Serious general histories of Wales are rare enough. For such a work to be published first in the Welsh language, and only later in English, is unheard of. Thus in its very conception John Davies’s book makes a kind of statement. Those versed in European historiography may be reminded of a famous case of linguistic shift 150 years ago. Frantiek Palacký began his history of Bohemia in German, the language of polite society; but he continued it in Czech, the mother tongue of a majority of the people. The first volume of his Dejiny národu Ceského v Cechách a na Morave appeared in the revolutionary March days of 1848, and Palacký found himself the founderleader of the Czech national movement.
John Davies (we may suppose) has no ambitions of that sort, and his account—relaxed, benign, witty, engaging—is quite the reverse of Palacký’s somber and intense masterpiece. Yet his superb narrative deserves to make an impact, and he too has definitely written the history of a nation, not of a mere region or geographical expression (though Wales has been called both in its time), as befits a student of Plaid Cymru, the contemporary Welsh National party. Davies’s greatest achievement here is to make accessible and intelligible the entire historical evolution of Welshness, and to chart its crucial relationship to Englishness. For history records few examples of such a long and intimate association between two communities which yet remained in salient respects so different. It is, after all, an English publishing house that has allowed Davies to address both Cymry Cymraeg (the Welsh-speaking Welsh) and a wider world.
One striking feature of this book is its author’s enviable ability to write seamless prose, with apparently effortless linkages within and between chapters. Even 1282, the year of the final English conquest of Wales, gives Davies no serious pause (whereas poor Palacký never managed to get beyond 1526, the beginning of Habsburg overlordship in Bohemia). For all the attainments of the Welsh princes between the ninth and thirteenth centuries—their patronage of Welsh literature at a time when English was only a patois, their law codes, their bouts of administrative efficiency, their spiritual concerns—the country’s “independence” had always been limited and contingent. Davies recalls the struggles of the early Celtic-speaking clans of Wales against the Roman invaders, then against the forces of the kings of Wessex and Mercia, and finally against the Saxon and Norman rulers of all England and the earls they established on the Welsh border. But internecine feuding was also endemic among the Welsh: “If only they desired to be inseparable, they could become insuperable,” lamented Giraldus Cambrensis in the 1180s. Extensive territories fell to Norman warlords; and external influence was strong, with the church already tributary to Canterbury, and the towns always foreign outposts (Davies compares them to those in Eastern Europe).
By 1282 Edward I had subdued the whole land. Davies permits himself a momentary sigh: if the …