The The Welsh Marches is an area along the border of England and Wales on the island of Great Britain. The term was first used during the medieval period when the Kingdom of England expanded further into traditional Welsh territory and the Marcher lordships were set up (see the "History" section below).
Today the Welsh Marches is a term used to describe the counties along the border with Wales, mainly on the English side of the border, though it is not an official term. Principally, the counties belonging to the Welsh Marches are Cheshire, Shropshire, Herefordshire (all English counties) and Monmouthshire (a Welsh county). The western half of Gloucestershire (England), as well as Flintshire and Wrexham (Wales) are also sometimes included.
In European history, marches are border regions between centres of power. In English history, the Welsh Marches refers to the borderlands between England and Wales, and the Scottish Marches to the borderlands between England and Scotland. The term Marcher is used to refer to the Marcher Lords who ruled these areas, among whom one often bore the title Earl of March.
The term "marches" is not properly applied within Wales itself, where tribal affiliations traditionally gave freer range of action to local leaders.
The Welsh Marches are the area that lies between the mountains of Wales itself and the river valleys of England. The Romans established forts at Chester (castra), Gloucester and Caerleon. A string of garrisoned market-towns defined the borderlands as much as Offa's Dyke, the official boundary erected by order of King Offa of Mercia at the end of the 8th century. The Welsh Marches contain Britain's densest concentration of motte-and-bailey castles.
After the Norman Conquest, William the Norman set out to subdue the Welsh, a process that took a century and was never permanently effective. During those generations the Marches were a frontier society in every sense, and a stamp was set on the region that lasted into the time of the Industrial Revolution. Amid violence and dangers, a chronic lack of manpower afforded opportunities for the intrepid, and the Marcher Lords encouraged immigration from all the Norman-Angevin realms, and encouraged trade from their "fair haven" ports like Cardiff. At the top of this culturally diverse, intensely feudalised and local society, the Marcher barons combined the authority of feudal lord and vassal of the King among their Normans, and of supplanting the traditional tywysog among their conquered Welsh (Nelson 1966, ch. 8).
The Anglo-Norman lordships in this area were distinct in several ways: they were geographically compact and jurisdictionally separate one from another, and they had special privileges which separated them from the usual English lordships. Royal writ did not obtain in the Marches: Marcher lords ruled their lands by their own law—sicut regale ("like unto a king") as Gilbert, Earl of Gloucester, stated (Nelson 1966), whereas in England fief-holders were directly accountable to the king. Marcher lords could build castles, a jealously guarded and easily-revoked Royal privilege in England. Marcher lords administered laws, waged war, established markets in towns, and maintained their own chanceries that kept their records, which have been completely lost. They had their own deputies, or sheriffs. Sitting in their own courts they had jurisdiction over all cases at law save high treason. "They could establish forests and forest laws declare and wage war, establish boroughs, and grant extensive charters of liberties. They could confiscate the estates of traitors and felons, and regrant these at will. They could establish and preside over their own petty parliaments and county courts. Finally, they could claim any and every feudal due, aid, grant, and relief" (Nelson 1966, ch. 8), although they did not mint coins. Their one insecurity, if they did not take up arms against the king, was of dying without a legitimate heir, whereupon the title reverted to the Crown in escheat. Welsh law was frequently used in the Marches in preference to English law, and there would sometimes be a dispute as to which code should be used to decide a particular case.
Feudal social structures, which were never fully established in England, took root in the Marches, which was not legally part of the realm of England. The traditional view has been that the Norman monarchy granted these outright. A revisionist view is that such rights were more common in the 11th century throughout the Conquest, but were largely suppressed in England, and survived in the Marches. Settlement was encouraged, as if the lands were desert: Knights were granted their own lands, which they held in feudal service to the Norman lords. Settlement was also encouraged in towns that were given market privileges, under the protection of a Norman keep. Peasants came to Wales in large numbers: Henry I encouraged Bretons, Flemings, Normans, and English settlers to move into the south of Wales.
The tendencies of innovations in the Plantagenet monarchy were towards a centralised bureaucracy and judiciary, with the gradual elimination of localisms. In the Marches of Wales these processes towards a "high mediæval" authority were staunchly resisted. Protests of the border lords surviving in the Royal records throw some light upon the nature and extent of the privileges whose normal operation has left no record.
On the local side, the able-bodied population was more directly essential to the local Lord and was able to extract from him carefully defined and highly local liberties. A point of friction was in the Lords' funded churches where they appointed churchmen to "livings" held tightly under hierarchic control in the manner that had developed in Normandy, where a highly organised church structure was well in the hands of the Duke. The Welsh church, on the Celtic plan, closely connected with clan loyalties, brooked little authoritarian influence.
The Marcher Lords were progressively tied to the English kings by the grants of lands and lordships in England, where control was stricter, and where many marcher lords spent most of their time, and through the English kings' dynastic alliances with the great magnates. It was less easy to work in the opposite way, and establish a position among the hereditary marcher families, as Hugh Le Despenser discovered. He began by exchanging estates he held in England and by obtaining grants in the Welsh Marches from the King. He even obtained the Isle of Lundy. When the last male heir of the Braose family died, Despenser was able to obtain the Braose lands around Swansea. In 1321 the Marcher Lords threatened to start a civil war and it was agreed that a Parliament should be called to settle the matter.
Edward I had officially conquered Wales by 1283. However in Henry VIII's time, more than 200 years later, the Marcher Lords still governed the two-thirds of Wales that was not part of the "Principality". When the marcher lordships were abolished under the Laws in Wales Acts 1535–1542, the centre of administration for Wales was established at Ludlow in Shropshire.