Old Sarum


Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1604-1629, ed. Andrew Thrush and John P. Ferris, 2010
Available from Cambridge University Press

Background Information

Right of Election:

in the burgage-holders

Number of voters:

11 in 1626


23 Dec. 1620GEORGE MYNNE
22 Jan. 16242(SIR) ARTHUR INGRAM
12 Mar. 16243SIR ROBERT COTTON , (bt.) vice Ingram, chose to sit for York

Main Article

Old Sarum was an ancient hill-fort known to the Romans as Sorbiodunum. A military refuge for the residents of nearby Wilton during Saxon times, a mint was established there by the late tenth century. After the Conquest a royal castle was constructed, to which William I famously summoned all the landowners of England to swear fealty to him in 1086. A cathedral was built inside the walls following the creation of the diocese of Sarum in 1075, and this in turn encouraged the development of a town. A market existed by 1130, and Henry I granted a charter around the same time. However, decline set in after Bishop Poore moved his episcopal seat to Salisbury in 1220, and although a new charter was secured in 1229, the town never recovered from this setback. The municipal offices of mayor and bailiff were recorded as late as the 1420s, but by now the castle was crumbling into ruins, and within decades the whole site was deserted. By the early seventeenth century, nothing remained within the old ramparts except a rabbit warren.4

Old Sarum first returned Members to Parliament in 1295, finally achieving regular representation in the early fifteenth century, not long before the town itself ceased to exist. In the absence of actual inhabitants, the franchise descended to the owners of the final vestiges of settlement, a handful of burgage tenements in the vicinity of the old castle. With no borough officers, the sheriff was obliged to deal directly with one or more of these burgesses. The format of the returns varied from one election to the next during this period, the majority being in English but with Latin employed in 1620 and 1626. The indentures normally referred simply to ‘the burgesses’ of Old Sarum, but the phrasing ‘burgesses and electors of the burgesses’ was adopted in 1604, while in 1625 the form used was ‘freeholders and burgesses’. The usual practice was apparently for all the participating voters to sign the indentures, and in the later 1620s their names were also listed as part of the text. With fewer than a dozen electors, and no meaningful community for the two Members to represent, the borough had already achieved notoriety by this period, and in 1624 James I refused to contemplate the creation of new constituencies in county Durham unless Old Sarum was disenfranchised and its seats reallocated elsewhere.5

Since the mid-sixteenth century the dominant electoral patrons of Old Sarum had been the powerful Herbert earls of Pembroke, who not only lived just three miles away at Wilton House, but also leased the manor of Milford, directly adjacent to the borough.6 This pattern was maintained in 1604, when the 3rd earl successfully nominated his servant Edward Leech, and William Ravenscroft, a Chancery official probably recommended to Pembroke by lord chancellor Ellesmere (Sir Thomas Egerton†).7 In 1614, however, Pembroke’s monopoly was challenged by the 2nd earl of Salisbury (William Cecil, Viscount Cranborne*), who now owned the freehold of Old Sarum castle and borough. On 17 Feb. Pembroke wrote to the burgesses as usual, nominating Ravenscroft again, but pairing him this time with William Price, one of his Welsh land agents. Meanwhile, one of the burgesses, Henry Sherfield*, an up-and-coming lawyer, had contacted Salisbury’s receiver-general, Thomas Brett*, offering to make at least one seat available to the earl. Brett conveyed this message to Salisbury, who promptly recommended him to the borough. On this occasion Pembroke maintained his hold over the borough, which duly returned Ravenscroft and Price. Nevertheless, Salisbury had now been alerted to a possible interest at Old Sarum, and moved to consolidate his position. Sherfield, who was clearly willing to act as his local agent, was made sub-tenant of the castle site in May 1614, and steward of the earl’s Wiltshire lands three years later.8

In November 1620, with fresh elections imminent, Brett again successfully approached Salisbury for a nomination. However, Pembroke was no more willing than before to accommodate a rival patron, and when Salisbury requested Sherfield to mobilize support for him, the lawyer initially declined, hinting that Pembroke had threatened him. Undeterred, Salisbury sought legal advice, establishing to his own satisfaction that the right of election at Old Sarum actually belonged to him personally, rather than to the burgesses. He evidently communicated this opinion to Pembroke, who replied on 10 Dec. in outraged tones:

I cannot conceive how you can claim any right … The dwellers of that borough have ever since my memory showed their respect to my father and myself in choosing those … whom we have recommended unto them. Neither do I understand why your lordship’s having the castle, or rather the stones, should make it a matter of right. If out of their respect to you they will choose whom you have recommended, I shall not take it unkindly; and if they will continue their former respect to me, in doing as they have done these threescore years, I know not why I may not receive it without wrong to you.

Salisbury responded by forcing the issue. A week later he wrote again to Sherfield, instructing him to inform the other burgesses that while, as owner of Old Sarum, he was legally entitled to determine the election by himself, he was prepared to allow the customary forms to continue, providing that both of his nominees were accepted. This message had the desired effect, and the voters returned Brett and George Mynne, clerk of the hanaper, whose brother-in-law, (Sir) George Calvert*, may have introduced him to Salisbury.9

Far from settling the issue, this outcome merely spurred Pembroke to reassert his customary influence. In real terms his local strength far outweighed Salisbury’s alleged rights at Old Sarum. Sherfield clearly recognized this, and when the next Parliament was summoned he invited Pembroke to make one nomination, the earl’s choice falling on his secretary, Michael Oldisworth.10 Salisbury perhaps suspected Sherfield of double-dealing, for he made a direct approach to another of the prominent Old Sarum burgesses, Thomas Hooper, reminding him that the borough had returned both of his nominees at the previous election, and seeking his assistance in achieving the same success this time.11 However, this intervention came too late. On 14 Jan. 1624 the under-sheriff, John Puxton*, requested Sherfield ‘to send down the indentures for the burgesses for Old Sarum’; by now, Pembroke had formally nominated Oldisworth, and Puxton merely wished to know who Salisbury would be recommending for the remaining vacancy. When the election was held eight days later, the second seat went to a long-standing Cecil client, Sir Arthur Ingram, and after he opted to sit for York he was replaced by Sir Robert Cotton, presumably also on Salisbury’s nomination.12

Relations between Sherfield and Salisbury were now deteriorating, and in late 1624 the earl dismissed Sherfield’s brother, who had been working as his deputy-steward in Wiltshire.13 Not surprisingly, when the next parliamentary elections were called, Salisbury found Sherfield even less co-operative than before, and on 12 Apr. 1625 he berated him for his disloyalty:

I cannot but remember that I have more than once heard you say that you had so settled your lands within the borough of Old Sarum that you had half the voices (at least) at your own command … so that none … without your consent is likely to have either of those places. But now I perceive by your letter that you make it doubtful (in regard of some other voices) that if you should insist upon both for me, you may be in danger to lose both, and to incur the displeasure of some great ones, who have sent unto you about them.14

Now convinced that Sherfield could not be trusted, Salisbury again approached Hooper. However, the latter merely confirmed that, while he could offer the earl two votes, his own and one other, ‘all the rest … are wholly at Mr. Sherfield’s command, who hath … of late made choice of whomsoever it pleased him’. Hooper optimistically predicted that Salisbury’s nominees were bound to be accepted, but in the event the voters handed both seats to Pembroke clients, Oldisworth and Sir John Stradling.15

Salisbury and Sherfield effectively parted company following this deb√Ęcle, but the latter remained sub-tenant of Old Sarum, the role that allowed him to act as arbiter in elections. As Hooper explained in January 1626 to Salisbury’s receiver-general, Christopher Keighley*, Sherfield had exploited his power to make new freeholders within the borough, thereby multiplying the number of voters under his control. As things now stood, four of the burgesses were Pembroke’s officers, while Salisbury might be able to call on Hooper, his brother, and another of the earl’s tenants, a Mr. Servington. However, the remaining four burgess-ships belonged to Sherfield’s relatives, which meant that he held the balance of power. As Hooper observed, even if Salisbury solicited Sherfield’s support, ‘it had been all in vain, as … it was in the last election’. He therefore recommended that the earl negotiate directly with Pembroke, as the only practical means of securing a seat.16 This clearly did not happen at the 1626 election, when Pembroke successfully nominated both Oldisworth and another of his principal clients, Sir Benjamin Rudyard. However, the rival patrons apparently reached an accommodation in 1628. Pembroke as usual secured the first seat for Oldisworth, but the second went to Keighley, although this was not quite what Salisbury had intended. The decision to elect the earl’s receiver was taken locally, and Keighley wrote in some agitation to Hooper that he would have preferred not to be awarded this place, ‘in regard my lord had appointed it for another’. Precisely why the voters used their own initiative in this way has not been established.17

Authors: Henry Lancaster / Paul Hunneyball


  • 1. Hants RO, 44M69/L4/3.
  • 2. Ibid. 44M69/G2/48.
  • 3. Harl. 354, f. 86v.
  • 4. R.C. Hoare, Hist. Modern Wilts. iv. (Salisbury), 1, 3; VCH Wilts. vi. 52-3, 58-60, 62-3; Anglo-Saxon Chronicle ed. D. Whitelock, 162; Hants RO, 44M69/L4/9.
  • 5. OR; VCH Wilts. vi. 66; Hants RO, 44M69/L4/4; C219/35/2/126; 219/37/288; 219/39/226; 219/40/95; 219/41B/65; HMC Hatfield, xxiv. 263-4; CSP Dom. 1623-5, p. 266.
  • 6. HP Commons, 1509-58, i. 229; 1558-1603, i. 276.
  • 7. C66/1691, m. 9; T.D. Hardy, Chancery Officials, 127; Dwnn, Vis. Wales ed. S.R. Meyrick, ii. 315-16.
  • 8. VCH Wilts. vi. 65; Hants RO, 44M69/L2/1; L4/1-2, 9; Glam. Co. Hist. ed. G. Williams, v. 165, 173; L. Stone, Fam. and Fortune, 130; HMC Hatfield, xxii. 135.
  • 9. HMC Hatfield, xxii. 102, 135-6; xxiv. 262; Hants RO, 44M69/L4/5; 44M69/L33/22; CSP Dom. 1623-5, p. 87.
  • 10. Arundel, Autograph Letters 1617-32, no. 261; CSP Dom. 1623-5, p. 233.
  • 11. HMC Hatfield, xxiv. 262 (undated letter misassigned to Jan. 1626).
  • 12. Hants RO, 44M69/L37/26; L. Stone, ‘Electoral Influence of 2nd Earl of Salisbury’, EHR, lxxi. 396.
  • 13. HMC Hatfield, xxii. 20.
  • 14. Hants RO, 44M69/L4/7 (a draft of this letter is calendared in HMC Hatfield, xxiv. 263, but misdated to c.Jan. 1626, and with incorrect authorship).
  • 15. HMC Hatfield, xxiv. 261; V.A. Rowe, ‘Influence of the Earls of Pembroke on Parl. Elections’, EHR, l. 243; L. Bowen, Politics of the Principality, 15.
  • 16. HMC Hatfield, xxiv. 263-4; Stone, ‘Electoral Influence’, 398-9.
  • 17. J.K. Gruenfelder, Influence in Early Stuart Elections, 128; HMC Hatfield, xxii. 229.