Social background of the Welsh speakers

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The resistance until the annexation

During the 7th century, as the Saxons were invading Britain, they won decisive battles which had as a consequence, among others, to isolate the future Welsh people in the north. It was at that time that the Britons of the north chose the name Cymry for their land and Cymraeg for their language. But the Saxon invaders called them wealhas, which meant ―foreigners‖ in their language, and it is from this word that the name ―Welsh‖ came from. Meanwhile, from the 5th century onwards, Christian influences began spreading from the European continent and Ireland. Churches and religious monuments were built in what was to become Wales at the time, and those religious buildings were the targets of the Viking raids during the 9th century. The Vikings destroyed many of the Welsh cultural symbols along with many works written in Welsh language, but thanks to brave Welsh leaders – such as Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, as we have seen – who fought in order to establish a national unity, the national independence of Wales was protected and the Scandinavian cultural influence had nearly no impact.25 It was not before the 13th century that the independence of Wales became more seriously threatened. As England had got unified by the Normans, Edward I planned to take Wales under English dominion by the end of the 13th century. Even though Wales was not annexed, it was given the status of ―Rhuddlan‖ in 1284 by the English crown. Through this statute given to Wales, Edward I could introduce the English common law system, turning Wales into a part of the country under English rule and dividing the Welsh nation ruled by the last of the Llewelyn dynasty into five counties: Anglesey, Merionethshire, Caernarfonshire, Denbighshire and Flintshire.
These counties thus became part of a ruling England which, of course, favoured the English language and tried to impose it as the unique and official language. In spite of all that, Welsh remained the language of the Welsh people, and English was spoken and used only in the highest spheres of the Welsh society and by members of the Church. Fortunately for the Welsh culture, the Welsh literature had had time to emerge and impose itself as more than a minor literary movement. The Mabinogion, as we have seen, is a good example of the importance and quality of works written in Welsh, they represent the characteristics of a unique nation proud of its cultural legacy. It was two centuries later that Wales‘s independence became even more seriously threatened with the crowning of Henry VIII (1491-1547) as king of England. As the king, Henry gradually grew concerned about the threat that could represent the lords of Wales if they united their political and military forces against the English crown.27 As a consequence, Thomas Cromwell, one of the men working in his administration, was asked to find a solution to the Welsh issue. Cromwell decided that annexing Wales and thus incorporating it within the English kingdom would be the best solution to the Welsh problem.
This led to the Laws in Wales Acts (1535 and 1542), sometimes referred to as the Act of Union, which were a set of parliamentary measures turning Wales into a part of the kingdom of England by imposing many of the English laws on the Welsh territory. It was through these acts that Henry‘s government put an end to the official independence of Wales; the five shires it had been divided into were to become mere parts of the kingdom of England and had to submit to English rules.

Laws in Wales Acts‘ consequences

And yet, even though Henry‘s wish was to turn the Welsh people into English subjects, he and his government could not but recognize the identity and specific culture that people had. In the first pages of the Laws in Wales Act of 1535, the Welsh language, embodiment of this culture, is mentioned – and thus acknowledged – even though it is referred to as a language of ―sinister usages and customs‖, as Hervé Abalain points out.28 Mastering and using the English language was presented as mandatory to all those who coveted high responsibilities within the Welsh elite. This was clearly an attempt to ―corrupt‖ the Welsh leaders by making them abandon and disown their identity as Welshmen.
But the people of Wales kept using the Welsh language for years, even though the Acts had made English the only official language in both England and Wales. What really was a threat to the perpetuation of the Welsh language was the abolition of many religious orders in Wales, along with the closure of many monasteries. Indeed, religion and education were still closely tied together at the time, the monks were men of letters and it was their role to teach cultural values, customs and of course the Welsh language. Glanmor Williams (1920-2005), a famous Welsh historian, studied and wrote about the consequences of the Acts for Wales among other subjects related to Wales‘s history.29 When asked about the Reformation in Wales on the radio, Professor Williams spoke of the use of the Prayer Book written in English, a language that ―the three-quarters of [the Welsh people] didn‘t understand‖ 30, and of the church services and prayers which became spoken in English. Williams also mentions the removal of many religious features inside the churches, such as images, paintings, along with the covering up of church windows and frescos.
For the Reformation was a process of breaking away from the official Catholic Church and the Pope initiated by Henry VIII, who wanted his marriage annulled without the consent of the Pope. This led to the creation of the Church of England, and this is why religious writings and symbols throughout the kingdom of England – now including Wales – were removed, altered or replaced. As the Protestant religion was created, it still had to be spread and taught throughout the country, and particularly in Wales. Until 1563, that is to say under the reign of Elizabeth I, the Church of England had spread and imposed itself on the Welsh territory. But, as we have seen, only a small part of the population of Wales could understand English, and Queen Elizabeth was quite aware of the fact that the Reformation would not have any long-lasting effects if the people of the newly-annexed Wales did not understand what they were praying.
In order to gain influence over the people of Wales, England had to use religion, which was at the time the main political and cultural influence over the people. Elizabeth thus asked that the Bible be translated into Welsh, so that every Welshman could properly understand the new official religion of the kingdom of England. From this initiative came out the result Elizabeth expected, that is to say the conversion of a large part of the Welsh people to Protestantism. But at the same time, the translation enabled the Welsh language to survive through its written form. Indeed, the fact that a book as emblematic as the Bible was published in Welsh gave to this language the importance it had lost with the Laws in Wales Acts which had made it a ―second-rate language‖. The Prayer Book was also translated into Welsh, and copies of the Bible in both English and Welsh were made available in every Welsh church. One of the aims of the English government and of the head of the Church of England was also to show to the Welsh people to what extent the English versions of the Bible and of the Prayer Book were superior to the Welsh ones, for they also aimed at making the Welsh people want to learn English.
30 Programme 4, People and Belief, from the BBC Radio Wales Millennium History series, The People of Wales (1999) – Glanmor Williams‘s intervention about reformation in Wales (an audio extract can be found on
Things did not quite go as they had expected since the regain of interest for the Welsh language was stronger than the desire to learn English. Dr Gwynfor Evans quotes Edmund Spencer about this issue: ―It hath been the use of the conqueror to despise the language of the conquered.‖31 In his book, Evans speaks of the Welsh aristocracy who kept ―turning [its] back on [its] nation‖ after the Laws in Wales Acts. The fact that so many Welshmen from the aristocracy decided to learn English and to break up with the Welsh Language in order to gain some advantages and/or responsibilities shows that nationalism and patriotism has its limits. Discussing to what extent men can be corrupted by money or power is not something we will go through in this essay, but it can be interesting to consider some facts:
– Evans speaks of a ―Welsh sense of inferiority‖ which was quite present in Wales especially during the couple of centuries following the Laws in Wales Acts. The Welshmen who decided to submit to the English requirements in order to gain personal benefits may have done so without any intent to betray nor their nation, nor its culture.
– As the Welsh culture and language were threatened on the long run, it was probably not the fact that the Welsh aristocracy turned towards the English that prevented the Welsh culture from being carried on, since it eventually was.
– Finally, we must bear in mind that a man like Gwynfor Evans was more a politician than an historian, member of the Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru. Knowing this, we need to consider his work differently as his political ideas may alter not the quality but the objectivity of his work to some extent.

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Literature, education and religion

We have seen to what extent Wales‘s identity, culture and sovereignty have been challenged since the Laws in Wales Acts in the beginning of the 16th century. We now have to consider the same period of time, stretching over nearly five centuries, from the Welsh point of view, that is to say by trying to understand how the Welsh culture, language and identity succeeded in surviving in spite of the English rule hostile towards them.
First of all, one must bear in mind that as we have seen, the translation of the Bible into Welsh in 1563 was an unintended sign of the revival of the Welsh language and literature; but it was not the only one. Indeed, a couple of years before the Bible in Welsh was published, the first book written in Welsh was written. It has no title but is known by its first words: ―Yn y lhyvyr hwnn‖, meaning ―in this book.‖37 This book contains the Commandments in Welsh, along with information and guides about the structure of the Welsh language and how it must be read. This shows the need the Welsh felt for written works in and about their language, which was even more vulnerable if not written. So all this could partially account for the importance the Bible translated into Welsh had when it was first published in 1567 (later revised by William Morgan and republished in 1588).38 At a time when the Welsh culture and language were threatened and could fall into oblivion, the Bible played a major role as Armand Le Calvez noticed it: ―La Bible a donné aux Gallois une langue classique qui a remédié, dans une certaine mesure, à l‘absence d‘une université ou de toute autre institution, et elle a maintenu l‘unité du people à une époque de désintégration sociale et religieuse‖.39 So this was one of the first elements which enabled the Welsh culture and language to be carried on throughout the centuries without vanishing, in spite of the English hostility and domination.
Another important element to take into account is the fact that even though the Laws in Wales Acts of 1536 had made English the only official language in Wales, many were those who kept using Welsh on a daily basis, in courts for example, for several decades. It was, as we have previously seen, the Welsh aristocrats who were the most eager to anglicise themselves by learning English and by sending their children to Welsh grammar schools which reproduced the English teaching system. But from the middle of the 16th century to the beginning of the 18th century, even though Welsh schools taught pupils in English, most of the Welsh population still spoke Welsh on a daily basis.

The Welsh Industrial Revolution

The 19th century was also the time of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, and with it came crucial changes for Wales. It all began with thanks to the presence of large amounts of iron ore and coal on the Welsh territory. As Britain was turning into an industrial nation looking for profit, the natural resources in Wales led to the establishment of ironworks and coal mines, mainly in south-east and north Wales. Many people, mainly English, moved to Wales in order to benefit from the opportunities and jobs that the exploitation of natural resources would create. Some of those immigrants learnt Welsh in order to fit into the local communities, and little by little an increasing demand for newspapers and literature of all kinds emerged.
This was a vital moment for the Welsh culture and language which eventually had the opportunity to not only be carried on through generations, but also to be taught and exported to newcomers. One could consider that it was at that time that the English really began to pay attention to the Welsh culture beyond common beliefs.
With the Industrial Revolution, Wales had the opportunity to put an end to nearly four centuries during which its culture and language had barely been able to survive and during which the English ―psychological oppression‖ did not stop. Literature through all its forms was beginning to be revived. Several wealthy inhabitants promoted a richer cultural and literary life, such as Lady LLanover whose name
is today that of a society whose aim is ―to advance the education of the public in Welsh language, arts and culture by promoting the life and achievements of August Hall, First Baroness Llanover (1802-1896)‖.45 Lady Llanover’s wishes came true to some extent as poets were back in Wales, still faithful to the long Welsh tradition that had prevailed until the Laws in Wales Acts. Among the most famous Welsh poets of the 19th century are William Thomas or John Blackwell. By the end of the 19th century, it was the novel which finally managed to take its place within Welsh literature. Firstly there were novels translated from English to Welsh before Welsh novelists like Daniel Owen, to mention but the most famous, wrote the first novels in Welsh by the end of the century (Rhys Lewis, in 1885, the first novel written in Welsh).

Table of contents :

I – The fight for Welsh freedom: the birth and evolution of Wales
From Celtic tribes to Cymru
The emergence of a nation
The Norman invasion and its consequences
The awakening of nationalism
Twentieth century challenges
II – A unique Welsh culture
Culture, a definition
Some Welsh national symbols
Emergence of a literature
Characteristics of a rich culture
III – The survival of an independent culture
The resistance until the annexation
Laws in Wales Acts’ consequences
From an “anti-Welsh” attitude…
…To classic “Welsh pranks”?
Literature, education and religion
The Welsh Industrial Revolution
I – Origins of the language
Old Celtic origins
Primitive and Old Welsh era
Middle Welsh period
Early Modern Welsh
Late Modern Welsh
The Welsh language until 1960
1962 onwards: “The fate of the language”
II – The Welsh language’s specificities
Welsh syntax
Welsh morphology
Welsh phonology and pronunciation
About Welsh dialects
III – Status of the Welsh language today
Welsh’s official status
The National Assembly for Wales
The Welsh Language Commissioner
Fighting for Welsh on TV
Welsh in the written press
I – The Welsh speakers
Some figures: The evolution of the number of Welsh speakers
The role of education
The distribution of Welsh speakers in Wales
The “Three-Wales model”
Social background of the Welsh speakers
What future for the Welsh language?
II – Welsh outside Wales
An external threat: ‘the treason of the Blue Books’
A prestigious or old-fashioned language?
Is there an anti-Welsh attitude?
The Welsh language beyond Wales
III – Language and political nationalism in Wales
From a national consciousness…
…To a nationalist political struggle
The fight of a minority?
Wales towards more autonomy


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