The Story of the Old Corporation

cartoon of the old corporationAround 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.