John Davies’ A HISTORY OF WALES is extraordinary, not only because this massive book appeared first in Welsh but also because it treats virtually every aspect of its country’s development. It begins with pristine topography—Wales as it would have appeared in the Paleolithic era. Using archaeological, geographical, and anthropological evidence, Davis vividly reconstructs the country’s nomadic, Roman, legendary, and monarchic periods.
Clearly Wales and the Brythonic kingdoms which would become England had a joined destiny. It dictated as early as the seventh century, despite violent, often bloody encounters, that Wales would serve the interests of the Crown. By the thirteenth century, Henry I had placed the Marcher Lords, wealthy families loyal to England, at strategic locations throughout Wales. These principalities provided a counterweight to, but never stifled, Welsh separateness. They did, however, set the pattern of Anglo-Welsh and pure Welsh ethnicity which one discerns throughout Welsh history. They also established the historic ruling class for which educational and professional opportunity was reserved.
Davies devotes nearly one-third of his study to Wales during the Victorian and modern periods. He examines dispassionately the coming of the railroads and with them the relentless exploitation of the country’s coal and iron resources. The railroads opened new markets and spurred development of wool production as well, though none of these changes directly benefited those at the lower end of the economic scale. Wales did not endure the degree of active persecution Ireland experienced, yet still faced a comparable class structure with its inherent wide differences in material well-being. By the 1980’s, gentrification by resident Britons threatened Welsh national identity; nevertheless, Wales remains culturally unique and admirable.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. XC, December 15, 1993, p. 735.
The Economist. CCCXXVII, April 3, 1993, p. 86.
History. LXXIX, February, 1994, p. 106.
History Today. XLIII, April, 1993, p. 53.
Kirkus Reviews. LXI, November 15, 1993, p. 1433.
The New York Review of Books. XLI, December 22, 1994, p. 61.
Publishers Weekly. CCXL, December 20, 1993, p. 62.
The Spectator. CCLXXI, November 27, 1993, p. 35.
The Times Literary Supplement. March 12, 1993, p. 10.