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The Council of Wales and the Marches

Phil Carradice

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For a large part of the 15th and 16th centuries the Council of Wales and the Marches was the most significant state-run institution in the western part of Britain.

It would not be stretching things too far to say that, in many respects, this administrative body was an early example of effective regional government.

In its days of glory and power it was chiefly concerned with law and order and wrong-doers faced its justice with more than a little trepidation and fear.

Of course the Council did not always run without some degree of misuse, even corruption, but in the early days in particular poor people who could not afford barristers and the usual costly appendages of the law, did find a degree of help and solace in its power.

It was, in many respects, an organisation similar to the Council of the North. Although it pre-dated its northern counterpart by several years and included all of Wales and the border counties of Hereford, Shropshire, Worcester and Gloucester in its remit.

Originally established in 1472 by Edward IV, its first President was John Alcock, Bishop of Rochester. The original aim of the Council was merely to manage the lands and finances of the King's infant son, Edward, Prince of Wales – better known as one of the “Princes in the Tower".

The Council, like the Prince of Wales himself, had its base in Ludlow Castle, a location or seat of power that remained constant even when Henry VII gave his son Arthur the title of Prince of Wales.

After its establishment in 1472, the friends, family and allies of Edward IV, people such as the Woodvilles and the Stanleys, quickly became leading figures on the Council.

It was never a large body and was made up of a President, his deputy and just 20 members.

It met only intermittently but it remained a significant place of appeal for many Welsh landowners. Members of the Council included some of the Welsh Bishops and several Welsh JPs.

In 1473 the role of the Council was greatly extended when it was given the duty of maintaining law and order in Wales and along the border.

Even after the death of Edward IV and the disappearance of his son into the Tower of London, the Council continued to run and carry out its alloted task.

The iron fist of Rowland Lee

From 1526 onwards, the Council of Wales and the Marches began to exercise serious power and control. Rowland Lee, Bishop of Lichfield, became President in 1534 and immediately established his iron control over the Council:

“Known for his ruthless suppression of law breakers and for his prejudices against the Welsh, Lee's draconian regime emphasized the power of the English crown and the futility of any attempt to rebel against it.

He protested against the Act of Union of 1536, having more faith in the efficacy of his own sterner methods.” (The Encyclopaedia of Wales)

Lee was given dispensation to administer and impose the death penalty whenever he saw fit – something he often did with, some might say, reckless abandon.

Whereas, previously, people appeared before the Council with the hope and even expectation of clear justice, now fear was the guiding principle.

Henry VIII

Henry VIII, like his father, was wary of the unruly elements of his kingdom and Wales, for many years, had been particularly troublesome. Hence the iron fist of Rowland Lee.

In 1542 the Laws in Wales Act gave the Council of Wales and the Marches statutory recognition. Previously, membership of the Council and even its authority had been at the prerogative of the King.

From that point onwards, however, the Council played an increasingly active role in managing the administration of the area and of overseeing the law.

Under the Presidency of Sir Henry Sidney (1560 to 1586) and Sir Henry Herbert (1586 to 1602) much good work was done to aid the western part of the nation and, in particular, to help the people of Wales.

The Council declined in importance during the early part of the 17th century and, along with the Court of Star Chamber, it was dis-established by Parliament in 1641.

Revived after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, it was finally abolished in 1689 after the Glorious Revolution had led to the overthrow of the last Stuart monarch, James II.

These days, the Council of Wales and the Marches is remembered chiefly for the excesses of Rowland Lee. Yet it was a significant and hugely important attempt at regional government long before the days of Devolution. That is how it should really be remembered.

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