Old Sarum


Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1386-1421, ed. J.S. Roskell, L. Clark, C. Rawcliffe., 1993
Available from Boydell and Brewer


1386Walter Upton
 Bartholomew Avery
1388 (Feb.)Walter Upton
 John Avery I
1388 (Sept.)Walter Upton
 John Avery I
1390 (Jan.)
1390 (Nov.)
1394John Avery I
 John Chipplegh
1395John Avery I
 Robert Page
1397 (Jan.)
1397 (Sept.)John Avery I
 Robert Page
1404 (Jan.)
1404 (Oct.)
1413 (Feb.)
1413 (May)
1414 (Apr.)Robert Long
 William Chesterton
1414 (Nov.)
1416 (Mar.)
1416 (Oct.)
1417John Giles
 John Noble 1
1421 (May)Henry Bradley
 John Ludwell
1421 (Dec.)John Fruysthorp
 John Ludwell

Main Article

Situated on a hill top some two miles north of the centre of Salisbury, Old Sarum (more correctly, Old Salisbury) consisted, even in the period under review, of no more than a few houses surrounding a royal castle which was already in decay. Although the borough still retained a parish church, its population had so declined that no more than ten residents were available for assessment for the poll tax of 1377. Save only as regards its privilege of returning burgesses to Parliament, Old Sarum was by then little more than a hamlet. Yet it had formerly been of considerable importance. The site itself, rendered defensible by steep slopes on three sides, was a natural fortress, and it had been successively used as such by Iron Age Celts, Romans and Saxons. It is unlikely, however, that any major settlement took root until the troubled times of the early 11th century encouraged the growth of a town. This contained a royal mint and a market, and acquired burghal status before the compilation of the Domesday survey. It was in the century after the Norman Conquest that Old Sarum attained its greatest importance: a strong castle was raised there, and in 1091 the cathedral of the newly created see of Salisbury was built within the outer bailey. As a royal borough, Old Sarum enjoyed several privileges: Henry I granted the burgesses a charter, giving them a guild merchant, freedom from tolls throughout the royal demesnes, and the rights to return royal writs and judge felons; and this charter was confirmed by Henry II. Throughout the 11th and 12th centuries the borough did quite well, although it was never so prosperous as Wilton.2

The catastrophic decline and depopulation of Old Sarum resulted directly from the decision of the bishops of Salisbury to remove their cathedral from the windswept and waterless hill-top town, where, to make matters worse, they and their canons were continually annoyed by the garrison of the castle, to a site on episcopal land by the banks of the Avon. The move was made in 1219, and almost immediately the town of New Salisbury sprang up in the meadows outside the close of the new cathedral. Inevitably the trade of Old Sarum rapidly fell away, and many of its people, attracted not only by the episcopal fairs and markets, but also by the less exposed geographical situation, moved to the new town. Despite efforts to keep the old borough going (including confirmations of privileges and even a grant of a new annual fair), its decline proved irreversible: by the mid 13th century it was being excused taxation because of poverty, and by 1289 its guild merchant had disappeared.3

Little is known about the institutions of Old Sarum. The dominant official, at any rate in earlier times, was the constable of the castle, a position held until 1382 by the sheriff of Wiltshire ex officio. By then, however, the fabric of the castle had so much decayed that it was in use only as a gaol and as the centre of some of the administrative offices of the shrievalty. Thenceforward, the constableship was held by a succession of minor royal servants, who functioned through deputies. The borough did have its own mayor and bailiff, offices which had originated before depopulation became serious, and still survived. Thus John Avery I (then one of the borough’s few residents) enjoyed the title of mayor in 1400, and a namesake of his occupied the post as late as 1453; and in 1423-4 Thomas Mason*, a former mayor of Salisbury, and William Lord, then town clerk of the city, described respectively as ‘mayor and bailiff’ of Old Sarum, sealed documents with the seal of the mayoralty.4

The paucity of local records and the total absence of electoral indentures relating to Old Sarum in our period make it difficult to ascertain what (if any) external influences were brought to bear on the parliamentary elections of the borough. Interest on the part of the constables of the castle or their deputies is not apparent, but the influence of the rich and powerful city of Salisbury may be discerned in the selection in January 1377 of William Lord, the town clerk, in the company of George Joce, a former mayor of the city, in Joce’s second election a year afterwards, and in the return in 1417 of John Noble, who later occupied the mayoralty, too.5 And after 1421 many more Salisbury men were elected at Old Sarum.

Old Sarum sent burgesses to the ‘model’ Parliament of 1295, but thereafter, apart from a single return in 1306, the borough was not again called on to elect representatives until 1361. Old Sarum was then almost completely depopulated, and the deliberate revival of its franchise is, therefore, not easy to explain. Perhaps it was due to a desire on the part of the county authorities to find places in the Commons for those Wiltshire men for whom existing seats did not suffice. The borough is known to have returned burgesses to 18 of the 28 Parliaments which met between 1361 and 1390 (Jan.). But from then until 1421 representation was at best intermittent, for elections appear to have been held only five times during that period—in 1394, 1395, September 1397, April 1414 and 1417. (Whether Old Sarum did in fact make returns on other occasions, or whether, when called upon, failed to respond, we do not know.) From 1421 the place was represented in Parliament on a fairly regular basis throughout the remainder of the 15th century.

Very little is known about the conduct of Old Sarum’s parliamentary elections, but it is safe to assume that these followed the practice of other Wiltshire boroughs. On receipt of a royal writ of summons, the sheriff sent a precept to the chief officers of each borough (in Old Sarum’s case the mayor),6 who made return of the names of those chosen. As no separate indentures of return exist for the Wiltshire boroughs until 1453, it is difficult to say where or by whom the elections at Old Sarum were carried out, but it seems likely that (in the early part of our period at least) they took place in a relic of the borough court, with the electorate consisting of the attenuated community of resident burgesses. It is probable that, as in the 17th century, the right to vote depended on ownership of one of the burgage tenements; the fact that so many non-residents were returned to Parliament after 1414 may therefore be partly due to the acquisition of title to these properties by outsiders.7

A record of no more than nine elections of Old Sarum burgesses survives for the 32 Parliaments of this period, although the missing names of the Members of 1417 are supplied by Prynne. Altogether, despite the large gap in the returns between 1397 and 1414, the identity of 12 MPs is provided. As the difference in character of those returned before and those elected after this hiatus is so marked, it would seem advisable to consider the two groups quite separately. Despite the extreme paucity of residents in the borough of Old Sarum, at least three of the five individuals elected between 1386 and the end of Richard II’s reign (John Avery I, Bartholomew Avery and Walter Upton) did in fact live there, and since the other two (John Chipplegh and Robert Page) cannot now be satisfactorily identified, we may be justified in assuming that they, too, were local men, albeit obscure ones. Resident burgesses certainly filled at least 24 of the 40 available seats between 1361 and 1397. Where those who occupied a further 13 places dwelt has not been discovered, but the remaining three seats were taken by citizens of Salisbury. By far the most experienced parliamentarian of those who sat between 1386 and 1397 was John Avery I, who was returned at least ten times. Moreover, he was re-elected in 1384 (Nov.), 1385, 1388 (Sept.), and 1395. Walter Upton, a member of a family long established in Old Sarum, served in eight Parliaments, including the consecutive assemblies of 1386 and February and September 1388. John Chipplegh was returned six times, including three in a row from 1384 (Apr.) to 1385. Bartholomew Avery (a kinsman of John) made four appearances, three of them consecutively, and Robert Page sat twice. None of these ever represented any other borough. It would seem, therefore, that in the early part of our period, men with some experience of the Lower House were preferred to those with none. But, of course, with such a small population, the choice of suitable representatives must have been a limited one.

The seven individuals known to have been returned for Old Sarum between 1414 and 1421 present a notable contrast with their counterparts from the earlier part of the period. None were resident burgesses, though one, John Fruysthorp, possessed an Exchequer lease of a messuage (possibly a burgage tenement) in Old Sarum at the time of his election. John Noble lived nearby at Salisbury, and William Chesterton not much further away, at Harnham. With the exception of Fruysthorp, a Hertfordshire man, and John Ludwell, whose place of residence has not been discovered, all the rest came from more distant parts of Wiltshire: Henry Bradley from the west, John Giles from All Cannings near Devizes, and Robert Long from South Wraxall, near Bradford-on-Avon. Ludwell was returned to both assemblies of 1421 and Fruysthorp sat in Henry V’s last Parliament and his successor’s first, but no one else appeared more than once for this borough. However, Long subsequently sat once for Calne, five times as a shire knight and, at the end of his career, once for Salisbury; Giles represented Calne twice, Wilton once and Devizes three times; and Ludwell served on one occasion each for Chippenham and Cricklade. It is surely worth noting that each of the last three were returned for Old Sarum before ever being elected for some other constituency.

None of the seven MPs of this later part of the period is known to have held any office in Old Sarum. But John Noble, following his single appearance in the Commons in 1417, served as chamberlain and then mayor of Salisbury, and Robert Long became the bishop of Salisbury’s bailiff in the same city. At least four of the seven (Bradley, Giles, Long and Ludwell) were men of law, from among whom Giles was to act as clerk to the Wiltshire j.p.s for over 20 years, and Long was himself to discharge the duties of a j.p. for the last 25 years of his life. Bradley, Noble and Fruysthorp also served the Crown, but only intermittently: the first two were appointed tax collectors in the county at large, and Fruysthorp as tronager and pesager in the port of Southampton—an office he was holding in 1422 at the time of his second Parliament for Old Sarum. Long had acted as alnager in Somerset before his only election for this borough in 1414, but this was merely the start of a long career in public service, during which he was to be appointed to several royal commissions and as escheator of the joint bailiwick of Hampshire and Wiltshire. He also became the most substantial landowner among the Old Sarum MPs of this period, ending his days in possession of many properties in the western half of Wiltshire, besides other holdings in Berkshire, Hampshire and Somerset. Throughout most of his career Long was a feoffee of the estates of the Hungerford family: indeed, it is probably no coincidence that he was returned for Old Sarum in April 1414 at a time when Sir Walter Hungerford* was sheriff of Wiltshire, especially as his companion, William Chesterton, was another Hungerford servant and executor of the will of Sir Walter’s mother. Perhaps their patron had actively promoted the revival of Old Sarum’s franchise so as to secure seats in the Commons on their behalf, especially as he was to accompany them to the House as a shire knight.

Those returned in and after 1414, therefore, had few distinctive links with Old Sarum, though most had some connexions with the neighbouring city of Salisbury. They were of higher social standing than their predecessors who sat before 1397, being either lawyers and/or lesser gentry of the county, some of them merely using a return to Parliament for Old Sarum as a stepping-stone, or making a convenience of its franchise. A small handful—Long, Giles and Ludwell—seem to have been quite indifferent as to which constituency they represented: it was evidently important to be elected, but any place would do, even Old Sarum.

The tendency of Old Sarum to return only nonresidents continued throughout the 15th century. Of the 19 Members elected between 1422 and 1450, nine lived in Salisbury, one was a Wilton man and four hailed from other parts of Wiltshire. However, as many as four—John Fruysthorp of Hertfordshire, Thomas Hussey II* of Dorset, Robert Spicer of Hampshire and John Sydenham of Somerset—even came from outside the county.