The 1530s was a crucial decade in the history of the territories of the English crown. Henry VIII and his advisor Thomas Cromwell broke with the Papacy, thus creating the possibility that the realm might be threatened by their powerful Catholic neighbours.
The Act of 1536
Abolishing papal power was an aspect of Henry's determination to intensify the sovereignty of the crown throughout his kingdom. His policy towards Wales, in particular the abolition of the powers of the lords of the March, was part of the same intention.
The first 'Act of Union' (a title not used until the early 20th century) was passed in 1536. The March was divided into seven counties: Denbigh, Montgomery, Radnor, Brecon, Monmouth, Glamorgan and Pembroke. Thus ended the distinction between the principality and the March. The law of England was to be the only law of Wales and, to administer it, justices of the peace were appointed in every county. Wales was to be represented in Parliament by 26 members.
The language clause of the act of 1536
There were about 7,500 words in the 1536 act, of which 150 dealt with the Welsh language. This 2% of the statute has become the subject of more comment than the rest of the legislation.
English was to be the only language of the courts of Wales, and those using the Welsh language were not to receive public office in the territories of the King of England. Outside south Pembrokeshire, south Gower, parts of the Vale of Glamorgan and some areas along the border, the mass of the population had Welsh as their only language. Thus, it proved impossible to exclude Welsh from the courts, and interpreters had to be used on a considerable scale.
It is unlikely the English authorities sought the extinction of Welsh. What they wanted was uniform administration, and implicit in that was the creation of a Welsh ruling class fluent in English.
In 1536 significant numbers of the Welsh gentry already spoke English. The proportion rose rapidly thereafter, but more than 200 years pass before English wholly ousted Welsh from the homes of the landowners. When this happened, Welsh became confined to the working and lower middle classes, a development central to public attitudes to the language.
The act of 1543
The act of 1536 lacked precision. A further act in 1543 filled in the details. It established the Courts of Great Session, a distinct Welsh system of courts based upon four three-county circuits: Anglesey, Caernarfon and Merioneth; Flint, Denbigh and Montgomery; Cardigan, Carmarthen and Pembroke; Radnor, Brecon and Glamorgan.
As Monmouthsire was not part of the pattern, a notion arose that it had been detached from Wales. The notion had little substance and became meaningless after 1830 when the courts were abolished. Monmouthshire was generally treated as part of Wales in the rare examples of specific Welsh legislation passed between 1536 and 1830.
The act of 1543 also gave statutory recognition to the Council of Wales at Ludlow, a body which had extensive administrative and legal powers until its eventual abolition in 1689. In addition, the number of Welsh MPs was increased to 27 through the granting of a member to the borough of Haverfordwest.
The new system strikes roots
By the reign of Elizabeth I, the Tudor settlement in Wales had won general acceptance. The justices of the peace were drawn from the ranks of the Welsh gentry. The Tudors, stated the contemporary commentator George Owen of Henllys (Pembrokeshire), 'gave to the Welsh magistrates of their own nation'.
As they had been charged with the enforcement of the law, the gentry were obliged to abandon their semi-anarchic traditions. They waxed greatly; the acts of 1536 and 1543, particularly the granting to them of the monopoly of the magistrates' bench, enhanced their power over the classes beneath them. With the abandonment of Welsh law, estates were passed intact to the eldest son, thus furthering the concentration of land in the hands of the few.
For the next 250 years at least, the Welsh historical record was dominated by the activities of landed families. They were loud in praise of the Tudor settlement which removed any ambiguity concerning the status of the Welsh. With that settlement the Welsh, in the eyes of the law, became English.
Yet it would be equally valid to argue - as there was no longer any advantage in boasting of the condition of being English - that henceforth everyone living in Wales was Welsh, a principle which would be built upon over succeeding generations.
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