‘A few slight alterations would make it picturesque’: Glamorgan and Monmouthshire in the 18th century

In our latest blog we return to Glamorgan and Monmouthshire as part of our local history blog series. Part one, discussing the constituencies in the mid-17th century can be read here. But today Dr Robin Eagles, editor of our Lords 1715-1790 project, takes a look into the 18th century, as leading gentry families tussled for control…

In his 1776 tour of Wales, Arthur Young thought the area around Monmouth had a rather ‘sombre air’ with ‘much furze and shabby wood; the soil wet and heavy’. He found the road to Monmouth itself ‘villainous’ and besides noting ‘here and there a patch of turnips’ concluded that Carmarthen was more pleasing. Writing just a few years before, William Gilpin was more complimentary, thinking Monmouth ‘a pleasant town, and neatly built’, but he could not help but observe the irony that Monmouth Castle, once a royal residence, was ‘now converted into a yard for fatting ducks’. Continuing into neighbouring Glamorgan, Gilpin arrived at Cardiff, which he found ‘not unpleasantly seated on the land side among woody hills.’ On closer inspection, he found it ‘appeared with more of the furniture of antiquity about it than any town we had seen in Wales; but on the spot the picturesque eye finds it too entire to be in full perfection’.

A View in Glamorganshire, Anthony Devis, late 18th c.
Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales via Artuk

Neither author said much of the burgeoning industrial area around Newport, William Gilpin merely noting of the place ‘a few slight alterations would make it picturesque’. Their descriptions also perhaps missed some of the more colourful tales associated with the landscape of Monmouthshire and Glamorgan, a place rich in legend, and none more so than Margam Abbey, the seat of the Mansell family, and where at the turn of the eighteenth century Sir Edward Mansell, formerly MP for Glamorgan, still held sway, playing host to bards and recounting tales of miraculous local salmon. [Jenkins, Glamorgan Gentry, xvi] Crammed with gentry families, many of them able to assert considerable political and social sway, throughout the eighteenth century a handful of peerage and greater gentry families commanded most of the influence in the area’s parliamentary constituencies: Cardiff Boroughs, Monmouth Boroughs and the county seats of Glamorgan and Monmouthshire.

By the late seventeenth century, the Somerset dukes of Beaufort were chief among these, having overtaken their old rivals, the Herbert earls of Pembroke, as the most vigorous noble influence in the area. The 1st duke acquired the offices of President of the Council of Wales, as well as holding all of the relevant lord lieutenancies and thus ‘his role was virtually that of a viceroy’ [PDG Thomas]. The Beauforts’ principal rivals were the Morgans of Tredegar, a rivalry that acquired a party dimension with the Beauforts heading the local Tories, while the Morgans were uncompromisingly Whig.

Henry Somerset, 2nd Duke of Beaufort, Michael Dahl I
National Trust, Powis Castle via ArtUK

For much of the first half of the eighteenth century the parliamentary rivalry between the Beauforts and Morgans in Monmouthshire was largely controlled by an uneasy settlement, whereby Beaufort controlled the single-member seat of Monmouth Boroughs, which from 1680 comprised the town and two out-boroughs, Newport and Usk, leaving to Morgan the two county seats. The arrangement was the more awkward as the Beauforts in the first half of the century were closely associated with Jacobitism. Every so often, they attempted to interfere with the county poll and in 1713 the 2nd duke of Beaufort attempted to persuade John Morgan to stand with his nominee, Sir Charles Kemys, but Morgan was having none of it. Nevertheless, Beaufort prevailed and the county returned Kemys along with Morgan, pushing Morgan’s preferred partner into third place.

If the seats in Monmouth were normally parcelled out between the rival parties, Glamorgan proved more challenging and during the early decades of the century the (single) county seat rocked to and fro between Whig and Tory representatives. 1745 might be best remembered for the Jacobite rebellion launched in Scotland by Charles Edward Stuart, but the early months of the year also witnessed an important political battle played out in parts of Wales between the Tories, led by Beaufort, and the Whigs, represented by the Morgans and Talbots, the latter originally a Worcestershire family, who had acquired land in Glamorgan by marriage. In January, the succession to the peerage of the current member, Bussy Mansell, triggered a by-election. Beaufort promoted Sir Charles Kemys Tynte, while the Whigs set up a local naval man, Admiral Thomas Mathews, referred to dismissively by John Campbell, MP for Pembrokeshire, as someone ‘who has not the happiest manner to gain upon people’s affections’. Mathews had had a somewhat chequered career, but was warmly promoted by Lord Talbot. To add to the political rivalry there was a bitter personal dimension as Talbot and Beaufort had only recently been involved in a much-publicized divorce action prompted by Talbot’s affair with Beaufort’s wife, during which Beaufort had been forced to prove that he was not impotent.

Despite this, the Tories seemed confident of success in the election, with Beaufort himself at one point declaring ‘If there is not exceeding foul play, I should imagine Sir Charles would carry it’. [Jenkins, 171]. In December Kemys Tynte posted a series of advertisements in the London Evening Post addressed to the Gentlemen, Clergy and Freemen of Glamorgan seeking their support having been ‘encouraged by a great number of my countrymen’ to put his name forward. And yet, in spite of Beaufort’s success in rallying a number of important Tory gentry as well as independent electors to Kemys Tynte’s cause, he was unsuccessful and Mathews secured the seat.

A month after this unsettling defeat Beaufort died and was succeeded as duke by his even less compromising Jacobite brother, Charles Noel Somerset, former MP for Monmouth, and someone known by the ministry to have been in close correspondence with the Jacobite court in exile around the time of the 45 Rebellion. His succession to the peerage left a vacancy in the borough and enabled him to make up for Sir Charles’s loss in January by presenting him with the vacant seat at Monmouth. Kemys Tynte went on to hold it for just two years, before relocating to Somerset, forcing Beaufort to look for someone else to represent the family borough.

Henry Charles Somerset, 6th Duke of Beaufort, Charles Turner, 1828
Via National Portrait Gallery, NPG D31581

By the end of the eighteenth century the situation in the area had changed significantly, and politics in parts of Wales was characterized as a struggle between various absentee aristocrats. This was exemplified in the bitter 1789 by-election which saw the 5th duke of Beaufort supporting Captain Thomas Windsor, only to be the recipient of a pamphlet signed by ‘A Friend to the Independence of Glamorgan’ protesting at Beaufort’s efforts to foist a Foxite on the county. If now criticized for his support for the Foxites, relations between Beaufort and the Morgans had improved. In 1820 the Morgans chose not to challenge in Monmouth Boroughs and in March the 6th duke of Beaufort wrote to Sir Charles Morgan (later Baron Tredegar) thanking him for canvassing support in Newport in favour of Beaufort’s heir, the flamboyant dandy Henry marquess of Worcester, who faced a challenge in Monmouth from a radical candidate. Worcester was returned as expected, and in an effort to heal divisions promised that he would use his position to represent ‘the opposite side… however we may differ in any political opinions’.


Further Reading:

William Gilpin, Observations of the River Wye, and several parts of South Wales

Philip Jenkins, The Making of a Ruling Class: the Glamorgan Gentry 1640-1790

Arthur Young, Tours in England and Wales visionofbritain.org

For more blogs in our local history series, click here. Keep up to date with the research of our Lords 1715-1790 project through the Georgian Lords section of our blog and by following @GeorgianLords on twitter.

One thought on “‘A few slight alterations would make it picturesque’: Glamorgan and Monmouthshire in the 18th century

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s