Image from St. Marcella’s church, Denbigh
Sarah Ward scrutinises the history and culture of Wales, and challenges the popular image of Wales and the Welsh.
Who is a Welshman? When you picture him in your mind, do you see a serious, chapel-going miner? When you see a Welsh woman, do you envisage a figure in wide, full skirts and a tall hat, or maybe rows of solemn figures in chapel stalls? The popular conception of Welsh history, both in Wales and England, is that of the mid-19th century.
The depiction is of the ordinary man or woman, earnest about nonconformist religion, politically radical, and hardworking to a fault. This national historical stereotype was borne out of the desire of mid-19-century nonconformist historians both to promote their religious cause, and to re-focus historical narratives on the ordinary people who made up the bulk of nonconformist congregations.
It was spectacularly successful, and in many ways extremely important to look beyond elites and to the Welsh-speaking ordinary man. Yet in concentrating so much on this group there is a sense that those who did not fit were somehow not Welsh enough. My research focuses on the gentry of north-east Wales, traditionally depicted as alienated and anglicised. Although recent historical and literary scholarship has begun to dispel this theory, it is nonetheless pervasive in popular representations of the past and in the public memory.
In the 17th century, the culture of north-east Wales was highly conservative, traditional, and festive. Support for King Charles I in the First Civil War (1642-7) was nearly unanimous among the gentry and, as far as the evidence can tell us, was similarly popular among the ordinary people of the region.
Welshmen fought for the King and the Church of England, to retain episcopacy and Prayer Book worship. After 1647 many maintained this position despite the change of regime. Festive and sporting occasions, such as cockfights, were used as covers for meetings of royalist partisans, and plots continued to be hatched. The Restoration was met with joy and celebration in north-east Wales. This is a far cry from the politically radical nonconformist pictured since the 19th century, and yet little of this image of Wales features in modern discourse or depictions. The failure to integrate less radical and more religiously conservative groups into the national representation has perhaps led to a less holistic representation than could otherwise be achieved.
Thinking historically about the representation of Wales and the Welsh can provide insights into modern events. Early modern print of all genres, prices, and forms makes it clear that the Welsh were much more visible as a group, and that their behaviour and allegiance was considered important. It would be interesting to consider whether Welsh events and responses to national policies are considered as routinely now as then.
Definitions of ‘Welshmen’ were seemingly less narrow than in the popular imagination today. A Welshman could be a labourer or a gentleman, a drover or a soldier. Indeed one of the criticisms of the Welsh nationalist party in the past is that they lost support by defining their nation solely by language.
After the last election this looks set to change. Welsh and English politics are increasingly converging, and traditionally Welsh institutions seem to be on the decline. At the same time, opinion polls for the Welsh Assembly elections in May predict an increase in support for Plaid Cymru beyond its heartlands. Welsh identity seems to be on the change again, so perhaps now is a good time to ask the question ‘Who is a Welshman?’
Sarah Ward is the Royal Historical Society Centenary junior research fellow at the School of Advanced Study’s Institute of Historical Research. She completed her BA at the University of Durham and her MPhil at the University of Birmingham. Now at St. Catherine’s College, University of Oxford, she is studying for a part-time DPhil under the supervision of Dr Grant Tapsell, focusing on society, politics, and religion in north-east Wales from 1640 to 1688.