Page 4, 7th September 1956

7th September 1956
Page 4
Page 4, 7th September 1956 — THE MYTH ABOUT ANGLO-SAXONS

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Locations: Brussels, Canterbury, Oxford


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ALONG and deep friendship between a Belgian Jesuit and a Welsh clergyman is about to produce one quite remarkable fruit.

The Jesuit, Fr, Paul Grosjean, of the Bollandists of Brussels, began reading Welsh at Oxford 35 years ago and went so far as to read from early Welsh literature to the Dickensian novels of Daniel Owen. Morover, he took up the study of that great old stand-by in many a Welsh cottager's home, reminiscences of the great preachers of Welsh Nonconformity.

The Welshman, the Rev. A. W. Wade-Evans, now an elderly and sick man, also went to Oxford. It was there that he became suspicious of the dominant school of history, especially in respect of Welsh and English origins. In those days the name and fame of Freeman were not to be disturbed with impunity. In other words, those were the days of the great Anglo-Saxon myth.

Mr. Wade-Evans was not an Anglo-Saxon. But he went on to doubt whether there were any Anglo-Saxons, at least according to the Anglo-Saxon myth. And so he started upon a lifetime's study of English and Welsh origins.

Some of us have already had the opportunity of knowing some of his findings. A longish essay of his, with the forbidding title "Prolegomena to a Study of Early Welsh History," is no less a study of early English history of the same period. (It is a lengthened exposition of a lecture he gave to a group of Welshmen in the Welsh "Popestown" of Abergavenny in 1946.) But the great work of his life, when completed. failed to interest any English publishers. On the other hand, Fr. Paul Grosjean, who had himself been immersed in the self-same historical sources which had engaged Mr. Wade-Evans' attention for so many years, was more than happy to arrange the printing and the publication by a Brussels press.


NOW what exactly is Mr. Wade-Evans' contribution towards this historical problem?

Very briefly and at the risk of over simplification, it is the complete denial of the Anglo-Saxon propaganda myth popularised first of all by the Venerable Bede, who receives the full weight of Mr. Wade-Evans's censures though Lappenberg wrote that "Bede's glaring deficiency in historic criticism has never been attended to."

It is the construction or, better, reconstruction of the facts which the myth has so successfully hidden for centuries.

At its crudest, the myth comes to this, that the English nation was originally formed from the descendants of a huge horde of transmarine invaders who chased the ancestors, or most of the ancestors, of the Welsh westwards to Cornwall and Wales. Later, of course, these alleged invaders were at the receiving end of other invaders, the Danes and the Norse.

But, argues Mr. Wade-Evans, there was no such huge trans marine invasion and no great westwards flight by a rabble of disorganised Ancient Britons. All that is invention and propaganda.

But if his account is anywhere near true, it certainly upsets a great body of generally accepted ideas. For example, it is widely believed that if the Welsh were Christians, the English were pagans until St. Augustine turned up in the year 590 to make angels of Angles. That the English as a whole were generally pagan is clearly untrue. There is plenty of evidence to the contrary and Mr. Wade-Evans is ready to give it.

Then again, the distinguished Welshman has already made quite clear the basic distinction of Britanni and Britoncs, the former, the remaining and declining Roman provincials of part "Saxon" stock of what is now England, and the latter, the still incorrupt Cymry of what is now Wales. There are one or two qualification to make, but there is the rough and ready distinction.

EARLY BATTLES 11HE myth, however, was accepted by both sides.

There appeared, for example, the melancholy if vigorous "Armes Prydian," a Welsh poem of 199 lines which takes the myth for granted. It reveals how the shadow of Bede had fallen upon Wales, especially in the author's Anglophobia and prophecy of winning back land which never had been Welsh.

When we do come to observe the relations of Wales and England in the time of Alfred, we see wholehearted co-operation and military alliance. Asser and Hywl and Blegywryd strove to maintain such an alliance and all would have been well but for the psychological setback which drove Welshmen to believe that they were fated to defeat by the English.

In the Ilth century a Welsh king. Gruffudd ap Llewellyn, attacked the English and won such victories as to become not only king of all Wales but to be guilty of usurpdon. As a matter of fact, Welsh aggression had been considerable as early as the 9th century, especially in .Mercia by the River Tern.

Of special interest to Catholics is Wade-Evans's study of the great conflict between the monastic church of Menevia and the Augus tinian mission. His findings are disconcerting to many of those Anglicans who suppose that the conflict was such that Menevia was "anti-Roman " It never was that. As Wade-Evans has written, it is a grievous error to suppose that the British (Welsh) protest against Augustine of Canterbury was aimed at the Papacy."


'OR my own part I believe I. that one possible effect of his work would be the giving up by Welshmen (and possibly all the so called "Celts") of that spirit of defeatism for which some Englishmen like Matthew Arnold have admired them.

But this is but a fraction of what is involved. The Anglo-Saxon myth implies an entire range of character studies which are utterly wrong. The consequence is that

the English deceive themselves about their own characteristics, believing themselves to be quite other than the sentimental, irrational, kind, introverted, complex folk they are.

On the other hand, they have long determined upon denying the Welsh the real character of the Welsh, which real character the Welsh hardly know they possess. The Welsh are a practical, often avaricious, logical, extroverted people in the main, except for the descendants of the Silures who betray qualities akin to the people of Mediterranean lands.

I do not expect the English easily to believe this. But I hope that Irish readers will take due note, for the peasant of Cardigan or Pembrokeshire or Merioneth is uncommonly like his Irish kith across the sea.

Abend then Wade-Evans demonstrates that Wales and England are really two quite distinct nations without making the common mistake of nationalists in pleading some special hardship.

I hope that his work will be duly noticed by those nationalists who are always groaning about English tyranny. The tyranny may, of course, exist. But the case for Welsh (and English) self-government does not rest upon some reaction against an oppressor. It rests upon the consciousness of nationhood.

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