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20: The Great Revolution

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Except to the reader who is of a legal or antiquarian turn of mind, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are the least interesting in the history of Wales葉he very centuries that are the most glorious and the most stirring in the history of England. The older historians stop when they come to the year 1284, and sometimes give a hasty outline of a few rebellions up to 1535. They then give the Welsh a glowing testimonial as a law-abiding and loyal people, and find them too uninteresting to write any more about them.

The history of Wales does, indeed, appear to be nothing more than the gradual disappearance of Welsh institutions. The Court of Wales was restored with the king in 1660; but its work had been done, and it came to an end in 1689. The Great Sessions came to an end in 1830; and, though we now see that their disappearance was a mistake, the bill abolishing them passed through Parliament without a division. The last difference between England and Wales was deleted; and if Wales has no separate existence left, why should we write or read its history?

Because the two centuries of apparent settlement and sleep were the period of a silent revolution, more important, if our aim is to explain the living present rather than the dead past, than all the exciting plots and battles of the House of Cunedda from the rise of Maelgwn to the fall of the last Llywelyn. During these centuries, the history of Wales ceases to be the history of princes and nobles, it becomes the history of the people. Owen Glendower's few years of power were a kind of prophecy; but Owen once appeared to the abbot of Valle Crucis, so tradition says, to declare that he had come before his time. We pass then, very gradually, from the history of a privileged class, speaking literary Welsh, with a literature famous for the wealth of its imagination and the artistic beauty of its form謡e pass on to the history of a peasantry, rude and ignorant at first, retaining the servile traits of centuries of subjection, but gradually becoming self-reliant, prosperous, and thoughtful.

The real history of a nation is shown by its literature. Its records and its chronicles are but the notes and comments of various ages. In the period of the princes and nobles, you can trace the rise and decline of a great literature; watch how it gathers strength and beauty from Cynddelw to Dafydd ap Gwilym, and how the strength begins to fail and the beauty to wane, from Dafydd ap Gwilym to Tudur Aled. In the period of the people, from Tudor times on, the peasants tried at first to imitate the poetry of the past; then they began to write and think in their own way. It is not my aim to explain the periods of Welsh literature now; I am going to do that in another book. But, as I have mentioned three typical poets in the period of the princes, I will also mention three poets in the period of the people.

In 1579 Rees Prichard was born; in 1717, Williams Pant y Celyn; in 1832, Islwyn. We have, in these three, writers typical of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries respectively. Rees Prichard, still affectionately remembered in every Welsh home as the "Old Vicar," wrote stanzas in the dialect of the Vale of Towy羊ough, full of peasant phrases and mangled English words; and he wrote them, not in books, but on the memory of the people. In the same valley, a century later, Williams Pant y Celyn wrote hymns, melodious and inspiring, of great poetic beauty, though with a trace of dialect; they were written and published, but they also haunted every ear that heard them. Beyond the Black Mountains, in the hills of West Monmouth, after another century, Islwyn wrote odes without a trace of dialect; they were written and remained for some time in manuscript; when published, they met with a welcome which shows clearly that Islwyn is the typical poet of modern Welsh thought. If you wish to see and realise the rise of the Welsh peasant, pass from the homely stanzas of the good Old Vicar's Welshmen's Candle to the poetic theology of Pant y Celyn, and from that to the poetic philosophy of Islwyn, where concentrated intensity of thought is expressed in a style that is, at any rate at its best, superior to the best work of the poets of the princes.

If I were to tell you the reasons for this change, I would be writing, in a slightly different form, what I have already written in this book about early Welsh history. The fall of Llywelyn, the Black Death, Owen Glendower's ideals and the Tudor legislation, all prepared the way.

The long-bow and gunpowder, we have seen, made the peasant as important as the noble in war. The long-bow made the coat of mail useless, gunpowder made the castle useless葉he defence of the privileges of the Middle Ages departed.

Ideas of equality were advanced. They were looked upon at first as truths applicable only to a perfect and impossible condition, and their discoverers were ignored, if not hanged or burnt. But they always became a reality, and were victorious in the end. Take the truths discovered or championed by Welshmen. Walter Brute rediscovered the theory of justification by faith葉hat all men are equal in the sight of God, and that no lord could be responsible for them. Bishop Pecock advocated the doctrine of toleration葉hat reason, not persecution, should rule. John Penry claimed that the people had a right to discuss publicly the questions that vitally affected them. The history of the past shows that the apostles were condemned, the life of the present shows that their ideas lived.

Industry and commerce became more free. In Tudor times piracy was repressed, the march lordships were abolished, the privileges of the towns ceased to fetter manufacture, trade with England became free. In Stuart times roads were made, the industries depending on wool revived, and the industries of Britain began to move westwards towards the iron and the coal. In the Hanoverian period waste lands were enclosed, the slate mines of the north and the coal pits of the south were opened.

The Tudors succeeded in getting the upper classes to speak English, and to turn their backs on Welsh life. The peasant was left supreme: he knew not what to do at first, but light soon came.

Pass through Wales, and you will see the life of both periods葉he ruined castles and the ruined monasteries of the old; the quarries and pits, the towns and ports, the churches and chapels, the schools and colleges of the present.


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