Carmarthen Boroughs


Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1558-1603, ed. P.W. Hasler, 1981
Available from Boydell and Brewer


19 Jan. 1559JOHN PARRY
1584EDWARD DONNE LEE vice Puckering, chose to sit for Bedford1
1 Oct. 1601WALTER RICE

Main Article

Carmarthen, the setting for the county and borough parliamentary elections in the Elizabethan period, was the administrative, financial and judicial centre for South Wales. A flourishing shire town with more than a thousand inhabitants at the beginning of the seventeenth century, it was incorporated in 1546 and governed by a mayor, two bailiffs, twenty councilmen and a recorder.3

In contrast to Carmarthen’s prosperity, many other Carmarthenshire boroughs, most of which had grown up round a castle or religious foundation, were in marked decline. This was particularly true of Kidwelly, which had been a serious trading rival to Carmarthen in the past, but was reported in 1609 as ‘grown very poor and out of all trade’. Part of the duchy of Lancaster’s South Wales possessions, it was governed by a mayor, two bailiffs and a body of aldermen.4 The tiny borough of Llanelly also belonged to the duchy. Apparently it had no more than 12 houses in 1566, but its burgesses still chose a portreeve.5 Further up the Towy from Carmarthen were Dryslwyn, Newton (or Dynevor) and Llandilo.6 Llandovery was governed by a bailiff. Elizabeth confirmed its charter in 1590, but even by Leland’s time it was a ‘poor market’ and he found ‘but one street, and that poorly builded of thatched houses’.7 Newcastle Emlyn had connexions with the adjoining borough of Atpar in Cardiganshire, and Laugharne, which was administered by a portreeve and a jury of burgesses, belonged for part of the period to Sir John Perrot of Haroldston, Pembrokeshire.8 St. Clears, though very small, boasted three portreeves, a recorder and a town clerk.9

Small as they were, most of these boroughs responded to the summons to send burgesses to the borough election in the guildhall at Carmarthen. In 1559, for example, the return reveals the presence of the mayor, bailiffs and 12 burgesses of Carmarthen; the mayor and six burgesses from Kidwelly; the portreeve and three burgesses from Llanelly; three burgesses from Newton; and the portreeve of Dryslwyn.10 If the list is complete, there were, therefore, an equal number of voters from the shire town and from its contributory boroughs. The 1584 return is less specific, referring to the burgesses of Carmarthen and of the county: it contains about two dozen signatures, including that of the mayor of Kidwelly.11 The return for the 1589 Parliament is particularly interesting, for at the foot it has a list of nine boroughs—Dryslwyn, Kidwelly, Laugharne, Llandilo, Llandovery, Llanelly, Newcastle Emlyn, Newton and St. Clears, presumably those to whom notification of the election was sent. Signatures have been added against most of the names.12 In contrast, the 1563 return mentions the sheriff of the county, and the mayor and bailiffs of Carmarthen only, there being space for four seals at the foot.13

The Carmarthen burgesses seem to have been strong enough to enjoy some control over their choice of MPs, though fierce factional disputes within the governing body, particularly in the latter part of the period, probably made it easier for outsiders to assert their influence. Members of the leading county families, such as the Vaughans of Golden Grove, the Jones family of Abermarlais and the Rices of Newton, owned property in Carmarthen and were active in municipal affairs. They also carried weight in some of the contributory boroughs.

The first two MPs, John Parry (1559) and John Morgan II (1563), were both local burgesses. The identity of the 1571 MP is not known. Although the printed Browne Willis list gives John Morgan, it is considered more likely that the MP was John Vaughan II, MP for Carmarthen Boroughs in 1558, and that Browne Willis was mistaken in naming him for the county seat in 1571. The Member chosen in 1572 was Thomas Wigmore, who probably owed his seat to the influence of his stepfather, Sir James Croft, comptroller of the Queen’s household. Pressure from outside patrons increased as the reign progressed. In 1584, following the return of John Puckering, chief justice of the Carmarthen circuit at both Bedford and Carmarthen, the latter fell back on Edward Donne Lee, a local gentleman who was a nephew of Sir Henry Jones of Abermarlais and was also related to the important Dwnn family of Kidwelly. A convinced puritan, he was re-elected in 1586. In 1589 the young Earl of Essex’s leading Welsh supporter, Gelly Meyrick, was returned. Essex’s father was born in Carmarthen, and chose to be buried in its parish church, and Devereux influence was strong there. Meyrick’s own standing in the county was enhanced by his daughter’s marriage to the heir to Golden Grove. Even before the writs were sent out for the 1593 Parliament, the Carmarthen council had received letters from Puckering, now lord keeper, and from Essex seeking the nomination of their burgess. They decided to send a ‘blank’ return to the Earl, ‘leaving the appointment of the person to your Lordship’s best liking’.14 The name which he filled in was that of Sir Thomas Baskerville from Warwickshire, one of his closest military companions. For the last two Parliaments of the reign, probably because of a great demand for the one county seat, members of the leading Carmarthenshire families were prepared to accept nomination for the boroughs. Henry Vaughan was a younger brother of Walter Vaughan of Golden Grove, and Walter Rice of Newton, who had been knight of the shire in 1584, was the head of a family whose prestige in Wales in the early Tudor period had been second to none.

Author: M.R.P.


  • 1. Add. 38823.
  • 2. Folger V. b. 298.
  • 3. J. E. Lloyd, Carm. ii. 13-17; HMC Hatfield, xii. 168; W. Wales Hist. Soc. viii. 4, 14-16.
  • 4. D. D. Jones, Kidwelly, 126-30; Surv. Duchy of Lancaster Lordships in Wales, 1609-13 (Bd. Celtic Studies, Hist. and Law ser. xii), pp. xxvii, 178; Lloyd, ii. 14; Leland, Collectanea, i. 695-701.
  • 5. Surv. Duchy of Lancaster Lordships, p. xxvii; Lloyd, ii. 14, 21.
  • 6. W. Wales Hist. Soc. i. 149-50.
  • 7. Bull. Bd. of Celtic Studies, ii. 256-61; Lloyd, ii. 14-15, 22; Trans. Carm. Antiq. Soc. ii. 169, 172; Leland, Itin. ed. Smith, 113.
  • 8. Y Cymmrod. xxxii. 146-9; M. Curtis, Antiq. Laugharne and Pendine, 82-83, 86-87; Lloyd, ii. 14, 21; Trans. Carm. Antiq. Soc. xxvi. 51-55.
  • 9. Lloyd, ii. 21-22; Trans. Carm. Antiq. Soc. vii. 22-23.
  • 10. C219/26/154. The sheriff’s precept to the mayor also survives.
  • 11. C219/29/209.
  • 12. C219/31/243.
  • 13. C219/27/54.
  • 14. Devereux, Lives of the Earls of Essex, i. 279 n.; ii. 481-2; HMC Bath, v. 248.