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.

Under the fainéant Hanoverian regime, after 1714, local initiatives took over. Welsh clerics were prominent in the acronymous missionary and bible societies (SPCK and SPG, then BFBS and CMS). One of them, Griffith Jones, organizer of a network of mobile or “circulating” schools, was able to achieve levels of peasant literacy which elsewhere required generations of state pedagogues. By the eighteenth century hundreds of Welsh books were being published every decade; by the mid-nineteenth there were also dozens of periodicals. We may contrast the visceral hostility engendered by Protestant missions in Ireland and much of the Highlands, which yet accompanied—and not by chance—the widespread extinction of the Gaelic tongues there.

Thus the country continued to be overwhelmingly Welsh speaking, and largely impenetrable to outsiders such as the aged monoglot Anglican cleric foisted upon two remote Anglesey parishes in the 1760s. Though by a trick he induced his uncomprehending churchwardens to sign a testimonial—which they believed to be a cobbler’s bill—that he could officiate in “the Vernacular Language of Wales, with a fluent and easy Delivery and a graceful propriety of Accent and Pronunciation,” his congregations dissolved alternately in mirth and rage at his attempts to communicate with them, and local landowners eventually managed to send him packing.7 The same picture emerges from the highly colored but revealing evidence of George Borrow’s Wild Wales a century later. In rural areas a similar linguistic monopoly persisted for longer still. Yet the Welsh only gradually grew conscious of language as a repository—their only repository—for the irreducible values of nationhood.

Their awakening coincided with the retrieval across Europe of other submerged cultures. As elsewhere the awakening was initiated by expatriates and began with a distinct establishment flavor. Respectable patriots in London exhumed ancient texts and revived the Eisteddfodau, or traditional literary festivals. During the early nineteenth century the bard-cleric Carnhuanawc (a favorite of Davies’s), an apostle of the Celtic Volksgeist, presided over the circle of Lady Llanover, wife of “Big Ben” Hall, clerk of works at the Houses of Parliament, his very name a symbol of British constitutional propriety. Lady Charlotte Guest, translator of the Mabinogion, was an English noblewoman married to one of the great ironfounders.

Much of their handiwork was artificial, extraneous, or downright fraudulent: like high-hatted Welsh costume, or the myth of Gwlad y Gân, the “land of song,” built upon English tunes and the Handelian legacy.8 The invented documents of Iolo Morganwg, engagingly innocent and rough-hewn as befitted a trained stonemason, sought (otiosely) to stress the antiquity of native culture, like the forgeries of his contemporaries, “Ossian” Macpherson in Scotland and “Manuscripts” Hanka in Bohemia. Moreover, the new spiritual guardians of the nation held aloof from such folkishness. The Calvinist Methodists, the one distinctively Welsh sect (but decisively influenced by Wesley and then Whitefield), abhorred both the blithe earthiness of much popular Welsh custom and the worldly priorities of such as Iolo. Their contribution was temperance—again an import from England.

Meanwhile a more critical spirit also emerged in Wales, hardly less British in its pedigree. The privations caused by enclosure and overpopulation, along with the rampant injustices of early industrial society, unleashed serious unrest both urban and rural, which led to violent confrontations between Welsh workers and British military forces at Merthyr and Newport during the 1830s. Then the so-called Blue Books, a British government report on Welsh education that cast aspersions on the country’s morality as well as its language, brought Methodists (alienated by England’s high-church tendencies too) into line with other disgruntled Nonconformists, who by now vastly outnumbered Anglicans in the Principality. Davies estimates that one sectarian chapel was completed every eight days in the first half of the nineteenth century.

From the 1850s onward, political and religious dissent was mainly subsumed in Welsh liberalism: a clear and distinct, but incomplete ideology, in which language and nation had their place, but made no strident demands. It perceived itself as “radical,” but carefully held its distance from Irish or other disloyal excesses. Wales was the Gwlad lân a llonydd, a “fair and tranquil land,” and its grievances took essentially British forms (for example, improper electoral pressures on the Welsh tenantry accelerated the coming of the secret ballot for the United Kingdom as a whole). On the Continent, tension between liberalism and nationalism was a commonplace: the latter either overwhelmed the former, or disowned it. In Wales the two fitted hand in glove—the menyg gwyn, “white gloves,” of a law-abiding Principality’s allegiance to Britishness. 9 Gladstone, a Welsh squire by denizenship, met such sentiment more than halfway. Then Lloyd George, born across the border like many another representative of this tradition, vindicated it in Whitehall, while further domesticating it. If England was “the greatest country in the world,” Wales must settle, as another of its MPs put it, for being “the greatest country in England.”

Davies does not fully convey the awkwardness of this subservient relationship. The Blue Books inquiry, though instigated by an expatriate MP and executed with the cooperation of Welsh Anglican clergy, was felt by many as a national humiliation. So even, in its way, was the Eisteddfod legacy, unique and genuine (apart from the harmless absurdities of the white-robed assembly, or Gorsedd, of bards organized by Iolo), but also embarrassing. What could polite society do with drink-sodden and ridiculous pseudo-druids, surrogate descendants of the long-extinct family retainers, who peddled what many in the Principality acknowledged to be an inferior tongue? That question is inseparable from the perception of Wales’s otherness from the English side (a subject hardly treated by Davies). Romantic discovery of the country’s spectacular scenery from the later eighteenth century led to the literary enthusiasm of George Borrow and Matthew Arnold for its Celtic traditions. But ignorant condescension dominated: “The retention of a few harmless peculiarities,” wrote Froude, “has not prevented them from being wholesome and worthy members of the United Commonwealth.” And fierce prejudice was not rare, especially directed against the language, “the curse of Wales,” which “isolates [the people] from general civilization.”

On the whole the Welsh accepted, even echoed, these strictures, acknowledging “the dispensation of a wise Providence in the moral and political blessings conferred upon us by the annexation of the Principality with the Crown of England,” such that “the prevalence of English is only a matter of time.” Even the great Celtic philologist, John Rhys—the son of a laborer, who rose to a knighthood and headship of an Oxford college—concluded with a degree of equanimity that his native tongue was “making way for a noble antagonist” and “about to be blotted out of the list of living languages.”10 When the University of Wales was founded in a surge of patriotic cultural fervor, it was a clone of English models and hardly taught at all in the language of those whose donations had brought it into being.

This quest for a mere parity of esteem within the general scheme of Victorian values left remarkably little room for nationalism as an ideology in Wales. There were some antecedents, mainly generated by enthusiasm for the young United States. In the 1790s the legend of Madoc, who was said to have discovered the New World three hundred years before Columbus, was refurbished in the radical image of American freedom. Some of the discontented Welsh turned their back on Britain: first Quakers, later the melodious Mormons who allegedly founded the Tabernacle Choir and the miners of such towns as Scranton—though most soon proved to be the image of respectability in their new homes.11 The fiercest critic of the nineteenth-century British Empire from a national standpoint, Michael D. Jones, again drawing on American contracts (he was related to a governor of Ohio), viewed Wales as a separate political community. Jones initiated the celebrated project for a Gwladfa, or new “homeland,” which came to be located in the wilds of Patagonia. But the venture had to be run on a shoestring (literally so, indeed, for early accounts include 17s.6d. to a pair of boots for the traveling secretary); and the settlers could not evade the shadow of empire, as the Argentinian authorities, in the shape of their interior minister, one Guillermo Rawson, hastened to incorporate and assimilate the new province for fear of British intentions.12

Men like Jones were inspired by European nationalists, especially the Hungarian leader Kossuth, whose compatriot the poet Arany returned the compliment, drawing on Welsh history for his fiercely anti-Austrian version of the conquest of Wales by Edward I, in which the tyrant king slays the assembled bards wholesale. Welsh children, however, learned the sanitized version—not true either—that Edward presented his infant son to them as a native-born prince speaking no English. Small wonder that while Kossuth’s homeland, like Palacký’s Bohemia, tilted at autonomy, even independence, Wales achieved no more than occasional pieces of separate legislation, the first—fittingly—closing all its pubs on Sundays. A highly cautious campaign for some elements of home-rule—Cymru Fydd, again the brainchild of Welshmen in England—foundered by 1900.

Since then things have changed profoundly. Twentieth-century disenchantment in Wales, finely observed by Davies, derived in part from a sense that other “five-foot-five nations” (as Lloyd George called them) had earned international recognition. But it was fueled more by a growing material crisis of empire. Depression struck at the coal industry, on which fully half the Welsh population had come to depend, and which relied too much on export markets; the iron and tinplate trades were already in decay. Unemployment rose to over 40 percent of the insured labor force. Moreover, the language was now in clear retreat. Since the first phase of industrialization it had suffered a relative decline, exacerbated by its too-close association with liberalism and Nonconformity, whose force was gradually spent. From the census of 1921 that decline became absolute.13

There arose a diminutive nationalist party, Plaid Genedlaethol Cymru, led by writers and teachers, some with authoritarian proclivities. It spawned a few acts of violence hardly registering on a Richter scale for nationalism. Like Sunday liquor, linguistic identity remained in the back parlor. More conspicuous to the world at large, Anglo-Welshness emerged as an alternative, regional identity, Cymreig rather than Cymraeg (only the old forgotten tongue, ironically, can draw the distinction).14 Secular in its values, alienated by Nonconformity’s “hijacking” (as Davies puts it) of historic Welshness, Anglo-Welshness needed symbols of nationhood independent of language. Rugby football, although introduced from England by the gentry and clergy, and then encouraged by factory owners to mollify their workers, served well, alongside perceptions of Wales’s classlessness and community, its beauty of scenery (including castles!), and of course its musicality.

The increasing complexities of social organization gave a huge boost to that kind of identity, in that more and more institutions began to operate on a Welsh national base. Official Welsh bodies for education and health, agriculture, arts and sport, development and tourism, gas and water—even the Church in Wales, separate for the first time in over a millennium—gave the country the very administrative distinctiveness it had long so conspicuously lacked. At length, Cardiff was designated its capital. Yet the main responses to Depression were still squarely British. The demise after World War I of both Anglican and landed establishments (Davies is very fair about them to the last), while it may have enhanced a sense of national harmony, removed a historic source for discontent. It also left the Liberals, anyway debauched by Lloyd George’s opportunism, without a program. Militant Labor took over as the main political force, but its Welsh activists likewise contended for higher prizes than mere provincial influence.

Besides, it was central planning which began to yield economic remedies, and these included the redeployment of central agencies in Wales—British coins, passports, driving licenses, came to be issued in the Principality. Meanwhile a full tenth of the Welsh population, more even than the peak figure of unemployed, resettled itself in England, in more thriving places such as Oxford. Sir Arthur Evans, a distant compatriot, employed some of them in constructing a mound overlooking the city on his estate. But as ex-miners they had no idea how to build anything (he should have used them at Knossos instead).

What of the present, after a half-century in which both rural and urban society have been transformed almost beyond recognition? (As I write, the fate of the last major deep pit in the Valleys has just been sealed.) Territorial Welshness has intensified, and the creation of a Welsh Office, already with a staff of thousands, has been accompanied by calls for more. A campaign for devolution of regional power to Cardiff from London failed ignominiously in 1979, though Davies argues persuasively that the cause was by no means lost for good. Part of the difficulty for patriots lies precisely in the uneasy relationship between two linguistic communities, even two souls in the body of modern Wales.

A dual, or bipolar focus there may now be; but it is our author’s central message that historic continuity in Wales has been inseparable from the national tongue. Welsh-speakers, at fewer than 20 percent, are today many times outnumbered, not just by the sheep originally tended on medieval Cistercian granges, but by flocks of Cymry di-Gymraeg.15 Yet the Tynged yr iaith, or existential crisis of the language, has at last been effectively harnessed to other concerns, especially to pointed ecological debate and effective bouts of civil disobedience; and the very weakening of traditional allegiances has perhaps facilitated a broader political and cultural identity, itself feeding back into support for the language, even among those who do not speak it.

Most notably, the Welsh language has at last come out from “under the hatches” (Davies’s phrase), spawning a bilingual officialdom and a committed parliamentary lobby, a grant-aided literature and a flourishing brand of sedate pop music, an all-day radio channel and an unusually good television soap opera. It has adapted to the age of pôl piniwn and refferendwm. Davies squeezes in the news that Welsh had more speakers—albeit an infinitesimal rise—in 1991 than in 1981. Whether any linguistic culture can long survive the death of its last monoglot adult speaker must remain an open question; the portents from other realms of Celtic twilight are not good.16 Yet the new-found self-esteem of the Cymry Cymraeg, wry and measured, finds eminent expression in Davies’s book. In the literature, as in the practice, of European nationhood, that is a rare virtue.

This Issue

December 22, 1994