Caernarvon Boroughs


Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1604-1629, ed. Andrew Thrush and John P. Ferris, 2010
Available from Cambridge University Press

Background Information

Right of Election:

in the burgesses of Caernarvon, Conway, Criccieth, Nevin and Pwllheli

Number of voters:

over 100 in 1584


15 Nov. 1609CLEMENT EDMONDES vice Griffith, deceased
21 Jan. 1624(SIR) PETER MUTTON
c. July 1625ROBERT JONES vice Littleton, chose to sit for Leominster
6 Mar. 1626ROBERT JONES vice Littleton, chose to sit for Leominster

Main Article

Probably founded by the Normans in about 1090, Caer yn Arfon [the fort in Arfon cantref] quickly reverted to Welsh control until its capture by Edward I, whose heir, the first Plantagenet prince of Wales, was born there in 1284. In the same year the Statute of Rhuddlan established the new town as the administrative centre of the principality of North Wales; hence Sir John Wynn’s† description of the inhabitants as ‘the lawyers of Caernarvon’. Afer a slow start, the town grew under the Tudors, having a population of perhaps 1,000 in 1600. Caernarvon was dominated by its castle, the constable of the latter being ex officio mayor of the former, while the burgesses annually elected two bailiffs from among their own number to run their internal affairs. Under Elizabeth the constabulary became a sinecure held by absentees, although several deputy constables wielded sufficient local influence to earn a seat in Parliament during the period.1

By the terms of the Henrician Act of Union, the franchise in each Welsh borough constituency was shared between all the chartered boroughs within the county. In the case of Caernarvonshire this included Conway and Criccieth, both fortress towns founded by Edward I, and the Welsh fishing ports of Nevin and Pwllheli, chartered by the Black Prince in 1355. Nevin and Criccieth faded into insignificance after the Glynd?r revolt, but Conway, Pwllheli and (particularly) Caernarvon enjoyed modest economic success, importing grain and cattle from Ireland and salt from Lancashire. The only significant town excluded from the franchise was Bangor, which was never chartered by its episcopal lords.2

Whatever the legal definition of the franchise, surviving election indentures from the first half of the seventeenth century demonstrate a notable lack of consistency about voting rights: those for 1604, 1609, 1625 and 1626 were made in the name of the burgesses of Caernarvon alone; that for 1597 cited electors from Caernarvon, Pwllheli and Criccieth; and although the indenture of December 1620 described the electorate as ‘the burgesses here [Caernarvon] and … the burgesses of the said towns and liberties of Conway, Pwllheli, Nevin and Criccieth’, it returned Nicholas Griffith as ‘burgess for our said borough of Caernarvon’ and received no further endorsement apart from the Caernarvon borough seal. The indenture of December 1640 was punctiliously attested by no less than 55 burgesses, including the bailiffs of all five boroughs, but this hotly contested election spawned an inquiry which only served to highlight the lack of any settled electoral custom.3 Two of the witnesses to the Commons’ investigation of 1640 noted that the contributory boroughs levied a charge for parliamentary expenses, and recalled that Clement Edmondes had accordingly received £30 in 1610. This was an unusual gesture to make towards a Member who was a stranger to the shire, and Edmondes may have been expected to return all or part of this sum to his constituents. In notifying him of his election in 1624, Sir Peter Mutton was advised by the Caernarvon corporation to ‘take out a writ for the levy of the fee due for serving that place, though you mean not to take any thereof to yourself, and to bestow it towards the repair of our ruinous quay’.4

Under Elizabeth, the Caernarvon borough seat was dominated by the Griffith family of Plas Mawr, Caernarvon, a junior branch of the once powerful Griffiths of Penrhyn. John Griffith I, the head of the Caernarvon family, was elected in 1604. He apparently absented himself from the 1605-6 session and was dead by 15 Nov. 1609, when Clement Edmondes, recently appointed one of the clerks of the Privy Council, was returned at a by-election. Edmondes was almost certainly nominated by Lord Treasurer Salisbury (Sir Robert Cecil†), who was at the time attempting to build support for the Great Contract by securing the election of courtiers and government officials to every available seat. Salisbury usually canvassed borough corporations on his own initiative, but in this case he may also have approached Sir John Harington†, constable of Caernarvon castle, who had virtually retired from public life, for support. If he did so, Harington missed the point, as the reply he wrote to the lord treasurer on the day of the by-election merely offered to surrender the constabulary in exchange for some other form of remuneration.5 Electoral patronage at Caernarvon reverted to local hands in 1614 with the return of Nicholas Griffith, a younger son of the 1604 Member. Griffith’s eldest brother William, who had served as knight of the shire in 1597, would have been a more obvious candidate, but he may have felt the borough seat to be beneath his dignity.

When another Parliament was summoned in November 1620, (Sir) Richard Wynn* considered seeking a seat at Caernarvon in the unlikely event that Sir William Maurice* should chose to stand for knight of the shire. Wynn soon diverted his energies into an unsuccessful contest for the shire seat with John Griffith III* of Ll?n, allowing Nicholas Griffith to be returned once again for the borough.6 Unfortunately for the latter, one of the long-term consequences of the county election dispute of 1620 was that it engendered a lasting breach between the Wynns of Gwydir and the Ll?n faction, which quickly spilled over into municipal politics. In September 1622 John Griffith III was appointed constable of Caernarvon Castle, partly to enable him to strip the fortress of building materials, but also with one eye on the patronage the town’s mayoralty might afford him as returning officer at parliamentary elections. At the corporation elections of the following month, Griffith, supported by the sheriff, Thomas Glynne*, clashed with the incumbent mayor, the Wynns’ cousin and close ally Sir William Thomas of Coed Helen, who reluctantly relinquished his office, but spent the next year supporting the Wynns’ fruitless efforts to quash the borough’s charter by means of a quo warranto.7

Control of the Caernarvon corporation remained unresolved at the time of the parliamentary election of January 1624, when William Wynn* approached Sir William Thomas and William Griffith to secure the return of himself or his brother Owen. Griffith waived any claims his brother Nicholas might have to re-election, and Owen Wynn prepared to canvass at Conway, while strengthening his family’s standing at Caernarvon by offering charity to the prisoners in the castle gaol. Surprisingly, there is no evidence that the Ll?n faction promoted a rival candidate, perhaps because their energies were concentrated on securing the county seat. However, the Wynns’ plans were dashed by the emergence of another contender in the form of Sir Peter Mutton, chief justice of North Wales and brother-in-law to the Wynns’ patron, lord keeper Williams, a connection which explains his unopposed return.8

At the next election in April 1625, Mutton and his fellow judge, Edward Littleton II, aspired to make a clean sweep of both the county and the borough seats. Mutton made an early approach to Sir John Wynn, who endorsed this plan largely in the hope that it would break the Ll?n men’s grip upon the county seat, presumably being unaware of the plans his son William had already set in motion to secure the borough seat. Upon learning of a potential rival for the borough seat, Littleton wrote to Sir William Thomas ‘to know the truth in these particulars’, although, being confident of his return for Leominster, he was able to assure his supporter that ‘if the electors find one more worthy, or that they more affect than myself (as they may easily do), their refusal shall not break myself’. Thomas relayed this letter to Sir John Wynn with the observation that, if crossed in this matter, the judges could punish the boroughs by choosing to remove the assizes from Caernarvon and Conway. He also warned that, in the event of a contest with the Wynn interest, Littleton was capable of raising ‘a great faction in Pwllheli, Nevin and Criccieth’, largely due to the influence of his father-in-law, Justice (Sir) William Jones I*. The result of Thomas’s appeal was never in doubt: three days later Wynn wrote to assure Littleton that his son William had abandoned his candidacy.9 Littleton’s return for Leominster enabled him to resign the Caernarvon burgess-ship at the start of the 1625 session, whereupon he was replaced by his brother-in-law Robert Jones. A similar arrangement was reached in 1626, but in 1628 Littleton plumped for the Caernarvon seat, enabling Sir Thomas Littleton, 1st bt. to take his place at Leominster.10

Author: Simon Healy


  • 1. K. Williams-Jones, ‘Caernarvon’, Bors. Medieval Wales ed. R.A. Griffiths, 73-100; I. Soulsby, Towns of Medieval Wales, 88-91; J. Wynn, Hist. Gwydir Fam. ed. J. Gwynfor Jones, 49; L. Owen, ‘Population of Wales’, Trans. Cymmrodorion Soc. (1959), p. 109; M. Gray, ‘Castles and Patronage in 16th Century Wales’, WHR, xv. 491-2.
  • 2. SR, iii. 568, 935-6; Soulsby, 76-8, 110-15, 117-19, 192-4, 221-2; Cal. Clenennau Letters ed. T. Jones Pierce, 54, 133; E.A. Lewis, Welsh Port Bks. 1550-1603; E190/1330/12, 16, 190/1331/9, 190/1332/2.
  • 3. A.H. Dodd, Hist. Caern. 70-4; NLW, 9062E/1677; C219/33/284, 219/34/92, 219/37/340, 219/43/3/182; D’Ewes ed. W. Notestein, 455-6, 475-6.
  • 4. D’Ewes ed. Notestein, 456; Flints. RO, D/GW 2128.
  • 5. NLW, Clennenau 213; CSP Dom. 1603-10, pp. 535, 560.
  • 6. NLW, 9057E/916.
  • 7. NLW, 9058E/1033-4, 1037, 1041, 1043, 1068, 1112; J.E. Griffith, Peds. Anglesey and Caern. Fams. 125, 202, 280-1; Trans. Caern. Hist. Soc. xlviii. 11-13.
  • 8. NLW, 9059E/1172 (should be dated 2 Jan. 1624), 1176, 1189; Flints. RO, D/GW 2128.
  • 9. Procs. 1625, pp. 672-3, 684, 686; Griffith, 191; NLW, 9060E/1329.
  • 10. Procs. 1625, p. 205; Procs. 1626, ii. 60; CD 1628, ii. 144.