The Act of Union


The purpose of the Act of Union in 1536 was to incorporate and integrate Wales into the English realm. The Marcher lordships were swept away and replaced by the 13 counties of Walesand Monmouthshire, a system of local government which lasted until 1974. The estates of the Lord of Glamorgan became the property of the Crown and, not until the middle of the sixteenth century, was the castle at Cardiff once more entrusted to a person outside the royal household.

The castle then passed into the possession of Sir William Herbert whose family had prospered greatly under the Tudors. Sir William had been awarded the lands of Wilton Abbey by Henry VIII in 1544 and further honours were to come his way when he was appointed as an executor to Henry's will and guardian to young Edward VI. In 1551, as a reward for his assistance in suppressing rebellion in the West of England, Sir William became the Lord of Cardiff Castle, Baron Herbert of Cardiff and Earl of Pembroke. But the title, "Lord of Glamorgan', disappeared and, despite the acquisition of lands and lordships which included Cardiff, Roath, Leckwith, Whitchurch and Radyr, Sir William was not to enjoy the wide-ranging powers of his mediaeval predecessors.

Following the Act of Union, Cardiff received its charter from the Crown. A royal charter from Queen Elizabeth in 1581 was subsequently renewed by James I in 1608. It declared Cardiff to be a "free town', governed by a Corporation of twelve aldermen and twelve "capital' burgesses. It was decreed that the aldermen should elect two bailiffs to serve as officers. They would be assisted by a steward, who had a knowledge of law and was really the predecessor of the modern town clerk. The Constable, steward, bailiffs and senior aldermen were all designated as justices of the peace and the Corporation was given the authority to enforce its laws through fines and imprisonment. The charter gave the town the right to hold its own Quarter Sessions, a privilege which allowed it to enjoy virtual independence from the county magistrates. The Act of Union provided for Welsh representation in Parliament. The choice of member invariably lay with the leading families of Glamorgan and, at Cardiffin the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was the Herbert influence which predominated. Before the Reform Act of 1832, Cardiff shared its MP with the seven other boroughs in the county at Cowbridge, Llantrisant, Kenfig, Aberafon, Loughor, Neath and Swansea. Prior to 1832 only four elections in Cardiff were contested, and on those occasions the burgesses of the eight boroughs voted openly to show their allegiance.

The dispensation of justice now became the exclusive prerogative of the Crown. As the county town, Cardiff was a judicial centre for the Court of Great Sessions, over which a royal judge presided twice a year. Lesser crimes were tried by the newly-appointed justices of the peace at the Quarter Sessions and Petty Sessions. Apart from their judicial duties, these magistrates had responsibilities ranging from the licensing of ale-houses to the management of the Poor Law. In the counties, they were entrusted with the administration of virtually every aspect of local government, a situation which remained until 1888.

In spite of these apparent freedoms, it would be a myth to suppose that the borough enjoyed a genuine independence from the Lord of Cardiff Castle. His Constable, who was also the Mayor, selected the bailiffs and approved the choice of aldermen. Not until 1835 would this form of patronage come to an end.