Last week, in this blog here, I shared a song “Dros Gymru’n Gwlad”, performed by Dafydd Iwan but written by the Reverend Lewis Valentine. I mentioned in that blog that Lewis Valentine held a special place in 20th century Welsh history, so today I am giving that history.
Lewis Valentine (1893-1986), together with Saunders Lewis (1893-1985) and D.J. (David John) Williams (1885-1970) were the three men who were involved in this particular event. Valentine was a Baptist minister in North Wales. Saunders Lewis was born and brought up in Liverpool in a Welsh-speaking family (his father was a minister in a Welsh-speaking chapel in Liverpool). He became a celebrated playwright and lecturer in English at Swansea University, and the founder in 1925 of Plaid Cymru, the ‘Party of Wales’. D.J. Williams (never known as David John!) was born in Rhydycymerau in rural Carmarthenshire, and in addition to writing short stories he was an English teacher at the Grammar School in Fishguard, West Wales (I went to that school in the 1970s but by that time it was a comprehensive school). In 1936, in protest to the
- ‘English’ preparations for war
- English imperialism in Wales (some 500,000 people had protested against the construction of the bombing school)
- the destroying of an historical Welsh landmark (Penyberth had been used for centuries as a stopping point for pilgrims going to Ynys Enlli (Bardsey Island), which is at the end of the Llŷn peninsula)
the three of them set fire to an RAF bombing school on the Llŷn Peninsula, at a place called Penyberth. At the time the men were in their early forties, and deliberately chosen by Plaid Cymru as the three were all middle-aged and respectable pillars of their communities.
Penyberth is often seen as the first act of Welsh nationalism (patriotism) of the 20th Century. After setting fire to the bombing school, the three men made their way to the local police station where they gave themselves up and told the confused police officer what they had done and why. In the subsequent court case in Caernarfon a largely sympathetic jury of their peers failed to find them guilty, and so the trial was sent to the Old Bailey in London, where the three were found guilty and sent to jail. They each served 9 months in prison in Wormwood Scrubs. Saunders Lewis was, controversially, dismissed from his job at Swansea University before he had been found guilty of the crime. He was subsequently hired as a lecturer of English at Cardiff University (strictly speaking “University of Wales, Swansea” and “University of Wales, Cardiff”, as they were known at the time).
An interesting historical quirk of their trial in Caernarfon is that, at that time (and up until the “Welsh Language Act” of 1967), a Welsh person had no right to give their testimony in Welsh in a court in Wales. Ever since the “Laws in Wales” acts of 1535-1542, English had been made the only language of legal proceedings in Wales. The only exception allowed to this rule was if one could prove that one’s English was inadequate. All three wished to give their testimonies in Welsh, but Lewis Valentine was the only one allowed to do so, as no evidence could be provided that he was anything like fluent enough in English.
As for the other two, Saunders Lewis had a degree in English from Liverpool University (the city where he was born and brought up); and D.J. Williams also had a degree in English from Aberystwyth (University of Wales, Aberystwyth), and had done post-graduate studies at Jesus College, Oxford! Additionally, at the time of the trial, Saunders Lewis was lecturing in English, and D.J. Williams teaching English at Fishguard Grammar School. Not surprisingly, their English was deemed to be good enough, and they were not allowed to testify in their own language.
If you want to read more about this episode of Welsh history, I can recommend the excellent book by Dafydd Jenkins, my copy is shown below.
Had you ever heard of Penyberth, or any of “y tri” before?