Men of Harlech

Posted: October 23, 2013 in History
Tags: , , ,

When I was at school we used to assemble every morning in quite a grand old hall. The ceiling was domed, the walls panelled in wood, and the windows were stained glass, depicting something of each the school’s ‘houses’. All the boys sat in rows (it was a boys’ school) until the teachers came in. Dressed in their black university gowns, they would literally process in to sit on the high stage. We then had to stand, as did the teachers, until the headmaster deigned to make his semi-imperial entrance. A whole ritual would follow: announcements if there were any, a prize or two, discipline and punishments even, but certainly a lot of hymns. The hymns were often religious but even more often martial. Perhaps the one sung the most was Men of Harlech, a choice that even then seemed odd to me. After all our school was about as English as you could get, being founded in the sixteenth century by Henry VIII’s son King Edward VI.

Oliphant's Men of Harlech

Oliphant’s Men of Harlech

Why did we sing a nationalistic Welsh song literally hundreds of times? Was it just that it was in the hymn book? Did the teachers really have no conception of history?

The hymn ‘was first published without words in 1794 as Gorhoffedd Gwŷr Harlech—March of the Men of Harlech in the second edition of The Musical and Poetical Relicks of the Welsh Bards’. Only in the nineteenth century were words added, in Welsh and in English. To the best of my memory the version we sung was the one with lyrics by Thomas Oliphant, published in 1862:

Hark! I hear the foe advancing,
Barbed steeds are proudly prancing,
Helmets in the sunbeam glancing
Glitter through the trees
Men of Harlech, lie ye dreaming?
See ye not their falchions gleaming,
While their pennons gailey streaming
Flutter in the breeze?
From the rocks rebounding,
Let the warcry sounding
Summon all At Cambria’s call,
The haughty foe surrounding,
Men of Harlech, on to Glory!
See, your banner fam’d in story
Waves these burning words before ye
“Britain scorns to yield!”

Mid the fray, see dead and dying,
Friend and foe together lying;
All around, the arrows flying,
Scatter sudden death!
Frighten’d steeds are wildly neighing,
Brazen trumpets hoarsely braying,
Wounded men for mercy praying
With their parting breath!
See! they’re in disorder!
Comrades, keep close order!
Ever they Shall rue the day
They ventured o’er the border!
Now the Saxon flies before us!
Vict’ry’s banner floateth o’er us!
Raise the loud exulting chorus
“Britain wins the field,”

Here we have the rousing “Britain scorns to yield!” and “Britain wins the field”. I sung this with the gusto required. But wait a minute! Even Scotsman Oliphant’s version makes it clear what this is all about. It’s about the Welsh, the native ‘Britons’ killing the Saxons (i.e. the English) in defence of their country.

Summon all At Cambria’s call,
The haughty foe surrounding…

They ventured o’er the border!
Now the Saxon flies before us!

At the time I guess most of us felt that ‘Britain’ and England were synonomous. Of course they are not. Another version with English lyrics by W. H. Baker (which we didn’t sing) goes as follows:

March ye men of Harlech bold, Unfurl your banners in the field,
Be brave as were your sires of old, And like them never yield!
What tho’ evry hill and dale, Echoes now with war’s alarms,
Celtic hearts can never quail, When Cambria calls to arms.

By each lofty mountain, By each crystal fountain,
By your homes where those you love Await your glad returning,
Let each thought and action prove, True glory can the Cymru move,
And as each blade gleams in the light, Pray “God defend the right!”

Clans from Mona wending, Now with Arvon blending,
Haste with rapid strides along The path that leads to glory,
From Snowdon’s hills with harp and song, And Nantlle’s vale proceeds a throng,
Whose ranks with yours shall proudly vie, “And nobly win or die!”

March ye men of Harlech go, Lov’d fatherland your duty claims,
Onward comes the Saxon foe, His footsteps mark’d in flames;
But his march breeds no dismay, Boasting taunts we meet with scorn,
Craven like their hosts shall flee Like mists before the morn.

On the foemen dashing, Swords and bucklers clashing;
Smite with will their savage band Nor think of e’er retreating:
But with a firm unflinching hand, In blood quench ev’ry burning brand,
And for each roof tree cast away A Saxon life shall pay.

Thus each bosom nerving, From no danger swerving,
Soon shall the invader feel The doom of fate rewarding;
They firmly grasp the flashing steel, And as ye strike for Cymru’s weal,
Be this your cry, till life’s last breath – “Our Liberty or Death!”

And here’s a funny thing. Whichever version of Men of Harlech you choose, they are all about Welsh resistance to the English. Why generations of English schoolchildren were made to sing this is beyond me, even though I have a Welsh name and my family from western Shropshire spoke Welsh till not so long ago.

When I researched the history of Men of Harlech I read this:

“Men of Harlech” or “The March of the Men of Harlech” (in Welsh: Rhyfelgyrch Gwŷr Harlech) is a song and military march which is traditionally said to describe events during the seven-year siege of Harlech Castle between 1461 and 1468. Commanded by Constable Dafydd ap Ieuan, the garrison held out in what is the longest known siege in the history of the British Isles. “Through Seven Years” is an alternative name for the song. The song is associated according to some people with the earlier shorter siege of Harlech Castle around 1408, which pitted the forces of Owain Glyndwr against the future Henry V of England.

I’m neither an expert in songs and hymns nor in Welsh history, but this sounds dubious to me. All the different lyrics for Men of Harlech which I have read have absolutely nothing to say about either of these two sieges, both of which were mostly to do with domestic struggles for supremacy in England. Wales suffered too but was peripheral. No, what this song is about is something much older, even going back to the ‘Saxon Advent’ in the fifth century.

Harlech Castle

Harlech Castle

All this reminded me of a quite recent incident. I’m sure some kind Welsh person will correct my ‘facts’ here. But as I remember it, the Welsh Tourist Board started a campaign using Harlech Castle as a great symbol of Wales and Welsh identity. It wasn’t long before many Welsh were appalled. Surely, they said, Harlech Castle, along with many other castles such as Conwy, was not a symbol of Welsh pride and identity, but a symbol of English domination and subjugation. They were without doubt right. Harlech was built at the instigation of the English (better said French-speaking Anglo-Norman) king Edward 1 during his invasion of Wales between 1282 and 1289. Edward drafted in English forced-labourers to build the castle with the express purpose of cowing and keeping down the Welsh. I believe the Welsh Tourist Board withdrew their adverts.

Whether we’re talking about English schools or Welsh tourism please let’s get our history right!

If I were really Welsh (which I’m not), I too would want to highlight English violence and repression. Yet actually racial or cultural nationality is in history not the most important thing, at least not in my view. The Anglo-Norman ‘English’ kings and magnates who conquered and subjugated Wales were actually the same armed thugs who conquered and subjugated the English. As I‘ve said before, power and money are the main drivers of the history that matters, not nationalism.

But I can’t finish without mentioning the Men of Harlech sung by the Welsh soldiers in the 1964 film Zulu:

Men of Harlech, stop your dreaming
Can’t you see their spearpoints gleaming
See their warrior pennants streaming
To this battle field

Men of Harlech stand ye steady
It can not be ever said ye
For the battle were not ready
Welshmen never yield

From the hills rebounding
Let this war cry sounding
Summon all at Cambria’s call
The mighty force surrounding

Men of Harlech on to glory
This will ever be your story
Keep these burning words before ye
Welshmen will not yield

  1. I think it was Edith Pargeter who wrote in the Brothers of Gwynedd about Llewelyn being the only true Prince of Wales.

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