Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Writing the Welsh Out of Popular History

The other night's moon halo occurred exactly 554 years after the battle of Mortimer's Cross, an event marked by the appearance of a similar atmospheric phenomenon, a parhelion.

That battle resulted in the defeat of the Lancastrians and the subsequent execution of their commander Owain Tudur. The majority from what would later became Radnorshire fought on the victorious Yorkist side and their leaders benefited greatly as a result: Ieuan ap Philip was constable of Cefnllys, a fortress which he rebuilt and ruled with the help of a still existing copy of Hywel's laws.  Llywelyn ap Rhys was constable of New Radnor castle and Dafydd Goch - he was from Y Fron close to modern day Crossgates - was granted the small Marcher lordship of Stapleton by Presteigne. In this way the descendants of the old princes of Maelienydd continued to rule their ancestral lands, at least at the local level, maintaining the language, literature, law and traditions of the Welsh.

Check out popular English histories of the War of the Roses and you'll find little about the Welsh just as books on Tudor times rarely mention Wales; and this reminds me of something published the other day on the Daily Wales blogsite.  The article, see here, entertained its readers by including nearly every smidgen of historical balderdash ever dreamt-up about/by the Welsh.  Welsh Israelites - tick; Welsh Indians - tick; the Old British church - tick; Coelbren y Beirdd - tick.

Now what is interesting about this flummery - and  there's nothing new about any of it - is why these legends came about and what effect they had on reality.  Gwyn Alf Williams, for example, wrote a marvellous book about the Welsh Indians, see here although he certainly didn't belive that such a tribe ever existed outside the minds of men.  The Daily Wales article, however, sees the dismissal of these myths as part of some English plot to write the Welsh out of history - their fire may be wildly off target but their heart is in the right place.

Anyone who watches Time Team should play a game and count-up the number of occasions that great leveller Tony Robinson (sorry Sir Tony Robinson) mentions the Anglo-Saxons.  British survivals in Lindsey, Elmet, amongst the Magonsaete and as ancestors of the royal houses of Wessex and Mercia etc. are ignored.  Even when the programme makes a rare foray into Wales you'll more likely hear Baldrick droning-on about Anglo-Saxons.  It's a very one dimensional view of post-Roman Britain.

Then what about King Arthur?  The Matter of Britain is one of the foundation stones of vernacular literature from Germany to Portugal, yet despite obvious Welsh characters and backgrounds any Welsh transmission is downplayed, perhaps the result of lowly tavern minstrels. Never mind that a princess of Deheubarth was rolling around in the bed of the King of England, who by the way was really a Frenchman.

And so it goes on with the BBC the worst offender.  Here's a revealing factoid I've mentioned before in connection with Janina Ramirez' series on the Hundred Years War: Kent was the English shire asked to raise the most men - 280 - for the army that went to Crecy, for many English counties the number was less than 60.  The figure for the cantrefi that went to make up the future county of Radnorshire was 430.  Did the Welsh get a mention, did they hell.  As for Dimbleby's Seven Age's of Britain, who can forget his statement that Britain was pagan until a few Irish monks turned up in Scotland in the mid 500s.  Heaven knows where he thought St Patrick came from.

Fergal Keane's Story of Ireland was little better, the conquest of Ireland being achieved by the English or, at best, the Anglo-Normans. A better term for these half-Welsh conquerors, few of whom would have even been able to speak English, is Cambro-Normans. Frustrated by their failure to make progress in Wales these descendants of Princess Nest turned to a more profitable field of conquest. I suppose Irish pride is better served by blaming the English rather than admitting the role of men like Robert Fitz Stephen who boasted of his Trojan, that is his Welsh blood:

"We derive our descent, originally, in part from the blood of the Trojans, and partly we are of the French race. From the one we have our native courage, from the other the use of armour. Since, then, inheriting such generous blood on both sides, we are not only brave, but well armed."

And so it goes, Ieuan Brydydd Hir got it right some 240 years ago:

The false historians of a polished age
Show that the Saxon has not lost his rage,
Though tamed by arts his rancour still remains:
Beware of Saxons still, ye Cambrian swains.


R Tyler said...

The pagan Britain comment in Seven Age's of Britain was, simply, incredible. I cannot believe that the "historians" responsible at some stage for these programmes are unaware of the truth. It, therefore, comes down to intentional deception.

radnorian said...

Indeed. Dumbleby's mispronounciation of Plaid Cymru must also surely be deliberate. There again even a nice fellow like Michael Wood was incapable of saying Dyfed.

To be fair Robert Bartlett's series on the Normans wasn't so bad. He did point out that the Welsh resisted the Normans for around 200 years longer than the English. For Radnorians even longer since the Normans were on our borders as early as 1050!

Charlie said...

Just a thought... does the surprising conjuncture of strange atmospheric phenomena and the anniversary of the battle of Mortimer's Cross take account of the eleven-day shift in the calendar that took place in 1752?

radnorian said...

Sorry again for missing your comment - blogger is supposed to email me when a new comment appears, it didn't.

Good point about the change in calendar though.