The law and the Welsh language

Senior web producer, BBC Wales

Tagged with:

Despite its Welsh roots, the Tudor dynasty was several generations anglicised by the time Henry VII took the English throne in 1485. It went on to pass some of the most repressive laws of any English monarchy against the people of Wales.

Among these were acts of union and annexation which, among other measures, disallowed the use of the Welsh language in a court of law. It wasn't until 22 October 1942 that the law was finally amended to allow Welsh to be heard.

The Tudors and Wales

Sir Owain Tudor (c.1400-1461), a Welsh soldier descended from a daughter of 12th century Welsh prince Rhys ap Gruffydd, claimed to be from an unbroken ancestral line going back to the 7th century Welsh ruler Cadwaldwr the Blessed. His grandson, Henry Tudor, became Earl of Richmond and, following a spell in exile in Brittany, landed at Milford Haven and enlisted the help of Welshmen to join him in an uprising against Richard III.

Henry's army, flying a red dragon banner to represent Wales, defeated Richard at the Battle of Bosworth on 21 August 1485. Henry VII took the English throne, but if the Welsh hoped for peace with their English neighbours, they couldn't have been more wrong.

Henry and his successor, Henry VIII, grew concerned at the power and influence of the Marcher lords, and the lawless nature of the Welsh Marches. The solution, designed by Henry VIII's chief administrator Thomas Cromwell, was to establish royal supremacy in Wales and create England as a modern sovereign state.

Henry passed an act of annexation - the Laws in Wales Act (1535) - intended to create a single state and legal jurisdiction, making Wales an integral part of England. Another act was passed in 1543, further refining the measures.

By the early 20th century these had become known as the Acts of Union, although they were primarily intended to create one state and one legal jurisdiction within England and Wales.

The acts contained measures designed to limit the use of the Welsh language. The 1535 Act described "the people of the same dominion have and do daily use a speche nothing like ne consonant to the naturall mother tonge used within this Realme", and declared the intention to "extirpe all and singular the sinister usages and customs differing from the laws of this Realm."

Section 20 of the 1535 Act decreed that English was the only language to be used in courts of law, and that people using Welsh would be disallowed from holding public office in Wales:

  • Also be it enacted by the Authority aforesaid, That all Justices, Commissioners, Sheriffs, Coroners, Escheators, Stewards, and their Lieutenants, and all other Officers and Ministers of the Law, shall proclaim and keep the Sessions Courts, Hundreds, Leets, Sheriffs Courts, and all other Courts in the English Tongue;
  • (2) and all Oaths of Officers, Juries and Inquests, and all other Affidavits, Verdicts and Wager of Law, to be given and done in the English Tongue;
  • (3) and also that from henceforth no Person or Persons that use the Welsh Speech or Language, shall have or enjoy any manner Office or Fees within this Realm of England, Wales, or other the King's Dominion, upon Pain of forfeiting the same Offices or Fees, unless he or they use and exercise the English Speech or Language.

The Welsh Courts Act 1942

The official status of the Welsh language remained unchanged for four centuries. A petition, demanding equal status for the Welsh language, was launched during the 1938 National Eisteddfod. More than 250,000 signatures were gathered, and the petition was supported by 30 of 36 Welsh MPs.

It paved the way for the Welsh Courts Act. The bill preceding the act had a rapid and unopposed passage through the House of Commons in 1942. The sympathetic hearing it received was epitomised by the words of Sir Charles Edwards, MP for Bedwellty:

"I was at one time check-weigher at the Nine-Mile Point colliery and local representative of the men. When the pit was first sunk, many people came to it from other parts, and I remember that some of the north Welshmen who came could not speak a word of English. When they came to see me about something or other, I could not follow their deep Welsh, and there had to be an interpreter between us. If those men did something wrong and had to go to the local courts, they were at a great disadvantage. It is for that sort of reason that I think this bill does a very reasonable thing."

Judge's wig and gavel

Hansard records the words of Viscount Sankey during a debate for the bill's second reading in the Lords:

"Many Welshman who speak English think in Welsh. I have often observed that in this House even some of our most eloquent speakers and skilful debaters pause for a moment to get the precise word or to find the exact expression. No doubt many members of this House read French easily and speak it well; many speak it perfectly; yet how should we like to be examined and cross-examined in French?

"Should we not be rather nervous and embarrassed witnesses and fail to do ourselves justice? We should possibly be thinking in English and having to answer in French. Those who have heard, as I have heard, hundreds and hundreds of cases in Welsh Courts will appreciate the position."

The Welsh Courts Act was passed on 22 October 1942. It repealed Henry VIII's earlier measures, and finally permitted limited use of the Welsh language in courts of law.

"Whereas doubt has been entertained whether section seventeen of the statute 27 Hen. 8. c. 26 unduly restricts the right of Welsh speaking persons to use the Welsh language in courts of justice in Wales, now, therefore, the said section is hereby repealed, and it is hereby enacted that the Welsh language may be used in any court in Wales by any party or witness who considers that he would otherwise be at any disadvantage by reason of his natural language of communication being Welsh."

The 1942 act was a step in the right direction, for sure, but it limited the use of Welsh to instances where the speaker would have been disadvantaged by having to speak English. In case law these disadvantages were difficult to prove in court, and the legislation - while a step in the right direction - was far from the solution that Welsh language campaigners desired.

Furthermore, the 1942 act reiterated the Tudor principle that "all proceedings of courts in Wales shall continue to be kept in the English language", and failed to ensure any further rights for the Welsh language.

The Welsh Language Act 1967 finally granted the right to testify in Welsh in courts. Local councils were allowed to provide bilingual signs in Wales, and government documents began preparing documents in Welsh.

It wasn't, however, until the Welsh Language Act 1993 that the law was changed so that "in the course of public business and the administration of justice, so far as is reasonably practicable, the Welsh and English languages are to be treated on the basis of equality."

Tagged with:


More Posts