Old Sarum Rotten Borough, Salisbury
Old Sarum is an abandoned Saxon town that was the centrepiece to a major British scandal that rocked the corrupt 19th century political establishment. The fields and ancient ruins of Old Sarum, just north of Salisbury, were identified as Britain’s worst political Rotten Boroughs and the reforms from the controversy still govern Britain today.
So What Was Wrong with Old Sarum, Salisbury?
The Rotten Borough controversy arose as the deserted village of Old Sarum was classified as a voting constituency and had a Member of Parliament (MP) in the House of Commons. This MP represented one farm house, a few fields and hundreds of sheep!
While at the same time the new industrial cities were grossly underrepresented in parliament, Manchester had a population of 400,000 and no MP. Old Sarum was deemed to be the worst of the Rotten Boroughs and the Reform Act in 1832 readdressed the voter imbalance. This act was not passed as easily as would have been expected as many of the MPs were upper class land owners who refused to relinquish their powers.
A Little bit of History and Information About Old Sarum
Today Old Sarum is a pretty and peaceful district of Salisbury that offers wonderful views of the river valley while the ancient castle is a popular tourist attraction. Old Sarum was established as it was situated at the junction of two important Roman roads and, in the Saxon era, the town could be easily defended from Viking raids. Old Sarum prospered until the 13th century, at which point it had a large fortified castle and important cathedral. This era saw the foundations of parliament and it was appropriate for the thriving town have two elected political seats.
The historic centre of Salisbury
The fortunes of Old Sarum dramatically altered when Bishop Richard Poore decided to relocate the entire city downhill due to political infighting, to read why click here. By the 14th century the castle was abandoned and by 19th century no one even lived in the constituency. The industrialization of England brought massive changes to the country but Old Sarum still had 2 parliamentary seats that represented, well, no one.
Worst of all the two seats could be brought by the highest bidder who simply bribed the 43 electorate who did not even live in the constituency. To put the gross political injustice into perspective the industrial heart land of Yorkshire only had 2 politicians and Manchester with a population of 400,000 had none.
The Rotten Borough Act
The constituency of Old Sarum was dissolved during the Reform Act, which was passed in 1832. During the preceding build up and to gain public acceptance the constituency was often highlighted as a blatant misuse of power open for corruption and bribery. The term Rotten Borough was often referred to these political seats with a small voting majority.
The act required 3 attempts to become law as there was significant pressure against the legislation from the House of Lords. The lords were significant landowners and felt this act would transfer power the lands to the rapidly growing cities. This is how the Old Sarum rotten borough continued to be a political constituency for so long.
Famous Rotten Borough Politicians
Surprisingly the Old Sarum rotten borough produced some of England’s finest leaders, namely William Pitt (1708 –1778) and his son William Pitt (1759 - 1806). History has distinguished the two by referring to the father as William the Pitt the elder and his son as William the Pitt the younger. William the elder led Britain to super power dominance with a definitive victory over France and concluded the Seven Year war. The cows and sheep of Old Sarum must have been so proud to have nominated and elected such gallant and charismatic leaders in who ruled England for over a century.