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September 1939 (II): All at Sea – Naval Developments & Diplomacy; Appendices – Documents and Debates.   Leave a comment

Political Reaction to the Polish War in Britain:

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Even at the very late hour of August 1939, there were some ministers who publicly argued for the continuation of the appeasement policy. War is not only not inevitable, said Sir Thomas Inskip, the Minister for Defence Co-ordination, seeking to reassure the British public, but it is unlikely. R A (Richard Austen) Butler, later responsible for the 1944 Education Act, then Under Secretary of State at the Foreign Office, praised Harold Nicolson’s Penguin Special book as a work of art and perfectly correct. As the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax sat in the Lords, Butler was the Government’s spokesman in the Commons, valiantly defending its policy. An enthusiastic Chamberlainite, he regarded Munich not as a means of buying time but as a way of settling differences with Hitler. An unrepentant appeaser down to the outbreak of war, Butler even opposed the Polish alliance signed on 25 August, claiming it would have a bad psychological effect on Hitler. Critics of Chamberlain’s post-Prague policy for ignoring the necessity of encirclement thus found common cause with the ardent appeasers, though Butler himself remained loyal to Chamberlain, even after his final fall from grace. He blamed the Prime Minister’s demise and ultimate disgrace on the growing influence of Sir Horace Wilson at this time, as, for different reasons, did Nicolson.

However, even the tiny window of ‘encirclement’ was soon shut and shuttered by the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. For those on the Left of British politics, both inside Parliament and out,  this represented an unthinkable nightmare and spelt the immediate decapitation of the idea of a Popular Front with communism against the Fascist threat. In particular, Nicolson’s argument for an alliance with the Soviet Union was suddenly invalidated. When he heard of it, Harold Nicolson was, like Drake at the time of the Spanish Armada, on Plymouth Sound. He rushed back to London, to hear Chamberlain’s statement to the House. The PM was like a coroner summing up a murder case, Harold suggested. Although sympathetic to Chamberlain’s hopeless plight, he agreed with the verdict of Lloyd George and Churchill that the PM was a hopeless old crow… personally to blame for this disaster. 

002As Hitler wasted no time in crossing the border into Poland at daybreak on 1 September, the moral and diplomatic disaster became a military reality. Later the same day, Churchill was asked to join a small War Cabinet, a sign to all that Chamberlain had finally accepted that reality and now meant business. When the PM addressed the House that evening, visibly under tremendous emotional stress, he read out the allied dispatch sent to Berlin. This contained the familiar words that unless Germany gave a firm pledge to suspend all military activities and to withdraw its troops from Poland, Britain would instantly honour its obligations. However, there was no time limit attached to the word ‘instantly’ at this stage, so the dispatch could not be read as anything more than a warning. It was not an ultimatum. Apparently, this was largely due to the procrastination of the French Government, which, even at this late hour, was hoping for another Munich Conference to be held within 48 hours.

When the House met again the next evening, Chamberlain’s statement was still loosely-phrased.  Was there to be another Munich? was the unspoken question in everyone’s mind, if not on their lips. When the opposition spokesman, Arthur Greenwood, rose to speak, there were shouts from the Tory benches urging him to Speak for Britain. Chamberlain turned around to his own backbenches as if stung. The House adjourned in indescribable confusion and the Cabinet reconvened in Downing Street on what, by all accounts, was literally a very stormy night. The Cabinet decided to present the ultimatum at nine in the morning in Berlin, to expire two hours later. Chamberlain ended the meeting with the words Right, gentlemen..this means war, quietly spoken, after which there was a deafening thunderclap.

As Chamberlain himself remarked soon afterwards, no German answer to the allied ultimatum was forthcoming before 11 a.m. on the third. Harold Nicolson attended a gathering of the Eden group. At 11.15 they heard Chamberlain’s announcement. For them, as for the masses of British people listening, it seemed like the present did not exist, only the future and the past. What could any of them, with all their grandness and wealth, do now? In a strained and disgusted voice, Chamberlain told a benumbed British people that, after all, they were now at war with Germany. As if a harbinger of the nine-month ‘phoney war’ which was to follow, the air-raid siren sounded the last of the Thirties’ false alarms. In the chamber of the House of Commons, an ill-looking Prime Minister made a ‘restrained speech’. As Nicolson drove out of London towards his home at Sissinghurst in Kent, a convoy of evacuees overtook them. From one of the trucks, an elderly lady accompanying the children leaned out, shook her fist, and shouted, it is all the fault of the rich.  There was a real sense in which both the war itself and its aftermath, became a class war in which the aristocratic control of politics which had helped to cause it, was jettisoned by the British people.

British diplomats were even less enthusiastic about the prospect of conflict with the Soviet Union than the politicians. In a secret telegram to the Foreign Office, the British ambassador to Moscow, Sir William Seeds, wrote:

I do not myself see what advantage war with the Soviet Union would be to us, though it would please me personally to declare it on M. Molotov. …the Soviet invasion of Poland is not without advantages to us in the long run, for it will entail the keeping of a large army on a war footing outside Russia consuming food and petrol and wearing out material and transport, thus reducing German hopes of military or food supplies.

In a public statement on 20 September, however, the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain spoke to the House of Commons about the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland:

For the unhappy victim of this cynical attack, the result has been a tragedy of the grimmest character. The world which has watched the vain struggle of the Polish nation against overwhelming odds with profound pity and sympathy admires their valour, which even now refuses to admit defeat. … There is no sacrifice from which we will not shrink, there is no operation we will not undertake provided our responsible advisers, our Allies, and we ourselves are convinced that it will make an appropriate contribution to victory. But what we will not do is to rush into adventures that offer little prospect of success and are calculated to impair our resources and to postpone ultimate victory.

Fine words, but not matched by action. After the signing of the German-Soviet border treaty in Moscow a week later, Sir William revised his opinion in a telegram of 30 September:

It must be borne in mind that if war continues any considerable time, the Soviet part of Poland will, at its close, have been purged of any non-Soviet population or classes whatever, and that it may well be consequently impossible, in practice, to separate it from the rest of Russia. …our war aims are not incompatible with reasonable settlement on ethnographic and cultural lines.

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On the face of it, this was an incredible suggestion. The Soviet Union had just invaded and was subjugating the eastern territories of a nation to which Britain had given its pledge of protection, yet a senior diplomat was privately suggesting that this aggression should be immediately rewarded. Back in London, another senior diplomat, Sir Ivone Kirkpatrick endorsed Seeds views in a report produced on 1 October to which he appended a sketch map of Poland, pointing out that the new Soviet-imposed border mostly followed the ‘Curzon Line’ proposed by the British Foreign Secretary in 1919, which had been rejected by both the Poles and Bolsheviks at the time.

The picture on the right shows German officers discussing with a Soviet officer (far left) the demarcation line between their various pieces of conquered territory after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact and the invasion of Poland from west and east. 

Nevertheless, there were many among the general population in Britain who were bemused as to why their country had not declared war on the Soviet Union. If the British treaty to protect Poland from aggression had resulted in war with the Germans, why hadn’t it also triggered a war with the USSR? What they were not aware of was that it was not only the Nazi-Soviet pact which had a secret clause, but also the 1939 Anglo-Polish treaty. That clause specifically limited the obligation to protect Poland from ‘aggression’ to that initiated by Germany.

The ‘Phoney War’ and the War at Sea:

The sixth-month hiatus between the end of the Polish campaign in October 1939 and Hitler’s sudden invasion of Denmark and Norway on 9 April 1940 is known as ‘the Phoney War’. With little going on in the West on land and in the skies, the British and French publics were lulled into thinking that the war was not truly a matter of life and death for them in the way it obviously was for the Poles, and their daily existence was carried on substantially as usual, in all its bureaucracy, inefficiency and occasional absurdity. The National Labour MP Harold Nicolson recorded in his war diaries that the Ministry of Information censors had refused to publish the wording of a leaflet, of which two million copies had been dropped over Germany, on the grounds that… We are not allowed to disclose information that might be of value to the enemy.

The map below shows the full details of the war at sea, 1939-45:

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There was nothing phoney about the war at sea, however. It was perfectly true that the British Air Minister Sir Kingsley Wood made the asinine remark that the RAF should not bomb munitions dumps in the Black Forest because so much of it was private property, but at sea, there were no such absurdities. As early as 19 August, U-boat captains were sent a coded signal about a submarine officers’ reunion which directed them to take up their positions around the British Isles in readiness for imminent action. Within nine hours of the declaration of war, the British liner SS Athenia was torpedoed on its way from Glasgow to Montreal, with 1,400 passengers on board, the captain of U-30 mistaking the ship for an armed merchant cruiser. Had they hit the radio mast, and the SOS signal not been transmitted, many more than the 112 passengers would have perished. A Czech survivor recalled:

There was a column of water near the ship and a black thing like a cigar shot over the sea towards us. There was a bang, and then I saw men on the submarine turn a gun and fire it.

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above: a poster recruiting for the German submarine service. Submarine attack was the main activity of the German Navy during the war, and it succeeded in reducing allied tonnage substantially. Submariners were often absent for up to eighteen months and returned weather-beaten and bearded. Casualties were very high. Some seventy per cent of all submariners were killed.

Neither side was prepared for sea warfare in 1939, but neither could ignore the lessons of the 1914-18 sea war: the German High Seas Fleet had remained largely inactive, while the U-boats had brought Britain perilously close to catastrophe. In the U-boat, Germany had deployed a potentially war-winning weapon, and there was no reason not to attempt to use it more decisively in a second war. For Britain, the Battle of the Atlantic was the longest and most critical of World War Two; defeat would have forced Britain out of the war and made US intervention in Europe impossible. Airpower was also crucial in the battle of the Atlantic. German spotter aircraft could locate convoys and guide U-boats to their targets, while land-based air patrols and fighters launched by catapult from convoy ships provided essential protection. While Germany had entered the war with a number of particularly capital ships, including three purpose-built ‘pocket battleship’ commerce raiders and two powerful modern battleships, there were always too few to challenge the Royal Navy directly. Instead, Germany was once again to use its limited naval resources to attack Britain’s sea communications. The capital ships were used as raiders against British commercial vessels. Nevertheless, tracking down and destroying these threats severely stretched British naval resources. The pocket battleship Graf Spee enjoyed considerable success at the beginning of the war.

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Just as in the previous war, however, it was the U-boat that was to provide the greatest danger to Britain’s supply lines, causing Churchill intense anxiety as First Lord of the Admiralty. Had Hitler given first priority in terms of funding to his U-boat fleet on coming to power in 1933, rather than to the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe, he might have built a force that would have strangled and starved Britain into surrender. As it was, the navy was the weakest of Germany’s armed services when war broke out. Against the twenty-two battleships and eighty-three cruisers of the French and British navies, Germany had only three small ‘pocket’ battleships and eight cruisers. Early in the war, the German Navy under Admiral Erich Raeder recognised that the submarine offered the only effective German action at sea. In 1939 there were only 57 U-boats available, and not all of these were suitable for the Atlantic.  They had limited underwater range and spent most of their time on the surface, where they were vulnerable to Coastal command bombers. However, under Admiral Karl Dönitz the submarine arm expanded rapidly and soon took a steady toll of Allied shipping. To Dönitz, as commander of the U-boat fleet, it was a simple question of arithmetic: Britain depended on supplies that were carried by a fleet of about three thousand ocean-going merchant ships, and these could carry about seventeen million tonnes. If he could keep sufficient U-boats at sea and sink enough of this tonnage, Britain would be forced to capitulate. He had devised tactics to overcome the convoys, based on the simple concept of overwhelming the escorts. Dönitz introduced a new tactic to undersea warfare, with the ‘wolf packs’ hunting at night linked by radio, often attacking on the surface and at close range. But Dönitz simply did not have enough boats to launch sufficient attacks in groups.

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above: Convoy with escorts, seen at sunset in the Atlantic in July 1942. The adoption of the convoy system was a key element in defeating the U-boat threat.

At the same time, the British had made very few preparations. The first of hundreds of Atlantic convoys left Halifax, Nova Scotia, on 15 September. Learning the doleful lessons of the Great War, the convoy system was adhered to rigidly by the British between 1939 and 1945, even for ships moving along the coastline between Glasgow and the Thames. Destroyers, frigates and corvettes used an echo-sounding device called ASDIC (named after the Allied Submarine Detection Investigation Committee) to try to track U-boats, while the convoys’ merchantmen sailed together within a protective cordon. But although it was initially seen as a complete solution to the U-boat threat, it proved less than perfect and was only really effective at ranges of two hundred to a thousand metres, when most U-boats were operating on the surface in any case. Britain’s escort fleet had been allowed to run down to such an extent that Churchill was prepared to trade valuable bases in the West Indies and Newfoundland in return for fifty obsolete American destroyers. Perhaps even more damaging was the misuse of resources: the Royal Navy insisted on largely futile attempts to hunt down U-boats instead of concentrating on escorting convoys.

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above: a depth charge explodes astern of a Royal Navy ship hunting for a submerged U-boat. Dropped from surface ships, depth charges could cause fatal damage to a submarine, but they had a limited effective range.

The convoys also adopted a zig-zagging route, the better to outfox their submerged foes. Overall the system was another success, but when a waiting U-boat ‘wolf-pack’ broke through, the losses among the huddled merchantmen could be correspondingly high, and on one occasion as many as half of the vessels were sent to the bottom. The Royal Navy started the war with only five aircraft carriers and so merchant shipping lacked essential air protection out at sea. RAF Coastal Command was left critically short of aircraft because of the priority given to Bomber Command, and the flying boats it received did not have enough range – there remained a gap in the central Atlantic where no air patrols were possible; the ‘Greenland gap’, where U-boats could congregate in relative safety. This was the period that the Germans referred to as the ‘happy time’ when their losses were slight and successes high. In a desperate attempt to extend the range of Britain’s air patrols, Churchill offered the Irish government unification with Northern Ireland in exchange for the use of bases in Lough Swilly, Cobb and Berehaven, but it insisted on maintaining its strict neutrality in the war.

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above: as in the First World War, German leaders gambled on knocking Britain out of the conflict by a submarine blockade. The map above shows the details of the first phase of this.

On 17 September the veteran HMS Courageous was sunk in the Western Approaches by two torpedoes by two torpedoes from U-29, which had already sunk three tankers. She slipped beneath the Hebridean waves in less than fifteen minutes, with only half of her thousand-strong crew being saved, some after an hour in the North Atlantic, where they kept up their morale by singing popular songs of the day such as ‘Roll out the Barrel’ and ‘Show Me the Way to Go Home’. One survivor recalled that the sea was so thick with oil we might have been swimming in treacle.

Why Britain was at War:

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After motoring home to Sissinghurst with Victor Cazalet on 3 September, Harold Nicolson found his sons waiting for him. Ben, aged twenty-five, thought the news ‘a tragedy’, an unwelcome interruption to his studies; Nigel, three years younger, who had just ‘come down’ from Oxford, ‘was immensely exhilarated’. Both were of an age to serve in the army; and both did, until final victory in the spring of 1945. In a symbolic act for what lay ahead, the flag flying above the Elizabethan Tower in the Sissinghurst garden was lowered. No sooner had the war started than Harold Nicolson was asked by Allen Lane, head of Penguin Books, to explain to the nation Why Britain is at War. He wrote the fifty-thousand-word Penguin Special in three weeks. Michael Sadleir, Harold’s regular publisher, called it ‘a masterpiece’. An instant success, it soon sold over a hundred thousand copies. Harold denied that the iniquities of the Versailles treaty had propelled Hitler to power, as so often presumed, claiming that by 1922 a majority of the German people had reconciled themselves to the treaty. By recklessly occupying the Ruhr in 1923, against British advice, French President Poincaré’s adventurism had galvanised German nationalist fervour, destroyed the German middle class and paved the way for the rise of Hitler. These arguments took little account of the first German economic miracle of the mid-twenties or the devastating effects of the world economic crisis of 1929. Nor was it prudent to reproach past leaders of Britain’s only ally in its war of survival against Nazi Germany, even if it was partly blameworthy.

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Harold was on firmer ground when he moved away from contemporary German history to justifying Britain’s motives for going to war. He wrote of a small island nation dependent for its survival not only on protecting the sea lanes to its imperial possessions but also on preserving the balance of power on the European mainland. Germany, then and now, threatened to violate these immutable principles. Britain’s reaction by going to war was prompted by a sound biological instinct … the instinct of self-preservation. By vividly contrasting the savage nature of the Nazi dictatorship, its ‘ruthless nihilism’, with the British conception of ‘decency and fairness’. Harold introduced a moral dimension to the conflict:

We entered this war to defend ourselves. We shall continue to, to its bitter end, in order to save humanity. … Only by imposing a just peace, one that does not outrage their pride or drive them to desperation can we guarantee thirty years to establish a new world order so powerful that even Germany will not dare to defy it.

But what kind of ‘new world order?’ It turned on rectifying the defects of the League of Nations, of organising its own armed forces and the need for its members to sacrifice a degree of national sovereignty. Harold looked forward optimistically to a ‘United States of Europe’, but whether Britain would play an active part in it remained a moot point. On one point, however, Harold was crystal clear: a social revolution was pending. Whatever the outcome of the war, we can be certain that the rich will lose … Their privileges and fortunes will go. His premonition that the war would generate ‘class warfare’, that the prerogatives of his class would be severely eroded, if not entirely swept away, haunted him throughout the war. Nicolson’s critique of Chamberlain’s diplomacy, and in particular the ruinous influence of Sir Horace Wilson may have found praise from R. A. Butler as wholly valid. But Butler remained loyal to Chamberlain, even after the PM’s downfall, describing Churchill as the greatest political adventurer of modern political history. Harold may have felt flattered, temporarily, by Butler’s words, but he would gain a more lasting satisfaction from knowing that his record of Britain’s misguided diplomacy had struck a sympathetic chord in hundreds of thousands of readers.

Harold wanted to find a wartime job commensurate with his talents. The Foreign Office, impressed by the success of Why Britain is at War, was keen that he should strengthen its Political Intelligence Department. Halifax was enthusiastic to make the appointment, but it was opposed by Horace Wilson, whom Nicolson had identified as a ‘chief sinner’ in the failure of British diplomacy. Nor did Harold make a significant impact in Parliament, where he had been elected as a National Labour MP in 1935. Apart from occasional questions about the activity of German propagandists in Britain, he remained silent. The Eden Group made up of Conservative dissidents, but with Harold in constant attendance, still functioned, usually over dinner at the Carlton Club. The general feeling of the company as autumn progressed was that Chamberlain had to be removed and replaced by Churchill. It remained an ineffectual group, however, which would only act when exceptional circumstances left it no option. Like many of his associates, Nicolson was in despair at Chamberlain’s lacklustre leadership. When urged to attack ‘these people at the helm’, he wavered, unwilling to disrupt national unity at that stage. Even so, no-one could deny that the war was going badly. Poland had fallen in less than a month, partitioned along the old Curzon line between Germany and the Soviet Union. In the west, the Allies were reluctant to take offensive action and Nicolson grew increasingly gloomy about the prospects of Britain, with France, emerging victorious from the conflict. However, even Harold could not help but be encouraged by immediate British successes at sea. He prematurely recorded that we have won the war at sea.

Appendices:

Historical Interpretation: Why was British resistance to Hitler left so late?

The historian Arthur Marwick emphasised the assumption, made by Chamberlain and others, that, regardless of their hateful ideologies and propaganda, Hitler and Mussolini were basically rational men who would keep their word, provided their main grievances were met. This assumption was not finally shaken until the occupation of Prague in March 1939. Borrowing a phrase from A J P Taylor’s Origins of the Second World War, he suggests that the Western statesmen believed that once the cloud of phrases which enveloped Fascist policy had been pushed aside there would be a foundation of goodwill on which a modus vivendi might be built. Both the dictators and the Western statesmen moved in the fog of their own beliefs and systems so that there was little fundamental understanding of each side’s position and precious little real communication. Sooner or later, therefore, a collision was almost inevitable. Arnold Toynbee, who had himself met Hitler, summed up this psychological gulf between the dictators and the Western statesmen:

An English observer who paid frequent visits to Germany during the span of six and three-quarter years that intervened between Hitler’s advent to power in Germany…and the outbreak of war…had the uncanny impression, as he made the short physical journey…that within these narrow limits of space and time, he was travelling between two worlds which were momentarily both in existence side by side, but which could not go on thus co-existing because they were morally so far apart as to be incompatible in the long run.

At the same time, the democracies were themselves divided between Left and Right just at the time when national unity was most needed in Britain and France. Although after the Prague coup the Pacifist tide was in sudden retreat, it is impossible to overestimate its significance prior to that event. The revulsion felt towards war was so strong that not even the series of German and Italian successes from 1935 onwards was enough to bring about the fundamental division in European opinions which manifested itself after the occupation of Prague. These divisions, especially in France, help to explain why there was no real attempt to resist Nazi Germany until 1939, and further encouraged Hitler in his belief that the Western powers were too weak to resist him. Added to this, the ideological conflict in Spain had served to distract attention from Hitler’s designs in central and eastern Europe in the previous three years.

Partly as a result of the Spanish conflict, a strategic alliance with the Soviet Union was not seen as a realistic possibility until after Hitler’s Prague coup of 14-15 March. Prior to this turning point, Soviet communism was still viewed as the greater of the two ideological evils. Hence Neville Chamberlain’s persistent attempts from May 1937 onwards to woo first Mussolini and then Hitler. Direct bilateral negotiations with the dictators seemed to be the only way to break the diplomatic deadlock. To resurrect the traditional alliance system, including Russia, would, it was argued, play into Hitler’s hands by allowing him to claim that Germany was being encircled again. However, it was this fear that actually played into his hands, because it enabled him to isolate and deal separately with his potential opponents. Moreover, it was the rumours of war which followed Prague, of impending German action against Poland and Romania, now entirely believable, which helped to reinforce the sea-change in mood which hardened and grew firmer throughout the summer of 1939.

It is also arguable whether, after the Munich Agreement, the rump Czechoslovak state was at all viable, never mind defensible. Relations between Czechs and Slovaks, who had never had more than the similarity of their languages in common, had reached a low point. The harsh reality was that the experimental state of Czechoslovakia, brought into being at Versailles out of the ruins of the Hapsburg Empire, had to be written off. The only consolation for Chamberlain was that he had been able to demonstrate to important non-European opinion, that he had gone to the limits of reasonableness in pursuing the course that they had wanted, that Europe should work out its own salvation without calling on them to intervene, either diplomatically or militarily. After the Prague coup, the attitude of the British Dominions also began to change from the detachment shown six months earlier. This was crucial, as Britain could not go to war with the rearmed Reich without its Empire, especially at sea.

Despite the evidence of his critics, after the Prague debácle, Chamberlain became more defiant and determined in public, and his Cabinet was less nervous at the prospect of war than they had been at the time of the Munich Crisis. The military and intelligence reports were more encouraging and the Anglo-French relationship was better and more active than it had been.  At the end of 1936, Lord Vantissart had written, privately, that it was the job of the Foreign Office to hold the ring until 1939. They now felt confident enough to give a guarantee to the Polish government. This was a remarkable reversal of an attitude to central Europe held by all previous British governments. Perhaps it was given because, unlike Czechoslovakia, the Polish corridor meant that Poland was not land-locked and was therefore of direct interest to the British Empire, over which it now gained a measure of influence. However, there was little more, in reality, that Britain could do to preserve the independence or integrity of Poland in the event of a German attack. Moreover, the guarantee was not given in order to preclude German-Polish negotiation, but as a general warning to Hitler that Britain intended to make a stand. This warning was still vague enough for Hitler to believe that when it came to a crisis, Britain would back down, just as it had done over the Sudetenland.

If Britain and France had not pursued appeasement so vigorously for so long, there might have been some chance of an Anglo-French-Soviet alliance, though the price demanded by the Russians might have been too high.  Nevertheless, one further step Chamberlain had authorised after Prague was the opening of negotiations with Moscow.  All his instincts had previously recoiled from this step, both because of his dislike for the Soviet state and a belief that ‘encirclement’ would be counter-productive. The Anglo-Soviet discussions were slow and protected over the summer. There were sticking points, among them the status of the three independent Baltic republics and Polish concerns about Moscow’s intentions. A greater sense of urgency might have brought success, but the effort came to a dramatic halt on 23 August with the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact in Moscow.

Until that point, Stalin and Molotov were still prepared to consider a treaty of mutual assistance with Britain and France. But there were problems from the very start, since – in contrast to the attitude of Ribbentrop – the Western Allies were perceived as dawdling through the process of negotiations. The Soviet Ambassador to London had asked whether British Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, would go to Moscow that summer to discuss matters directly with Molotov, but the British despatched a minor official and an obscure admiral instead who left England on a merchant ship at the beginning of August which took four days to arrive in Leningrad. Once the British delegation arrived in Moscow, the Soviets soon found evidence to confirm their London ambassador’s report that the delegates will not be able to make any decisions on the spot. … This does not promise any particular speed in the conduct of the negotiations. In fact, before he left for Moscow, Admiral Drax had been specifically told by Chamberlain and Halifax that in case of any difficulties with the Soviets he should try to string the negotiations out until October when winter conditions would make a Nazi invasion of Poland difficult. The British hoped that the mere threat of an alliance with the Soviet Union might act as a deterrent to the Germans.

Laurence Rees (2003) has suggested that it is not hard to see what caused the British to take their lackadaisical approach to negotiations with the Soviets. In the first place, British foreign policy had been predicated for years on the basis that a friendly relationship with Germany was of more value than an accommodation with the Soviet Union. Not only did many British loathe Stalin’s régime on ideological grounds, but there was also little confidence, in August 1939, in the power and utility of the Soviet armed forces. Moreover, the question of Poland was an obstacle in itself to the British reaching any kind of comprehensive agreement with the Soviet Union, as it was to in 1944. The British knew that for any military treaty to have meaning, the Soviets would have to be given permission to cross the Polish border to fight the Germans if, as looked likely, the Nazis decided to invade. But the Poles themselves were against any such idea. In the face of this impasse, the British delegation adopted the understandable, but ultimately self-defeating tactic of simply ignoring the subject whenever the question of Poland and its territorial integrity came up in discussion. When the Soviet Marshal Voroshilov asked directly on 14 August if the Red Army would be allowed to enter Poland in order to engage the Nazis, the Allied delegation made no reply.

However, Rees has also argued out that we must not run away with the idea that Stalin and the Soviet leadership were somehow driven into the hands of the Nazis by British and French misjudgment. Ultimately, the Western Allies had very little to offer the Soviets at the bargaining table. Stalin had no motivation for the Red Army being ‘drawn into conflict’ to help out other, unsympathetic régimes out of their self-created difficulties. He was just as much opposed to Britain and France, dominated by big business and oppressing the working people, as he was to Nazi Germany. On the other hand, the Nazis could offer something the Western Allies never could – the prospect of additional territory and material gain. So the meeting between Ribbentrop and Schulenberg for the Germans, and Stalin and Molotov for the Soviets whilst not a meeting of minds, was certainly a meeting of common interests. 

Through the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Germany succeeded in bringing the Soviet Union into the European conflict, thereby giving Hitler the assurance of Soviet neutrality in an attack on Poland. The Pact lifted an enormous burden from Hitler. He was free to attack Poland if he wished and British support was likely to be of little assistance to the Poles. There was some suspicion that Britain and France might decide, after all, not to go to war. However, the British hesitation in declaring war resulted more, in the event, from Chamberlain’s desire to act in concert with France than by any doubt about honouring its obligations. Chamberlain was forced by his Cabinet to declare the war he had consistently tried to avoid since 1937. Even after its outbreak, there was no anticipation of protracted conflict and he still hoped that there might be a place for negotiations, even if they must take place in the context of war.

That is not to suggest that Chamberlain’s psychological understanding and tactical methods were without blame. He did not understand either the nature and dynamics of the Nazi régime or the beliefs and practices of National Socialism. However, even Churchill displayed considerable naivety in this respect, describing Hitler as an old-fashioned patriot, determined to restore his country following its defeat. Lloyd George’s analysis of Hitler’s mind and intentions was no better.  Another set of men in power, or in power earlier, may have made some difference to the policies which were followed, but this would probably not have been vastly notable. Moreover, it was possible for many British people simultaneously to suffer anguish at the prospect of another war and to feel intense remorse at what they believed to be their leaders’ callous indifference to the plight of Czechoslovakia. However, Chamberlain and his colleagues, in common with the majority of British public opinion, supposed that it was quite reasonable to believe in a world in which there was an underlying harmony between nations. It was surely unbelievable that governments would set out deliberately to use force. After 1939, world politics evolved in a way that few observers could have predicted with confidence, even projecting from the events of 1938-1939.

Keith Robbins has argued that the policy of appeasement in Europe needs to be seen in the context of the decline of the British Empire in the thirties. However, the anxiety about the state of the Empire might have been excessive, in turn accelerating its decline. Certainly, Churchill saw signs of defeatism in government policies and believed that a display of resolution and self-confidence would bring its own reward. It is also possible that a greater willingness to threaten intervention might have deterred Hitler, at least in the short-term. In the longer term, however, Robbins concludes that it seems entirely likely that Hitler would have gone to war in circumstances which might have been as favourable as those of 1939.

In his diaries, at the beginning of November, Edmund Ironside reflected ironically on the military machine of command which was the War Cabinet. Men like Kingsley Wood and Belisha, together with Chamberlain, Halifax and Hoare had no military conception of any sort, even lacking ‘general knowledge of how to fight a campaign. Whilst the Army was under French command, the Air Force was not, and the Cabinet loved directing its operations, rather than allowing the Chief of Staff to do so. Later the same month, he admitted to being ‘perturbed’ at the lack of a plan in Cabinet. The ‘wait and see’ attitude to events in Europe, the lack of any plan for the Middle East, and the long and tedious discussions upon all and sundry, all added to the sense of inertia which stemmed from the leadership of the weary old man who dominated the ‘mediocrities’ around him who were supposed to bear the responsibilities of war government with him. Only Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, revealed any talent for the task, partly because he was managing the worse things that by then were happening at sea…

Documents:

A. Parliamentary Debates, House Of Commons (fifth series), vol 351 cols 293-4 (1939):

The Prime Minister’s Announcement of War:

‘…we decided to send our Ambassador in Berlin instructions which he was to hand at 9 o’clock this morning to the German Foreign Secretary and which read as follows:

‘Sir, In the communication which I had the honour to make to you on the 1st September, I informed you… that unless the German Government were prepared to give… satisfactory assurances that (it) … had suspended all aggressive action against Poland and were prepared promptly to withdraw their forces from Polish territory, His Majesty’s Government would, without hesitation, fulfil their obligations to Poland.

‘Although this communication was made more than twenty-four hours ago, no reply has been received but German attacks on Poland have continued and intensified. I have… to inform you that, unless not later than 11 a.m. British Summer Time today, 3rd September, satisfactory assurances… have been given… a state of war will exist between the two countries from that hour.’

‘This was the final note. No such undertaking was received by the time stipulated, and, consequently, this country is at war with Germany.’

B. Francis Marshall,  London West (1944) 

Recollections of the first days of the war:

Entering London from the Great North Road the day after war had been declared, was rather like entering a besieged city. Terrible air attacks had been expected and London was considered the most likely target.

The barrage balloons overhead emphasised the difference between London and the country; notice boards at Hendon and Mill Hill giving notice of air raids seemed to mark the entrance. The motor coaches filled with evacuated children and occasional cars filled with luggage, all going in the opposite direction, added to the impression of impending danger…

Air raid shelters, sandbags and barrage balloons were, of course, already familiar, but the War Rescue Police came as a surprise. They wore ordinary clothes, and a blue tin hat, armlet and service respirator was their only uniform. Everybody was busy doing little odd jobs, sticking brown paper tape on windows, collecting precious papers and valuables together with a first-aid kit, and some spare clothes in a suit-case, just in case… When they had finished work and made their simple preparations, they walked out in the brilliant sunshine that seemed to have accompanied the outbreak of war, and tried to realise that this was it. But however short a walk they took, the gas marks were inevitably with them, uncomfortable and a nuisance, but from Prime Minister to charwoman everybody carried one.

We expected air raids on the H G Wells’ scale after nerving ourselves to expect Apocalypse after dark, felt almost disappointed when day brought the usual round of milkmen, newspaper boys, and the ordinary routine…

I found myself circling a church at 4 a.m. in the dark, vainly trying to find the way in to relieve the warden on duty inside. When I got in, I found him in the crypt sitting on a coffin reading a thriller… 

C. René Cutforth, Later Than We Thought (1976)

A Journalist’s personal account of the final year of the thirties:

Oddly enough, this great tide of woes seemed to put a new spirit into the British people. The news was so bad that none of the old attitudes was relevant any more. Peace Pledge Unions and Popular Fronts were now beside the point, like a man on the scaffold deciding to mount a ‘No more Hanging’ movement. The illusions of the Thirties gradually melted away, and there had been many. In the new cold light, the ‘committed’ could be seen as the self-licensed liars and con-men so many of them had become, whether Left or Right, whether Hitler’s ‘new manliness’ had held them mesmerised or Stalin’s ‘workers’ paradise’.

The last to go were the illusions about the power of Britain in the world. We might survive, we now knew, and that was all. Conscription came in on 1 July. In August there was a trial blackout and, since the whole world had now gone mad, the Russians signed a non-aggression pact with Germany.  If you felt like being funny. it was a bit of a joke to listen to the Communists trying to find something nice to say about their new ally. 

The present seemed not to exist, we only had a past and a future. Works of art were being stored in the caves of Derbyshire and the mine shafts of Wales. From Canterbury, we evacuated the stained glass and from our great cities the children. We’d ‘bought it’ as the phrase then was, and at eleven o’ clock on 3 September, we heard Mr Chamberlain, speaking in a strained and disgusted voice, tell us that we were at war with Germany. We were surprised by how little we felt. A minute later, the air-raid siren sounded. It was the last of the Thirties’ false alarms.

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On 3 September, Chamberlain made his famous broadcast to tell the British nation that it was at war with Germany. An air-raid siren sounded in earnest for the first time, though it was a false alarm; a Royal Proclamation was issued calling up the Reserves and Churchill was at last brought in. (Picture: Radio Times Hulton Picture Library, published in Cutforth’s book).

D.  September 1, 1939, by W. H. Auden

A British poet reflects on a ‘low, dishonest decade’ from New York:

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Wystan Auden was the leader of a group of poets named after him, but all they had in common was a Marxist frame of mind which characterised the ‘new voice of the period’ (Cutforth). They launched the revolutionary movement which was to create the intellectual climate of the time, and from the start, Auden’s was the voice of the decade. They wanted to bring on the death of the old gang, the death of us. He always sounded as if ten thousand revolutionaries were fighting to snatch his words from the press as they appeared. In fact, their audience was so small that it often seemed that they were writing to each other. Auden’s line, It is later than you think, might have been the motto of the whole group. George Orwell criticised their slavish worship of the Soviet Union, and regarded them as divorced from humanity: they had never met anybody from outside their own social class, he said, and this annoyed them greatly because he was right. Auden himself had left Britain with Christopher Isherwood for China in 1938 (pictured above, with Auden on the right), and was in New York in September 1939 when he wrote his famous and often misused poem on the outbreak of war. It begins in despair:

I sit in one of the dives

On Fifty-Second Street

Uncertain and afraid

As the clever hopes expire

Of a low dishonest decade:

Waves of anger and fear

Circulate over the bright

And darkened lands of the earth,

Obsessing our private lives;

The unmentionable odour of death

Offends the September Night.

And ends in hope:

Defenceless under the night

Our world in stupor lies;

Yet, dotted everywhere,

Ironic points of light

Flash out wherever the Just

Exchange their messages:

May I, composed like them

Of Eros and of dust,

Beleaguered by the same

Negation and despair,

Show an affirming flame.

Sources:

René Cutforth (1976), Later Than We Thought. Newton Abbot: David & Charles.

Matthew Hollis & Paul Keegan (2003), 101 Poems Against War. London: Faber & Faber.

Richard Overy (1996), The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Third Reich. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Laurence Rees (2008), World War Two Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, the Nazis and the West. London: BBC Books (Ebury Publishing).

John Swift, Asa Briggs (ed.) (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books (chapter on ‘The Atlantic War, 1939-45’).

Michael Clark & Peter Teed (eds.) (1972), Portraits & Documents: Twentieth Century, 1906-1960. London: Hutchinson Educational.

Andrew Roberts (2010), The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War. London: Penguin Books.

Keith Robbins (1997), Appeasement (Historical Association Studies). Oxford: Blackwell Publishers

Norman Rose (2006), Harold Nicolson. London: Pimlico.

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‘The March of Wales’ – Border Country: A Historical Walk in the Black Mountains, following Offa’s Dyke. Part Three.   Leave a comment

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The Wars of the Roses and the Tudor State of Wales:

By the time of the ensuing Wars of the Roses, the Crown territories had spread throughout Wales, leaving the Marcher lordships with less power. Yorkist and Lancastrian families in the March provided fighting men for the armies of the rival factions, and when Harlech fell to William Herbert, the first Welsh-speaking earl,  the poet Guto’r Glyn had no hesitation in calling upon him to unite Glamorgan and Gwynedd, pardon not a single burgess, and expel all Englishmen from office in Wales. Only the Anglo-Welsh Lancastrians should be spared. However, it was Edward of York, earl of the March and Lord Mortimer, who became Edward IV in 1461. As a result, many of the lordships changed hands or were forfeited. Many of these passed to the Crown, the twenty-two Mortimer lordships included. York controlled the March and Lancaster the Principality, and practically every family of substance was drawn into the conflict. William Herbert built himself up to become Earl of Pembroke, the effective ruler of south Wales. Griffith ap Nicolas rose from humble origins to make himself and his family ‘kings of south-west Wales’ and to establish the ‘House of Dinefwr’.

The Crown lordships and the Principality now dominated the political landscape of Wales, enabling the king to establish a Prince’s council of the Marches of Wales in 1471 which continued to function intermittently until the Tudor ‘invasion’ of Wales and ‘takeover’ of England in 1485. The Tudors of Anglesey were, like the bulk of their compatriots, survivors. The family fortunes had been established by Tudur ap Gronw, whose sons had fought alongside Owain Glyndwr as his cousins. One of them, Rhys was executed and another, Maredudd, was driven into exile. His son, Owen, was taken on as a page-boy by Henry V, later marrying his widow, Catherine de Valois. His stepson, Henry VI, made his Tudor half-brothers earls of Richmond and Pembroke. Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond, married Margaret Beaufort, who brought a claim to the English throne. Edmund died and was buried in Carmarthen; his son, Henry, was born posthumously. His mother was now a fourteen-year-old widow, so the boy was taken in by his uncle Jasper at Pembroke Castle, where he learnt Welsh. Following the Lancastrian disaster of 1471, Jasper took the boy to Brittany, and when his small army landed at Dale in Pembrokeshire, he depended entirely on a Welsh rally to carry him through to his supporters in England. Many of the northern Welsh lords did rally to him at Shrewsbury, and at Bosworth Henry unfurled the Red Dragon of Cadwaladr. He called his eldest son Arthur, and the Venetian ambassador commented that,

The Welsh may now be said to have recovered their independence, for the most wise and fortunate Henry VII is a Welshman…

The old Yorkist order in the Marches tried to hang on and, in the boroughs, made a last stand against the incoming tide of Welshmen. Henry kept St David’s Day and packed his own minor offices with Welshmen. By the end of his reign almost every marcher lordship was in royal hands, ‘over-mighty subjects’ had been cut down and charters of emancipation issued to north Wales. Under Henry VII’s firm hand a reinvigorated Council in the Marches began in the king’s name to bring about some uniformity in the government of the various lordships, particularly in the field of administration of justice. The late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries saw an increasingly centralised Tudor state in which the special political arrangements of the March were becoming untenable. In 1490, Henry VII agreed to a form of extradition treaty with the steward of the lordships of Clifford, Winforton and Glasbury which allowed ‘hot pursuit’ of criminals in certain circumstances.

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However, as he himself had demonstrated by his successful invasion on the way to ‘picking up the crown’ at the Battle of Bosworth Field, there remained a problem of the defence of the extended kingdom. Wales was England’s weakly bolted backdoor. Some degree of unified defence of Wales was of major importance to England’s security. His second son was left to find a solution to this problem, which was further complicated by his decision, in 1529, to go into action against the papacy. As the commissioners moved on the monasteries and their property, with Welsh gentry eagerly joining in, there was cause for alarm. As the Marcher lordships collapsed into gangster fiefdoms, just across the water, Catholic Ireland was also restive. If Wales was its backdoor, Ireland beyond ‘the Pale’ remained its back gate. It was from there that the Plantagenets had sought to dethrone Henry VII at Stoke Field in 1487, and even in the 1540s, Henry VIII remained paranoid about the threat from that quarter. The March of Wales had become so disorderly as a separate part of the kingdom that the Duke of Buckingham asked for a royal licence from Thomas Wolsey, the Lord Chancellor, to allow him to have an armed guard when he travelled through his lordships, declaring that he did not dare enter his lands in the March without an escort of three to four hundred armed men. Under these circumstances, the King’s solution for the disorder in the March of Wales was not to tinker with the constitutional anachronism which had become, but to abolish it.

By 1536, Thomas Cromwell realised that a ham-fisted coercion would not suffice. The law and order of England would have to embrace Wales with the aid of Justices of the Peace drawn from its gentry. The ‘British’ nation-state in the making was faced with the difficulty that there were two nations within it, with a visible border between them. So both the border and the smaller nation would have to become invisible. Therefore, between 1536 and 1543, the English crown put through a number of measures which have gone down in British history as the Acts of Union. The Act for Laws and Justice to be Ministered in Wales in like Fourme as it is in this Realm united the Principality and the March of Wales as part of ‘the kingdom of England and Wales’. The Acts of Union in 1536 and 1542, bound the two countries into a single state of ‘England and Wales’. The Act of Union of 1536 completed the long process of the absorption of the Principality of Wales and the March of Wales into the English kingdom. It rendered superfluous the castles that until then had held these territories in subjugation.

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The old Principality was wiped off the map, and the lordships in the March were abolished and, by combining them in groups, new shires were created to be added to the two established by Henry III in South Wales, and the four in Gwynedd and Dyfed, which had been created by the Statute of 1284. Wales became thirteen counties in all. The marchers were permitted to retain their lands and rights of lordship as practised in England, but they lost their previous prerogatives and privileges. The whole country was subsequently administered as a corporate element of the same realm. Shrewsbury remained in all but name the administrative capital of the whole of Wales, with the Council in the Marches, responsible for maintaining law and order in the English Marches and Wales, meeting there until its abolition in the 1640s. A consequence of these changes was that the language of the ruling gentry class became predominantly English. The key office of the Justice of the Peace passed to the gentry as ‘kings of the bro‘ (the ‘locality’). Welshmen became entitled to the same rights under the law as Englishmen, including the right to representation, for the first time, in the Westminster Parliament. However, because Wales was poor compared to most regions of England, the ‘burden’ of sending an MP was reduced to one MP per county, and the boroughs of each county were grouped together to supply a second MP. Wales was provided with a distinct system of higher administration and justice, in that twelve of its counties were grouped into four circuits of three for a Welsh Great Sessions, meeting for convenience in the borderlands, which also meant that Ludlow became an important centre for many years.

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In the Tudor ‘nation-state’, English was supposed to be the only official language. Henry VIII proclaimed the necessity of extirpating all and singular the sinister usages of customs of Wales. No person or persons that use the Welsh speech shall have or enjoy any manner of office or fees within this realm. The threat of cultural genocide was not, in fact, fulfilled. In many ways, Wales remained a ‘peculiar’, if not a separate nation, with a unique administration and its own customs and language. Although the official, written language of local administration and the courts was to be English, the right of monolingual speakers of Welsh to be heard in courts throughout the country necessitated the appointment of Welsh-speaking judges and ensured the continued public use of the language. The dominance of the local gentry ensured that the justices of the peace and the men running the shires on behalf of the Crown were magistrates of their own nation, thereby guaranteeing that Wales would not come to be regarded simply as a part of England. This was the case even in Monmouthshire, which was fully incorporated into England by the Act of Union, and became part of Wales only in 1972.

At the same time as its administration was being remodelled, Wales also experienced the religious upheaval of the Protestant Reformation. At first, the Reformation simply substituted one barely intelligible tongue (Latin) with another (English). However, in contrast to Ireland, where little effort was made to make religious texts available in the native language, Welsh translations of the creed, the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer came out as early as 1547, and these were soon followed by translations of the Prayer Book and the Scriptures. Since the Welsh could not be made invisible in the Tudor state, they had to be made Protestant, which meant that the Crown was forced to accede to pressure and authorise Welsh translations of the Bible, whose 1588 version was to prove a sheet-anchor for the threatened language. The early translation of the scriptures into Welsh also helped Protestantism to be accepted in Wales. In fact, the Welsh people embraced it enthusiastically, and later Puritanism and Nonconformity.

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Above: The frontispiece of the first full translation of the Bible into Welsh, published in 1588.

Nevertheless, although it could be used when necessary in the courts, Welsh ceased to be an official language and had to retreat into the Church and the kitchen. The long-term effects of this were very serious for the language. Since it was all but excluded from administration, the position of Welsh gained as the language of religion did much to ensure its survival. The survival of Welsh as a living tongue compensated for the collapse of the medieval bardic tradition with its characteristic prophetic elements. Another Celtic tradition that sank into disfavour was the use of patronymics, by which a person’s second name identified or her as the child of a known parent (e.g. ap Arthur). This was superseded by the use of surnames, in the English manner, handed down from one generation to another. Many traditional Welsh Christian names also fell out of fashion in this period.

At the time, however, the Union was celebrated among the self-confident Welsh burgesses, who saw themselves as being as free as Englishmen under the law of England and Wales. Most importantly, perhaps, the ‘ordinary’ Welshman was no longer at the mercy of his lord or prince in terms of justice, which could no longer be administered arbitrarily by a master who was ‘a law unto himself’. Henry VIII was as masterful a monarch as Edward I in cutting the Lords Marcher down to size, and the lords seem to have accepted that their time for full submission to kingly authority had finally come. Now fewer in number and with most of the lordships already in the hands of the Crown, they were largely absentee landlords; their interests in England were, vulnerable to royal retaliation, were more valuable to them than their Welsh ones, which were still recovering their economic value from the long-term effects of the Glyndwr Rebellion.

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These political changes in Tudor times left the Border itself with less strategic importance. Wales after the Union was no cultural backwater. The Welsh adopted Jesus College in Oxford (founded in 1571) and the Inns of Court in London to complete their education. The Welsh gentry took enthusiastically to the Renaissance, building houses and art collections comparable with those anywhere else in Europe. Against these cosmopolitan tendencies should be set the work of Sir John Price in defending the Arthurian tradition in the face of general scepticism, and the work of Gruffydd Done, in the sixteenth century, and of Robert Vaughan of Hengwrt, in the seventeenth, who both collected and preserved Welsh medieval texts. By the time of the early Stuarts, ‘the Wales of the squires’ was entering a golden age in which Anglicanism and royalism were becoming rooted among the Welsh gentry. James I and VI was therefore favourably disposed to them and their loyalties were easily transferred to the Scottish dynasty with its own idea of Great Britain, not far removed from their own developing identity as Cambro-Britons. William Vaughan of Cardiganshire, who tried to launch a Welsh colony, Cambriol, in Newfoundland, was also keen to discard the ‘idea’ of the old frontier when he wrote:

I rejoice that the memorial of Offa’s Ditch is extinguished.

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Above: Plas Teg, near Mold, Flintshire, the earliest Renaissance-style house in Wales, built c. 1610 for Sir John Trevor, a senior figure in naval administration.

Administration, Language, Trade and Religion:

Wales had acquired its historic frontier in the estate boundaries of an Anglo-Norman oligarchy. Ethnic minorities were left on both sides of the line. Old Ergyng (Archenfield) disappeared into Herefordshire but remained Welsh-speaking for three hundred years. The integration of Britain became visible in the large-scale migration of the Welsh to London, the growing centre of both trade and power. Dafydd Seisyllt, from Ergyng, was one of those who went up to London as a sergeant of Henry VII’s guard. He bought land and installed his son as a court page. His grandson was William Cecil, Elizabeth’s potent statesman. The Seisyllts, in a transliteration which became commonplace, became the Cecils. The family of Morgan Williams the brewer who had married a sister of Thomas Cromwell changed his name and Oliver arrived three generations later.

Monmouth became an anomaly; nearer to London and relatively wealthy, with an early tin-plating industry, it was saddled with the full parliamentary quota and subjected to the courts of the capital. Always reckoned to be a part of the ‘Welsh’ Church in diocesan terms, it was, however, excluded from the Great Sessions and the Welsh parliamentary system. This led to the curious hybrid title of ‘Wales and Monmouthshire’ as a standard secular description, which continued English settlement in the county reinforced. Among the landowners clustering thick in Glamorgan and Monmouth in the south were some of the richest squires in contemporary Europe.

The lordships had varied greatly in size and in physical character, which largely governed their capacity for profitable exploitation, their lords’ primary aim in winning, holding and administering their conquests:

Glamorgan (Morgannwg) was large, much of it agriculturally productive;

Maelienydd, a core lordship of the Mortimer family, was small, an upland and sparsely populated territory of little intrinsic value other than its strategic location;

Clifford, another Mortimer lordship, was very small, perhaps only twenty square miles in extent, but of strategic importance in the Wye valley, the ancient and medieval gateway into Wales.

Conquest was followed by settlement and the evolution of ‘Englishries’ and ‘Welshries’, an ethnic division of population. The Welsh were evicted from the more low-lying arable districts of the lordships which then became ‘the Englishries’, organised in the English manorial system. Here the lords established their ‘vassals’ and immigrant settlers to farm their ‘demesne’ as tenants, paying rent. Often the marcher lords would be absentee landlords, leaving their officials to administer the lands. In this respect, the Mortimers were atypical in that their power and prosperity lay in the March of Wales. By the end of the fourteenth century, they had connections all over Wales of long duration. A Mortimer had married Gwladus, daughter of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, in the previous century, and in the last half of the fourteenth century Roger Mortimer, fourth Earl of March, had probably as good a dynastic claim as any to the inheritance of Gwynedd. He became the focus of extravagant hopes among the Welsh gentry. The poet Iolo Goch, who was one of his tenants, wrote a fulsome ode of loyalty to him, presenting him as an Arthurian ‘Hero Returned’ who would rescue the Welsh from their degradation. What made this all the more significant was that Mortimer also had a good claim to the inheritance of Richard II. This shift in consciousness came just at the time when a  renaissance of the Welsh language and culture was beginning to provoke political responses and to meet with judicial resistance.

The dispossessed Welsh, were effectively ‘internal exiles’, resettled in ‘the Welshries’ which consisted of the upland and less productive districts of the lordships where raising cattle and sheep were the principle agricultural enterprises. These areas would be more or less self-governing, with courts conducted according to Welsh customs and practice, and in the Welsh language, with little if any interference from the lord provided its inhabitants gave no trouble and paid their tributes in kind. In the lordship of Hay, in the mid-fourteenth century, while the men of the Englishry paid for their land with rent and services, the Welshry as a whole gave the lord the traditional tribute of twenty-four cows every year, though this was later replaced by payment in money. In the later Middle Ages the gradual abandonment of Welsh laws, customs and systems of land tenure was welcomed in some quarters of Wales, particularly among peasant farmers; in the second half of the fourteenth century, Welshmen in Clwyd were eager to surrender their holdings and receive them back on ‘English’ terms, while others were willing to pay for the privilege of ‘English’ status. This was because they preferred the inheritance law of primogeniture to the Welsh system of gavelkind, the equal division of a man’s inheritance among his sons, involving restrictions on his disposal of land according to his family’s individual circumstances.

These moves towards greater integration in the March of Wales had various manifestations. The Welsh language had started to reconquer the Vale of Glamorgan; Welshmen began to appear in the lowland and valley towns, in Oswestry, Brecon and Monmouth; the Welsh began ‘harassing’ English merchants in the March. A chorus of complaint against them burst from boroughs not only in Wales but in the English border counties. Nearly every Parliament which sat between 1378 and 1400 demanded urgent action against these impertinent ‘scrubs’. Even as the gentry turned their hopes towards Richard II, the English administrations in Wales slammed their doors hard. This was a reassertion of colonialism in a régime that was breaking down under its own contradictions, and the Welsh-English tensions that it provoked provided an even greater incentive for the discontented Welsh to support Richard II and Roger (VI) Mortimer.

Although the distinctions between Englishries and Welshries were breaking down by the later Middle Ages, these can sometimes be identified on the landscape today from old place names, where these appear as either English or Welsh, or sometimes bilingually:

Gwerthrynion and Cwmwd Deuddwr (the latter identifiable on today’s map as one of the longest original Welsh place-names, Llansantffraed Cwmdeuddwr) were two Mortimer upland lordships, located north-west of Rhayader on the upper reaches of the Wye. Presumably, they were unattractive to English settlers as there is also a notable absence of English placenames in that area.

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Newtown bears its English name, with a translation provided into Welsh (Y Dref Newydd), despite being surrounded by villages with Welsh nomenclature, because it was established as a borough by Mortimer. Other attempts by them to found boroughs were not so successful. Cefnllys remains the name of a long-ruined castle near Llandrindod Wells, because the Mortimers failed to take into account both its isolated position remote from major trade routes as well as the very limited potential for agricultural production within its close vicinity. When the once important castle had been abandoned as no longer of strategic value, its fate was sealed. Similarly, the prosperity of the borough of Wigmore, and the value of its castle languished after the Mortimers moved their seat of power to Ludlow. The military security of the marcher lordships depended on castles, boroughs and the lords’ private armies. Castles were pivotal in their survival and territorial ambitions as well as being status symbols; they served as ‘launching pads’ for aggression, defensive strongholds and bases in which they could reside when in their Lordships. They were also administrative centres from which their stewards could operate, collecting rents and dues and exercising justice.

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The marcher lords inherited from the Welsh princes the obligation of all free men to fight for them, and Wales throughout the Middle Ages provided a pool of experienced fighting men on which the marcher lords, and by extension, the king, could draw. Most of the infantrymen in the king’s armies were Welsh, and the archers, in particular, distinguished themselves in the Hundred Years War, and for both Yorkist and Lancastrian armies in the Wars of the Roses. The bowmen of Monmouthshire and south Wales were celebrated in both English and Welsh writing; in the March this intensified a loyalty to their lords which became a political as well as a military force. Thousands of Welshmen in their proud livery – like Mortimer’s men, all clothed in green with their arms yellow – were a force to be reckoned with in the politics of England itself, whenever the marchers were heavily involved, as they nearly always were.

Some of the larger lordships, like Glamorgan and Pembroke were organised along the lines of English shires, long before they were formally recognised as such in Tudor times. Maelienydd, by contrast, did not even have knight service, and the Mortimer administration was far less English in form. Rhys ap Gruffydd was knighted by Edward III, one of a number of Welshmen who achieved rank, office and respect in the king’s service and in the March. He commanded the Welsh bowmen in France, as a discrete unit in the English army. Hywel ap Meurig’s family had long been associated with the Mortimer family. In 1260, he was appointed as the negotiator with Llywelyn ap Gruffydd on behalf of the Crown and then became constable of the Mortimer castle at Cefnllys. He served as the king’s bailiff in Builth and soon after the end of the Welsh War of Independence of 1276-77 was commissioned as a justice in Wales. He and his family prospered as important cogs in the administration of Wales. Roger Mortimer (IV) maintained a retinue, or private army of Welsh soldiers during his ascendancy in the late 1320s. Although the final resort in settling disputes among the marcher lords, and with their princely Welsh neighbours may have been to engage in warfare, a full-blown war was unusual and arrangements developed among them for settling quarrels which would usually have been of a minor nature over such matters as cattle rustling and boundaries. ‘Letters of the March’ were forms of passports for travellers and merchants passing from one lordship to another. If a traveller was arrested in a lordship other than his own, he could present his letter, which would have been issued by his lord stating that he was a tenant, and request to be returned to face justice in his own lordship.

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The prosperity of the lordships depended largely on agricultural exports of cattle to England and across England to the continent. In 1349, four hundred cattle were driven from the Bohun lordship of Brecon to Essex for fattening. The first part of this journey was along long-established drovers’ roads through the hills, which still mark the landscape of Wales today. Twelve years earlier fourteen sacks of wool were dispatched to from the Mortimer lordship of Radnor en route to Dordrecht, and in 1340 another thirty were awaiting dispatch (each sack weighed 165 kilos). They were probably held up because of the chaotic conditions in trade as a result of the early stages of the Hundred Years’ War. Wool exports to Flanders had been a thriving business since the early twelfth-century. Welsh border wool may have been of an inferior quality to that of the prime sheep-rearing centres of the Yorkshire moors and dales, but it was certainly superior to the wool of East Anglia.

When Shropshire fleeces were fetching fourteen marks a sack, the Suffolk farmer could only get four marks for his. Yet Suffolk was richer than Shropshire and closer to their foreign customers. The sight of foreign buyers riding eastwards to Ipswich or Dunwich followed by long lines of pack horses laden with Welsh wool was a familiar one in medieval East Anglia. Suffolk farmers and merchants could do a brisker business with the continent because they were closer, but they could not compete in volume or the quality needed by the weavers of fine cloth in Flanders. Then Edward III decided to levy swingeing taxes on markets and customs duties on ports both in order to raise money for his wars with France and as an economic weapon in those wars. In the wool-producing areas the immediate effects were catastrophic, but after 1350 the introduction of weaving to East Anglia, accompanied by the migration of skilled weavers from the depressed textile industries of Flanders, led to a boom in demand for fleeces.

Throughout the early modern period, Wales remained predominantly agrarian, specialising in cattle production, rather than sheep-grazing; dairy products, and, until the Industrial Revolution, cloth-manufacture. The countryside underwent gradual enclosure and deforestation. Settlements remained small and scattered, with farmers maintaining upland summer homes and lowland winter houses. Towns, other than the boroughs already referred to, were not an important feature until the eighteenth century and even then were restricted largely to Glamorgan. There was some tin-plating in Monmouthshire, but neither coal-mining nor iron-casting was as important as they were to become.

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Dislike of the Anglo-Norman hegemony in Wales was not confined to the civil sphere; it was also present in the Church. The great religious revival of the eleventh century in Normandy was carried to England by the Conquest, which the Roman Church and the Norman barons themselves regarded as a Crusade, predating the ones they began to the ‘Holy Land’ in 1096. They considered the Welsh Church, still with its independent Celtic roots, to be, like the English one, in need of reform and physical rebuilding. The early conquests in Wales were accompanied by expropriation of church property for the benefit of religious foundations in Normandy and appointed French bishops whose dioceses by the early twelfth century had been incorporated into the province of Canterbury. In the Anglo-Norman borderlands and the Anglo-Welsh March, the abbey at Much Wenlock was refounded circa 1080; the Mortimers founded an abbey circa 1140 at Shobdon, a predecessor of Wigmore Abbey, and were later benefactors of the abbey at Cwm Hir in Maelienydd. Llanthony Abbey (detailed below) was founded in 1107. The native religious houses of Wales were slowly superseded by Anglo-Norman foundations or reformed in the new tradition as religious and cultural control of the Church passed out of Welsh hands for the next eight hundred years. Hardly surprisingly, this meddling was a cause of great resentment, with that champion of the Welsh Church, Giraldus Cambrensis, indignantly asking the Pope, …

… Because I am a Welshman, am I to be debarred from all preferment in Wales?

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A Pilgrimage to Llanthony Abbey & through Gospel Pass:

Above: The Landor Estate at Llanthony.

This is an appropriate point to engage with the path itself. The section from ‘Pandy to Hay-on-Wye’ officially begins where it crosses the A465 from Hereford to Abergavenny by “the Lancaster Arms.” However, by following the Afon Honddu northwards along the B4423 from Llanfihangel Crucorney, we can find our way to Llanthony Abbey. Given the remarks of Giraldus Cambrensis above, this is perhaps a better place to start a historical walk. The Priory is directly below in the deep Vale of the Ewyas which, as the twelfth-century itinerant Giraldus described it, is about an arrow shot broad. The priory he found, perhaps somewhat grudgingly, not unhandsomely constructed. It is, in fact, well worth the detour, either along the ‘B’ road or coming down from the Loxidge Tump from the Dyke Path (see maps below).

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You come to the priory ruins in a beautiful setting of meadows and groves of chestnuts. It is said that St David settled at Llanthony during his travels through Wales in the sixth century, establishing the llan (church). It is unlikely that he stayed long, but Llanthony’s special claim to fame is that he supposedly ate the leeks here that were to become the Welsh badge during the campaigns of the Hundred Years’ Wars with France. The priory was founded in 1107 by the powerful marcher lord William de Lacy at the place where, while on a deer hunt, he is said to have forsaken ambition and decided to devote his life to the service of God. As a result of Welsh raids on the Augustinians whom they no doubt considered to be the Roman Church’s supporters of the Norman incursion, the monks sought refuge with the Bishop of Hereford, only a few of them returning to the priory. From 1300, with Edward I’s conquest, the priory flourished once more, and at some point housed the largest single body of medieval Welsh ecclesiastical manuscripts, but by 1376 it was in a poor state of repair. Owain Glyndwr burnt it down around 1400; by 1481 only four canons and a prior remained, and its end came with its Dissolution by Henry VIII.

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In 1807 the estate was bought by the poet Walter Savage Landor (right) for twenty thousand pounds. From a wealthy Whig family, he held estates at Rugeley in Staffordshire and Bishop’s Tatchbrook in Warwickshire, but had been looking for a more secluded country property in which to write, and settled on Llanthony. The previous owner had erected some buildings in the ruins of the ancient abbey, but an Act of Parliament, passed in 1809, was needed to allow Landor to pull down these buildings and construct a house, (which he never finished). He wanted to become a model country gentleman, planting trees, importing sheep from Spain, and improving the roads. The Victorian diarist Kilvert wrote of his varied experiences of coming down the valley to the Abbey:

Under the cloudless blue and glorious sunshine the Abbey looked happy and peaceful. … How different from the first day that I pilgrimaged down the Vale of Ewyas under a gloomy sky, the heavy mist wreathing along the hillsides cowling the mountain tops. 

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There is still an avenue of trees in the area known as “Landor’s Larches” and many old chestnuts have been dated back to his time. But though he had literally fallen in love with Welsh people as a young man in Tenby and Swansea, where he lived for a time, he quarrelled with local people and the Bishop of St David’s, also finding the Black Mountains to have an “ungenial clime”. He left the estate in the hands of trustees and moved to Italy with his wife, whom he had met and married in Bath while living at Llanthony. They had returned to live in Llanthony. The remains of Landor’s house lie at Siarpal in the ‘cwm’ above the priory formed by the Hatterall Ridge and the Loxidge Tump. Together with the tower of the priory, they form what is now the Llanthony Abbey Hotel. The main surviving buildings of the priory are in the care of Cadw, the Welsh ‘keeper’ of historic monuments. Entrance is free.

It’s a pretty steep climb up the cwm to the ridge and the tump where the path can be regained, so the four-mile trek up the valley road to Capel-y-ffin seems more inviting, particularly as it’s rewarded by another monastery, founded in 1870 by the Rev. J. L. Lyne (Father Ignatius) for the Benedictines, in an unsuccessful attempt to reintroduce monasticism into the Anglican Church.

Soon after his death in 1908 the community ceased to exist, and the church became ruined. In the 1920s, though, the artist Eric Gill lived at the monastery for four years, and the house remained in his family after he returned to London. Besides the Catholic church are an Anglican chapel and a Baptist chapel. Capel-y-ffin means ‘chapel on the border’.  Just over a mile further on towards the Gospel Pass is the Youth Hostel.

The road goes on through the pass between ‘Lord Hereford’s Knob’ and ‘Hay Bluff’, where it eventually joins the Dyke path for the descent into Hay-on-Wye, avoiding the steep section on the road. This is where you are likely to see the Welsh mountain ponies.  Following the path itself from Black Daren northwards brings you very gradually to towards the unmarked summit of the ridge, and of the path, at 2,306 feet, on a broad and bleak nameless plateau of peat.

The surrounding landscape becomes wild and remote, a place to avoid in mist and rain. The Welsh have a saying, mae’n bwrw hen wragedd a ffin, meaning “it’s raining old ladies and sticks” (“cats and dogs” in English, of course!) Although “ffin” could mean “boundary” as suggested above, it might also mean “sticks” and there is a legend tell of the Old Lady of the Black Mountains, who is said to appear at night or in mist with a pot and/or wooden cane in her hand and who, going before wayfarers, will cause them to lose their way.

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A friendlier spectre, said to appear to travellers lost in the mountains between Llanthony and Longtown, is of a man who will guide them to the nearest road before disappearing. Best take the road in the first place, I say, with its beautiful views along the Ewyas Valley (above). At Pen y Beacon (or Hay Bluff), which is bypassed by the official path, we come to the to the steep north-west facing scarp of the Black Mountains, high above the middle Wye Valley. The way-marked alternative path to the beacon itself was described by the Victorian diarist Kilvert, and has apparently changed little over the last century and a half:

Soon we were at the top, which was covered with peat bog and black and yellow coarse rushy grass and reed. Here and there were pools and holes filled with black peat waters. … The mountains were very silent and desolate. No human being in sight, not a tree. 

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On the high and windswept bluff, on the very cornice of the range, a wide-sweeping countryside stretches away almost to the limits of vision. Beyond the Wye, hidden from view, where the Dyke path continues its journey, the Silurian hills of Radnorshire rise to grassy tops or to open hill common. In the distance are the outlines of Mynydd Eppynt, and the Radnor Forest. Dropping down over the cornice of Brownstones you aim between two deep gullies to join the Gospel Pass road on its way from the Honddu Valley. The path leads past the prehistoric burial mound at Twyn y Beddau and along the side of Cusop Dingle, on a steady descent into Hay. In a triangle bounded on two sides by main roads, Hay forms a compact and sleepy town, except when the International Book Festival is in town, in May.

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In the town, there are the remains of two castles, both Norman. The mound of the earlier motte and bailey, built around 1100 by William de Braose, is beyond the medieval core of the town, near St Mary’s Church. Legend has it that the castle was in fact built, not by William, but by his wife, Maud de St Valerie (‘Moll Walbee’). She is said to have built it in one night, carrying the stones in her apron. A pebble that dropped into her shoe is reputed to have been thrown into Llowes churchyard, three miles away. The ‘pebble’ measures nine feet in length and a foot in thickness! The later castle seems to have been destroyed by King John in 1215, the year that he signed the Magna Carta. It was rebuilt and then burnt by Llywelyn ap Iorwerth in 1231, though it was apparently still in use when Henry III rebuilt it about two years later. In 1236, the town walls were built, and by 1298 a compact town had grown within them. The castle was captured and changed hands several times in the succeeding decades so that John Leland in the sixteenth century found Hay to show…

… the token of a right strong Waulle having in it three Gates and a Posterne. Ther is also a Castel the which sumtime hath bene right stately.

The seventeenth-century Jacobean castle incorporated into it was owned in the 1980s by R. Booth, who ran a remarkable second-hand book business in the town. Apart from the castle itself, where rarer books were kept, many shops and other buildings have become bookshops. The collection is claimed to be the largest collection in the world, and it is well worth setting aside time to explore the bookshops. It is this recent remarkable piece of social history which has given rise to the book festival and Hay’s unofficial title as ‘the book capital of the world’. As a postgraduate student in Cardiff, I well remember organising a minibus trip to Hay and returning with a number of books which were out of publication, dating back to the early twentieth century, the period I was researching.

North of Hay, the Dyke crisscrosses the border into Herefordshire, before reaching the lowlands of Montgomeryshire. This is the ancient territory of the kingdom of Powys known as Rhwng Gwy a Hafren (‘between Wye and Severn’). Although Mercian influences were strong along this part of the Border, this is essentially a countryside of dispersed habitation in the Welsh tradition. Much of the walk is through some of the quietest and most beautiful, undulating country along the Border. Leaving Hay en route for Knighton you cross over the Wye into Kilvert country, where the wayfaring diarist we met at Lanthony Priory and atop the Black Mountains, Francis Kilvert, was curate of the parish of Clyro from 1865-72 and where, in 1870, he began his diary, describing vividly both the way of life in the area and much of the surrounding countryside. As it is only a mile along the road, but is not on the Dyke Path, it seems sensible to include the short walk to Newchurch as part of a sojourn in Hay. That is where I plan to end my journey this year.

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For some of its course, the Dyke marks local government boundaries, or more locally the boundaries to farmsteads, like Pen Offa near Chirk, where I hope to get to next year. But while, for the most part, the political boundary between England and Wales no longer follows it, and there are many gaps in the great earthwork itself (mostly due to modern development), the Dyke retains its place in the imagination as the symbolic frontier. It represents a natural if man-made division between upland and lowland peoples, as the only visible and historic structure which corresponds both to the imagination of those peoples, and to the fundamental reality of that division.

Sources:

Charles Hopkinson & Martin Speight (2011), The Mortimers, Lords of the March. Hereford: Logaston Press.

Gwyn A Williams (1985), When Was Wales? A History of the Welsh. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Asa Briggs, John Morrill, et.al., (eds.) (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

Irene Richards & J. A. Morris (1946), A Sketch-Map History of Britain and Europe to 1485. London: Harrap.

George Taylor & J. A. Morris (1939), A Sketch-Map History of Britain and Europe, 1485-1783. London: Harrap.

John B. Jones (1976, ’80), Offa’s Dyke Path (Long-Distance Footpath Guide No 4). London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office (Prepared for the Countryside Commission). 

 

 

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‘The March of Wales’ – Border Country: A Historical Walk in the Black Mountains, following Offa’s Dyke. Part One.   Leave a comment

“I was walking the line of Offa’s Dyke in North Wales when

the slanting late afternoon winter light raked across the landscape,

illuminating the folds in the gently rolling hillside.”

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Offa’s Dyke in North Wales (foreground) with Chirk Castle in the distance.

Photo by Kevin Bleasdale, Landscape Photographer of the Year.

(www.ukgreetings.co.uk)

Bucket-lists and Border-lines:

One of the things to do on my ‘bucket list’ is the Offa’s Dyke Path, the long-distance footpath which ‘follows’ the Dark Age dyke allegedly made by the King of the Saxon Kingdom of Mercia to mark the boundary of his territory with ‘the Welsh’ territories to its west. I have done two other long-distance paths, the Pennine Way and the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, together with long sections of the South West Coast Path, between Plymouth and Teignmouth, and completed the Wessex Walk between Uphill and Wells. By comparison with these long-distance paths, only two sections of the Offa’s Dyke path, through the Black Mountains and the Clwydians, really offer the same sort of open walking country. Having completed one short section near Chirk some twenty-five years ago while staying in Llangollen, in this post, I wish to concentrate on the first of the section between Llanthony Priory and Hay-on-Wye, which I hope to tackle this summer (July 2018), fitness and weather permitting! Llwybr Clawdd Offa, as it’s known in Welsh, is Britain’s fourth long-distance path to be officially opened, runs the entire length of the border, from the Severn Estuary near the old Severn Bridge at  Chepstow to the sea at Prestatyn on the north Welsh coast, a distance of 168 miles. Throughout its length, history is brought to life, not just by Offa’s frontier earthwork, but by ancient hill forts, prehistoric trackways, old drover roads, medieval castles and by the numerous small market towns and villages which are linked by the path.

As a footpath rich in scenic variety, as well as historical and literary associations, it will have attractions not just for the seasoned walker, completing the coast-to-coast walk in two or three weeks, but also the amateur historian and archaeologist, and those seeking casual recreation. The footpath was approved by the Minister of Housing and Local Government in 1955 but little progress was made for some years in opening up the many miles of new rights of way needed. Then, in 1966, the National Parks Commission decided to give greater priority to the proposal and three years later, when it became known as the Countryside Commission, came a decision to open the path during 1971. The Offa’s Dyke Association, set up to promote conservation of the Border area along the path, and to work for the path’s completion, were naturally sceptical. But with the exception of a few sections, the route had been completed with waymarks by the target date. On 10th July 1971, the path was formally opened at an open-air ceremony in Knighton, preceded by an inaugural walk along the path north of the town over the Panpunton Hill. More recently, a connecting path to Machynlleth and on to Welshpool (Y Trallwng) has been added, called Glyndwr’s Way, which provides a circuitous historical walk from the Dyke across the Cambrian mountains.

Celts, Romans, Britons and Saxons:

The History of ‘the Border Country’ goes back to Roman times when in A.D. 47 the invaders had reached westward to the Severn. On the other side of the river lay the hill country, defended by strong Celtic tribes: the warlike Silures of the south were led by their Belgic leader Caradoc (Caractacus) who had fled westward to rouse the western tribes: the Ordovices of the central border and the Deceangli of the north. Caradoc was defeated in A.D. 51, and many places along the hill margin, including ‘British Camp’ in the Malvern Hills, claim to be the site of his last battle. Strong resistance continued, however, and it was ten years before the Romans could attack the Ordovices and the Deceangli, following the establishment in A.D. 60 of the fortress and legionary headquarters of Deva (Chester). Only a year later the army had advanced to Anglesey, overrunning the hill forts. In the south, the campaign of A.D. 74 was the decisive one when Julius Frontinius fought a hard battle against the Silures, though it was four years before the Romans could move further west under Agricola.

The Border formed very much a frontier zone in the Roman expansion. Except in the south, in the Wye Valley area, and east of the hill margin, developments were essentially military in character, with no great effect on native life, which went on much as before. Roads linking the several forts that had been set up in this zone ran along the north and south coast routes, based on Deva and Isca (Caerleon), and east-west up the main valleys into the hills, the easiest into what later became Wales. A north-south road linked these roads through the hill margins. During the first century of Roman rule a number of Celtic hill forts were strengthened, for although the Celts had made use of the sharp edges of the uplands for farming, its strategic and military potential was first realised by the Romans as a base for launching their campaigns against the uplands. It was these roads and forts which first defined the border.

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With the withdrawal of the Roman Legions in A.D. 410, Celtic culture saw a renaissance in craftsmanship and bardic poetry, and a growth in political and the rise and spread of Christianity by the Celtic Church. Gradually, various Romano-British kingdoms or ‘fiefdoms’ began to emerge under separate rulers or ‘chieftains’. One of these, Ambrosius Aurelius, may have been the inspiration for the Arthurian legends, having fought a series of battles against the invading Saxons which ended with Badon Hill in about A.D. 515. Along the hill margins, the kingdom of Gwynedd covered the land north of the River Dee and west of the Vale of Clwyd. The Vale itself formed a contested territory between Gwynedd and the great central kingdom of Powys, ‘the Paradise of Wales’ as it was called by the bard who wrote the ‘saga cycle’ of Llywarch Hen. On the southern margins, Brycheiniog covered Breconshire and Gwent, Monmouthshire. Powys was the great bardic centre, from where we find the reference to Taliesin singing at the court:

I sang in the meadows of the Severn

Before an illustrious lord,

Before Brochfael of Powys…

It seems to have been usual for an official bard to be attached to each court, with some lords and princes acquiring reputations as patrons of the bards. The achievement of these early poets was considerable. They created a heroic age, a new legendary past for ages to come. As long as the Welsh tradition lasted, that is to say, for at least another ten centuries, their patrons were taken as models of generosity and courage. The poems and sequences of englynion (stanzas of three or four lines) associated with Llywerch Hen (‘the Old’) were long thought to be the work of the sixth-century prince but were later shown to be about the legendary figure, rather than being by him. They belong to the ninth-century sagas, with the narrative told in prose. Llywarch was a warrior of North Britain, who bore the severed head of his lord King Urien of Rheged from the battlefield, so that it would be buried and not humiliated. He eventually found refuge to the south, in Powys, where he again found himself having to fight the Saxon invaders, and his twenty-four sons, impelled by their own ready valour and their father’s bitter tongue, fought too. One after another they perished in their father’s pride. Gwén, the last of them, arrives late for the battle, to find all his brothers dead. There is no-one left to defend the Gorlas Ford on the River Llawen. Llywerch himself, old as he is, is arming himself for the battle. Here, as Gwén too prepares for battle, father and son enter into dialogue:

Gwén:

Keen my spear, it glitters in battle.

I will indeed watch on the Ford.

If I am not back, God be with you!

Llywarch:

If you survive it, I shall see you,

If you are killed. then I’ll mourn you,

Lose not in hardship warrior’s honour!

Gwén:

I shall not shame you, giver of battles,

When the brave man arms for the border,

Though hardship beset me, I’ll stay my ground.

Llywarch:

A wave shifting over the shore,

By and by strong purpose breaks,

Boasters commonly flee in a fight.

Llywarch urges his last son to sound the horn given to him by his uncle, Urien, if he is hard-pressed in the forthcoming fight. The way that Llywarch mentions it suggests that this horn, in the saga, may have had magical properties. But Gwén replies contemptuously, Though terror press round me, and the fierce thieves of England, … I’ll not wake your maidens! It is the mutual anger between father and son, each insulting each other’s honour, that makes any genuine precautions against tragedy impossible. Magic is irrelevant in this equation. All that matters is human folly and pride. Yet there is an over-riding sense of fate or destiny, a supernatural context in which such situations are allowed, or even willed, to take place. Llywarch is not only pitted against his own pride and folly, but also against hostile destiny – tynged in Welsh – whose design is revealed to him only gradually as his downfall proceeds. And as he grows old, the bard gives him one more opportunity to reveal himself to the in-every-sense bitter end: angry, baffled, useless to man, woman or beast, a prey to pain, remorse, lacerated vanity, and a desperate loneliness. His king, his fellow-countrymen, his Patria, his sons – all are in ruins. Where has it all gone? And where is longed-for Death? As ‘folk-history’, Welsh heroic poetry was driven into the subconsciousness by the trauma of the Anglo-Saxon conquest of the sixth century, and by what Anthony Conran, in his introduction to his own translations of it, called the cultural amnesia of the times. When it re-emerged, it became intimately connected with a whole prophetic tradition, which kept up its messianic rumblings right through to the Wars of the Roses.  

From the late sixth century, the mixed peoples of eastern Britain, generically labelled ‘Anglo-Saxons’ and organising themselves in kingdoms, resumed their advance into the west. It was a long, slow, piecemeal process; some of the advances may not represent straightforward conquests and there is evidence of the transient existence of people who were literally ‘mongrels’. But it was remorseless. The foundation of kingdoms in the north opened an epoch of battles with the North Britons which were to be central to later historical traditions among the Welsh. After a battle near Bath in 577, the kings of Gloucester, Bath and Cirencester were gone and Saxon power reached the Bristol Channel, from where it was able to press on into the south-west. Ceawlin, king of Wessex, drove a wedge between the Britons dwelling between the Severn Estuary and the Irish Sea and those in Devon and Cornwall. A second wedge, driven by Aethelfrith, king of Northumbria, early in the seventh century, separated the Britons in Cumbria from their compatriots, or Cymry, further south. This effectively isolated and created Walleas, the Germanic word for ‘aliens’, or ‘North Wales’, as distinct from Cornwalleas, or ‘West Wales’ including Devon, and Cumbria and Strathclyde, the kingdoms of the northern Britons.  

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Between 650 and 670, the Saxon advance westward had reached the borders of Powys and the River Dee, while the River Wye marked the limit of the advance in the south. In the early seventh century, Northumbria was the most powerful kingdom of the Anglo-Saxon ‘heptarchy’. The ascendancy of the midland kingdom of Mercia began during the reign of the warlike, pagan Penda (623-654). Minor kings after him rose and fell in a period of civil warfare until by 731, Bede tells us, all of ‘Aengleland’ south of the Humber was subject to Aethelbald (716-756). He, therefore, referred to himself as ‘King of the southern English’. He maintained his ascendancy for thirty years until he was murdered by his own bodyguard. From the ensuing civil war within Mercia itself, Offa emerged as the key figure in the Mercian supremacy. He reigned from 757-796 and was the first king to be styled, in imperial terms, as King of the English.

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Who was Offa and why did he build a dyke?

History reveals all too little of the Mercian king whose name is forever linked to the great dyke built in the margins which had been continually disputed by the Welsh and the English. We do know that the means by which he gradually expanded his kingdom and his hegemony over the heptarchy were not always fair. In 793, Aethelbert, the Christian king of East Anglia, paid a visit to Offa to seek the hand of his daughter Aelfrida. He was murdered, either on the orders of Offa, or those of his queen. There are differing accounts of what happened, but it is most likely that Offa realised that, with Aethelbert ‘out of the way’, Mercia could take control of East Anglia, which it did. Offa was then able to deal on almost equal terms with Charlemagne who had once closed his ports to English trade for some three years.

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Above: A Victorian tile from the floor of the choir in Hereford Cathedral depicting the beheading of St Aethelbert by order of King Offa.

Throughout the first half of the eighth century a protracted struggle had gone on between Mercia and Powys as the frontier was gradually driven back from the line of furthest advance marked by various short ‘dykes’ to the more settled frontiers marked by the great running earthwork constructed under Offa, probably after the last Welsh counter-attack in 784. Around this time we can picture the English as settled farmers, with greater craftsmanship and better equipment than their sixth-century predecessors, if with less military skill. The Welsh occupied the hill territory to the west, living in kinship groups (gwelau), were dependent mainly upon the cattle they summer-pastured on the hills and over-wintered in the valley meadows.

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The line of the Dyke extends from Sedbury Cliffs on the Severn, through the Wye Valley and Herefordshire, across the Clun district of ‘Salop’, part of Shropshire today, and northwards via Chirk and Ruabon to the sea at Prestatyn, a distance of 149 miles. Of these, the running earthwork of the Dyke itself is traceable for eighty-one miles, consisting of an earth bank with a ditch, usually on the west-facing side, sometimes with ditches on both sides, and averaging in height some six feet above ground level, and in breadth almost sixty feet. While contemporary manuscripts throw little light on the making of the Dyke, the more recent detailed archaeological surveys have led to a much deeper understanding of the Border as it existed in Offa’s time. Its principal purpose was to provide a frontier between Mercia and the Welsh kingdoms and to control trade by directing it through defined ‘gateways’ in the earthwork. It may, at times, also have been used for defensive purposes, but by the time it was built this would have been largely incidental. Only in a time of relative peace between the Welsh and the Mercians could a work of such a scale be achieved. It must, therefore, have been an agreed frontier. Moreover, although it would have presented something of an obstacle to cattle rustlers, it would have offered little prevention to cattle straying across.

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Above: The course of the path from Chepstow (bottom, left) to Prestatyn (top, right), in relation to surviving dyke sections.

The mastery of difficult terrain through which the Dyke runs suggests that the skill of its builders can only have been acquired through generations of experience. Two precedents on the ground can be found, firstly in the various short dykes that lie both to the east and west of the Great Dyke, and secondly in Wat’s Dyke which runs from Maesbury, south of Oswestry, to Holywell. A third precedent is found in the heroic poetry of the time. The short dykes found in the middle of the Border Country reinforced the most vulnerable sections of the Great Dyke where the hills of Salop are nearest to the Mercian capital of Tamworth. These dykes are similar in construction to Offa’s Dyke and are thought by archaeologists to form cross-valley screens at the head of agricultural land, while cross-ridge dykes controlled traffic along the ridge. These probably date from the time of Penda, representing the military activities of Mercia in the pre-Offan period. They are defensive in character, unlike Offa’s Dyke which represents the consolidation of the Mercian kingdom when the Saxons came to realise the limits of their ability to advance further west. Wat was a hero of Old English legend associated with an earlier Offa, a king of Schleswig and ancestor to the Mercian king. Wat’s Dyke may well have been named by Offa in commemoration of his own namesake, whose deeds were recorded in the epic poem Widsith, among them being his marking of boundaries.

As a boundary, however, Offa’s Dyke is unlikely to have been continuously manned but rather patrolled on horseback. Nevertheless, evidence reveals that it was built under the direction of men trained in military tradition. Offa himself is thought to have master-minded the work, possibly with a group of chieftains, planning both its course and its dimensions. Each landowner along its course was then consulted and subsequently made responsible for the construction of a particular section of it, depending on the extent of his lands or the labour available to him. In turn, this variation in experience and expertise, together with the willingness and size of the local workforce, inevitably resulted in differences in the quality and scale of the work. In some areas, the hostility of the local Welsh population, in particular, may have been a factor. Despite this, further evidence that it was an agreed frontier is contained in the existence of a set of laws governing the movements of both the Welsh and the English across the boundary. An early tenth-century document refers to an agreement between the English and the Welsh relating to Ergyng (Archenfield), a Welsh district between the Wye and the Monnow, now in Herefordshire, which remained Welsh-speaking into the nineteenth century and produced many Welsh ‘notables’. The same document also contains a reference to English territory north of the Wye, in Wales today, belonging to a people known as the Dunsaete. It suggests the existence of a relationship between these peoples which may well have dated from Offa’s time, deriving from Offa’s own laws for the conduct of both English and Welsh along the Border.

Offa’s laws, long thought lost, would then have provided for the setting-up of a “board” comprising both English and Welsh, the task of which was to explain the laws to their respective peoples. Included in the laws was a code for recovering livestock rustled across the Border, and another for the safe-conduct of either Welsh or Mercian ‘trespassers’ found on the “wrong” side of the Border by a specially appointed guide. However, the story that any man found ‘trespassing’ would be subjected to the punishment of losing his right hand, is an apocryphal one. Overall, the skill of the designer and eye for the detail of the landscape are remarkable. With few exceptions, even in the dissected terrain of the middle section of its length, the Dyke’s straights cleverly cling to the west-facing slopes, giving the Mercians the advantage of visual control over Welsh territories. Archaeological ‘detective work’  enabled the mapping of the Border landscape of Offa’s day. The straight alignments of the Dyke, occurring in both flat and undulating terrain, indicate a mixture of pastoral and arable farming; and in the uplands, open moorland. Small irregularities in mainly straight alignment tend to indicate the original presence of woodland. The Mercian farmers seem to have preferred sunny, south-facing slopes for growing crops, disliking the shaded north-facing hillsides which remained wooded. This is represented by alternate straight and sinuous alignments. Very irregular alignments, where the Dyke follows the contours of the landscape, occur where the terrain is especially rough, or where visibility between points was very limited.

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In profile sections, the Dyke varies considerably throughout its length. It is at its most formidable on the hilltops where ridgeways passed through, and on the valley floors where skilful use was made of the east sides, in order to allow the Dyke to descend from the ridges and cross the valleys while maintaining visual contact with the west. Here, too, cultivated clearings required protection in the tradition of short, transverse dykes. In many places, there is evidence of compromise between the Mercians and the Welsh. In some sections, the broad River Severn is left to mark the boundary, whereas, in others, the Dyke follows the slopes of the eastern hills above the Severn.

This suggests that to the south of Buttington, for example, the meadow pastures on both sides of the river were conceded to Powys, for, in The Mabinogion, it was stated that the man would not prosper with a war-band in Powys who would not prosper in that cultivated land. Likewise, in the Wye Valley, both sides of the river were used by Welsh timber traders who needed to land their boats on either bank. The Dyke is therefore high up on the eastern slope, controlling a long stretch of the river upstream to the point reached by exceptionally high tides in the Severn estuary.

For much of the length of the frontier, no trace of the Dyke has been found. From the point where the Dyke reaches the Wye west of Sedbury Cliffs to the Wye west of the Tutshill look-out tower, the sheer river cliffs would have formed a sufficient natural boundary in themselves. Between Highbury and Bridge Sollers in Herefordshire, the Wye again forms the boundary. For the next thirteen miles to Rushock Hill ancient and dense oak woods on the underlying Old Red Sandstone seem to have made the building of a section of dyke unnecessary, if not impossible. In this area, the dyke is only present on what would have been cleared land. For five miles north of Buttington on the Severn, the river again forms the boundary. However, the reason why the Dyke was not completed on the last five miles to the north coast is a matter of conjecture. Certainly, the intention was that it should reach the sea at Prestatyn. We know that towards the end of Offa’s reign the Welsh seem to have made an attempt to capture the land between the Dyke and the Dee. A Welsh legend, recorded in the plaintive lament Morfa Rhuddlan, tells of a fierce battle fought in 795, ending in Welsh defeat. Offa died a year later at Rhuddlan, and it may be that with his death went the driving force behind the Dyke.

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Offa was succeeded by his son, Cenwulf, who reigned until 816. His defeat at the Battle of Basingwerk marked the beginning of the decline of Mercian supremacy on the Border. Wessex was emerging as the most powerful Saxon kingdom, and Mercia was forced to turn its attention southwards. With the Dyke established, however, a degree of stability was brought to the Border Country for a time. Whereas to the east of a line from the Pennines to Salisbury Plain, there is precious little evidence of British survival into the ninth century, even in river names. West of that line, however, and into the upland watershed, there is much evidence. Place-names remain strongly Celtic, though often transmuted; Cymraeg, as well as Brythonic dialects, survived, as did Celtic farm systems and field boundaries. Early laws of the kingdom of Wessex make specific provision for a whole British hierarchy under overall Saxon rule. Further west, Cornwall survived as a British fiefdom, and in the Borderlands of the Wye and the southern Dyke, as English settlement developed, there may have been as much fusion and integration as conflict and conquest.

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The concessions made to the Welsh along the Wye may also have aided this process, as Archenfield remained Welsh-speaking well into modern times, and there is also an abundance of surviving Celtic placenames to the west of the Wye in what is land on the English side of today’s border. Around Welshpool names like Buttington, Forden and Leighton also show gradual Mercian expansion in the Borderlands between 650 and 750 and strengthen the case for the concession of the Severn meadows to Powys on the building of the Dyke. In the Vale of Radnor, names like Evenjobb, Harpton and Cascob again indicate a retreat by the Welsh, but elsewhere on the whole land bordering the Dyke, there is evidence of linguistic retention on both sides. Llanymynych has obviously retained its Welsh name, despite being half in half in England, whereas Knighton is generally known by its English name, despite being wholly in Wales and having a Welsh name, Tref-y-clawdd, meaning ‘the town by the Dyke’. The area between Offa’s Dyke and Wat’s Dyke has remained Welsh-speaking in character until recent times. Despite these examples of variation, we know that the Dyke’s construction was resisted by the Welsh in numerous places along its route. Offa had driven his Dyke from coast (almost) to coast, and as Gwyn Williams (1985) wrote of the Dark Age Welsh, ‘foreigners’ in their own land …

This few and fragile people took the whole of inheritance of Britain on their shoulders. And late in the eighth century they were confronted with an imperial Offa, king of the Mercians, who had the effrontery to score his Dyke across their land and shut them out as foreigners. … The Welsh, as a people, were born disinherited.  

The ‘Compatriots’ (Cymry) & their Bards:

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By the ninth century, therefore, the Welsh were almost completely shut up behind Offa’s Dyke. Not unnaturally, in their ‘exile’, they turned to the stories of their old homes, in Regen, Elfed, Gododdin and the rich lands of eastern Powys – roughly Cumberland, Yorkshire, SE Scotland and Shropshire respectively, according to the later Medieval geography of Britain. This was the era in which the saga-literature was composed, in the ninth and tenth centuries, about events that took place in the sixth and early seventh centuries, during the heroic age itself. The Welsh had been cut off from their fellow countrymen in the North of Britain and in Cornwall. Only in a few pockets of rugged landscape, like ‘North Wales’ and Cumberland could the ‘Cymry’ (compatriots) be found. The sense of exile must have been further aggravated by the reappearance of Roman missionaries, in the shape of St Augustine of Canterbury, telling them that their traditional Christianity was out of step with the rest of Christendom, and demanding that they should abandon their hatred of the Anglo-Saxons and join with him in converting them. The Welsh ‘saints’ told him that they preferred the idea of the English roasting in hell forevermore!

From this point in time, the geographical centre of gravity also shifted steadily southwards and eastwards: from Mercia to Wessex and from Wessex to Normandy. With it went the Celtic influence on both Church and State as the Celts were driven more and more into the western promontories and peninsulas of Europe by the predominant Rhine-Rhone cultural axis. They were more and more in a state of siege, less and less able to move freely towards imaginative creation. The saga-literature they produced is saturated with feeling for the past. A good deal of it is lamentation of one kind or another. Sometimes it is personal, either for the death of a loved one or, as in Llywarch’s famous complaint of old age, for the speaker’s own changed state. Perhaps even more typical, however, is the lament for a ruined house that the loved one has died defending. Here the loss is by no means merely personal. Cynddylan’s Hall was the tribal centre; its overthrow represents the ruin of an entire society. In the saga of Heledd, the sister of Cynddylan, the lord of Pengwern (Shrewsbury), the English are invading the good land of Powys. They have killed Cynddylan and destroyed his home. In her Elegy on Cynddylan (the poet has composed them for the mouth of the saga’s heroine), Heledd is lamenting over the ruins.

Stand out, maids, and look on the land of Cynddylan; the court of Pengwern ia ablaze; alas for the young who long for their brothers!

Cynddylan the bright buttress of the borderland, wearing a chain, stubborn in battle, he defended Trenn, his father’s town. …

How sad it is to my heart to lay the white flesh in the black coffin, Cynddylan the leader of a hundred hosts.

Heledd has seen all her brothers killed in an unavailing defence of the townships of Powys against the English invader; she has reason to blame their destruction on herself: By my accursed tongue, they are slain!  In the original Welsh, these are superb, tragic images, according to Conran, though perhaps somewhat lost even in his translation, here rendered into verse:

Stafell Gynddylan ys twywyll heno,

Heb dán, heb wely;

Wylaf wers, tawaf wedy.

(Dark is Cynddylan’s hall tonight,

With no fire, no bed;

I weep awhile, then am silent.)

Heledd’s laments are at once heart-rending and fiercely controlled, and many of the englynion on the hall of Cynddylan, the Eagle of Pengwern, the Eagle of Eli (the River Meheli in Montgomeryshire), the chapels of Bassa (Eglwysau Basa, or Basschurch) and the White Town, have the tone of great Welsh poetry. They are of a profoundly dramatic and emotional nature, but were part of a body of saga whose more direct narrative was presented in prose. Our knowledge of these sagas is unsure, for all we have are the fragments that were preserved. We must reconstruct the content of the vanished prose from the preserved verses:

The hall of Cynddylan is dark tonight, without fire, without light; longing for you comes over me.

The hall of Cynddylan, its vault is dark after the bright company; alas for him who does not do the good which falls to him!

Hall of Cynddylan, you have become shapeless, your shield is in the grave; while he lived you were not mended with hurdles.

The hall of Cynddylan is loveless tonight, after him who owned it; ah, Death, why does it spare me? …

The hall of Cynddylan, it pierces me to see it, without roof, without fire; my lord dead, myself alive …

They are enshrined in high dramatic utterance, not the merely ruminative mode of elegy. And as the elegy continues, the lamentation is raised, seemingly, not so much for one man’s death as for the ending of a way of life:

The chapels of Bassa are his resting-place tonight, his last welcome, the pillar of battle, the heart of the men of Argoed …

The chapels of Bassa have lost their rank after their destruction by the English of Cynddylan and Elfan of Powys …

The white town in the breast of the wood, this is its symbol ever – blood on the surface of its grass.

The White town in the valley, glad is the kite at the bloodshed of battle; its people have perished …

After my brothers from the lands of the Severn round the banks of the Dwyryw, woe is me, God! that I am alive …

I have looked out on a lovely land from the gravemound of Gorwynnion; long is the sun’s course – longer are my memories …

The theme, in common with the other sagas of Llywerch Hen, is that of the intertwining of both private and tribal disaster, where the facts of history are interpreted as the workings of fate and the nemesis of human pride. We leave Heledd, ‘the Proud Maiden’ and bereft Princess of Powys in her thin cloak, driving her solitary cow over the mountain pasture. In the soil that moulded her brothers, they now moulder, but she must go on living. Likewise, the Welsh went on living behind the Dyke, and the ninth to the eleventh centuries saw various attempts to create a wider unity within Wales itself, with varying degrees of success, as from time to time powerful leaders emerged: Rhodri Mawr, for instance (844-878) and Hywel Dda, his grandson, who brought together the various areas he had consolidated under the Law of Hywel Dda (the Good). But these two and a half centuries are almost without any surviving poetry. They were also punctuated by long periods of chaos, partly the result of continual Viking raids around the coasts and up the river valleys.

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The early decades of the eleventh century were troubled times when usurpers like Llywelyn ap Seisyll (1018-1023) seized power. With his son Gruffudd ap Llywelyn, the whole of Wales came under a single ruling family for the first time. On the eve of the Norman conquest, Harold Godwinson defeated Gruffudd ap Llewelyn, the king of Gwynedd. With Gruffudd’s death in 1063, Wales was disunited once more, but Harold, on succeeding Edward the Confessor on the English throne, was unable to take advantage of this weakness, as he had to put all his efforts into the defence of his own crown against the claims of William of Normandy. During the last decades of the eleventh century, Welsh independence grew more and more precarious. For many years prior to the Conquest, Anglo-Saxon kings had claimed lordship over Wales and this loose relationship had been widely accepted by the Welsh princes; Earl Harold’s devastating campaign of 1063 had forcibly reminded the Welsh of the military strength of their English neighbours. As king of England, William I inherited this claim to Wales but, faced with problems in England and Normandy for some years after his victory at Hastings, he had little inclination to involve himself directly in Wales.

(to be continued…)

Posted June 29, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Anglo-Saxons, Archaeology, Assimilation, Britain, British history, Britons, Celtic, Celts, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, Civilization, clannishness, Colonisation, Commemoration, Conquest, Dark Ages, Empire, English Language, Ethnic cleansing, Footpaths, History, Humanities, Immigration, Imperialism, Integration, Leisure, Literature, Medieval, Mercia, Mythology, Narrative, Nationality, Old English, Recreation, Remembrance, Renaissance, Romans, Saxons, south Wales, Uncategorized, Wales, Warfare, Welsh language, West Midlands

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The Dialects of Middle English: Part One; Southern and Northern   1 comment

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Above: Middle English dialectal areas

What’s in a dialect?

Evidence from the written sources suggests that there were four main dialectical areas: West Saxon (Wessex), Kentish, Mercian and Northumbrian. In Middle English, these remained basically Danes, and the consequent influence of Norse, there was enough variation of Mercian English on both sides of the Danelaw for them to be considered as two distinct dialects. Therefore, the five principal dialects of Middle English were: Southern, Kentish, East Midlands, West Midlands and Northern. In addition, the dialects of Northern English spoken in southern Scotland were known as Inglis until about 1500, when writers began to refer to them as Scottis, now known as Scots.

Dialects are varieties of a single language which are ‘mutually comprehensible’; that is, speakers of different dialects can talk to and understand each other. An unfamiliar dialect may be difficult to comprehend at first because of its peculiar pronunciation and/ or vocabulary, but with familiarity, these difficulties disappear. This is not the case with a foreign language. So, whilst a Breton onion-seller could make himself understood to a Welsh shepherd, he would not be understood by a Northumbrian one. However, the Northumbrian shepherd would understand his ‘Wessex’ counterpart. Dialects have most of their grammar and vocabulary in common; therefore, we are able to make a short-list of the features to look for when describing the main differences between dialects. Today, dialects are usually compared to Standard English, but in the early Middle Ages and even into the fifteenth century, there was no national standard form of English, only regional standards. Within what we call a dialect, there are always other variations, so that the more closely we examine the speech or writing of a dialectal area, the more differences we observe, until we eventually arrive at the concept of an individual person’s own variety of language, an ‘idiolect’.

In the Middle English (ME) period, there was no single dialect or variety of the language whose spelling, vocabulary and grammar were used for writing throughout the country. After the Norman Conquest, Northern French replaced the Wessex variety of English as the spoken language of the Norman court. In the twelfth century, this was replaced by Parisian French, carrying more prestige. This was also the language of instruction in English schools until the late fourteenth century. After 1362 English became widely used in the law courts and Parliament was opened in English. The educated East Midland English of London was beginning to become the standard form of English throughout the country, although the establishment of a Standard English was not completed until the eighteenth century. In ME, there were only dialects, with writers and copyists using the forms of speech of their own region. The end of Chaucer’s poem Troilus and Criseyde, written in about 1385, provides evidence of this:

Go, litel bok, go, litel myn tragedye…

And for there is so gret divesite

In Englissh and in writing of oure tonge,

So prey I God than non miswrite the,

Ne the mysmetre for defaute of tonge.

Southern (Wessex) and Kentish Dialects:

In the same year, John of Trevisa wrote of the many people… and tonges of the British, not just in the form of the Welsh Language and among the Scots, but also among the Germanic and Danish English. This ‘diversity of tongues’ can be found in writings from different parts of the country in the ME period, revealing variations in the spelling of words. There are also inconsistencies within dialectal areas and even within the same manuscript. Conversely, some spellings remained the same, despite alterations in pronunciation. Writing in the 1380s, John of Trevisa described the linguistic situation at the time. His complete work is a translation of a history written in Latin earlier in the century. He was the vicar of Berkeley in Gloucestershire when he translated Polychronicon. The work is a reminder of the origins of the historical origins of English and its dialects. Trevisa’s attitude is not unlike that of some scholars today, in his talk of the ‘deterioration’ of the language, but the reason he gave for its decline in his time was the fashion for speaking French. He wrote in the Southern, ‘Wessex’ dialect of ME, although his use of the dialect is said to be ‘impure’.

Many of the contrasts between older and present-day English are matters of style rather than significant grammatical differences. We can read Trevisa’s text without much difficulty, but it does not transcribe word for word into Modern English (MnE). The phrase a child hys broche (a child’s toy) was a new construction for the possessive which did not derive from OE which survived for some time but has now been replaced by the apostrophe. The use of the infinitive construction ‘for to’ is still present in some dialects, and as a device in folk songs old and new, but is now non-standard. Prepositions were also used at the end of sentences as in told of (spoken of), considered ungrammatical in MnE.

In identifying the alphabetical symbols used and their relationship to contrasting sounds of dialectal accents, we have to be careful not to assume that there is a one-to-one relationship between sound and letter. Some differences of spelling in ME texts are not the result of differences in pronunciation, but rather of the fact that spellings tend to be retained long after changes in pronunciation had transpired. These difficulties in dating shifts in pronunciation and spelling are compounded by the fact that manuscripts were rarely dated. That is one reason why the book translated by a monk of St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury, Michael of Northgate, is so significant. He finished the book, Ayenbite of Inwyt, ‘the remorse of conscience’, a translation from a French original, on 27 October 1340. The other reason is that he spelled consistently throughout the text. It therefore provides us with accurate evidence of the Kent dialect at that time. Here is a passage in word-for-word translation:

Now I wish that you know

How it is went (how it has come about)

That this book is written

With English of Kent.

This book is made for lewd men*

Them for to protect from all manner sin

(*common folk)

This is as near to a ‘pure’ dialect as we can get, remembering that the written form can never really provide an accurate idea of how the spoken dialect sounded. Also, as Michael was translating from French, it is possible that some idioms as from that language, rather than being genuine ME expressions. Nevertheless, we can identify differences in word order and collocation which highlight differences between dialects and between ME and MnE. Even limited observations suggest that Kentish was a ‘conservative’ dialect, retaining more features of the OE system of inflections, even though greatly reduced. Many of these features were similar those found in the ‘Wessex’ texts of John of Trevisa. This is to be expected when one considers the way that the Thames, with few crossings between London and Oxford, acted as a barrier between the South as a whole, especially Kent, and the Midlands.

Below: Extract from Ayenbite of Inwyt,1340

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Northern (Northumbrian) Dialects:

The Northern dialects of ME came from the Northumbrian dialects of OE. The present-day dialects of Scotland and the North of England are still markedly distinct from Standard English and other dialects in grammatical features and vocabulary, and from RP, Midlands and Southern English accents in pronunciation. John of Trevisa’s remarked that the citizens of fourteenth century York spoke in a way which was ‘scharp slyttyng and frotyng and unschape’. The modern equivalents of these descriptions can be heard today among southerners unfamiliar with Geordie, Glaswegian and North Yorkshire accents, and Northerners make equally disparaging remarks about RP speakers from the South. One person’s ‘thick accent’ is another person’s familiar speech, and beauty is in the ear of the listener rather than an objective standard. Besides, television series and films in the 1990s made regional varieties of English more accessible to the country as a whole, and radio announcers now speak with a wider range of regional accents than in the last century.

As we cannot reproduce the actual sound of the dialects of the past, we cannot follow up this aspect of linguistic diversity. The only evidence we have of the phonics which once existed is in their transcription into manuscripts. Since spellings are not always phonetic and are inconsistent even in their reproduction by a single scribe, we can only speculate about pronunciation in the abstract, recognising some of the major shifts, but not properly hearing them. Most of the linguist’s focus must therefore be on grammar and vocabulary.

The Bruce is a verse chronicle of the heroic deeds of Robert (the) Bruce (1274-1329), written by John Barbour in about 1375 as The Actes and Life of the Most Victorious Conqueror, Robert Bruce King of Scotland. Barbour was the Archdeacon of Aberdeen and had studied and taught at Oxford and Paris. The following extract comes from the first book, written in the Northern (Scots) dialect:

A fredome is a noble thing

Fredome mays man to haiff liking

Fredome all solace to man giffis

He levys at es yat frely levys

A noble hart may haf nane es

Na ellys nocht yat may him ples…

In word-for-word transcription, this reads more like Modern English, more so than many Southern dialects of ME, which still retained many of the inflections of OE:

Ah freedom is a noble thing,

Freedom makes man to have liking (= free choice),

Freedom all solace to man gives,

He lives at ease that freely lives,

A noble heart may have no ease,

Nor else nought that may him please.

The pronunciation of the final ‘e’ in a word where followed by a consonant was all that was left of the many OE inflections, but even the use of this was a matter of choice for speakers and, therefore, for writers like Chaucer. Some of his characters use it, others don’t. In Barbour’s verse there is no evidence of its continued use, and Scots writers had adopted the convention of using the ‘i’ as the means of making vowels longer, as in haiff in the second line of Barbour’s poem given above. As it is an infinitive, haiff has no inflection; neither do knaw and pless.

There is evidence of the development of ‘gerund’ forms, a noun drived from a verb, as in liking. The word order of verse is often more abnormal than that of prose, as in Fredome all solace to man’s giffis, which cannot provide good evidence of normal spoken word order. Nevertheless, the third person ‘is’ or ‘ys’ inflections and the past participles with ‘yt’ make the verse seem closer to MnE.

Below: John Barbour on the siege of Berwick, from ‘Bruce’, c.1375

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The York ‘mystery’ plays provide evidence of the development of another Northern dialect, that of York and North Yorkshire. These plays are a cycle of fifty short performances which tell the story of the world according to medieval Christian tradition, from the Fall of the Angels and the Creation to the Last Judgement.   Each craft guild of the city was responsible for the costs and production of a play, which was performed in procession on a pageant-wagon around the streets of York. Some of the plays were assigned to guilds whose occupation was featured in the story. For example, the bakers played the Last Supper, the shipwrights built the Ark, the fishermen and mariners performed the Flood, and the vintners provided the wine for the Marriage at Cana. The cycle was produced each year for the feast of Corpus Christi, from the late fourteenth to the early sixteenth century. Twelve stations were set up in the streets and each pageant-wagon moved in procession from one station to another to perform its play. The procession of wagons began at 4.30 p.m. and was concluded long after midnight. Banners representing the respective guilds marked the position of the stations in the cycle, and proclamations were made, written down on parchment in order to be read out theatrically. One of these survives for the year 1415, but the only copy of all the plays to have done so was written in 1470, originally the property of the corporation of the city. It was probably compiled from the various prompt copies belonging to each of the performing guilds, so the language probably belongs, like the proclamation, to the earlier part of the fifteenth century. The dialect is Northern, but the scribes introduced a number of modifications from the East Midland dialect, the evidence for this being in the variations of spelling. The use of some East Midland forms marks the beginning of a standardised system of spelling. Since the plays are written in a variety of verse stanza patterns, with both rhyme and alliteration, so that they cannot be read as everyday speech, in spite of the vividness of the dialogue.

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On becaming Archbishop of York in 1352, John de Thoresby found many of his parish priests ignorant and neglectful of their duties. As one remedy for this, he wrote a ‘catechism’ in Latin, setting out the main doctrines of the faith. It was translated into English by a monk of St Mary’s Abbey in York in 1357. This version is called The Lay Folk’s Catechism and was extended a little later by John Wycliffe, who was born in the North Riding of Yorkshire, but worked and lived for long periods in Oxford and Leicestershire. His writings were therefore a variety of the Midlands dialect. By comparing the two versions of Thoresby’s Catechism, we can therefore distinguish between the dialects of the North and the Midlands.

Chaucer’s Reeve’s Tale features two undergraduates, ‘yonge poure scolers’ from the North. He marks their speech with some of the features that his readers would recognise. He wrote in the educated London accent which differed greatly in its grammar and pronunciation from the Northern dialect. In this extract, Aleyn and Iohn have arrived at a mill and greet Symkyn, the miller. They intend to supervise the grinding of their corn, since millers were notorious for cheating their customers:

Aleyn spak first: All hayl Symkin in faith

How fares thy faire doghter and thy wife?

Aleyn welcome, quod Symkyn, by my lif

And Iohn also. How now what do ye here?

By god, quod Iohn, Symond need has na peere.

Hym bihoues serue himself that has na swayn

Or ellis he is a fool, as clarkes sayn.

Our maunciple, I hope he will be deed,

Swa werkes and wanges in his heed.

And therefore is I come and eek Alayn

To grynde our corn and carie it heem agayn…

The northern words and expressions are highlighted in bold type. MnE equivalents are given in the glossary below:

heem = home

hope = hope/ believe

hym bihoues = (him behoves), he must

swa = so

swayn (ON) = swain, servant

wanges = back teeth

workes = aches

 

A Hungarian Traveller in Jacobean England: Márton Csombor of Szepes   Leave a comment

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Márton Csombor’s Europica Varietas was first published in Hungarian in 1620, but has only recently been translated into English, in 2014, by Bernard Adams, who has also written an introduction. Wendy Bracewell has written a preface. Csombor’s  book, republished in English by Corvina Books, was first printed in Kassa (Kosice, pictured above) as the first travel account published in Hungarian, but is part of the growing genre of European travel writing of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. He shows us Europe as seen through Hungarian eyes, but it is more than a simple travelogue of place-names and sights. His preface laments the paucity in Hungary of books about the laws, customs, dress and doings of  foreign countries, so that he fills in these details for each successive country visited. Only then does he recount the personal incidents of his journeys and sojourns in each country. He therefore follows a method, one which follows the advice of many contemporary manuals advising travellers how best to systematize the various things seen and heard on their journeys. His Protestantism led him to venerate the beauty of Canterbury, though his visit there was accidental (he confused Cantuaria/ Canterbury with Cantabrigia/ Cambridge and so substituted a visit to the cathedral for a visit to the famous university), and though it lacked any gold or silver decoration.

Born in 1595 in the small town of Szepes, now in southern Slovakia, Csombor was born to a bourgeois tradesman or craftsman about whom we know little. He went to school in Késmark in 1607, having very likely been sent there to learn German. Between 1609 and 1611 he returned to live in Szepes, from where he went on the series of journeys that marked his short life (he died of the plague in 1622, aged only 27). On his first trip, he was accompanied to Transylvania by his tutor, Márton Sámsondi. He then went to school in Nagybánya, where he studied Poetics, Logic, Greek and Theology until 1613. On leaving, he took a trip to Máramaros in Transylvania and on his return to Szepes began to plan other journeys to foreign countries. These were delayed, however, while he completed his secondary studies, and in 1615 he took a post as a schoolmaster in Tekibánya in order to earn a few forints for his travelling plans. In 1616 he set off to study at a gimnázium in Gdansk, Poland (Prussia at that time). He spent over a month walking the seven hundred miles to Gdansk, hitching lifts in carts, thus establishing a trend which he would use in later travels. He arrived there in June 1616 and stayed until 1618, concluding his studies in Philosophy and Theology. From there he set off on his tour of Europe, arriving back in early August 1618, then taking up the post of schoolmaster back in Kassa in February 1619, just as the Thirty Years War was beginning and the anti-Habsburg policies of Gábor Bethlen were beginning to be felt throughout the region. The Bohemian and Moravian estates had rebelled against the Austrians, and Bethlen joined them in the autumn of 1619. Elected Prince of Hungary on 21 September by the Parliament meeting at Kassa, Bethlen fought a successful campaign in Upper and Western Hungary. It was during this time that Csombor wrote his account of his travels of 1618, which he published in 1620. The freshness and immediacy of his writing, in Hungarian, contributed much more to the popularity of the book than the previous material derived from his predecessors could have done

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Above: Gábor Bethlen

His book forms an intriguing mixture of travel diary, personal reaction and reminiscence as he passes in swift succession, due to a rapidly shrinking purse, through a series of European towns and countrysides, meeting a wide variety of people and viewing much of lasting interest. It is not autobiographical in purpose; his clear object is to inform and entertain his reader with an account of cherished experiences. Due to that degree of objectivity, it is certainly of great use to historians. From Gdansk, he went by sea to Denmark, then to Holland and Zealand, and from there to England via the Thames, into London. The people of England, he commented early on in his chapter on ‘Anglia’, guard their lineage jealously, and when one speaks with them they trace their descent, be it never so humble, back to a noble or royal generation. The second topic of conversation, predictably to a modern reader, was the weather, and here he also drew a predictable response:

Those that live there say that England is much better and more moderate of climate than Gaul; there is neither such great cold nor such great heat there. It has wheat, rye and barley aplenty, only the ploughlands are all enclosed, from which it appears that it is costly because the people are many that require it, and there is other fruit too in abundance. It has livestock of many kinds, but chiefly many sheep, from the wool of which all kinds of fine cloths are made… they have a plentiful fleece which differs little from white silk. It is said that their sheep have such fine wool because they graze on the herb known as rosemary, which by nature has a sweet and moderate temperament, which matter I believe because on the meat of the sheep, when it has been butchered, a pleasing and delightful scent is to be detected.

He found all kinds of metal being mined and manufactured. Only the King’s coinage was accepted in trade, never any foreign currency, though silver and gold was taken in exchange, only by weight. English coinage was pure silver and gold, and could not be taken out of the country, but was exchanged at the ports into the money of the intended country of destination. Chalk, white marble and alabaster were to be found nowhere as fine as in England. In addition, jet-stone was used for eternally burning candles, which could only be extinguished with oil. There was also a legend that the powder from the stone could be mixed with wine to provide testimony of a maiden’s virginity. If they were virgins, it did not disagree with them, but if they were not, it made them vomit immediately.

There were no wolves in England at this time, though there may have been some in Hibernia (Ireland). Csombor had read in the Annales Civitatum Angliae that one reason given for this was that…

… as in this country the greatest profit comes from the keeping of sheep, in time gone by, since the citizens suffered great loss by wolves, a certain decree went forth from the common government that should a town, as an act of grace and mercy, reprieve a man sentenced to death for his crimes, he would be obliged to produce to the town council within a twelvemonth twelve wolves’ heads for his liberty, which being a frequent happening all the breed of wolves has disappeared from among them, and as (Britain) is on all sides surrounded by the sea there is no way that they can arise.

The date of the extermination of the wolf in England is thought to be around 1500; in Scotland and Wales perhaps as late as the eighteenth century, when the last Welsh wolf was killed, according to tradition, at Bleddfa in Powys. The story of the twelve wolves’ heads as the price of a reprieve connects with the legends of Robin Hood, who was said to have been made a Wolfshead (‘outlaw’) for killing a Norman knight, possibly his step-father, in a fight, hence his exile to the forest. The wolf was also a totemic symbol for the Anglo-Saxons. A fellow-traveller in Delft summed this up in a rhyme referring also to the growth of separatist puritans in England, wolves in England are nowhere to be found, but wolf-like heretics now there abound!  The longest day was said to be nineteen hours, but in summer the nights were so bright that craftsmen could work almost as well as by daylight, since the sun did not sink entirely below the horizon. 

The language was, he wrote, a mixture of the languages of Hibernia, Gallia and Germany. Their pronunciation, to his Hungarian ears, was very bad, since they pronounced every ‘u’ as ‘ü’ (in other words, without phonetics). Since he knew no English before he arrived on the island, his observations are those of an elementary learner, perhaps trying to match up written with spoken forms. Neither did he get as far north as Northumberland and Durham, let alone Scotland or Ireland, so would not have heard other dialects of English or Scots.

Observing the speakers of these odd combinations of vowels and consonants, he found them a handsome people of moderate physique. He thought the women folk were especially beautiful, clear and pale of complexion, tall, kind to foreigners, whom they greet with a kiss, both in the street and indoors, and a curtsy. It was evident, he wrote, that they were Anglae angelae, having so angelic an appearance. The male dress was similar to that of the Gauls, but they also wore wide-brimmed black hats. The women had many kinds of dress,  some wearing  high-crowned hats, plaiting their hair above their ears on both sides some wearing just kerchiefs. They widened their skirts with hoops and all agreed in having passed fourteen but not forty. He also commented on how they displayed their breasts very finely if they consider that they can stand forth in white and shapely form, into the cleavage whereof they hang a costly cross or ‘Agnus Dei’, as they call it. Both men and women rode horses, and the ‘girls’ were so good at racing that they could often out-race their husbands in the fields.

In terms of religion, true English people were of the Helvetian denomination, but bishops, organs, white robes in church and other such paraphernalia were preserved. The two great archdiocese, then as now, were Canterbury and York. In addition, there were 19 bishoprics and 50 chief towns. There were just the two universities, Cambridge and Oxford. In London, he was amazed above all at the people’s ignorance of Latin. In his autobiography, Miklós Bethlen also complained of this during his 1664 visit, though in his case with special reference to the professors at Oxford, whom one might have expected, even at that time, to have had a better command of what was still, for Hungarians, along with German, the international language of letters. Csombor was being rather too optimistic, nearly a decade after the mass printing of the King James Bible in English, to expect the craftsmen, shopkeepers and artisans of London to know anything of a language which people of their sort had largely abandoned at least a century before:

… I went along three whole streets among merchants, furriers, tailors etc. and nowhere found a single person that could speak to me in Latin, but after a long time I came upon an Italian on whom I expended the little Italian that I know, and who directed me to the common master of the Italians, saying that there was there a young Hungarian gentleman, at which I was highly delighted and sought him most assiduously, but although he called himself a Hungarian, he could not speak a word of Hungarian to me because he was a Czech, and had only wished to give himself a good name in coming from a distant land a therefore had called himself Hungarian.

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He found lodgings at The Fox and Hounds, by the Great Bridge (probably destroyed in the Great Fire, or possibly The Fox Hall Inn), and went out to look at London’s widest streets, probably including Cornhill. There he observed fine paved roads adorned with big houses and countless channels of running water. Water-sellers could be seen contending for this and taking it in wooden buckets from street to street. The buildings were very tall, made of stone, and their were also pillars bearing the coat of arms of Cornhill, decorated with beautiful images, but he soon found that many of the other streets were extremely narrow and not troubled by the light of the sun. He estimated the circumference of the city as being no more than about four and a half miles. He described London Bridge as the third wonder of the land of England, with eighteen arches… a veritable town in itself, with a church on it and countless merchants’ shops. He was drinking at a fountain near to the Tower of London when a Frenchman, thinking that I was of his nation, reproached me most severely; he held it a disgrace that in the eyes of those that lived there that one of his race should drink water, but on learning my country, he embraced me and begged my pardon, and left me honourably. 

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Entering via a small gate into the City of London, he next encountered a crowd of Saracen girls whom armed robbers had just brought from Ethiopia, and as they were selling them they had dressed them in very fine clothes. He made no further comment on this practice of slavery, being more concerned with describing a huge crayfish, or lobster, presumably more unknown than the slave trade in Hungary. Heading west, through Bishopsgate, with the King’s arms on the outside, and a church to the left on the inside, he saw magnificent grassed gardens where the fine London cloth is dried. Given that the stone wall around the gardens was half a mile in circumference, Csombor was amazed by the amount of cloth that was to be seen within it. He passed through a lower cemetary enclosed for the parish by the City of London just a few years before, in 1615, very near the Aldgate, another of the eight gates into the City. Going on up that street he came to the old Basilica, on the tower of which, before the hour was struck, the statues of two men dragged out a bell,…

… and I was reliably informed that both are cast in pure silver, and neither of them is smaller than me.

Neither the Basilica nor the two figures are mentioned by other contemporary commentators, but it may be St Botolph’s Church, Aldgate, the foundation of which goes back to the Priory dedicated by Matilda of Scotland, daughter of St Margaret (born in Hungary), and wife of Henry I, in 1115, though the origins of the site may go back even further to Saxon times. It was one of four medieval churches, each built by one of the gates to the City and dedicated to the seventh century Saxon saint. The original church was destroyed by the Great Fire, and the current church was built in two phases in the early and mid-eighteenth centuries. Csombor then walked on to St Paul’s Cathedral,

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… divided into three aisles, its paving-stones… inordinately large, and the sanctuary, in which there are many tombs of white, red and black marble and alabaster, is twelve steps above the nave; the sanctuary is opened only at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, but looking in at a window I could see the effigy of a bishop carved in black marble; after the natural corruption of his bones they were dug up and placed above him (with) this verse:

Disce mori mundo, vivere disce Deo

(Learn to die to the world and to live to God)

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Next to the entrance to the Cathedral was a school, and behind that were streets where only booksellers lived, spread over a wide area, bigger than the Hungarian towns he knew. It took him two and a half hours to walk from Tower Hill to Westminster, so this must have included the time visiting the sights he described. He also visited Westminster Abbey which, because of its fine tombs, he agreed was worthily counted one of the three wonders of England. From there, he made his way through various courtyards and gardens to the King’s palace, without being stopped, and tried to glimpse King James,…

… but learnt from his servants that he… had not left his house for fourteen days, nor would he admit any on account of his great business. These palaces are enclosed on all sides by pleasure gardens, and apart from these walks and gardens have been planted with countless linden trees, so many that other than Italy, I believe, no country may boast more of its city, and any that has seen the king of England’s gardens, the people of his court and his palaces in this city will consider as nothing the graceless peasants of Germany…

Go look on London, you whom Fate had made a wanderer,

You who wish to see the land of England.

Seeing London you will see all that glitters under the English King;

this city is esteemed by the good.

Here are piety, calm safety and true love,

and here the faith is seated in a high place.

Csombor found English fruit, especially cherries, very expensive in London, especially compared with Hungary. He was told that the people of England were of such a disposition that when they see some new thing they will buy it at a high price, some for their lovers, some for their husbands, others for their good friends, some simply to hang it on their ears and keep it there until it becomes plentiful, merely as an ornament.

For him, the population of London was so great that he found it crowded every day. In addition to visitors, it was estimated that there were 300,000 people living there. He was clearly staggered by the amount of food entering the City, so that he could say with confidence that there was not a week in which a hundred and fifty oxen and a thousand sheep were not slaughtered there, not counting the numbers of birds and fish.

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Csombor gained entry with the schoolmaster at the Cathedral school, to the sanctuary of St Paul’s, where he saw the tombs of Seba, King of the East Saxons, erected in 677 (it was the kings of Essex who first founded the diocese of St Paul’s), that of King Aethelred I (871). He marvelled greatly at the sight of the extremely beautiful tombs of many bishops, because the carved effigy of each was so lifelike… nature could not find fault with their features. 

He was impressed by the custom by which each ship coming up the Thames fired all its cannon for the king’s pleasure, which could happen as many as two hundred times each day.

On leaving London, Csombor made for Canterbury, and found himself having to ascend Shooter’s Hill, but he soon met up with a pleasant Walloon as a travelling companion who nevertheless, after three or four miles, called for a horse and left Csombor. From the top of the hill, he could see far and wide, as it were a little province, over the City of London. There was a large beacon at the top, at which the City had stationed men so that they could send news of any danger to the towns and villages nearby. From there Csombor could observe a large part of southern England. Descending from the hill, he ate beside a spring and carved the following into a nearby tree, in Latin:

As he gazed on the countryside of England, Márton Csombor here ate and drank from this sweet spring.

He went on unaccompanied, passing Gravesend, and was in the forest beyond the town when he suddenly met with a great Saracen with an axe. He had never seen…

… a blacker man in my life, before or since, and he addressed me in English… but I could make no reply, but said nonetheless that I was making my way to Cantaurium; I was much afraid of his axe, but God granted that he parted from me with great civility having pointed out the way.

He then came to Rochester, a little town like a large French village, but half as big. By this time, the castle was already in ruins. He had seen stone bridges both large and small, but this was more beautiful than any, because its whole length had been decorated with painted ironwork and the arms of the King and country. Here he also saw four big galleys and and fourteen of the King’s ships, finer than those which he had seen in Prussia, Denmark, Frisia, Holland or Zealand; every one had ports for twenty-four guns. He went into an inn, not for a drink, but to have something to eat, and for the sake of appearances he asked for a beer. The barmaid came over to him, as if to pity him in his tiredness and long absence from home, and began to squeeze his hand, caress his head, and kiss him frequently, to which, as a Hungarian, he felt unaccustomed. Realising what she intended, he roused his tired limbs and set off again. Evening drew on, and after going a distance further, he slept at a good inn called The Two Monkeys. 

Setting out from Rocheser the next day, he covered the thirty miles to Canterbury in good time. However, unbelievably for modern Europeans, he had mistaken Canterbury for Cambridge, and, not being able to see it from a distance, was surprised to find its buildings quite poor, except, of course, the Cathedral. When he entered the Cathedral gate, he met James Lambe, the archdeacon, as he thought, though Lambe was in fact the vicar of nearby Holy Cross, Westgate. He asked him, in Latin, for the whereabouts of the grave of the Cambridge divine, Whittaker, and Lambe, who had just graduated from King’s College, Cambridge replied that he had mistaken Cambridge for Canterbury. Seeing that Csombor regretted his wasted journey, the priest told him not to worry, since here he would see the first wonder of England. Taking him by the hand, he took him to an inn, where both he and I became very merry on English beer. Lambe then sent for the key to the Cathedral in which, in papist times, the body of St Thomas of Cantuarium had been venerated, opened it, and took Csombor everywhere inside. The Hungarian felt that a more beautiful building no-one ever saw, for which reason it is reckoned as one of the three wonders of England. He went on:

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Never in my life would I have believed that so beautiful a church could be without gold or silver (for the golden vessels and vestments have all been removed thence) in this world. It has two exceedingly big towers outside; inside it is very high, and on the vaulting are all the coats of arms of the lords of the land; there are countless aisles in it, supported by some hundreds of black marble columns, many picturesque chapels and high and low flights of steps. There are two sanctuaries; the first, in which the everyday prayers and singing take place, is 22 steps above the nave, and there are the episcopal and the archiepiscopal seats; the lectern is very big, of pure Venetian brass, on which a great eagle holds the book on its spread wings; the second sanctuary is somewhat higher than the first, and in it lies the body of St Thomas. On all the columns in the nave there are books, exceedingly old, and among them, to show the eternal blindness of the papists, the Gospel of Nicodemus too is kept, in which there are as many falsehoods as words. There is no plain glass in the windows, but they are decorated with pictures of scenes from the New and Old Testaments; it is an amazing thing that among so many hundreds of columns every corner of the church is so light. A large chapter keeps the church nowadays too, and almost as in papist time they sing the psalms in antiphonal manner, and man, young and old alike, put on the monastic cowl and sing in monkish fashion.

Around the church on all sides are the palaces of the archbishop, bishop and canons, and a fine school, but principally a cloister, a wonderfully dark and serpentine building, in a word everywhere that one looks in this place one sees huge traces of antiquity. The town is not very big, nor beautiful, nevertheless it is flat, has many ruinous gardens, fine gates and a decent town hall; bread and wine are expensive there, and the beer is good and tolerable in price.

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Having seen all these things, Lambe and Csombor returned to the priest’s house where from three to six o’ clock they kept the company of the beer glasses. His host sought to detain him, but Csombor’s purse was becoming very thin, partly due to the cost of everything compared to Hungary, and partly due to the ‘exchange rate’ he was given for his gold forints, which were worth no more than 160 pennies each, about two-thirds of a pound. Taking leave of James Lambe, he set off for the coast; in the evening he came to a dense forest, and as he could no longer see his way ahead, he lay down under a thorn-bush. He was awoken by two peasants gathering wood who directed him to a nearby inn, but, as it was so late at night to disturb the innkeeper, and he had very little English, he decided to stay in the forest, surrounded by the song of nightingales and the doleful cries of owls.

Next morning he rose early and reached Dover at seven. It had two bastions, both overlooking the sea, with four cannon on each, and a strong castle on the hilltop almost like that of Szepes, its walls extending to the seashore. Here, and in the other coastal towns of England, the sailors would not take anyone on board without credentials. He therefore went to the Commissioner of the Passage (an official appointed by the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports to issue licenses to travel abroad) who mistook him for a Walloon and therefore questioned him in French. When he replied in Latin, the Commissioner continued in German, questioning him as to where he was from and what his religion was. Csombor said that he was a Protestant from the city of Frankfurt ad Oderan in Germany, and was therefore given a pass for the Normandy port of Dieppe. From Dieppe, he went on to Paris and then through Germany to the Czech lands and Silesia, returning to Kassa via Krakow. He arrived home in August 1618, having set off in April. He was then ordained in the Calvinist Church and became Schoolmaster in Kassa in 1619. His little book appeared in 1621, but Csombor died in an epidemic of plague the following year.

Prayer Book and Persecution, 1662.   Leave a comment

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Listening to the Sunday morning service on BBC Radio 4, and to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, preaching on this the first Sunday in Lent, I was reminded of two great events in Church History which happened 350 years ago this year. The first was referred to in the introit sentence for Lent, taken from the Prayer Book published in 1662, ‘Rend not your garments, but your hearts’. I quoted this in last week’s blog about the Lent Events of last week, some outward signs of which are based on the Old Testament signs of penitence, ‘sackcloth and ashes’. The second, which I was reminded of by broadcasts and discussions throughout last week and again, by Dr Williams’ sermon from the King’s School in Canterbury this morning, referring to ‘God’s Liberty’, is known as ‘the Great Ejectment’ which followed ‘the Act of Uniformity‘ of 1662.

First, a little personal background is perhaps necessary in order to explain my spiritual motivations. I lived and worked in Canterbury until last year, worshipping in two very different Anglican churches and the United Reformed Church in Watling Street. I also attended Evensong at the Cathedral, and walked with my son on the Youth Pilgrimage twice on Easter Monday, a walk led by Rowan Williams along the River Stour into the city, where we sang joyful, vibrant songs accompanied by a rock band. The Pilgrimage started at Chartham, where I lived and worshipped, on opposite sides of the Village Green. Although a Nonconformist, a Baptist by believers’ baptism at the age of fourteen and a Quaker ‘by convincement’ in my twenties, I had, like Rowan Williams, found a home as a student in the disestablished Anglican church in Wales, training for teaching Religious Education at Trinity College, Carmarthen before taking up an appointment at a voluntary-controlled Church of England Secondary School in Lancashire. There I worshipped regularly at the local parish church, until I was told by the rector that if I wished to continue to take communion, I would need to be confirmed by the Bishop. Since I had already given my confession and been received into ‘the church universal’ ten years earlier, I saw no reason for this, and stopped attending. Instead, I found a very open, if small, meeting of Quakers in the town, and having attended Quaker meeting in my early student days in Bangor, again became a ‘refugee’ attender in Lancashire, then moving to Coventry, where I am still in membership, though unable to attend at present, being ‘in exile’ here in Hungary. So, when we went to live in Chartham as a family, we were delighted to be welcomed by the rector and congregation there, who had seen the last Nonconformist ’causes’ in the village close down, and made it clear that everyone living in the village, from whatever Christian ‘tradition’, was welcome to receive communion on equal terms. On this basis, I also became a member of the Parochial Church Council until the rector left and diocesan ‘authority’ was again restored.   From this background, you may begin to understand why I hold strong beliefs about religious liberties in general, the role of the state in this, and the rights of parents to have access to a broad and deep Religious Education for their children within the state-funded system which they support through taxation and, indeed, in the case of Nonconformity, helped to create.

I’ve always been interested in the History of Nonconformity, or ‘Dissent’, going back to the time of the Reformation and the ‘Gunpowder Plot‘. As a History teacher in my second appointment in Coventry, I researched the Catholic Rebellion in the Midlands which accompanied ‘the Plot’, which I discovered was really a plot by the Stuart state in Whitehall against the ‘recusant’ Midland gentry. I also joined the English Civil War re-enactors, ‘the Sealed Knot’ and began to play a ‘Quaker’ corporal in the New Model Army. It was then that I encountered the real chaplains in the Army, Henry Pinnell and Richard Baxter, both of whom had worked for a lasting peace with the King based on a tolerant, national church for all Protestant believers, which would no longer have the monarch as its Head. Charles refused this, and thereby lost his. I played the part of Pinnell in my regiment, much of the part being based on Baxter, about whom we know a lot more.

After the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy and state, Baxter, as a leading Puritan, continued to work for a broad settlement in the Church of England. However, the restored bishops refused to take the hand of friendship from those, they believed, who had turned them out of their ‘livings’.  They also sincerely believed that the people were being wrongly taught, and persuaded the new King to agree to ‘The Act of Uniformity’, to make everyone conform to a uniform way of worship. The Puritan ministers would need to promise to use the restored Prayer Book and obey their bishops, or they would be expelled from their parishes. The deadline for this was set as St Bartholemew’s Day, August 24th, 1662. Baxter was one among many ministers who could not promise this, not because he couldn’t use the Prayer Book, but because he believed that it was wrong for the state to force people to do anything against their conciences, and so could not accept the Act itself.  Being turned out of their churches also meant losing their homes so that, as Baxter wrote in the autumn of 1662, “hundreds of good ministers with their wives and children had neither home nor bread”. Worse was to follow. Many of the people loved their ministers and tried to help them, following them about, listening to their teaching in private homes and outdoors. A further law was made, this time against the people as well as the ministers, stopping such meetings and imprisoning those attending to prison. This was called ‘The Conventicle (or Meeting) Act’. Prisons soon became full of brave people who defied the Act, especially the Quakers.  Baxter admired them for their courage in the face of persecution, though disagreeing with many of their ideas. They met openly and didn’t resist arrest, continuing their meetings in prison.  Baxter also fell victim to these laws. He couldn’t return to Kidderminster and had to move home nine times in three years, being followed by spies wherever he went, who reported even his visits to the sick, in which he prayed with them. This, the magistrates claimed, was a ‘conventicle’ under the law.  “What a joy would it have been to them” he wrote, “to have found but such an occasion as praying with a dying woman to have laid me up in prison.” Another time he was preaching in the window of a house when he was shot at, but muskets and pistols were not very accurate weapons, so thankfully no-one was hurt by the ‘sniper’s bullet’.

In 1665 the Great Plague came to London. Of course, it was the duty of clergymen to stay with the dying and help the  bereaved families, but so many fled into the country that the silenced nonconformist ministers were needed too badly for anyone to stop them from ministering to the Plague victims. They said that “no obedience to any laws could justify them from neglecting men’s souls and bodies in such want and that it would be a poor excuse to say to God, ‘how I was forbidden by the law’ “.  Despite this, or perhaps because of the popularity they had gained because of it, another Act was passed against them, the Five Mile Act, forbidding them from coming within five miles of any important town or any place where they had once been ministers. Since help from ‘the Parish’ for the jobless could only be obtained from the area which was, or had been, their home, this meant that the nonconformist ministers would be starved out. Some emigrated, and those that stayed either hid in out-of-the-way villages, or lived secretly near their own homes, visiting their wives and children only at night.  Baxter shows how, even by this hard law, God was able bring good out of evil, because many ministers had little to lose by continuing to preach and teach openly rather than see their children starve. So congregations continued to grow and support them, and there were not enough jails to hold the numbers defying the  three Acts of Parliament.

One of those living in prison was John Bunyan, who had been an officer in Cromwell’s Army, and wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress, which became the second most popular book in England, and one of the most important works of literature in English, because of its influence on the development of the language. It was written during his seven years in Bedford Jail.  Baxter himself, and his family, escaped the Plague, though the churchyard at Acton, six miles from London, “was like a ploughed field with graves”.  The Great Fire of 1666, the next terrible event to strike the City. Everyone knows Pepys’ version of these events, and I’m using a simplified English reader on it in class at present, but Baxter noticed that “those who had money managed to get their carts and carriages and horses to carry away their possessions from the burning houses, but the poor lost almost all they had”.  The only possessions Baxter ever cared much about were his books, perhaps because he, like Bunyan, believed the pen to be ‘mightier than the sword’ or, to put it another way which I was also reminded of last week, ‘books are weapons’ (it’s a pity that those American soldiers who burnt copies of the Qu’uran were not educated enough to understand the symbolic force their act would have). Baxter noted in his diary the huge number of books destroyed in the fire:

“Almost all the booksellers in St Paul’s Churchyard brought their books  into vaults under St Paul’s where it was thought almost impossible that fire should come. But the Church itself being on fire, the exceeeding weight of stones falling down did break into the vault and let in the fire and they could not come near to save the books.”

Many othe libraries were burnt and six miles away at Acton Baxter noticed half-burnt pages blowing past his cottage door. Just as he had had to go to the battlefield at Edgehill to see the destruction for himself, so too with the Fire. Defying the Five Mile Act, on his way to the City he saw “the fields filled with heaps of goods and costly furniture” and at last caught sight of “all the buildings aflame” and “the air as far as could be beheld, so filled with the smoke that the sun shined through it with a colour like blood”.

Baxter thought these events should have stopped the religious quarrels and persecutions, but each side blamed the other for what had happened. The nonconformists, who were among the poor Londoners who suffered most, were one of the groups blamed for starting the fire, perhaps because their ministers had been forced, like Baxter, to leave the City’s churches, and people suspected it was an act of vengeance on their part. This shows how little such people understood the beliefs of the Dissenting congregations, however, who once more were allowed to open their meeting houses to those who needed comfort and shelter, or a place to meet,  having not only lost their houses and possessions but also their places of worship.

Baxter himself was careful not to be seen as setting himself up in competition with the established church, still hoping for a better settlement with it. He continued to preach to family and friends in Acton, and then to growing numbers from surrounding parishes, but he did not preach during church times and, since his house was close to the church, he took people to hear the Vicar after he had preached to them!  However, the Vicar eventually became jealous of Baxter and informed the King that Baxter was breaking the Conventicle Act.  He was visited by the magistrates, but refused to stop preaching and so was imprisoned, but Newgate was too full of Quakers already!  So instead, he was sent to Clerkenwell where he was allowed a room of his own, which his wife could share.  However, he knew that, on release, he would have to leave Acton, because of the Five Mile Act.

I’ll be writing more about his time in and out of prison later in the week. For now, I want to conclude with the points that I raised to begin with. The attempts of the state to impose uniformity in religion through the 1662 Prayer Book seem a very long way away from the tolerant, multi-cultural, multi-faith society we live in today. Yet our society did not emerge out of that one like a butterfly out of a chrysalis as if by magic. It required the courage, self-discipline and sacrifices of men and women like Richard Baxter,  John Bunyan and William Penn, whom I shall also be writing about later. Let me sign off, for now, with this paradox: ‘out of unity, comes diversity; out of diversity comes unity’.

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