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- This windswept hilltop is Old Sarum in Wiltshire.
It's an enormous Iron Age hillfort
and... you know what? Actually, the best way to see it
is not from down here.
This is one of the most important historical sites in Southern England.
An Iron Age fortification from more than 2000 years ago.
Then in the 11th century, a castle was built for William the Conqueror
and the Catholic church built a cathedral here.
You can see the foundations of all those surviving centuries later.
This was a thriving bit of England.
But it fell from grace.
There's a lot of complicated reasons why, but one of the main ones is:
a windswept hilltop is a terrible place for a cathedral.
- Much as that looks impressive
and you can dominate a landscape
that brings a number of problems with it.
Supplies of water from wells were just not adequate
to support a large population.
Even to the extent that they actually needed to buy
the water that they needed to drink.
When the weather isn't good,
the wind is blowing over, the rain is coming at you,
when thunderstorms are going, it's a very, very bad place.
- As well as that, the local bishop, Roger,
fell out with the new king Stephen,
and that's in a period of history
when "falling out with the king" was very serious indeed.
- Bishop Roger falls out with the king.
He falls out with pretty much everyone.
That is the price you pay for being active within politics and within religion
and he plays the game at very high levels.
And he does come crashing down.
There's also an institutional problem.
The king's men in the castle and the bishop's men around the cathedral,
you get a few references to conflict there
where, for example, a procession of clergy was stopped
by some of the king's soldiers behaving churlishly.
They would easily go, look, we don't want anymore of this.
Begging the pope to release them from all of this,
and the pope saying absolutely,
you can have somewhere that will be all your own, down at the bottom.
And giving them licence for it.
- So the clergy moved a couple of miles away to a new cathedral,
in a place that would eventually become known as Salisbury.
The buildings here started to fall into disrepair
and the once-busy town declined and declined and declined.
But despite that, for some reason, the landowners of Old Sarum
were invited to send two representatives to Parliament.
This was the 14th century, now,
when the rules of Parliament were still being written.
And the reason why they were invited is...
a bit of a mystery.
- Historians still aren't sure.
One of the things that modern archaeology is starting to tell us quite a bit about
is whether there was stuff going on outside the hillfort on lower ground
that we don't know about,
that's nearer in to Old Sarum than the new city of Salisbury.
There's a fairly strong likelihood
that while the hillfort itself had been abandoned
there was a bit more settlement further down.
And probably in the later middle ages
it wouldn't have been regarded as such a complete nonsense
of two MPs being elected for a place with no population at all.
- So this hill had two members of Parliament.
And that didn't change for centuries.
It didn't change as the population dwindled,
it didn't change when King Henry VIII
signed over possession of all the buildings
to a local official who ordered them dismantled
and used for building material.
By the 17th century, no one lived here.
But you didn't have to live here to vote.
Anyone who was nominated by the landowner
as being one of the tenants in this area,
that was enough.
And of course they voted for the person who'd nominated them.
So this hill became a rotten borough.
If you owned the land, then you and a friend,
or whichever two people you chose, had seats in Parliament.
Representing basically just yourself.
And if you were particularly rich and well connected
you might own a couple of other boroughs nearby
which would elect your friends.
Meanwhile, places like the city of Manchester
eventually growing to a quarter of a million people
had no one representing them at all.
For centuries.
By the 19th century, it was clear that something had to be done,
but how do you change something like that?
How do you convince people with power to give up that power?
Public outrage. Radicals. Protests, including one where 60,000 people
were attacked by the military
which came to be known as the Peterloo Massacre.
In May 1832, riots broke out
when the third attempt at a reform bill was blocked in Parliament.
And Britain likely came close to revolution.
After all, the French Revolution
was still very much in, uh, living memory then.
In short, the reformers won.
And historians can argue about how much of that
was political wrangling by the people who gained power,
and how much of that was the very real threat of violent revolution.
When the dust settled, the law was changed,
the rotten boroughs were abolished,
and there were 130 new seats in Parliament.
Voting was still only for men with land or money though.
It took until 1918 for that to become "all men and some women",
and it was 1928 before it was "all adults".
These days parliamentary boundaries
are drawn by an independent group based on population.
This hill is managed by a charity called English Heritage,
and one Member of Parliament for Salisbury represents this whole area
and the roughly 70,000 people who live in it.
It's important to remember that history is fractal.
You could spend days or years or a lifetime
studying everything that happened over those few days in 1832.
Or you could sum up centuries in a few minutes.
But there's one thing that Old Sarum shows very clearly,
it is extremely difficult to convince people with power
to give it up willingly.
Thanks to English Heritage for letting me film at Old Sarum,
you can find out more about them and about visiting here on their website.
The link is in the description.