Welsh History: Union with England

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The Act of Union

After the failure of the Glyndwr rebellion, it was inevitable that Wales would be annexed to England. Union had really been achieved by the Statute of Rhuddlan in 1284. Most of Wales had supported Richmond’s rebellion against King Richard and were delighted that the throne was to be occupied by one of Welsh lineage. Henry acknowledged Wales and Welsh support by naming his son and heir “Arthur”.

His daughter, meanwhile, married James lV of Scotland. It was apparent that a United Kingdom of Great Britain was rapidly being created by those in power in London. The policy was continued when Henry VIII succeeded his father in 1509 after young Arthur’s premature death. The problem of Scotland remained a thorn in the side of the early Tudors, but in the meantime Wales could be dealt with permanently.

The first of the Acts of Union (a modern term describing several acts of legislation having to do with Wales) took place in 1536. Its provisions ensured the political annexation of Wales to England, for it gave notice that part of their intent was “[henceforth] . . .to utterly extirpate all and singular the sinister usages and customs differing from the same {English laws].”

The Act authorized the appointments of many of the Welsh gentry as Justices of the Peace, abolished any legal distinction between citizens of Wales and those of England, settled the border by the creation of new counties out of the old lordships, and gave Wales representation in the Westminster Parliament.

There certainly seemed to be major benefits to be gained from close ties with England.

From this time on, English law would be the only law recognized by the courts of Wales. In addition, the administration of Wales was placed in the hands of the Welsh gentry, and thus a class was created who would use English in all legal and civil matters. Before very long, this Welsh ruling class would be divorced from the language and the common folk of their own country.

In 1536, Wales had no government of its own; it had no capital city; it had no town large enough to attract an opportunistic urban middle class; and, according to the Statute, it was stuck with a language “nothing like nor consonant to the natural mother tongue used within this realm.”

In 1561, William Herbert of Raglan, in Southeast Wales, was appointed to Parliament as Baron Herbert, the first full-blooded Welshman to become part of the English aristocracy. He was the first in a long tradition that, for centuries to come, would drain the Welsh nation of its leaders and men and women of influence.

Welsh men were found in strategic positions in legal, military and professional circles. They were in the forefront of England’s colonial enterprises, filled leading positions in the Welsh Church (for the first time in many centuries) and in 1571 were successful in having Jesus College, Oxford, founded as a Welsh college.

A new and permanent British identity was being forged out of the people of Wales. Though its full expression had to wait until the other Act of Union in 1707 that joined Scotland to England and Wales, the glorious age of Elizabeth saw the emergence of an overseas empire. It was then that the foundations of the new attitude were set firmly in place.

Britain’s conversion to Protestantism was relatively peaceful. The majority of people in Wales were closely allied to their fellow islanders under threats of invasion from Spain and the fear of a return to what was considered a morally and spiritually bankrupt foreign church (or foreign rule in the case of Mary and Philip).

It was this sense of a shared religious destiny that slowly integrated itself into the minds of the peoples of both countries so that they also began to think of themselves as sharing a common British heritage.

When Elizabeth died in 1603, a Scottish king came to the throne of Britain.

From that time on, any differences between Wales and England, and between Welsh people and English people, are not found in the political arena. In so many ways, both were truly part of the diversity that made up the kingdom of Great Britain, yet the struggle to remain Welsh continued, however fitful, and with good reason.

The social and cultural differences of the Welsh, especially in the matter of their language, kept them apart from their neighbors and made their society seem so strange and “closed” to the rest of Britain, and it is in the language of Wales where the differences are most experienced.

To a large extent, the Welsh language, Welsh literature, and to a lesser extent the Protestant religion, were the pillars that kept the struggle for independence alive, as dismal and as hopeless as it seemed after 1536 and even more so after 1603. Each of these had been helped immeasurably by the fortuitous arrival of and widespread dissemination of the Welsh Bible.

The Welsh Bible

In 1546, Sir John Price of Brecon published the first book in the Welsh language, his collection of basic religious texts Yn Llyvyr Hwnn (In This Book). Tradition has it that the very first book actually printed in Wales itself was Y Drych Gristianogawl (The Christian Mirror), produced in a cave at Llandudno, as a surreptitious counter-reformation text in 1585. The pioneer of publishing in Welsh, however, was not Price, but William Salesbury.

An outstanding scholar, Salesbury strongly felt that the new spate of publications needed a more perfect language in which to express their most worthy contents.

In 1563, after John Penry and others had petitioned Queen and Parliament, a bill was passed ordering that the Bible be translated into Welsh. Penry was helped by the fact that Elizabeth and her parliament were appalled at the slow progress of the Welsh people in learning the English language, and more, perhaps, at their sluggishness in converting from Roman Catholicism.

The Government welcomed Penry’s suggestions, thinking that by having Welsh translations placed next to the English texts in Church the congregations would learn English. It was also a good method to establish Protestantism in Wales, certainly the main reason. Whatever the intent, the Welsh language was given an unintended status and a place of honor by being used as a medium for the Holy Scriptures.

The Welsh bishops entrusted the momentous task of translation mainly to Salesbury, who had prepared the way with his earlier translation of the Prayer Book. He was aided by Bishop Richard Davies of Abergwili. Unfortunately the erudition of these most learned gentlemen produced a book that could be read by scholars but was practically worthless for the common people. The day (and perhaps the language itself) was saved by William Morgan, parish priest of Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant, and later Bishop of Llandaf and St. Asaph.

In 1588, with a group of fellow-scholars including the brilliant Richard Davies, Morgan completed his work. Its influence upon the subsequent religious direction of the Welsh people was expected, but it also had enormous, unanticipated effects upon their language and literature.

Many historians believe that it was this book alone that prevented Welsh from becoming nothing more than a bundle of provincial dialects or of even disappearing altogether. Perhaps it is due to this early publication that much of the strength of present-day Welsh is owed, compared to Irish (which did not get its own Bible until 1690), and Scots Gaelic (which had to wait until 1801).

In addition, the Book became the foundation and inspiration for all the literature written in the Welsh language after the end of the sixteenth century.

The Welsh Bible was so successful that all one thousand copies quickly became worn out (or stolen) and a new edition was desperately needed. In 1620, Dr. John Davies of Mallwyd was responsible for minor corrections and standardization in his revision version that is a classic of Welsh literature, similar to the King James Bible in English.

Generation after generation of Welsh children would learn to read and write from this book, or more correctly from the cheaper, smaller version published in 1630, Y Beibl Bach, the only book many families could afford. Most scholars agree that the influence of the Welsh Bible is incalculable: because of it, and strengthened by it, through their faith, their religious leaders, their language and their literature, the people of Wales were able to continue the struggle.

The Continuing Literary Tradition

Despite the frenzy of the rush to London, the time had not yet arrived when the majority of Welsh literary figures were to write in English. In his An Apology for Poetry of 1595, the English poet and courtier Sir Philip Sydney had lavishly praised the continuance of the poetic tradition in Wales.

One influential poet was the prolific Edmund Prys, a kinsman of Salesbury who had mastered eight languages while studying and teaching at Cambridge. Much of his work showed his familiarity with both the humanistic learning of the Renaissance and of the traditional culture of Wales, especially through his debates with William Cynwal, in which he urges the poets of his country to adopt humanistic standards.

Cynwal is best remembered for his metrical Psalms (Salmau Can) published as an appendix to the Welsh Book of Common Prayer in 1621. These psalms were practically the only hymnal used in Wales for over a century, and they still are used in many churches in Wales for congregational singing.

As far as other secular writing was concerned, much of the early literature had been lost or destroyed. But due to the tireless work of such antiquarians as John Prys, Robert Vaughan, and John Jones, medieval works including The Book of Taliesin, The Black Book of Carmarthen, and The White Book of Rhydderch were not only preserved as reminders of the long and splendid tradition of Welsh literature, but also helped to inspire many future generations.

Prys and his colleagues wished to understand the world that had created such wonderful classical writings, and they therefore were anxious to interpret and assess ancient sources. They wanted to look closely at the claims of men such as the Italian Polydor Vergil, who questioned much of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account of the central myth of Welsh identity — the story of King Arthur.

This anglicized Italian had to be answered by such works as Historie of Cambria, Now called Wales, published in 1584 by David Powel, closely following the arguments of Humphrey Lluyd’s adaptation of the ancient Brut y Tywysogion. Powel’s book remained the standard version of the history of Wales for the next few centuries.

Through such revisions of the ancient works as those of Lhuyd and Powel, and the newer histories of Camden, the noble, wonderful tales of Geoffrey of Monmouth, concocted from his imagination as they might have been, were resurrected. They retained their powerful hold on the Welsh consciousness, enabling them to hold on to the idea that they, and they alone in the whole of Britain were the true British race and the rightful heirs to the Arthurian tradition.

Such sentiments were of great interest to Queen Elizabeth. When she felt it would be of benefit to her rule, she took full advantage of her Welsh ancestry. Not only did she authorize the translation of the Bible into Welsh, but she also encouraged the writings of London Welshman John Dee, a key figure in the expansion of her island kingdom overseas.

Dee publicized the traditions involving Prince Madog of Gwynedd. Madog supposedly discovered the New World during the 12th century when he brought his little fleet into what is now Mobile Bay, Alabama. The legend of Madog has him exploring the Mississippi Valley and joining the Mandan tribe, the pitiful remnants of whom are said to revere a white ancestor.

Elizabeth’s court officials eagerly seized the legend, diligently promoting attempts to find the Northwest Passage to India as justification for their war against the Spanish, and proof of their legitimate claims to the Americas.

Elizabeth died in 1603, and James VI of Scotland arrived in London to take up his throne over the Kingdom of Great Britain as James lst. In 1610, his son Henry was invested as the Prince of Wales.

Determined to rule his Scottish kingdom from London, James had other plans for Wales, where he was anxious to see the Council of Wales remain intact; its tight control of law and order was a way of defending his own royal prerogative. Besides, the Welsh were not too concerned with changes in London’s political circles.

What distinguished the Welsh, even from the more aggressive and independent-minded Scots, was their unique language, spoken by a large majority of its people who knew no other — a language that was completely unintelligible to the English. Furthermore, their nation’s literature could now be made available to all in Wales who could read.

In 1625, King James died, to be succeeded by Charles I, for whom Welsh support was vital in his attempts to hold off the powers that united against his obstinate wish to rule without Parliament. In any case, irrevocably linked to England as part of a greater Britain, the Welsh no longer had a cause of their own, and more important, they lacked a leader of their own.

After the execution of the ill-advised, stubborn King Charles in 1649, Parliament was anxious to provide sufficient ministers of the gospel to reach those areas of the country they deemed sufficiently in need, Wales being perhaps on top of their list. The Act for the Better Propagation and Preaching of the Gospel appointed many prominent government officials as Commissioners in Wales.

The Commissioners’ task, and they carried out their duties most efficiently, was to investigate complaints against the resident clergy (who had mostly supported Charles), following the doctrine of Divine Right (now anathema to the Puritans).

Though the Commission was not renewed in 1653, “suitable” ministers continued to be selected by the agents of Parliament, and many gifted and enthusiastic preachers arrived in Wales to live and work.

A huge influence came from the zeal of evangelists such as William Wroth, Walter Cradock, and Vavasor Powell. The latter, who first advocated public hymn singing, was the most dynamic preacher and recruiter of them all.

From the efforts of such tireless and inspired workers came the founding of the first “gathered church” of independents in Wales in 1639.

In 1649, the first Baptist Church in Wales was founded at Ilston in the Gower Peninsula, near Swansea, by John Miles. The seeds were thus planted for a new religious consciousness in Wales that had an enormous impact on the future political, social and cultural development of the nation.

The influence of such tireless spiritual leaders was a lasting one, and the nonconformist chapels that sprang up everywhere in their wake, such as those of the Independents, Baptists, Quakers and others created a heritage that until very recently was still regarded as an integral part of the Welsh character. It certainly left a fertile field to be tilled by the Methodists in the next century.

In the meantime, the forces of Nonconformity were moving too rapidly for the likes of King and Parliament. The Act of Uniformity of 1662 required all ministers to assent to the rites and liturgy of the Established Church, restored with the accession of Charles II two years earlier.

Next came The Clarendon Code (four acts passed 1661-65) that imposed severe penalties on those who refused to conform to the Act of Uniformity. Whole congregations moved from Wales to the New World. They became instrumental in setting up such settlements as the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which was established by Welsh Quakers.

Other Acts ensured that such sects as the Quakers and Baptists were forced to meet in secret or join their brethren over the Atlantic Ocean. Even the Toleration Act of l689 that allowed Dissenters to worship in their own chapels did nothing to keep them from being excluded from municipal government and the universities. It is noticeable that in the American colonies, Welsh people quickly became prominent in both fields.

Among the people of Wales, Puritan writers continued their work with or without royal blessings. One of the most influential was Charles Edwards, who believed sincerely that the Welsh were God’s chosen people, having replaced the fallen children of Israel or having been directly descended from “the Lost Tribes” themselves (a myth that remained widely popular in Wales for generations).

Religion was also the prime subject of many popular poets, of whom the most popular and influential was Rhys Prichard (1579-1644), vicar of Llandovery, whose verses were published in 1681 as Canwyll y Cymry (the Candle of the Welsh). They were recited and learned by generation after generation of Welsh children.

In 1602 George Owen had put together his Descriptions of Wales to chronicle all the features of the country, an attempt helped immensely by the Humphrey Lhuyd map of Wales of 1573 that was reprinted almost fifty times during the next two hundred years.

Next, around the year 1660, in an age called by Professor John Davies “a golden age of local history,” Edward Lhuyd of Llanforda, Oswestry, published studies that were to have an enormous influence on antiquarian studies in Britain. Lhuyd’s interest in botany and geology gained him recognition as the finest naturalist in Europe. Known as “the father of British palaeontology,” Lhuyd published his influential Archaeologia Britannia in 1707.

National Resurgence

At the start of the 18th century, Welsh authors were aided immensely by the benevolence of the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (SPCK). Founded in 1699 mainly as a result of the efforts of Sir John Phillips, it set up a network of charity schools in Wales.

Unlike similar schools set up in Scotland, where the use of Gaelic was for a long time forbidden, those in Wales, begun between 1700 and 1740, condoned the use of the Welsh language.

The SPCK published a great deal of books, mostly translations of religious works, including Ellis Wynne’s Gweledigaetheu y Bardd Cwsc (The Vision of the Sleeping Bard)in 1703. The Vision became one of the most popular and enduring of the Welsh classics.

A contemporary of Ellis Wynn was Theophilus Evans, another Anglican priest who was greatly disturbed by the new and sometimes violent forces of non-conformity that were sweeping through Wales. Evans wanted to uphold the authority of the established church, but also to keep alive some of the ancient Welsh traditions in epic form. His most important work, first published in 1716 is Drych y Prif Oesoedd (Mirror or the First Ages), in which he recounts the history of the Welsh people all the way from the Tower of Babel to the death of Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffudd in 1282.

Another contemporary Welsh writer who appealed to the classical past, thus fulfilling a great thirst of his people for their own history, was Lewis Morris. Becoming concerned that the traditional patrons of Welsh culture were increasingly turning to English books and culture, Morris had the idea of producing entertaining books in the Welsh language. His Tlysau yr hen Oesoedd (Treasures of the Ancient Ages) was published in 1717.

Henry Rowlands was yet another Anglican priest who was deeply interested in the history and traditions of his native land. His famous work was Mona Antiqua Restaurata of 1723, which not only surveyed the antiquities of Anglesey, but also attempted to prove that the ancient order of Druids had originated in that North Wales county. A major result of this book was to begin the druidic fad that originated in London at the end of the century.

In 1764, Evan Evans published the results of his painstaking research into old Welsh manuscripts, Some Specimens of the Poetry of the Ancient Welsh Bards. His copies of The Red Book of Hergest made the English literary world aware of the glories of much that had previously been unknown.

Evans was hailed in London as a genuine scholar. His great fame came from his discovery and publication of many important texts including the works of Taliesin and the poem Y Gododdin, from the earliest period of Welsh literature (ironically, the latter may have been written in what is now part of Scotland).

Two Welsh societies sprang up in London in the 1770’s: the Honorable Society of Cymmrodorian and the Gwyneddigion. The Gwyneddion Society revived the ancient competition known as the Eisteddfod. Known to posterity by his bardic title Iolo Morgannwg, Edwasrd Williams, a stone mason from Glamorgan created some of the elaborate, colorful ceremonies that eventually led to those of today’s National Eisteddfod of Wales.

Williams and many of the London-Welsh were greatly influenced by the success of the American colonies in winning their independence from the English Crown. They began to make known their own desires for recognition of a separate identity for Wales.

In 1784, Edward Jones published his major work, The Musical and Poetical Relicks of the Welsh Bards, followed by two further additions. It was apparent to Jones and to Iolo Morgannwg that a comprehensive body of cultural traditions needed to be re-established and set down in writing.

Iolo came up with many innovative ideas, among them the institution of the Gorsedd (the assembly of bards) that, ever since its introduction into the Carmarthen Eisteddfod of 1819, has played such a prominent role in Welsh cultural affairs.

Richard Price, a prolific author of works on divinity and theology was best known for his Observation on the Nature of Civil Liberty, published in 1776, the year that began the American Revolution. Price believed that the American colonies had an absolute right to their independence and tirelessly advocated their cause. For his work, he was granted many honors in both England and America, which offered him citizenship in the new republic of the United States.

Price’s arguments were very influential in the writings of another Welshman, David Williams, whose essays on religious freedom, universal education, and the need for voting rights put him way ahead of his time. His Letter on Political Liberty was published in 1782, though its real influence was not felt in Wales until the arrival of the Chartist Movement in the 1840’s.

By the end of the 18th century, thanks to writers such as Sir William Jones, Richard Price, and David Williams, the first serious democratic and popular movements in Wales were fast taking root. The Welsh language could only grow in stature and strength along with them and later became an essential part of the continuing struggle. In this, despite what Edward Jones and others of the Established Church had to say about the Movement, it was enormously aided by the coming of Methodism.