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Welsh Rulers of Britain

Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI and Elizabeth I

For centuries the people of Wales have taken great pride in the accession of the Tudors to the throne of Britain. Yet no Tudor monarch is included in Gwynfor Evans' "Welsh Nation Builders," for none of them had the interests of Wales at heart. Nevertheless, when Henry Tudor defeated Richard III at Bosworth Field, it was a matter of great celebration in Wales that at long last a true Welshman (both by origins and upbringing) would be king of Britain, thus fulfilling the ancient prophecies.

Perhaps the dream of Welsh supremacy over the whole of Britain would at last come to pass. In 1485, a report of the Venetian envoy to London stated: "The Welsh may now be said to have recovered their independence, for the wise and fortunate Henry VII s a Welshman." Alas, nothing of the sort took place. As Professor Davies succinctly points out, Henry VII was only one quarter Welsh; it was his English blood that gave him a claim to the English throne, and it was not a matter of his family identifying themselves with the Welsh, but the Welsh identifying themselves with the Tudors. Henry VII's own view is expressed in a letter to the Welsh gentry, seeking their support before Bosworth: "To free this our Principality of Wales of such miserable servitude as they have long piteously stood in." He obviously wanted to make Englishmen out of those who had supported his cause so fervently and so loyally. This task, however, remained to his son.

It was not, therefore, surprising that the Act of Union, a series of legislation passed between 1536 and 1543 in the reign of Henry VIII ensured that Wales would be from henceforth completely under the authority of the crown of England, no matter who held the title. In addition, the Welsh language was proscribed for almost all official and legal purposes; in all parts of Wales, English law replaced those of Hywel Dda. More serious, perhaps, was the rapid anglicization of the Welsh gentry and their alienation from the most vital elements of the native culture, especially their divorce from the Welsh language, the repercussions of which are even felt today. Yet certain achievements took place in Wales under the Tudors that had a lasting and beneficial effect upon the Welsh consciousness and that did much to foster the idea of Cymreictod (that feeling of belonging together as one people). They are listed below:

1. The end of the power of the Marcher Lordships, as their administrations increasingly came into the hands of the king. In 1489, the end of the earldom of March united the March with Wales, and paved the way for the 1536 legislation, for good or bad.

2. The granting of charters to various counties and towns that emancipated the taeogion (villein class) in those parts of Wales where they still existed. The Welsh were given rights to hold land according to the Law of England, to become burgesses and town officials.

3. The breaking of the link with Rome that led to the eventual conversion of Wales to the Protestant faith and particularly to the later culture of Methodism that did much to shape attitudes in late eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth century Wales.

4. The abolition of any legal distinction between the Welsh and the English. After 1536, the Welsh were English in the eyes of the law, yet conversely, "as there was no longer any advantage in boasting the condition of being English," (Davies, p.233) everyone living in Wales was considered as Welsh. This too, has had a profound effect on the subsequent history of Wales. The Welsh political scene of the 1990's, particularly, reflects the anomaly. The derisive comments of Kim Howells, Labour M.P. for Pontypridd, defy logic, common sense and decency. They show a paranoid hatred of Welshness. And this by a representative of the Welsh people in the British Parliament!! The Tudors certainly did their work well.

5. The representation of the Welsh in the Parliament of England. With the advent and rise of Plaid Cymru, in the present century, the Tudor policy of totally eliminating any political divisions between England and Wales may finally be unravelling.

6. The 1551 publication of "Kynniver Llith a Ban," a translation by William Salesbury of the main texts of the "English Prayer Book" that had been undertaken at the request of Edward VI's advisors. The effects upon the Welsh language are incalculable, for the book was followed by the translation of the whole Bible into Welsh, in the reign of Elizabeth I.

7. At the insistence of the royal courtiers and members of the English Parliament that the Welsh people should learn English, the bishops of Wales and Hereford (where Welsh was still widely spoken) were commanded to make sure a Welsh version of the Bible and the Prayer Book would be available in every parish in Wales by March 1, 1567. According to Dr. Davies, the statute was peculiarly ironic, for it meant that parliament authorized the use of Welsh in spiritual matters barely a generation after its ban in secular matters. An act of 1563 had stated that the English Bible should be placed alongside the Welsh Bible so that the Welsh, somehow dealing in both languages side by side, could master English. To do this, of course, there had to be a Welsh Bible, and the work of translating the New Testament was begun by William Salesbury and others.

8. The Bishop Morgan Bible of 1588. This momentous work, comparable in its effects on the Welsh language to the King James Bible on the English and the Luther Bible of the Germans was accomplished mainly through the efforts of William Morgan, vicar of Llanrhaeadr-Mochnant in mid-Wales. This was so successful, a copy having been placed in all the parish churches of Wales (and quickly worn out or lost [or perhaps stolen]), that a new edition was published in 1620.

Not enough can be said about the Welsh Bible. At a time when the Bardic orders of Wales were rapidly disappearing, the Bible ensured that "the purity, accuracy and strength of the poetic vocabulary should live on" (Stephens, p.410). It did more than save the language from becoming a bunch of disparate dialects or even of being extinguished forever; it had far-reaching effects on the religion, language, literature and above all, on the nationhood of Wales. It was the Welsh Bible that nurtured the feeling of Welshness, of the idea of an independent nation, that soaked into the consciousness of a conquered and often despairing people. For that, we have to thank, if not "that red-haired Welsh harridan" as A.L. Rowse has described Queen Elizabeth I, but, at least, her advisors and her consent.

9. The partaking of the Welsh in the literary renaissance of Europe as part of the British nation as a whole. As Dr. Davies has pointed out, the Welsh literary tradition would perhaps not have survived without the example of the humanists who collected and copied the works of antiquity. In particular, this tradition fostered the determination to defend the central myth of Welsh history as provided by Geoffrey of Monmouth.

10. The dynamic spirt of the Welsh of the Tudor Age and that urge for modernization that Dr. Davies has seen as separating them from their fellow Celts in other parts of Europe. This can be debated, of course, but there was a great upsurge of pride in the accomplishments of the Welsh at the royal court and in all spheres connected with it. Welshmen excelled in the teaching of law at the premier English universities, they were prominent in the Inns of Court, in the military and even in Parliament itself. Though Elizabeth I, as Dr.Davies believes, may have had as little interest in the cradle of her line at Plas Penmynydd (home of Henry Tudor's grandparents) as has Elizabeth II in the cradle of her own line at Saxe-Coburg, nevertheless, it was during her reign that Wales felt itself alongside England and Scotland, a full-fledged partner in a union of three nations.

The ruling dynasty of the Tudors ended in 1603. Since 1485, there had taken place unparalleled changes in Wales and in the lives of the Welsh people. It is difficult to state whether these changes would have taken place without the rule of the Tudor monarchs, or to assess the rate or direction of change if Henry Tudor had not become king in 1485. Whether or not that victory was the greatest blessing ever enjoyed by the Welsh people, as put forward by spokesmen for the Welsh gentry one hundred years after the event, is still open for discussion.

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