Cymru am byth?
Over the next four issues we will be looking at the history of the British Isles by examining its former and present constituent parts – Wales, Scotland, Ireland and, finally, England. This month Hywel Williams writes about Wales.
Are the historians of Wales the last of the Whigs? Genial assumptions concerning a purposeful progress, buttressed by banality about consensual national psychology, have largely disappeared from the narrative histories of England, Ireland and Scotland. Emphasis on the four distinctive nations, first witnessed a generation ago in revisionist accounts of the origins of the Civil Wars, liberated Scotland’s history and that of Ireland from subservience to the business of Britain. A new self-confidence meant that historians could question the canonical significance of, for example, the Highland Clearances and the potato famine. But historians of modern Wales, from the Reformation that was imposed to the devolution that was accepted, tend not to rock the boat and their impact on wider British historiography is correspondingly slight.
This intellectual timidity may well be a result of the strong links, both social and political, between the country’s historians and its officialdom from the 1940s onwards. In the late 20th century, for instance, Glanmor Williams was the pre-eminent historian of early modern Wales (see for example his Religion, Language and Nationalism in Wales, University of Wales Press, 1978): his implicit working assumption that the Act of Union of 1536 was a good thing, since it led to something even better – the unionist state’s 1945 embodiment – reflected a safety-first career that had taken him from being a miner’s son in Dowlais to a chair at the University of Swansea and he was an unquestioning member of Wales’ pre-devolutionary Labour establishment.
Those who have emerged from the school of ‘Glan’ rarely stray from his cautious ways and D. Gareth Evans has produced a factually reliable book, A History of Wales 1815-1906 (University of Wales Press, 1989, 2nd ed. 2011). But here again there is a drearily inevitable mutation: having been stirred up by Methodism, Wales wakes up just in time to be part of Gladstonian Liberalism, after which it is only a matter of time before the country morphs into Labourism. Britishness, albeit lightly coated by a tepid cultural nationalism in these devolved days, is hardwired into this orthodoxy and that parochial angle means that scholars, with the significant exception of R.J.W. Evans (Wales in European Context: Some Historical Reflections, University of Wales Press, 2001) fail to place Wales’ 19th-century nationalism in its true pan-European context.
Victorian Wales is still interpreted as an aspect of widening English influence and working-class allegiance to new collectivist nostrums is assumed rather than analysed. Ieuan Gwynedd Jones, in an exhilarating series of articles, went deeper than anybody else into the sociology of South Wales’ industrial valleys and Merfyn Jones has quarried to similar effect in the records of the slate mining society of Caernarfonshire. But these were unusual explorations and Wales’ historiography remains a top-down affair, despite all the posturing of career professionals about the aspirational gwerin or folk. Accounts of Welsh Labour concentrate, therefore, on local elites, the politicians and trades unionists who were elected, rather than those they purported to represent and the bravely radical Wales of the scholars exists at some distance from the passive and apolitical condition of the country during its period of one-party hegemony.
In excavating the life of Huw T. Edwards (University of Wales Press, 2011), a now forgotten figure who was once described improbably as Wales’ ‘unofficial prime minister’, Paul Ward reveals some striking parallels between the present and the recent past. As a TGWU official in Flintshire Edwards was a local boss and his chairmanship of the Council for Wales, a toothless advisory body set up by Attlee in 1948, gave him a platform, if hardly any power. It is hard to muster much enthusiasm for a man who revelled in membership of quite so many public bodies, and as Chair of the Wales Tourist Board, Edwards marketed his country as a place where dragons breathed and women wore pointy black hats. But his shift of allegiance from Labour to Plaid Cymru in 1959, and then back again five years later, nonetheless illustrates a major theme: an elite preoccupation with how to be British enough to hold public office and yet sufficiently Welsh to have local credibility.
In 1985 the television series The Dragon Has Two Tongues, with Gwyn Williams and Wynford Vaughan-Thomas, pointed the way towards a more contested view of Wales’ past, but its revisionist nuances have not been reflected in current Welsh historiography. Historians of modern Wales, should they wish to question the prevailing orthodoxy, ought to look to their medievalist colleagues. Rees Davies’ sharp insights and luminous intelligence elaborated the ‘four nations’ theme to unforgettably original effect and his reinterpretation of the Welsh sources was central to that dazzlingly synoptic account of the medieval British Isles, Domination and Conquest: the Experience of Ireland, Scotland and Wales (Cambridge University Press, 1990). Davies’ pupil, Huw Pryce, reminds us in his exemplary monograph, J.E. Lloyd, The Creation of Welsh History (University of Wales Press, 2011), of the myriad ways in which the country’s medieval past has been reinterpreted during the 20th century. Lloyd (1861-1947), whose massive History of Wales from the Earliest Times to the Edwardian Conquest was first published exactly a hundred years ago, was the man who invented Welsh history as a professional discipline and Pryce, though widely admired as a scholar of medieval law, here shows himself also to be a most elegant portraitist of late Victorian and Edwardian mentalities. Lloyd was born of Welsh-speaking Liverpool merchant stock and the nonconformist sectarianism, as well as the Liberal party affiliation, that went with that particular terrain made him an unlikely historian of a Catholic civilisation. But he had also been a supporter of Cymru Fydd (Young Wales), the home rule movement that had flourished under the leadership of David Lloyd George in the early 1890s, and that allegiance explains some of his empathy in describing the household politics of the independent Welsh princes. Lloyd attributed to the Welsh nation a coherent ethnic identity that had been revived in the cultural and political movements of his own day. He nonetheless applied a critical mind to the diplomatic mano-euvrings of the native princes and was unafraid to question the claims to greatness of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, whose army was overwhelmed by the forces of Edward I.
Conquest and assimilation coexist in Lloyd’s History. His description of how two waves of Celtic arrivals, Goidelic and then Brythonic, supplemented an original population of Iberian descent resonated with a 20th-century readership, which saw Wales as a land that survived by adaptation; the pastoral nomadism enforced by Wales’ upland and mountain terrain yields the insight that the country’s communities, thereby scattered, were unable to coalesce around a single source of leadership; the mid-tenth-century law-book compiled at the behest of Hywel Dda (‘the Good’) is placed in the context of that king’s desire to emulate the achievements of Alfred in Wessex. Most tellingly of all, and despite the sorrowful pages that describe the fall of 1282 and which echo the lament of the court poet Gruffudd ab yr Ynad Coch ‘who read the tragedy of the hour in the beating of the wind and of the rain’, Lloyd also suggests in sober and scholarly style that the practical impact of the Anglo-Norman colonial machinery on the native Welsh population was comparatively superficial. Historians of more modern Wales, attracted by agencies of bureaucratic change and theories of political transformation, would do well to consider the implications of a Welsh longue durée.
Hywell Williams is the author of The Age of Chivalry: The Story of Medieval Europe, 950 to 1450 (Quercus, 2011)
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