The role of the 'Welsh Mam' through history

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Mother's Day is celebrated on the fourth Sunday of Lent and, these days, is a combination of an old religious festival and the newer, perhaps more commercial, American celebration which began in 1908. It is, as it has always been, a day to acknowledge the concept of motherhood.

In Wales the role and position of the mother has always been central to society, both rural and urban. The figure of the 'Welsh Mam' has long been accepted as, not just a cliché, but as an actual reality in a society that was always matriarchal in the extreme.

Sassie Rees on 'Ar Lin Mam' in 1969

The importance of women, initially at least, derived from the 13th century Laws of Hywel Dda. These gave legal recognition to the status of women, in complete contrast to the rest of Europe where until fairly recently women were regarded simply as the possessions of their husbands. Under Hywel's Laws women had rights and were entitled both to opinions and to the full consideration of the legal system.

For many years in isolated rural parts of Wales nearly all households revolved around the figure of the mother. She was the one constant in the home as men went out to work long and exhausting hours in the fields. Invariably, the mother was the person who brought up the children, cooked and cleaned and effectively controlled the house.

The Industrial Revolution in the 19th century changed the nature of the country but it did not diminish the role of the mother. If anything, it enhanced it. Now the world of the mothers and wives revolved around the shift patterns of their partners and they spent a large part of their day heating and carrying water for their husband's essential baths once the man's work was ended.

With their husbands working long shifts in the mines and iron foundries, it was increasingly left to the women to buy and prepare food, to clean the house and keep it warm and welcoming. They held the money, they ran the household. But it was hard, crippling work.

Add in the fact that most women spent the first 20 or so years of married life bearing and raising children and it is easy to see why, in many of the industrial areas, the death rate among women was actually higher than that of men.

Small wonder that boys and girls related strongly to the figure of the mother. From their early days when they would be wrapped tightly in a shawl and held close to the mother's body for warmth and security, the significance of the mother was paramount. It is a generalisation, perhaps, but mothers were invariably placed on a pedestal, loved and admired – and always obeyed!

Large families were the order of the day, not just because of a lack of birth control, but partly at least because infant death rates were so high. No mother could ever confidently expect all of her children to grow into adulthood.

Katheryn of Berain by Adriaen van Cronenburgh, Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales

The figure of Katheryn of Berain – Mam Cymru as she is sometimes known – is a classic case in question. Born in 1540, she married four times, had six children and over 30 grandchildren. Small wonder that she was called the 'mother of Wales'.

In Katheryn's day most well-to-do women – or, at least, women of the upper classes – married for money and Katheryn was no exception. Her various marriages made her very rich, particularly the ones to Sir Richard Clough (who established the London stock market) and Maurice Wynn. As a result she and her descendants became one of the richest families in Wales.

Related to Henry VII through her maternal grandfather, Katheryn created a dynasty. And while people may not have consciously tried to emulate her, there is no doubt that her example was noted by both rich and poor alike. This was an example of Welsh motherhood at its best.

You can find out more about this portrait of Katheryn on the BBC Your Paintings website.

These days the role of the mother in the household has undoubtedly changed. Women are no longer chained to domestic duties but we still cherish the figure and the example of our mothers. They, after all, gave us life and Mother's Day is just one day in the year when we can acknowledge what they have done for us.

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