Welsh Electoral Arithmetic, 1640-1660

As today is St David’s day, and in preparation for the upcoming ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar in which Rhodri Morgan, the former First Minister for Wales, will speak, our blogs will focus on Wales. In our first blog, Dr Stephen Roberts discusses Welsh representation in Parliament during the Cromwellian Protectorate. Wales was not well represented at the time, with the notable (and brief!) exception of Swansea; a very different picture from today’s Welsh politics after Devolution…

From Tudor times until 1832, for electoral purposes Wales was made up of 24 constituencies, plus two constituencies for Monmouthshire, an anomalous arrangement by which that shire was regarded as English. In most Welsh counties, an MP was returned for the shire, and another single MP for the various constituent boroughs. Typical in this was Carmarthenshire, with its seat for the county and for ‘Carmarthen Boroughs‘. This was different from the pattern in England, where each county had two MPs for the shire, and two for the various boroughs in the county. By these arrangements a single geographically large county like Devon could send 26 MPs to Westminster, only one MP less than for the whole of Wales and Monmouthshire.

The only alteration to this pattern came during the period of the commonwealth and the protectorate of Oliver Cromwell in the middle of the seventeenth century. In 1653, when Cromwell was under the influence of Fifth Monarchist religious radicalism, he called an assembly at Westminster which was not elected by the people at all, but to which representatives were summoned from separatist church congregations, with nominees of Cromwell’s army making up any shortfall (The ‘Nominated Assembly’) . For this exercise, the counties and boroughs were ignored and Wales was treated for the first time as a single constituency. This new dispensation did nothing to improve the Welsh showing at Westminster. There were only six Members from Wales, three from the south and three from the north. The experiment was not a success, and late in 1653 Cromwell brought in the Instrument of Government; a ground-breaking document in that it was a paper constitution.

Under this, Wales and Monmouthshire had a total of 28 seats, a tiny improvement on the pre-1653 arrangement. Mostly this involved taking away the single seat of the contributory boroughs and giving it to the counties, so that Carmarthenshire gained another seat but lost ‘Carmarthen Boroughs’ – a mere technical adjustment, in fact. In 1659 the traditional arrangements came back, but with one notable exception. Swansea was given a seat for the first time in its history, and sent an MP to the Parliament of Lord Protector Richard Cromwell. This was through the influence of one of the chief ministers of Protectors Oliver and Richard, Philip Jones, a powerful figure at Westminster, Whitehall and south Wales, who acquired for himself a great estate at Fonmon in the Vale of Glamorgan. But the award to Swansea was short-lived. It was represented in Richard Cromwell’s Parliament for a brief period between January and April 1659. It lost its right to representation when the monarchy returned in 1660. Not until the reforms of 1832 did another MP from Swansea make the journey to Westminster.


For more on Wales’ inclusion in the Tudor parliaments, see here and our recently published biography of Cromwell’s early career in the Commons, 1604-29 section is here.

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