The magical age of knights and dragons

The Revolt of Owain Glyn Dwr by R.R.Davies, Oxford, pounds 20; Jan Morris salutes her fellow Welsh patriot, the medieval rebel, Owain Glyn Dwr
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In 1931, Oxford University Press published a book about the 14th- century Welsh rebel Owain Glyn Dwr which has remained the classic work on the subject to this day. Its author was Professor J.E.Lloyd, the most eminent Welsh historian of the time, who was impelled in his work, so the D.N.B. tells us, by "a robust national feeling". The book was 161 pages long, was printed in generous type on handsome paper, and was instinct with old-school Welsh pride, plus perhaps a touch of the grand - if sometimes windy - enthusiasm that we like to call hwyl. Glyn Dwr, said its concluding line, "may with propriety be called the father of modern Welsh nationalism", and Professor Lloyd's book has been beloved of Welsh patriots ever since.

Sixty-four years later, here comes Oxford with its successor at last, written by the Chichele Professor of Medieval History at All Souls. What a difference! Professor Davies's work is more than twice as long and in a type-face half the size. It is empowered by all the resources of modern scholarship, and is testimony to the transformation that has overcome Welsh historiography in the past half-century. No robust national bias here. This is history at its most professional, thorough and disinterested.

Davies, who was until recently Professor of Modern History at Aberystwyth, has already written famously about the Wales of Glyn Dwr's time, but he admits that like Lloyd before him he has discovered no new evidence about the rebel as a man. In particular, it remains an enigma where and how (or, as we romantics would say, if) Glyn Dwr died, after the decade of his rebellion against English rule. But what this book does is to set the familiar story in an altogether new richness of context, placing medieval Wales itself in its proper relationship with England and with Europe. Davies's range of knowledge and reference is astonishing, his detailed examples (life in Kidwelly, for instance, during the rebellion) are often fascinating, and, absorbing as it does all the academic research that has been accomplished since Lloyd's day, his work adds up to a totally fresh approach to the old romance.

The book opens imaginatively with two fanciful journeys through 14th- century Wales. The first is made by an official of the King's administration, passing from one outpost of the English Establishment to another, mostly on the coast; the second is made by a professional Welsh poet moving among the semi-private, half-parallel society of the indigenous Welsh, mostly in the back-country. So different are their two excursions, passing among such alien societies, that they might almost be happening in separate countries, yet their routes never diverge by many miles: and this juxtaposition of conqueror and conquered, sometimes overlapping, sometimes just rubbing along, sometimes resentful, sometimes actually hostile, is the key to the whole story.

Glyn Dwr himself was English-educated, and had fought for the King of England against the Scots. Many Welsh leaders opposed him. He had English allies and lieutenants. Yet by the time his rebellion petered out it was generally recognized as being a war between the Welsh and the English. Glyn Dwr had succeeded in coalescing the disoriented conglomeration of traditional loyalties that was Welsh Wales into something like a true sovereignty. Relations between the two peoples had been shattered, severe racial laws had been introduced in reprisal by the English, and it might well be said, though Professor Davies doesn't, that things in Wales were never to be the same again.

Davies tells us clearly how all this came about - the combination of conspiratorial politics, dynastic pretensions, vatic mysticism, guerrilla skill, nationalist vision and undoubted personal charisma which enabled Glyn Dwr to establish such an ascendancy over his volatile compatriots, and to polarize their emotions. We learn about his lofty aims - national self-rule, of course, national universities, ecclesiastical autonomy. We hear about all the skimble-scamble stuff that Shakespeare's Hotspur mocked, immemorial prophecies, portentous folk-lore, dragons and moldwarps too. And there is a splendid epilogue in which Professor Davies pulls it all altogether, the legacy of the fighting, the effects of the rising upon the subsequent history of Wales, Glyn Dwr's elevation into mythical status and his recreation as a nationalist champion.

It is not revisionary or debunking history, but it is a world away from Lloyd's little book of long ago. It is a wonderfully learned and enlightened survey of one corner of Europe at a particularly significant moment of its history. But as a Welshman himself - and from Glyn Dwr's own part of the country, too - Professor Rees will forgive me, I know, if I say that his superb book can never quite replace its predecessor of 1931. It is like a paradigm of Wales itself. What has been gained in knowledge, reason and technique has somehow been lost in magic. There was more hwyl in the very type-face of the Thirties, and if scholars and researchers from now on will inevitably turn to Davies, old-fashioned patriots like me will still be rereading Lloyd in our baths.