Feb
25
2013

The Wales that never was

It is a Welsh nationalist’s fantasy – an independent country boasting two ancient universities to rival Oxford and Cambridge, a free church and a Parliament dating back to the fourteenth century. The Welsh language is the universal mother tongue and the nation stands as an equal to its larger neighbour, England. These were the plans of Owain Glyndŵr, the last native Welshman to hold the title of Prince of Wales. 

Wales has long lived under the shadow of England. The small principality has suffered the indignity of the English language dominating public and private life, of being conjoined as a single jurisdiction (unlike the Scots and Irish, Wales has not had its own legal code since the 16th century) and is not even represented in the flag of the United Kingdom.

Seal of Owain Glyndwr By de:Benutzer:Rdb [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

How different would it have been if the last great Welsh ruler of Wales had been successful in his revolt against English domination at the beginning of the 15th century? Owain Glyndŵr was proclaimed Prince of Wales on 16 September 1400, triggering the last great rebellion in Wales.

His rebellion would mature into the vision of a new state. Glyndŵr went on to demonstrate his determination to rule, holding court at Harlech and appointing Gruffydd Young as his Chancellor. Soon after, in 1404, he called his first council or parliament, naturally styled in Welsh as the Cynulliad or “gathering” at Machynlleth, a suitably central location controlled by Glyndŵr and his allies.

His plans for Wales were ambitious: there were to be two universities, one in the north and one in the south. The Cynulliad would become a legislative body, perhaps at the heart of a new Welsh capital at Machynlleth. The Welsh language would be the language of court, government, education and the judiciary.

The unassuming building in Machynlleth, Powys housed Owain Glyndwr's parliament idris [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

There would be a Welsh church, loyal to the Pope at Avignon – Glyndŵr wrote to the Pope in 1406 to demand: “prelates, dignitaries, and beneficed clergy and curates, who know our language’. Most important of all, the traditional law of Wales, Hywel’s Law (or Howell’s Law), would be reinstated, making Wales one of the most progressive states in Europe.

The plans came to nothing amidst the brutal suppression of the rebellion. Instead, Wales was annexed to England and designated a part of the English jurisdiction. All laws pertaining to England were deemed to apply to Wales and the Welsh language was abandoned as the language of government and the courts. The tyranny of this measure is hinted at by the fact that, at this time, 9 out of 10 of Wales’s 150 – 250,000 people were monoglot Welsh speakers.

Memories and commemoration of Glyndŵr are resurgent as Wales enjoys a renaissance of self-rule. The spark for this revival was the 600th anniversary of the start of the rising in 2000. Celebrations were held throughout Wales, commemorative stamps were issued and he had numerous parks, squares and streets named after him.

Senned building - home of the National Assembly for Wales in Cardiff - see page for author [see page for license], via Wikimedia Commons

A new university has been named in his honour in north-east Wales and he was voted as the 23rd Greatest Briton in the 2002 BBC poll and second only to Aneurin Bevan in the 2004 100 Welsh Heroes poll. His personal standard, the quartered arms of Powys and Deheubarth rampant, can be seen across Wales, especially at sporting fixtures.

Six hundred years after his rebellion was crushed, Wales now was its own government, National Assembly, laws, the prospect of tax raising powers and the Welsh language is officially promoted and taught in schools. Glyndŵr’s Wales faced forces that were too strong to overcome, but the Welsh identity was too strong to be suppressed and has flourished in a more open and tolerant 21st century.

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