Carmarthen Boroughs


Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1604-1629, ed. Andrew Thrush and John P. Ferris, 2010
Available from Cambridge University Press

Background Information

Right of Election:

in the freemen of Carmarthen, Laugharne, Llandovery, St. Clears, Llandeilo Fawr, Llanelli, Newcastle Emlyn, Newton and Dryslwyn (to 1604); freemen of Carmarthen (aft. 1604)

Number of voters:

at least 128 in 16591


c. Mar. 16142WILLIAM THOMAS , recorder
  Double return

Main Article

Carmarthen was founded by the Romans and reoccupied by the Normans, who built a castle to secure their dominion over the Welsh. The borough served as the administrative centre of the principality of South Wales down to the Stuart period.3 The town enjoyed good trading links, both by land and via the navigable River Tywi (Towy): it was the staple port for Welsh wool from 1353, and in return for the wool and cloth shipped to Bristol and the Continent, French wine was imported.4 In the reign of James I the Tywi was described as ‘sore pestered with sands and shelfs,’ but as neighbouring ports such as Laugharne and Kidwelly were experiencing similar difficulties, Carmarthen’s economy suffered little dislocation.5 Carmarthen’s trading links made it the largest town in Wales, with a population in the early seventeenth century in excess of 2,000; in 1602 the antiquary, George Owen, described the borough as ‘fair and good in estate.’6

The borough of Carmarthen received its first royal charter in the mid-thirteenth century, which confirmed existing customs.7 The early Stuart town was governed under a charter of 1546, which incorporated a mayor and 20 burgesses, who elected a mayor and two bailiffs annually, and appointed a recorder, town clerk and sword-bearer. The rights of the town’s other resident burgesses provoked ‘popular strife and controversies’ under Elizabeth and James.8 The 1546 charter recognized Carmarthen’s status in South Wales and was adopted as a model by other towns such as Cardigan.9 Under the Henrician Acts of Union, Carmarthen became the site for the county’s Great Sessions courts.10 As the county town it was also enfranchised, together with representatives from eight other ‘ancient boroughs’ who attended elections at Carmarthen’s guildhall. By 1604 all of these contributory boroughs were in decline.11 The largest, Kidwelly, suffered from the silting up of the Gwendraeth: in 1615 its inhabitants lamented that ‘there is neither shipping nor trade to maintain the town’, and over 140 burgages lay deserted.12 The borough paid nearly £80 for a new charter in 1619, but continued to be overshadowed by Carmarthen.13

The contributory boroughs seem to have played little part in parliamentary elections, even though the indentures for 1589 and 1604 listed their names. Ostensibly made out in the name of the burgesses of ‘all the boroughs of the county’, the 1604 indenture was actually signed only by the local magnate Sir John Vaughan*, and by the mayor and bailiffs of Carmarthen.14 The Member returned, Sir Walter Rice, had represented the borough in 1601 and headed a once-mighty family which had been weakened by a series of attainders under the Tudors. His election was doubtless assisted by the fact that the mayor of Carmarthen was his nephew.

The electoral politics of Carmarthen were fundamentally changed by the grant of a new borough charter on 14 June 1604. Obtained with Vaughan’s assistance, this conferred county status on the borough, and created two sheriffs in place of the bailiffs.15 From this point onwards, it would seem that Carmarthen enjoyed the same position as the other Welsh county borough – Haverfordwest – in returning Members without any reference to the contributory boroughs, in effect disenfranchising them through a royal grant. The endorsement of the writ of summons for the 1621 election does refer to the other boroughs of the county, but this was probably only because the confused election of 1614 brought the matter into question; the returns of 1625 and 1626 omit any such reference.16 Carmarthen’s control of parliamentary elections is confirmed by a comparison of those endorsing the election returns in the 1620s with the town’s 1625 subsidy roll: most witnesses can be identified as borough residents, with a high proportion of aldermen in evidence.17 The political significance of this administrative change was, however, modest: leading gentry families, particularly the Vaughans, had considerable influence in the contributory boroughs, but continued to control nominations at Carmarthen after 1604. The corporation’s primary motive may simply have been to raise the borough’s prestige.

The new charter apparently contributed to the confusion in 1614, when William Thomas, the town’s recorder, was elected. On 12 Apr. the Cardiff Member Mathew Davys complained that Carmarthenshire’s sheriff, Rees Williams of Edwinsford, had failed to forward Thomas’s return on the grounds that the new charter removed Carmarthen from the jurisdiction of the surrounding county, which thus no longer contained a ‘shire town’ from which a burgess could be elected as required by law.18 It is possible that sheriff Williams aimed to frustrate Thomas’s election, but Davys seems to have intended to rectify the procedural anomaly without casting blame. The problem was circumvented at the next election, when an endorsement on the writ of summons scrupulously identified the borough as being ‘called the shire town of the county of Carmarthen.’19

Throughout the 1620s, the town returned Henry Vaughan of Derwydd, head of a cadet branch of the Vaughans of Golden Grove. Vaughan was a member of the common council and served as mayor in 1623-4, which should, perhaps, have disabled him from election. However, no investigation appears to have been undertaken, either because the Commons was unaware of his status or because the town’s sheriffs had acted as returning officers since 1614.20 There was only one electoral contest in this period: on 24 Apr. 1625 Henry Vaughan was returned for the third time in succession, while on 12 May a separate indenture was made out in favour of Sir Francis Annesley, principal secretary in Ireland. It is difficult to uncover the circumstances behind this double return. On the face of it the electors appear to have been divided, as Vaughan was returned, as was customary, by the borough’s sheriffs, whereas Annesley was returned by the mayor. However, Henry Vaughan actually endorsed Annesley’s indenture.21 This second return was presumably arranged by Annesley’s father-in-law, John Philipps of Picton Castle, Pembrokeshire, who endorsed the return even though he was not a resident burgess and never signed any other indentures for Carmarthen. This device placed the onus of resolving the matter upon Parliament: upon receipt of Annesley’s indenture, Vaughan’s name was crossed off the Crown Office list, but the case remained undecided at the dissolution.22

Authors: Lloyd Bowen / Simon Healy


  • 1. CJ, vii. 617a, 620b.
  • 2. C219/330/31.
  • 3. R.A. Griffiths, ‘Carmarthen’, in Medieval Bor. Wales ed. R.A. Griffiths, 132-52.
  • 4. Ibid. 152-3; Welsh Port Bks. ed. E.A. Lewis (Cymmrodorion Rec. Ser. xii), pp. xix-xx.
  • 5. T.H. Lewis, ‘Carm. Under the Tudors’, W. Wales Hist. Recs. viii. 5; DL44/983; NLW, Duchy of Cornw. CS3.
  • 6. G. Williams, ‘Carm. and the Reformation’, in Carm. Studies ed. T. Barnes and N. Yates, 137.
  • 7. Griffiths, 131; Hatfield House, (BL, microfilm 485) ms 93/88.
  • 8. Letters and Pprs. Hen. VIII, xxi. pt. 1, p. 484; STAC 5/P33/19; 5/P25/4; 5/P52/37; STAC 8/20/14; Carmarthen Bk. of Ordinances ed. J. Davies, 8, 30-1, 47-8.
  • 9. NLW, Noyadd Trefawr 1663.
  • 10. STAC 9/2/5, f. 2v; NLW, Derwydd 251.
  • 11. Hist. Carm. ed. J.E. Lloyd, ii. 8-16; HP Commons 1558-1603, i. 313.
  • 12. DL44/983, f. 10v; Survey Duchy of Lancaster Lordships ed. W. Rees (Univ. Wales, Bd. of Celtic Studs., Hist. and Law ser. xii), 178.
  • 13. NLW, 12367E, p. 224; D.D. Jones, Hist. Kidwelly, 131-56.
  • 14. C219/35/189.
  • 15. C66/1645/17.
  • 16. C219/37/343v; 219/39/267, 270; 219/40/9.
  • 17. E179/220/120; C219/39/267; 219/40/9; 219/41B/11.
  • 18. Procs. 1614 (Commons), 59.
  • 19. C219/37/343v. The phrase was also included in Annesley’s 1625 return: 219/39/270.
  • 20. Carm. RO, Mus. 155, ff. 38, 43, 58; Mus. 611; E179/220/120.
  • 21. C219/39/270.
  • 22. C193/32/16, f. 13v.