Saturday, September 17, 2005

Wales: A Culture Preserved

Wales on the wane
The prospects for the survival of Wales as a separate country were already extraordinarily bleak by 1100. Contemporaries had no doubt that its days were numbered. When a prominent Welsh leader was killed by Anglo-Norman forces near Brecon in 1093, the contemporary chronicler writing at Worcester declared confidently that 'from that day kings ceased to bear rule in Wales'. His view was echoed gloomily by a Welsh counterpart, who wrote 'And then fell the kingdom of the Britons' - meaning, in other words, the Welsh.
These prophecies were fulfilled in the next forty years or so. Already in Domesday Book (1086) parts of what are now regarded as areas of north-east and south-east Wales were surveyed almost as if they were parts of England. The Anglo-Normans had built a castle in Anglesey, raided the Llyn peninsula in the far north-west and installed their candidate as bishop of Bangor. Forward castles were soon built at Pembroke and Cardigan and in south-west Wales, William the Conqueror paid a visit to St. David's, thereby showing Wales who was ultimately master. In the next forty years, English and Flemish settlers poured into the rich arable coastlands of south Wales, expelled the native Welsh and established large pockets of English settlements all the way from Chepstow to Pembroke.
Wales seemed about to be assimilated into England. The Welsh themselves had no doubt. To them Henry I (1100-35) was 'king of England and Wales and all the island beside', 'the man against whom no one could be of avail save God himself'.Nor should this surprise us. All the odds were stacked hopelessly against the Welsh. Wales is contiguous to England and had been the subject of Saxon raids for centuries. It was a mountainous country but also one with several points of easy entry for English armies and settlers. Wales resists dominationIn fact, some of the very factors that made Wales so despairingly vulnerable in the short term turned to its advantage on a longer perspective. By 1135 most of the lowland, arable areas of Wales, especially south Wales, which could be easily overrun and settled were already under English control. But beyond this lowland apron most of Wales was suited neither to the military methods of Anglo-Norman armies or to the economic and mercantile enterprise of English settlers. English stamina simply failed beyond about 600 feet.
Politically the very fragmentation of Wales could be turned to its advantage. While the defeat of the English king in 1066 was followed quickly by the political surrender of the whole country, in Wales political leadership was multiple. It could and did pass from one dynasty to another - especially to the prince of south-west Wales (Deheubarth) in the later twelfth century and thereafter to the princes of Gwynedd. Furthermore, effective and sustained English domination in Wales was largely confined to areas of intensive English settlement and since these were few and restricted, so was secure English control.Against the odds

The tomb of Edward the Confessor at Westminster Abbey But there are other reasons why Wales survived against the odds. It has to be recognised that the conquest and exploitation of Wales was not high on the agenda of the English kings and aristocracy. Their ambitions were much more directed to the control of their lands in France and to the exploitation of their estates in England. Beyond the areas of intensive English settlement in south Wales they were generally content with a loose overlordship, permitting the Welsh princes to retain their authority and status so long as they acknowledged the ultimate supremacy of the king of England and behaved themselves politically and militarily.
Yet we should not ascribe the survival of Wales as a country and the Welsh as a people simply to negative reasons. The Welsh proved to be remarkably resourceful, doughty and committed defenders of their country. Their frugality, intense militarism and hardiness stood them in very good stead, as did their love of what contemporaries called liberty: freedom from foreign control. Gerald of Wales (1146-1223) - himself both of Norman and Welsh descent - observed how a Welshman had retorted defiantly to Henry II (1154-89), king of England and ruler of much of France, that no one but a Welshman would answer to God for the little country that was Wales. The story may or may not be apocryphal but it reminds us that countries are created in the hearts and minds of men and women. And that is where they survive - or not.Ultimately conquered
'...there was an awesome finality to these events...'
Formally, of course, independent Wales did not survive. It was conquered at last by Edward I in two devastating campaigns in 1276-7 and 1282-3. Its native dynasties were expunged. Wales was now, in the words of the Statute issued by Edward in 1284, 'united and the crown of the realm (of England) as a member of the body of that realm'. It seemed to be curtains for Wales, both institutionally, as the Statute made clear and militarily, made even clearer by the mighty castles commissioned by Edward and built in the country.
Contemporaries were agreed that there was an awesome finality to these events. Edward I himself had declared, chillingly, that it was his intention 'to put an end finally to the matter'. No one could doubt him, as he carted the most sacred regalia and relics of the Welsh and attached them to the shrine of the patron saint of the English monarchy, Edward the Confessor, at Westminster abbey. Subsequently, he even designated his own son as Prince of Wales. For the Welsh the sense of apocalypse was overwhelming. 'Is it the end of the world?' asked a poet, despairingly. 'And then all Wales was cast to the ground' was the more prosaic comment of a contemporary chronicler.Wales stays intact

Harlech Castle, Gwynedd. One of Edward I's Welsh castles But Wales survived. The English did not have the intention to delete Wales as a country but equally, they had no intention of absorbing it into England. English institutions and officials might be introduced into Wales and a good measure of English law also - sometimes permissively, sometimes by decree. But Wales was not assimilated institutionally, politically or fiscally into England for the rest of the medieval period. No Welsh MP sat at Westminster; no English-type taxes were collected in Wales and judicially and legally, the country remained separate from England. There was, it is true, a measure of cultural absorption: it was already noticed by an English writer at Chester in the fourteenth century how the Welsh were aping English habits, such as tilling gardens, wearing stockings and sleeping under sheets! But English settlers in Wales kept themselves to themselves and paraded their exclusive Englishness.
The Welsh returned the compliment by remaining staunchly Welsh. Since they were in effect excluded from membership of the English commonwealth, they continued to cultivate their own separate identity. They achieved this in law until 1536 when Welsh law was formally abolished. They preserved their language - Welsh was dominant in Wales until the nineteenth century. They also maintained their culture, customs and perhaps above all, historical memories and mythologies.
'...Wales remained a country because its people believed it to be a country.'
So long as a people believes and regularly recalls that it is a people, then it remains a people, however much it may lack the emblems and institutions of political independence. Against all the odds and the massed battalions of English power, Wales remained a country because its people believed it to be a country. It was in support of that conviction, and vision, that most Welsh people gave their support to Owain Glyn Dwr when he proclaimed himself Prince of Wales in September 1400. Wales had long since been conquered, but it was still very much alive as a country.A strange debt to England
Credit for its survival must also be laid at an unlikely door - that of England and the English. The primary reason why the map of the British Isles eventually took the form that it did is due to the fact that the England we know had already assumed most of its boundaries, institutional structure and ethnic identity by the end of the tenth century. England was already a self-defined, self-contained and self-fulfilled country. By defining itself so securely on its own terms, it excluded the rest of the British Isles from inclusion within it.
' many people still unthinkingly equate England with Britain?'
This rest - Wales, Scotland and Ireland - was the Other. It could be brought under the domination of England - economically, culturally and linguistically as well as politically and militarily. But it was not part of England and thereby kept its own name, or names, and identities. Already by the tenth century the English tried to circumvent the dilemma by declaring that henceforth, Britain would be called England. It was a sleight of terminology that has done periodic good service for almost a millennium: how many people still unthinkingly equate England with Britain? But actually, though England now dominated the British Isles and has done so ever since, it could not and nor did it wish to, obliterate the identities of the other countries within the Isles. So it is that the history of the British Isles still today is composed of four countries that regard themselves as separate and different. And the most surprising of these is Wales.


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