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Chapter 12: 18th Century Wales

In the continuing search for identity, the Welsh people rediscovered their own literary traditions. As early as 1703, Ellis Wynne made his mark, taking advantage of the proliferation of the books being printed in Welsh by producing the Welsh prose classic entitled "Gweledigaetheu y Bardd Cwsc" (Vision of the Sleeping Bard) an immensely popular work. Its subject, drawn from a Spanish satire, and written in the same vein, was a virulent condemnation of vice and profligacy. Wynne was a parish priest near Harlech, in Northwest Wales, and he made good use of the local dialect.

The revival of literature took many forms but perhaps it found its greatest poet in Goronwy Owen, a native of Anglesey, who, after some years of poverty as a low paid curate (unable to obtain a parish in Wales), emigrated to the American Colonies in 1757 to take up a post at William and Mary College in Virginia. His most important works, however, were completed before he left his own country. Owen's ambition was to revive Welsh poetry in a classical manner and his style, much copied in the nineteenth century, adhered closely to Welsh native poetic traditions. His poem on the Day of Judgement inspired many of his successors to try to compose a Welsh epic. Many of the bardic competitions of the following century Eisteddfodau, in fact, were held for this particular purpose.

But another influence was at work that was to satisfy the Welsh people's long curiosity in their historical origins. The gentry of Wales, enjoying a period of peace and prosperity, were anxious to find out about both their origins and their localities and historians were only to happy to oblige them with histories of the various Welsh counties. In 1602 George Owen put together his "Descriptions of Wales" to chronicle all the features of the country, an attempt helped immensely by the map of Wales drawn by Humphrey Lhuyd in 1573 that was reprinted almost fifty times during the next two hundred years (prints of this map are found in homes all over Wales even today).

Next, in an age called by Professor Davies "a golden age of local history," Edward Lhuyd (1660-1709) of Llanforda, Oswestry produced works that were to have an enormous influence on antiquarian studies in Britain. His interest in botany and geology gained him recognition as the finest naturalist in Europe. Training himself in the new science, Lhuyd placed Welsh studies on a firm and lasting foundation. An indefatigable traveler, he visited all the Celtic countries, studying the links between their various languages. His vast correspondence were instrumental in defining the customs and traditions of his people. In 1691 he was appointed keeper at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, where he had conducted scientific experimentation. Some of his notes, for a new edition of William Camden's "Britannia" (a description of Roman Britain first published in 1586) are regarded as a milestone in the history of topographical and archaeological studies in Britain. In 1707 Lhuyd published Vol. 1 of his "Archaeologia Britannica", which became the starting point for the modern study of the Celtic languages.

Of more immediate appeal, however, than the scientific work of Lhuyd, was that of Theophilus Evans, dealer in myths and supplier of acceptable history. Evans produced his "Drych y Prif Oesoedd" (Mirror of the First Ages) in 1717, which gave a legendary account of Welsh history that had considerable impact and lasting influence. The book recounted the history of the Welsh people all the way from the Tower of Babel up to the death of Prince Llewelyn ap Gruffudd; its success was mainly due to its popularization of some long-standing Welsh myths. One of these was the descent from a grandson of Noah named Gomer. Others followed the tale of Geoffrey of Monmouth concerning the founding of Britain by the Trojan Brutus and the later deceit of Hengest the leader of the Saxons. Ten years after its publication, the renowned English author Daniel Defoe, following a tour of the principality wrote (of the Welsh people):

They value themselves much on their antiquity, the ancient race of their houses, families and the like, and above all, their ancient heroes . . and, as they believe their country to be the pleasantest and most agreeable in the world so you cannot oblige them more than to make them think that you believe so too. ("A Tour through the whole island of Britain")
Since so many in Wales were learning to read and write, the influence of Theophilus Evans must have permeated the consciousness of so many of its people. A few years later John Torbuck commented on what he found in the countryside:
They are all so well versed in the history of their descents, that you shall hear a poor woman derive her extraction from the first maid of honour to Nimrod's wife, or else she thinks she is a nobody ("A Collection of Welsh Travels and Memoirs of Wales" 1749)
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.
The appeal to the classical past so relished in Wales was continued by Lewis Morris, who had published in 1717 "Tlysau yr hen Oesoedd" (Jewels of the Ancient Ages) the first Welsh periodical. Then, in 1751, a brother Richard Morris, a clerk in the British Admiralty in London started the Honorable Society of Cymmrodorian, taking advantage of the huge contingent of prominent Welsh people who lived in London and who saw the need for an organization similar to the Royal Society that could give the Welsh people a strong voice in the cultural and social affairs of the British nation by "defending the purity of the Welsh language, stimulating interest in the history and literature of Wales and promoting economic and scientific ventures of benefit to the country."

The eyes of Wales were now turned to London and to the London Welsh; they were not disappointed.

Chapter 13: Influence of London

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