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The word ‘borough’ (‘burgh’ in Scotland) has caused endless confusion. The Old English (Anglo‐Saxon) terms burg, burh, and byrig were used originally for fortified places. By 1086, however, Domesday Book was using the word, in its Latin form burgus, to mean ‘town’, and was referring to its inhabitants as burgenses (burgesses). 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, for a money rent. In the 13th cent. the larger towns developed rules to define who were ‘free burgesses’, 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.

Between the 13th and 17th cents., as many towns acquired privileges, ‘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, especially after 1334. Finally, sheriffs in the 13th and 14th cents. had to choose which places in their counties were to be represented in parliaments: these are often called ‘parliamentary boroughs’. 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, but a few places without chartered privileges were parliamentary boroughs (e.g. Gatton), while some important and growing towns were not represented in Parliament (e.g. Birmingham and Manchester).

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, such as Birmingham and Manchester, were incorporated as boroughs in 1838.

Subjects: British History.

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