A ‘Welsh’ Dynasty and Wales
Some people who are fond of Wales are also fond of the dynasty founded by Henry VII because they perceive it as ‘Welsh’. They tend to overlook that Edward IV and Richard III were descended from a real Welsh Prince, Llywelyn ap Iorwerth. This was recognised at the time by Welsh commentators in the case of Edward IV, who was seen as a potential fulfiller of prophecy. It must be admitted that Edward made little use of this potential asset to his kingship, but he did at least appreciate some of his Welsh followers. William Herbert, for example, was the first full-blooded Welshman to be created an earl.
Henry VII was, assuming his ancestry is correctly rendered, exactly one quarter Welsh by blood, one half English and one quarter French. He was of course born in Wales, but so was Henry V, and any number of nobles of Anglo-Norman descent. Whether he was culturally Welsh is an interesting question. He was for much of his childhood brought up by the aforementioned William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, and his English wife. Such an upbringing was probably (note probably, not definitely) more Anglo-Welsh than native Welsh. He would have been educated and trained with a view to his making a debut at the English court at some point. Subsequently, he spent most of his life in Brittany and France before becoming King. So we can probably say that his ‘heritage’ was rather mixed, and that he was formed by a number of influences. His perceived Welshness was a useful recruiting tool – and in some ways still is – but once established on the throne he never visited Wales again. Not even once. Which is, frankly, somewhat surprising. However, Henry’s desire to emphasise his Welshness seems to have faded away the day after Bosworth Field. It is perhaps of a piece with his father’s attitude to his ancestry, seen in his coat of arms which included reference to the royal families of England and France, but made no heraldic reference at all to his official grandfather, Owain Tudor, a man of ancient Welsh descent who had borne arms all his life.
So what did he and his successors do for Wales? The answer is, quite bluntly – not a lot. Some individual families of Welsh origin certainly did well in the service of the dynasty. The obvious example being the Cecils (properly Sitsylt). William Cecil, Lord Burghley was certainly not ashamed of his ancestry, indeed he appears to have gilded it somewhat, but it is unlikely he thought of himself as anything other than English, and he certainly did not go out of his way to improve the lot of Wales.
The political map of Wales in 1485 showed a wide variety of Marcher Lordships of various sizes, as well as the royal lands seized by Edward I. These various territories had their own laws and customs, and it was dangerous, particularly for a native Welsh person, to travel between them without a letter of Protection from one or the other of the local lords. Often Welsh law survived, and it was usually possible for two Welsh litigants to have their case settled by it if they so chose. The harsh anti-Welsh laws imposed during and after the Glyndwr rising were still largely in existence, but in practice they were frequently ignored.
After 1485 the majority of these Lordships fell, by one means or another, into Crown hands. From 1489 a special Council meeting at Ludlow acted as the royal authority in the area of Wales and the Marches, and intruded as much as it could into the governance of the few remaining private Lordships. It was an untidy arrangement, and Henry VIII’s solution was to pass what has come to be known as the Act of Union (1536). This went through an English parliament in which the Welsh had no representation at all. It established English-style counties across Wales. However it also abolished what was left of Welsh law, imposing English law in all circumstances. In addition it enforced the use of the English language for all official purposes. (It should be borne in mind that at this time and for some centuries afterwards, most of the ordinary people of Wales were monolingual in Welsh!)
The Act did however benefit the Welsh in some ways. Legally, they were now all ‘English’, which meant that the various disabling statutes no longer applied. A Welsh gentleman was free to take on any office under the Crown without restriction – assuming that he spoke English. In addition, Wales was now represented in Parliament. Again, this was only really of benefit to the gentry classes, but it did give them a potential route of advancement that had not been available before.
Henry VIII of course also destroyed the abbeys of Wales, which in many cases were ancient cradles of Welsh culture. Once again, any benefits from this change fell almost exclusively to the gentry.
It was not until 1563 that a statute provided that a Welsh Bible and a Welsh Prayer Book should be provided in every Church in Wales. This probably saved the Welsh language from extinction. Hitherto the Welsh had had to put up with religious services in a tongue which, for many of them, was just as indecipherable as Latin had been.