Phyllis Kinney’s life is a journey from America to Aberystwyth, and from an early career as an operatic singer to becoming one of the foremost authorities on Welsh traditional music.
Phyllis Kinney (now enjoying her 97th year) was born in Pontiac, Michigan near Detroit on 4 July 1922 – Independence Day. She was educated at Pontiac High School and then the Michigan State College, East Lansing where she specialised in music and graduated in 1943. Such was her vocal talent that she secured a fellowship at the Juilliard School of Music, New York where she studied for 3 years. In 1947 she became the lead solo with the Carl Rosa opera company, and while touring in Bangor, North Wales met Meredydd Evans (1919-2015) whom she married on 10 April 1948. Their daughter Eluned was born during the summer of 1949, and their married life was mostly spent in Wales, apart from a period of eight years from 1952 to 1960 which they spent in America – with her parents in Pontiac, in Princeton and in Cambridge Mass. She continued her musical career, performing in an opera by the American composer Roger Sessions in Princeton in 1955, and also teaching music in primary and secondary schools.
After returning to Wales she contributed to BBC light entertainment programmes, as a singer and also became a presenter and specialist researcher for television programmes. Her musical interest varies from American musicals to Welsh folk songs and she has spent the last few decades researching music manuscripts and publications at the National Library of Wales, Sain Ffagan and Bangor University. This was the background to her notable work, Welsh Traditional Music (University of Wales Press, 2011), which is the authoritative book on Welsh traditional music from its beginning to the present day. She has also contributed numerous articles to journals (notably in Canu Gwerin and Hanes Cerddoriaeth Cymru: Welsh Music History) and has published several books on Welsh folk music, and songbooks for children, some co-authored by Meredydd Evans. She was awarded an honorary M Mus degree by the University of Wales in 1991 and became honorary fellow of Bangor University alongside her husband in 1997.
The archives of Meredydd Evans and Phyllis Kinney, which were kindly donated to the National Library is a treasure trove of information about Welsh traditional music. Phyllis Kinney’s’ files (over 30 boxes) containing detailed and meticulous notes and analysis of tunes, with information about musicians and collectors of music. Her systematic approach, looking at rhythm, cadence, form, harmony and modes meant that she could confidently state in a letter to the poet Keith Bosley that the most popular folk metre in Welsh folk song is the trochaic tetrameter quatrain; and write an article on the connection between ‘Migldi Magldi and a particular Irish / Welsh tune family. Her correspondence shows her generosity in answering enquiries and providing support for students, researchers and fellow enthusiasts worldwide. The archive reflects the way she embraced Wales, its people and its culture, becoming a fluent Welsh speaker and elevating Welsh traditional music through her musicological studies.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
[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’]
Today we celebrate World Book Day and the launch of the campaign ‘Share a Story’. Wales has a long tradition of sharing stories, one of the most famous legacies of this being the collection of medieval Welsh prose known as the Mabinogi – and what better stories can there be to share?
These are a fascinating mix of dramatic and mysterious tales of magic, tragedy, romance, fantasy, humour, betrayal, conflict, justice, adventure, morality, human nature and the Otherworld, combining elements of folklore, mythology, pseudohistory, legend and philosophy, with occasional comments on mediaeval current affairs.
There are eleven stories in all, and they include the earliest prose stories found anywhere in Britain. The first four – ‘Pwyll Pendefig Dyfed’, ‘Branwen ferch Llŷr’, ‘Manawydan fab Llŷr’ and ‘Math fab Mathonwy’, known collectively as the Four Branches – are generally considered to be linked together, albeit very loosely to the modern eye. They were probably first written down between 1060 and 1200, neatly coinciding with attacks on Wales from England and the destruction of great native Welsh political hegemonies, but many of the stories themselves are much older, having been told, retold and adapted for centuries.
Another of the oldest stories is ‘Culhwch and Olwen’, which presents king Arthur in a very different light from the Anglo-French romances and pseudohistories made popular by Geoffrey of Monmouth and Chrétien de Troyes in the twelfth century, while ‘The dream of Macsen Wledig’ echoes Geoffrey’s work but contains many elements that are not found in it. Some of the other stories, however, were clearly influenced by Anglo-French romances, notably ‘The dream of Rhonabwy’, which appears to be an entirely literary creation. In some ways, the stories can be seen as a product of the post-colonial world in which they were first written down.
Yet the Mabinogi tales owe much more to the Welsh oral tradition in which they originated, as well as the narrative skill of the people who committed them to writing. The storytelling techniques employed in most of the stories – repetitive, and full of dialogue and distinct memorable episodes – suggest that they were composed to be performed and listened to, rather than read, but we know very little about who composed the stories or who would have performed them. The Welsh court poets knew many traditional stories and expected their audiences to understand references to them, and the stories themselves state that a chief poet was expected to tell a story when he received hospitality, and that other people told stories as well. Even today, it is common in traditional societies to share stories of all kinds at social gatherings. The Mabinogi, then, can be thought of as an expression of the collective memory of the society that produced it.
The earliest surviving manuscript fragments of the stories date from the thirteenth century, but the earliest major collection – and one of the great treasures of the Library – is the White Book of Rhydderch, which contains ten of the eleven tales and was written around 1350, probably by monks at Strata Florida; it was an error by a mediaeval scribe that led to the collection becoming known as the Mabinogion by the eighteenth century. The White Book was divided into two volumes (now Peniarth MSS 4 and 5) before 1658, with all of the Mabinogi stories in Peniarth MS 4, while the eleventh story, ‘The dream of Rhonabwy’, only appears in the later Red Book Hergest, which is now in Oxford (MS Jesus College 111).
Scholars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries made considerable use of the White Book, but knowledge of the stories seems to have been confined to manuscript studies. There is no evidence that famous storytellers like Thomas Edwards (Twm o’r Nant, 1739-1810), for example, ever told the Mabinogi tales. Things began to change, however, when William Owen Pughe published the ‘Mabinogion’ tales in English between 1795 and 1829, and they became internationally famous when Lady Charlotte Guest published the first full collection between 1838 and 1877, bilingually in Welsh and English. Academic interest revived, and by the twentieth century the Mabinogi was firmly embedded in the popular consciousness, inspiring many forms of creative work in both Welsh and English: novels, poetry, drama, visual art, storytelling, opera, pop and folk music, film, and children’s books, including the work of Saunders Lewis, Alan Garner, Anthony Conran, Gwyneth Lewis, Margaret Jones, Geraint Jarman, Robin Williamson, Michael Harvey and many others. The Library is home to all of this.
Like the Arthurian legends, the Mabinogi stories are mediaeval but at the same time timeless. They have been re-imagined by successive generations as they have tried to recover their own past, make sense of the world around them, and look forward into an uncertain future. They are as relevant now as ever.
So why not read some Mabinogi stories on World Book Day? Listen to them. Perform them. Share them. These stories were meant to be heard. And so ends this branch of the Library blog.
As Library Lovers’ Month comes to a close, we’d love to hear more about you. What are your favourite childhood memories or the places you’ve lived and visited over the years? What are you working on at the moment? What are your hobbies and interests? And what are the things that you feel most passionate about? Having heard what you’d like to share, we could then tell you even more about The National Library of Wales.
This place is like a goldmine. Yes, it’s home to many of the nation’s treasures – the Black Book of Carmarthen, Salem and Yn y Lhyvvyr Hwnn to name only a few.
These items are undoubtedly part of the nation’s memory. They’re stored here safely so that both we and generations to come can know the foundations on which Wales’s present and future are built.
You can learn more about some of these treasures, and the Library’s role as home to the nation’s memory, in our Story of Wales blog series.
But there are also items here that contain information that would be gold to you – perhaps only to you. They are pieces of your story waiting to be discovered.
These could give your story a new meaning or direction. It could be part of your family’s past. The personal stories of our ancestors have the power to shape our sense of self.
It could be the story of your home, village or area which would allow you to see familiar surroundings in an entirely new light.
It may be an item or subject that sparks your curiosity or about which you already have firm opinions. Finding further information about it could change your understanding completely and alter your perspective on the world.
Here at The National Library of Wales, we work to bring our collections to people of all ages and backgrounds. We work with schools and communities, we attend family history and student fairs, and we deliver information sessions, practical workshops and volunteering opportunities. We support users in our Reading Rooms and we digitize collections so that they can be discovered online. As a librarian, few things compare with seeing the joy and wonder that these collections can create.
This Library, like many other libraries around the world, is in the process of transformation. How you consume, create and share knowledge has changed, and our activities and services are changing with you.
Sharing your story with us – your experience and knowledge – helps us to improve the services we provide to you. Surveys, enquiries, feedback forms, user testing, focus groups, interviews and statistical analysis are some of the methods we use to capture this information. And soon we will begin consultation on our new strategy; your response will contribute towards shaping the Library’s future.
So please tell us more about yourself, and we can show you that The National Library of Wales truly is a place to discover.
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)
On Friday 28th February there will be a special concert at the Drwm, ‘GIG: ATGYFODI’R HEN GANEUON (Literally translates as ‘resurrecting the old songs’) with Arfon Gwilym and Sioned Webb. Tickets are available here.
Arfon and Sioned are both well known in Wales as versatile and experienced performers of Welsh traditional music, they are singers and they also play the violin and harp. They were invited to an evening at the Drwm following the success of their ‘O’r Archif’ (From the Archive) session at ‘Tŷ Gwerin’ (Folk House) at the Llanrwst National Eisteddfod, when they performed a selection of songs which they had discovered while researching the J. Lloyd Williams archive.
Who was J. Lloyd Williams?
J Lloyd Williams (1854 – 1945), was a botanist and musician born in Llanrwst. He earned a D.Sc. (Wales) for his work on marine algae in 1908, and received an honorary DMus degree. (Wales) in 1936. He was one of the leading collectors of Welsh folk music, played a major role in establishing the Welsh Folk Song Society in 1906, and was editor of the society’s journal.
He also edited the general music magazine ‘Y Cerddor’ (The Musician) from 1931 to 1939 and, jointly with Arthur Somerville, compiled the two volumes of Sixteen Welsh Melodies, 1907 and 1909. Read more about him in the Dictionary of Welsh Bibliography
What’s in the J. Lloyd Williams archive?
Music manuscripts and papers, 1750-1945, including hundreds of folk songs brought together by Dr J. Lloyd Williams in his role as Editor of the Welsh Folk-Song Society journal, and papers relating to his research into the history of Welsh music; material relating to his interest and vocation in the field of botany; and personal papers. (53 boxes) More details in the online catalogue.
The archive contains songs that J Lloyd Williams himself collected, songs collected by a group known as the ‘Canorion’, and by Ruth Herbert Lewis, Mary Davies and Grace Gwyneddon Davies. Also importantly it includes older collections of songs in the manuscripts of Ifor Ceri, Llywelyn Alaw, and Mari Richards Darowen. Sioned Webb as a harpist was particularly attracted to a volume of mainly Welsh and English airs and songs collected by Evan Jones (‘Ifan y Gorlan’), harpist, of Gorlan, near Llanrwst. (AH1/46)
Some of the most important manuscripts have been digitised at the Library, namely:
A composite volume containing two treatises in Welsh on angling and musical theory, three lists of tune titles, and a large collection of tunes, compiled by John Thomas for the violin, some from printed sources and others written down from oral tradition. The tunes have been published, with related notes, in Cass Meurig (ed.), Alawon John Thomas: a fiddler’s tune-book from eighteenth-century Wales (Aberystwyth, 2004).
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.’
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.
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, MarwnadGruffudd 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.’
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.
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
On 21 November 2019, with generous assistance from the Friends of the National Libraries, the National Library of Wales purchased at auction a small group of letters of the artist, engraver and poet David Jones (1895-1974) to his friend Morag Owen (née McLennan), together with some related papers.
In his later years living in Harrow, Jones was increasingly supported by a large circle of friends, one of whom was Morag Owen, a young art student at the time of their first meeting in 1948. Once Morag married and moved away, she became one of the many friends with whom Jones corresponded frequently and at length.
The letters, the later ones written in his distinctive combination of black, red and green ink with notes and postscripts added at angles in the margins, cover a variety of topics, although a recurring theme is his declining health.
Although born in Kent, Jones’s father was Welsh and he was always very conscious of his Welsh heritage. He had a lifelong interest in Welsh history and literature and, while never a fluent speaker, had a detailed knowledge of Welsh grammar and etymology. All of this is attested to in the letters. Prompted by Morag’s Glaswegian upbringing, Jones also discusses at some length the history and place names of the Brythonic-speaking regions of Strathclyde and Rheged, the ‘Old North’ of Welsh tradition.
Representing his artistic side is a fine pencil drawing of an unidentified woman. A distinctive and original aspect of Jones’s artistic output is his painted inscriptions, juxtaposing quotations in Welsh, Latin, Greek and English. There are also several examples of these among the papers; some are incorporated in his letters as greetings, others are photographic reproductions, which he sent as Christmas cards.
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.
A blog about the work and collections of the National Library of Wales.
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