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Under the Charters

The story of the Borough of Aberystwyth begins with King Edward I granting a Charter on December 28th, 1277 proclaiming the town a free borough.

This, of course, was not the beginning of the history of our neighbourhood. By 1277 it already had a long and interesting past reaching back many thousands of years.

It is believed that the first settlers were primitive hunters and collectors who lived on the shore at Penyrangor, possibly some 7,000 to 10,000 years ago. They used the flint pebbles on the beach and fashioned them into tiny knives, scrapers and boring tools which were their chief implements.

We know little of these far-off times, and we have to jump some thousands of years ahead to the next settlement which we know something about. This was on Pendinas, where refugees from European countries, conquered by the Romans, built a fortified hill-village around 2,000 years ago. It was in two parts, the upper containing rude huts, and the lower set aside for oxen, sheep and goats. At this time the valley below was marshy or wooded, where many wild animals roamed.

The next important settlement was associated with St. Padarn who founded the church or monastery of Llanbadarn Fawr about 1,400 years ago. It remained an outstanding religious centre for centuries.

Much of what we know of the next important period - the Norman conquest - has come down to us in the chronicles written by the monks of Llanbadarn Fawr and Strata Florida. The Normans first overran Ceredigion in 1073, but their attempts to hold on to the area received many set-backs and led to decades of warfare. To strengthen their hold on the north of the county, they built a temporary castle of earth and timber at Tanybwlch about the year 1110. At this time, the river Ystwyth flowed out to sea near Tanybwlch mansion, and so this castle was correctly called Aberystwyth Castle. The castle was destroyed and re-built several times in the troubled years that followed.

When King Edward I made a determined effort to subdue Wales in the second half of the thirteenth century, he directed three army thrusts at the native stronghold of Gwynedd in north-west Wales: one along the North Wales coast, one through Central Wales, and a third along the West coast. When the English examined the military potential of the Aberystwyth region, as a base for the West coast army, they disapproved of the site of the Tanybwlch castle, and selected instead a small hillock near the mouth of the Rheidol, and built thereon the massive stone castle whose ruins we see today. King Edward himself visited the castle while it was in the course of erection in 1277, and directed, as was the Norman custom, that a small walled-town be built under its shadow. This was the beginning of Aberystwyth. At first, the little town was known as Llanbadarn Caerog (the Fortified Llanbadarn), and it was to the town so called that the king on December 28th, 1277 granted a charter proclaiming it a free borough. In some way or other, the name of the old castle at Tanybwlch stuck to the new castle, and, as time went on, the name was transferred to the little walled town as well. So, by the Age of the Tudors, we hear of Aberystwyth town and Aberystwyth Castle, though, of course, it should really be Aber Rheidol, as it is situated at the mouth of the Rheidol. The story of the construction of the Norman castle and its design and subsequent history has been told in a booklet published in 1973 entitled The Castle and Borough of Aberystwyth by C. J. Spurgeon.

The First Charter

The first charter, which was written in Latin, directed that the town should not only be walled and ditched, but should also have a guild merchant, a weekly market and two annual fairs, and enjoy the liberties of the borough of Montgomery.

The wall ran from the castle around the base of the town hill and back to the castle, following the line of the modern South Road, Mill Street, Chalybeate Street, Baker Street, Alfred Place, Crynfryn Buildings and King Street, with gates at Bridge Street, Great Darkgate Street and Eastgate. The wall itself was between six and nine feet thick. Inside its perimeter, no Welshman was allowed to hold land or tenements; only Anglo-Norman soldiers, merchants and their families lived inside. In spite of this, however, Welshmen in due course did begin to settle in the borough−possibly this was more the case at Aberystwyth than in other places. By the early 1300s, Welshmen possessed 43 per cent of the holdings in Aberystwyth and were classed as burgesses the same as the English settlers.

Monday Market

To return to the charter of 1277: the guild merchant it established enjoyed, among other privileges, exclusive trading rights among the rural Welsh of the area - as far south as the Aeron and north to the Dyfi. This led to an abrupt change in the economic life of the Welsh. The weekly market on Mondays was established at the very beginning of the borough and has continued to the present day. Naturally, the constable of the castle had first choice of all the saleable articles brought to the market. Butter, eggs, beef and poultry were sent to the castle larder every Monday at a nominal price.

Edward I also established two annual fairs at Aberystwyth, one lasting four days at Whitsun, the other of eight days at Michaelmas. The present November fair is a link with the latter.

Although the town wall enclosed a considerable area, it took centuries to fill the space with houses. In the first decade of the 1300's there were 112 burgesses, but the Black Death 40 years later appears to have halved their number. The burgesses were not the only occupants of the borough. There were also servants and bondsmen, and the garrison of the castle. It is not possible to estimate the population during these times. Aberystwyth had long been an important fishing centre and there must have been several fishermen's cottages in the neighbourhood.

For the period that the castle retained its military and administrative importance, we cannot speak of Aberystwyth as a self-governing borough. The castle housed the various courts under which the law and government were administered by royal officials. Nevertheless, the burgesses' rights were important. Apart from trading privileges they protected them from arrest for debts under certain circumstances and from conviction in other cases.

The burgesses prized their charter above all else and made a habit of getting new kings to confirm it, though this was not really necessary. The Aberystwyth charter was confirmed or extended by Edward III, Richard II, Henry V, Henry VI, Edward IV and Henry VIII. The 1380 charter of Richard II excluded Welshmen (in theory, anyway) from any part in civic jurisdiction, common pasture rights and timber and turf rights. It also established the use of a jury in Aberystwyth.

The Act of Union of 1536 and subsequent legislation in the next few years had important effects on Aberystwyth. For the first time, Justices of the Peace were appointed in Wales, and most were Welsh gentry. For the first time also, Wales was given the right to send representatives to Parliament. Ceredigion had two Members of Parliament, one for the county, and one for the boroughs. The names of the first two M.Ps. have been lost and the first record we have of an M.P. for the Cardigan Boroughs seat is that of Jenkyn ap Rhees, returned in 1542.  At first, only the burgesses of Cardigan town had the right to vote, while Aberystwyth and the other boroughs had to join in paying the M.P's wages. Later all the boroughs were allowed to take part in the voting. The Cardigan Boroughs' seat was merged with the county seat in 1885.

After 1536 the castle, like other Welsh castles, was deprived of much of its purely administrative importance and soon ceased to be inhabited.  It was occupied again in the Civil War but after holding out for the king, was destroyed by Cromwellian forces. In fact, the castle had only twice been lost to the crown - first in the Welsh uprising of 1282-3 and when Owain Glyndŵr held it, 1404-8.