Until very recently Welsh historians rarely stopped to think about historiography – writing about how other historians go about writing history – because we were too busy recovering the past and trying to interpret to worry about such things. There are those who would argue (the present reviewer included) that it is still much too soon. Modern Welsh history writing is, after all, not much more than a century old, and only since the 1960s has it gained any considerable size. Large gaps remain. The leading historiographer in Wales is undoubtedly Neil Evans (who appears in the blurb on the back cover), and his thoughts on the subject can be found in a variety of journals and in his editorials in Llafur. His most recent publication in the field is the collection of essays – Writing a Small Nation’s Past (Aldershot, 2013) – which he edited alongside Professor Huw Pryce of Bangor University, the nation’s only Professor of Welsh History. Looming large in that collection, and the conference that preceded it, is the figure of Sir John Edward Lloyd (1861-1947), the first professional historian to turn their attention to the Welsh past, and the subject of Huw Pryce’s intellectual biography.
This is a book of two halves, each enriching the other. The first comprises a relatively straightforward narrative account of the life of J. E. Lloyd, from his birth in the Liberal Nonconformist community of Welsh exiles in Liverpool, through his academic training at Aberystwyth and Oxford, and on to his academic presence as professor of history at Bangor. Through this account we can observe Lloyd’s efforts to carve an academic niche, but also provide a stable platform for research into, teaching about, and publication on Welsh history. Above all, we sense Lloyd’s total immersion in the Liberal Nonconformist national project, which was stirred into life in the aftermath of the 1868 General Election. This biography is underpinned by a remarkable range of archival material, drawing on Lloyd’s own archive, but also collections in Aberystwyth and Oxford. It is, at once, both utterly convincing and sympathetic.
The second half is quite different, albeit still framed as biography. Here we are presented not with Lloyd’s life, but the life of Lloyd’s greatest creation A History of Wales from Earliest Times to the Edwardian Conquest which was published in 1911. For a historian of late-nineteenth-century training, Lloyd’s habits were somewhat lacking in the probing rigour employed today but his modus operandi, that ‘we cannot sacrifice Arthur and St David and the two Llywelyns and Owain Glyn Dwr to the Wales which was the product of the industrial revolution’ (cited p. 92), echoes keenly a significant debate that still rages. Lloyd was, above all, a Whiggish historian and believed in the progress of the Welsh nation, its people, and its customs. He employed a degree of scientific rigour to give his work a firm foundation, but one with a purpose. As Pryce notes ‘empirical rigour served to legitimize a ‘whiggish’ narrative of events’ (p. 98).
To conclude, Pryce focuses on a single question: ‘creating Welsh history?’ The interrogative draws on Lloyd’s obituary published in The Times after his death in 1947. At the time many would have said yes. Pryce, however, is more nuanced than that: he shows clearly that Lloyd was working within a wider historical tradition and that his methodologies weren’t so different from contemporaries or predecessors. And yet, there remains a strong degree of admiration for a historian who ‘brought steadfast dedication, breadth of vision and meticulous verification of detail’ (p. 176). Whether or not historians of nineteenth and twentieth century Wales, fired as their writing is by quite different methods and approaches, see John Edward Lloyd as quite as important as those working in medieval history do is certainly open for debate. Other books, not least Glanmor Williams’ edited collection Merthyr Politics (1966) and, in more recent years, Gwyn A. Williams’ When Was Wales?, would seem to have had a far greater impact on those subsequent generations of Welsh historians who have sought to understand coalfields, docks, and ironworks, the sorts of places they grew up in.
At all times Pryce is meticulous: he willingly observes weaknesses in Lloyd’s methodology and points to areas of contention where these have arisen in the scholarship over the century since A History of Wales was published. This is no more apparent than in the sixty pages of notes and nearly thirty pages of bibliography, which contain items in both English and Welsh. It is clear that Pryce has scoured the archives thoroughly in producing his account. Thus, the only major flaw lies in the black and white plates that are, almost, hidden in the pages of the book. This is a shame since the photographs and images that are reproduced are too small to really add anything considerable to the text. There was clearly scope for further illustration, and it would have been welcome, but the plates here are strikingly redundant.
This is an impressive study and a considerable contribution to our understanding of Welsh historiography. It will stand also as a valuable addition to wider considerations of medieval historiography and its development over the twentieth century. Indeed, we now possess, in Huw Pryce’s book, the clearest insight yet into one of Wales’ singular contributions to the field. Those who question the logic of pursuing historiography when there is other work to be done may read the book’s underlying purpose with some puzzlement, but with never anything less than admiration for the erudition and scholarship that underpins it. Whether or not this sort of pursuit succeeds in ‘renewing a nation’s past’, however, remains very much to be seen.