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Wales

Looking into Wales from the Kymin near Monmouth

Wales for me has always been something of an enigma. My family is from Wales, and some of my more headstrong cousins in their younger days used to get cross about English people buying Welsh holiday homes. I had a few vague notions of Welsh princes, and mountain strongholds, and wondered exactly what the old, independent nation of Wales had actually been like. Growing up, and reading a few books about Wales, it seemed reality did not meet the fictions that had floated around in my mind as a child. Wales has its own language, and this is its main claim to being a separate nation. But politically an independent Wales has never existed. Wales historically was a group of different societies with no major urban centre to unite them. Edward I brought this divided area under English control in the thirteenth century, and many thousands of Welshmen helped him do so. Many Welshmen were offended by the presumptions of Llewellyn ap Grwffyd, who took it upon himself to speak for them all. Later in history Wales continued as a nation of divided societies. There was one brief upheaval in the fifteenth century which might be termed a Welsh national struggle, but the details do not bear much scrutiny for someone of nationalistic bent. This short period of Welsh rebellion occurred between 1400 to 1410 led by Welsh nobleman Owain Glyndwyr. Glyndwyr had been educated in London and had served in the English army fighting in Scotland. At the age of fifty he suddenly decided to organise a rebellion against Henry IV. This rebellion, according to John Lavan Kirby, historian of Henry IV, actually started as a dispute between Glyndwyr and neighbouring land owner Lord Grey. They were arguing over ownership of part of their estates, and Grey, so the story goes, concocted a plan to frame Glyndwyr. Grey was given the job of summoning his neighbour to join Henry IV in an expedition against Scotland. This summons was held back by accident or design until it was too late for Glyndwyr to go. Glyndwyr could then be accused of treasonable failure to respond to royal request. Owain saw only one way out of his predicament. He would have to lead a rebellion in Wales, and hope to win enough power to save himself. So rather than choosing to mount a national struggle, Glyndwyr had rebellion forced upon him. Once the rebellion got into its stride, Glyndwyr did all he could to whip up a sense of Welsh nationalism to encourage local people to help his cause. He claimed descent from Llewellyn ap Grwffyd and took the title Prince of Wales. For a while Owain's outlook seemed hopeful. After capturing Edmund Mortimer the king's nephew, he married him to his daughter, and in the process gave himself a claim to the English throne. But after a series of defeats his wife and children were captured and Owain became a fugitive. Owain himself was never apprehended, and what became of him is unknown. Wales then settled back into its former existence, as a collection of societies which had little to do with each other.

 

 

 

Liverpool, "capital" of north Wales

During Tudor and Stuart periods, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the only "capital" of any substance was Ludlow, headquarters of the Council of Wales. This was an administrative centre, and in reality three English towns served as capitals, which different parts of Wales looked to as the focus of their trading activities: south Wales looked to Bristol, mid-Wales to Shrewsbury, and north Wales to Chester, and later Liverpool. The coming of the industrial modern age also served to divide Wales. The south eastern counties of Glamorgan and Monmouth developed much faster than northern and mid-Wales, bringing an enormous disparity in population. This was a change from a situation where population had always been fairly evenly spread.

 

Seventeenth century Wales had no flag, government, army or capital, but strangely national feeling was strong. Without any political claims to national identity nationalists stressed the stability and longevity of Welsh culture. It was pointed out that contemporary Welsh speakers could better understand seventh century author Taliesin, than English people could understand fourteenth century Chaucer. Efforts were then made to take this idea of cultural identity further than it could reasonably go. This was done by focusing on the idea of wandering bards as part of Wales's ancient tradition of spoken culture. Bardic traditions in Britain as a whole had been dealt a major blow by the arrival of the Romans and their new fangled writing after 43BC, and whatever tradition survived that upheaval slowly declined and died out in the eighteenth century. In Wales claims were made that ancient Celtic customs had been preserved in the druid rituals on which modern eisteddfods are based. In reality these fanciful rituals involving sun worship and stone circles were created by a man called Iolo Marganwy (1747 - 1846). Marganwy claimed to have been initiated into a little known group of bardic survivors. He then cooked up a set of rituals with satisfyingly ancient associations, and held poetry competitions. In reality none of this can be claimed to represent ancient traditions or to be any firm basis for historical identity. Stone circles and sun worship were not Celtic customs: stone circles such as Stonehenge was built by neolithic people between 3000 and 1500BC. The Celts didn't arrive in Britain until about 600BC, and they had their own customs, most of them involving a fondness for warfare and keeping rivals' heads as trophies. As a child I used to play in and amongst a circle of stones in Singleton Park, Swansea. I had the vague idea that I was playing in a caveman's playground. Then my father told me the stone circle had been left by an eisteddfod not many years before. After asking what an eisteddfod was, and being told it was a poetry and music festival, I remember feeling a bit disappointed, as though I'd been tricked. But looking back I now think that perhaps all national rituals, attempting to bring together so many different people from different backgrounds, have to have an element of trickery about them.

 

 

 

Castell Coch

The long confusion of national identity surrounds many Welsh historical sites, which have become increasingly popular with visitors since heritage developed as an industry in the 1970s. The great castles of north Wales are major heritage sites, but they commemorate Welsh subjection. These castles were built or rebuilt by Edward I during his thirteenth century invasions of Wales. Alongside places which in effect commemorate subjection of Wales, attempts were made to find authentic Welsh heritage sites. Philip Jenkins in The History of Modern Wales describes how "Dinefwr Castle is trumpeted as the seat of an independent Welsh lord of Deheubarth holding off tyrannical English invaders; while at Llandovey... a tourist leaflet proudly notes that 'many a rebel met his end below the castle mound.' Carrey Cennen becomes the 'impregnable bastion of Welsh princes.' There is no suggestion here that the worst dangers faced by the Welsh lords might come from other equally Welsh magnates" (The History Of Modern Wales P379). Meanwhile in south Wales there are two fairy tale castles, Cardiff Castle and Castell Coch, both looking fittingly ancient and romantic, but actually built this way in the nineteenth century by a hugely rich industrialist with a desire to return to an idealised past. This in many ways sums up a Welsh past, which beyond a common language did not exist, except in the minds of people with romantic notions of what Wales used to be.

Personally in looking at historic sites I do not look for something confirming my national identity, or anyone else's national identity. Usually hoops will have to be jumped through for heritage sites to do this for you. Some of the oldest and greatest of England's national symbols, such as William the Conqueror's Tower of London for example, hold similar ironies. The Tower, that great symbol of England, was built by an invader of England. Rather than confirming a sense of national pride, it is much better to let historic sites confirm that borders between us are illusory, and that in the last analysis we are all in this together. Wales's most famous poet wrote in Fern Hill:

 

And when I was green and carefree, famous among the barns

About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,

In the sun which is young once only,

Time let me play and be

Golden in the mercy of his means

 

 

 

The Boat House at Laugharne, home of Dylan Thomas

On our Dylan Thomas pages you will read that Dylan was sometimes criticised for not being more of a "Welsh" poet. Fern Hill makes such criticism ridiculous: a poet might be famous amongst the barns of a small part of Wales, or he might be famous globally. But that globe might only be a small planet in a big galaxy, where the sun is like a barn, just another part of a boy's world. Somehow all localities, with all their undeniable specialness, become relative in the end. I like it that Wales historically has not been held together by capital cities and administrative structure, but by something more enigmatic. All countries are states of mind in the end.

 

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