St. David’s Day: Parliament and the Welsh Language (Part One)

In honour of St. David, the patron saint of Wales and St. David’s Day today, Dr Stephen Roberts, our Director, editor of the Commons 1640-1660 Section and proud Welshman, offers this first of two blogs outlining a brief history of the relationship between Parliament and the Welsh language. Today he explains the Tudor statute that banned Welsh language from law courts and public office and the attitudes of later Tudor and Stuart Parliaments. Be sure to look out for tomorrow’s post considering the 19th and 20th centuries…

In 1536 a parliamentary statute noted in its preamble that the people of Wales ‘have and do daily use a speech nothing like nor consonant to the natural mother tongue used within this realm’, and claimed to deplore attempts by ‘some rude and ignorant people’ to make ‘distinction and diversity’ between the king’s English and Welsh subjects, so that ‘discord, variance, debate, division, murmur and sedition’ had grown up between them. Henry VIII (whose father was of course Welsh), motivated according to the statute by ‘a singular zeal, love and favour’ that he bore towards the people of Wales, had therefore decided through Parliament to impose on them a ‘perfect order notice and knowledge’ of English laws and to ‘extirpe’ (extirpate) all Welsh usages and customs that differed from the English. The new law went on to detail what this meant: the annexation of Wales to England; the imposition of English law and English tenures of property; the replacement of marcher lordships and Welsh shires by new counties and county towns; and the establishment of the regime by which each Welsh county would return a single Member to Parliament, and each county town would send another. The act explicitly imposed English as the language of the law courts and forbade the use of Welsh in them, making it unlawful for a monoglot Welsh speaker to hold public office.

The provisions of the statute were far-reaching and enduring. The Welsh parliamentary constituencies thus created were altered piecemeal only from 1832, and the historic Welsh counties survived until 1974. While the 1536 statute prohibited the use of Welsh in the courts, it said nothing about the use of the language by the people, and did not attempt to ‘extirpe’ the Welsh language as such, which is sometimes claimed. And in practice, although the two official languages of law and public business in Wales were English and Latin, it would prove impossible to keep Welsh out of the courts, since monoglot Welsh speakers were never denied access to the law, and interpreters, however unofficial, amateur, crude and prejudicial to justice their efforts may have been, were necessarily part of Welsh legal proceedings. Nor did Parliament in this period ever undertake any campaign to eradicate the Welsh language.

The attitude of later Tudor and Stuart Parliaments towards Welsh might best be described as one of benign neglect, or fitful mild interest. But in the field of public organized religion the tendency of the Henrician Act of Union towards depressing the status and quality of the Welsh language in Elizabethan times met with a check. Driven by renaissance humanist scholarship, successful efforts to publish translations into Welsh of the New Testament (1567) and the whole Bible (1588) underpinned the form, structures and standard of the language for generations to come. The proselytizing of the determined Protestants known in one generation as puritans, in the next as nonconformists, ran with the grain of the language of the common people, not against it. The short-lived Act for the Propagation of the Gospel in Wales (1650) said nothing about Welsh, but those who implemented the statute, driven by a sincere wish to engage with the common people, did what they could to ensure a supply of Welsh-speaking preachers and teachers. Even so, many would have shared the opinion of a Welsh minister in 1641: ‘If the care or provision for us be committed to our Welsh parliamentary knights and burgesses, our hopes are gone’.

Part Two will be published tomorrow, 2nd March.

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