Saturday, 20 August 2016

A Marginalised Region?

This is a talk given by Wales's finest historian John Davies in Mold in 2007. It deserved a wider audience, not least for those who believe the north-east of Wales is no more than an adjunct to Liverpool. Sadly John Bwlchllan died last year but his work lives on.

The north-east in the history of Wales
John Davies
My theme is the role that the inhabitants of the north-east – essentially the old counties of Flintshire and Denbighshire, or the one-time county of Clwyd – have played in the history of Wales. There is a tendency – in the south in particular, but also perhaps in the north-west – to consider the north-east to be a rather detached part of Wales, or, indeed, to be more of an adjunct of Merseyside than an integral part of the Welsh nation.
Evidence of the marginalization of the region is apparent from the fact that it did not become location of one of the founding constituent colleges of the University of Wales. Nor did it obtain the northern headquarters of the BBC in Wales, despite the fact that the number of inhabitants in the two original north-eastern counties exceeds that of the three original north-western counties by over a hundred thousand. It has no city, no out-station of the National Museum, and, as yet, no World Heritage Site. The region has not had its share of Welsh institutions, not because it is an unsuitable place in which to locate such institutions, but because we in the rest of Wales have connived in the region’s marginalization. And I speak as one from the rest of Wales, for in my advocacy of the north-east, I am inspired, not by any personal or family associations with the region, but by a feeling that that marginalization is fundamentally unjust.
My essential argument is that, rather than being an adjunct of the rest of Wales, the rest of Wales is in fact an adjunct of the north-east. To sustain my argument, I hope to show that the majority of the significant events in the history of Wales took place in the one-time county of Clwyd. If we go back to the very beginnings, we find that the first evidence of the existence of human beings in Wales comes from the Pontnewydd Cave in the Elwy Valley, west of St Asaph. It is a human tooth which is 250,000 years old, and was, as the journal Antiquity put it, in the ‘mouth of the first Welshman’. A neighbouring cave, that of Ffynnon Beuno, yielded Wales’s best artefact from the Palaeolithic Age and also the bones of prehistoric animals which Darwin studied while he was developing his theory of evolution.
During the Neolithic Age, when the emphasis seems to have be upon the seafarers following the western sea routes, it would be reasonable to expect that the north-east was not in the forefront. Yet Y Gop at Trelawnyd is the most astonishing monument of Neolithic Wales – a mound hardly less in size than the superb monuments of the same period at Newgrange in Ireland. 

The Bronze Age – the period extending from about 2,400 to 600 BC – the central role of the north-east is even more apparent. Flintshire yielded by far the most astonishing Bronze Age artefact found in Britain – the elaborate ceremonial cape which came to light in Mold in 1833. And may I say that we in Wales have as good a right to see the cape repatriated to Wales from the British Museum as have the Greeks to demand the return of the Elgin Marbles.
By the opening of the last pre-Christian millennium, the north-east – and one could include in the term the county of Montgomery – was an area of intense activity. The earliest ramparts of the great hill-fort at Dinorben date from 1000 BC, making them broadly contemporaneous with the first Temple in Jerusalem. Although it has been much undermined by quarrying, Dinorben is still astonishing, and what is even more astonishing is that it is only one of the north-east’s supendous group of hill-forts. Dinorben, Penycorddyn Mawr, Llanymynech, Breiddin, Ffridd Faldwyn and the rest are among the most spectacular monuments of British prehistory. Hardly anything on that scale was built anywhere else in Wales. Some of the forts contain the foundations of considerable groups of houses indicating that this part of Wales, in the last centuries of prehistory, was capable of sustaining quasi-urban communities. Some of the earliest evidence of links between Wales and the Celtic civilization coming into existence in central Europe has come from the north-east. As the Hallstatt culture developed into that known as La Tène, the north-east is again represented, with the hanging bowl from Cerrigydrudion and the fire dogs from Capel Garmon.
So far, I have been considering prehistory, the era before the availablity of written records; with the availability of such records, we are, of course, ushered into the historical era. It is in the north-east that the historical era in Wales begins. The first written evidence of any area of Wales is Tacitus’s 1st-century account of the Roman attack upon the Deceangli, the people living between the Dee and the Clwyd. The huge military camp discovered at Rhyn Park near the mouth of the Ceiriog Valley indicates the scale of the Roman preparations and the degree of resistance they expected. Tacitus’s account, however, suggests that the Deceangli accepted Roman rule peacefully. Part of the appeal of the area to the Romans was its lead deposits, deposits that had long been exploited in prehistory and which would loom large in the history of the north-east almost until the 20th century.
Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, the main focus of the history of Wales is concerned with the growth of the Christian church and the state-building activities of the Welsh rulers. Among the most important indications of the growth of the Christian church are the inscribed stones of the 5th to 8th centuries, and the most varied group of such stones comes from the western part of the old Denbighshire, the area around Penmachno. The most important monument to state-building in early Christian Wales is the Eliseg Pillar near Llangollen, which celebrates the achievements of the royal house of Powys. Equally indicative of the achievments of that house is Offa’s Dyke, which can be seen at its best in the north-east. That Offa, king of Mercia, felt the need to demarcate the border between his kingdom and that of Powys, surely indicates that the early Powys had attained a substantial amount of territorial coherence.
The historical record increases markedly from the 12th century onwards. By then it is evident that the north-east belonged to two distinct polities. Its southern part - the cantrefi and commotes of Maelor, Iâl, Nanheudwy, Cynllaith and Edeirnion – were part of Powys, while the northern and western part – the Perfeddwlad, that is the four cantrefi of Tegeingl, Dyffryn Clwyd, Rhos and Rhufoniog – were considered by the rulers of Gwynedd to constitute the eastern part of their territories, a part that they knew as Gwynedd Is Conwy.
In the late 12th century, Powys split into two, and Maelor, Iâl, Nanheudwy, Cynllaith and Edeirnion came to constitute Powys Fadog. It was these two constituent parts of the north-east – the Perfeddwlad and Powys Fadog – which provided the stage for the major drama of 13th Century Wales, the attempt of the rulers of Gwynedd to gain hegemony over the rulers of the rest of Wales. The success of that attempt ebbed and flowed, and the measuring rod of success and failure always depended upon who ruled the Perfeddwlad. When it was ruled by Gwynedd, the cause of the two Llywelyns was in the ascendant; when it was ruled by the kings of England, that cause was in jeopardy. And of course, when the final loss of the Perfeddwlad came about in 1277, that prepared the way for the last chapter in the history of the Welsh principality, a chapter which – with the attack upon Hawarden and the proclamation of the Statute of Rhuddlan – had the north-east as its main stage.
The Edwardian conquest endowed Wales with its most distinguished buildings, the Edwardian castles – the “magnificent badges of our
servitude”, to quote the comment of that distinguished native of Flintshire,Thomas Pennant. When we think of the castles, we tend to think of the north-west, of Caernarfon, Conwy, Harlech and Beaumaris. Yet, it should be borne in mind that the talented architect of those splendid castles, James of St George, had honed his skills in the north-east, in his work on the castles of Flint and Rhuddlan. Furthermore, the most ingenious example of medieval defensive architecture in Wales, and very possibly in Europe – the triple octagonal tower gate at Denbigh – is very much one of the treasures of the north-east.
The next great crisis in the history of Wales – the Rising of Owain Glyndwˆ r – is again very much a north-eastern affair. Glyndwˆ r was quintessentially a figure of the north-eastern March; he represented the senior line of the lords of Powys Fadog, and lived at Sycharth, Llansilin, a mere stone’s throw from the English border. Many of the major events of the Rising – the quarrel with Grey of Ruthin, the proclamation of Owain as prince in Glyndyfyrdwy, the attacks on the north-eastern towns and the burning of Sycharth – were events in the north-east. The north-east was also the setting for that crisis in the history of the English monarchy which in part led to the Rising – the capture of Richard II at Flint Castle and his
eventual murder.
While central to the story of war and rebellion, the north-east was also central to more peaceful and cultural pursuits. That was in part the consequence of the fact that, from the late 15th to the late 18th
century, the north-east was unquestionably the most prosperous part of Wales. It has a higher proportion of land of high fertility than any other part of Wales. It played a central part in the rise of the woollen industry; of the 62 fulling mills built in Wales between 1400 and 1500, the majority were built in Flintshite and what would be Denbighshire. The continuing exploitation of the leadmines of Tegeingl and Maelor was also important, as were the incipient industries of the north-eastern coalfield. The most evident fruit of this prosperity is architectural. The north-east has the wonderful shrine at Holywell and the splendid late medieval churches of St Giles, Wrexham, St Eurgain, Northop, and above all All Saints, Gresford, by far the finest parish church in Wales. But the north- east’s true architectural richness comes from its large number of humbler buildings – the many two-aisled churches of the Vale of Clwyd, for example, and the gentry and yeomen’s houses of the countryside and the sparkling black-and-white buildings of Ruthin.


Less immediately evident, but perhaps more significant, was the role of the north-east in the history of the Welsh literature of the late medieval period. Saunders Lewis liked to describe that as “Canrif Fawr Llenyddiaeth Gymraeg” (the Great Century of Welsh Literature) and indeed the roll call of the distinguished poets of the era gives credence to his description. That roll call would include Tudur Aled, Guto’r Glyn, Gutun Owain, Iolo Goch, Dafydd ab Edmwnd and Lewys Glyn Cothi. Of the poets listed, all, with the exception of Lewys Glyn Cothi, were natives of the north-east and depended upon the gentry of that region – Hywel ap Dafydd of Northop, for example – for the patronage which sustained them.
Not content with being central to the flowering of late medieval Welsh culture, the north-east was even more central to the next cultural phase – the Renaissance. Indeed, the Renaissance in Wales is essentially an episode in the history of the counties of Denbigh and Flint. The architectural pre-eminence evident in late 15th and early 16th Century Holywell and Gresford is even more evident in late 16th and early 17th Century Bachegraig, Plas Clough and Plas Teg. Of the Welshmen of distinction in that era, the greatest humanist, William Salesbury, was a native of Llansannan, the greatest benefactor, William Morgan, of Penmachno, the greatest scholar, John Davies of Mallwyd, of Llanferres, the leading financier, Richard Clough, of Denbigh, and the most dedicated gardener, Thomas Hanmer, of Bettisfield. It has been argued that the factor which above all distinguishes Welsh-language culture from the cultures associated with other Celtic languages is the readiness of some in Wales to embrace Renaissance ideas; without the north-east, Wales would not have been endowed with that benefit.
The pre-eminence of the north-east remained apparent in the mid and late 17th century. In that era, Wrexham was almost certainly the largest town in Wales, and its role as a centre of progressive thinking was evident during the Civil War years. The most gifted of the gentry families of those years was the Myddelton family of Chirk, and the most successful land accumulators of the era was the Watkin Wynn family of Wynnstay, near Ruabon, who, by the mid 18th century, had made Wynnstay the centre of by far the largest landed estate in Wales.
In the late 18th century, Wales’s leading naturalist and historian was Thomas Pennant of Plas Downing, near Mostyn, author of Tours in Wales, the first volume of which appeared in 1778. The title of the work would suggest Wales as a whole, but it is evident that he considered that the only region deserving of extended treatment was the north-east. It was his work that convinced leading figures in England that Wales was intellectually interesting, thus initiating the stream of penpushing English tourists who visited into Wales from the 1780s onwards. That tradition reached its climax with George Borrow, whose main interest was the north-east and who spent the first half of his Welsh visit at Llangollen.
An indication of what was considered interesting in Wales comes from the piece of doggerel entitled ‘the Seven Wonders of Wales’, which was probably written in the 1790s:
Pistyll Rhaeadr and Wrexham steeple, Snowdon’s mountain without its people, Overton’s yew trees, St Winifred’s wells, Llangollen’s bridge and Gresford’s bells.
Of the seven, Snowdon, at the time, was in Caernarfonshire and Pistyll Rhaeadr was shared between Denbighshire and Montgomeryshire; Wrexham’s steeple, Llangollen’s bridge and Gresford’s bells were in Denbighshire, while Overton’s yews and Winifred’s wells were in Flintshire. Thus, Wales’s tourist attractions were being interpreted almost exclusively in terms of the north-east.
This was partly the consequence of the fact that the north-east was the first part of Wales to have turnpike roads linking the region to the road network of the kingdom as a whole. The first act authorising a turnpike road in Wales was that of 1752, and concerned the linking of Ellesmere in Shropshire with Overton in Flintshire and Wrexham in Denbighshire. A further twenty Wales-related acts were passed in the following fifteen years, half of which involved the north-east. It may have been the breaking down of isolation caused by roadbuilding which caused the north-east to be, in the late 18th Century, the most politically aware part of Wales. Petitions in favour of parliamentary reform came disproportionately from Denbighshire and Flintshire. Those counties were also at the forefront of agricultural improvement in late 18th century Wales, with the innovations of the Watkin Wynns of Wynnstay and the insistence of Philip Yorke of Erddig that ‘every field of my estate will be kept to the culture I shall dictate’.
The pre-eminence in Welsh culture enjoyed by the north-east in the late medieval and the Renaissance eras was equally apparent in later periods. The movement which eventually gave rise to the National Eisteddfod had its roots in the north-east, where there was a proud memory of the 16th Century eisteddfodau at Caerwys. If theatre in Wales has its roots in the Interlude, then the north-east is the birthplace of Welsh drama. (Perhaps the later efforts of Lord Howard de Walden at Chirk and of R. O. F. Wynne at Garthewin are echoes of those earlier endeavours.)
In the 19th century, the novel in Welsh first reached a distinguished level with the writings of Daniel Owen of Mold and again, perhaps, the later writings of Islwyn Ffowc Elis of Wrexham and the Ceiriog Valley are echoes of that early endeavour. Among the first permanent schools to be established in Wales was that of Gabriel Goodman at Ruthin, the beginning of educational innovation which perhaps had its echoes in the 20th Century in Flintshire’s pioneering role in the field of Welsh-medium education. It would be tedious to recount the number of times one has had to disagree with the statement that Rhydfelen in Glamorgan was the first Welsh- medium secondary school in the world. Rhydfelen was opened in 1962, six years after the opening of Glan Clwyd in Flintshire.
But if it is evident that the north-east, time and time again, has made a wholly disproportionate contribution to the history and culture of Wales, why does the region now seem to have been marginalised? Some would maintain that that is the result of the Industrial Revolution which caused the south-east to become far and away the most populous part of Wales. Yet it could be argued that the industrialization of the north-east was both earlier and more fundamental than the industrialization of the south-east.
The great innovation in heavy industry in the 18th Century – the smelting of iron with coke rather than charcoal – was adopted in Bersham in 1721, decades before such an innovation was adopted in Merthyr. I mentioned that the north- east has no out-station of the National Museum. Bersham, with its fascinating evidence of its industrial past, would make an admirable National Museum of iron-making. Merthyr and other southern centres produced iron in bulk, but rarely manufactured objects made from iron. The industry in the north-east was far more sophisticated. There, objects were made from iron, in particular virtually all the cylinders used in Watt’s steam engines. Furthermore, iron from the south- eastern works was not used to create ironwork masterpieces such as those produced by the Davies family of Esclusham, masterpieces that can still be seen in Chirk, Leeswood and Wrexham. Industrial development in the north-east was far more varied and innovative, extending from metalwork to chemicals, from textiles to pottery, and from paper to shipbuilding. In 1774, Dr Johnson counted nineteen different works within two miles of St Winifred’s Well in Holywell. By today, Greenfield, below Holywell, is a veritable open-air museum of industrial archaeology. In 1801, some 30,000 people lived in the essentially industrial 25-mile belt between Holywell and Wrexham. In 1801, hardly half that number lived in the equivalent industrial belt between Merthyr and Pontypool.
Of course, from the mid 19th century onwards, the astonishing growth of coalmining in the south-east made that region the heartland of industry in Wales, and the heartland too of industrial militancy in Wales. Yet it should be remembered that the first trade-union members in Wales were not in Merthyr. They were in Bagillt, where a branch of the Friendly Associated Coalminers’ Union was established in 1830. Much has rightly been made of the significance of the Merthyr Rising of 1831, but in stressing the significance of the Merthyr Rising, we have perhaps tended to neglect to stress the significance of the Mold Riots of 1869.
Furthermore, it could be argued that the growth in coalmining – the key to the popualtion supremacy of the south-east – is not in itself an advance in industrialization. Indeed, the distinguished economic historian, John Williams, argued that mining coal is an extractive industry, just like agriculture, and therefore raised doubts about whether the south Wales coalfield was ever industrialized in the fullest sense of the word.
In marked contrast, the north-east was industrialised in the fullest sense of the word, and its development of a more varied industrial base than that which developed in the south-east saved it from the worst rigours of the depression of the 1920s and 1930s. Indeed, in the inter-war years, all the counties of Wales suffered from a fall in population, with the sole exception of Flintshire. And, above all, industrialisation in the north-east resulted in the building of the finest structure to grace the land of Wales. I am referring to the wonderful Pontcysyllte aqueduct, whose recognition as a World Heritage site is, I devoutly hope, shortly to be announced.
And there, I had better stop. I began preparing this talk in the belief that without the north-east, Wales would have been a much poorer place. While working on the theme, I came to the conclusion that, without the north- east, Wales, in any meaningful sense, would not exist at all.

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