Thursday, June 28, 2018

Britons, Fellow-Countrymen, Foreigners – “For Wales, see Britannia”

By Gareth Griffith

At the start of his book, Rebirth of a Nation: Wales 1880-1980, Kenneth O Morgan commented that, “for Wales, see England,” was the notorious entry in the 1888 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. For Morgan, the entry “encapsulated all the humiliation and the patronizing indifference which helped to launch the modern nationalist movement in the principality…” (OUP, 1982, p 3) The irony is palpable: an encyclopaedia of “Britannica” had expropriated the name the Welsh had for centuries used to define themselves  and their country, only for the same encyclopaedia to obliterate the identity of Wales by subsuming it under the heading of “England.”

Public Domain Image

The story had a long trajectory. We can take a few steps back to the 15th century. In the epilogue to The Age of Conquest: Wales 1063-1415, RR Davies reflected on the condition of Wales following the collapse of the revolt of Owain Glyn Dŵr, by which time the prospect of establishing a native, unitary Welsh polity was lost. According to Davies, “Wales had been reduced to a ‘land’ (terra Wallie), an annex of the kingdom of England.” (OUP, p 464) Davies noted, too, that the status of Wales as a “separate nation” was raised at the Council of Constance in 1417. There the English spokesmen asserted that, ecclesiastically and politically, Wales had been effectively incorporated into England. The assertion was accompanied by the claim “that England was to be equated with Britain (‘inclyta nation Anglicana alias Brytannica’).” Why not? After all, if history tells us anything it is that the winners get to call the shots; they’re the ones that do the name-calling. In 1417, it was a thousand years since the Roman legions had left Britain and here was the final chapter in the resistance of the Britons, one that ended with the transfer of that name to their ancient enemies. As RR Davies wrote, with a heavy heart no doubt:

“So had the English appropriated the mythology of an unitary empire of Britain, which had for so long been a source of memories, inspiration, and hope for the Welsh.” (p 464) 

In the opening chapter of the book, Davies had discussed the importance of their British heritage to the people of Wales in the Middle Ages, writing that:

“An even more powerful ingredient in the chemistry of national unity was pride in a common descent from the Britons of old. It was as Britons, Brytaniaid, that the Welsh normally described themselves until the later twelfth century; ‘Britain’ was the title they gave to their country.” (p 16) 

It was a case of – ‘for Wales, see Britannia.”

The works by KO Morgan and RR Davies are two volumes in the Oxford University Press’ series on the history Wales, published in reverse chronological order. The third volume – Wales and the Britons, 350-1064 by TM Charles-Edwards - was published in 2013. It opens with a short essay on name-calling and related matters. The question he confronts is how the Wales and the Welsh of the medieval period, from the fall of the Roman Empire to the twelfth century, identified themselves and how were they identified by others? What names were used and what did they mean in geographical terms?

In the fifth century and for many centuries after there was no Wales to speak of, only a patchwork of small kingdoms; but there were Britons and Cymry (or Kymry) and Wielisc, the name in Old English for the Welsh. Likewise, in the early period there were no Bretons in Brittany or Cumbrians in Cumbria. According to Charles-Edwards, “Breton in English is a late import from the French where it can mean either Britons or Bretons…”; and, although the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in the tenth century used Cumbras for the Cumbrians, it had “no relevance to how the Welsh or the Cumbrians saw themselves.”

As Charles-Edwards rightly states, “it would be fatal to import later senses into earlier periods as if they were as valid for, say, the seventh century as they were for the tenth or as they are for the twenty-first.” His argument is that, for the whole of the period up to 1064, “the modern historian must maintain the distinction between modern terminology and the terms used at the time.”
(OUP, 2013, pp 1-2)

The same can be said to apply to the modern writer of historical fiction. Getting it right can be tricky. If a character in a novel set in the seventh century looked out from today’s Bristol over at what is now South Wales, what would they have called the land they were looking at? How should today’s Brittany be referred to in a novel of the same period? Little Britain would be an anachronism, not to mention a source of mild amusement for fans of the BBC comedy of the same name.

The broader point is that, for the early medieval period, Wales was part of a larger whole, the land of the Britons. In this light, Charles-Edwards comments that the idea of Britannia varied, depending on context and circumstance. For Asser, writing at the end of the ninth century it had a “double sense”, either the entire island which the Britons had long conceived of as their own, or as the land we now refer to as Wales. Britannia is also ambiguous in early Breton sources: “it may be the island from which they had migrated; but it may also be Brittany.” (p 1)

Attribution Link

As time passed, the geographical extent of that land changed, expanding occasionally, shrinking more often before the incursions of the Anglo-Saxons to the East, the Gaels in the North and West and later the Vikings and the Normans from every conceivable direction. For Gildas, writing in the mid-sixth century, at its most extensive the whole of the island of Britain belonged to the Britons. But that vision was to contract. Charles-Edwards directs out attention to the Welsh poem of the tenth century, Armes Prydein, which contains the phrase “from Manaw to Llydaw” – in modern terms “from Clackmannanshire to Brittany.” He says the poem “was thinking of the lands which ought to be British, because it recalled a time when they had been British.” (p 3) That is to say that in AD 600, or thereabouts, the land of the Britons – Britannia – had extended from around Sterling in Scotland down almost as far as the Loire in France. By the tenth century, that same geographical region was the Britannia of the imagination. Taking all its improbable and impractical elements into account, of Armes Prydein, Charles-Edwards commented:

“Yet, the visionary element is very strong: the argument is ultimately about the right to all of Britain south of the Forth; the objection was not just to an English empire but to England as such. The Cymry were the Palestinians of early medieval Britain.” (Wales and the Britons, 350-1064, p 535) 

No less complicated is the development of the language used to express these shifting realities. On one side of the language barrier, the Anglo-Saxon name to denote the native population of the island – “Wielisc” or “Welsh”, is often said to derive from “a variant on the standard Germanic label for foreigner…” (see for example Norman Davies, Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe, Allen Lane, 2011, p 79) Another interpretation is that “Welsh” meant “not so much foreigners as peoples who had been Romanized…” (John Davies, A History of Wales, Penguin Books, 2007, p 69): that is to say, “all the people who had been part of the Roman Empire.” (Wales and the Britons, 350-1064, p 1) Whether one meaning precludes another is not clear to me. At the very least, it seems unlikely that the original meaning would have been maintained in the vernacular across the years of “intimate hostility” between the Britons and the Anglo-Saxons. (Wales and the Britons, 350-1064, p 402) Probably, “foreigner” is not too wide of the mark. At any rate, the idea that the Welsh had become foreigners in their own land is hard to shake off; popular imagination clings to it, as firmly today as in the Middle Ages.

Statue of Owain Glyndwr - Pulic Domain image

Turning to the other side of the language barrier, the historian John Davies has traced the first usage of the word Cymry to a praise poem probably written in 633, in which the poet was referring to the country rather than the people (“Ar wynep Kumry Cadwallawn was”), a country that would have
referred to the Old North as well as Wales. He contends that the word Cymry evolved from the Brythonic word Combrogi, meaning fellow-countrymen and that “its adoption suggests a deepening self-awareness among the Britons.” He goes on to say:

“Although the author of Armes Prydein (c 930) used the word Cymry or Cymro fifteen times, it only gradually came to oust the word Brython. That was the favourite word of the author of Brut y Tywysogyon; his entry for 1116 is the first to mention the Cymry and it was not until the years after 1100 that Cymry became as usual as Brythoniaid in the work of the poets.” (A History of Wales, Penguin Books, 2007, p 69) 

It seems the Welsh of the twelfth century were down-sizing at long last, re-configuring the world of their imagination to conform to prevailing political reality in the Norman age. According to KO Morgan, by Victorian times that process had resulted in a view of Wales, from the perspective of their “Teutonic” neighbours, as a mere “geographical expression”, as a land that “belonged to prehistory.” (p 3) But then, the title to Morgan’s book, Rebirth of a Nation, suggests that if Wales and the Welsh – Britons, fellow-countrymen, foreigners – were down, still they were not out. The imagination continues to work on political reality, seeking to shape what is to what might be; as RR Davies wrote: “The memories of a conquered people are long indeed.” (p 388)


Gareth Griffith was born in Penmaenmawr, North Wales, and now lives in Sydney, Australia with his wife Sue. His career has encompassed teaching, research and writing, including many years working as the manager of research for the parliament of New South Wales. These days, when Gareth isn’t writing, he enjoys reading, music, dark Scandi film and TV, and Dark Age Britain. Although Gareth left Wales at the age of twelve, Wales never left him, and its landscape and history loom large in his imagination and his storytelling.

Find Gareth on his website:
and on Twitter: @garethgriffith_

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating post, Gareth. I'm writing a mystery/police procedural set in Snowdonia, and I'm trying to make the Welsh detective aware and proud of her roots.


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