Save the Wales?

Outside Wales the Welsh are so inconspicuous that people don’t even know when they are insulting us. A friend of mine once told me that someone had “welshed” on a promise to him. He was stricken with remorse when I pointed out that this was about the same as my saying to him that someone had “jewed” me. The world knows us only by the Saxon word “Welsh,” which means foreigner or enemy.1 Centuries ago the English lost patience with our (to them) unpronounceable names and made us give them up for pallid English ones. This obscured the ethnic identity so effectively that the large Welsh part in American history has gone unnoticed, though several signers of the Declaration of Independence were Welsh, as were several presidents (including Jefferson and, on his mother’s side, Lincoln), one chief justice (Charles Evans Hughes), and a high lieutenant of Al Capone’s (Murray “The Camel” Humphries).

Before the Normans came to Britain the Welsh, a people of mixed Iberian and Celtic stock, after centuries of withdrawal in the face of the Saxons had consolidated a territory of their own within the boundaries of modern Wales. This nascent Welsh state immediately had to withstand the shock of Anglo-Norman military force, which it resisted with varying success for three hundred years. Lasting independence briefly seemed possible when the nation was unified under Llywelyn Fawr (the Great) who was recognized by the English as prince of Wales, a virtually independent ruler paying token homage to the king of England. But his grandson and successor Llywelyn ap Gruffydd was unable to avoid conflict with the English and was killed in a skirmish in 1282. In Welsh he is known as Llywelyn our Last Leader, for after his death Edward I built and garrisoned castles in Wales, began to replace Welsh law with English, and prepared the way for the Act of Union of 1536.

The Welsh were not quite done for. A century later they rose in a savage national rebellion led by Owain Glyndwacr (Shakespeare’s Owen Glendower), who expelled the English from Wales, had dealings as a king with the Avignon pope and the king of France, convened a Welsh parliament, and led a Welsh army deep into England. The suppression of Glyndwacr’s revolt in 1410 saw the end of Welsh military resistance. But less than a century later a Welshman seized the throne of England. Henry VII was of the Welsh family of Tudur (Tudor), and won the crown at Bosworth at the head of a largely Welsh army fighting under the banner of the red dragon, the old Roman legionary standard that had been Glyndwacr’s battle flag and remains the flag of Wales today. Welsh magnates and squires who could speak English rose high under the Tudors and one of them, William Cecil (an Anglicization of the Welsh name Seisyll), became de facto prime minister under Elizabeth I and founded the great dynasty of the Salisburys.

Welshmen have always continued to do well…

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