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Wales

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 heard a few tales about 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 the reality did not meet the vague 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 the First 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, although there was a period of rebellion from 1400 to 1410 when the Welsh may have felt more united. The Welsh nobleman Owain Glyndwyr had been educated in London and had served in the English army against the Scots. At the age of fifty he suddenly decided to organise a rebellion against Henry the Fourth. This rebellion, according to John Lavan Kirby, historian of Henry the Fourth, actually started as a dispute between Glyndwyr and neighbouring land owner Lord Grey dr Ruthyn. They were arguing over the 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 the Fourth 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. Rebellion was probably forced upon Owain, and was not a national struggle as is sometimes claimed today. Once the rebellion got into its stride, Glyndwyr claimed descent from Llewellyn ap Grwffyd and took the title Prince of Wales. For a while Owain's cause looked 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. He was never captured, 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.

At the time of the Tudors and the Stuarts the only "capital" of any substance was Ludlow, the headquarters of the Council of Wales.The real capitals were English towns, which different parts of Wales looked to as the centre 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 the rest of Wales, bringing an enormous disparity in population. This was a change from a situation where population had always been fairly evenly spread.

And yet the idea of Wales persisted. In the seventeenth century Wales had no flag, government, army or capital, but national feeling was strong. Nationalists suggested that Welsh culture had greater stability and longevity than English culture. It was pointed out that contemporary Welsh speakers could better understand the seventh century author Taliesin, than English people could understand Chaucer writing in the fourteenth century. Culture seemed to be the main Welsh claim to identity. As well as a distinctive Welsh language, the customs of wandering harpists and bards were a feature of a Welsh oral tradition. These traditions slowly declined and died out in the eighteenth century, as they had done so earlier in the rest of Britain. To counter this decline there were claims 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 betweem 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 then 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 I remember feeling a bit disappointed, as though I'd been tricked. Perhaps all national rituals, attempting to bring together so many different people from different backgrounds, have to have an element of trickery about them.

The confusion of national identity surrounds many of the historical sites in Wales, which have become increasingly popular with visitors since the heritage industry really developed 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 the First during his thirteenth century invasions of Wales. Edward, the most symbolic of kings made sure his castles looked impressive, since they were to be symbols of power as much as practical instruments of war. In the case of Conwy Castle, Edward built one of his most magnificent fortresses on the site of the monastery of Aberconwy, which might be looked upon as the closest Welsh equivalent to Westminster Abbey. To set alongside sites which in effect commemorate subjection of the Welsh, 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." (P379)

Personally in looking at historic sites I do not look for sites 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 the Norman stronghold of the Tower of London for example, hold similar ironies. It is much better to let these places confirm that the 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

 

On our Dylan Thomas pages you will read that Dylan was sometimes criticised for not being more of a "Welsh" poet. Fern Hill makes me feel such criticism is 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 is not so much held together by capital cities and administrative structure, but by something more enigmatic. All countries are states of mind in the end.

The Boat House at Laugharne, home of Dylan Thomas

 

 

 

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