Wales on Britannia
Wales Forum

Welsh, The Eight Wonder
Survival of the Welsh Language: Part IV

The so-called Act of Union of that year, and its corrected version of 1543 seemed inevitable. More than one historian has pointed out that union with England had really been achieved by the Statute of Rhuddlan in 1284. It was welcomed by many in Wales and why not? Didn't it state that "Persons born or to be born in the said Principality . . . of Wales shall have and enjoy and inherit all and singular Freedoms, Liberties, Rights, Privileges and Laws . . . as other the King's subjects have, enjoy or inherit?"

Those historians who praise the Acts state that the Welsh people had now achieved full equality before the law with their English counterparts. It opened opportunities for individual advancement in all walks of life, and Welshmen flocked to London to take full advantage of their chances. Yet, one of the most important in the whole history of Wales, the document was passed without consultation with the Welsh people.

The full title is An Act for Laws and Justices to be ministered in Wales in like form as it is in this realm.Its preamble states: "His Highness. . . of the singular love and favour that he bears towards his subjects of this said dominion of Wales, and intending to reduce them to the perfect order, notice and knowledge of the laws of this his Realm, and utterly to extirpate all and singular the sinister usages and customs differing from the same . . . hath . . . ordained, enacted and established that his said country or dominion of Wales shall stand and continue for ever from henceforth incorporated, united and annexed to and with his Realm of England."

Thus the real purpose was to incorporate, finally and for all time, the principality of Wales into the kingdom of England. A major part of this decision was to abolish any legal distinction between the people on either side of the new border. From henceforth, English law would be the only law recognized by the courts of Wales. In addition, for the placing of the administration of Wales in the hands of the Welsh gentry, it was necessary to create a Welsh ruling class not only fluent in English, but who would use it in all legal and civil matters.

Thus inevitably, the Welsh ruling class would be divorced from the language of their country; as pointed out earlier, their eyes were focused on what London or other large cities of England had to offer, not upon what remained as crumbs to be scavenged in Wales itself, without a government of its own, without a capital city, and without even a town large enough to attract an opportunistic urban middle class, and saddled with a language described by Parliament as "nothing like nor consonant to the natural mother tongue used within this realm."

From 1536 on, English was to be the only language of the courts of Wales, and those using the Welsh language were not to receive public office in the territories of the king:

No person or persons that use the Welsh speech or language shall have or enjoy any manor, office or fees within the realm of England, Wales or other of the king's dominions upon pain of forfeiting the . same offices or fees unless he or they use and exercise the speech and language of English
It was the arrival of the Welsh Bible, however, that brought the language back to a respected position. In 1547, Welsh scholar, William Salesbury, alarmed at what he considered the baseness of the Welsh tongue,wrote: "And take this advice from me; unless you save and correct and perfect the language before the extinction of the present generation, it will be too late afterwards." (Oll Synnwyr Pen Kembero Ygyd). Salesbury collaborated with Richard Davies, Bishop of St. David's on a Welsh version of The Book of Common Prayer and The New Testament, both of which were published in 1567.

The scholar John Penry of Breconshire had implored the Queen and her Parliament that the Welsh people should be taught the scriptures (and the Prayer Book) in their own language. He was helped by the fact that Elizabeth and her courtiers were appalled at the slow progress of the Welsh in learning the English language (and, more important, their slow progress in adopting Protestantism). Penry's suggestions were welcomed by Parliament; by having Welsh translations placed next to the English texts in church, it was believed the congregations could learn English! The reverse happened, of course, and the Welsh language was given status and a place of honor by being used as a medium for the holy scriptures. Why bother with English, when there was now a perfectly acceptable Welsh in which to worship God?

In 1588, the translation of the whole Bible itself, the climax of the whole movement, made Welsh the language of public worship and thus much more than a generally despised peasant tongue. Perhaps it is to this that much of the present-day strength of the Welsh language is owed, compared to Irish (which did not get its own Bible until 1690) and Scots Gaelic (which had to wait until 1801).

The Welsh Bible, a magnificent achievement, was completed after eight years by William Morgan and a group of fellow scholars. In 1620 Dr John Davies of Mallwyd and Richard Parry, Bishop of St. Asaph, produced a revision of William Morgan's Bible. Most of the nearly one thousand copies of.the earlier book had been lost or worn out, and this revised and corrected edition is the version that countless generations of Welsh people have been thoroughly immersed ever since, it has been as much a part of their lives as the Authorized Version has been to the English-speaking peoples or Luther's Bible to the Germans.

In 1630, the Welsh Bible, in a smaller version (Y Beibl Bach), was introduced into homes in Wales and as the only book affordable to many families, became the one book from which the majority of the people could learn to read and write. Other, poorer families, unable to afford the Bible, were able to share its contents in meetings held at the homes of neighbors or in their churches or chapels. Later on, countless generations of children were taught its contents in Sunday School. It is in this way, therefore, that we can say the Welsh Bible "saved" the language from possible extinction.

It has been touch and go all the way since, however, with determined efforts coming from both sides of Offa's Dyke to stamp out the language for ever. Yet every time the funeral bells have tolled, the language has miraculously revived itself. As early as the 12th century, Giraldus Cambrensis gave us the famous Welsh folk tale of the declaration of the old man of Pencader to Henry ll:

This nation, O King, may now, as in former times, be harassed, and in a great measure weakened and destroyed by your and other powers, and it will also prevail by its laudable exertions, but it can never be totally subdued through the wrath of man, unless the wrath of God shall concur. Nor do I think that any other nation than this of Wales, nor any other language, whatever may hereafter come to pass, shall on the day of severe examination before the Supreme Judge, answer for this corner of the earth. (John of Salisbury: recorded in Descriptio Kambriae (1193) by Giraldus Cambrensis)
In 1753 Thomas Richards in his Thesaurus wrote:
Yet our name hath not been quite blotted out from under Heaven. We hitherto not only enjoy the true name of our Ancestors but have preserved entire and uncorrupted . . that primitive language, spoken as well by the ancient Gauls and Britons some thousands of years ago
Part V


Copyright ©2005 Britannia.com, LLC   Questions? Comments!   Design & Development Unica Multimedia