Old Sarum


Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, ed. D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley, 2002
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Background Information

Right of Election:

in the burgage holders

Number of Qualified Electors:


Number of voters:

10 in 1705


10 May 1705ROBERT PITT 
  Double return of Mompesson and Visct. Grandison. MOMPESSON declared elected, 11 Dec. 1705 
6 Oct. 1710THOMAS PITT 
28 Aug. 1713THOMAS PITT 

Main Article

By this time quite uninhabited, Old Sarum was the archetype of the ‘decayed’ borough: ‘it may be truly said of it, that “corn grows now where Troy town stood”’. Elections were held under the ‘parliamentary tree’ in the ‘electing acre’, the field ‘where the last houses are supposed to have stood’. By the Revolution the burgages had come to be concentrated in a few hands, and the electorate, which in 1660 had numbered over 50, had shrunk to about a dozen. Title to the castle and some of the surrounding meadows, where the burgages lay, was still in 1690 vested in the trustees under the will of the 2nd Earl of Salisbury, but the leading interests belonged to Sir Thomas Mompesson, who had leased some of his burgage lands from Salisbury, and Sir Eliab Harvey*. In 1686, however, Thomas Pitt I had taken a lease of Mawarden Court, which conveyed the right to appoint the bailiff of the manor, traditionally the returning officer, and in the election to the Convention he had mounted a challenge ‘according to the ancient law and custom of the borough’. This meant, among other things, that the bailiff should make the return, but when Pitt and a friend were returned on an indenture signed by the bailiff, the House set it aside, determining that the right of election was in the burgage holders, and at the by-election Mompesson and Harvey’s son William were returned on an indenture signed by six ‘burgators’. In 1690 Pitt did not offer a contest. Within two years, however, he had bought Salisbury’s estate outright, for £1,000, and in 1695, during a brief interlude back in England, he was returned unopposed along with William Harvey I. Mompesson had transferred to the borough of Salisbury, hoping in vain to be able to ‘bring in a friend at Old Sarum’. His son Charles recovered the seat in 1698, in Pitt’s renewed absence, probably through the creation of a number of faggot votes and the exclusion of the bailiff from playing any part in the return. That these things had happened is clear from the response of Pitt’s wife to a proposal made on Harvey’s behalf in December 1700 by Sir Stephen Evance*, of ‘Mr Harvey’s being chosen at Old Sarum in case Mr Pitt be not put up’. Mrs Pitt gave a resolute, almost pugnacious, reply:

I can promise, upon Mr Pitt’s interest, that he [Harvey] shall be chose without opposition, upon condition that you will be his godfather and promise three things in his name, which he being of age must sign to himself: first, that he will renounce the [devil] and all his works, that is all the false or new-made voices, and be chose in the legal, old way; secondly, that he will not oppose Mr Pitt’s right in making the return by his deputy, both which if he refuses the majority of the borough will oppose him as a common enemy and an intruder upon their ancient rights and privileges; and lastly that as he promised to Sir Edward Seymour [4th Bt.*] and you, that he will resign his interest to Mr Pitt when he comes home, all which if he signify in a letter to me, to satisfy them here that I am not going to do anything against Mr Pitt’s interest, then, whether Mr Harvey be absent or present, he shall be fairly chose and returned; this I promise and have it in my power to fulfil . . . but, without a jest, if Mr Harvey will not promise these things he’ll be opposed with more vigour than ever he was yet, Mr Pitt having more interest now than ever he had.

For all this bluster, Harvey and Mompesson were re-elected in January 1701, and again in November, after Mrs Pitt had refused a further offer, from one Ridout, of some 600 guineas ‘for her interest . . . for two honest gentlemen that want to be nameless’. She may in the end have been unduly influenced by Evance, who was said to be her ‘grand manager’. The two outgoing Members, each of whom had by now succeeded his father, were ‘chosen by the old voices only’, Pitt was told, ‘except Mr Thompson who pretends to a vote for the tithe of the boroughland, and has been admitted these three last elections by the means of Sir E[liab] H[arvey]’. Over the winter of 1701–2 Pitt purchased more burgages, using Ridout as an intermediary, much to Mrs Pitt’s annoyance. But it did him no good in the 1702 election when, his informant wrote, ‘none of your party’ attended the election.3

After 1702 the management of Pitt’s interest at Old Sarum seems to have devolved upon his son Robert, who was able to report in December 1703:

The borough of Old Sarum has been very much abused, but Mr Harvey and Mr Mompesson have promised me to stand by none but the legal voices at the next election. It is hard to trust them, but I have secured an interest for myself that nothing can shake, unless some stranger steps into Phillips’ estate, which is for sale. He has promised me the refusal of it, and it is worth £200 or £300 more to you than anyone else, for to lose his voices, which you have always had, would be a prodigious diminution of your interest.

Phillips’ ‘garden’ was duly acquired, and plans were laid to ensure that the bailiff would be able to make the return, by securing the writ ‘through cousin Pitt in Chancery, or some other interest with the lord keeper [Sir Nathan Wright]’. This proved unworkable, as Robert explained: ‘the . . . lord keeper would have assisted me in gaining the precept, only that a recent Act of Parliament has transferred his power in that respect to the sheriff’. The Pitts were able to frighten off one of their opponents, however. Harvey and Mompesson agreed that ‘one of them shall retire from the representation of Old Sarum’ in Robert Pitt’s favour, and it was Harvey who left, to be returned for Appleby. The concordat did not quite last to the next general election, in 1705. According to Robert Pitt, Mompesson, at the instigation of Harvey, let it be known that he would oppose Pitt’s ‘right of bailiwick’, and in retaliation Robert ‘set up’ his brother-in-law Lord Grandison. While Robert Pitt’s election was ‘unanimous’ and undisputed, Mompesson and Grandison tied for second place and so the bailiff, who had managed to get hold of the precept after all, made a double return. Rival petitions were presented to the House, and Mompesson’s counsel pressed their objection to the participation of the bailiff when the two cross-petitions were heard in committee. On the other side, Grandison’s counsel admitted that the return should be made by the ‘burgators’ but insisted that the precept ought rightly to go to the bailiff as ‘the computer of the votes’, and this seems to have been the interpretation that both the committee and the House endorsed. Although Mompesson was declared elected, ‘through superior party influence’, the judgment was given on the grounds of individual voting qualifications, and Robert Pitt was able to claim that the ‘bailiwick, by means of the contest, is now settled by the House of Commons’. Robert had achieved his own ‘unanimous’ election at a cost which outraged his father. ‘When I hear in what manner you went down to Old Sarum against the election’, he fumed, ‘sent a man cook sometime before, coach and six, five or six in liveries, open house for three or four months, and put me to about £500 charge. Where was the need of this? It never cost me above £10, which was for a dinner the day of the election.’ There may have been some truth in these complaints, but the fact remained that Robert Pitt had now secured the family interest in a way his mother had never been able to do. On 3 Jan. 1708 Pitt wrote to his father that Mompesson, ‘had been non-suited in three actions arising out of the last election, at a cost to him of near £300 . . . He will retire at the next election.’ Following his withdrawal Robert Pitt was able to force an acknowledgment from Harvey of the ‘right of bailiwick’ in exchange for ‘accepting’ him ‘as a colleague’. This time, he wrote, ‘Mr Harvey and I were chosen . . . nemine contradicente, by the old, legal votes; and the return was made by . . . [the] bailiff, without demur on the part of the sheriffs or anyone else; so that matter is now fixed.’ Thomas Pitt came back from India in 1709, completed his control of the borough the following year by purchasing burgage lands from the Harveys, and in the 1710 election was returned with William Harvey’s son. In 1713, having established himself as a leading light among the Hanoverian Tories, Pitt evidently entertained the possibility of putting in the Whig James Stanhope* at Old Sarum, but family considerations prevailed. He ‘preferred his own flesh and blood’ and brought back Robert, a hotter Tory, who had been ousted at Salisbury.4

Author: D. W. Hayton


  • 1. Bodl. Willis 15, f. 82; VCH Wilts, vi. 66067,
  • 2. HMC Fortescue, i. 16–17.
  • 3. Willis 15, ff. 81–82; J. Macky, Journey through Eng. (1714–29), ii. 42; Defoe, Tour ed. Cole, 188; J. H. Plumb, Pol. Stability, 141; J. Toland, The Art of Governing by Partys (1701), 75; The Freeholder’s Plea against Stock-Jobbing Elections of Parliament-Men (1701), 18; VCH Wilts. 66–67; Hist. Old Sarum and Salisbury (1834), 63; Hants RO, Jervoise mss, P. Terry to [Thomas Jervoise*], 4 Sept. 1695; C110/228, Mrs Jane Pitt to Sir Stephen Evance, 8 Dec. 1700; Add. 22851, ff. 50, 62, 79, 163–7; 22852, f. 24.
  • 4. HMC Fortescue, i. 8, 12, 13, 16–17, 24, 34, 38; Bagot mss at Levens Hall, William Harvey I to James Grahme*, 28 Apr. 1703; Cam. Misc. xxiii. 38; VCH Wilts. v. 210; Churchill Coll. Camb. Erle mss 2/12, James Craggs I* to Thomas Erle*, 21 Sept. 1713; Jervoise mss, Mr Harris to Thomas Jervoise, 30 Oct. 1713.