Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe

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Publications on Welsh history

  • Antiquarianism, archeologyHistory-writingPublishing, periodicalsWelsh
  • Cultural Field:
    Texts and stories
  • Author:
    Löffler, Marion
  • Text:

    Welsh history-writing came of age in 1911, when John Edward Lloyd’s History of Wales from the earliest times to the Edwardian conquest appeared. His work was indicative of the time in that it understood the end of Welsh political independence as the conclusion of its history as a country. His approach focused, as academic historians of the time generally did, on politics, which partly explains why the study of Wales’s Celtic past, and its cultural and religious history, had remained the province of antiquaries and amateur historians throughout most of the 19th century.

    By the end of the 18th century the Welsh, in Prys Morgan’s words, “no longer appeared to have a distinct history, but only traditions which were either discredited or merely contributory to English traditions”. Following the Ossian scandal, the authenticity of Wales’s medieval sources was doubted by English scholars, and Welsh manuscripts lay unheeded in the libraries of an absent and uninterested gentry. As in other European countries, the resurrection of the national history began an anamnesis supplemented by imagined sources: the belief that the Welsh (as the original “Britons”) were the primeval settlers of the British Isles, that Christianity (in a non-Catholic form) had been practised by them long before it was (re)introduced in the 6th century by St Augustine; and that Welsh culture was based on the Celtic and Druidic traditions first described by Roman authors. Until the 1870s, Welsh history-writing was dominated by this Romantic school, grounded in Drych y Prif-Oesoedd (“The mirror of the early ages”, 1716) by the antiquary Theophilus Evans, reprinted at least twenty times until 1900. It was boosted by the forgeries of Edward Williams (Iolo Morganwg) which contrived to bolster ancient Celtic and bardic credentials. Doubts about the veracity of this tradition were voiced from the 1820s by historians like John Jones and Thomas Price “Carnhuanawc”. From the 1850s, strongly influenced by what was described as “the German school” – i.e. Rankean methods (but not the philosophy) – scholars like Thomas Stephens initiated a new tradition of source-critical integrity in order to forestall censure from outside. The loss of a mythical antiquity was part of this turn to a more modern and presentable Welsh history, without the speculative-antiquarian self-derivations from Gomer, grandson of Noah, or from the Trojans. Given the late emergence of an authoritative and professional Welsh historiography in the 1890s, Romantic and factualist amateur historians competed over the true history of Wales until the early 20th century. Local historians and “Celtomaniacs” in particular continued to write Romantic accounts well into the 1910s. Lloyd’s 1911 history and the Great War brought this to an end.

    Editing sources

    Cataloguing, editing and publishing sources for a national history was a major preoccupation of Welsh antiquaries and historians. In the absence of formal national institutions and a national university, they were patronized and supported by a growing number of cultural associations. In 1796, the Cambrian register, an ambitious journal published by the London Gwyneddigion Society, aimed at making available the treasures “contained in the Welsh language, in manuscripts, and the oral traditions of the people, of which barely a notice has hitherto been given to the world”. Sponsored by a displaced elite of London Welshmen, scholars like William Owen Pughe and Iolo Morganwg copied and published Welsh sources in the three-volume Myvyrian archaiology of Wales at the beginning of the century. Antiquarian and patriotic journals like the Cambro-Briton and general Celtic repository and the Cambrian quarterly magazine and Celtic repertory printed ancient laws, sketches and descriptions of monuments and Welsh poetry in the 1820s and 1830s. In 1841, Ancient laws and institutes of Wales; comprising laws supposed to be enacted by Howel the Good, a 9th-century Welsh ruler, appeared, edited by Aneurin Owen, member of a governmental commission on public records established in 1822. A Welsh Manuscripts Society, founded in 1838 by members of the Abergavenny Cymreigyddion Society, published eight volumes of material (authentic and spurious) between the 1840s and the 1870s, while the Cambrian Archaeological Association published Archaeologia Cambrensis from 1846 and the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion its Transactions from 1877. From the late 1850s John Williams (“Ab Ithel”), a disciple of Iolo’s, published collections asserting the survival of Druidism in Wales, such as Barddas, or a collection of original documents, illustrative of the theology, wisdom, and usages of the bardo-druidic system of the Isle of Britain. Between 1900 and 1922, Edward Owen (the first Secretary of the Royal Commission for the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Wales as of 1908) published a Catalogue of the MSS relating to Wales in the British Museum. A series of diplomatic editions of Welsh medieval texts was initiated in 1884 by John Gwenogvryn Evans. A former student of the first professor of Celtic at Oxford, Sir John Rhŷs, Evans acted from 1894 on as Inspector of Welsh Manuscripts for the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts. His Report on Welsh manuscripts, published between 1898 and 1910, is still an indispensable research tool.

    Writing history

    Wales had developed a native print culture from the early modern period, ensuring many publication platforms and a considerable social penetration for 19th-century historians. Many of their Welsh histories were the result of competitions sponsored by the eisteddfod movement. Eisteddfod competitions yielded hundreds of essays on ancient monuments, Druidism, place names, saints, sacred wells and national music as well as numerous histories of Wales, its literature and its religion, written by antiquaries and amateurs like Angharad Llwyd (A history of the Island of Mona or Anglesey, 1833), Jane Williams “Ysgafell”, Thomas Stephens, Charles Ashton (Hanes llenyddiaeth Gymreig, o 1650 A.D. hyd 1850, 1893) and others.

    Among the histories published from the 1820s were John Jones’s largely forgotten History of Wales of 1824 and the celebrated two-volume Hanes Cymru by Thomas Price “Carnhuanawc” (1836-42). Their authors were reluctant to doubt the authenticity of their sources. A more rigid standard of source criticism, as enjoined by Thomas Stephens in his benchmark The literature of the Kymry (1849), laid the foundation for the new school of Welsh historiography: Jane Williams “Ysgafell” (A history of Wales derived from authentic sources, 1869) and Robert Pryse “Gweirydd ap Rhys” (Hanes y Brytaniaid a’r Cymry, yn wladol, milwrol, cymdeithasol, masnachol, llenorol, a chrefyddol, o’r amseroedd boreuaf hyd yn bresennol, 1872-74). This new school of history-writing, after repeated skirmishes with those amateur historians who upheld Wales’s Romantic past, became dominant and professionalized from the 1880s, culminating in John Edward Lloyd’s 1911 History of Wales.

    In a parallel development, history was popularized, especially for a juvenile readership, by the likes of the journalist Owen Rhoscomyl (Flame bearers of Welsh history, 1905) and the school inspector Sir Owen M. Edwards (A short history of Wales, 1907), celebrating the nation’s hero-figures as well as its folklore and traditions, true or invented. Their work also appeared in popular periodicals like Cymru, Wales and Cymru’r plant. One aim was to familiarize Welsh children with Welsh history, a subject not on the curriculum of British primary schools.

    Staging history

    The work of amateur antiquaries and historians was utilized to stage the nation’s past in increasingly large pageants which were intended to demonstrate the fact that Wales, while an integral part of the United Kingdom, had its own national history. The Gorsedd of the Bards of the Isle of Britain, invented by Iolo in the 1790s and linked by him to the 1819 Carmarthen eisteddfod, proclaimed this in increasingly festive and elaborate processions, rituals and ceremonies around eisteddfod festivals. The practice continues to this day. For this purpose medievalist and Celtic paraphernalia, such as the “Horn of Plenty” and the torque worn by Welsh archdruids were devised in the 1890s. The gorsedd ceremonies held in connection with national eisteddfodau and Pan-Celtic congresses between 1899 and 1910 mark the zenith of these visual displays of the Welsh/Celtic past. The same decade also witnessed the two most spectacular displays of political historicism performed in Wales in the 20th century: the National Pageant of Wales staged in Cardiff in 1909, and the 1911 investiture of the future King Edward VIII as the Prince of Wales.

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  • Edwards, Hywel Teifi; The national pageant of Wales (Llandysul: Gomer, 2009).

    Evans, Neil; Pryce, Huw (eds.); Writing a small nation’s past: Wales in comparative perspective, 1850-1950 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013).

    Evans, Neil; “Finding a new story: The search for a usable past in Wales, 1869-1930”, Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, 10 (2004), 144-162.

    Jenkins, Geraint H. (ed.); A rattleskull genius: The many faces of Iolo Morganwg (Cardiff: U of Wales P, 2005).

    Jenkins, Geraint H.; “Clio and Wales: Welsh Remembrancers and Historical Writing, 1751–2001’”, Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, NS8 (2002), 119-136.

    Löffler, Marion; The literary and historical legacy of Iolo Morganwg, 1826-1926 (Cardiff: U of Wales P, 2007).

    Löffler, Marion; “Pan-Celticism around 1900”, in Rieckhoff, Sabine (ed.); Celtes et Gaulois dans l’histoire, l’historiographie et l’idéologie moderne (Actes de la table ronde 16/17 juin 2005 à Leipzig) (Glux-en-Glenne: Collection Bibracte, 2006), 143-151.

    Pryce, Huw; J.E. Lloyd and the creation of Welsh history: Renewing a nation’s past (Cardiff: U of Wales P, 2011).

    Remboldt, Elfie; Die festliche Nation: Geschichtsinszenierung und regionaler Nationalismus in Grossbritannien vor dem ersten Weltkrieg (Berlin: Philo, 2000).

    Williams, Glanmor; “Local and national history in Wales”, in Owen, D. Huw (ed.); Settlement and society in Wales (Cardiff: U of Wales P, 1980), 7-26.

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    © the author and SPIN. Cite as follows (or as adapted to your stylesheet of choice): Löffler, Marion, 2022. "Publications on Welsh history", Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe, ed. Joep Leerssen (electronic version; Amsterdam: Study Platform on Interlocking Nationalisms, https://ernie.uva.nl/), article version, last changed 16-03-2022, consulted 05-12-2022.