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J.E.Lloyd and the Creation of Welsh History


Renewing a Nation’s Past


Huw Pryce


Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2011

Paperback. xvii+277pp. ISBN 978-0-7083-2388-5. £19.99


Reviewed by Kenneth O. Morgan

The Queen’s College, Oxford



All nations need an awareness of their history. This is even more true of what Marx called the ‘unhistoric’ nations, like the Slovaks or Slovenes (not to mention the Bretons), and it certainly applies to Wales. Huw Pryce’s fascinating and powerfully-researched study of J.E. Lloyd, the great medieval historian, is therefore especially welcome since, before Lloyd’s two volumes on the history of Wales from the earliest times down to the conquest by Edward I in 1283 appeared in 1911, the written history of Wales in any serious sense cannot be said to have existed. Major nations already possessed a serious historical canon and had done for decades, perhaps centuries. The English had Macaulay, the French Michelet, amongst many others, to provide an established narrative, with fact and legend interwoven, of their nation’s past. Wales, a far poorer, less powerful, geographically marginal nation, with no university institutions until 1872 and no tradition of sustained historical teaching let alone research, had nothing of the kind. Lloyd’s achievement was, therefore, an astonishing one. Some called him the Welsh Pirenne, but in fact the Belgian Henri Pirenne, trained at Paris, Leipzig and Berlin, had access to a community of international historians and European schools of scholarship remote from the experience of John Lloyd in Wales. He was truly a pioneer and his legacy was unique. Along with his contemporaries, the famous grammarian Sir John Morris Jones and the authority on medieval poetry and prose, Sir Ifor Williams, Lloyd helped to create that indispensable tripod—history, language and literature—on which any nation’s sense of cultural identity must ultimately rest.

Huw Pryce illuminates his career in two ways. The first section surveys Lloyd’s long career from the late Victorian period down to beyond the Second World War. The second section analyses his writings and methodology. From the start, Lloyd was deeply influenced by the national consciousness that welled up in Wales in the years between the “great election” of 1868 and the First World War. Although born and brought up in Liverpool, as part of the Welsh diaspora to that city, he shared fully the sense of Welsh nationhood at the time of which David Lloyd George, whom he knew, was the most celebrated icon. Lloyd became close friends of Liberal politicians such as Tom Ellis and Llywelyn Williams, and shared their political and cultural aspirations notably disestablishment of the Welsh church and zeal for education, including in the Welsh language. Like his friends he was staunchly nonconformist in religion; his view of Welsh nationality linked it with the influence of nonconformity in the land since the Methodist revival of the eighteenth century. He was an austere family man and a teetotaller of overpowering moral respectability. It is with some surprise that one reads of his seeing (and presumably enjoying) Marlene Dietrich in the distinctly liberated Blue Angel.

He began his career in 1877 as a sixteen-year-old student at the fledgling University College of Wales recently founded on the sea-front at Aberystwyth. His first post was as lecturer there (though Welsh history was not yet on the syllabus) but his main role was in Bangor, where he served as secretary, registrar and shortly professor from 1891 until his retirement in 1930. Higher education in Wales thus gave him a base denied Arthur le Moyne de la Borderie, the historian of those other Brythonic Celts in Brittany. Lloyd became a powerful intellectual influence in the new University of Wales, creating in time the Board of Celtic Studies to promote the study of history, law and literary studies, and ending up as editor of the Dictionary of Welsh Biography. He was garlanded with honours, though a bid for the principalship of Aberystwyth in 1919 was unsuccessful. But Lloyd’s sense of nationalism was always restrained by something else—what he called “the scientific” approach to history which he imbibed at Oxford through Stubbs, Freeman and others. History for Lloyd should be dispassionate in its handling of evidence, it should combat legend and never be propagandist. He saw history as giving legitimacy to the sense of nationhood, but, unlike other nationalist historians, notably in Germany and Italy, Lloyd never used his scholarship to promote an overt ideological campaign. He was no populariser and no crusader. He remained scholarly and detached to the end, and so his work endured.

Huw Pryce’s analysis of Lloyd’s masterpiece, his two-volume opus on pre-Conquest Wales in 1911 is illuminating. It was magisterial, in effect a grand narrative which made meticulous use of the available printed evidence. Lloyd spent twenty years in preparing it; he never produced anything of similar magnitude again in the remaining thirty-six years of his life, although there is much fascination in his published Oxford Ford lectures on the fifteenth-century national leader, Owain Glyndwr (1931). Nor did Lloyd see any need to revise his basic conclusions in subsequent editions of his History (no-one else has, either). From the start, his work emphasises the distinct evolution of the Welsh people and their ethnic and cultural identity. He does so with pioneering interdisciplinary research, drawing on the human sciences of archaeology, topography, ethnology and philology. He shows also a profound grasp of medieval law. Remarkably, he devoted his first volume to the prehistory of the Welsh peoples, which he saw as a formative epoch in national development. He showed how distinctive the Welsh were, how unaffected by the influence of the Romans, ever since the Brythonic Celts reinforced the separate evolution of the Welsh as an identifiable people from Neolithic times. Lloyd played down the idea of racial inheritance. He thus broke away from much contemporary nonsense (visible in Matthew Arnold, for instance) on the cultural contrast between the Teuton and the Celt. Welsh distinctiveness was also bolstered by the role of the medieval Church (on which the nonconformist Lloyd writes sympathetically) in establishing monasteries (Cistercian especially) as centres of a native religious tradition and in fighting for ecclesiastical independence from the Normans. Pastoral patterns of tribal settlement in this mountainous land reinforced a thrust towards political independence. And always, the strongest evidence for a continuing Welsh identity lay in the robust survival of the language.  

Most important of all, in his second volume, Lloyd focusses on political leadership by kings and princes, and their success in promoting the “common good” (i.e. Welsh patriotism). Gruffydd ap Llewelyn (ob. 1063) is hailed as rejuvenating the national spirit of his people. Lloyd’s greatest hero is Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, “Llywelyn the Great” (c. 1173-1240), prince of Gwynedd. He was a proto-Welsh home ruler, who showed qualities of character and political judgement that both kindled a sense of national unity in Wales and also impacted upon the England of King John (three of Magna Carta’s articles concerned Wales). By contrast, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, the last prince of Wales routed by Edward I, is dealt with more severely. Still, Lloyd is convinced that Wales emerged from the Middle Ages with its sense of national identity intact. Later great transformations—the Methodist revival and the industrial revolution—built on these secure foundations.

Welsh history has shown a dramatic renaissance since 1960. It has inevitably moved on since J.E. Lloyd. He relied almost wholly on printed sources, medieval calendars and chronicles and the like; historians now focus on manuscripts and the public archives. Lloyd’s essentially political account is less authoritative on social and economic aspects, so central to the work on Welsh history today. Lloyd wrote basically an integrating narrative focussing on the development of Welsh nationhood, not on themes or problems common across societies. He was, in this sense, a Jules Michelet, not a Marc Bloch or a Braudel. Most important, Lloyd never wrote on anything much after the fifteenth century. Wales, unlike Scotland, had never been a sovereign state, and the orthodoxy of the day saw the traditional nation state as the proper object of historical inquiry.

Today Welsh historians plunge boldly into contemporary themes. There are many major works now on Wales beyond the First, and indeed the Second World War; recent eminences such as Lloyd George or Aneurin Bevan have been integrated into the narrative of their nation’s story, as has Plaid Cymru, the nationalist party . But without Lloyd’s secure foundations, nothing much would have got off the ground. Nor was it simply a matter of detached scholarship. Lloyd was a Welsh patriot as understood by his Victorian contemporaries; his work, along with other simultaneous achievements in culture, the arts, education, social, economic and political organisation, helped in the rebirth of Wales as a nation. This was Wales’s Antonine Age. Later historians have followed him in showing that Wales has had a continuous, coherent past. This has been a subterranean factor in the successful achievement of devolution. For, if you are convinced that your nation has a credible past, it is likely to have a viable present and future as well. Lloyd’s successors, as objective scholars not as ideologues, would still identify with the ideals of the national movement of his time—Cymru Fydd, the Wales that is to be.




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