Available from Cambridge University Press
Number of voters:
over 600 in 15971
|6 Mar. 1604||SIR EDWARD HERBERT|
|c. Mar. 1614||ELLIS LLOYD|
|19 Dec. 1620||WILLIAM SALESBURY|
|10 Feb. 1624||HENRY WYNN|
|c. May 1625||HENRY WYNN|
|7 Feb. 1626||EDWARD VAUGHAN|
|c. Feb. 1628||RICHARD VAUGHAN II|
Early modern Merioneth was the poorest and most isolated shire in Wales, a fact which induced the architects of the 1536 Act of Union to deny the county a borough seat in Parliament. Its population of about 19,500 was smaller than any except Anglesey and Radnor, and the assessment quotas imposed upon the county after 1640 were lower than elsewhere. This was unsurprising in a shire which consisted almost entirely of mountain and summer pasture, punctuated only by the narrow valleys of the Dyfi, Dysynni and Mawddach in the west, and the area around Lake Tegid and the upper Dee in the north-east. Urban settlement was minimal, with Dolgellau, the only town of note, numbering no more than 150 households, while the other medieval boroughs, Bala and Harlech, had dwindled to negligible proportions: in 1610 John Speed depicted the latter as a few dozen cottages sheltering in the lee of the castle.2
Although poor by comparison with the arable regions of lowland England, Merioneth sustained a successful upland economy based upon stock-rearing and clothing. Each summer several thousand cattle were fattened for sale at the autumn fairs along the Dee valley and the Vale of Clwyd, from whence they supplied the leather industry at Chester and the meat markets in the south-east of England.3 The other staple of the local economy was coarse wool, used to make cheap cloth. The vitality of this industry may be gauged by the large number of fulling mills operated within the county, and the vigorous resistance the clothiers mounted against any signs of interference with their market at Oswestry.4
For half a century after the Union of 1536 Merioneth was dominated by Dr. Ellis Price† and his brother, who controlled parliamentary representation in conjunction with the Owens of Dolgellau. However, Dr. Price’s role as agent for the earl of Leicester’s rights in the Forest of Snowdon, which covered much of the north of the county, made him unpopular, and in 1586 there was delight when Robert Lloyd broke Price’s hold on the shire seat:5
Aethost gwr a thyst geirwir
Er serch yn Farchog o’r sir …
Tra enwog lew trwy naw gwlad
Tynnaist y beilchion tanad
You went as a man of conviction and duty to become a knight of the shire. … Most famous leader throughout nine countries [commotes of Merioneth?], you overcame the proud upstarts [i.e. the Prices].6
Despite this setback, Cadwalader Price† and John Lewis Owen† used their powers as deputy lieutenants to keep much of the shire in awe for the next decade, and attempted to win the county seat back at the general election of 1597. A chorus of protest finally secured their removal from office in the following year, and they were kept occupied in Star Chamber until their deaths early in the next reign.7
The neutralization of the Price-Owen faction left a political vacuum in Merioneth at the end of Elizabeth’s reign. This could have been filled by Sir William Maurice*, but he preferred to sit for his native Caernarvonshire, and during the early Stuart period electoral patronage devolved upon four leading county families: the Salesburys of Rûg, Lloyds of Rhiwgoch, Nanneys of Nannau and Vaughans of Cors-y-Gedol. At least until 1604 the primary interest this group had in parliamentary elections was the exclusion of the Price faction, and even thereafter they were little concerned to use Parliament to further their particular interests. Most of the local men returned for the shire were elected when still in their twenties, while the heads of the Nanney and Vaughan family did not sit at all, preferring to put their heirs forward for election in 1593 and 1628. This low level of interest in the parliamentary politics meant that the gentry were occasionally willing to return outsiders, including the London merchant (Sir) Thomas Myddelton I* in 1597, and the Montgomeryshire landowner Sir Edward Herbert in 1604. Herbert required a seat after voluntarily yielding the representation of his own shire to his relative Sir William Herbert of Powis, and while his lands lay along the Montgomery-Shropshire border at some distance from Merioneth, this may have worked to his advantage, as it meant that he was unlikely to become a permanent fixture on the local political scene. This proved to be the case: at the next general election in 1614 Herbert was preparing for service in the English army in the Low Countries, and was replaced by Ellis Lloyd, heir to the Rhiwgoch estate.8
Lloyd stood aside voluntarily in December 1620, when he, his father and his cousins the Vaughans of Cors-y-Gedol all attested the return of William Salesbury of Rûg. Aged 40, Salesbury was by far the most active of Merioneth’s MPs in the Commons during this period, which makes it rather surprising that he was replaced as knight of the shire in 1624 by Henry Wynn of Gwydir, a newcomer to the shire who was 20 years his junior. Wynn had married the heiress of Rhiwgoch in 1620, at which time he had also been granted immediate possession of part of his own father’s 8,000 acre estate in the Trawsfynydd area. His return also reflected the burgeoning ambitions of the Wynn family, who attempted to influence the choice in four counties during this election. However, in a shire where the gentry liked to establish a consensus well before the county day, the crucial factor may well have been the speed and determination with which (Sir) Richard Wynn* promoted his brother’s candidacy: he warned his father of the imminence of the election some days before the official Proclamation was issued, hoping that he would gain ‘much advantage in the knowledge’, and he later worked to secure the support of both the sheriff and Sir William Herbert, whose Montgomeryshire estates extended across the Dyfi valley into Merioneth. The election is unlikely to have been contested, as the heads of the Lloyd, Vaughan and Nanney families all endorsed the return, and Salesbury was the only notable figure whose name was absent from the indenture.9
Wynn was re-elected in 1625, but circumstantial evidence suggests that his victory was achieved only with difficulty. Sir John Wynn† canvassed Salesbury as soon as news of King James’s death reached North Wales, but the latter’s reply of 4 Apr. contrived to be simultaneously reassuring yet evasive: he claimed that after the 1624 election he had promised to endorse whoever Hugh Nanney and William Vaughan should nominate at the next election, ‘those two houses having never been contrary in voices, and I had their voices formerly for myself’. Both men were related to Wynn’s wife, and duly offered their support some ten days later, but the fact that the issue was resolved in such a roundabout way suggests that the local gentry were not entirely happy about the growing influence of Gwydir within their shire. There was almost certainly some kind of contest at the county court, and although it was clearly resolved in Wynn’s favour by the sheriff (his wife’s grandfather Robert Lloyd) he spent the opening weeks of the session fearing that his return would be challenged.10 Once Wynn judged the danger of an electoral petition had passed, he sued out a writ for payment of his expenses from the 1624 session. While such claims were rare in England, they were not unknown in Wales – Griffith Nanney had received £16 for his service in the 1593 session – but Wynn anticipated that ‘the gentlemen of the country perhaps would take exceptions at it’, and had delayed serving the writ to avoid any unnecessary complications if a by-election were called.11
Wynn’s calculations were thrown out by the king’s decision to dissolve the Parliament and call fresh elections only six months later, leaving him to face an electorate undoubtedly annoyed by his duplicity. The news of ‘great bustling in Merionethshire’ reached Wynn’s brother Owen in London, and the fall of the family’s patron, lord keeper Williams, in November 1625, cannot have helped his already slender prospects. Wynn retained the support of his Rhiwgoch relatives, but the indenture returning his rival, Edward Vaughan of Llwydiarth, Montgomeryshire, was signed by virtually every other gentleman of note within the shire: William Vaughan of Cors-y-Gedol (as sheriff), William Salesbury, Hugh Nanney, John Price of Rhiwlas, John Lloyd of Rhiwaedog, John Vaughan of Caergai, Piers Meyrick of Ucheldre and over a dozen others. The Llwydiarth estate in Merioneth – about 1,000 acres – was relatively modest, and Vaughan was presumably nominated by his brother-in-law, William Salesbury; indeed, he may have been Wynn’s adversary in 1625, which would explain why Salesbury tried to avoid committing himself to Wynn’s cause on that occasion.12 Any hopes for a revival of the Gwydir electoral interest at the next election died with Sir John Wynn† on 1 Mar. 1627, and in the following year Richard Vaughan II, son of the 1626 sheriff, was probably returned unopposed.
Merioneth’s MPs had little known interest in furthering local issues in Parliament, which was hardly surprising in view of their youth and inexperience. The only exception to this rule was Salesbury: on 19 Apr. 1621 he recommended that the provisions of a bill for the annual drafting of lists of freeholders liable for jury service should be extended to cover Wales; while he also opposed the customary exemptions from the subsidy bill, which probably reflected local dissatisfaction that Wales had not been excused payment during collection of the mise for Prince Charles.13 In 1624 Henry Wynn failed to sign a petition against the proposed farm of Welsh greenwax fines which was circulated among the principality’s MPs at Westminster by Sir Eubule Thelwall*, an evasion which was hardly surprising, as the beneficiary of the farm was to have been his brother, Sir Richard.14
The sole item of legislation mooted for the benefit of the shire during the early Stuart period was a bill for the improvement of Harlech, part of a wider plan to revive the town’s economic fortunes. Significantly, the man chosen to further this project was not the county’s own MP, Sir Edward Herbert, but the Caernarvonshire MP Sir William Maurice, who lived at Clenennau, Caernarvonshire, only seven miles from Harlech. On the eve of the 1604 session the town’s leading burgesses asked Maurice to obtain a confirmation of their charter, with a view to changing the date of one of their cattle fairs, fixing the assizes and quarter sessions at the town, and securing the grant of a parliamentary seat in line with the other Welsh shires. Under the circumstances a bill was hardly appropriate, but towards the end of the session the burgesses wrote again, offering Maurice £100 to secure an Act for the assizes, quarter sessions and parliamentary seat. By this stage the townsmen had recruited the support of the local gentry, as Griffith Vaughan of Cors-y-Gedol and Robert Lloyd of Rhiwgoch each undertook to pay £10 of this sum. With only a month of the session remaining, there was no time to lay a bill before the Commons, and the scheme was allowed to lapse.15
What was clearly regarded as the most important part of the Harlech project was revived in another form in March 1609, when lord president [Ralph] Eure†, newly appointed constable of Harlech Castle, was petitioned separately by the burgesses and a group of JPs to procure an order for the assizes and quarter sessions to be kept at Harlech rather than the ‘very filthy dirty town’ of Bala. The cause of this sudden flurry of activity seems to have been the promotion of a rival scheme by the sheriff, John Price of Rhiwlas, to make Dolgellau the assize town. Having assured Eure that that their proposal would relieve him of much of the cost of maintaining the castle, the magistrates undertook to build new lodgings for themselves, while the burgesses offered Eure £50. Eure quickly forwarded these petitions to master of requests Sir Daniel Dunne*, but in case this proved insufficient, Maurice also engaged Sir Patrick Murray, a gentleman of the Privy Chamber, to further the cause, and in June 1609 the town’s petition was granted under a Signet letter. The long-term effectiveness of this granted came to less than the protagonists might have hoped, as by the 1620s the assizes were being held at Dolgellau.16
Author: Simon Healy
- 1. STAC 5/L45/6, f. 1 states that the loser mustered 300 voters.
- 2. L. Owen, ‘Population of Wales’, Trans. Hon. Soc. Cymmrodorion (1959), pp. 111, 113; I. Soulsby, Towns of Medieval Wales, 74-6, 131-3, 138-9.
- 3. C2/Chas.I/W36/65; Cal. Wynn Pprs. no. 1610.
- 4. T.C. Mendenhall, Shrewsbury Drapers and Welsh Wool Trade, esp. 193-5; SP14/121/58, 131/21, 22.I.
- 5. H.G. Owen, ‘Fam. Pols. in Eliz. Merion.’, Bull. Bd. Celtic Studies, xviii. 185-9; J. Gwynfor Jones, Concepts of Order and Gentility in Wales, 1540-1640, pp. 178-9.
- 6. Translation by Dr. Margaret Escott.
- 7. APC, 1597-8, pp. 551-2; STAC 5/L45/36; STAC 8/225/15.
- 8. C142/247/84; Life of Edward, First Lord Herbert of Cherbury ed. J.M. Shuttleworth, 39, 68.
- 9. C219/37/35; 219/38/292; NLW, 9059E/1177, 1190; Denb. RO, DD/WY/6555; C142/562/82.
- 10. Procs. 1625, pp. 692-3; Griffith, 180, 200, 279; NLW, 9060E/156; Sheriffs of Merion. in Arch. Camb. o.s. ii. 130.
- 11. NLW, 9060E/1356; STAC 5/W28/2.
- 12. Procs. 1626, iv. 322; C219/40/19; C142/380/136.
- 13. CJ, i. 544a, 551a, 582a; CD 1621, iii. 19. For lists of jurors, see also Clenennau Letters and Pprs. ed. T. Jones Pierce, 60, 70.
- 14. NLW, 9059E/1217, 1228.
- 15. Cal. Clenennau Pprs. 61-2; Arch. Camb. o.s. i. 254-5.
- 16. Cal. Clenennau Pprs. 73, 132, 138; Arch. Camb. o.s. i. 255-8; SP14/43/58, 14/44/30; CSP Dom. 1603-10, p. 495; SO3/4, unfol. (June 1609); G.D. Owen, Wales in the Reign of Jas. I, 54-8; Exeter Coll. Oxf. ms 168.