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boroughs

boroughs. The word ‘borough’ (‘burgh’ in Scotland) has caused endless confusion in British history through its changing meanings and through its relationship to other terms for urban settlements. The Old English (Anglo-Saxon) terms burg, burh, and byrig were used originally for fortified places, including villages and royal halls. By 1086, however, Domesday Book was using the word, in its Latin form burgus, to mean ‘town’, whether fortified or not, and was referring to its inhabitants as burgenses (burgesses), or at least to those who paid their share of borough dues. In the 12th cent. burgage tenure came to be seen as the normal characteristic of an English borough: each burgess held a burgage, usually a house with little other land, for a money rent. In the 13th cent. the larger towns developed rules to define who were ‘free burgesses’ (or, in cathedral towns, citizens), and to ensure that burgesses, the only townspeople with political rights, were defined as those who were sons (or sometimes widows or daughters) of burgesses, who had served an apprenticeship, or had paid a fee. These rules were enforced in many towns until the 17th and 18th cents., ensuring that a restricted proportion of the urban population (mostly male) were the only ones who could run businesses and elect municipal officials and councillors.

Between the 13th and 17th cents., as many towns grew in importance and acquired privileges from the crown or from their lords, ‘borough’ developed multiple meanings. From the late 13th cent. royal officials tended to confine the word ‘borough’ to the more privileged urban places, and to distinguish certain boroughs as having separate juries for the administration of justice; they have been called ‘juridical boroughs’. Others, not always the same, have been termed ‘taxation boroughs’ because they paid royal taxes at different rates from other towns and rural settlements, especially after 1334. Finally, sheriffs in the 13th and 14th cents. had to choose which places in their counties were suited to be represented in parliaments: these are often called ‘parliamentary boroughs’, though the concept is a later one. By the 16th and 17th cents. ‘borough’ was being used chiefly in two senses: as a legally corporate town, usually with privileges granted by royal charters, and as a town which sent members (‘burgesses’) to Parliament. Most important towns were both by the 17th cent., but a few places without chartered privileges were parliamentary boroughs (e.g. Gatton), while some important and growing towns were not represented in Parliament, and either had no borough privileges, or had lost them after having enjoyed them in the Middle Ages (e.g. Birmingham and Manchester).

The problem had become one of fossilized and self-perpetuating rights: the crown could create new boroughs in both senses, but rarely chose to disfranchise those old boroughs which had ceased to be important. Furthermore, corporate boroughs often changed their regulations to ensure self-perpetuating and unelected bodies of aldermen and councillors, while the crown was concerned to ensure that they also returned conformist members of Parliament. After the Restoration commissioners appointed under the Corporation Act remodelled many urban corporations, and many more were remodelled by new charters imposed by the government in 1681–8. These charters were cancelled after the revolution of 1688, which reintroduced the old system in all its variety, and it remained intact throughout the 18th cent. while the anomalies between boroughs and other towns became more glaring.

Modern boroughs begin with the 1830s. The 1832 Reform Act revised the parliamentary franchise, both in terms of which boroughs were represented and of who was entitled to vote. In 1835 the Municipal Corporations Act dissolved the corporations of nearly 200 boroughs, and replaced them by councils elected by ratepayers. New places were incorporated as boroughs, such as Birmingham and Manchester in 1838. Successive Acts since the 1830s have continued to revise the numbers and areas of boroughs in both senses, and in 1888–9 many larger boroughs or burghs were excluded from the new county councils and made all-purpose authorities (county boroughs in England and Wales, counties of cities in Scotland). Since the 1974–5 reorganizations of British local government, the title ‘borough’ has also been applied to some districts which are more rural than urban (e.g. east Yorkshire and north Bedfordshire). The semantic confusions of the word clearly continue.

David M. Palliser

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