Printer Friendly

Time to consign this view of the past to the history books; Wales has been written out of the story of Britain and English historians are still failing to appreciate the nation, writes Richard Marsden of Cardiff University and the Open University in Wales.

FOR a long time, the Welsh past has been treated as little more than a sideshow in the history of Britain. Simon Schama's television series The History of Britain (2000) was actually a history of England. When it did touch on Wales, the focus was on how Welsh nationhood was forged through English rule.

David Starkey's Monarchy (2004-06), although broadcast across Britain, was equally Anglo-centric. The muchadmired radio series This Sceptred Isle (1995-2006) also claimed to be a history of Britain but focused predominantly on England.

Indeed, its title derived from a line in Shakespeare's Richard II which refers specifically to England, rather than Britain. It seems that, even after devolution, the assumption that British history is really just English history lives on.

But where does this assumption come from? The answer, as you might expect, lies in the past. In part it derives from centuries of English domination since the Edwardian Conquest (1282), and from a sense of English superiority dating back even further. As the twelfth-century Bishop John of Salisbury put it, the Welsh were "rude and untamed; they live like beasts".

However, more recent factors have also contributed to the marginalisation of Welsh history and, by extension, Welsh life and culture.

A key development was the idea that societies advanced from barbarism to civilisation. Although this notion of historical progress had been around since ancient times, it became increasingly complex and influential in the 1700s.

The contemporary Scottish historian William Robertson, for instance, stated that "nations, as well as men, arrive at maturity by degrees, and the events which happened during their infancy or early youth cannot be recollected, and deserve not to be remembered".

Such views made it possible to class your own society as "mature" and civilised, whilst judging others as "infant" and barbarous. This was, of course, rather subjective.

By the 19th century nationalism was rearing its ugly head across Europe, and the idea of historical progress meant that nations could claim to be more advanced than their neighbours. English nationalism was no different, and was also fuelled by a nasty edge of racialism.

The English claimed to be descended from the Anglo-Saxons, and to have inherited from them traits of independence, industriousness, and the love of liberty.

England's supposedly unrivalled legal system, commercial spirit, cultural achievement and imperial dominance were seen as the fruits of this descent.

The 19th century historian John Richard Green encapsulated this view when he wrote of Anglo-Saxon society that "the whole afterlife of English society was there. In its village-moots lay our parliament; in the gleeman of its village feasts our Chaucer and our Shakespeare; in the pirate-bark stealing from creek to creek our Drakes and our Nelsons".

But what did this all mean for Wales? Well the upshot was a view that can be summarised as "Saxon good, Celt bad". If the Saxon heritage was unequivocally positive, then the Celtic legacy was seen by the English as largely negative.

The most infamous example of this was the so-called Treachery of the Blue Books (1847). This government report depicted the Welsh as lazy, lawless and immoral; the antithesis of all the qualities that the English believed themselves to possess.

Moreover, it made a link between these characteristics and the Welsh language, which it claimed was "a vast drawback to Wales and a manifold barrier to the moral progress and commercial prosperity of the people".

This connection was significant because, in the 1800s, language was seen as a badge of ethnicity and nation. If you spoke Welsh then you were Welsh, with all the negative connotations which, from an English perspective, that implied.

The perception of Wales from across the border was consequently of a society that was less advanced than England. Welsh history had failed to deliver the benefits of progress. Welsh ethnicity lacked the inherent qualities that made such progress possible. The English mission in Wales, as in the Empire, was therefore to civilise the barbarians by giving them the benefit of English law, commerce, education, and language.

However, more positive interpretations of Welsh culture did exist. As the English tourist George Borrow wrote in 1862, Wales was "abounding with noble scenery, rich in eventful histories, and ... dotted with the birthplaces of heroes and poets".

Nevertheless, such views did not dispute the assumption that Wales was less developed than England. They merely saw that lack of advancement as attractively picturesque rather than distastefully barbarous.

Welsh history could therefore be enjoyed on a romantic level, but the explanations for British greatness were found exclusively in the English past.

In this way British history became English history, just as the United Kingdom itself was an Anglo-centred project. The history of Wales, and of Scotland and Ireland, was at best a romantic backwater and at worst had been a drag on English progress.

Thus we arrive at the outlooks of Scharma and Starkey etc. Yet those outlooks are based on a narrow and subjective assessment of how societies ought to develop over time. Welsh history does not fit that mould but, with a decade of devolution behind us, does it really need to anymore?


An Anglo-centric view of British history has misrepresentedWales and the other Celtic nations for far too long
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2010 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUE
Date:Nov 16, 2010
Previous Article:WAY OUT WEST.
Next Article:Cyfle i gofio am anwyliaid ac nid am fy mod o blaid yr holl giamocs; WELSHCOLUMN.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |