This month, as part of our local history blog series, we’re looking into the parliamentary history of a number of Welsh constituencies. The country first started returning members to Westminster in the 16th century, and in today’s post our History of Parliament director, Dr Stephen Roberts, discusses the electoral changes that occurred in South-East Wales in the century that followed.
The topography of Glamorgan and Monmouthshire had much in common. For centuries before industrialization in both counties a prosperous coastal plain supported an agrarian economy based on animal husbandry and arable farming. Small ports, such as Chepstow in Monmouthshire and Cardiff in Glamorgan, exported the butter, grain, wool and finished wool and leather products mostly by means of the coastal shipping trade. They were counties that sustained small, unremarkable market towns.
The minerals that would transform the region from the second half of the eighteenth century played no significant part in 1640. An embryonic, late Tudor iron industry, supervised by Ironmasters from south-east England, had petered out; and coal was dug mostly for local domestic and industrial use. Some South Wales coal (tiny quantities by the standards of later centuries) went overseas, but more was shipped from Carmarthenshire than from Glamorgan and Monmouthshire. In both these counties, an inhospitable, brooding land mass rose up behind the fertile coastal plains: in the hill country nestled ‘the South Wales valleys’, with an identity of their own in later ages, but in this period this was a pastoral region of very large parishes, thinly spread population and very little wealth.
The annexation of Wales by the Tudors had produced a representative structure that treated Glamorgan and Monmouthshire differently. Glamorgan was a typical Welsh county, under the terms of Tudor legislation. Unlike English counties, which sent two MPs to the House of Commons, Glamorgan sent only one, the dispensation imposed on every other Welsh shire. Monmouthshire, however, was regarded as not a Welsh county at all, at least as far as county representation in Parliament went: enjoying the same privilege as English counties, it sent two Members to Westminster.
When it came to the boroughs and their representation, the Tudor political settlement of Wales imposed a peculiar amalgamation of boroughs for voting purposes. In Glamorgan, the ancient boroughs of Cardiff, Swansea, Cowbridge, Kenfig, Neath, Loughor, Llantrisant and Aberafan were together entitled to send a single Member to Parliament: the composite constituency was known as ‘Cardiff Boroughs’. Monmouthshire, privileged in its county representation, was afforded the same meagre allocation for its seven boroughs: Monmouth, Abergavenny, Caerleon, Chepstow, Newport, Trelleck and Usk comprised ‘Monmouth Boroughs’ with only one Member for all of them.
In Glamorgan in 1640, there may have been 800 freeholders entitled to vote in the election for the county seat. Most shire elections were held in Bridgend, which for travelling electors was conveniently located in the middle of the county; and in most shire elections the Herbert family, earls of Pembroke, whose principal residence was at Wilton, Wiltshire, were a dominating influence. In every election since 1605 a member of the county gentry with links to the earls of Pembroke had secured the Glamorgan seat, and for the Long Parliament, which met in November 1640 it went to Pembroke’s eldest son, Philip Herbert, known by his courtesy title of Lord Herbert of Cardiff. Despite the vicissitudes of civil war from 1642, Herbert kept his seat, which may have been his greatest achievement in a lacklustre career.
Another Herbert client held Cardiff Boroughs, but was killed fighting for the king at Edgehill in 1642. In Monmouthshire, Pembroke hegemony was challenged over a long period by the Somerset family, earls of Worcester, a hugely wealthy dynasty seated at Raglan Castle. Pembroke influence eclipsed that of Worcester as the seventeenth century drew on, and in the Long Parliament elections, Monmouthshire returned two clients of the earl of Pembroke. There is ample evidence of confusion at the election for Monmouth Boroughs in 1640, with no candidate considered properly elected. The civil war led to the obliteration of the political aspirations of the royalist Somerset family and of Raglan Castle as a family home.
By theory and in practice, Parliaments were the king’s, for him to summon, prorogue or dissolve. Among the many departures from convention and common law during and after the civil war came a change in electoral practice by which a Parliament depleted by expulsions and withdrawals of Members, recruited to itself, in defiance of the king, who had established his own rival Parliament at Oxford. The very principle of a self-perpetuating Parliament was an affront to many in Parliament, let alone to royalists. The so-called ‘recruiter elections’ came later to Wales than to many places in England, because Parliament would only countenance them in settled circumstances in which Parliament’s writ prevailed. In the case of Monmouthshire, the new recruits were two more clients of the earl of Pembroke, but the old pattern was disrupted in Glamorgan.
A precondition for an election was a reliable high sheriff, the returning officer. In the case of Cardiff Boroughs, for which an election was planned in December 1645, confidence in the sheriff, Edward Carne of Ewenni, was misplaced, as he led a short-lived local revolt against parliamentary rule, crushed in February 1646. Not until July that year was an election finally held, and then it was not a client of the earl of Pembroke or a member of the local gentry who took the seat in what was probably an uncontested election. The new member was Algernon Sydney, of Penshurst in Kent. He held extensive lands in Glamorgan, but owed his victory entirely to faction struggle in Parliament, and specifically to the New Model army and its political wing, the Independent interest at Westminster. In late November 1646, an election was held for Monmouth Boroughs, and it was seen by local commentators as an explicit contest between Presbyterian and Independent factions: the seat went to another Independent, Thomas Pury of Gloucester, whose MP father already played an active part in supporting the New Model army.
By the end of 1646, therefore, the New Model army interest in Parliament had cemented a political presence in south-east Wales by capturing two parliamentary seats. This paved the way for the regional dominance in the interregnum (1649-1660) of Colonel Philip Jones, garrison commander in Cardiff and Swansea but also trusted adviser and agent of Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell was awarded extensive estates in Monmouthshire, by a grateful Parliament, and, remarkably, looked benignly on the heir of the Somerset family, from whom these lands had been confiscated. At the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, this patronage contributed to the rapid recovery of the Somerset family as a political force in Monmouthshire, directed no longer from ruined Raglan, but from Badminton, Gloucestershire. In Glamorgan, by contrast, the Herberts, earls of Pembroke, who had ridden the political storms of the 1640s and 50s very successfully, willingly loosened their grip on political power in South Wales, ceding the electoral territory to the powerful county gentry families such as that of Mansel of Margam.
Madeleine Gray, Prys Morgan (eds.), Gwent County History Vol. III: Gwent c. 1530-1780 (2009)
Glanmor Williams (ed.), Glamorgan County History Vol. IV: Early Modern Glamorgan (1974)
P Jenkins, The Making of a Ruling Class: The Glamorgan Gentry, 1640-1790 (1983)
G. H. Jenkins, The Foundations of Modern Wales: Wales 1642-1780 (1987)
Keep an eye out for more Welsh history blogs posted on our page throughout September, and find blogs discussing other constituency in the ‘local history‘ tab.
The biographies of many MPs mentioned, including members of the Herbert family, feature in our upcoming Commons 1640-1660 volumes, which are currently being researched. Follow the Civil Wars project via the James I to Restoration section of our blog.