October 22, 2020

Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus: never tickle a sleeping dragon. It’s the Hogwarts motto. But no one in Government reads Harry Potter. And the Welsh dragon, asleep for nearly more than 600 years, is stirring into wakefulness.

Everyone is looking at Scotland. The coronavirus crisis has given Nicola Sturgeon’s government renewed purpose, increased visibility, new chances to differentiate from England and the opportunity to boast about its supposed superiority. Scotland likes nothing more than to complain about mistreatment by its English overlords. It’s no surprise that the polls now show a remarkable majority for an independent future for Scotland.

But all this excitement about England’s northern border is distracting us from what is happening on its western one. Exactly the same political forces are conspiring to boost the Welsh government and with it the legitimacy of the campaign for Wales’ freedom. Don’t get me wrong: Welsh nationalism is still a minority sport. But polls in the last month or two suggest now a third of voters would choose independence in a referendum tomorrow. 46% of under-25s say they want Wales to be an independent country.

Perhaps you need to know more about Welsh history to understand how truly astonishing this is. In particular, you need to understand that Wales has never actually been an independent country. Coronavirus is conjuring a modern nation state from the mists of myth and fantasy.

The Welsh are a people, no question: a people with a language, a culture and a heritage. But what are their lands? The Welsh (and the Cornish) are, in fact, the original British, driven west by the Anglo Saxon invasions that followed the departure of the Roman Empire from these shores. The Welsh word Cymru, used from the seventh century, means the land of the Cymry — it refers not just to the residents of the western part of the British Isles but also to the men of the North of England. And the English word Wales, similarly, was originally used to mean simply foreigner — a reference to any of the non-Anglo Saxon peoples of these islands.

The area now governed by the Welsh Senedd was, in medieval times, a set of warring principalities. The ruler of the strongest of those was known as Tywysog Cymru: ruler, or prince, of the Welsh. But that didn’t give him power or hegemony over the other principalities. The closest a Tywysog — cognate of the Irish word Taoiseach — ever came to ruling the whole of modern Wales was Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, who secured the rule of Gwynedd from his uncle Owain and brother Dafydd in 1255. By 1267, he dominated modern-day Clwyd, Powys and Ceredigion.

But Pembrokeshire, Glamorgan and Monmouthshire — the whole of south and south-west Wales — remained under the rule of the Marcher Barons. And that was the peak of his power. In 1276, Edward I declared Llywelyn a rebel and marched a huge army against him. Llywelyn lost control of everything but Gwynedd, and after a brief resurgence of power in 1282, he was killed at Builth Wells. Llywelyn was, at best, the Temporary Prince of Part of Wales.

Owain Glyndŵr was another great hero of Wales and the leader of a 15th-century rebellion against the English. He was immortalised as Glendower in Shakespeare’s Henry IV. No one knows when or how he died because he simply disappeared, possibly living out his final years in disguise at his daughter’s house. So he has a place in Welsh myth as a kind of Arthurian-style once and future king. Yet even this great leader was not a Prince of Wales as we might imagine it.

Partly that’s because Wales in the 1400s was so integrated with England. The Tudor dynasty itself proclaimed its Welsh origins. There were hundreds of Welsh archers who served at Agincourt. Glyndŵr himself was a Welsh-born nobleman, but he operated as part of an Anglo-Welsh elite that operated seamlessly across the modern border. He was apprenticed in London as a lawyer, and served extensively in the English army. It’s possible he served as a squire to Henry Bolingbroke, later Henry IV.

Glyndŵr went home to declare himself Prince of Powys in 1400 over a border dispute with a neighbour, Baron Grey de Ruthin, who had seized territory in the north of Powys. The English king had not intervened to settle the dispute. So Glyndŵr set about a rebellion, known in Wales as the Last War of Independence.

My interpretation is that independence wasn’t quite what Glyndŵr had in mind. In 1405, he negotiated the “Tripartite Indenture” with Edmund Mortimer and Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland against Henry IV. The Indenture agreed to divide England and Wales among the three of them. Wales would extend as far as the rivers Severn and Mersey, including great swathes of modern England: Cheshire, Shropshire and Herefordshire. Mortimer would take southern England, and Percy the North. The implication is that Glyndŵr sought to maximise his territory, and to eliminate the threat of a powerful, united England. That’s not quite the same as wanting independence for a romanticised Welsh people in their native homeland.

Glyndŵr was defeated and disappeared. His plans for an uber-Wales that was united, extensive, and self-governing faded into history. That’s why I’ve never before imagined that this never-quite-a-country could ever become an independent, modern nation state. What would hold it together? As the global West becomes ever more diverse, and international migration grows exponentially, the era of self-determination on the basis of an ethnic identity is over. I believed that the logic of a federal structure would hold Wales permanently in the union: local freedom within the protective embrace of a larger country.

Only now, as Cardiff’s leadership effectively erects a land border down Offa’s dyke, and bans the English from entering, does it seem a possibility. Perhaps the deepest irony is that among the highest support for Welsh independence is in the south west of the country: Pembrokeshire. But it is also one of the parts of Wales that never even fell to Llywelyn: it has never been part of a sovereign “Wales”.

Wales may be a generation behind Scotland in its journey toward independence. But if the union starts to crumble; if the logic of Brexit drives us toward a united Ireland; if Scotland paves the way with an exit out of our union and into the European one; then Welsh independence will become an inevitability. Perhaps a thousand years later than expected, the nation of Wales will finally come into existence.

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  • November 26, 2020
    Interesting summary, albeit marred by lack of clarity over such terms as 'people', 'nation' &c. The processes described, of internecine conflict, cynical manœuvering, and plain folly, would adequately answer for the early career of just about any polity. Was rather tickled to read the remarks... Read more

  • October 25, 2020
    "The original British driven West by Anglo-Saxon invasions". No, I think that has been, as we say these days, debunked. Archaeologist are much more inclined to a narrative of integration and adoption by the native British of Anglo-Saxon language and culture. That plus inter-marriage means the... Read more

  • October 25, 2020
    I can go with that. My wife is from Pembrokeshire (born in Solva) and I love the place. I'm a Scot btw. Read more

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