Available from Cambridge University Press
Number of voters:
|7 Mar. 1604||Sir Robert Knollys I|
|c. Mar. 1614||SIR CHARLES VAUGHAN|
|20 Dec. 1620||SIR HENRY WILLIAMS|
|30 Dec. 1623||SIR HENRY WILLIAMS|
|2 Apr. 1625||SIR CHARLES VAUGHAN|
|11 Jan. 1626||JOHN PRISE|
|5 Mar. 1628||HENRY WILLIAMS|
Breconshire was one of the counties created by the Henrician Acts of Union, centred on the old lordship of Brecon, which had escheated to the Crown following the attainder of the 3rd duke of Buckingham (1523). The county was dominated by the upland ranges of the Brecon Beacons and the Black Mountains, one seventeenth-century author observing that the ‘high hills’ were ‘so thick together … in a manner of high bulwarks and compact joints of this county’ that it was a ‘fit place of refuge for the Britons’.1 This geography meant that the farming of cattle and sheep dominated, although there was scope for producing corn and grain in the fertile river valleys and in the more forgiving topography towards the border with England on the county’s eastern fringe. Such an economic profile did not produce a crop of wealthy gentlemen, and so early Stuart Breconshire was stocked with only a small number of gentry families of the first rank. Parliamentary elections for the county were held at Brecon Castle.
In electoral terms the interest of the Vaughans of Porthaml had been decisive during the Elizabethan era, and their large family estates meant that they continued to hold sway under James I. This was evidenced in the 1604 return of Sir Robert Knollys I, who had married the Porthaml heiress. Knollys’ poor financial situation may have dissuaded him from sitting again, however, for in 1614 his son-in-law, Sir Charles Vaughan, who lived in Wiltshire, replaced him. After Knollys’ death in 1619, the seat passed to the new powerhouse of Breconshire politics, Sir Henry Williams of Gwernyfed, whose family had previously sat for the borough seat. Williams’ father, Sir David†, was a lawyer who spent most of his time in London or Berkshire, but Sir Henry resided within the shire, serving as chairman of the county bench and as a member of the Council in the Marches. He took the county seat in 1621 and 1624 with support from a broad spectrum of gentry allies, including the Gameses of Aberbrân, Newton and Buckland, the Walbeoffs of Llanhamlach, and the Aubreys of Abercynrig.2 Probably through contacts forged by his father, he was also on good terms with another leading figure in Breconshire politics, (Sir) Walter Pye I* of the Mynde, Herefordshire, who became chief justice of the Breconshire circuit in 1617.
There seems not to have been a particularly vibrant parliamentary political culture amongst the Breconshire gentry, for in 1625 the county’s electors were happy to return the absentee Sir Charles Vaughan once more, while in 1626 they chose the inexperienced John Prise of The Priory. The latter, a scion of one of the shire’s most respected political families, was not an active representative, and perhaps owed his return to his father’s contacts with Sir Henry Williams, or possibly to a family connection with Sir Walter Pye I, whose father-in-law was Prise’s grandfather. It is likely that Vaughan, too, was chosen at the behest of, or at least with the blessing of, Sir Henry Williams, who endorsed his election indenture and who, for reasons that are unknown, seems never to have stood for re-election after sitting in 1624. Sir Henry’s son and heir took the county place in 1628, aided by his father, who was then serving as sheriff. An impressive array of the county’s leading gentlemen were contracting parties at his election, among them the 1626 Member, John Prise.3
There were few issues on which the county MPs were active in Parliament. An exception, however, was the question of purveyance. This was a comparatively novel levy in Wales, having only been introduced in the later years of Elizabeth’s reign. Although the burden of composition was comparatively light, being set at only £30 for each county, the fact that the charge covered stirks (young bullocks or heifers) and ‘fat cattle’, seems to have caused disquiet.4 In 1604 Sir Robert Knollys I was one of the Welsh Members who petitioned Parliament ‘in the name of the commons of those parts’, that the charge was a grievance.5 He was also among those named to a committee in May 1604 to give evidence ‘either by experience in their own particular, or by testimony of their country neighbours’ of the impact of purveyance in their localities.6