Review: Charles and the Welsh Revolt by Arwel Vittle
As the subtitle to this impactful book tells us, namely “The Explosive Start to King Charles III’s Royal Career,” this is a chronicle of an agitated phase in modern Welsh history. It aims to give readers ‘an idea of what it was like to be part of a Welsh revolt against the English Crown melding oral history with a narrative of the events leading up to the future King of England’s Investiture at Caernarfon Castle in July 1969.
A decade that included the drowning of Cwm Tryweryn and the tragedy of Aberfan closed with Welsh institutions and communities riven by the Investiture.
The roots of some of the discontent reached back to the winter of 1282 when Llewelyn ap Gruffudd, the leader of the mountain kingdom of Gwynedd and the Prince of Wales was killed in Cilmeri in mid Wales. He was the last of the native line, a murder seen as nothing less than a cosmic event by the poets of the day and which still resonated down the years.
Or as the historian John Davies put it: ‘Henceforth the fate of the Welsh, in every part of their country, would be to live under a political system in which they and their characteristics would only have a subordinate role, a fact which would be a central element in their experience until this very day and hour.’
The vivid and gripping story Vittle unrolls is one full of colourful characters, strong opinion and dramatic events. There is Bernard Marmaduke Fitzalan-Howard, the 16th Duke of Norfolk, a dab hand at arranging royal ceremonies who had to deal with mundane emergencies such as the coronet being shattered as it was being hallmarked, so that the future king had to wear an orb made up of a ping-pong ball.
Then there is John Jenkins, a member of the Royal Dental Corps who was masterminding Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru’s bombing campaign as if he were pulling the teeth of the British Establishment.
Add the arch-Royalist and acerbic Secretary of State for Wales, George Thomas, who hated the Welsh language and then the flamboyant horse breeder and British Army veteran Julian Cayo-Evans, helming the sometimes comedic Free Wales Army and you have the dramatis personae of a pretty lavish and lively soap opera.
Except this one had real-life consequences. A young lad from Buckinghamshire, Ian Cox, holidaying in Caernarfon, lost part of his leg when an undiscovered bomb went off. Two members of MAC, Alwyn Jones and George Taylor, died when their bomb exploded. It wasn’t just pomp and ceremony.
But that cast list had to grow and grow. There were agents provocateurs seeking to infiltrate the nationalist ranks. On the day itself almost 1200 uniformed soldiers lined the procession route as well as over 2,200 soldiers.
And one day of ceremony and gun salutes wasn’t enough. There was a three month tourism campaign to coincide, not to mention Charles’ own charm offensive which included learning some Welsh language, history and culture on a six-week sheep dip in Aberystwyth.
The event caused migraine-style headaches for Plaid Cymru. Newly elected MP Gwynfor Evans spent so much time on the horns of a dilemma that he probably needed to wear rodeo rider’s chaps.
Many of his members were unutterably opposed to the Investiture, one of those being a young member of the party, Dafydd Elis-Thomas.
Writing in the youth arm’s magazine I’r Gad he stated categorically that there was no welcome for the Prince in modern Wales:
We don’t want the medieval hangover of prince, we don’t want the meaningless, powerless symbol of a dying Empire. What we want is the real institution of a modern nation…a Parliament….If you don’t want to make a fool of yourself in the greatest farce of modern Welsh history, don’t come back to Caernarfon in 1969 – but go back to Cambridge, Charlie boy. Wales has her own leaders and her own destiny now.
The book moves at a lick consonant with the fast-moving events themselves, with an awful lot happening, such as the arrests and subsequent trials of ten members of the FWA, which coincidentally ended as the Investiture happened, a cautionary tale told to the public in the court of law.
There was also the advent of what John Hughes, the head of Gwynedd CID at the time described as ‘political policing,’ when the Shrewsbury Unit was set up over the border to defeat the Welsh extremists.
This was in part a reaction to an apparent reluctance on the part of Welsh police forces to share info with each other, along with deepening Home Office suspicion that some Welsh officers were sympathetic to the nationalist cause.
The full story of the Investiture has yet to be told of course. Some of the files on Emyr Llywelyn – imprisoned in 1963 for damage as they they built the dam at Tryweryn – were not unlocked after the usual 30 years, as an additional order had been made to keep them secret for longer. Which suggests that an old nervousness is still twitching.
But since 1969 and now some things have become clearer. The tide of history, Vittle suggests, seems to be running against the British Crown, with, for example, 36 of the 56 members of the Commonwealth already turned republics.
Only this week Belize and Jamaica moved to remove the British Monarch as the head of their respective states, mooting referendums to gauge the mood of their peoples.
For the mood of a country can change, sometimes slowly or sometimes at a lick. Arwel Vittle’s chronicle of hunger strikes and of weapon arsenals being thrown into lakes, of demos and Cymdeithas yr Iaith sit-ins shows us a turning point in Welsh history and a vivid reminder of how we got to where we are today.
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