Not your prince?
by Glynne Williams
Welsh nationalism, which has tried hard to portray itself as a modern, credible force, has this month stepped back six hundred years. Rather than debating the form of democracy best suited to the 21st Century, we have instead been asked to consider the rights of princes.
The Queen’s death has triggered renewed debate on the future of the royal family and it would take a brave person to bet on the outcome. The public’s understandable sympathy is probably not an accurate reflection of our longer-term allegiance to the monarchy. The royals know which way the wind is blowing, which is why some of them have been so keen to diversify the business or to bail out completely. Republicans welcome that debate and have been rehearsing the arguments for decades. But we have also been reminded that the monarchy, for all its expense, unaccountability and, let’s face it, plain silliness, is the least of our problems. Nationalism, identity politics and divisive sectarianism: these things are far more troubling than the fossilised vestiges of inherited power.
And I don’t mean British nationalism.
The new King visited Wales on September 16th, just eight days after his mother’s death. Many saw the visit, during such a week, as an honour. The visit had, of course, been planned in consultation with the Welsh government long in advance, but for some nationalists it was a gross insult to spring this cruel surprise on us. Michael Sheen, a local actor, was filmed on the beach at Aberavon, eloquently declaiming a denunciation of William, newly ‘created’ Prince of Wales, and bemoaning the end of our own home-grown royalty (in 1415). Short-staffed local newspapers ran Sheen’s words almost verbatim. An easy story.
Did Charles not know that this was Owain Glyndwr Day? If he did know, Sheen said, then the decision to visit was a deliberate affront to an entire nation. And if he didn’t have this date imprinted on his mind, then his ignorance was unforgivable. Had he learned nothing during his fifty years as Prince of Wales?
‘Thousands’ normally celebrate on this day, reported the Daily Mail, but “a number” of events had been cancelled this year because of the royal visit. For Sheen, this was nothing short of sabotage. Ratcheting up the suspicion, he continued, “I hope it’s not a declaration of intent, because that would be very concerning”. Intent to do what? He left that question to the listener’s imagination.
At this point, I began to question my own memory, because I’d never heard of Owain Glyndwr Day. When I was in school, we had St David’s Day. St David was mainly famous for creating a hill (not the most imaginative miracle in Wales, to be honest) to preach from. His other miracle was to give us a half-day holiday, when we felt obliged to munch raw leeks. But Glyndwr? Yes, I know some dates and battles, but these were never celebrated. A quick survey of my Welsh-medium educated relatives confirmed my suspicion: everyone knew about Owain Glyndwr, but “Glyndwr Day” simply wasn’t a thing when they were in school.
You may wonder why we are all so ignorant of this venerable tradition when the English newspapers seem to know all about it. This was certainly the Nationalist’s response to doubters: “no true Welshman” would need reminding of such a day, they cried. To settle the matter we turn to Wikipedia, where we can be sure that some anorak has listed everything that there is to list. And sure enough, Wikipedia confirms that OG day is real. We are told that ‘many schools and organisations’ hold celebrations. But there is one small problem. The Wikipedia entry for Glyndwr Day was created on 15th September 2022, just one day before Sheen hit the beach. As evidence of the Welsh nation’s outrage, Wikipedia refers us back to Sheen and the various papers that reported his speech. To be fair, the author has been extremely busy, with over two hundred edits to Welsh and nationalist-related entries since then. But given this dedication to spreading the word, it seems surprising that they only got around to telling us about it after they found out about Charles’s visit.
“Every year, people gather in the town square”, Wales Online tells us, by way of remedial education. Surely not every town square? Perhaps Machynlleth, where a rumoured event appears to have passed off unnoticed despite the Guardian’s free publicity. No, it seems they were thinking of Corwen, a small town in a Tory-voting North Wales constituency, 140 miles from Sheen’s Welsh home. For the past twenty years, a small group of people in vaguely military-looking attire have congregated at an equally modern statue of Glyndwr to mourn the last native-born Prince of Wales. (Their preferred selection rules for princes are a bit like the Yorkshire cricket team in the 80s.)
And here’s the punchline: there was no order from above and no cancellation — the event went ahead, albeit half-heartedly. So what is going on here? Where has this ‘tradition’ come from? Why are so many people desperate to claim that they have always known about it? And why the readiness to believe that the English had shut it down?
Although the nationalist’s share of the vote has decreased over the past ten years, nationalism-lite now has a secure place in our media and our education system. The Welsh curriculum expects pupils to “identify their own sense of Welshness”, which in practice means introducing the “story of Wales” across various subject areas. No doubt this is sometimes done well, but, since Wales tends to define itself in contrast to England, Anglophobia is rarely far beneath the surface. A book issued to all schools to support the curriculum tells the story of Tryweryn, the North Wales valley that was flooded in the 1960s to pump our Welsh rain to Liverpool. Medieval history provides an opportunity for nationalist flights of fancy that haven’t been seen in English schools for decades. Dragons proliferate way beyond the numbers that nature intended. In some quarters, ignorance of Welsh history is now just as shameful as inability to sing the national anthem, so if we don’t know, we pretend. Yes, of course we celebrate Owain Glyndwr Day. We have ALWAYS celebrated Owain Glyndwr Day.
Perhaps the most destructive effect of this didactic approach to culture and history is that it detracts from what should be a fascinating story. Glyndwr was a major figure and we should know more about him — at least as much as we know about any other medieval warlord or self-proclaimed prince. But the story is more complicated, and more interesting, than the agitprop version. Glyndwr was no outsider. He spoke English (and probably French too). He studied in London and fought with Richard II’s English army against the Scots and the Irish. It was Henry IV’s takeover, by deposing and murdering Richard, that threatened Glyndwr and prompted the 1400 rebellion. Not everyone supported him, in fact his brother fought for Henry and his own cousin tried to kill him.
The story of Glyndwr and the story of the English monarchy are impossible to separate. Glyndwr’s daughter Catrin married Edmund Mortimer, a potential claimant of the English throne (ok, Glyndwr had captured him, so this may not have been a love-match). His aunt married Tudur ap Goronwy, whose great-great-grandson took the throne as Henry VII, Henry Tudor. So although it took a little while, the Welsh ruling class got there in the end. Whether their rise to the top did the average Welsh serf any good is another question.
My school was just a walk away from the reputed site of Glyndwr’s victory over Henry IV’s forces at Stalling Down in 1403. At least, that is what we were told. In fact, the main source for this patriotic history is the 19th Century London-Welsh celebrity Iolo Morgannwg, our most illustrious bard, forger and creator of Welsh ‘fakelore’. It turns out that the battle may not have happened at all — but legends still stand long after their foundations have crumbled away. This should be a lesson to rational people: we need to think about our history, interrogate it, not just recite it like a prayer. There is always a story to be told, but it’s not always the story that they want you to believe.
If we must have princes, I have no preference about how we choose them or where they are born. I hope that the next generation will learn more about Glyndwr than Michael Sheen or I did: not to celebrate, but to understand.
Glynne Williams is an associate professor teaching employment relations.