The origin of the Marcher Lordships
As one historian described it, the Norman Conquest of England was a joint-stock enterprise by a syndicate out for loot, power, glory and the favour of Heaven , whereas Wales was attacked by an independent provincial family of the parent mafia. 1
Whereas the Norman conquest of England was a fairly straightforward affair (one battle and a few rebellions ruthlessly surpressed) by which the entire kingdom came under the ownership and control of William I within five years, the conquest of Wales was a more lethargic affair and lasted over two centuries.
It was also almost a matter of private enterprise; ambitious and ruthless Norman knights were able to carve out their own petty kingdom by dispossessing a native Welsh tywysog and establishing themselves as rulers in their place. Men like Robert Fitz Hamon and Bernard of Neufmarche, the Clares, the Cliffords, the Mortimer, Bohun and Fitzalan families went west in search of wealth and glory and established their own minor dynasties.
These where the Marcher Lordships, which would exist in some form for over 450 years, and were collectively known as Marchia Wallia, that is 'Marcher Wales' or more simply just as 'the March'; to be distinguished from Pura Wallia or Wales proper that remained subject to the rule of native kings. Wales was therefore divided into separate spheres of influence, one ruled by Norman lords and the other ruler by native Welsh kings.
The March encompassed the eastern fringes of Flintshire and Montgomeryshire, most of Radnorshire and Breconshire, the whole of both Glamorganshire and Monmouthshire and the south of both Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire. But the boundaries of the March were not fixed and until the death of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd in 1282 the boundaries between Marchia Wallia and Pura Wallia shifted and changed with the ebb and flow of the struggle between the Welsh and Anglo-Normans.
(It is important here to distinguish between 'Marcher Wales', that portion of Wales subject to the rule of Norman lords and the 'Welsh Marches', which in its modern sense is a purely geographic term mainly applied to the western fringes of the English counties of Herefordshire and Shropshire but also of Cheshire and Gloucestershire.)
The nature of the Marcher Lordships
in the marches, where the King's writ does not run.
The Marcher Lordships operated as if they were independent kingdoms whose rulers could act as they saw fit within their territory. They could build castles, wage war on their neighbours and levy whatever taxes they thought their subjects could bear. 2
Although Marcher Lords were themselves subjects of the king of England their marcher territories were not part of the kingdom of England; English Law did not apply, Welsh Law did not apply, 'Marcher Law' became whatever the individual Marcher Lord thought would suit within his specific Lordship and developed its own idiosyncratic system of rules and procedures.
There is some dispute as to whether this independence derived from their assumption of the prerogatives of the Welsh tywysogion whom they had replaced or simply from forbearance by, or the weakness of, the English crown. 3 The answer is probably a bit of both, as in practice the Marcher Lords seemed to have picked whatever bits and pieces of English or Welsh law and custom that suited them at the time. (And brought the most profit.)
The history of the Marcher Lordships
Although the first lordships to emerge where in the former kingdom of Gwent in the years before 1071 when Willima Fitz Osbern penetrated the Wye Valley and built a string of castles (most notably) at Chepstow to protect his conquests; it was during the reign of William II that the Marcher Lordships really emerged as a feature of the Welsh political landscape.
After the death of the Welsh king Rhys ap Tewdwr in 1093, Norman forces burst into Wales as William II decided to turn a blind eye towards the activites of his more ambitious subjects. Although the First Anti-Norman Rebellion of 1094 prevented these Norman adventurers from entirely subjugating Wales, a large part the country fell under their sway.
In the following decades much of the south including most of the former kingdom of Deheubarth was carved up into individual Marcher Lordships;
Robert Fitz Hamon transformed Morgannwg into Glamorgan, Bernard of Neufmarche similarly made Brycheiniog into the lordship of Brecon, elsewhere representatives of the Mortimer and Bohun families seized their little piece of heaven. 4
By the time that William II was replaced by his brother Henry I the boundaries between 'Welsh Wales' and 'Marcher Wales' were effectively set and it was Henry I who essentially accepted this division, pre-occupied as he was with the reconquest and retention of Normandy which set the pattern for the next couple of centuries. From the point of view of the Norman kings of England this was a way of dealing with the problem of the independent kings of Wales by pushing them further away and interposing a series of buffer states.
Of course, having allowed some of their subjects to obtain such a degree of independent power on their borders they had later cause to regret it; as various Marcher Lords often made common cause with the Welsh against the authorities in London, anxious as they were to protect their priviliges from any efforts at curtailment by the English crown 5. They also inter-married with the sons and daughters of Welsh nobility and royalty and together evolved something akin to a Cambro-Norman society.
Following the final defeat of Dafydd ap Gruffudd in 1283 the last remaining chunk of Pura Wallia, that is the kingdom of Gwynedd, became the crown territories in Wales acquired by the right of conquest and became known as the Principality of Wales.
Despite the disappearance of almost the final remains of independent Welsh power in 1283 and therefore the whole raison d'etre of Marcher Wales, it continued and indeed grew in the succeeding years. Edward I created new lordships in the Perfeddwlad to reward some of his loyal supporters. But whereas the Principality became organised on a standard English pattern with the appointment of sherriffs and justices and the like and with the application of semblance of the Common Law; Marcher Wales constituted a hodge-podge of legal jurisdictions that did much to encourage lawlessness and anarchy and earned a reputation as a heaven for fugitives from justice.
It became almost a requirement for the senior English nobility to have the odd Marcher Lordship in their back pocket. A Marcher lordship gave access to both military and financial resources beyond that of a normal English lordship and the ability to project one's influence on the political stage.
The most powerful Marcher lord of all, Roger Mortimer, the first Earl of March was even able to effectively seize control of England itself for a few brief years between 1326 and 1330.
The failure of male heirs among the families of the marcher lords led to the transfer of lordships from family to family through the marriages of heiress, and more importantly allowed them to be controlled by the crown and handed out as rewards to their most faithful supporters. By the mid fifteenth century; aside from the English crown itself, which had come into posession of Monmouth, Cydweli and Brecon; the only Marcher Lords of note were the duke of Buckingham who held Newport, the duke of Norfolk with Chepstow and Gower, and the Neville family with Abergavenny and Glamorgan.
Unlike the Mortimers Bohuns and Clares of old, these families were new to Wales and remained aloof from its concerns. The concerns of these new lords were uniformly English, administration of their Welsh possessions were delegated to appointed officials and ignored other than a source of ready funds. The revolt of Owain Glyn Dwr had in any event, reduced the values of rents within Wales. To compensate for this deficit, they adopted the practice of 'redeeming' court sessions. That is, instead of conducting a trial to determine innocence or guilt and imposing a suitable penalty, a fine was imposed on the whole community. Whilst this practice was comparatively lucrative in the short term, it contributed much to the reputation of the March for lawlessness and maladministration.
Eventually Edward IV created the Council of Wales and the Marches in 1471 in an attempt to impose some kind of order on the situation, but it was left to the reforming zeal of the Tudor dynasty to effect a permanent solution. The Acts of Union 1536-1543 swept them all away as the various Marcher lordships were all bundled up into new Welsh shires or incorporated into adjacent English counties.
The Marcher Lordships of Wales
1 See Gwyn Williams in SOURCES
2 And indeed make war on each other; the marcher lords of Glamorgan and Brecon fell into dispute over the exact boundaries between their respective domains and engaged in their own little private war in 1292.
3 It was Goronwy Edwards who arrived at the conclusion that the marcher lords derived their powers directly from the Welsh tywysog whom they supplanted, a suggestion that has not met with universal approval.
4 In Deheubarth as in most of Wales the carving up of the country into marcher lordships followed the lines of the old cantrefs and commotes, so that it was generally a question of the Normans simply re-naming an existing geo-political unit.
5 The Normans learnt from their error and ensured that the mistake was not repeated when a similar situation arose in Ireland; Irish lordships were made subject to the English crown and law from the off.
Gwyn Williams When Was Wales? (Penguin, 1991)
Lynn H. Nelson The Normans in South Wales 1070-1171 (University of Texas Press, 1966)
John Davies A History of Wales (Allen Lane, 1993)
Emergence of Wales:The March of Wales 1070 at
List of Marcher Lordships derived from
Charles Arnold Baker The Companion to British History (Longcross Press, 1996)