Malmesbury has experienced over its 2,800 year history virtually every form of government. It illustrates wonderfully the interaction of national and local government and, teachers and students alike note, links with the national curriculum at many points.
We, naturally, do not know exactly how or by whom the Iron Age hill fort was run, but anthropological studies suggest there would have been a chief, probably a hereditary position and a social hierarchy. He would most likely have led just his local tribe but it is thought that loose alliances would have been formed with other local groups. Leadership would have extended its grasp on people so by the Iron Age petty kings would be emerging. It is not known how big a part religion played at this time, but if Stonehenge and Avebury have a religious base then it must have been considerable. Certainly the Romans reckoned the druids formidable opposition.
The Romans came in 43AD, defeating the Catuvellauni at the Battle of Medway and taking London. In the years immediately following they conquered the rest of the country. The second legion Augusta, commanded by Flavius Vespasianus, who later became Emperor of Rome, moved westwards conquering the Dubunni and the Durotriges, in whose territory Malmesbury lay. Vespasianus captured 20 hill forts. Was Malmesbury one of them? – We don’t know.
The Romans stayed for 400 years. There seems to have been dual administration. The Roman establishment would have dominant and would have extracted taxes from the populace but much of the routine local government and justice was left in native hands: a two tier system.
With the departure of the Romans in the early fifth century the British were left to fend for themselves again. But over these four centuries the leading British families absorbed much of the Roman way of life and it is believed that an Anglo-Roman life style continued in wealthy families. The pressure of invasion led to a collapse of major units. Maildulph when he came to Malmesbury in the eighth century asked for permission from the garrison. You don’t build and garrison a castle unless there is something you wish to protect; the kingdom of Wessex was emerging and Malmesbury was a frontier town. When Alfred granted the original charter there must have been a civic organisation to receive it independent of the religious community that Aldhelm had built up. This body became known as the commoners and ran the town or borough. The church ran independently. Around them the state grew stronger until Athelstan was able to title himself King of All England. The church independently also grew and internationally too. The pope had direct influence on most of Europe including the English church. This dual governance continued till the Normans came in 1066 and indeed after it. The feudal system that evolved under the Saxons was still there under the Normans. The major change was that the Normans occupied all the high offices both religious and secular, but the system changed little save for increasing control by the king exercised centrally.
But this gradually was being challenged; in 1215, famously at Runnymede, King John was forced by the barons and the church to sign Magna Carta granting rights under law.
Although the Pope annulled it a few months later it marked the start of the transfer of power to the state – a democratic state. In 1285 Malmesbury sent two representatives to Parliament, who were elected by the burgesses of the commoners.
The church was losing political power and the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII from 1536 onwards completed the process; Henry proclaimed himself head of the church. Malmesbury Abbey was surrendered in December 1539.
William Stumpe bought the Abbey and much land in Brinkworth and Rodbourne from the king in 1544 for £1517 – 15s – 2 ½ d. The King’s commissioner in charge of the sale was Sir Edward Baynton. William Stumpe was his deputy and his son James had married Bridget the daughter of Baynton (no comment) William and later his son represented Malmesbury in parliament.
Over the next century parliament prompted by cities and an increasingly affluent merchant class sought a transfer of power from the king to parliament. This struggle culminated in the civil war 1642 -1646. This was a turbulent time for the town; it changed sides six times from roundhead to cavalier.
The town meanwhile had been under the control of the Commoners or Freemen although this was at times contested. In 1609 the High Court of Chancery intervened to establish the hierarchy of the commoners and introduced some order. In 1635 King Charles I through another charter incorporated the borough, installed a High Steward and Alderman. These last two were to be justices of the peace. This system, ratified by more charters, continued until 1886. It became increasingly corrupt particularly in the return of M.P.s; 2 M.P.s from 13 electors. Bribery was rife. Sir Charles Forbes in the 1820s is reputed to have paid 12,000 guineas for the seat, Inflation had set in a hundred years earlier £525 would have done! Malmesbury was one of the worst rotten boroughs.
“even in the County of Wiltshire, where there are so many sinks of impurity and corruption, the Borough of Malmesbury stands pre-eminent” R Gordon, M.P. for Cricklade in 1831.
The first reform act of 1830 omitted one M.P. but Malmesbury was removed in 1835 from the list of boroughs to be reformed and it was not until 1883 that further reform swept away the last Malmesbury M.P. and replaced the commoners with a borough council with a mayor, aldermen and elected councillors. This system with its local control and accountability served the town well until local government reform in 1972 transferred power to North Wiltshire District Council leaving Malmesbury with a Town Council and limited power.
This is thought to need change in under half the time the old system lasted and in 2009 was replaced by a unitary authority – Wiltshire Council.
More information about the Old Corporation, The Warden and Freemen of Malmesbury and the Commoners can be found on their website – Warden and Freemen of Malmesbury
The Story of the Old Corporation
Around 934 AD King Athelstan granted to the freemen of Malmesbury five hides (about 500 acres) “of land near my vill of Norton on account of their assistance in my struggle against the Danes.” This seems to have been for general use and was controlled by the burgesses or citizens of Malmesbury.
These burgesses sent two representatives to Edward I’s Long Parliament in 1295 and continued to send representatives to most of the subsequent parliaments.
In the chaos following the dissolution of Malmesbury abbey the burgesses continued to exert some influence and even gained some property, St John’s Hospital. The High Court of Chancery in 1609 formalised the situation. There were to be thirteen capital burgesses; they would vote for the two parliamentary members. They had to maintain a free school and almshouses. The groups of assistant burgesses and landholders were created along with commoners and their rights established.
There then followed three charters; the first granted by Charles I added a High Steward, a man of law, to the hierarchy. James II in a charter of 1685 attempted to gain royal control over the borough; this was nullified by the events of 1688 and in 1696 William III reaffirmed the charter of 1635 and the constitution of the town was settled.
However by the beginning of the nineteenth century the bribery and corruption in the parliamentary elections was scandalous. Edmund Wilkins, the High Steward at the turn of the century placed £50, more than most would earn in a year, under the plate of each capital burgess at the annual feast. He then ‘sold’ the seat. Malmesbury was a rotten borough; it was said “Even in the county of Wiltshire where there are so many sinks of impurity and corruption, the Borough of Malmesbury stands pre-eminent.”
The Great Reform Act of 1832 was designed to sweep this away; however under the municipal Reform Act of 1835 Malmesbury retained one M.P. and it wasn’t until the reform act of 1886 that something akin to the present arrangement pertained. At this point the Old Corporation lost its control of town affairs and these were vested in the elected council of the borough. This stayed unchanged until local government reform in 1972 introduced North Wiltshire District Council (NWDC) and demoted the borough council to the status of parish council. In 2009 NWDC and other local authorities merge with Wiltshire County Council to become a unitary authority.
Members of the Old Corporation, the Warden and Freemen, are all commoners. They receive equal shares in profits from their land on Malmesbury Common or King’s Heath. The maximum number of commoners is 260, which is the number of allotments laid down in the enclosure Act of 1822.
Commoners had to be married men, householders and to live within the Malmesbury area. They also had to be the son or son-in-law of a commoner.
If any generation failed to take up their rights they were forfeited forever. However this rule was dropped in 1990s and in 2000 the rules were changed again to allow women equal rights. The qualifications now are to be over eighteen, to be able to prove ancestry and to live within the boundaries of Malmesbury.
King Athelstan granted the land in around 934AD. If the rules had been strictly applied since then, this means that there are in Malmesbury today nearly 260 people whose ancestry stretches back over a thousand years, who have never left Malmesbury.
Warden and Freemen of Malmesbury
Warden and Freemen is another title for the Old Corporation. There are nearly 260 Commoners, the lowest in order of seniority. From the commoners, inheriting ’dead men’s shoes’ thirty-one landholders are established; they are divided into six ‘hundreds’ – Taylors, Fishers, Glovers, Coxfoot, David’s Loynes and Thornhill.
From these landholders are elected twenty-four assistant burgesses, and in turn from the assistant burgesses the most senior rank, the capital burgesses are elected. There are thirteen of them.
Each rank enjoys differing profit shares and has different privileges.
A commoner once accepted undergoes an initiation ceremony. A shallow hole is prepared into which the new commoner places a silver coin. The following words are said:
“Turf and twig I give to thee
As King Athelstan gave to me
A good brother thou shalt be”
The incomer is then struck thrice with a twig across their back and the coin removed.