Friday, August 06, 2010

Our French Neighbours

While trying to keep up with current events, I found this interesting quote in the 1873 Christmas Eve edition of the Western Mail, it's in a profile of the Breconshire MP Godfrey Morgan:

"It is almost a paradox, but it is, nevertheless, true that Breconshire, throughout the whole of which the Welsh language is constantly in use, is less essentially Welsh than Herefordshire, where the ancient tongue has almost entirely fallen into desuetude. The population of Breconshire consists, in a great measure, of a Norman colony, which has gradually adopted the language of the country in which its lot has been cast, while Herefordshire is a Welsh county whose inhabitants have lost the use of their native tongue."

The writer uses these "ethnological grounds" to explain the Brecknockians supposed aversion to political dissent and "the supremacy of the Conservative cause in the county." Of course the secret ballot soon put paid to that little theory as the Liberals won the seat when Morgan became the 2nd Lord Tredegar in 1875 and held on until it was abolished and merged with Radnorshire in 1918.

Party politics aside there is some truth in lowland Breconshire's French character, after all it was the bard Hywel Dafi who celebrated the French families of Brycheiniog, where he pointed out that "every tribe has the fruit of French blood" - bobllwyth gyda ffrwyth gwaed ffrainc. While French surnames like Havard are still common enough, others, the Bullens and Boys for example adopted the Welsh patronym system to eventually emerge with surnames such as Williams. That excellent little book The Surnames of Wales relates a sad tale of a woman named Walby who sought relief in Crickhowell in the 1880s, her real surname was the fine old Breconshire French name Walbeoff, but her husband had changed it "because people laughed."

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