Welsh bible

The Bible in Wales

In 1549 Edward VI passed the Act of Uniformity, which came into law in 1552 and required all acts of public worship to be conducted in English instead of Latin.

The intention behind the act was to root the Protestant Reformation introduced by Henry VIII among the mass of the population.

In Cornwall the act caused a rebellion among Cornish speakers which resulted in thousands of deaths. Wales escaped similar suffering, yet the act seemed to signal the end for the language.

Nonetheless, in 1563 Elizabeth I introduced legislation which appeared to contradict the 1549 act. It required all churches in Wales by 1567 to have Welsh translations of the Book of Common Prayer and the Bible alongside the English versions.

This legislation saw parliament authorising the use of Welsh in spiritual matters barely a generation after banning its use in secular matters. Yet in the Elizabethan age the authorities consider religious uniformity to be more important than any linguistic uniformity.

Why this concession? Wales had long been known as a backdoor for the invasion of England - after all, that was the route the Tudors had taken to the throne.

Spreading the Protestant word among the Welsh in their own language was a politically expedient move to get them on side at a time of increasing Catholic threat from Europe to the English throne.

It was hoped that the Welsh would acquire knowledge of English through the act and eventually abandon their own language. The Welsh translation was to be placed side by side with the English, the idea being that the Welsh would compare the two and thereby learn English.

But it was still a major concession. Welsh became the first non-state language of Europe to be used to convey the word of God after the Reformation. How much was due to the lobbying of influential Welsh people in the Tudor court we'll never know.

In 1549 the Book of Common Prayer was published and a more Protestant version adopted in 1553. In 1551 the Denbighshire scholar William Salesbury published a Welsh translation of the main texts of the Prayer Book.

The translation of the New Testament into Welsh was first produced by Salesbury in 1567. It was superseded by a translation of the whole Bible by Bishop William Morgan in 1588.

Morgan's Bible removed certain South Walian words in Salesbury's translation, such as caser (hail), and replaced them with their North Walian equivalent (cenllysg). This may have started the idea that the language of North Wales was superior to that of the south.

Bishop Morgan's translation used deliberately archaic terms, as befitted a holy book. The difference between this language and everyday Welsh was apparent from the beginning.

Yet the breadth of the vocabulary and the poetry of the translation gave the Welsh people an elevated form of their language, in marked contrast to their Celtic brethren in Cornwall, Scotland and Ireland.

Every Sunday, with the blessing of their monarch, Welsh congregations listened to majestic Welsh prose. Its contribution to the survival of the language was immense.

History blog

Explore the celebrated and lesser-known incidents in Welsh history, watch rare clips from BBC Wales' own archive, find out about history events in Wales.

Phil Carradice

July 1942: enemy action over Pwllheli

Britain might have been totally unprepared for war in 1939 but within ...

By: Phil Carradice

Family history


Getting started

Tracing your Welsh roots? Pick up some tips in our guides.


Argentine flag

The Welsh in Patagonia

In 1865, the Mimosa, a tea-clipper set sail for South America.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.