Welsh nationalists ignore the monarchy's popularity at their peril
Symbols of English dominance still haunt the Welsh landscape, most vividly the Iron Ring of Castles built by Edward I. To some, including the actor-turned-campaigner Michael Sheen, the heir to the throne’s title of the Prince of Wales is another reminder of the “tortured history” we share with the English and British states. Sheen’s call for the title to be abolished from its current use by a British royal after Prince Charles ascends to the throne is supported by many in the invigorated Welsh nationalist movement.
Tywysog Cymru, Prince of Wales, was the title many of the medieval Welsh leaders proclaimed to be their own, including Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, who was acknowledged as Prince of Wales by Henry III after the Treaty of Montgomery. The death of the last native prince in 1282, after being declared a rebel by Edward I, still haunts the imagination of Welsh nationalists. What happened next is well-documented: Llywelyn’s head was exhibited over the gate of the Tower of London, while the nation he left behind became a conquered people.
So the actor is right to claim that Edward I indeed stamped his authority on his conquered people by investing his son as prince — but a more nuanced perspective would acknowledge how the conquest ushered in an embryonic Welsh official class that were influential in the king’s decision-making. Sheen is also correct that the ancient past still ignites strong emotions among the Welsh, as the recent furore which surrounded the naming of the Severn Crossing as the Prince of Wales Bridge demonstrated.
But do the Welsh really agree with their celebrated actor to get rid of the Tywysogin its current form altogether? UnHerd’s 2019 polling on monarchy suggests not, although there were several parts of Wales increasingly disaffected with the institution. The Prince has personally been warmly embraced by our people, especially after he set up his Welsh base at Llwynywermod and his work with Welsh organisations and charities. Rather ironically, he received his most recent publicity boost in Wales when The Crown documented his attempts to learn the language at Aberystwyth.
For much of the Welsh, the British royal family allows them to celebrate Welshness right at the top of our society. The 1911 investiture, masterminded by the showman David Lloyd George, and the 1969 ceremony in Caernarfon, gave Wales a global platform. Much has changed in Wales and Britain since then, of course. Growing nationalist sentiment and the ever probable break-up of the union might demand a new type of role for the Prince of Wales in the next decade, and perhaps in the future there will be one fluent in our native language once again.
Only some nationalists, such as the former Plaid Cymru leader Lord Elis-Thomas, have been willing to engage in a serious debate on the role of the Prince of Wales. This is a stark contrast to the traditionally royalist approach of the SNP. It is an issue Welsh nationalists need to confront in the months ahead; after all even if an independent Wales is achieved, the public would prefer a monarchy over a republic.
So although Sheen has emerged as an unofficial spokesperson in the eyes of many for a radical new nation, he does not speak for the people of Wales on this matter.