Early modern historians can usually only dream of their work becoming relevant, their meanderings in the faraway lives and ideas of the past suddenly popping up as current affairs. Royalism, Religion and Revolution: Wales, 1640-1688 is an attempt to explain, through Welsh historical culture and ideals, the royalist, loyalist, and Anglican allegiance of the North-East Welsh gentry from the mid-seventeenth century up to the Jacobite rising of 1715. If you’re a regular consumer of news you’ll know that Anglican activism has not resumed, and there is (as far as I know) no major upsurge in Cavalier plotting or pro-Stuart rebel groups. Yet two other major issues have recently become topical: the fate of the monarchy, and the state of the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The question of the survival of the British monarchy has arisen again. This follows the death of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, in April 2021, and the rumour and reporting on the relationship of the next generation of royals with each other, the media, and the wider population. Opinion pieces flowed out of media organs as diverse as the Financial Times and Vogue, and in newspapers across the political spectrum around the world. The survival of the British monarchy has provided academics, journalists, and commentators with plenty of food for thought over the years, and no doubt it will continue to do so.
So, what can we learn from the seventeenth-century Welsh approach to the Stuart kings?
First, the appeal to history is a powerful one. In early modern Wales monarchy was one of the pillars of society, connected to the Welsh princes and the distant past as well as with office-holding and prestige in the contemporary present. If monarchy is seen as part of who we are, no matter how distant, arguments in its favour are more persuasive.
Second, it is easy to underestimate the appeal of small ‘c’ conservatism, and a desire for stability and order in the face of change. Change is frequently packaged positively as ‘reform’ in the modern world, but in early modern Britain it was generally seen as disturbing and threatening. The word ‘innovation’ was a negative one, a charge against those portrayed as meddling in the established order of things, and those seeking to make changes tended to explain them as a return to a purer past. The North-East Welsh gentry lived in a conservative society, and upheld its ideals especially when they seemed to be challenged in the period of Civil War. While this is happily not on the horizon in twenty-first century Britain, a more acute understanding of conservative tendencies in the British Isles, including support for the monarchy, would perhaps be helpful today.
The Union is also facing challenges from many different angles. There are repeated calls for a new Scottish referendum, and in the 2021 elections Plaid Cymru committed to holding a referendum on Welsh independence by 2026 if they won a majority of seats in the Welsh Senedd. The ruling Welsh Labour party has called for greater devolution. Again, this contrasts sharply with attitudes to the Union in sixteenth and seventeenth-century Wales. It is difficult to see any voices speaking against the Acts of Union in 1536-42 for reasons other than self-interest or xenophobia. Some argued that the Welsh were not qualified or responsible enough to govern themselves, while others wanted to prevent their own power being diluted. The Welsh gentry managed to use the Union to their own advantage, building strong powerbases in local government and in national institutions, as the Union removed restrictions on Welshmen holding certain offices. By the end of the seventeenth century there had been Welsh archbishops and other senior churchmen, a Welsh Lord Mayor of London, Welshmen as Secretary of State, Deputy Postmaster General, as senior courtiers, and military officers. Those resident in Wales contracted with the Welsh diaspora in London to order fabric, exotic foodstuffs, books, and other goods. Money, goods, and ideas flowed between Wales and England, and Welsh gentlemen were proud of their multiple identities – as men of Denbighshire (for example), Wales, and of what would become known as ‘Great Britain’.
The Welsh portrayed themselves as the ‘Ancient Britons’, the original inhabitants of the land. They had support from English writers and poets, and even though the historical basis of some of this narrative was contested, the broader notion of the Welsh as the ‘British’ was less so. This meant that the Union made sense for them, as long as the Welsh were able to benefit politically and socially. It also led (in part) to their royalist and Anglican allegiance. They were able to portray the Stuarts as descendants of Welsh princes, and therefore as kin. The Church of England was depicted as the inheritor of the ancient Celtic Church, and with Welsh clergy being often drawn from Welsh gentry and yeoman families, the Church could plausibly be seen as something the Welsh had ownership over. This Welsh sense of ownership is arguably now much more elusive in relation to the British state, even though Welsh individuals continue to have success in British politics, trade, and the Church. The difference between the early modern period and the present day is much starker in this respect, though.
While royalism, religion, and revolution may seem far from many lives in contemporary Britain, this is not entirely the case. The events discussed in Royalism, Religion and Revolution: Wales, 1640-1688 may be far away in time, but its themes are of contemporary interest and relevance. There is huge pleasure in unearthing the secrets of the past, and the stories of the North-East Welsh gentry families are fascinating in their own right. Yet these stories have echoes now, and can help us to consider our own world in a new light.
This guest post was written by Sarah Ward Clavier, Senior Lecturer in History at the University of West of England, Bristol.