A Unique Mayoralty
By Dillwyn Miles
Mayors were abolished by the Local Government Act of 1972 except for those held by ancient custom, amongst them the mayors of Brightlingsea and Winchelsea and Sandwich, or the portreeves of Ashburton and Laugharne. Newport, Pembrokeshire, was also such an exception and is now the only mayor appointed in Wales.
Early in the twelfth century, the cantref of Cemais in north-east Pembrokeshire, was occupied by Robert FitzMartin, the son of an Anglo Norman who has been referred to as Martin de Tours, may be by confusion with St Martin of Tours. Although this man is ‘not vouched for by any deed or document of the conqueror ‘s reign’, 1 there is no doubt of his existence as he was the founder of a family that gave its name to the lordships of Combe Martin in Devon and Compton Martin in Somerset. He had married Geva, daughter of Serio de Burci, a tenant-in-chief of extensive lands in the West Country and had died before 1086, when his widow married William de Falaise, who held land in Devon , Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire. 2
Robert established his caput at Nevern where he built a castle on a site that may have been an Iron Age promontory fort. It may also have been the stronghold of the native ruler Cuhelyn Fardd who, apart from being a poet, as his name implies, was proclaimed in a contemporary eulogistic poem as ‘leader of the host’, ‘ruler of Britons’ and ‘refuge of the people’. 3 He was portrayed elsewhere as a story teller at the court of he ‘Earl of Worcester and Pembroke ‘ who rewarded him with the hand of his daughter, Gwrangen Feindroed (Gwrangen of the slender foot), along with the cantref of Cemais. 4 Cuhelyn appears to have discovered the advantage of co-existence with the FitzMartins who were ‘generally content with a loose and undemanding lordship, easily accommodating itself to the existing native structure of authority,’ 5 and, as they had other commitments elsewhere, it is possible that he came to an arrangement whereby he acted as their agent and interpreter.
Robert was sufficiently settled by 1113 to bring thirteen monks from the Abbey of Tiron, now Thiron-Gardais, in the diocese of Chartres, to establish a dependent priory at St Dogmael’s. He was succeeded by his son, William FitzMartin (d. 1209), who married Angharad, daughter of Rhys ap Gruffydd (The Lord Rhys), prince of Deheubarth. During his campaign against the Norman castles of south-west Wales in 1191, however, and ‘in direct contravention of a whole series of oaths which he had sworn in person on the most precious relics to the effect that William should be left in all peace and security in his castle’, 6 Rhys occupied Nevern and William built himself a castle on a site overlooking the estuary of the river Nevern and the seaside settlement of Trefdraeth, and established in its shadow a planted borough , called Novus Burgus, or Newport, meaning ‘a new town’.
The town was incorporated before 1198, William FitzMartin was in a position to grant ‘a burgage in Newport in Cemais’ to the Knights of St John of Jerusalem at Slebech.7 His grandson, Nicholas FitzMartin, lord of Cemais, set his seal in 1241 to a charter confirming the liberties and customs granted to the burgesses of the town by his father, William FitzMartin, before he died in February 1216. In this charter Nicholas decreed that the burgesses ‘ought to have a prepositus appointed by consultation between me and them ‘. The prepositus was referred to as reeve or portreeve until about 1500 and thereafter as mayor. Nicholas granted a supplementary charter in 1278 defining the bounds of the liberties within which the burgesses were given ‘common of land, wet and dry, moors and turbaries’. This charter was witnessed, inter alia, by Richard Suetman, prepositus, who is the first prepositus of whom there is account by name.
The mayor is appointed each year from the burgesses, the names of three of whom are submitted to ‘the lord of the town and corporation of Newport and of the barony of Cemais’ , who selects one, usually the first name, to be the next mayor. The mayor is then sworn at the Court Leet
. . . to well and truly execute and exercise the office of mayor for the town and liberties of Newport within the barony of Cemais for the ensuing year, . . . to do equal right to the poor and to the rich , . . . to take nothing for executing the said office but the accustomed fees and in all things well truly justly and honestly do and exercise the office of Mayor according to the best of my knowledge and power vested in me. So help me God.
The ‘accustomed fees’ comprised the tolls of fairs and a shilling on the admission of a new burgess. He was answerable to the lord for rents, tolls, waifs and strays and estreats and prise of ale, the latter being farmed out to the mayor for 13s.4d. (66p) ‘for him to make what profit he could’ .
The mayor presided at the Court Leet and View of Frankpledge 8 held twice a year, around Easter and at Michaelmas, when a grand inquisition, or jury, consisting of up to nineteen jurors selected by the Mayor, made presentments and amerced, or fined, offenders. A Foreman, usually the senior alderman, is appointed at each court and after he has taken an oath of allegiance, the burgesses stand in threes and take the like oath which their Foreman has taken.
He also presided at the Court Baron held fortnightly to deal with more minor matters. The courts are now combined and meet as the Court Baron and Court Leet twice a year. An adjourned court is held for the installation of the mayor in November and a special court follows the Beating of the Bounds ceremony in August.
The perambulation of the boundaries of the barony was carried out every seven years with great ceremony up to the later part of the nineteenth century. The custom was revived for the boundaries of the borough and parish of Newport in 1964 and it has been held annually since then , followed by the special Court when a report on the state of the boundaries is presented to the Mayor.
A catchpole, or bailiff, was also appointed and sworn, together with two or more constables or petty constables. The bailiff served writs, collected fines and had charge of prisoners and, on his appointment he was handed some bolts with rings, and a shackle. It was presented in 1720 that the stocks and whipping post were out of repair and that a new gaol should be built ‘upon the charge of the lord of the borough with the benevolence of the burgesses in the place where it was near The Cross’. The bailiff also acted as the Pound Keeper and he was entitled to a fee of 2d . ( 1p) for each stray animal impounded and released to its owner.
The Court Leet dealt mainly with matters relating to encroachment on barony land and law-breaking, such as making ‘a bloody assault’, keeping a tavern without licence, keeping pigs unringed to the damage of the neighbours or ‘mangy horses contrary to the Statutes’. William Melchior was deprived of his right to be a burgess for failing to remove a hedge he had built to enclose common land. The Court Baron heard ‘pleas of action personal or mixed of what sum soever’ and ‘pleas of debt and detinue, trespass and slander.9
The FitzMartins died out in 1326 and the barony passed by marriage to the Lords Audley of Heleigh in Staffordshire 10 who were seldom resident and, in consequence , the lordship was neglected. James, Lord Audley, was executed for treason in 1497 and his lands and titles became forfeit to the Crown. In 1 513 his titles and some of his lands were restored to his son who, in 1543, sold the barony of Cemais to William Owen of Henllys with a charge to the burgesses, freeholders and tenants that they should regarded him ‘as their very Lord and right owner of the said barony’.11 Owen had to face considerable hostility when he began to exercise his seigneurial rights, which had largely disappeared by neglect, and he had difficulty in collecting over-due rents and tolls. He com plained to the Council in the Marches in Wales against the burgesses for alienating lands originally appurtenant to burgages and retaining them to their own use. In 1557 he complained to the Council regarding the refusal of the portreeve, tenants and burgesses to pay rents for the years 1553-56 amounting to 4 marks, and requesting a mandate to the portreeve to levy the said arrears
His son, George Owen, the Elizabethan historian, had to face the same difficulties when he succeeded his father as lord of Cemais in 1574. He claimed that he had lost more than £300 on account of the failure of mayors to collect the customary dues, and submitted a complaint to the Council in October 1606 ‘against the burgesses for certain irregularities in their method of electing a Portreeve (now called Mayor)’ . He pointed out that, according to ancient custom, the burgesses nominated four persons from whom the lord of Cemais appointed one to the office of Mayor ‘but, good Lords, so yt is now they present two only’.12 Furthermore, those nominated had undertaken, if appointed, not to collect rents and dues and this situation continued for the next five years, until the inhabitants complained that the town was suffering the loss of trade and welfare without a mayor and corporation. On the morning of 16 May 1611 the leading aldermen visited Owen at his home at Henllys and agreed to his terms. The Court met that afternoon and four names were submitted to Owen from which he chose that of Hugh Lewis of Nevern, his trusted adviser and friend who had been mayor from 1590 to 1594 and was steward of the barony.
On 22 October 1759, when the Court was considering nominations for the mayoralty, the discussion became so heated that the mayor, Lewis George alias Lewis David, had to adjourn the Court for a week, but again the burgesses could not agree and the Court was further adjourned to 1 November. Even then there was no unanimity and, following ‘a declaration of poll’, the name of Lewis John William was place first among the names submitted to the lord of Cemais, Thomas Lloyd. 13 The following day, George Bowen of Llwyngwair, in his capacity as steward of the barony, wrote to Thomas Lloyd expressing his concern about the method of appointing mayors, but there was no change from the traditional method. The matter continued to fester however, and in 1 762 an order was issued in ‘the suit between the King and Lewis John William that George Bowen shall produce the records of the town of Newport for John Stokes, attorney for the King, to inspect’ .
The records of the Court are available from 1588 but there are gaps in the series. One such gap was rectified in 1812 when it was presented at a Court that
. . . the present Mayor must immediately procure a Book for the purpose of enrolling the several Presentments which may be found and it is therefore ordered that any Presentments or Records which may now be in the hands of any Alderman should be immediately given up to the present Mayor for the purpose of copying the same, and the same as well as the Book to be delivered to every succeeding Mayor.
A further dispute with regard to the appointment of mayor arose in 1 826. The aldermen and burgesses had placed the name of Thomas Williams of Dolrannog first on the list but the lord, Thomas Lloyd, appointed William Wigley. After some months, however, Wigley withdrew and Williams was in office for the remainder of that year and for the next year, and he was also elected mayor in 1837 but was once more the subject of dispute as counsel’s opinion was obtained and his appointment was deferred. On 31 March 1838 a writ was issued commanding the lord of Cemais, the steward, the late mayor and the burgesses to appoint a mayor and on 8 May there followed a mandamus to present three names, one of whom to be mayor, Thomas Williams was appointed for the remainder of the year. 14
The mayoralty of Newport has survived a number of attempts to abolish small corporations. Through the intervention of William Davies, the Liberal Member of Parliament for the county, it survived the Municipal Corporations Act of 1883 which stated that ‘nothing in this Act shall be deemed to prevent the election of the mayor of Newport as heretofore or to dissolve the corporation of Newport, or deprive the lord of the manor or the burgesses of any tolls, rights of common, or other rights of a pecuniary value’.
Mayors were originally installed on the Feast of St Simon and St Jude, the 28 October, until the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar when the date was changed to the 9 November. The Representation of the People’s Act of 1948 decreed that mayors should henceforth take office in May, but the Act did not apply to the borough of Newport, any more that that it should apply to the Lord Mayor of London, with whom the mayor of Newport exchanges greetings each year.
The Local Government Act of 1972, having abolished all mayors except for those appointed according to ancient custom, provided that where a Community Council resolved to have the status of a Town Council, the chairman should be entitled to the style of Town Mayor. When the New port Community Council decided to become a Town Council, it sensibly resolved that its chairman should continue to be known as Chairman and thus avoided having a Mayor and a Town Mayor at Newport.
1. J. H. Round, Family Origins and Other Studies (London, 1930), 77.
2. Dillwyn Miles, The Lords of Cemais (Haverfordwest, 1997), 10-12.
3. R. Geraint Gruffydd, ‘A Poem in Praise of Cuhelyn Fardd from the Black Book of Carmarthen’, Studia Celtica, x/xi (1975-76), 199.
4. Francis Jones, ‘Family Tales from Dyfed’ in The Transactions of the Honour able Society of Cymmrodorion ( 1963), 65.
5. R. R. J?avies, The Age of Conquest 1063-1415, (Oxford, 1991), 101. It is interesting to note that Cuhelyn’s direct descendants, the Bowens of Llwyn gwa1r, a family that provided eight High Sheriffs of the county of Pembroke and a Lord Lieutenant.
6. Lewis Thorpe (ed.), Gerald of Wales: The Journey through Wales and the Description of Wales (Harmondsworth, I 978), 171.
7 Julia Barrow (ed.), St Davids Episcopal Acta 1085-1280 (Cardiff , 1998), 69.
8 Frankpledge was the collective responsibility for apprehending offenders.
Y . National Library of Wales Journal , VII ( 1 951 ), 38-45. 10. Dillwyn Miles, op. cit., 7-44.
II. Henry Owen (ed.), The Description of Penbrokshire (London, 1 892), vi ii.
1 2. B. G. Charles, George Owen of Henllys: A Welsh Elizabethan (Aberystwyh I 973), 95-8. ‘
1 3. National Library of Wales, Bronwydd MSS 3336.
14. ibid., 7025.