The Bards of Wales   Leave a comment

In the period between the death of Llewelyn the Last, the first and last Welsh Prince of Wales, and the Norman Conquest of England, Wales had become prey to both Viking and Saxon incursions. The King of Mercia, Offa, had constructed a dyke, or ditch and bank, along the unofficial boundary between his Kingdom and the Welsh territories, which roughly marks much of the Welsh-English border to this day. After the successful conquest of the nascent English Kingdom by William ‘the Bastard’ of Normandy, his barons had grabbed land in Welsh territories by similar ruthless conquest. They then extended their control up the river valleys so that, by the beginning of the twelfth century, they controlled much of Wales, building castles as they went and mixing and marrying with the Welsh to establish themselves as Norman-Welsh overlords, speaking Norman-French and Welsh, but little or no English. They were, nevertheless, vassals of the Norman-English king.

The only Welsh who were relatively free from Norman rule lived in Gwynedd, the wild, mountainous area around ‘Eryri’ or Snowdonia. They were led by Llewelyn ap Gruffydd, who tried to become independent of the Norman-English king. Edward I, ‘Hammer of the Scots’, was determined to bring him to heel and bring the whole of Wales under his control. In 1282, Llewelyn was drawn out of his ‘eagle’s lair’, trapped by Edward’s knights at Cilmeri, and killed. Edward immediately began the task of building a circle of impregnable castles around the north and in 1284 annexed the rest of the west, imposing the Norman shire system on the newly-conquered lands. However, he left the Norman-Welsh lords in charge of their lands, including the ‘Marcher lords’ along the border, not wanting to risk a full-scale rebellion. The northern Welsh suffered further humiliation when, at a public ceremony from the ramparts of his newly-built fortress in Caernarfon, he presented his infant son (later Edward II) to them as ‘Prince of Wales’.

The nineteenth-century Hungarian poet, János Arany, used these incidents to write an allegorical poem called A Walesi Bárdok‘, (‘the Bards of Wales‘). In it, Edward arrives in Montgomery to survey his new territories, but fails to find a warm greeting among the lords. He demands a bard to praise his deeds at the banquet, but is only sung to in the following terms:

“the brave were killed, just as you willed,

or languish in your gaols;                                                                                                         

to hail your name or sing your fame,

you’ll find no bard in Wales”

After executing this bard, he sends out to find a bard who will sing to propose ‘the loyal toast’ on pain of being sent to a similar fate at the stake. All together, five hundred are burnt;

but none would sing to cheer the king,

the loyal toast to raise.

So Edward returns to London, only to find himself haunted by the singing of those he has martyred:

But over drums and piercing fifes, 

beyond the soldiers’ hails,

They swell the song, five hundred strong,

those martyred bards of Wales.

János Arany is, of course, writing for a Hungarian audience, following the brutal suppression by the Austrian Hapsburgs of the 1848-49 Uprising against their rule, in which many Hungarian ‘bards’ were involved and many were martyred. They are remembered on a national holiday in the middle of March. The message of the poem, that ‘you can’t stop us singing’ is a theme I shall be taking up in my next blog,on the Welsh exiles of the 1920s and 30s.

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