Telling the history of Wales

Wednesday 29 February 2012, 10:30

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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The people of Wales have always been proud of their history. Long ago that history would have been recorded and passed down - normally in an oral and poetic manner - by the bards and storytellers of the nation. In more modern times it has been the duty of professional historians to write and tell the history of Wales.

john davies

Historian John Davies

Wales has been lucky in that over the years there have been dozens of highly gifted and capable historians, people only too ready to record their views of the nation's past. Many have been academics, some have been professional writers, some what can be euphemistically and best termed 'peoples historians'.

The one thing they all have in common is the ability to tell a damned good story - and working to Rudyard Kipling's old adage that history would be a lot better remembered if it could be told through the medium of good stories, that is a crucial element.

Any look, no matter how brief, at the historians of Wales has to begin with JE Lloyd. Born in 1861 and from 1899 professor of history at Bangor University, his finest work was surely A History Of Wales From The Earliest Times To The Edwardian Conquest. The book was the first comprehensive study of medieval Wales and Lloyd went on to produce another masterpiece on the life of Owain Glyndwr. He also worked as consultant editor on The Dictionary Of Welsh Biography.

The other name that immediately springs to mind when considering Welsh historians is the redoubtable Gwyn Alf Williams. Born at Dowlais in 1925, he lectured at Aberystwyth and Cardiff before, in 1985, becoming a television writer and presenter. He wrote numerous books on topics such as the Merthyr rising and, in 1985, a work that was probably his best, When Was Wales?

A Marxist who, in later life, joined Plaid Cymru, Gwyn Alf was fired by a huge passion for his native land. He loved the dramatic moments, both in his writing and in his TV presentations. He will always be remembered for his part in co-presenting, with Wynford Vaughan-Thomas, the series The Dragon Has Two Tongues, a powerful and dramatic statement about Wales and its past. Gwyn Alf Williams died in 1985.

There are so many other historians of note. Two women historians who, over the years have produced a whole string of well-researched and informative texts, are Catrin Stevens and Deirdre Beddoe. Stevens' Welsh Courting Customs is a classic of its kind and is still in print nearly 20 years after publication.

Deirdre Beddoe has written extensively about womens history, producing works such as Discovering Women's History and finding time to edit books such as Parachutes And Petticoats, a compilation of womens remembrances of life during World War.Two.

John Davies is probably the premier Welsh historian working and writing today. After studying at Oxford, he taught at Aberystwyth before retiring to Cardiff. He was commissioned to write The History Of Wales by Penguin and was pleasantly surprised when he found that the book would be published in both English and Welsh. It was, for many years, the standard history of the country, with a revised edition produced in 2007.

Dai Smith, currently chair of the Arts Council of Wales, is another historian of note. Born in the Rhondda, he was professor in the history of Wales at Cardiff before moving into the media and becoming editor of BBC Radio Wales and head of English language programmes. Over the years he has produced numerous detailed and well-written studies of various aspects of Welsh life, including The Fed, a history of the South Wales Miners' Union.

wynford vaughan-thomas

Wynford Vaughan-Thomas

Current historians and writers are many and varied. They include people such as Stephanie Ward, Chris Williams and HV Bowen. Gomer Press recently published A New History Of Wales, edited by Bowen and featuring the views of many of the historians quoted here. They were originally published as a series of articles in the Western Mail and offer a new and, in many cases, different view of Wales - which is exactly what you would expect from some of the country's finest historians.

The public face of history, however, often rests on the presenters of any particular programme rather than the research brains behind it. People like Gwyn Alf Williams, who can write and present, are few and far between. And the Welsh have not been backward in providing good quality presenters who can catch and hold the nation's interest.

Perhaps Wynford Vaughan-Thomas was at the forefront of the move to popularize Welsh history but he has been followed by many fine TV and radio presenters. Huw Edwards and John Humphrys are possibly the best known public faces. They are men who are interested in the history of their nation and are happy to pass on that interest to the general public.

There are undoubtedly many more fine historians of note and people will probably take exception to those quoted above. "What about...?" they will say. Good. Any discussion of the men and women who have made our history fascinating and compelling can only be for the good of the nation and the subject.

Read Huw Edwards' article explaining why he wanted to be involved with the new BBC Wales history series The Story of Wales.

The Story of Wales continues on Thursday 1 March at 9pm on BBC One Wales. If you missed the first episode you can watch it on the BBC iPlayer.

Let us know your thoughts on The Story of Wales. Join our BBC Wales History Twitter group, visit our Story of Wales Facebook page or simply leave a comment below.

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    Comment number 1.

    I want to thank everybody who has helped to make this wonderful series. I am thoroughly enjoying the story and I am really looking forward to the next chapter. I have learned so much already and it has made me eager to learn more. Our family spend every summer exploring Welsh castles and we are always looking for a clear explanation of their history. The Story Of Wales is the most enjoyable and exciting telling of our nation's past that has ever been told. Also, the camera work captures the breathtaking beauty of Wales idyllically. Thank you all.

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    Comment number 2.

    Presenters are the "face" of any TV programme. They fulfill a valuable role and draw people in with their personalities and style. But telling the story of Wales, telling the story of any nation, come to that, owes so much to the historians who have researched and studied the topic over the years. They are the forgotten element in any detailed or protracted study.

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    Comment number 3.

    This is an excellent series. The quality of production cannot be faulted. However it has prompted a question in my mind that deserves serious consideration. As someone who grew up in Wales and attended a comprehensive education (including history), why is so much of this history new to me?. Yes I could no doubt have gone to the library and researched this material myself........but why is this content not part of the standard welsh history curriculum?. A word of warning, my primary to secondary school education was between 1965 and 1979.

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    Comment number 4.

    Good that there is a series on the history of Wales but I am disappointed at the lack of depth. I appreciate there will be time constraints but the programme dealing with Llewelyn could have set the scene so much better. The approach was just to skim the surface; what about Llewelyn and Dafydd ap Grufydd? Perhaps people need to know the background to Edward 1st's vendetta against Wales? x

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    Comment number 5.

    I suppose it is inevitable that a programme like this can do little more than "skim the surface." There is so much to cover - Edward's vendetta, as you call it, against Wales and the Welsh could warrant six programmes on its own. I think that if the series draws people in and then sends them off to do their own reading or research then it will have been worth it.

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    Comment number 6.

    Thankyou for your response Phil-I agree about people doing their own research but finding reliable sources when a lot of Welsh documents were (allegedly) destroyed by Edward's men can be problematic especially when so many texts that have been attempted are out of print! I am trying to collect sources myself before, hopefully, co-writing a book on Dafydd!

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    Comment number 7.

    John Davies is the premier historian writing today, not probably.
    Why? Because he keeps it simple. Huw Edwards on the BBC History of Wales achieves the same effect on TV. David Edwards in his book 'The Ebb & Flow' does it well in his historical fiction.
    All three men keep it simple, "tell the truth and shame the devil." Shakespeare, Henry IV part 1, I believe.
    But all three men have a single theme - 'the Welsh have always fought poverty and invaders'. The Ebb and Flow suggests The Welsh fought back in Georgian times but I doubt the fiction. However, the tale is a direct parody of now. The Welsh are still the slaves of The English, Huw Edwards talked of the Welsh knot in schools. That knot is part of a noose that we in Wales cannot remove....

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    It seems a pity that schoolchildren know so little about Welsh history before the Tudors. Perhaps they would care more if they knew the fiull story?

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    Comment number 9.

    It is such a shame that the history of the Principality is so poorly understood, especially by the Welsh.
    Take the case of the Welsh cattle drovers for instance. They travelled into England from the 1300's in large numbers. They were the most successful invaders since the Norman Conquest, creating hundreds of their own settlements called Little London. Not many people know that!

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    James Stewart of the University of Glamorgan has just told me of a recent conference (last November) that discussed many of the issues commented on in the above article and the subsequent comments. It covered issues such as whether or not we need a print media in Wales and the future of the Welsh press and the written word. Such debates are an essential part of "moving forward" and are in the traditions of the great historians and writers quoted above.


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