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A Fair and Tranquil Land’

Hanes Cymru

by John Davies
Allen Lane/Penguin, 710 pp., £9.95 (paper)

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. František 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 1 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.2 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 last Welsh princes had not encountered the most masterful of medieval English kings, perhaps they were on the way to consolidating a separate state. We must remember, however, that Llywelyn II, whose death in a skirmish in 1282 sealed their fate, like his grandfather Llywelyn “The Great,” was also an unusually effective ruler by local standards.3 For a time deep resentments persisted: the uprising led by Owain Glyndwr in the early fifteenth century was an elemental outburst reminiscent in some ways of Bohemia’s Hussite wars, with which it almost coincided. But apart from that episode the Welsh became passive witnesses to a process of English state-building which was the most precocious in Europe. At the same time they were drawn into broader networks; Wales was, after all, a sideshow when measured against England’s continental ambitions. The magnificent castles of the English conquerors—monuments to a Teutonic thoroughness in establishing overlordship—were constructed in the most international style of the day. In our own age of tourism, they have paradoxically become one focus for a sort of surrogate national identity.

The Tudor Acts of Union (as historians have come to call them) of the 1530s and 1540s confirmed this development. Wales progressively forfeited the provincial attributes that remained characteristic of most of the dominions within the composite monarchies of early modern Europe. Not all the conditions of Welsh union counted as losses from the national standpoint: the country was for the first time united internally on a permanent basis, and granted a kind of vice-regal body, the Council, and its own law-courts. Yet the Council lacked any political power; it operated from within England, from the charming but somnolent town of Ludlow. The courts called Great Sessions dispensed English justice, not the obsolescent blood-tribute and tribal inheritance provisions of old. Both were later dissolved with hardly a whimper of protest. The Anglo-Welsh border was ancient enough, as a general notion: Offa’s Dyke, perhaps the most massive earthwork in medieval Europe, demarcated it roughly. Nevertheless the allegiance of those living in the frontier region itself remained much less certain. That mattered little: by 1746 “England” was actually deemed to include Wales for legislative purposes.

Besides, the incorporation of the Welsh into English social patterns proceeded apace, and this anyway obviated the need for occupation of the country by English administrators. Local elites were able and willing to manage affairs on London’s terms. For readers of the Welsh version of Davies’s book, vocabulary itself demonstrates the symbiosis. Wales became a country of increasingly anglophone sgwïeriaid, often absentee landlordiaid, managing their everlarger ystadau (estates) with unpopular stiwardiaid (Davies has some fine pages on gentry life).4 Their tenantiaid might be substantial iwmyn (yeomen!) and ffermwyr, but many were reduced to being humble sgwatwyr. Deference could be ensured by the local Ustus of the Peace, deploying cwnstabliaid (beilïaid for eviction of those awkward sgwatwyr), and hallowed by the ficer (or perhaps just a curad).

The same applied in the economic sphere. Rural Wales made a modestly distinctive contribution, with its rough cattle-drovers invading the English shires, and flannel (a Welsh word, apparently) from its fleeces. But then industrialization confirmed convergence with England. Traffic quickened, with tyrpeg (turnpike) roads, followed by the age of the trên, on a rail network which served links between England and Ireland, and the economic consolidation of the United Kingdom. The new ffatrïoedd were built overwhelmingly by English capitalists, whose ffwrneisiau and smelterau dominated the landscape, amid the acrid stench of asid swlffwrws. Their busnes expertise might ride bwm and slwmp, to yield higher levels of incwm; but it drove many locals to the wyrcws.5

Yet this is only half the story. Wales was also simultaneously and organically part of the most successful imperial power of the modern world. Moreover, Welsh elements are to be found at the origin of the British Empire itself. The Act of Union of 1536 contains one of the first references to “the imperialle Crown of this Realme,” in which “Wales…is and ever hath bene incorporated” (my italics). Of course it had! For the Welsh were pristine Britons, now ruled by the native Welsh house of Tudur (though Davies urges caution about the Welshness of its blood claim to the crown). The term “British” was associated with the early literature of the Welsh bards; it had been prominent in the spectacularly successful constructions of that most influential of all Welsh writers, Geoffrey of Monmouth. The polymath John Dee, in association with Lord Burghley, both from Welsh expatriate families, propagated the notion of a “Brytish Impire” at the court of Elizabeth. After 1603, and especially after 1707, this British identity was progressively enhanced, even if Wales’s contribution to it was correspondingly diluted.6

There were more Welsh in London by the eighteenth century than in any town within the Principality; they had their own college at Oxford; they then moved in droves to Liverpool, which became the second city of the Empire; and they spread their name overseas—to New South Wales, for example. Capitalists like the Lloyds in banking, and later the Joneses or Lewises in commerce, helped recover their compatriots’ birthright (as it were) to parts of the Island from which they had been evicted a millennium earlier. Welsh heavy industry—copper and iron, then coal and tinplate—conquered the world. And more and more of its entrepreneurs were indigenous, such as John Hughes, who gave his name to one of the largest cities in eastern Europe: Yuzovka (nowadays Donetsk), whence his New Russia Metallurgical Co. supplied the track for the tsarist railroad system. Welsh steam coal powered the Royal Navy, and Welsh regiments were prominent in English/British armies from the battle of Crécy, where thousands fought in a kind of primitive “national” livery, to World War I, whose justice seemed guaranteed by the premiership during it of Lloyd George. Welsh loyalty to the crown was unquestioned, though hardly reciprocated: when Charles I fled to the Principality after his defeat at Naseby in 1645, his was the first royal visit for centuries.

Wales also felt a special affinity with British America. Even if derivation of the name from one Richard ab Meurig will bear no more scrutiny nowadays than the claim of the continent’s early discovery by Prince Madoc, Welsh really did, and does, use its own term for New York (Efrog Newydd). Welsh buccaneers played a notable part in campaigns against Spain—it is a pity that Davies could not find space for Henry Morgan; and what of Davy Jones, the secret of whose identity sank with him to the depths? The forebears of Elihu Yale came from the district of Iâl, and names like Bryn Mawr and Haverford bear witness to the extent of Welsh settlement in colonial Pennsylvania; though our author displays uncharacteristic credulity in even suggesting that one third of the signers of the Declaration of Independence may have had Welsh origins.

All this might seem to have betokened creeping Anglicization. But precisely because the Principality of Wales represented no political threat, its cultural separateness survived. Precisely because Wales was adjacent and subordinate, there was no need to clear the land of native peoples or to establish plantations, as in more troubled parts of the Celtic fringe. And precisely because the country provided some kind of a living, emigration remained on a small scale into our own day, even as a proportion of the modest home population. Above all, the language proved resilient. Excluded from most of public life, Welsh was not otherwise interfered with. Even its receptivity to English vocabulary and syntax could be an asset, rendering it more advanced and versatile than many another European vernacular.

Welsh earned a special place within the Protestant Church, which found the heritage of early Christianity in the Principality, especially Saint David, a useful prop to its claims for historical continuity and apostolic legitimacy. Anglican leaders actually insisted on the use of Welsh, and promoted splendid translations of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer (Davies points to the failure of other non-state languages in Europe to attain the same status). The concern was not, indeed, exclusively Protestant, since a scattering of Catholic Welshmen exhibited no less concern for their native tongue as the vehicle for puny attempts to subvert the Reformation settlement; and they even claimed it to be a rightful member of the humanist linguistic fraternity. The first Welsh grammar appeared not in Britain but at Milan, compiled by an exile in the service of Saint Charles Borromeo. Yet the Church of England—ironically—remained the most active supporter of the language until it was outpaced by the rising Nonconformist congregations.

  1. 1

    History of the Czech Nation in Bohemia and Moravia.” In the German version, which continued to appear, but now as an offshoot of the Czech, the title was merely “History of Bohemia.” Davies does not follow Palacký down this path of ethnic differentiation.

  2. 2

    See Cymru’n Deffro; Hanes Y Blaid Genedlaethol, 1925–75, edited by John Davies (Talybont: Y Lolfa, 1981).

  3. 3

    The most masterly verdict is now provided by J. Beverley Smith, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, Tywysog Cymru (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1986), a book which—another sign of the times—is not (yet) available in English.

  4. 4

    Drawing especially on two excellent recent accounts: Philip Jenkins, The Making of a Ruling Class: The Glamorgan Gentry, 1640–1790 (Cambridge University Press, 1983), and David W. Howell, Patriarchs and Parasites: The Gentry of South-West Wales in the Eighteenth Century (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1986).

  5. 5

    I.e., workhouse. It should be added that the lexicon of other industries, notably coal and slate, contained more native expressions, partly no doubt because both owners and miners were initially Welsh speaking.

  6. 6

    Almost to vanishing point in Linda Colley’s recent and justly admired study, Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707–1837 (Yale University Press, 1992), where conversely a good deal is represented as “British” which contemporaries may well have thought of as primarily English.

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