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.