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Laws in Wales Acts 1535–1542

Related subjects: British History 1500-1750; Law

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The Laws in Wales Acts 1535–1542 ( Welsh: Y Deddfau Uno 1535 a 1542) were a series of parliamentary measures by which the legal system of Wales was annexed to England and the norms of English administration introduced in order to create a single state and a single legal jurisdiction, which is frequently referred to as England and Wales. The Acts refer in particular to two Acts of Parliament passed in 1536 and 1543 during the reign of King Henry VIII of England, who came from the Welsh Tudor dynasty.


Flag of England
Flag of Wales

From the conquest of Gwynedd in 1282– 83 until the passing of the Laws in Wales Acts in 1535–1542, the administrative system of Wales had remained unchanged. 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 and Welsh law continued to be used for civil cases. 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 lordships, each with its own courts, laws and other customs.

When the Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond (descended from the great Welsh House of Tewdr) seized the English throne in 1485, becoming Henry VII, no change was made to the system of governing Wales. But he remained concerned about the power of the Marcher Lords and the lawlessness and disorder in the Welsh Marches. 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. After the deaths 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 have been known as the "Acts of Union", but they were not popularly referred to as such until 1901, when historian Owen M. Edwards assigned them that name — a name which some regard as misleading as the Acts were concerned with harmonising laws, not political union.

The Acts

This harmonisation was done by passing a series of measures between 1536 and 1543. These included:

  • An Acte for Lawes & Justice to be ministred in Wales in like fourme as it is in this Realme (27 Henry VIII c. 26), passed in 1536 and repealed with effect from 21 December 1993; and
  • An Acte for certaine Ordinaunces in the Kinges Majesties Domynion and Principalitie of Wales (34 and 35 Henry VIII c. 26), passed in 1543 and repealed with effect from 3 January 1995.

The first of these Acts was passed by a Parliament that had no representatives from Wales. Its effect was to extend English law into the Marches and provide that Wales had representation in future Parliaments.

The short titles of the Acts were granted by the Statute Law Revision Act 1948.

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 ( Monmouthshire, Brecknockshire, Radnorshire, Montgomeryshire and Denbighshire) were established, thus creating a Wales of 13 counties;
  • other areas of the lordships were annexed to Shropshire, Herefordshire, Gloucestershire, Glamorgan, Carmarthenshire, Pembrokeshire, Cardiganshire and Merionethshire
  • the borders of Wales were established and have remained the same since; this was unintentional as Wales was to be incorporated fully into England, but the status of Monmouthshire was still ambiguous until 1974;
  • the 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 English (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 measures were not unpopular with the Welsh gentry in particular, who recognised that they would give them equality under law with English citizens. The reaction of many 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 feel, 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 historians such as G. R. Elton, who treated the Acts as merely a triumph of Tudor efficiency, modern British and Welsh historians are more likely to investigate evidence of the damaging effects of the Acts on Welsh identity, culture, and economy. While the Welsh gentry embraced the Acts and quickly attempted to merge themselves into English aristocracy, the majority of the population could have found themselves adrift amidst a legal and economic system whose language and focus were unfamiliar to them.

The Acts and the Welsh language

An often quoted example of the effects on the Welsh language is the first section of the 1535 Act, which states: "the people of the same dominion have and do daily use a speche nothing like ne consonant 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.

Section 20 of the 1535 Act makes English the only language of the law courts and that those who used Welsh would not be appointed to any public office in Wales:

Also be it enacted by the Authority aforesaid, That all Justices, Comissioners, Sheriffs, Coroners, Escheators, Stewards, and their Lieutenants, and all other Officers and Ministers of the Law, shall proclaim and keep the Sessions Courts, Hundreds, Leets, Sheriffs Courts, and all other Courts in the English Tongue;
(2) and all Oaths of Officers, Juries and Inquests, and all other Affidavits, Verdicts and Wagers of Law, to be given and done in the English Tongue;
(3) and also that from henceforth no Person or Persons that use the Welsh Speech or Language, shall have or enjoy any manner Office or Fees within this Realm of England, Wales, or other the King's Dominion, upon Pain of forfeiting the same Offices or Fees, unless he or they use and exercise the English Speech or Language.

An effect of this language clause was to lay the foundation for creating a thoroughly Anglicised ruling class of landed gentry in Wales, which would have many consequences.

The parts of the 1535 Act relating to language were definitively repealed only in 1993, by the Welsh Language Act 1993, though annotations on the Statute Law Database copy of the act reads that sections 18–21 were repealed by the Statute Law Revision Act 1887.

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