You [the Welsh] live in your little corner in the far end of the world […] The rest of the world scarcely knows you exist as a people.
John Pecham, Archbishop of Canterbury
Once upon a time, increasingly a very long time ago, historians bothered with Welsh history. I remember as a teenager watching Simon Schama’s A History of Britain and being engrossed in the episode called ‘Nations’ which tells the story of England’s interaction, often bloody, with the other nations of the island we call Great Britain. Interwoven into that episode are the voices of those nations declaring that they will not be willingly subject to the imposition of rule by others. ‘The people of Snowdon assert’, declares the Welsh voice-over, ‘that even if their prince should give over-lordship of them to the English King, they would refuse to do homage to any foreigner of whose language, customs and law they were ignorant’. Such voices are, as Schama noted nearly two decades ago, strikingly modern, the politics of nationhood that (in his words) once said, could not be unsaid. It was to these dynamics that the late Rees Davies, the Chichele Professor of Medieval History at Oxford in my first year, turned his careful gaze. He saw the true benefits of understanding Britain as forged by the interplay of Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and England, and the necessity of shifting the historical board to view what was going on from the periphery not from the centre. His conclusions on the period leading up to the Edwardian conquests are summed up in his book The First English Empire published in 2000.
For if we look at the English conquest of Wales in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries from the point of view of England, we see a very particular dynamic. ‘The Welsh’, records the St Albans chronicle, for instance, ‘began after the English to accumulate wealth and henceforth lived in fear of losses to their goods’. In other words, the Welsh began to become ‘English’. But by the time of the Henrician Acts of Union in the mid-sixteenth century this process had not really advanced very far. ‘There are very few Welsh in Wales above Brecknock who have £10 in land, and their discretion is less than their land’. So wrote Rowland Lee, the Bishop of Lichfield and President of the Council of Wales and the Marches in the 1530s. In essence, the Welsh had not yet become civilised enough, English enough in other words, to be admitted to the top table and be granted the rights and privileges of English citizenship.
However you ‘read’ the cultural fault-lines that separated the medieval Welsh from the medieval English, it’s impossible to appreciate the one without engaging with the other. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the Celtic periphery of the British Isles enjoys a healthy presence in medieval history. Separate legal codes, languages, customs, coinage, processes of governance, and many other things besides all serve to excite medieval historians interested in the comparative development of European society. But compare this to the attitudes and approaches of modern British historians and things are so very different. In modern British history there may be some recognition of Scotland and certainly of Ireland, but Wales?
Until the beginning of the twentieth century there was almost no professional historiography of Wales that we would now recognise as such. This absence drove the career of the ‘founding father’ of Welsh history, John Edward Lloyd, who published his landmark text, A History of Wales from the Earliest Times to the Edwardian Conquest in 1911. Lloyd was firmly a product of nineteenth-century Welsh liberalism, which meant, in practice, a firm grounding in Welsh cultural life and a sense of Wales’s different trajectory vis-à-vis that of England. But whereas nineteenth-century antiquarians and amateur historians, such as William Thomas (Glanffrwd), could write of the parliamentary legacies of Oliver Cromwell in positive terms, for Lloyd and most of his cohort Welsh history ceased with the Edwardian Conquest and the Welsh became a people without a history thereafter.
And yet, by concentrating on Lloyd we are in danger of over-stating the ways in which Welsh people in the early twentieth century engaged with and understood their history. In a set of publications that earned him a fellowship of the Royal Economic Society, Thomas Isaac “Mardy” Jones, wrote eloquently on the industrial development of South Wales in terms that would be clearly recognisable as historical today. That was in 1905 and 1906. His role in establishing scholarships from the Rhondda for working men to attend Ruskin College was formative and there were wider networks of adult and continuing education which laid the groundwork for a remarkable flourishing of interest in Welsh industrial history after the First World War. That it was entirely within the bounds of adult education tells us much about the direction of travel of modern Welsh historiography. Indeed, the first professional study, produced by David Williams to mark the Chartist centenary in 1939, came after two decades of pamphlets and books written by historian-activists such as Ness Edwards and Mark Starr. Essays such as E. J. Jones’s ‘Scotch Cattle and Early Trades Unionism in Wales’, which appeared in 1928, and Brinley Thomas’s ‘The Migration of Labour into the Glamorganshire Coalfield, 1861-1911’ published in 1930, and his sequel ‘Labour mobility in the South Wales and Monmouthshire Coal-Mining Industry 1920-1930’, published in 1931, also pointed the way towards a new academic interest in Wales’s recent industrial past.
After the Second World War, this trend continued, albeit with much less of a role played by historians working from within the adult education tradition. By then, of course, Ness Edwards was a minister in the Labour government, Mark Starr was living in the United States, and Gwyn Thomas, who had taught industrial history in the Rhondda, was teaching languages in Barry and writing novels. The professionalisation of modern Welsh history continued in earnest. T. Mansel Hodges, writing in the Economic History Review, explored the ‘people of the hinterland and port of Cardiff, 1801-1914’, and subsequently turned his attention to the development of the banking sector in Wales in the nineteenth century. And then in 1950, David Williams published the first history of Wales to deal with the period after the Middle Ages. His A History of Modern Wales ran, as Neil Evans has recently written, ‘nominally’ up to 1939 but he ‘ran out of steam after about 1880’ and had just a single page on the First World War. His conclusions are nevertheless attractive – that in essence all economic, political and social life subsequent to 1914 was shaped by the economic bubble caused by the conflict’s artificial prosperity. The boom and subsequent bust of wartime capital, in other words.
Williams then turned his attention back to the tumultuous period of the early nineteenth century, publishing his The Rebecca Riots: A Study in Agrarian Discontent in 1955. The unifying themes of Williams’s career are present in this book, most especially his interest in the gentry and their survival and collapse in the face of different pressures and circumstances. This is a book about a fractured rural society out of which competing forces were emerging in complex ways. As Pembrokeshire man, Williams wrote history with a sense of balance and discipline, less angry than his younger Glamorganshire colleagues. But there was another historian of this period emerging from the corridors of the Old College in Aberystwyth who was a product of the inter-war depression and of Dowlais: Gwyn Alfred Williams. His earliest essay, published in the National Library of Wales Journal in 1959 hints at his masterwork – ‘The Merthyr Riots: Settling the Account’. Two years later it was followed by ‘The Making of Radical Merthyr, 1800-36’, published in the recently founded Welsh History Review. By 1965, Gwyn Alf was writing of ‘The Insurrection at Merthyr Tydfil in 1931’ and then in 1978 he dropped the bombshell that he had been building up to: The Merthyr Rising. It’s impossible not to appreciate this book as emblematic of a certain type of Welsh history – radical, committed, focused on the dynamics of ordinary people, and anchored to an engagement with a whole range of sources. It remains a model of synthesis with a purpose that still echoes down the ages. In later years, Gwyn Alf insisted that ‘if we are to live, we must act’, an ethic which is on clear display in The Merthyr Rising.
The 1970s also saw the birth of Llafur: the Welsh Labour History Society. Born out of a collaboration between young historians and the trade union movement (notably the South Wales Area of the National Union of Mineworkers), Llafur can be seen as a rebirth of the adult education tradition of modern Welsh history. In an article published in History Today, Geraint Jenkins refers to Llafur as a ‘revisionist school […] armed with radical, left-wing views and emboldened by a provocative, no-nonsense approach’. Many of Llafur’s leading members circulated around the Coalfield History Project, which ran out of University College Swansea from 1971-1974. History was about recovery, both of documents and of memories, but it was also about contemporary action. Small wonder, as Dai Smith reflected in a recent television documentary, that they naturally coalesced around Gwyn Alf Williams. The products of this generation of historians are quite remarkable: The Fed by Hywel Francis and Dai Smith (1980), A People and a Proletariat edited by Dai Smith (1980), Lewis Jones by Dai Smith (1982), Miners Against Fascism by Hywel Francis (1984), When Was Wales? by Gwyn Alf Williams (1984), Wales! Wales? by Dai Smith (1984), The Last Rising by David J. V. Jones (1985), Crime in Nineteenth-Century Wales by David J. V. Jones (1992), and in more recent times Alun Burge’s William Hazell’s Gleaming Vision (2014).
To fully recount the legacy of this generation of scholars – some of whom, such as Alun Burge, Neil Evans, and Deian Hopkin, have published primarily in article form – would take more space than is possible in a blog, but suffice it to say that all practitioners of modern Welsh history today owe a remarkable debt to them. Their intellectual influence remains strong, not least in the subsequent generations of Welsh historians, although it is perhaps less pervasive than in previous years. The last truly Llafur-esque monograph (prior to Alun’s recent book) was probably Chris Williams’s Democratic Rhondda published in 1996.
One strand that has developed out of Llafur – albeit not without its own challenges – has been women’s history pursued with vigour from the 1970s onwards by Angela John, Deidre Beddoe, Ursula Masson, Dot Jones, and, albeit largely from the outside, by Sue Bruley. Neil Evans has also made thoughtful contributions to the field over the years. Practitioners of women’s history went into communities, produced films and oral history, and sought to rescue Welsh women from the fate embodied by Deidre Beddoe’s brilliant observation (made in 1981) that if an alien landed in Wales they would wonder how the Welsh procreated given how exclusively male the historiography was up until that point. Even a decade later Angela John could write, ‘the history of Welsh people has often been camouflaged in British history yet women have also been rendered inconspicuous within their own Welsh history’. By 2011, John could write that ‘it is good that some of the original introduction is now anachronistic’ but there was still the sense that women’s history ‘requires continued attention’. It’s not quite alright yet Jill. Indeed, in some respects women’s history has now begun to give way to studies of gender, which have in turn focused on masculinity. The extent to which this turn helps to recover the experiences and place of women in the history of Wales remains to be seen.
There was another tradition, of course, which emerged somewhat in parallel with the one represented by Gwyn Alf Williams and later Llafur. This one is cool, collected, and detached in so many ways from the tumultuous grassroots, community politics of Wales. It is the tradition represented by Kenneth O. Morgan, whose work has focused on the high politics of Wales notably its leading Liberal and Labour figures such as Keir Hardie and David Lloyd George. Having spent the bulk of his career at the Queen’s College, Oxford, Morgan’s history cannot be said to be all that radical. Indeed, in many respects, his version of the past is Whiggish – the gradual unfolding of progress much of it guided by the liberal tradition that Morgan so admires. The cautious labour leaders – such as Mabon – are the ones who get praised and those who sought to make the most of the brutal rupture of the years just before the First World War appear as isolated and almost extra-terrestrial. Instead of tumult and fervour we have the conclusion that ‘peace and prosperity seemed to reinforce at every turn the main developments in society since the early eighties’. I think not.
And yet the Morgan tradition has been remarkably influential to the post-Llafur generations because of his interest in Welshness and the dynamics of interaction between Wales and Britain and Welshness and Britishness. In contrast to the ‘alternative cultures’ and proletarian ruptures of the Llafur ‘school’, Morgan’s work provided a historiographical context in which scholars trained in the 1990s could leave aside the old mantras of class and seek to excavate identities of different kinds. This process of revisionism still continues amongst the current crop of PhD students (who have, of course, been trained by the inheritors of the K. O. Morgan lineage). In so doing, it has made Welsh history safe and easily ignorable. After all, why would anyone really care about what happened in Maerdy or Gwaun-cae-Gurwen or Blaenau Ffestiniog when it’s simply another ‘context’ and we could look at Manchester or Birmingham instead?
Perhaps that’s an unfair conclusion to draw, but it’s the one I’ve drawn nevertheless. For today’s blog was prompted by my experience at the Modern British Studies conference held at Birmingham this week. Arriving at a stifling campus, I registered and had a look at the bookstall – my usual process for a conference as it gives you a good idea of what publishers have taken from the conference call. As my eyes scanned the arrayed publications, I recoiled somewhat: Ireland, England, Empire, Scotland, and those “British” history texts that are really all about England anyway. I picked up a couple of the “British” ones and turned to ‘W’ in the index. The question for us these days is not so much ‘when was Wales’ but ‘where is Wales’. Of all the nations of the British Isles, we are the most invisible. And as it was in the bookshop, so it was in the conference. The opening keynote by James Vernon even went so far as to declare Labour an ‘increasingly English party’ – a statement that is as vacuous as it is stupid. In my head I was shouting at him, yeah so English the only part of the country that’s governed by Labour (as a party of government) is Wales. As I wrote in my notes in response to that lecture: WHAT IS BRITAIN? I scribbled a few other things too which will remain on the page! It’s funny how much this echoes my response to Selina Todd’s remarkably Anglo-centric The People.
Not that this is a problem exclusive to historians of modern Britain. Through my engagement with colleagues with in the Association of Welsh Writing in English (AWWE), it’s become alarmingly apparent just how much this is also a problem with the study of literature in the English language. The two major fields of the humanities in Britain both remain broadly ignorant of one part of the conglomerate. How do we overcome this problem I wonder? For starters it would help us all if we stopped playing it safe. I’m deeply encouraged by the scholarship emerging from within the AWWE circles – it is anything but safe and challenges all of us to think carefully about language, culture, society, the environment, and politics, in ways that historians just aren’t doing. But there’s a more immediate need, which is for a scholarship which understands the position we find ourselves in now and is able to harness the anger of the new generation. Perhaps this means being less professional, less market-orientated, less guarded in what we say. Actually, there’s no perhaps about that.
There’s an irony in all of this: all these “British” historians have to do is read and engage with other people’s scholarship. It’s not as if they have to do the research on their own, unless they wish to. Yes, there are gaps in our knowledge but these are being filled in an effort to bring a broader sense when Wales was and what it meant to live there. The question that was not asked at the Modern British Studies conference, and which is absent from the working paper that they published, is how Britain has been shaped by the dynamics of interaction between Welsh, English, Scots, and Irish, just as much as by the wider empire and the world. When Welsh hunger marchers were treated with such antagonism on the streets of Reading; when an English city (and English MPs) could override the express wishes of an entire nation and very nearly its entire parliamentary cohort and build a reservoir; when sailors travelling on tramp ships scrambled to get off in Liverpool because they dreaded being stuck in the poverty trap of Cardiff; when William Abraham stood up in the House of Commons and uttered the words of the Lord’s Prayer in Welsh and English MPs mocked him for speaking the language. These sorts of things reflect a very real dynamic which deserves to be explored and not just by Welsh historians.
In a remarkable essay for the New York Review of Books, published back in 2010, the late (and much missed) historian Tony Judt turned his eye to the subject of identity. I first read the piece when I was writing a chapter for an edited collection on sport and community identities edited by John Hughson and others and nodded fully in agreement all the way through. It begins with a stark warning that ‘identity is a dangerous word. It has no respectable contemporary uses’. As he moves from this warning to consider the effects of identity on university and wider academic life, he notes carefully that identity studies often limits ‘outside interest’ (it is discouraged, he suggests) leading to the situation wherein people study themselves. The Welsh study the Welsh, for instance. I tend to agree that identity is a dangerous word, but am open to rethinking some of his conclusions. I was prompted to return to the essay by a recent intervention by Jasmine Donahaye for the Click on Wales blog and by my readings of Simon Brooks and Daniel Williams’ new books. In her blog, Donahaye argues that we Welsh should take ourselves more seriously as a nation if we are to secure the international recognition that Wales deserves. The parallels with Ireland – and Scotland – are obvious. She writes, ‘the study of Wales across disciplines is not only marginalised and fragmented, but also perpetually vulnerable’. To study Wales at university, to present papers on Wales at conferences, to publish papers on Wales in journals, all of these are radical acts in the face of an academy that has marginalised the Welsh people.
I keep coming back to that idea of rebellion. Albert Camus wrote of the rebel that he is ‘a man who says no: but whose refusal does not imply a renunciation. He is also a man who says yes as soon as he begins to think for himself’. Camus continues: ‘he rebels because he categorically refuses to submit to conditions that he considers intolerable and also because he is confusedly convinced that his position is justified […] Rebellion cannot exist without the feeling that somewhere, in some way, you were justified’. To think otherwise about British history, then, as historians such as Rees Davies did, is to think about Britain from the margins not the centre. This alters our understandings of chronology, politics, political ideas, language, and class. Take the idea of social democracy, for instance. Countless historians have argued that it had a very short life span in Britain. I would argue this does not hold in the Welsh context: not only did social democratic politics take root in Wales with greater force than in much of England, and early on in the century, they’ve lasted longer too. For all its marginality, Plaid Cymru (which has long been to the left of the SNP) represents a continuity of that tradition. And it’s the social democratic impulse which helps to explain why the miners’ strike played out in a different way in Wales, leading to the establishment of a popular ‘proto-assembly’ in the form of the Wales Congress in Support of Mining Communities. There were certainly attempts to hold on to something of that social democracy in Rhodri Morgan’s “clear red water” ideas in the early 2000s and in the One Wales agreement that brought Plaid Cymru into government for the first time in 2007. It may not be entirely social democracy as understood in 1945 but it’s a lot closer than the mass privatisations undertaken by “social democratic” parties across Europe in the 1990s and 2000s.
And so perhaps this is the reason why Wales isn’t studied by very many people outside of Wales? We’re too uncomfortable, too unsettling to established norms. We should learn to embrace that mess, though, because the Welsh have a legitimate role to play in our scholarly understanding of these islands. As for ourselves, well, we should start being a little bit more rebellious. More Gwyn Alfs and fewer KO Morgans.