Laws in Wales Acts 1535-1542
The Laws in Wales Acts 1535–1542 were a series of parliamentary measures by which the legal system of Wales was annexed to England and the norms of English administration introduced in order to create a single state and a single legal jurisdiction, which is frequently referred to as England and Wales. The Acts refer in particular to two Acts of Parliament passed in 1536 and 1543 during the reign of King Henry VIII of England, who came from the Welsh Tudor dynasty.
From when North Wales was conquered in 1282–1283 until the passing of the Laws in Wales Acts in 1535–1542, the administrative system of Wales had remained unchanged. By the Statute of Rhuddlan in 1284 the territory of the native Welsh rulers had been broken up into the five counties of Anglesey, Caernarfon, Cardigan, Carmarthen, and Merioneth. Even though the five counties were subject to English criminal law, the 'Principality' was the king of England's own personal fief and Welsh law continued to be used for civil cases. The rest of Wales, except for the county of Flint, which was part of the Principality, and the Royal lordships of Glamorgan and Pembroke, was made up of numerous small lordships, each with its own courts, laws and other customs.
When Henry VII came to the throne in 1485 no change was made to the system of governing the country. But he remained concerned about the power of the Marcher Lords and the lawlessness and disorder in the Marcher country of Wales. To deal with this there was a revival of the Council of Wales and the Marches, which had been established in the reign of Edward IV. After the deaths of many of the Marcher lords during the Wars of the Roses, many of the lordships had passed into the hands of the crown.
Henry VIII did not see the need to reform the government of Wales at the beginning of his reign, but gradually he perceived a threat from some of the remaining Marcher lords and therefore instructed his chief administrator, Thomas Cromwell, to seek a solution. His solution was the annexation or incorporation of Wales which, along with other significant changes at the same time, led to the creation of England as a modern sovereign state.
The Acts have been known as the "Acts of Union", but they were not popularly referred to as such until 1901, when historian Owen M. Edwards assigned them that name — a name which is misleading as the Acts were concerned with harmonising laws, not political union.
This harmonisation was done by passing a series of measures between 1536 and 1543. These included:-
- An act for laws and justice to be ministered in Wales in like form as it is in this realm (27 Henry VIII c. 26), passed in 1536, and
- An act for certain ordinances in the king's dominion and principality of Wales (34 and 35 Henry VIII c. 26), passed in 1543.
The first of these Acts was passed by a Parliament that had no representatives from Wales. Its effect was to extend English law into the Marches and provide that Wales had representation in future Parliaments.
Effects of the Acts
These Acts also had the following effects on the administration of Wales:-
- The marcher lordships were abolished as political units and five new counties (Monmouthshire, Brecknockshire, Radnorshire, Montgomeryshire and Denbighshire) were established, thus creating a Wales of 13 counties;
- Other areas of the lordships were annexed to Shropshire, Herefordshire, Gloucestershire, Glamorgan, Carmarthenshire, Pembrokeshire, Cardiganshire and Merionethshire
- The borders of Wales were established and have remained the same since; this was unintentional as Wales was to be incorporated fully into England, but the status of Monmouthshire was still ambiguous until 1968;
- The courts of the marcher lordships lost the power to try serious criminal cases;
- The office of Justice of the Peace was introduced;
- Wales elected members to the Westminster Parliament;
- The Council of Wales and the Marches was established on a legal basis;
- The Court of Great Sessions were established, a system peculiar to Wales;
- A Sheriff was appointed in every county, and other county officers as in England.
These measures were not unpopular with the Welsh, who recognised that they would give them equality under law with English citizens. The reaction of the prominent Welsh of the day and down the centuries were very similar — gratitude that the laws had been introduced and made Wales a peaceful and orderly country.
It was only much later that some of the Welsh started to feel, in the words of A. O. H. Jarman, "that the privileges of citizenship were only given to the Welsh on condition that they forgot their own particular past and personality, denied their Welshness, and merged with England."
Despite historians such as G. R. Elton, who treated the Acts as merely a triumph of Tudor efficiency, modern British and Welsh historians are more likely to investigate evidence of the damaging effects of the Acts on Welsh identity, culture, and economy. While the Welsh gentry embraced the Acts and quickly attempted to merge themselves into English aristocracy, the Welsh farmers of remoter districts could have found themselves adrift amidst a legal and economic system whose language and focus were unfamiliar to them.
The Acts and the Welsh language
An often quoted example of the effects on the Welsh language is the first section of the 1535 Act, which states:
the people of the same dominion have and do daily use a speche nothing like ne consonant to the naturall mother tonge used within this Realme, and then declares the intention utterly to extirpe alle and singular sinister usages and customs belonging to Wales.
Section 20 of the 1535 Act makes English the only language of the law courts and that those who used Welsh would not be appointed to any public office in Wales. An effect of this language clause was to lay the foundation for creating a thoroughly Anglicised ruling class of landed gentry in Wales, which would have many consequences.
The parts of the 1535 Act relating to language were repealed only in 1993, by the Welsh Language Act 1993.