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Acts of Union 1536-1543

From Academic Kids

The Acts of Union 1536–1543 were a series of parliamentary measures by which Wales was annexed to England and the norms of English administration introduced in order to create a single state. They refer in particular to two acts of parliament passed in 1536 and 1543 during the reign of King Henry VIII of England.

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From the time Wales had been conquered in 1282-1283 until the passing of the 'Acts of Union' 1536-1543, the administrative system of Wales had been the same. 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. 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 marcher 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. In fact, after the death 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 were not known as the "Acts of Union" until 1801, when historian Owen Edwards assigned them that name - a name which may be misleading, as some historians are increasingly arguing that "absorption" or even "colonization" are more accurate.

The acts

This was done by passing a series of measures between 1536 and 1543, now termed the 'Acts of Union'. 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) in 1536, and,
  • An act for certain ordinances in the king's dominion and principality of Wales (34 and 35 Henry VIII c. 26) in 1543.

The first of these acts was passed by the English parliament which had no representatives from Wales in it at all and its effect was to make Wales an integral part of the kingdom of England: Wales ... is and ever hath bene incorporated, annexed, united and subiecte to and under the imperialle Crown of the Realme as a verry membre ... of the same.

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 established thus creating a Wales of thirteen counties;
  • the borders of Wales were established and have remained the same since (although it should be noted that the status of Monmouthshire was ambiguous until 1974);
  • 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 measure 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 see, 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 Whiggish historians such as G.R. Elton, who treat the Acts as merely a triumph of Tudor efficiency, modern British and Welsh historians are continuing to unearth evidence of the overall damaging effect of the Acts on Welsh identity, culture, and just as significantly, the poorer Welsh throughout the centuries. While the Welsh gentry embraced the Acts and quickly attempted to merge themselves into English aristocracy, the monoglot, more agrarian Welsh were left to struggle along in an unfamliar legal system and against an economic system weighted heavily against them.

The acts and the Welsh language

An often quoted example of this is a clause in the 1536 Act (27 Henry VIII c. 26) to outlaw the Welsh language from official use, replacing it with English. It refers in the act to the Welsh language in these terms:

the people of the same dominion have and do daily use a speche nothing like ne consonaut 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.

English was made 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 the language clause was to lay the foundation for creating a thoroughly Anglicised ruling class of landed gentry in Wales which would have many consequences for the future.

The parts of the 1536 Act relating to language were only formally repealed in 1993 by the Welsh Language Act 1993.

Bibliography

  • Davies, John (1994), A history of Wales. London: Penguin. ISBN 0140145818.
  • Williams, Glanmor (1993), Renewal and reformation : Wales, c.1415-1642. Oxford : Oxford University Press. ISBN 0192852779.
  • Williams, W. Ogwen (1971), "The union of England and Wales". In A. J. Roderick (Ed.), Wales through the ages : volume II, Modern Wales, from 1485 to the beginning of the 20th century, pp.16-23. Llandyb´e : Christopher Davies (Publishers) Ltd. ISBN 0715402927.de:Act of Union 1536
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