‘An unnecessary and arbitrary court’: A Welsh petition to abolish the Council of the Marches, 1689
‘An unnecessary and arbitrary court’. So concluded a printed pamphlet published in 1689 in support of the campaign to abolish the Welsh Council of the Marches. The Council was a law court based in the Shropshire town of Ludlow that heard law cases from English border counties between the fifteenth century and civil wars of the 1640s, and which continued to hear cases from Wales until 1689, when it was abolished by the Westminster parliament. The court heard an abundance of disputes on goods worth under 40 shillings, but Welsh litigants were forced to travel up to 120 miles to attend it. Another critical pamphlet argued that because there was no appeal from the court, its existence was contrary to Magna Carta and the Anglo-Welsh Acts of Union which declared that the ‘subjects in Wales shall enjoy all the freedoms, liberties, rights, privileges and laws of England’.
In criticising the court, these authors were writing in support of an 18,000-strong petition from Wales calling for its abolition and stating that they would only elect MPs who supported their cause. This petition had come from all over the Western counties of Pembroke, Merioneth, Ceredigion and Carmarthen and the border counties of Denbigh and Montgomery. Given an estimated total adult male population of these counties at less than 200,000 in 1700, and where the electorate was around 10,000, the subscribing of near 10% of the adult male population forms an impressive figure. In its size, it is the largest surviving petition preserved in the Parliamentary Archives from 1660 to at least 1788, and is equal in size to that produced by Londoners in 1680 against the Catholic James Duke of York succeeding his brother Charles II to the throne.
Organising the petition
Producing such a large petition was not straightforward. Then as now, travelling North-South in Wales is difficult. Also, it was only in 1718 that the first permanent and official Welsh printed press was established. However, petitions over the previous decade from the landed elite of Wales meeting in their grand juries helped publicise opposition to court and legitimised popular complaints. How the petition seems to have been put together is sending a printed sheet with a uniform prayer—that the council may be abolished—to churchwardens and other principal inhabitants of Welsh parishes, who often appear as the first names on each sheet.
Signing the petition
Most of the surviving parliamentary petitions were signed only by men, and this is the case here. However, this petition is an important exception because some 1600—or 9% of the total number of subscribers—did not sign the petition but instead made a cross or a mark. In an attempt to differentiate themselves from those with minimal literacy skills, many sketched personalised symbols to strengthen their claims to quality and judgement.
The impact of the petition
1689 was not the first time that a bill had been presented to abolish the court, with a failed attempt nine years earlier. The petition produced immediate opposition in the Commons, where MPs complained against its method of creation, whilst some peers cited Charles II’s Tumultuous Petitioning Act as a reason not to receive the petition. The newly-crowned joint-monarch, William of Orange, was also opposed to the bill, fearing that it would loosen London’s grasp over Wales. But this time the bill was successful. The House of Lords, fortunately for historians because this allowed its survival (all the petitions to the Commons were destroyed in the fire of 1834), did choose to accept the petition and gave witnesses additional time to come to London to present their grievances.
The legacy of the petition in Wales was mixed. Despite the innovation inherent in the petition’s collection, the creation of a petitioning network and its sheer scale, only 300 large petitions to Westminster in the century after the 1688 revolution came from Wales, compared to more than 12,000 from England.
Dr Philip Loft is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Cambridge. This article is informed by research funded by the AHRC and the British Academy (grant pf160004).
Image: Petition of the Inhabitants of Wales on the Court of the Marches of Wales Bill, 1689, HL/PO/JO/10/3/408/80, Parliamentary Archives. © Parliamentary Archives.