Llandaff Cathedral

Welsh nationality in the mid 19th century

Last updated: 06 October 2008

In 1850 there were very few Welsh national institutions. Although the Calvinistic Methodists were organised upon all-Wales lines, the Established Church consisted of four westerly bishoprics of the archdiocese of Canterbury, with the Congregationalists and Baptists having virtually no central organisation.

The Welsh court system - the Courts of Great Session - was abolished in 1830, making the legal and administrative structure of Wales identical to that of England.

Apart from the Cymmrodorion Society, revived in 1820, and the Cambrian Archaeological Society, founded in 1846, there were no cultural or educational organisations at a national level, nor did the country have any economic or professional associations which recognised its unity.

The United Kingdom was believed to consist of three kingdoms: England (including the principality of Wales), Scotland and Ireland - a belief encapsulated in the union flag and the royal standard. Any suggestion that the United Kingdom consists of four nations, and that the Welsh should therefore be considered to be on par with the other nationalities of the kingdom, would have found very few advocates.

One of the major achievements of the Welsh over the following century was their success in ensuring that the concept of the four nations replaced that of the three kingdoms.

The primary marker of the 19th century Welsh was language. Although no census enumerating the number of Welsh speakers was held until 1891, at least three quarters of the country's inhabitants were Welsh-speaking in 1850 and the great majority had no knowledge of any other language.

The vitality of Welsh was indicated by the number of periodicals published in it: in 1866 it was the medium used by five quarterlies, 25 monthlies and eight weeklies, with a total circulation of 120,000. Popular books of poetry, particularly those of Ceiriog, could sell 30,000 copies.

There were also other dimensions to Welshness. Welsh religious traditions had markedly distinct characteristics. Rural settlement and tenurial practices were very different from those of England, and radical movements had highly distinguishing features. Wales's industrial communities, most of them located in upland country, were unlike any other.

Travellers in Wales, George Borrow pre-eminent among them, had no doubt that they were in a country of a highly individual character.


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