Knights of the Shire

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From the first Parliaments of England which began in the middle of the medieval period, which started with Simon de Montfort's Parliament, each county sent two Knights of the Shire as members of Parliament to represent the interests of the county, until 1826 when the number of knights from Yorkshire was increased to four. With the Great Reform Act of 1832 county-based electors sent different numbers of knights to Parliament until the complete subdivision of whole-county seats in the Reform Act of 1884.

Due to changes in 1884 and 1885, the remaining county constituencies have become almost equal in status to borough constituencies, only differing by a small amount as to election expenses and their type of returning officer.

The term is now used informally for senior members of the Conservative party who are English and Welsh members of parliament for rural rather than urban constituencies and who have never held a senior government post.[1]

Middle ages

The precursor to the English parliamentary system was a Magnum Concilium or great council, as the verb 'to counsel' and (name then), implied advice chamber to the king, consisting of peers, ecclesiastics and Knights of the Shire (with the king summoning two of these from each county). In 1264, this council evolved to include representatives from the boroughs (burgesses), requiring that all members be elected (Montfort's Parliament). The parliament gained legislative powers in 1295 (the Model Parliament). In the following century Edward III split parliament into its current bicameral structure, which includes the House of Commons and the House of Lords, in 1341. It opted in 1376 to appoint Sir Peter de la Mare to convey to the Lords complaints about heavy taxes, demands for an accounting of the royal expenditures, and criticism of the king's management of the military. Although de la Mare was imprisoned for his actions, many recognised the value of a single representative voice for the Commons. Accordingly, an office of Speaker of the House of Commons was created.[2][3] Mare was soon released after the death of Edward III and became the Speaker of the House again in 1377.

Until legislation in 1430, the franchise (electorate) for elections of knights of the shire was not restricted to forty shilling freeholders.

Discussing the original county franchise, historian Prof. Seymour suggested "it is probable that all free inhabitant householders voted and that the parliamentary qualification was, like that which compelled attendance in the county court, merely a "resiance" or residence qualification". He goes on to explain why Parliament decided to legislate about the county franchise. "The Act of 1430," he said, "after declaring that elections had been crowded by many persons of low estate, and that confusion had thereby resulted, accordingly enacted that the suffrage should be limited to persons qualified by a freehold of 40s".

The Parliament of England legislated the new uniform county franchise, in the statute 8 Henry VI, c. 7. However the Chronological Table of the Statutes does not mention such a 1430 Act, as it was included in the Consolidated Statutes as a recital in the Electors of Knights of the Shire Act 1432 (10 Henry VI, c. 2), which amended and re-enacted the 1430 law to make clear that the resident of a county had to have a forty shilling freehold in that county in order to be a voter there.

Over the course of time, authorities began to consider a great number of different types of property as forty shilling freeholds. Subsequently, the residence requirement disappeared.


Until the Great Reform Act of 1832, each county continued to send two Knights (apart from Yorkshire, which had its number of Knights increased to four in 1826). How these knights were chosen varied from one county to the next and evolved over time. The 1832 Act increased the number of Knights sent by some populous counties to as many as six.

Modern usage

The term became obsolete due to the final destruction of counties mentioned by the Redistribution of Seats Act 1885 and widened structure of electorate in the Reform Act of 1884 (the Third Great Reform Act), and in 1918, the term rapidly died out during the 20th century in reference to Members of Parliament who represent county constituencies; for they no longer represented a whole county.

See also


  1. Engel, Matthew (30 April 2010). "Last of the old knights of the shires". The Financial Times.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Given-Wilson, Chris (2004). Chronicles: the writing of history in medieval England. Continuum International Publishing Group. p. 175. ISBN 978-1-85285-358-7. OCLC 59259407.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Davies, R.G.; Denton, J.H.; Roskell, J.S. (1981). The English Parliament in the Middle Ages. Manchester University Press. p. 39. ISBN 978-0-7190-0833-7. OCLC 7681359.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


  • The text of the 1832 Reform Act
  • Chronological Table of the Statutes: Part 1 1235-1962 (The Stationery Office Ltd 1999)
  • Electoral Reform in England and Wales, by Charles Seymour (David & Charles Reprints 1970)
  • The Statutes: Revised Edition, Vol. I Henry III to James II (printed by authority in 1876)
  • The Statutes: Second Revised Edition, Vol. XVI 1884-1886 (printed by authority in 1900)