St David’s Day: The First Welsh Republican

For those of you who have been waiting with bated breath for another blog from our resident Welshman and History of Parliament Trust Director, Dr Stephen Roberts, the wait is over. Last March for St David’s Day, Stephen explored the development of the relationship between Parliament and the Welsh language (Part One and Part Two). Today he explains the journey of the first Welsh republican, from his humble beginnings in the countryside of north Wales to his execution at Charing Cross for Regicide…

From the coastal nature reserve of Morfa Dyffryn, a few miles south of the  brooding promontory of Harlech castle in north Wales, a minor road runs eastwards up into the mountains. The sinuous way follows the course of Nantcol, the name given to both river and valley which in centuries past offered a more attractive prospect for farming than the overlooking bleak, rocky mountainsides. If you travel up the valley, eventually you reach the farmstead of Maesygarnedd, set in some of the most spectacular scenery of the Snowdonia National Park. Maesygarnedd is a working farm today, as it was around 1600, when it was the birthplace of Siôn ap Tomos ap Siôn ap Ieuan ap Huw, or Siôn ap Tomos as he may have been known to the monoglot Welsh speakers who formed the sparse local populace.

Siôn ap Tomos was put to service with the Myddelton family of Chirk Castle, and was evidently thought to be able, since he rose to be steward of the Myddeltons’ household in London. We don’t know whether Siôn ap Tomos left Maesygarnedd for England as a youth through the romantic mountain pass of Drws Ardudwy (The Door of Ardudwy) between the two mountains of Rhinog Fawr and Rhinog Fach. If he did, it would have been by packhorse or on foot. Perhaps more prosaically he travelled to London by picking up the Holyhead-London coach, via Chester. However he got to London he was successful there, and in the process anglicised his name: henceforth he was known to his contemporaries and to posterity as plain John Jones.  

The Myddeltons were pious, their puritanism cautious and conformist. Relations between them and their household steward were evidently cordial: they sponsored Jones for minor honours in the City of London and in Denbigh.  Sir Thomas Myddelton sat for Denbighshire in the Long Parliament from 1640, and when civil war broke out in 1642 took Parliament’s side, like many Londoners with business interests. After Chirk Castle was captured in his absence by the king’s forces, he pushed his way to prominence as the patron and commander of an army, recruited from London and south-east England and designed to re-take Wales for Parliament. Myddelton’s properties in London became the HQ, and John Jones was transformed from civilian steward to captain and recruiting officer. Jones left London for military service, and was promoted to colonel by the end of 1645. After playing an active part in securing the victory of Parliament in north Wales, he fought off hostile propaganda by his enemies to get himself elected for Merioneth, his native county, in October 1647.   

Between 1647 and 1649, Jones left behind the orthodox puritanism that had shaped his life until then, and became radicalized. He came into the orbit of Morgan Llwyd, the eloquent radical puritan minister of Wrexham, and like many in the army, he was traumatised by the re-opening of the civil wars in 1648. There was a widespread belief among the officers and soldiers that the return to violence in the name of King Charles deserved severe punishment. Jones was fully in sympathy with the petition to Parliament from Denbighshire in December 1648, calling for “the impartial punishment of mad men (who are still thirsty, though already drunk with the blood of multitudes of our dear brethren)”.  It was in this spirit of requiring justice for the sufferers, and visiting punishment on the principal perpetrator (as they saw it) of the wars, that Jones took his place as one of the king’s judges, and attended his trial regularly. On the eve of the king’s execution on 30 January 1649, Jones signed the death warrant. (See our blog on another ‘King-killer’, Sir Hardress Waller)

Death warrant of Charles I

He was evidently an enthusiast of the new Commonwealth. He became one of the most diligent members of its governing body, the council of state. His view that politics and religious devotion were bound together, that a godly minority, of which he was one, were pursuing God’s will in establishing the Commonwealth, was bolstered through a new friendship – with the charismatic Col. Thomas Harrison, in command of the army in Wales in 1649. Harrison and Jones often worked together in Parliament, and in 1650 they saw the fruit of their collaboration, in the celebrated Acts for the Propagation of the Gospel in Wales. Jones worked on a range of measures for improving the lives of the poor, and for re-distributing the confiscated property of enemies of the state. All in all, he was one of the most radical members of the so-called Rump Parliament (click here for more on England’s transition to a republic).

Jones was certainly more radical than the lord general, Oliver Cromwell. Jones consistently embraced social change and believed in the Rump Parliament as having been called by God, where Cromwell was cautious on social policy and soon came to criticise the Rump as a flawed expedient. Some thought this was why Cromwell despatched Jones to Ireland at the end of 1650, thus ridding himself of a potential nuisance. In Dublin, Jones’s undoubted administrative talents were put to good use, but he shared the prejudices of so many propertied English people that the Irish were “an accursed people” to be conquered: in sharp contrast to his view of the Scots as deserving political and economic concessions to win them over. Although he was now marginalised, his main interest remained the creation of a godly Commonwealth in England and Wales, and from Ireland he sent back encouraging messages to the radical architects of it. He may have remained unaware that one of the complaints to Parliament about the Act for Propagating the Gospel in Wales came from Myddelton, his former employer.   

Some suspicion on the part of Cromwell towards Jones persisted until the mid-1650s, but when Jones married Cromwell’s sister, he began to be rehabilitated. In the second half of the decade, he was a reliable but unremarkable supporter of the Cromwellian protectorate, his optimism about the prospects for a godly commonwealth now muted. In 1660 he paid the ultimate penalty for having signed the death warrant ten years earlier, and was barbarously executed at Charing Cross. As John Jones Maesygarnedd (the house where he was born but never owned or even occupied as an adult), his name is associated more than that of any other Welsh activist with this brief  moment of anti-monarchical sentiment powered by a religious vision of a new Britain.      

SR

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