History special 2: When history is written by the defeated

Martin Johnes reflects on how some flame-bearers of the Welsh past can burn our fingers

In the early 1980s the approaching 700th anniversary of the conquest of Wales raised awkward questions about how it should be commemorated. In Ruthin, plans to celebrate the awarding of the town’s 1282 charter by Edward I caused an outcry, with one councillor arguing that, “A lot of people think we are celebrating the death of a nation”. After a public meeting, it was decided that there should be a celebration of the town’s general history rather than the awarding of its charter by an English king.

In contrast, the Welsh Tourist Board decided to hold a festival to celebrate the building of castles around northern Wales. The fact that these fortresses were symbols of a foreign conquest meant the plans deeply annoyed nationalists, especially when one of the associated slogans (apparently added by the British Tourist Authority) reversed historical fact to declare, “Wales is a country worth defending. That’s why we have so many castles”.

History might not always make comfortable reading for nationalists. Nonetheless, across Europe it has played an important role in sustaining and even inventing a sense of national identity. As 19th Century Germany and Italy demonstrate, a selective reading of the past can offer a powerful source of stories and pride that can overcome contemporary divisions and realities. That was not quite so straightforward in Wales.  Too many heroes from Welsh history were ultimately figures of defeat rather than victory.  As one eminent historian put it in 1950, “Those who seek flame-bearers of Welsh nationhood are apt to burn their fingers.”

That did not mean some people did not try to employ history to promote Welsh nationhood. In the 18th and early 19th Centuries romantics in and outside Wales had used the Celts and druids to build a picture of the Welsh as a mysterious and poetic people, the true Ancient Britons. By the late Victorian period that quaintness seemed out of place in an era of progress and modernity. Instead, history was rewritten to stress the devoutness and cultural achievements of the Welsh. As the mock-medieval investiture of the future Edward VIII as Prince of Wales at Caernarfon castle in 1911 demonstrated, even the symbols of conquest were now being recast to declare Wales as a partner rather than subject of England.

What people within 19th and early 20th Century Wales actually knew about their collective history was a different matter. There was certainly a strong sense of genealogy in rural areas and many ordinary people were as proud of their roots as any aristocratic family. Moreover, Matthew Arnold, a Victorian Professor of poetry at Oxford, claimed that everywhere in Wales had its own traditions and that the Welsh people knew and clung to this living past. How this attachment to local legends and traditions came together to form a sense of national awareness was less certain. Many people, especially in industrial areas, were rather ambivalent, sometimes even embarrassed about their Welshness. For every patriotic Welshman there were others who saw their nation as a stigma, an unwanted hangover from the past that should be cast aside.

The establishment of compulsory education in the late 19th Century could have changed that. However, before the Second World War school history lessons more often than not focussed on celebrating British rather than Welsh nationhood. This was not true everywhere, despite the claims since that Welsh children were kept ignorant of their history. The poet Danny Abse, born in 1923, remembers being taught at his Cardiff elementary school that Owain Glyndŵr had rebelled in defence of justice and liberty and was in the heart and soul of every true Welshman.

After the Second World War such patriotic teaching gained official support. In 1952 the Welsh department of the Ministry of Education issued a report which called for more teaching of Welsh history in the belief this would contribute to the survival of the Welsh nation.

The teaching of Welsh history may have grown and developed in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s but it was not always popular. One Wrexham man remembered being “force-fed” Welsh history at school in the late 1940s and early 1950s: “Yet it had seemed so impossible to disentangle, so difficult to absorb, what with all those names of squabbling Welsh princes, [and] long-vanished principalities”. In 1959 in Flintshire the Director of Education was condemned for his promotion of Welsh history. “They fear that you are creating in the mind of a child an awareness that there is such a concept as the Welsh nation,” he said of his critics.

Gwynfor Evans, president of Plaid Cymru from 1945 to 1981, was another who promoted Welsh history as a means of inspiring national sentiment. He wrote his own history of Wales, a tale of English oppression and a glorious linguistic heritage, a story that was not always too concerned with historical complexities. Such tales of the survival of Wales against the odds may have been more propaganda than pure history but they helped inspire a new generation of activists, some quite willing to go to prison in the name of their nation. One such figure was Dafydd Iwan who wrote the hugely-popular song Yma o Hyd (Still Here), another rather questionable account of the Welsh past, but one that demonstrated the power and appeal of a simple historical message.

By the 1970s the focus of Welsh history was beginning to look beyond medieval princes and the questions of culture and language that had been deemed central to promoting Welsh identity. The closure of collieries and other industrial works was now creating a sense that a certain kind of Welsh community was in irreversible retreat. This brought a greater interest in industrial social and political history and a greater realisation that it was as much a part of Welsh history as medieval principalities or the rural peasantry.

Not everyone welcomed this new turn in Welsh history. To more traditional nationalists industrialisation was associated with Anglicisation and the undermining rather than building of a nation. So, for example, the late 1980s before the Welsh folk museum at St Fagans began to properly embrace industrial history by erecting a row of miners’ cottages.

Television was quicker to take to this wider understanding of the Welsh past. Two series were particularly important. The BBC’s Wales! Wales? (1984) placed industrial south Wales firmly centre stage and emphasised how the country meant different things to different people. Meanwhile, HTV’s The Dragon has Two Tongues (1985) emphasised not just the plurality of the Welsh experience but also how it could be interpreted in different, conflicting ways. Both series made significant impacts and historical debate seemed to be moving out of the classroom and into the pubs, living rooms and streets of Wales.

The reclaiming of the history of the industrial working class as a central element in the Welsh past was an important part of rethinking Welshness.  Gradually being Welsh was losing its associations with a restrictive old-fashioned Nonconformist culture. Instead, its newly-stressed plurality allowed a greater part of the Welsh population to see Wales as something to be proud of and maybe even something which had a political salience. Indeed, in the traditional tales of oppression and exploitation the villains of history were now often seen as English as well Capitalist.

Of course, this was a slow process but, alongside the alienation many felt with Thatcherism and deindustrialisation, there was enough of a politicisation of Welshness amongst the working class to transform the resounding ‘No’ vote in the 1979 devolution referendum to a narrow ‘Yes’ in the 1997 re-run.  Quite what role the growing awareness and rewriting of Welsh history played in that change is open to debate but the research of political scientists certainly pointed to the crucial swing coming in the industrial south, precisely the place that had now been written into Welsh history.

A new landmark television history of Wales has now begun on the BBC. It too has grand ambitions of encouraging debate and kindling interest rather than simply reporting and depicting the nation’s past. The internet now means the opportunities for people to engage with rather than simply consume narratives of history are unprecedented. Yet perhaps the sense of urgency Welsh historians once had in wanting to tell their stories to wider audiences has faded. Welsh nationhood no longer seems so controversial and fewer people are denying their nationality. Wales does not seem in any danger of perishing in the near future.

Crucially, since devolution, Welsh nationhood is no longer so dependent on the past.  It is no more a nation that has to look backwards to see that it exists.  Yet the fact that a political state of sorts has come about at all owes much to the perspectives people have drawn from Wales’s history, even if their reading of that history is sometimes rather selective.

Martin Johnes is Head of History and Classics at Swansea University. He is the author of a major new book, entitled Wales since 1939 and published by Manchester University Press. Further details of the book can be found at www.hanescymru.com. This article was first published in the BBC History Magazine.

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