An Early Welsh Manifesto

To celebrate St David’s Day tomorrow, Dr Stephen Roberts, the editor of our Commons 1640-1660 section, discusses a text used in the Civil War to try and win over the primarily royalist-supporting Wales to the Presbyterian cause in Parliament…

Title Page, John Lewis 'Contemplations', 1st edition, 1646
Title Page, John Lewis ‘Contemplations’, 1st edition, 1646

Unique among Cardiganshire people in exploiting the printing press to promote Parliament after the civil war was John Lewis of Glasgrug, Llanbardarn Fawr. His book, Contemplations upon These Times, Or, The Parliament Explained to Wales, was published in London in August 1646 a few months after Aberystwyth surrendered to parliamentarian forces. It was addressed to his Welsh compatriots, and explained the Civil War in terms of the failure by Charles I to heed his Parliament and of his reliance instead on evil advisers. This was a standard line of justification by parliamentarians, but Lewis goes on to address directly the unpopularity of the Directory of Worship, a Presbyterian service book which by parliamentary authority replaced the Book of Common Prayer. Loyalty to the Prayer Book was markedly strong in Wales, but Lewis encourages the Welsh people to regard it not as a divine gift sealed with the blood of Protestant martyrs, but as a century-old house, once habitable but no longer adequate for modern needs. The Covenant with the Scots is not a ‘new trick’, but imitates the biblical covenant between God and his people ‘in their extremities’.

Expressing regret that he has to dwell on his own nation’s shortcomings, Lewis argues that God has been good to Wales, despite the country’s support for the king in the civil war. New translations of the Bible into Welsh are appearing; godly ministers are turning parishes into centres of godly Protestantism; a Welsh dictionary is now available, and most remarkable of all, the Welsh language has survived. In typical Puritan providentialist fashion, Lewis argues that this must be for a reason: for the greater glory of God among the Welsh people. Looking forward to further development, he anticipates the founding of colleges in Wales, ‘for the profession of the more necessary kind of arts and good literature’, not to rival but to complement the two English universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

'Contemplations' dedication page
‘Contemplations’ dedication page

Lewis’s text can be read as a straightforward polemic on behalf of Parliament, but it is more targeted than that. It is in fact an early election manifesto. He dedicates his work to three powerful English politicians and MPs: Sir Robert Harley, John Glynne and Sir Thomas Myddelton. Harley was from Herefordshire, but had long been interested in advancing Protestantism in Wales; Glynne, from Caernarfonshire, was a prominent lawyer and recorder of the City of London; Myddelton, from north-east Wales, had been commander of one of Parliament’s armies. All three were leaders among the Presbyterians in Parliament, embarking on a campaign to recruit men to empty seats for Wales and the west in the House of Commons. They were seeking not undifferentiated supporters of Parliament, but supporters of a particular stamp: Presbyterians like themselves, in favour of the Directory and a negotiated settlement with the king. Their opponents in the House, the Independents (Oliver Cromwell by this time prominent among them) were much less sympathetic to the Scots and to Presbyterian liturgy.

The Presbyterian project failed, as it took no account either of the king’s duplicitous character or of the aspirations of the soldiers of the New Model army. But Lewis’s literary efforts are interesting in the development of Welsh politics. His arguments were intended to make Wales a reliable reservoir of political support for Parliament, which would have replicated Charles’s earlier successes in the Civil War. They looked forward to patterns of future centuries, when under a different electoral system Wales had many more voters but could be regarded as a bloc to be courted by managers at Westminster. And his arguments in favour of Welsh colleges were an early expression of an idea which reached full expression with the creation of the university colleges of the nineteenth century.


For more on Wales during the Civil War and interregnum, see Stephen’s earlier post ‘Welsh Electoral Arithmetic

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