Blog - Story of Wales

Story of Wales: Quiz 4

Story of Wales - Posted 01-05-2020

As part of our Story of Wales series, we will be posting a weekly quiz every Friday over the coming weeks.

We will be challenging you with 10 questions. All the questions will have a Welsh flavour, and they’ll cover everything from Welsh history, to literature, music, geography and much more.

So, give it a go, and remember to let us know how you get on: NLW on Twitter, NLW on Facebook or NLW on Instagram

(By the way, the answers are at the bottom – no cheating!


1. In the folk tale of Gelert, who was the faithful hound’s owner?

2. The Italian-style village of Portmeirion was created by which British architect?

3. The folk song ‘Sosban Fach’ is associated with which Welsh rugby team?

4. The Great Orme, Llandudno, was mined for what metal?

5. Can you name the 2 MPS for Welsh constituencies who were Prime of the UK in the 20th Century?

6. Which Latin teacher became a naturalist and became the first warden of RSPB Ynyshir?

7. Who was the blind harpist from Wynnstay?

8. Who was the first woman to lead a political party at the Welsh Assembly?

9. The burial chamber at Bryn Celli Ddu, Anglesey, belongs to which prehistoric period?

10. Malcolm Campbell broke the world land-speed record in Bluebird, somewhere in Wales, but where?


  1. Llywelyn the Great (‘Llywelyn ap Iorwerth’ also accepted)
  2. Sir Clough Williams-Ellis
  3. Scarlets
  4. Copper
  5. David Lloyd George a James Callaghan 
  6. William Condry
  7. John Parry
  8. Kirsty Williams (Welsh Liberal Democrats) 
  9. Neolithic
  10. Pendine Sands (Carmarthenshire) 

Story of Wales: Quiz 3

Story of Wales - Posted 24-04-2020

As part of our Story of Wales series, we will be posting a weekly quiz every Friday over the coming weeks.

We will be challenging you with 10 questions. All the questions will have a Welsh flavour, and they’ll cover everything from Welsh history, to literature, music, geography and much more.

So, give it a go, and remember to let us know how you get on: NLW on Twitter, NLW on Facebook or NLW on Instagram

(By the way, the answers are at the bottom – no cheating!)


1. Who was the founder of the Peniarth Manuscripts collection?
2. What was the name of the famous portrait artist who was born in Haverfordwest in 1876? Her brother was also a famous artist?
3. Who sent the Pennal Letter to the King of France in 1406?
4. Who presented the enquals sign (=) for the first time in the publication The Whetstone of Witte?
5. Who was the first female to win a bardic competition in the National Eisteddfod?
6. Which King of England was born at Pembroke Castle?
7. What year did the Battle of Fishguard take place?
8. Where was the Welsh artist Sir Kyffin Williams born?
9. Where did the first recorded Eisteddfod take place?
10. Name the earliest female photographer in Wales


  1. Robert Vaughan
  2. Gwen John
  3. Owain Glyndŵr
  4. Robert Recorde
  5. Cranogwen (Sarah Jane Rees)
  6. Henry VII
  7. 1797
  8. Llangefni, Anglesey
  9. Cardigan Castle
  10. Mary Dillwyn

Story of Wales: Quiz 2

Story of Wales - Posted 17-04-2020

As part of our Story of Wales series, we will be posting a weekly quiz every Friday over the coming weeks.

We will be challenging you with 10 questions. All the questions will have a Welsh flavour, and they’ll cover everything from Welsh history, to literature, music, geography and much more.

So, give it a go, and remember to let us know how you get on: NLW on Twitter, NLW on Facebook or NLW on Instagram

(By the way, the answers are at the bottom – no cheating!)


1. What was the name of the father and son who composed the Welsh National Anthem – Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau?

2. What was the name of the vicar in Dylan Thomas’ play for voices, “Under Milk Wood”?  

3. What was the name of the poet who won the chair in the National Eisteddfod yn Birkenhead, 1917 “bardd y gadair ddu” (poet of the black chair)? 

4. Which three rivers start their journey on Pumlumon?  

5. According to the legend Girls of the Sea (Merched y Môr), the king of the sea turned three sisters into what?  

6. From whom did Mari Jones buy her Bible in 1800?  

7. Who sent the Pennal Letter to the King of France in 1406? 

8. What was the name of the ship that transported the first Welsh emigrants to Patagonia? 

9. What year did David Lloyd George become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom? 

10. Peniarth 28 (the earliest surviving copy of the Laws of Hywel Dda) is written in which language? 


  1. Evan James and James James 
  2. Rev Eli Jenkins 
  3. Ellis Humphrey Evans 
  4. Severn, Wye and Rheidol 
  5. Seagulls 
  6. Rev Thomas Charles 
  7. Owain Glyndwr 
  8. The Mimosa
  9. 1916 
  10. Latin

Story of Wales: Quiz 1

Story of Wales - Posted 10-04-2020

As part of our Story of Wales series, we will be posting a weekly quiz every Friday over the coming weeks.

We will be challenging you with 10 questions. All the questions will have a Welsh flavour, and they’ll cover everything from Welsh history, to literature, music, geography and much more.

So, give it a go, and remember to let us know how you get on: NLW on Twitter, NLW on Facebook or NLW on Instagram

(By the way, the answers are at the bottom – no cheating!)


1. Humphrey Llwyd is celebrated as the author of the first map of Wales to be published, but who published it?

2. Who built the Menai Bridge between the mainland and Anglesey?

3. Which lake is the largest natural lake in Wales?

4. Kyffin Williams’ last work was a portrait of what?

5. Name the 4 branches of the Mabinogi

6. Which manuscript contains the earliest copy of the legends of the Mabinogion?

7. Some believe that this is the Holy Grail, but what is the famous cup called?

8. Where was the famous pirate Bartholomew Roberts (Barti Ddu) born?

9. Can you name the First Ministers / First Secretaries of Wales since 1999?

10. Who wrote the collection of short stories ‘Te yn y Grug’? 


  1. Abraham Ortelius
  2. Thomas Telford
  3. Lake Tegid
  4. A sunset
  5. Pwyll Pendefig Dyfed, Branwen Ferch Llŷr, Manawydan Fab Llŷr, Math Fab Mathonwy
  6. Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch (The White Book of Rhydderch)
  7. The Nanteos Cup
  8. Casnewydd Bach (Pembrokeshire)
  9. Alun Michael, Rhodri Morgan, Carwyn Jones a Mark Drakeford
  10. Kate Roberts

The Folk Song Tradition in Wales

Story of Wales - Posted 06-03-2020

All peoples and all nations worldwide have a tradition of songs and tunes that mirror their culture, their character and their way of life. For this reason, it can be said that all those traditions are unique.

What makes the Welsh tradition unique, above all else, is the language of the songs themselves i.e. Welsh. Amongst the songs that can be described as ‘traditional’, at least 90% of them are Welsh, for the simple reason that they originate from a period in the history of Wales when the Welsh language was the principal language of the majority of the population – indeed very often, the one and only language.

For anyone examining Welsh folk songs for the first time, it will become obvious:
• that they have played a vital part in the culture of the Welsh people throughout the centuries;
• that they are numerous and diverse;
• that there is an astonishing variety of tunes, many of them exceptionally beautiful and memorable.

They can be roughly categorised as follows:

Love Songs

Love is the most popular theme of the Welsh folk songs. Meredydd Evans estimates that there are as many as 170 of them. A considerable proportion of those deal with rejection in love, and hence they are rather sad songs; some sing the praises of a loved one, others portray the trials and tribulations which obstruct the path of love immensely.
Examples: Y Gwydr Glas, Beth yw’r Haf i Mi?, Dacw ‘Nghariad i Lawr yn y Berllan, Cariad Cyntaf, Tra Bo Dau.

Lullabies (Hwiangerddi) and Children’s Songs

Throughout the centuries, mothers were all-important in the task of presenting songs to generations after generations of children. The literal meaning of ‘hwiangerdd’ is a song that lulls a child to sleep, and there are many examples of this type of song, but the word ‘hwiangerdd’ is also used in a wider sense to describe other simple songs for children.
Examples: Suo Gân, Si Hei Lwli ‘Mabi (hwiangerddi); Dacw Mam yn Dwad, Fuoch Chi Rioed yn Morio, Mi Welais Jac y Do.

Work Songs

The most notable songs in this category are the songs ‘Gyrru’r Ychen’ deriving from Glamorgan: songs encouraging oxen to keep working when ploughing. Some of these were collected and documented by Iolo Morgannwg:
Examples: Cân yr Ychen, I Ysgafnhau ein Gwaith.

Humorous Songs

In recent times in Eisteddfod competitions, there has been a tendency to give prominence to melancholic folk songs. But it is deemed that it was the jolly songs which were given priority at the old ‘nosweithiau llawen’ (happy evenings) and informal meetings. The clue is in the word ‘llawen’ – happy!
Examples: Cân Merthyr, Yr Hen Wyddeles, Mari’r Glwyseg, Ar y Ffordd Wrth Fynd i Lundain, Cân y Cwcwallt.

Wassail Songs

These are songs pertaining in particular to special occasions at different times of the year. The literal meaning of wassail is ‘Good Health’ and an important part of the ritual was a special drink which was shared from the wassail bowl. The term ‘canu gwasael’ (wassail singing or wassailing) was synonymous with a ritual where a small group of merrymakers would go from one house to another wishing the families good health and blessings in their lives – in the hope of obtaining a warm welcome and hospitality. The singing occurred in the open-air (although some of the rituals meant that some singers within the house would answer and challenge the singers who were outside). The terms ‘canu tan bared’ (singing beneath a wall) and ‘canu yn drws’ (singing at the door) is also a description of the custom. Wassailing is associated with the following rituals: Y Fari Lwyd, (The Grey Mare or Mary), Y Calennig, (Gifting on New Year’s Day) and Hela’r Dryw / Hunting the Wren (January), Gŵyl Fair / Mary’s Festival of the Candles, Shrove Tuesday (February/beginning of March), May Day, and also weddings. There are many ‘contesting songs’ – caneuon ymryson – (the ‘progressive songs’ where each verse has to be sung at a quicker pace than the previous one), that are associated in particular with Mary’s Festival.
Examples: Wel Dyma Ni’n Dwad, Hela’r Dryw, Cadi Ha, Mwynen Mai. (Caneuon cynyddol): Cyfri’r Geifr, Un o Fy Mrodyr I.


This is by far the most prolific category – approximately 4,000 of them in number with the majority from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Their topics were the events of the day: murders, uprisings such as the Tithe War, Rebecca Riots, storms and shipwrecks, the opening of new railway lines etc. Since these ballads were sung in the open air, at a fair or market, it was paramount that the ballad singer had a strong voice and a spectacular style, as his aim was to sell copies of the ballad to his audience.
Examples: Baled y Blotyn Du, Storm Fawr 1846, Llofruddiaeth Dafydd Lewis.

Maritime Songs

Welsh sea shanties are relatively few and far between but J Glyn Davies composed a wealth of maritime songs in the 1920s, and within a short space of time they were recognised as part of the folk tradition.

Examples: Sianti Gymraeg, Fflat Huw Puw, Llongau Caernarfon, Santiana

Canu Penillion – Penillion Singing

In recent times, the term ‘canu penillion’ was replaced by the term ‘cerdd dant’, (i.e the skilfulness of singing poetry to the accompaniment of set melodies played on the harp, in line with specific rules). These days, this skill has moved to a different direction from that of folk singing. Formerly, ‘canu penillion’ was the pleasurable pastime of the folk people: it was a spontaneous technique making significant use of ‘penillion telyn’ and light-hearted, informal verses and no one at that time would have contemplated putting ‘canu penillion’ and folk singing in separate categories.
Examples: simple four or six line verses on melodies such as Cader Idris, Llwyn Onn, Pen Rhaw.

The Plygain Tradition

This singing is of a religious nature, the type of singing associated with Christmas time and heard in plygain services in churches and chapels. It is more akin to folk and ballad singing than to hymn singing: natural, unassuming, untrained singing, always unaccompanied and more often than not in simple harmony. Many of the melodies onto which the words are set are folk tunes.

Examples: Ar Gyfer Heddiw’r Bore, Carol y Swper, Tramwywn, Ffarwel Ned Puw, Y Ceiliog Gwyn.

Of course, not every folk song falls neatly into the above categories. For example, Myn Mair, is a song sung in a vigil in the presence of a dead body. It is a prayer for the soul of the deceased person. The plea to the Virgin Mary at the end of each verse manifests that the song originates from the period before the Religious Revival when Wales was a Catholic country.

By today this collection of folk songs has been safeguarded but they could have easily been lost. Two bodies in particular were responsible for collecting and documenting the songs: Cymdeithas Alawon Gwerin Cymru, (the Welsh Folk-Song society), especially their early members at the beginning of the twentieth century, and Sain Ffagan Museum at a later date. As J. Lloyd Williams, one of the leaders of Cymdeithas Alawon Gwerin noted, “It was quite a feat for the old melodies to have survived through generations of neglect and a greater achievement still that they refused to die under the contempt and shame of the Religious Revival.”

Arfon Gwilym

[Note: In the modern world, the exact meaning of the word ‘ folk ’ varies greatly. This article in particular concentrates on the type of songs passed down orally from one generation to the next over a long period of time; the type of songs one could describe as ‘traditional’]

The Wild Bull of Llangian and the Story of Wales

Story of Wales - Posted 21-02-2020

Everyone enjoys a good story, whether it’s in a book, newspaper, cartoon, video, TV programme, film or word of mouth.

The desire to hear a story is deep in all of us. Storytelling is part of our fabric. We tell stories when meeting friends and family we haven’t seen for a while. Storytelling has existed since the dawn of time. This is the “oral tradition” which was the source content of the earliest manuscripts held here at the National Library.

Among the 15 million newspaper articles digitized by the National Library is the history of The Wild Bull of Llangian. A farmer brought a young bull on foot to Pwllheli town without a lead rein. The bull took fright and ran wild through the town. Following the incident, the farmer was taken to court. The newspaper report paints a vivid picture of the event.

This story is not an iconic story in Welsh history but rather a snapshot of life in Wales in the early 20th century. The Story of Wales is a patchwork of stories, with some events more significant than others but all valid. This story has personal significance for me because my grandfather was a neighbour of the wild bull’s owner!

Collecting, preserving and sharing the Story of Wales in the world is a key part of the National Library’s work. The challenge for the Library, and for us as a nation, is to do so in the way that benefits us most today and for future generations. The Library is the “memory of the nation” and continues to collect, manage and protect over 20 million books, manuscripts, archives, maps, photographs, newspapers, audio, video and film.

This is a job that requires expertise and collaboration and we are very fortunate to have experienced staff, dedicated volunteers, engaged communities and partners to do it. The world has changed, and continues to change rapidly. With this change come opportunities as well as challenges. Digitization has become a natural part of the Library’s work over the past decades and has enabled us to share the stories throughout Wales and with the world.

Another challenge is to make original digital material available to future generations. To do this requires the Library to collaborate with organizations around the world. Digital material offers us exciting opportunities to improve our understanding of the “story” of Wales. One simple example of this would be to analyse the frequency of word usage over decades in newspaper articles. The development of artificial intelligence will undoubtedly expand these possibilities further than we can imagine. You can copy the imperfect Welsh OCR text of the The Wild Bull of Llangian article into Google Translate (a tool powered by Artificial neural networks (ANN)) and get a feel for how far this type of technology has progressed in facilitating access for non-Welsh speakers to Welsh texts.

Despite all the technological advances the power of a good story remains. A good story lives long in our memory, entertaining, educating and inspiring us. The patchwork that is the Story of Wales continues to grow and the Library has a key role in safeguarding and ensuring that it continues to inspire and enrich lives now and far into the future.

Dr Owain Rhys Roberts
Deputy Chief Executive and Librarian (Collections and Public Programmes)

The Vikings in Medieval Welsh Literature

Collections / Story of Wales - Posted 07-02-2020

The Vikings were seafaring people who came over to the British Isles from around the 8th to the 11th centuries, mainly from the Scandinavian countries of Norway and Denmark. They brought with them violence and destruction, but they also brought with them their culture – their skills, their religion, and their language. They became part of medieval Welsh literature, including several manuscripts which are kept here in the National Library.

So what drew the Vikings from Scandinavia to Wales? It’s possible that the Vikings who came to Wales were searching for fertile land and goods to trade. The Welsh coast was part of a coastal route from Scandinavia travelling via Shetland, Orkney, Scotland, Ireland, north-west England, and the Isle of Man to Wales. The first Viking raids in Wales targeted prominent points on the Welsh coast, and ecclesiastical centres quickly became popular targets. These raids were recorded in the late 13th/early 14th – century Welsh chronicle Brut y Tywysogion, which provided an apocalyptic description of how St Davids (Menevia) was destroyed in a raid in 810:

‘Deg mlyned ac wythcant oed oet Krist pan duawd y lleuad duw Nadolic. Ac y llos[get] Mynyw. Ac y bu varwolaeth ar yr ysgrubyl yn holl ynys Brydein.’

Eight hundred and ten was the year of Christ when the moon darkened on Christmas Day. And Menevia was burnt. And there was a mortality upon all the animals of Britain.

(Brut y Tywysogion, NLW MS Peniarth 20, p. 67)

Over the next two centuries, Viking attacks by sea became increasingly common as Wales was put on the Norse map and permanent Norse settlements were established in Ireland. The Vikings were keen to claim land in Wales too. The Annales Cambriae, written in the early 12th century, tells us that that a Viking named Ingimundr came to Anglesey and seized land at a place called Maes Osfeilion; while the 12th-century Liber Landavensis (The Book of Llandaff) describes how the Welsh ruler Gruffudd ap Llywelyn (d.1064), resisted Viking attacks from Denmark, Orkney, and Ireland. By the late 11th century Hiberno-Norse connections were so well established that another of Wales’s rulers could attempt to claim Viking ancestry. Both the 13th-century Historia Gruffud vab Cynan and its Latin predecessor the Vita Griffini filii Conani attempted to trace the Welsh king Gruffudd ap Cynan’s (d.1137) genealogy back to the ancient kings of Norway. But Gruffudd himself had more than his fair share of trouble from the Vikings; in 1098 he was betrayed by his own Hiberno-Norse fleet after the Norman earls Hugh of Chester and Hugh of Shrewsbury invaded Gwynedd.  At the same time, Anglesey was also attacked by the Norwegian king Magnús Berfœtr, who according to the above sources shot Hugh of Shrewsbury through the eye with an arrow.

(Liber Landavensis, f.109v)

Gruffudd ap Cynan was also prone to the odd Viking-style raid himself. The Vita Sancti Gundleii (The Life of Saint Gwynllyw), which was likely first compiled in the 12th century, described how Gruffudd gathered a Hiberno-Norse fleet for ‘the practice of piracy.’ Having made shore in the Usk estuary, they then attacked St Gwynllyw’s church, but upon their return the fleet was destroyed and Gruffudd was nearly killed in a violent storm, apparently sent by St Gwynllyw himself as a punishment. This notion of punishment matches the apocalyptic description of a Viking raid in Brut y Tywysogion, and it’s hardly surprising; monasteries, as both the main Viking targets and producers of written histories, did not have any reason to present the Vikings in a favourable light. Because of this, and the temporal gap between sources and the events they describe, we have to question their reliability.

This highlights one of the big cultural differences between the Vikings and the Welsh – that of religion. During the Viking Age, Denmark and Norway had not fully converted to Christianity, therefore many of Wales’s Viking visitors would have been followers of the pagan Norse religion. But common cultural ground can be found through examining other literary sources. The medieval poetic tradition of the skald in Norway was as old and as developed as the gogynfeirdd in Wales, and poets were often present during events giving contemporary accounts of the action. The poet Meilyr, for example, composed a eulogy for Gruffudd, Marwnad Gruffudd ap Cynan, an extract of which provides strong imagery of war:

‘Gwern gwygid, gwanai bawb yn ei gilydd,

Gwaed gwŷr goferai, gwyrai onwydd.’

Spears were shattered, each one rushed at the other,

The blood of warriors flowed, ash-spears drooped.’

(Marwnad Ruffut ab Kynan, NLW MS 6680B (Hendregadredd Manuscript), f1.r)

Similarly, Magnús Berfœtr’s poet Gisl Illugason gave an eye-witness description of the death of Hugh of Shrewsbury in his Erfikvæði (eulogy) for Magnús. The poets convey vivid imagery whilst also following a strict metrical order; Meilyr followed the cyhydedd naw ban of the cynghanedd, and Gisl the Norse fornyrðislag (‘ancient-words-form’) metre. The 18th-century Welsh poet and antiquarian Iolo Morganwg once complained that Old Norse poetry was full of ‘violent figures’, and ‘ferocious sentiments’, terms which could also apply to Meilyr’s poetry. It’s here perhaps that the Norse and the Welsh shared common literary interests.

According to the Brut, Magnús Berfœtr’s excursion to Anglesey in 1098 was one of the last Viking attacks in Wales. The literary traces of the Vikings in Wales are not always obvious, but their legacy has survived, not only in manuscripts but also in more familiar, everyday forms such as place-names. Despite their familiarity, it’s still fascinating to think that we live alongside this Viking heritage that was brought to Wales nearly a thousand years ago.

Lucie Hobson

Trainee Archivist

Sources consulted

  • Annales Cambriae, A.D. 682-954: Texts A-C in Parallel, ed. & trans. by David N. Dumville (Cambridge: ASNC, 2002)
  • Brut y Tywysogion or The Chronicle of the Princes: Peniarth MS 20 Version, trans. Thomas Jones (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1952)
  • Historia Gruffud vab Kenan, ed. D. Simon Evans (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1977)
  • Jesch, Judith, ‘Norse Historical Traditions and Historia Gruffud vab Kenan: Magnús berfœtr and Harald hárfagri’, in Gruffudd ap Cynan: A Collaborative Biography, ed. K. L. Maund (Woodbridge: Boydell, 1996), pp. 117-148
  • Vita Griffini filii Conani, ed. & trans. Paul Russell (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2005)
  • Vitae Sanctorum Britanniae et Genealogie, ed. & trans A. W. Wade-Evans (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1944)
  • Williams, J. E. Caerwyn, ‘Meilyr Brydydd and Gruffudd ap Cynan’, in Gruffudd ap Cynan: A Collaborative Biography, ed. K. L. Maund (Woodbridge: Boydell, 1996), pp. 165-186

The Welsh Gentry Estates: a Treasure Trove of History

Collections / Story of Wales - Posted 24-01-2020

For centuries a large proportion of the land in Wales was concentrated in the hands of a comparatively small number of gentry families. Some estates were enormous, such as Wynnstay, while others were quite small, like Allt-lwyd in Cardiganshire. The very existence of the gentry estates had a profound impact on the landscape and history of Wales. The physical manifestations of power were evident in the fine mansions surrounded by extensive gardens and park lands. The omnipresence of estates in the landscape was perceptible in the tenanted farms, the cottages, the forestry plantations, the game coverts, the enclosures of common lands, the turnpike roads, the mine workings, the railways and urban developments.

The influence of the estates was felt in almost every aspect of Welsh life. They provided employment for local people as agricultural labourers, estate stewards, gardeners, grooms, household servants and children’s nurses. Those employees were entirely at their mercy. Estate owners married into other high status families, thus expanding their lands and extending their tendrils of power into every area of public life. They held positions of high office as servants of the English Crown, members of parliament, deputy lieutenants, county sheriffs, mayors and justices of the peace. They controlled the county elections, the appointments of parish clergy and the collection of the tithes. They contributed to the building and renovation of churches, schools, hospitals, village halls and public reading rooms.

In private life they patronised poets and musicians in continuation of the bardic tradition, they amassed libraries of rare manuscripts and books, they filled their houses with fine furniture, they collected works of art and had their own portraits painted for posterity.

Fortunately the Welsh gentry estates generated a large volume of records, a positive treasure trove for the modern historian. A typical estate archive contains title deeds, rentals, estate accounts, household records, surveys and valuations, maps, family settlements and wills, diaries, letters, legal papers and county administration papers. Some estates created vast quantities of records relating to agriculture, lead mining or slate quarrying. Other estate records reflect particular interests of their owners, such as fox-hunting at Gogerddan or the collection of music, art and sculpture at Wynnstay. All of these records provide almost unlimited scope for research by genealogists, local historians, school children, archaeologists, landscape historians, students of political history, artists and musicians.

Title deeds, family settlements and wills clarify how the estate owners accumulated their lands and passed them down to their descendants. Some documents are of national significance. Both the Wynnstay and the Penrice and Margam estate archives incorporate important mediaeval charters, of Strata Marcella and Margam Abbey respectively, showing the distribution of lands prior to the dissolution of the monasteries.

Estate rentals, wage books and household records will provide the names of the estate stewards, the tenants, the labourers and the servants. The accounts often record the erection or repair of buildings which may still survive in the modern landscape. Inventories might list the silver plate, pictures and other heirlooms. Surveys and maps show where the lands were located and how they were utilised.

Diaries and letters may describe the day-to-day lives of the estate owners and their employees, relations within the family, local events, social gossip, army life, travel and political ambitions. Legal papers often incorporate a mass of evidence, shedding light on hidden family connections and current social conditions. Paintings and portraits portray the gentry houses and their owners in context, showing contemporary landscapes, architecture, heraldry, interior furnishings, clothing, hairstyles, and sometimes favourite or prized animals.

The ultimate fates of the Welsh gentry estates were various. Many sank under the burden of their own debt, created by heavy outgoings, mortgages, family settlements and death duties. Great swathes of estate lands in Wales were sold off during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Some of the mansion houses fell into ruin, others were converted into apartments, hospitals, asylums and schools. Some, such as Powis Castle and Llanerchaeron, came to be preserved at the hands of the National Trust. A few, such as Rhug and Mostyn, are still run as functioning estates in the modern world.

So where do you go to find out more? Estate records are held in various repositories throughout Wales. A large number of them reside here at The National Library of Wales, and we have compiled a list of 50 of the most popular estate collections, which you can view on our website. You can browse the Library’s Catalogue online from the comfort of your armchair. If you prefer to visit us in person, the professional staff in the Reading Rooms will be on hand to assist you.

Many more estate records are located in county archive offices. Some are still kept in private hands with the current estate owners or their solicitors. Bangor University has established a special centre dedicated to the history of the Welsh estates: the Institute for the Study of Welsh Estates (ISWE).

Please feel free to discover the Welsh estate records for yourself. With such a wide area of interest to choose from, no-one need feel excluded.

For further information

Lives in Crime: The Social and Cultural History of Wales in the Court of Great Sessions

Collections / Story of Wales - Posted 10-01-2020

The phrase ‘History of Wales’ often conjures up images of medieval Welsh princes and princesses like Llewellyn the Great, Owain Glyndŵr, Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd, and watershed events like the Edwardian conquest, or the Tudor Acts of Union. Alternatively, ‘Welsh History’ evokes images of social, economic and political change in the 19th century, characterised by mining and industrialisation, the growth of Methodism, Chartism, and the Rebecca Riots. These are all rich and fascinating subjects that deserve the attention they receive. However, the period between the Acts of Union and the Industrial revolution are often overlooked, especially in histories that explore the everyday lives of ‘ordinary’ people in Wales.

As a social and cultural historian of 18th century Wales, I am working to change this.  Fortunately, the National Library of Wales holds one of the best sources of evidence about the everyday lives of Welsh men and women during this often-ignored period. Perhaps surprisingly, the records I’m referring to are the Gaol Files of the Court of Great Session – the highest criminal court in Wales prior to the 1830s. These records provide rich details about peoples’ daily routines, their work and family life, their values, assumptions, interpersonal relationships and so on.

Pre-trial documents, such as depositions, examinations, complaints, and ‘information’, as well as confessions were produced when a crime, such as murder, riot, assault, theft, burglary, forgery, bigamy, and even bestiality were referred to the Court of Great Sessions. Clerks or magistrates would interview witnesses and suspects and record their responses, often after translating them from Welsh into English. Although rarely, if ever, verbatim, they were central to the trial process in a country where many witnesses spoke a different language to the court, as legal proceedings were held in English. For this reason, pre-trial documents from the Court of Great Sessions have a very high survival rate compared to similar records from the Assizes in England. In addition to providing compelling evidence of crime and deviance, pre-trial records also contain highly detailed accounts of what individuals were doing when they witnessed, committed or became victims of crimes. These records are therefore immensely valuable for anyone interested the social and cultural history of Wales.

A case of suspected arson in Anglesey in 1799 illustrates just how rich and detailed these records can be. In this case, a young, unmarried pregnant woman stood accused of setting fire to another woman’s property. The accused woman’s master was the supposed father of her unborn child. He was also courting the woman whose property was burnt, as evidence by the fact that he was said to be in possession of her garters. This rather scandalous case of an 18th century love triangle clearly reveals the complexities and intricacies of certain agrarian courtship practices. However, witness depositions also provide fascinating evidence of more ‘everyday’ circumstances, such as how fire was shared between hearths and homes (using straw and turf from a neighbour’s fire), and the hospitality shown to young female servants who found themselves away from home at dusk (they were taken in by households and allowed to lodge with servants for the night). This case is one of countless examples of the ‘ordinary’ daily routines, neighbourliness and interpersonal relationships found in these ‘extraordinary’ court records.

The Gaol Files have been central to my research on illegitimacy and midwifery in 18th century Wales, and form an integral part of my teaching at the University of Leicester. However, with an online index for the years 1730-1830, and records kept in English (mainly using secretary and italic hand) from 1730 onwards, the Gaol Files are widely accessible at the National Library.

Dr Angela Muir

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