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Changing Minds and Shifting Realities: The Idea of Wales and the Welsh in the Middle Ages

By Gareth Griffith

According to the historian RR Davies, writing in The Revolt of Owain GlynDŵr, “It is in men’s minds and hearts that worlds are created and re-created.”  The harsh truth was that, with the defeat of that revolt, which fizzled out in the early years of the 15th century, Welsh hearts and minds had to come to terms with the political reality of the overwhelming power of the English crown. If by this time old ideas and ambitions of an independent destiny were not quite dead, they had retreated into the deep shadows before the onslaught of English power. In the epilogue to The Age of Conquest: Wales 1063-1415, the same author reflected on the condition of Wales following the collapse of GlynDŵr’s revolt, writing that: “Wales had been reduced to a ‘land’ (terra Wallie), an annex of the kingdom of England.”

Llanfair Talhaiarn, Wales – photo by Paul Arion / Flickr

At long last, it seems, Wales and the Welsh had been cut down to size. Their self-identification as the true Britons and of their land as the real Britannia was finally on the way out. True it is that for a century or so the bitterness of the Welsh found expression in nationalistic literature, while on the other side mistrust of the Welsh still lingered: “Beware of Walys…That it make not our childeis childe to weep,” wrote an English poet in 1436.  Ironically, it took the Tudors to more or less snuff out the sense of Wales as a separate nation, not only through the Acts of Union passed by Henry VIII, but also through the policy of assimilation which was to prove “socially disastrous”, causing a rift between the gentry of Wales and ordinary Welshmen in language, religion and politics. (‘The people and the language’ in Snowdonia edited by G Rhys Edwards).

Up until that time the history of Wales was the story of several dualities and tensions. One of these was the ongoing conflict between those areas of the Welsh March that had already fallen into English hands and those that continued under native rule. Underlying such conflicts was another deeper fault-line: on one side there was the political reality of Wales to contend with, the changing geography of political power, first in the Anglo-Saxon and afterwards in the Norman era; on the other, there was the Wales of the imagination, a community of the mind, the limits to which were not confined to the prosaic boundaries of political fortune. Right through the Middle Ages, these were the contending polarities of Welsh political life – what is and what could or should be. It was a story with a long trajectory.

A key chapter in that story is the Edwardian conquest of Gwynedd, the last redoubt of the Welsh. For RR Davies, the scale of Edward I’s achievements in 1282-84 are not to be underestimated, with the redrawing of the political map of Wales and its legal and institutional foundations. These years were said to mark “as definitive a break in the history of native Wales as did 1066 in the history of England…” The bards saw it that way, as an unparalleled disaster, not just on a national scale but a cataclysm of universal proportions, as expressed in the contemporary Lament for the Last Llywelyn by Gruffudd ab yr Ynad Coch. Seen in this light, GlynDŵr’s later revolt had something of the character of a spasm or aftershock following the major seismic upheavals of 1282-84. It had come to this – the awesome finality of defeat.

Edward I, King of England

The wonder is that it took so long. According to Bryan Ward-Perkins:

It took until 1282, when Edward I conquered Gwynedd, for the last part of Roman Britain to fall. Indeed, a strong case can be made for Gwynedd as the very last part of the entire Roman Empire, east and west, to fall to the barbarians.

That was more or less how the Welsh saw it: the barbarians had crashed through the gates and were everywhere constructing seemingly impregnable fortresses and foreign enclaves from which the native population were excluded. Their ancient enemies the English saw it differently, of course. For Bede, in the 8th century, the Britons were the “unchosen race”, abandoned by God for having refused to bring the pagan Anglo-Saxons to the light of Christianity.

Later the roles were reversed, with the onus on the English to undertake a civilizing mission. In 1159, Hubert Walter, the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote to the Pope, saying that, “The Welsh are Christian in name only…they are barbarians…”; similarly, Henry II informed the Byzantine emperor that, “The Welsh are a wild people who cannot be tamed.” For the major powers, by the later Middle Ages the Celtic Welsh were a peripheral people, troublesome remnants from a darker age. At its most benign, to the English mind of the period, the Welsh must have seemed something like the Monty Python knight who will not give in and is incapable of recognising when he is beaten.

Predictably, the Welsh saw it another way. For centuries, they had nurtured the idea of themselves as Britons and of Wales as Britannia, the bulwark of a uniquely British heritage. RR Davies commented in this regard:

An even more powerful ingredient in the chemistry of national unity was pride in a common descent from the Britons of old. It was as Britons, Brytaniaid, that the Welsh normally described themselves until the later twelfth century; ‘Britain’ was the title they gave to their country.

That older vision was not confined to what we now think of as Wales. Rather, for centuries the Welsh perceived themselves as belonging to a larger whole, as one component of the land of the Britons that encompassed the Old North and Brittany to the south. Viewed in this light, the idea of Britannia varied, depending on context and circumstance. For Gildas, writing in the mid-sixth century, at its most extensive the whole of the island of Britain belonged to the Britons. But that vision was to contract. According to TM Charles-Edwards, for Asser, writing at the end of the ninth century it had a “double sense”, either the entire island which the Britons had long conceived of as their own, or as the land we now refer to as Wales.

TM Charles-Edwards directs out attention to the Welsh poem of the tenth century, Armes Prydein, which contains the phrase “from Manaw to Llydaw” – in modern terms “from Clackmannanshire to Brittany.” He says the poem “was thinking of the lands which ought to be British, because it recalled a time when they had been British.” That is to say that in AD 600, or thereabouts, the land of the Britons – Britannia – had extended from around Sterling in Scotland down almost as far as the Loire in France. Over the centuries, that same geographical region was the Britannia of the imagination, the stuff of dreams and prophecy. In the first half of the ninth century, an anonymous Welsh scholar wrote “The History of the Britons” (Historia Brittonum), in which the white serpent of the English does battle with the red serpent of the Britons. True to messianic form, at first the white serpent proves stronger, with the red serpent proving victorious ultimately, driving its enemies back across the sea.

One observation to make is that the relationship between political reality and the imagination, the geography of power and the community of the mind, is far from straightforward. According to Anthony Conran:

[I]n Welsh poetry, there is very little sense of Wales as a geographical whole before the twelfth century. Wales, to use an etymological metaphor, is a back-formation from the Welsh. It is the people, the Cymry, who are important: their country is essentially the island of Britain as a whole, and the fact that they now occupy only that fraction of it called Wales is no more than an unfortunate historical accident.

Not even the Welsh could sustain that view in the age of Norman power. A feature of the period, from around 1100 when the Welsh started to re-assert themselves against Norman aggression to the time of the fall of Gwynedd in 1282, is the way Welsh mythology and what might be loosely called the ideology of Welsh identity changed according to shifting political circumstances. The historian John Davies is a good guide to this mutable landscape. He noted that in this period a consciousness of being Welsh (Cymry) rather than Brythonic finally took hold as any idea of restoring Brythonic sovereignty over the island of Britain faded in the face of the power of the English state. According the Davies:

Although the author of Armes Prydein (c 930) used the word Cymry or Cymro fifteen times, it only gradually came to oust the word Brython. That was the favourite word of the author of Brut y Tywysogyon; his entry for 1116 is the first to mention the Cymry and it was not until the years after 1100 that Cymry became as usual as Brythoniaid in the work of the poets.

However, it was also the case that with the relative revival of the native Welsh dynasties, notably that of Llywelyn the Great (Llywelyn ap Iorwerth) in North Wales, that the grander view the Welsh had of themselves was set aside in favour of one that was more in tune with the political realities of the day. As a consequence, although the prophetic verse known as canu brud was to survive for many centuries, it nonetheless declined in popularity in the century after 1200, as the hope of realistic political advances took shape.

Seal of Owain GlynDŵr.

Conversely, in the wake of defeat after 1282, “as a source of consolation and hope”, wild ideas of Trojan ancestry and messianic prophecies attributed to Merlin were invoked more than ever. Evidently, desperate times called forth desperate ideas. Moreover, in the paradoxical way of things, after centuries of in-fighting, it would seem that defeat served to fortify and intensify a sense of national identity among the Welsh. At the very death-knell of their political independence, the people of Snowdonia are alleged to have asserted that: “Even if their prince should transfer seisin of them to the King of England, they themselves would refuse to do homage to any foreigner, of whose language, customs and laws they are utterly ignorant.” Even allowing for a measure of propaganda, such statements suggest the extent to which Llywelyn ap Gruffudd’s struggle was seen as one to “preserve a measure of political independence for native Wales.” Still, old habits died hard. According to the bard, Gruffudd ab yr Ynad Coch, the last of the Welsh princes nurtured ambitions as far as a Brittany (‘Gorfynt hynt hyd Lydaw’).

The experience of conquest was not the same for all the Welsh people, with some no doubt finding opportunity and relief from conflict under the new political settlement. Broadly speaking, however, with conquest came the intensification of what can be loosely termed Welsh ideology, with a clearer geographical as well as cultural focus. If not a sense of nationhood, as such, then at least a “communal bond” existed between Welshmen in the post-conquest era, sufficient to allow Owain GlynDŵr, in a letter to a fellow rebel, to write of delivering “the Welsh race from the captivity of our English enemies…”  For GlynDŵr, central to his sense of personal and communal destiny was the prophetic tradition. It is writ large in the Tripartite Indenture he signed in 1405 with Edmund Mortimer and Henry Percy. There GlynDŵr laid claim to an augmented Wales that reached into England, as far on one boundary as “the ash trees of Meigion”, the site of a famous victory for the Britons in the seventh century and the very place where Merlin had prophesised that the Great Eagle of the future would call the army of Wales to him.

If GlynDŵr was one man of prophecy for the bards to sing about, was Henry Tudor another? It may have seemed that way as he marched through mid- Wales and on to his destiny at Bosworth. Did Henry not plant a red fiery dragon at the rood of the north door of St Paul’s, one of the three ragged standards from the battle? More than that, did he not name his firstborn son, Arthur? The Venetian ambassador went so far as to inform the Council of Ten that “the Welsh may now be said to have recovered their former independence for the most wise and fortunate Henry VII is a Welshman.”

What cruel jests the gods of history play! As John Davies commented, the Arthurian legend had long since been appropriated by the Kings of England. It wasn’t independence that the Tudor revolution visited upon Wales but, rather, a powerful new version of the English state, complete with an imperialist ideology of Britannia that served to sweep away the idea of a separate Wales, as a legal or political reality and even as a figment of the imagination. If Bosworth was in any sense a victory for Wales and the Welsh, it was one that proved more dangerous, socially and culturally, than any number of past defeats. The passing of the Middle Ages saw the passing of one Wales and the birth of another – a community of new dualities and tensions, real and imagined.

Gareth Griffith is the author of Glass Island. Click here to read an excerpt or visit his website.

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