REVIEW - Wales: England’s Colony? by Martin Johnes

REVIEW – Wales: England’s Colony? by Martin Johnes

Rhianwen Daniel, Research Student at the Law and Politics School, Cardiff University
The viewpoints and comments expressed in this piece represent those of the author and not Gorwel as an organisation.

Wales: England’s Colony? by Martin Johnes – A review by Rhianwen Daniel

It has become commonplace in recent years to apply postcolonial theory to Welsh history, culture, and politics. Historian Martin Johnes’ Wales: England’s Colony? is the latest example to emerge in this particular vein. Officially a work of popular history, this book will nonetheless catch the eye of anyone interested the question of whether Wales’ relation to England can be described in coloniser/colonised terms. The book’s central claim is that the two countries’ relationship should not be interpreted in such terms. 

It is undeniable, Johnes concedes, that Wales was colonised in the 13th century. Military conquest, legal apartheid, and the influx of settler communities are nothing if not central characteristics of imperialism. But Wales’ colonial status came to an abrupt end with her annexation into England via the Acts of Union in 1536-1543: ‘Wales after the Tudors was simply not a colony of England’.

Technically speaking, this is so trivially true as to be a non-starter. Wales was no more a literal colony of England after 1543 than has the Crimea been a colony of Russia after 2014. But substantive questions remain. Did Wales undergo what is now recognised as imperial exploitation after 1543? Does the cultural assimilation that the Welsh experienced resemble cultural imperialism? Are the Welsh what, in postcolonial parlance, is termed ‘an inferiorized people’? Has the impact of colonisation on the writing and teaching of Welsh history negatively influenced Wales’ national self-image? 

A positive answer to such questions should at the very least cause us to hesitate before denying the existence of a colonial legacy in post-1543 Wales. How well, then, does Johnes’ book manage to meet these challenges? 

Johnes’ general recurring line of argument is that the historical record is simply not as black and white as it is typically represented in Wales’ modern-day project of nation-building. For every historical event that is commonly invoked by activists, politicians, or intellectuals to illustrate the profound injustices that the English have inflicted on the Welsh, there is always another side to the coin.

Take Owain Glyndwr (1359-1415), who has become so entrenched in popular Welsh history as to have acquired a semi-mythical status. Credited by Cymru Fydd as the father of Welsh nationalism for leading a revolt against English subjugation with a view to gaining independence, the reality was far less clear-cut.

According to the testimony of a contemporary, for instance, his rebellion was triggered not by a genuine concern for England’s ill-treatment of the Welsh, but rather by a personal territorial boundary dispute. Moreover, the English settlements on which Glyndwr waged war were populated by many Welsh as well as Englishmen. Such details suggest that ‘this was not just a simple case of ethnic tensions’, as one would tend to presume by default. 

Indeed, whether Owain Glyndwr even deserves to be viewed as the epitome of the Welsh struggle against English subjugation is questionable. He fought with the English three times, and it was only after failing to gain local office or knighthood that he turned his sights to his Welsh heritage. 

The implication emerging from Johnes’ account is Owain Glyndwr was a failed careerist ‘whose personal life and career advancement were intertwined with the English’. Although he may be widely lauded today as a romantic national hero, the reality is that ‘there was little wistful about the starvation and ethnic violence he and his supporters inflicted and were subjected to’.

An equally contentious assessment of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd (1223-1282)’s legacy is given. He was the first and last native Prince of Wales recognised by the English Crown, and brought unification, legal uniformity and political coherence to Wales before the Edwardian conquest. Firmly cemented in Welsh nationalist mythology, Llywelyn is seen by many as the tragic anti-colonial figure whose defeat by the English brought a permanent end to Welsh independence.

Again, however, a moment’s reflection on the historical record casts doubt on the validity of Llywelyn’s heroic status in the teaching of Welsh history. Llywelyn had to pay the English Crown for his regal status under The Treaty of Montgomery, which suggests that Welsh independence had already become something of a chimera by the time of his reign.

Moreover, his self-sought regal status brought more conflict than coherence to Wales. The fact that the lords of regions beyond his own principality, Gwynedd, were suddenly required to owe him homage ex nihilo caused much backlash. Far from bringing unity and stability to Wales, the ‘political project of a Welsh state was seen as a mask of Gwynedd power rather than Welsh independence from England… such was Llywelyn’s unpopularity as Prince of Wales that even his brother Dafydd plotted to kill him’.

Ultimately, Edward 1st‘s invasion and defeat of Wales was caused by the disruption that Llywelyn was causing not only in Wales, but also to the English Crown. He refused to pay the Crown what he owed under the Treaty of Montgomery; refused to obey summons to pay homage to the Monarch; and attempted to marry the daughter of the rebel Simon de Montfort. Thus there is a sense in which Wales’ colonisation was self-inflicted: Edward ‘had reacted to events rather than led them’.

There is no gainsaying that Wales was a colony between its conquest in 1277-1283 and its annexation in 1536-1543. But after 1543, according to Johnes, ‘there was little about Wales that seemed to be a colony’, at least until the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, for the following reasons.

First, the legal sanctions previously imposed on Wales were removed, thereby granting the Welsh the same legal rights as the English. Such legal egalitarianism is hardly in line with the typical manifestations of colonialism. Neither did the Welsh see themselves as colonised, but rather ‘liberated and placed back at the fore of a united Britain’.

Passing by the objection of how Johnes knows what the public attitude was towards the potential colonial implications of Wales’ annexation, let us turn to the significance of the Welsh’s newly-acquired legal equality. Prior to the Acts of Union, Wales had its own legal justice system known as Cyfraith Hywel. Although not codified until the 10th century, Cyfraith Hywel had been in use for several centuries, thus representing a historically-grounded native tradition of justice and dispute resolution. 

The Acts of Union, however, dissolved Cyfraith Hywel, thereby subsuming Wales under English jurisdiction. Moreover, since English was made the language of justice and administration in Wales, anybody who wasn’t a proficient speaker (i.e. the majority of the Welsh population) was excluded from public appointment. Although this may constitute legal egalitarianism in a literal sense, it was nonetheless the imposition of a legal system which was incongruent with the native law it overrode, which itself represented several centuries of Welsh culture and civic tradition. 

An acknowledgement of the broader context of the effect of the Acts of Union, then, reveals that Johnes’ argument against a colonial interpretation is unsound. Johnes claims that the Acts ‘paved the way for… a civic rather than ethnic vision of the nation’; but this is also misleading in that it overlooks the fact that Cyfraith Hywel was already a significant benchmark of a civic identity until its dissolution.

Johnes’ second argument for why post-1543 Wales should not be viewed as a colony is that the Welsh retained their cultural distinctiveness despite the Acts of Union, and ‘there was no state attempt to culturally assimilate the Welsh’. On the contrary, the Acts of Union, which ‘some today regard as an attempt to annexe, assimilate, or even abolish Welsh altogether’, actually strengthened the Welsh language. The Crown’s attempt to secure Anglican uniformity of worship led to the Bible’s translation; which in turn secured the longevity of the Welsh language.

While this account is true, it is also misleading. First, given the Reformation, there is no reason to rule out the counterfactual situation in which the Bible might have been translated anyway. Secondly, the imposition of Protestant Anglicanism on Wales led to the devastation of Wales’ monasteries, thereby uprooting over a millennium’s worth of Welsh Catholic culture and scholarship. This is characteristic, at the very least, of cultural imperialism.

While Johnes is right to point out that Anglicanism ultimately strengthened the Welsh language, this in no way amounts to an argument against the existence of a colonial legacy in post-1543 Wales. Anglicanism’s strengthening of Welsh was simply an unintended side-effect of the Crown’s concern with ensuring that the Welsh embraced Anglicanism. Moreover, as Richard Wyn Jones (2005) has already argued, although there was never an active state attempt to eradicate Wales’ cultural and linguistic differences, it would be naïve to suppose that this was due to an enlightened approach to diversity. Rather, since the continued existence of these differences posed no threat to England’s form of state power, there was no political, bureaucratic or strategic imperative to eradicate them in the first place.

Johnes also denies the existence of a colonial legacy in Wales during and after the Industrial Revolution, for the following reasons. First, much of the capital which came from England remained and was reinvested in Wales. Secondly, the Welsh owned and profited from some slave plantations in the Caribbean. Finally, the British Empire gave them ‘a sense of superiority, power, and even sometimes destiny’.

Although true, the above reasons also fall short of establishing the absence of a colonial legacy. Richard Wyn Jones (2005), for instance, argues that the peripheralization of Wales in Britain’s overall economic development during and after the Industrial Revolution resulted in notable detrimental long-term consequences to Wales’ economic fortunes.

It was mainly the financial services sector that dominated and impacted Britain’s economic trajectory, while Wales remained a ‘supplier of raw materials rather than a growth node in its own right’ (Jones 2005: 31). Consequently, the decline of industry and manufacturing meant that ‘the Welsh social economy was left without any means of setting an alternative course’ (2005: 32), given that she lacked the institutional structure to adapt.

Thus, Johnes’ conclusion that there was no colonial legacy in Wales during this period is a non-sequitur. He only considers contemporaneous accounts; whereas, as Jones has pointed out, longer-term ramifications also need to be considered. 

The Holy Grail that Johnes presents against the existence of a colonial legacy in Wales after the Industrial Revolution is the fact that David Lloyd George was appointed Prime Minister during the First World War. ‘It is a very odd colony that gets to govern its master during a time of war and crisis’.

If it were the literal sense of the term colony that was in question, then Johnes’ remark would indeed conclusively disprove the claim that Wales was a colony during this period. But whoever claimed that Wales was a colony in the exclusive political-constitutional sense after the 16th century? 

There is nothing extraordinary about a member of a peripheralized member-nation of a union-state becoming Prime Minister, particularly considering that Lloyd George was the only Welshman ever appointed out of 75 predecessors. It is only by constantly oscillating between two senses of the word ‘colony’ that Johnes manages to create the impression of relevance. For ‘colonialism’ in the broader sense employed in postcolonial studies concerns not simply political-constitutional relationships, but also the relative imbalances in social, cultural, and power dynamics which tend to characterise postcolonial societies; none of which are undermined by the fact that Lloyd George was appointed Prime Minister.

Concerning Wales in the 20th century, Johnes prolongs the same line of argument found in the rest of the book: ‘There was no attempt to destroy Welsh culture, language or identity but Wales was never a priority for the British state either. This was a geographical, demographic and economic imbalance but it was not colonialism in any traditional sense’. He also continues to stress that Welsh national identity was forged and continually re-created in opposition to England.

Anglicanism, for instance, though originally imposed on Wales, actually strengthened Welsh national identity in the 19th and 20th centuries because non-conformism was seen as a distinguishing mark of the Welsh. The publication of Blue Books, a volume of misleadingly disparaging reports into the state of education in Wales in 1847, caused an uproar which revived Welsh national consciousness. This surge involved the propagation of the idea that Nonconformist Wales – unlike Anglican England – was a ‘devout and religious nation’, and nonconformism came to be viewed as the ‘defining feature of Wales’.

Welsh Nonconformism also led to the dominance of Liberalism in Welsh politics, which coincided with the encouragement of anti-Conservatism via the chapels’ opposition to Anglicanism. This led to a succession of Liberal achievements, including the establishment of the University of Wales (1893), the National Library (1907), the National Museum (1909), and the disestablishment of Anglicanism as Wales’ state religion (1920).

The Liberal-led national resurgence in Wales went hand-in-hand with anti-Conservatism, and this attitude continues to permeate Wales today. Indeed, Margaret Thatcher’s government has been regarded with such distain as to have become entrenched in Welsh national identity. 

One relevant but overlooked fact, however, is that Thatcher’s government did more than any to safeguard the longevity of the Welsh language. Thatcher responded to the protests of Plaid Cymru and its associated pressure group, Cymdeithas yr Iaith, by creating S4C, increasing subsidies to Welsh-language services, and introducing Welsh as a mandatory subject in Welsh schools.

The conclusion to be drawn from these events in recent history, as well as the remainder of the book, is that the survival of the Welsh language is not only indebted to England; Welsh national identity is also inescapably founded in the Welsh’s conscious opposition to the English. Johnes illustrates this much with success; however, a noteworthy omission is the absence of any real acknowledgement of Roman influences on Welsh culture and identity.

Johnes writes of Wales and its national identity as though they both began with the arrival of the Saxons. Until the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, ‘the whole idea of Wales as a nation or kingdom remained invisible’. Thereafter, however, Norman incursions into Wales brought about a new sense of unity; and this was consolidated by the Edwardian Conquest ‘through ending its different kingdoms and giving the Welsh a stronger common identity through persecution and defeat’.

While there is much to be said for this account, it is also misleading. One of the main distinguishing marks of the Welsh / Brythonic peoples from the beginning of the Roman Occupation until long after the collapse of the Roman Empire was that they identified with Roman religion and culture: Romanitas. 

Unlike the new kingdoms of Germanic speakers in Britain which rejected Romanitas, the Welsh continued to view themselves as Roman citizens, as is reflected in the fact that the Germanic settlers referred to them as ‘Welsh’, which means ‘Roman citizen’ (Wade-Evans 1958: 96-98). (Johnes claims that it means ‘foreign or strange’, but this is a common misconception.) 

As J. R. R. Tolkien explains, the Germanic words walh, wealh which the English used referred to Celtic speakers of Latin. This was partly due to a linguistic judgement, reflecting a ‘similarity in style of Latin and Gallo-Brittonic’ (1963: 26). Moreover, not only did the Welsh import a vast array of Latin terms; they also adopted many Latin first names such as Padrig (Patricius), Padarn (Paternus), Emrys (Ambrosius), to name a few.

Johnes’ claim that there was no significant sense of unity or common identity in Wales before 1066, then, is simply not true. Before the arrival of the Saxons, the entire British landmass was occupied by Brythonic (i.e. Welsh’s direct ancestor) speaking peoples, most of whom were Romanised. A shared language and culture are nothing if not distinguishing marks of cultural identity. Moreover, the fact that the Welsh had been referring to themselves as Cymry, ‘comrades’, or ‘fellow-countrymen’ since before the 7th century (Phillimore 1892: 97-101) further consolidates the case for a pre-existing sense of unity. 

The main strength of Johnes’ book is that it continually stresses the opposite side of the coin in relation to the main historical events which are widely taken to be manifestations of English imperialism. In this respect, there is no reason why it shouldn’t achieve what is presumably its desired effect: giving people reason to pause before invoking such events as instances of colonialism. Taken as a sustained argument against the existence of a colonial legacy in Wales since the Acts of Union, however, it is somewhat sketchy and less than convincing in places. 

One source of confusion is that Johnes never defines what he means by colonialism: at times it is treated as a literal political-constitutional relationship; at other times it is treated as a broader concept, encompassing imbalances in social, cultural, and power dynamics. However, Johnes’ constant equivocation between these two senses of the term often means that the question is often framed using the broader sense, while the answer is framed in terms of the narrow sense. 

Another source of confusion is that it is often unclear what criteria Johnes is using to determine whether there has been a colonial legacy in Wales. His discussion often takes the form of a cost/benefit analysis where, if the benefits outweigh the costs, the colonial legacy is ruled out. If the costs outweigh the benefits, the colonial legacy is again denied, though this time with the caveat that ‘the relationship was never one of equals’.

However, it is widely acknowledged that an objective cost/benefit analysis of colonial societies is virtually impossible. Among the challenges, as Bruce Gilley (2017) has recently pointed out, is the appropriate assignment of weights: does justice for women, for instance, sometimes trump the protection of indigenous land rights? 

Another challenge is measuring the counterfactual: what would have happened in the absence of colonial rule (or legacy)? Such an analysis would require measuring ‘not just global social, economic and technological trends but also the likely course of indigenous development, of regional factors’ (Gilley 2017: 2).

A cost/benefit analysis, then, cannot be the sole metric for determining whether a colonial legacy persisted in Wales after the Acts of Union. Colonialism is colonialism, even if the overall benefits sometimes outweigh the costs. 

Technicalities aside, however, Johnes’ book is certainly a much-needed contribution to the public discussion which is in urgent need of enrichment and diversification in Wales’ modern-day programme of nation-building.