Acts of Union Between England and Wales Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Acts of unification altered the political and religious structure of England and Wales, giving Wales representation in Parliament. The Acts heralded for Great Britain unexpected, significant, and long-lasting educational, cultural, social, judicial, and economic changes, which have continued into the twenty-first century.

Summary of Event

An independent Wales began its decline when Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffudd signed the Treaty of Montgomery in 1267, acknowledging Henry III of England as his liege (feudal) lord. Rebellions against Edward I and Edward II led to further invasions and subjugation, and English castles and merchants settled at strategic locations. Edward I killed Llywelyn in 1282. Union, Acts of (1536, 1543) England;union with Wales Wales, union with England Cromwell, Thomas Lee, Rowland Cromwell, Thomas Lee, Rowland Cecil, William

The 1284 Statute of Rhuddlan divided Wales into counties, marcher (border region) lordships, and a principality. It also subjugated Welsh lands to the English crown, voided local traditions, and gave precedence to English law. Edward I proclaimed his heir prince of Wales, and Edward IV established a Council for Wales, which would have broad powers.

In spite of efforts to limit the privileges of the marcher lords by subsequent kings, Wales remained an amalgam of diverse governance and lax enforcement until the English Reformation, England’s break with the Papacy and the Catholic Church that started with the Reformation Parliament, which met from 1529 to 1536. A fear of foreign invasion, a desire to consolidate royal control, and a desire to stabilize the administration of justice, combined with a wish to spread the Reformation and pacify Anglo-Welsh borderlands, prompted Henry VIII to unify England and Wales.

Thomas Cromwell, King Henry VIII’s chief minister and the architect of both the Union and the English Reformation, sought to end the use of Wales as a refuge for outlaws and to bring the country within English administration under tighter royal control. He appointed Bishop Rowland Lee president of the Council in the Marches of Wales, with orders to pacify the region. Bishop Lee prosecuted thieves, felons, and corrupt officials of all ranks vigorously. He executed several thousand people, including some of the gentry. By 1543, he brought a high degree of “order and quiet” to the circuits he served. Lee was both feared and respected, and his name became a term of approbation among the Welsh.

In 1534, Parliament passed laws allowing for the punishment of jurors committing perjury and laws stopping ferrymen from abetting thieves and fugitives. Other laws were enacted to aid in the enforcement of writs and to discourage wrongful imprisonment and attacks on officials. These laws treated the principality, the marches, and the shires as one area; enhanced the powers of the council; curtailed local privileges; and allowed English justices of the peace to intervene in Wales. Law;England Law;Wales

The first of the two laws known as the Acts of Union was enacted in 1536. Wales was reconstituted into thirteen counties (from six original counties); small areas were appended to Shropshire, Herefordshire, and Gloucestershire; and Wales initially gained twenty-six seats in the English parliament. English was made the official written and spoken language of all officeholders and in all legal and administrative matters. A chancery and an exchequer were established at Denbigh and Brecknock, and many outdated practices were abolished.

Primogeniture replaced the Welsh practice of subdividing inherited lands among all sons. The shire administration followed that of England with justices of the peace, sheriffs, coroners, and so on. The same taxes and church hierarchy applied to Wales, and Henry VIII’s governance of the Church of England was generally acknowledged. The subsidy of 1542 was the first collected in Wales, and it raised more than 4,000 pounds.

The implementation of the act suffered many delays, caused by the lack of adequate officials and difficult boundary disputes. In 1542, the Welsh elected their first parliamentary representatives. The Welsh member arrived in time to hear consideration of the Act for Certain Ordinances in Wales, which constitutes the second part of the Acts of Union, approved in 1543.

This bill approved the transfer of bishoprics, acknowledged more boundary changes, and provided one parliamentary seat for Haverfordwest, which increased Welsh representation to twenty-seven. It also effectively nullified all Welsh penal laws.

The powers of the Council in the Marches of Wales were increased. It became the chief administrative organ in Wales, and it had the power to refer matters to the king. The council changed from a prerogative jurisdiction to a statutory body as well. The Court of Great Session, already extant in three counties of Northwest Wales, was extended by three more circuits to cover all of Wales except Monmouth, which was served by the Oxford Assize Circuit. The Court of Great Session fulfilled the functions of Kings Bench, Common Pleas, and the Assize courts in England, and handled appeals to the king. The act also authorized the Lord Chancellor to appoint eight justices of the peace in each county to hold quarter sessions in each. They became the ruling judicial and administrative body in their respective counties.

A sheriff, nominated by the Council in the Marshes of Wales and chosen by the Privy Council, was appointed for one year and compensated locally. Details for selecting lower-ranked officials from constables to coroners were included in the act, which also introduced the 40 shilling freehold as the basis for voting rights in Wales. These changes effectively shifted loyalties from the locality to the county level and brought a degree of social reorientation. Although Henry had the power to delay or modify all provisions of the act for three years, he did not.

The shire system created by the union survived to 1974, while the council lasted to the Glorious Revolution of 1690; the Court of Great Session continued to 1830. Territorial boundaries were permanently and clearly defined by these acts. They gave both nations a uniform legal system, an expanded national defense, a legislature, similar administrative structures, a common church governed by one monarch, and a more effective administration of justice. The large population increase in Wales in subsequent generations has been attributed to the increased security brought about by these changes.

These changes propelled the major social developments that were extant before the Union. The landed families and the aristocracy benefited from the abolition of the privileges of the marcher lords, the gradual suppression of violence and crime, the increasing reduction in corruption, and the redistribution of ecclesiastical properties. They improved their command of the English language, filled the offices created by the Union, and availed themselves of opportunities in England. There were eighteen English primary schools in Wales by 1603, and Oxford attracted many of their graduates. Jesus College was established in 1471 to assist Welsh students.

It has often been asserted that the working class and the poor, who spoke Welsh only, were cheated and exploited by some of the new officials. The requirement for using English in all official proceedings provided many opportunities for chicanery and opened a divide between Welsh- and English-speaking groups throughout society.

By 1547, William Salesbury’s Dictionary in English and Welsh was in print and circulating widely, as were an assortment of calendars, ballads, prayers, poems, and primers in both tongues. These helped to bridge the language divide.

Acts of the English Reformation Reformation;Wales had earlier applied to Wales, but the Union brought greater attention to their enforcement. The Welsh clergy overwhelmingly subscribed to the supremacy oath, though it is doubtful that more than a tiny percentage of them could perform services in English as required by the Union. While in Wales there was sympathy for Queen Catherine and resentment of Queen Anne among the populace, neither the uprising known as the Pilgrimage of Grace (1536-1537) nor protests against the Book of Common Prayer of 1549 had much appeal.

With the development of the Union, a commission was created by Thomas Cromwell to evaluate the status of religious houses and church properties. Five dozen monasteries, nunneries, and friaries—the entire number in the area—were disbanded, their 250 clergy pensioned off, and their property and treasures sold at a discount. Monasticism;England The state also sold, rented, or transferred vast amounts of land to the gentry at a fraction of their true value. Endowments and church livings (properties) were used to reward the new servants of the Tudor state, and Wales was deprived of most of its medieval architectural heritage.

Despite this clerical impoverishment, the reformed religion gained adherents in Wales. After 1547, most of the newly appointed bishops were Welsh, the Book of Common Prayer was printed in Welsh (1553), and a popular rendering of the Bible was published in Welsh in 1588. The willingness of the church to ignore the use of Welsh in services and the popularity of Welsh scriptures and hymns usually are credited with inspiring a flowering of Welsh literature and poetry in the Elizabethan era.


The Acts of Union opened English educational, military, professional, and government establishments to the Welsh, such as the ambitious Dafydd Seisyllt, whose grandson anglicized his name, attained great office during Edward VI’s reign, and achieved fame as Queen Elizabeth’s key statesman, William Cecil.

After years of autonomy from the rest of Great Britain and the European continent, the Union, in effect, subdued Wales and aligned it with the English Empire. Welsh scientists and soldiers, intellectuals and laborers, would come to England in the face of a strong tradition of Welsh cultural preservation.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Black, Jeremy. A New History of Wales. Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: Sutton, 2000. Black explores the structural and communal changes brought by the acts as part of a thematic explanation of the evolution of modernity and nationalism in Wales.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davies, John. The Making of Wales. Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: Allen Sutton, 1999. A concise account of the union, with illustrations and broader cultural considerations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jones, Gareth Elwyn. Modern Wales: A Concise History. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. A thematic account that evaluates the Union as an aspect of the “Tudor revolution in government” rather than a new initiative on the part of Cromwell or Henry VIII to integrate the two realms.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Williams, Glanmor. Recovery, Reorientation, and Reformation in Wales, c. 1415-1642. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. Chapters 11 to 13 provide a very detailed account of the political, social, and religious events and consequences of the Union.

1531-1540: Cromwell Reforms British Government

Categories: History