Posts Tagged ‘Welsh history’

Twenty years ago I bought a book called Celt and Saxon by the historian and writer Peter Berresford Ellis. I have reread it with much pleasure and benefit several times since. As a corrective to the all too usual Anglo-centric tellings of British history Beresford Ellis’s book is well worth reading, as is his other work. Yet my most recent rereading prompts me to some thoughts on the history of Britain as well a couple of issues regarding national identity.

Celt and SaxonThe full title of Berresford Ellis’s book is ‘Celt and Saxon. The Struggle for Britain AD 410 – 937’. This gives you some indication of the story he tells: How the ‘Saxons’ first arrived in post-Roman ‘Celtic’ Britain; how over the next centuries these Saxons slowly but surely extended their dominance over much of the southern part of the island of Britain – the region now called England; how the Celtic-speaking native Britons fought back;  how even in the tenth century the Celts still dreamt of throwing out the accursed Saxon and Viking invaders and sang ‘The Monarchy of Britain’ (Vnbeinyaeth Prydein) before going into battle. But ultimately how, after the Saxon king Athelstan’s victory over a coalition of Norse-Irish, Scots, Welsh (possibly) and Cumbrian warlords at the Battle of Brunanburh in 937, the Celts had to accept that the Saxons and Danes could not be dislodged and how thereafter instead of calling themselves Britons they (or at least the Welsh) started to refer to themselves as Cymry, i.e. Compatriots, hence the present Welsh name for Wales, Cymru, and indeed Cumbria.

This is a story that has been told many times. But more than most Berresford Ellis’s telling does deserve credit for giving us an overview of the struggle for the whole of the island of Britain and not just a narrative on the creation of England, Scotland or Wales.

Battle of Brunanburh, AD 937

Battle of Brunanburh, AD 937

We well know that the victors of this half-millennium-long struggle were the ‘Saxons’ and the losers the ‘Celts’. And we all know that the victors write the history. So far so good. The first problem is that by wanting to sympathise and empathise with the British and Irish Celts in their travails and their oppression at the hands of the Saxons and their Danish and Norwegian Viking kin (who from a certain point he invariably calls ‘English’), Berresford Ellis presents the Saxons/English as a particularly aggressive and brutal people, interested always and only in the further expansion of their English empire. Even in the last paragraph of Celt and Saxon, while speaking of today, Berresford Ellis can still ask:

Where, then, can such aggressive Saxon drives and energies be channelled in the future? Or has that aggressive urge finally been satiated?

Yet when discussing the native British Celts he almost invariably concentrates on their flourishing culture, their language, their literature and their valour in opposing the invasion and take-over of their country. His is a story of goodies and baddies. We know which ones the ‘English’ were.

One view of Celtic Warriors

One view of Celtic Warriors

This is a perfectly valid way to tell a story of Britain during those centuries. After all for the general reader more histories of individual Anglo-Saxon kings without any longer-term context don’t add much to anyone’s understanding of our shared past. I for one do believe that historians ought to side with the losers, or I would prefer to say the oppressed, rather than with the thuggish elites. The problem with Celt and Saxon is that the Saxon and Scandinavian tribes, the ‘English’, were no more and no less aggressive and brutal than all the other tribes and emerging nationalities of the time. The British Celts were led and dominated by brutal warlords too. Like the ‘Saxons’ these elites too were constantly fighting each other, seeking to take their neighbours’ lands, glorifying in the slaughter of their enemies and taking slaves wherever they could. So did the German tribes and the Franks and Goths in Gaul.

The Celts would have happily wiped the English (Anglo-Saxons) from the face of the earth if they could have. It was just that they were never united enough for long enough to do so.

Berresford Ellis has expressed his views on culture and language forcefully both in Celt and Saxon as well as elsewhere. For him you are a ‘Celt’ if you speak a Celtic language; it has nothing to do with race or genealogical or genetic ancestry.

Celtic is a linguistic term; a Celt is one who speaks or was known to have spoken within modern historical times a Celtic language.  That is central. The definition is certainly not a racial term.

To reject the language and culture of the people is, as Thomas Davis declared, to set their history adrift, create a gulf that separates people from knowledge of their history and thousands of years of cultural and historic development.

So I suppose he’d have to concede that the same must be true of the English. If you speak English (as your native tongue?) and were brought up in an English culture then you are English. And the English it is said are a particularly aggressive and expansionist people.

This all seems very hard to square with the results of many genetic studies on the ‘Origins’ of the English and British. Oxford geneticist Stephen Oppenheimer wrote in The Origins of the British:

To summarize, the phylogeographic approach establishes three broad aspects of West European and British colonization in the past 16,000 years which have a bearing on the Anglo-Saxon question. First, all but a few per cent of male and female gene lines appear to have arrived in the British Isles before the historical period (i.e. before the Anglo-Saxons). Second, most British colonizers, including about two-thirds of English ancestors, came from the Iberian refuge soon after deglaciation, or at least during the Mesolithic. And third, the subsequent colonization of the British Isles during the Neolithic and the Bronze Age was complex in time and space, but mainly came from the other side of the North Sea.

Oppenheimer estimates that the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ account for “only 5.5%” of the ancestors of modern English people.  That means that about 19 out of 20 English people are not Anglo-Saxon at all! What is more, the ancestors of fully two-thirds of English people came from the “Iberian” refuge – that is, an area of southern France and northern Spain centred on the present day Basque Country.

Britain circa 600

Britain circa 600

To repeat, only around 5.5% of the present population of England find their genetic ancestry in the Saxon advent starting in the fifth century, and even fewer in the Viking invasions. If this is approximately true, and much evidence suggests it is, then the vast bulk of the English in both pre- and post-Conquest times were actually also originally British; British ‘Celts’ if you must.

How so few Anglo-Saxons managed to make their Germanic language the sole language for the millions of Britons in what is now England has still yet to be satisfactorily explained. But that this happened is beyond dispute.

So suddenly it seems that by adopting the ‘Old’ English language these millions of British ‘Celts’ instantly became English, and what’s more by some mysterious and unexplained process they then became particularly aggressive and expansionist too.

As the great American historian Howard Zinn used to say, No! The confusion in my view comes from the choice of groups historians make and have to make. Much if not all of history is about what some people did to other people, or better said what some groups of people did to other groups of people. Berresford Ellis’s choice of groups is explicit in his title: Celts and Saxons. But linguistic and cultural groups are not the only shapers of history. In fact they are nowhere near the most important or explanatory groups. Much more important, and I would argue relevant, are positional groups. Since the appearance of the first town-based civilisations, societies all over the world have been stratified. Powerful, dominant and usually brutal elites emerged, particularly ‘kings’ and priests, and always at the point of a sword. The concern of these elites has always been the maintenance and extension of their position, power and privileges.

To restrict ourselves here to European history, these heavily armed ‘strongmen’ or warlords saw it as their right to enslave, exploit and use the vast majority of ‘their’ people in whatever way they wished. The armed elites may change but they were and are always there. They were there too, and just as much, in Celtic societies as they were in ‘Saxon’ societies. It is the maintenance and extension of the power of these armed elites that that driven almost all wars, colonisations and empires. To use Berresford Ellis’s terms, the Saxons (or the English) as a people were no more aggressive and brutal than the Celts, the Norse, the Germans or the Franks.

Most people of whatever nationality or language don’t want to fight and conquer; they want to be left alone to grow their crops, to build their houses, to sing a few songs and to raise their children. It is always the powerful elites – the kings, nobles and priests – who haven’t let them do so. English people, just like the Welsh, the Scots and the Irish, have for hundreds of years been dragged from their own homes, by force or because of poverty, to fight the wars of their lords in all parts of Britain and, later, in all parts of the globe. Fights and wars which have nothing to do with them, and which, whether won or lost, have never brought them any benefit; only suffering and death.

Armed Banditti - 1066

Armed Banditti – 1066

One final thought. The last chapter of Celt and Saxon is titled “Do ‘the British’ really exist?”. Berresford Ellis argues that the modern concepts of ‘Britain’ and Britishness are simply constructs hiding the facts of the spread of an ‘English empire’ – first in the islands of Britain and subsequently throughout the world. There is much to be said for this view. But what is rather strange is that having stopped his story in the tenth century, by when he sees the Saxons as already the ‘English’, Berresford Ellis then simply skips the next six or seven hundred years completely. For him the aggressive Saxons/English of pre-Conquest Britain are exactly the same as the expansionist English who started to carve out an overseas empire at the end of the Tudor period. What about the Norman Conquest and the following centuries when the people of England were not only conquered but subjugated, expropriated, repressed and exploited as well? A time when the new French and French-speaking masters tried to eradicate the English language and a time during which generations of English people were dragged off to fight for the power and glory of these Norman French in countless continental wars.

Not only was the Norman Conquest the single most important, and sad, event in the whole of English history, it was also ultimately a disaster for the Celts of Britain as well – be they Welsh, Scots or Irish.

Scots help take Quebec, 1759

Scots help take Quebec, 1759

The French-speaking masters were a distinct class or group for hundreds of years. It was only in the fifteenth century as the Hundred Years War ground on that some of them started to think of themselves as English. Whether English or not, it was these descendants of William the Bastard’s Normans who controlled and exploited England and Britain for a whole millennium. It was this powerful, elite and brutal group who pushed for the creation of the English/British Empire. It was they who exploited the English, Welsh, Irish and, later, the Scots, to pay for their wars and to be conscripted into their army and navy. The creation of the British (or English) Empire didn’t come about from some fictitious inherent aggressiveness of the ‘Saxon’ English, as Berresford Ellis seems to suggest.

At the start of Celt and Saxon the author makes the following dedication, ‘… with the hope that Saxon may finally learn to understand Celt and both may come to live alongside each other in mutual respect and amicability’. I hope so too.

I hope too that I’m not some sort of ‘Little Englander’. My own Lewis family were, as you might guess, Welsh. In the mid-sixteenth century my earliest documented Lewis ancestor lived in the village of Alberbury in the English county of Shropshire, right on the modern border with Powys in Wales. His name was John ap Llewellyn: John son of Llewellyn. The Welsh Christian name Llewellyn was anglicised to Lewis and became the family name. Even in the nineteenth century my Shropshire great grandmother still spoke both Welsh and English. Of course this doesn’t make me Welsh; my culture and language, as well as all my other ancestors, are English.

I agree with Peter Berresford Ellis when he says the inhabitants of the island of Britain need to find a way to live more amicably together, but when we’re considering the deep history of Britain we need, I suggest, to cast our net a little wider than ‘Celt and Saxon’. I still commend his book to you.


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