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Welsh Family History Archive

Monmouthshire – in England or in Wales?

The mistaken belief that Monmouthshire is in England came to prominence in the 19th century, and continued well into the 20th century. Even now, many authorities still perpetuate the error.
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The county of Monmouthshire has never been part of England. Henry VIII, through the Act of Union of 1536, created Monmouthshire, together with the counties of Breconshire, Denbighshire, Montgomeryshire, and Radnorshire, from Welsh lands previously owned by the Marcher Lords. As a result, the number of Welsh counties increased from eight to thirteen.
The belief that Monmouthshire was in England arose from the fact that in 1542, justice and administration for Wales were vested in the officers of a new court - the King's Great Session in Wales. The Great Session for Wales was organised into four circuits, each consisting of three counties, and which would each have two justices.

The four circuits covered the following counties:
1. Anglesey, Caernarfon and Merioneth
2. Flint, Denbigh and Montgomery
3. Cardiganshire, Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire
4. Glamorgan, Breconshire, and Radnorshire

Monmouthshire was omitted from this scheme, and was placed under the jurisdiction of the Courts of Chancery and Exchequer at Westminster. Ecclesiastically, Annals & Antiquitiesthe county remained in the Welsh diocese of Llandaff, and culturally, linguistically and in every other respect continued to be Welsh. Later, in the reign of Charles II, Monmouthshire was transferred to the Oxford circuit, together with Oxford, Gloucester, Worcester and Hereford.

The status of Monmouthshire as a Welsh county is discussed on Glyn Hale's website from where I have taken some of the information above, but a more detailed and authoritative account is given in Volume 2 of Annals and Antiquities of the Counties and County Families of Wales, by Thomas Nicholas, published by Longmans, Green, Reader, & Co., London, 1872. The author devotes over four pages of his book to a vehement and well-argued dismissal of what he describes as "this vulgar error"; i.e. the claim that Monmouthshire is or was in England. He quotes verbatim the relevant paragraphs from the Act of Union.

The full text of Thomas Nicholas's argument is reproduced below.

Annals and Antiquities of the Counties and County Families of Wales (Volume 2)
by Thomas Nicholas, MA, PhD, FGS, &c.
(published 1872)


The custom has become almost settled to consider the county of Monmouth a part of England, and to assign to Wales the even number of twelve counties, six south and six north. Maps of Wales are now constructed which make the Usk the eastern boundary; children at school are almost invariably taught that Monmouthshire is "in England" and the erroneous notion is somewhat encouraged by a certain tone of "national" feeling which willingly winks at history and gives vantage to prejudice. Even the Registrar-General, (Census, 1871), although he admits it to be "essentially Cambrian," and puts it in the "Welsh Division," still ranks it among the "Counties of England". In a work on the annals of the counties of Wales it is proper that the groundlessness of this notion should be made known, and the county legitimately settled in its proper place as one of the thirteen counties of Wales.
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There can be no question about the ethnology of the county of Monmouth. It may be true that even the blood of England is more Cymric than Saxon, and that we have reason herein to moderate, and even forget all national antipathy as between Welsh and English [see panel, right]. The people of Monmouthshire, to say the least of it, are as much Cymric as are the people of Glamorgan or Brecknock and, barring the change brought into the counties of Monmouth and Glamorgan within living memory by the influx of English-speaking persons, the language spoken by the natives still continues to testify to their race. In these respects, therefore, Monmouthshire is now, as in past times, a part and parcel of Wales.

In point of government, the relation of Gwent (i.e., Monmouthshire and part of Glamorgan, &c.) to Wales always, even before the Norman Conquest, was that of a somewhat distinct and independent sovereignty. This has been repeatedly noticed in the course of our discussions. But nothing to affect the common bond of national unity arose out of this circumstance.

The earliest geographical recognition) of Gwent in its relation to Wales, subsequently to the period when the distinction between England and Wales was made broad and prominent by the English conquest, is found in the ancient document called "Parthau Cymru," in the Myvyrian Archaiology of Wales. This purports to be a survey of Wales, North and South, made in the time of the last Llewelyn (13th century). There the cantrefs and comots of all Wales are marked. The district now mainly included in Monmouthshire is divided into three cantrefs and thirteen comots (see p. 596, "Gwaunllwg," "Gwent Uwch-Coed," "Gwent Is-Coed"). But about the relation of Gwent to Wales at this period there is no question, and therefore no need of evidence.

The Norman conquest of these parts had no tendency to unite them to England. The Lord Marcher system created independent lordships. If it be true that they had the effect of alienating the conquered districts from Wales, it must be remembered that they alienated Denbighshire (or the "four cantrefs"), Montgomery, Brecknock, and Glamorgan as much as Monmouthshire. But they had in reality no such effect. Henry VIII, when he incorporated Wales with England by the "Act of Union", took the whole Principality with its inhabitants as a recognised unity, a country or "dominion," just as Scotland at a subsequent time was taken, as then recognised, as a separate nationality, with distinct character and limits. The effect of the Union was not to dismember Scotland. In like manner the effect of the Union was not to dismember Wales.

But it will be said that Henry's Act of Union made a difference as it respects Monmouthshire. Here comes therefore the point to be tested, and it must be examined with care. What then was the difference made by Henry with respect to Monmouthshire? In other words, in what respect did the junction of this county with England differ from the junction of the other counties of Wales with England? There was a point of difference—a very small but very distinct one, in no wise affecting the geographical classification or provincial relations of the county, yet large enough to have introduced the error now sought to be exposed and removed. It had to do simply with the circuit of the judges and the administration of the law, and had no reference whatever to the distribution of counties. Up to this time the Marches had not been subject to visitation by the king's judges. The King's Writ did not run in them, the power of jura regalia, conceded to the lords, entitling them to hold courts of their own, and even enact, within limits, laws of their own. Henry VIII put a stop to this part of the rule of the Marchers, created the county of Monmouth, and placed it under the jurisdiction of Westminster. This seems to be all that was done; and on this slender basis has been built the whole of the notion that Monmouthshire is an English county. In a matter of so much speciality, where, out of a region subject to exceptional feudal rule, a regular county is created, and when created transferred, as the hypothesis goes, from one recognised nationality and "dominion" to another, we have a right to expect very definite and express language, and we know that Henry VIII was never wanting in definiteness and point when putting forth a command or enactment. It was a characteristic, indeed, of all the Tudor sovereigns to make their will known beyond all possibility of doubt. We must therefore go to Henry's own act, and cite his own language.

The simple truth is, though many will be surprised to hear it, that the 27th Henry VIII (the "Act of Union") itself expressly speaks of Monmouthshire as a part of the country or dominion of Wales, and says not a syllable about its junction with England except in the sense in which it speaks of the junction with England of Brecknock, Glamorgan, Carmarthen, Montgomery, and others. This is the part of the statute which concerns the case:–

And forasmuch as there be many and divers Lordships Marchers within the said Countrey or Dominion of Wales, lyinge betwene the Shyres of Englande and the said Countrey or Dominion of Wales, and beying no parcell of any other Shires where the lawes and due correction is used and had; by reason whereof hath ensued and hath benne practised, perpetrated, committed and done within and amonge the sayde Lordshippes and Countreys to them adjoyning manifold and divers detestable murders, brennying [burning] of houses, robberies, theftes, trespasses, rowtes, ryottes, unlawful assembles, embraceries, maintenaunces, recevinge of felons, oppressions, ruptures of the peace, and manifolde other malefactes contrary to all lawes and justice. And the sayde offenders thereupon makynge their refuge from Lordeshippes to Lordeship were and continued without punishment or correction; for due reformacion whereof, and for as muche as divers and many of the said Lordeshippes Marches be now in the handes and possession of our Soveraine Lord the King, and the smallest number of them in the possession of other Lordes:– It is therefore enacted by thauctoritee [the authority] aforesaid that divers of the said Lordshipes Marchers shall be united, annexed, and joined to divers of the Shires of England; and divers of the said Lordships Marchers shall be united, annexed, and joyned to divers of the Shyres of the saide Country or Dominion of Wales, in manner and forme hereafter following. And that all the residue of the said Lordeships Marchers within the saide Countrey or Dominion of Wales shall be served and divided into certaine particular Counties or Shires, that is to say: The Countie or Shire of Mommouth, the Countie or Shire of Brekenoke, the Countie or Shire of Radnor, the Countie or Shire of Mountgomery, the Countie or Shire of Denbigh. And that the Lordships, townships, parishes, commotes, and cantredes of Monmouth, Chepstow, Matherne, Llamnihangel, Magour, Goldecliffe, Newport, Wenllouge, Llanwerne, Caerlion, Uske, Trelecke, Tinterne, Skynfreth, Grousmont, Witecastell, Reglan, Calicote, Biston, Abergevenny, Penrose, Grenefeld, Maghen, and Hochvyslade, in the Countrey of Wales; and all and singular honours, lordships, caste Is, manours, landes, tenementes, and hereditamentes lying or being within the compas or precint of the lordships, towneships, hamlets, parishes, commotes, and cantredes, and every of them, in whose possession soever they be or shal be, and every parte therof, shall stand and be from and after the said feast of all sainctes, guildable, and shall be reputed, accepted, named, and taken as part and membres of the sayde shire of Mommouth; and that the saed Towne of Mommouth shall be named, accepted, reputed, used, had; and taken head and shire towne of the said countie or shire of Mommouth. And that the shiriffes, countie, and shire courte of and for the said shire or Countie of Mommouth shall be holden and kept one time at the saide towne of Mommouth, and the nexte time at the Towne of Newporte in the same countie or shire, and so to be kepte in the same two townes alternis vicibus, and accordynge to the lawes of this realme of Englande for ever and in none other places.
And it is further enacted by thauchoritee aforesaide that all actions realles hereafter shall be conveied, pepetrated, or sued for any landes, tenementes, or heriditamentes, or any other thinge within the saide Countie or shire of Mommouth, and all actions personal within the same shire or countie of the summe of 40/- or above, and all actions rnixte, shall be sued by originall writte out of the King's High Court of Chauncerie in Englande, and harde, determined, and tried before the Kinge's Justices in Englande by assize or Nisi Prius within the saide Countie of Mommouth, in suchelyke maner, fourme, and wise as all other actions realles, personalIes, and actions mixte be sued, hard, determined, and tried in or for any shire of this realme of Englande. And that the King's Justices of his Benche or of his Common Benche of Westminster shall have full power and auctoritie to directe all maner processe to the shireffe and all other officers of the saide Countie of Mommouth, and also to directe writtes of venire facias to the same shireffe for the triall of every issue joined before them, and also to awarde Commissions of Nisi Prius into the said Countie of Mommouth for the triall of suche issues joyned before them in like maner and fourme as they do into every shire of this realme of Englande. And all and every the Kinge's subjectes and inhabitantes within the said Countie of Mommouth shall be for ever from and after the saide feaste of all sainctes obliged and bounden to be obedient and attendant to the Lord Chauncellor of England, the Kinge's Justices, and other of the Kinge's most honourable Counsel, and unto all lawes, customs, ordinances, and statutes of this realme of Englande, in like maner, fourme, and wise as all other the Kinge's subjectes within every shire of this realme of Englande be obliged and bounden, any acte, statute, usage, custom, libertie, privilege, or any other thinge to the contrarie in any wise not withstanding. (Public General Acts: 27th HENRY VIII., cap. 26.)

We have quoted the statute verbatim et literatim that all may see that it contains nothing to justify the popular belief that Monmouthshire was made an English county, and Wales made to consist of twelve counties only, by the eighth Henry. The Act expressly recognises the shire of Monmouth as in a category different from those portions of the Marches which were to be joined to England, as carved out of a "residue" of the Marches "within the said country or dominion of Wales," and constituted a county of the same order and provincial character as the other then created counties of "Brekenoke, Radnor, Mountgomery," &c. No allusion is made to any distinction or difference except in the single matter of the substitution in Monmouth of the jurisdiction of the Judges of the King's Court at Westminster for that of the irresponsible and now displaced Lords Marchers. If a mere circuit arrangement took Monmouthshire from Wales then all the other twelve counties have now been taken from Wales, and no "Wales" further remains. The theory that Monmouthshire is an English county, first conceived by error, received without examination, and settled at last by an indolent consent, has thus in truth no historic or legal foundation, and must be pronounced a geographical blunder.

This conclusion appears still more clear and forcible when we look into our old topographical and legal writers. Authors of eminence who lived later than the age of Henry VIII seem never to have heard of the limitation of Wales to the balanced number of six northern and six southern counties, and the handing over of fertile Gwent to the English side. Camden, temp. James I, writing systematically on the "Divisions of Britain," says that besides the counties belonging to England there were "THIRTEEN more in Wales, six whereof were in Edward the First's time, and the rest Henry VIII settled by Act of Parliament;" and among the thirteen he in a subsequent part of his great work (Britannia) includes Monmouthshire. Is it conceivable that a man so well-informed as Camden, generally so painstaking and accurate, and certainly swayed by no partiality towards Wales, should so write, if by an Act of Henry VIII the counties of Wales had been settled at twelve, and Monmouthshire made an English county?

Humphrey Llwyd, an equally accurate writer, living at the very time when Henry's Act of Union was passed, and writing his Historie of Cambria in 1568, only twenty-one years after Henry's death, describes South Wales as containing "seven counties," of which one was Gwent or Monmouth ("Gwenta, quae et Monumethensis," &c.), and says that these seven counties were ascribed to South Wales by the English ("ab Anglis tribuuntur").

Sir John Dodridge, in his Historical Account of the Principality of Wales, published in 1714, in giving at p. 2 the divisions of Wales, says, "The whole country is now allotted into shires, which are thirteen in number;" and among the thirteen he places Monmouth. Sir John Dodridge was an eminent lawyer, and would certainly have been aware of any statute, had such existed, which made the number of Welsh counties to be twelve and not thirteen. He was well aware of the statute 27 Henry VIII, and mentions that it ordained that Monmouthshire "should be governed from henceforth in like manner and by the same judges as other the shires of England" (p. 41).

The "vulgar error" of classifying this county with England, and not with "the countrey or dominion of Wales," as the statute of Henry VIII denominates it, is not only "vulgar" (i.e., diffused among the people), but is also comparatively recent. Not, indeed, that instances of it do not occur in authors of the eighteenth century,—ex. gr., Browne Willis, in his Notitia Parl., makes Monmouth an English county. But it has become a general and settled opinion only within the present century, and, as will be seen from the above facts, for no better reason than that some one made a mistake or perpetrated an imposture, and that others received and passed on what had been coined.

About the source – "Annals and Antiquities of the Counties and County Families of Wales"

Thomas Nicholas's monumental work was first published in 1872. It took these remarkably well-chronicled Welsh lineages and preserved them in print. Unlike other genealogy books, it combined histories of the ancient counties of Wales with the family lineages, integrating the two to show the social and genealogical evolution of the various Welsh counties.
This classic work on Welsh lineages provides a reliable record of both ancient and modern families, plus a record of all the ranks of the gentry, their lineages, appointments, armorial ensigns and residences. The ancient pedigrees include extinct families and rolls of county officials and high sheriffs.
Nicholas enhanced the value of his work by personally investigating county records to confirm even obscure facts. The end result is believed by some to be the most complete and faithful compendium of Welsh family history ever published.

About the author – Thomas Nicholas, MA, PhD, FGS, &c.

Thomas Nicholas, 1820-1879, was a Congregational minister and antiquary, born at Trefgarn, near Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire, and educated at the Lancashire College, Manchester. In 1847, he became pastor at the Old Chapel, Stroud, Gloucestershire, and about seven years later settled at Eignbrook, Hereford. In 1856, he was appointed professor of Biblical literature and mental and moral science at the Presbyterian College, Carmarthen. Resigning in 1863, he settled in London, and took a prominent part in the promotion of a scheme for higher education in Wales. He was elected a Fellow of the Geographical Society. Certain Biblical criticisms from his pen having become known to the Senate of the University of Gottingen, Germany, the diploma of M.A., and Ph.D., was conferred upon him, at the suggestion of Professors Dorner and Ewald. In 1878 he revised the English edition of Boedeker's London, as it passed through the press. He projected a History of Wales, but did not live to complete it. Besides pamphlets and other publications, he was the author of Middle and High Class Schools; University Education in Wales; The Pedigree of the English People; Annals and Antiquities of the Counties and County Families of Wales, and History and Antiquities of the County of Glamorgan. He was buried in the cemetery at Hammersmith. (Dict. Nat. Biog.; Cong. Year Book, 1881). See Athenceum, 1879, i. 662; Academy, 1879, i. 477; Men of the Reign; London Echo, May, 1879; Baner ac Amserau Cymru, May, 1879; Times, 16th May, 1879.
[Extracted from Eminent Welshmen: A Short Biographical Dictionary of Welshmen (Vol. I), by T. R. Roberts, The Educational Publishing Company Ltd., Cardiff & Merthyr Tydfil, 1908]

Note: Annals and Antiquities of the Counties and County Families of Wales can be accessed online on the website.

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Details of each website feature (for newcomers) Direct links to each website feature (for regulars) Advance news of new developments on my website Summary of all the latest updates Gateway to Welsh Family History Archive Help for those having problems accessing my website A link to the main 'gateway' page to my entire website