The 1536 Act of Union

The 1536 Act of Union

Historian John Davies on the 1536 'Act of Union' between England and Wales.

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.

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, Flint, 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.

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 were 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 passed 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 central development in the public attitude to the language.


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