Written histories of Wales, until the appearance of John Davies’ masterful volume, have had a severely restricted focus, a distorted and subjective point of view, or a markedly Anglophilic agenda. Davies’ A History of Wales, despite its simple title, is a work of massive and complex scholarship which presents a comprehensive examination of Wales, its people, and its distinctive identity, and it achieves this without any of the shortcomings of its predecessors. Indeed, the volume knows virtually no limits in its consideration of Wales and things Welsh, and it remains remarkably unbiased in its patient examination.
The 1970’s and 1980’s produced ten historical studies on Welsh history. Davies cites this modern historiography in the appropriate places, though he begins by considering the land area that would be called Wales as it existed during the Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic periods. Geological evidence points to 6000 b.c.e. as an approximate date for the appearance of a coastal configuration comparable with that recognizable on modern maps. Tacitus, the second century Roman historian, records a Roman attack in 48 c.e. upon the Deceangli, a pre-Welsh tribe. The territorial name for Wales, Cymry, appears in runic form in 580, approximately 180 years after the legendary royal houses of the territory, while the precise date of 790 marks the construction of Offa’s Dyke, which separates the Cymric from the Brythonic kingdom.
Davies merely arranges and presents this information, but one may draw certain reasonable inferences. First, it is clear that though long nomadically inhabited, Wales evolved from a nomadic to a monarchic society in less than half a millennium. Second, the legendary Welsh kingdoms, by their relatively quick diminution, quickly perceived a common ethnic identity, underscored both by adoption of a collective name and by topographical segregation from their Brythonic neighbors. The astonishing vitality of the Cymric tongue amid the overpowering linguistic influences of the Brythonic, Celtic, and Norman languages testifies to the historical perception of Welsh separateness.
The historical fact of Welsh separateness is not nearly so absolute as its perception. The legends of King Arthur had their origin among the Welsh, but the king and his knights became the common property of England and France by the Middle Ages. These legends so proliferated in France that Sir Thomas Malory culled the French rather than British sources for the writing of Le Morte d’Arthur (1485). Offa’s Dyke notwithstanding, Davies’ examination proves that Welsh history is tied to that of England and that it was so from the earliest period of its national identity.
By 1105, during the reign of Henry I, the so-called Marcher Lords held firm possession of parts of the kingdom of Wales. The March, a central element of Welsh history, was essentially a massive colonizing move that situated families loyal to the English king at various points within Wales. Radnorshire, Breconshire, Pembrokeshire, Monmouthshire, Flintshire, and Montgomeryshire are several of the English seats established on Welsh soil by the twelfth century as a counterweight to Welsh nationalism. Collectively they bore the designation Marchia Wallie to distinguish them from those parts of Wales specifically under Welsh rule, the Purae Walliae.
In the short term, the March served the purpose the Crown intended: dispersal of power. Even so, less than a century had elapsed before the Marcher families, estranged from native Welsh culture though they were, began to perceive their own identity as hybrid, neither wholly Welsh nor wholly English. One recognizes in this ambivalence a pattern that appears repeatedly in British imperial history; it emerges in the Anglo-Indian of the Raj and the Anglo-African of Rhodesia, now called Zambia. Since the Marcher Lords began very early in their tenure to think of themselves as princes, English monarchs soon saw the governing value of a royal presence among their number, and it was for this reason that Edward I began a vast castle-building program in Marchia Wallie in the latter part of the thirteenth century. The most remarkable of these projects is Caernarfon, a magnificent castle of light-colored stone with octagonal towers that recall the massive fortifications of Constantinople. Edward also created the title Prince of Wales, traditionally awarded to the heir apparent of the British throne. Caernarfon remains the official seat of the Prince of Wales and the site of his installation. The title and Caernarfon, taken with Edward’s other castles in Wales, represented a bold and on the whole successful attempt to join the destiny of Wales with that of England.
Much as it tended to restrain the Marchers, even...