The Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion

Recognising the contribution of Wales in contemporary society

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home > Transactions > Volume 19 - 2013 > Early-Modern Precedents for Autonomous Welsh Government

Early-Modern Precedents for Autonomous Welsh Government

Throughout much of its history Wales has been a fragmented nation and there have been times when, far from being a polity or even a coherent entity, it was regarded as either a geographical expression or an imagined ‘country of the mind’. The concept of ‘Wales’ as a holistic unit evolved only gradually through the centuries. Most of the native rulers of the Middle Ages, however ambitious to expand their territories, did not aspire, as did Hywel Dda, to unify the land of Wales. In a country that lacked political or administrative unity before as well as after the final loss of independence in 1282, the consciousness of national identity could not always be de ned in institutional terms.

In the age of the princes, the law codified by Hywel had served as the palladium that enshrined the sense of nationhood in the absence of a single political authority or centralizing institution.1 After the Conquest, the native legal system was reduced to a mere civil jurisdiction by Edward I in the Statute of Wales of 1284, and in the period of rule by English kings, princes and marcher lords, it was the language and literature – together with the customs rather than the law of Wales – which formed the cultural matrix that nourished national consciousness. A fleeting political unity was attained during the revolt of Owain Glyndŵr in the years 1400–1412, but after a devastating military defeat the separatist sentiment of the Welsh subsided under the impact of divided loyalties in the dynastic struggles of York and Lancaster, to emerge again in the later stages of the ‘Wars of the Roses’ in an identification of national interest with the ambitions of Henry Tudor.2

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