from about 435,000 to about 652,000 voters in Great Britain.Setting itself out explicitly as a final settlement of the reform process, , it disfranchised many rotten boroughs (56 boroughs were abolished, while another 30 were reduced from two members to one), gave seats to new boroughs and additional seats to the more populous counties, reformed the electoral system in Scotland, and introduced a uniform borough franchise. While landlord influence, voter deference, corruption, and pocket boroughs could all be found under the new system, and while the new arrangements were still a far cry from universal suffrage even for males (perhaps 1 in 5 of whom could vote in 1833), the Great Reform Act was - at least to Whig historians like G M Trevelyan - the decisive step in ending the old system.
See List of counties and boroughs of the Unreformed House of Commons at 1800.
The Representation of the People Act 1832 was an Act of Parliament of the United Kingdom that introduced wide-ranging changes to the electoral system of England and Wales. According to its preamble, the Act was designed to "take effectual Measures for correcting divers Abuses that have long prevailed in the Choice of Members to serve in the Commons House of Parliament". Before the reform, most members nominally represented boroughs. The number of electors in a borough varied widely, from a dozen or so up to 12,000. Frequently the selection of MPs was effectively controlled by one powerful patron: for example Charles Howard, 11th Duke of Norfolk, controlled eleven boroughs. Criteria for qualification for the franchise varied greatly among boroughs, from the requirement to own land, to merely living in a house with a hearth sufficient to boil a pot.
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Shaftesbury was a parliamentary constituency in Dorset. It returned two Members of Parliament to the House of Commons of the Parliament of the United Kingdom from 1295 until 1832 and one member until the constituency was abolished in 1885.
Hertfordshire was a county constituency covering the county of Hertfordshire in England. It returned two Knights of the Shire to the House of Commons of England until 1707, then to the House of Commons of Great Britain until 1800, and to the House of Commons of the Parliament of the United Kingdom from 1800 until 1832. The Reform Act 1832 gave the county a third seat with effect from the 1832 general election.
Suffolk was a county constituency of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, which returned two Members of Parliament (MPs) to the House of Commons from 1290 until 1832, when it was split into two divisions.