Speaking the Queen's Welsh

Disdain for the British royal family is an admirable Welsh tradition. Charles Philip Arthur George's attempt at Welsh hasn't stopped people from expressing their opinions as to where the "Prince of Wales" can go shove his crown.

So it's ironic that, in a way, Welsh may owe some of its good fortune to a Briths monarch. 

Queen Elizabeth I of England, the Elizabeth of Elizabethan Fame, was not hostile to Irish or Welsh. More than that, she had her government fund the production of an Irish typeface to facilitate the printing and dissemination of an Irish translation of the Bible, and appears to have been a driving force behind the act of Parliament that made the first Welsh Bible translation possible.

The order was for Welsh Bishops to have a Welsh Bible, a Welsh Book of Common Prayer, and a Welsh administration of the sacraments in every Welsh-speaking parish by 1 March 1567. Texts were produced to meet this sudden need. The resulting Welsh Bible was arguably a superior translation to any English Bible then in existence, produced as it was just half a century after after the first translation of the Bible into Modern English, and half a century before the KJV was even a gleam in the eye of Elizabeth's successor James. Without Elizabeth's insistence on vernacularity, the Welsh Bible and Prayer Books produced by William Salesbury and William Morgan would not have had a market, let alone funding. The Welsh Bible in particular was initially so big and expensive that every parish only got one. It would be another half century before personal copies of the Welsh Bible were available.

Elizabeth did, as a practical matter, think the Irish and Welsh should also learn English, but her aim was to ease them into bilingualism, not to supplant one with the other. She was keen on having English text available alongside Irish and Welsh.

Given her religious politics, you could say this was a cynical matter. It served her self-interest mightily. It was aimed at stomping out popish use of Latin in the British Isles. She probably got quite a few jollies out of pissing off counterreformationists. 

I'm not the sort inclined to cut any monarch any slack. But a few things are worth considering.

First, anti-Latin policies in Early Modern Europe frequently had the effect of suppressing regional languages by imposing the language of the Crown or the State at the expense of everything else, Latin and not. This is how things played out in places like Cornwall and Occitania. When backed by a centralized state's strong-arming and strong force of arms, it was brutally effective. Elizabeth did not really have to make provisions for regional languages in order to put the kabosh on Latin worship.

Her main goal was self-interest. But she also would have understood that Britain was big enough for more than one language. She may well have been the most multilingual monarch England has ever had. She is known to have spoken at least English, Italian, Spanish, French, Greek and Latin. Some of these she spoke and read far better than she could write them. (Her spoken French was reported to be quite fluent, but her secret letters to the Duke of Anjou, which for obvious reasons couldn't be proofed or drafted by anyone else, are written in a crabbed and awkward French full of unidiomatic phrasing. This is unsurprising. When you have a corps of diplomatic functionaries and secretaries to draft correspondence for you, you only need to write things yourself on rare or personal occasions.)

She may have also learned at least some Welsh from her lady-in-waiting Blanche Parry, who came from a family of Welsh-speaking (and highly Welsh-literate) gentry. Parry was also involved in getting the Welsh Bible project underway.

Elizabeth was interested in learning Irish, too, a language for which there were at that time no learning materials for non-natives. Whether she made much progress in the language nobody will ever know. But she did commission Christopher Nugent, the Baron of Delvin, a bilingual Anglo-Irish nobleman, to write something up for her to help get the basics of the language. He did so. The result was the Queen's Irish Primer, a little booklet roughly equivalent to today's Lonely Planet guides for tourists: a phrasebook and word list plus a basic outline of the grammar. This was the first known written attempt to explain a Celtic language to an adult learner, and it was produced at the personal behest of the English crown.

The final point is the importance of the Welsh Bible. This can't be overstated. Vernacular Bible translations in Early Modern Europe seem to have functioned a bit like health insurance for languages. Once the Bible was available in a language, that language's long-term prospects were much higher. A Bible Translation offered not only the prestige of a written form, but something that speakers would be motivated to read and reread. Even under conditions of oppressive language policy, anybody trying to take people's Bibles might be vulnerable to theological objections or at least arouse great religious opprobrium.

The Welsh Bible was even more important than most other Early Modern Bible translations. Many have credited the widespread use of William Morgan's Welsh Bible as the major and even determining factor in the fate of Welsh-language literacy and culture. It would not surprise me if in 300 years, Welsh is the only Celtic language still alive. Welsh would definitely not be in this enviable position were it not for the fact that churches in Welsh-speaking areas were, and doggedly remained, free to conduct their parochial and spiritual affairs in Welsh.

It's worth comparing the fate of Welsh to that of the other Brythonic language under the English crown: Cornish. Cornish was brutally suppressed by Elizabeth's father, King Henry VIII, who in an attempt to root out the Latin liturgy, was content to have English enforced in Cornwall at swordpoint, rather than bother subsidizing the regional vernacular language. With the crushing of the Prayer Book Rebellion, use of Cornish in worship, or any official capacity, came with great risk. It was a risk that few were interested in taking. Within a century, the last known monolingual Cornish speaker, Chesten Marchant, was dead. The century after that saw the death of the last known fluent native speaker who was able to write in the language, the famous Dolly Pentraeth. In the 19th century, though there were a few people who still spoke Cornish still, they were very hard even for well-meaning antiquarian scholars to find. Generally Englishmen no longer knew what Cornish was, and did not recognize it on the rare occasion that they heard it. Mostly evidence of continued Cornish use takes the form of puzzled descriptions, such as a reference to some kind of bizarre-sounding non-English spoken by a few illiterate miners from Falmouth. And in 1914 came the death of one John Mann, the last person known to have spoken Cornish as a child. On his deathbed, Mann could remember only a few words and phrases of the language he grew up speaking. Despite great antiquarian interest in the language throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Cornish was effectively dead by the time revival attempts got under way.

All through this, Welsh was still holding its own. Despite a few fairly dicey decades, when prospects for its future were not at all certain, Welsh would ultimately survive the oppressive language ideologies and language policies of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Today in Wales, ability to speak the language is enough of a social asset that learning it is often part of upward mobility in English-speaking areas. This is thanks in large part to the continuing robustness of Welsh-medium Methodist churches which were able to provide not only an alternative source of literacy outside the English school system, but a strong spiritual identification with the language. It's a lot harder to get somebody to abandon their native language when they talk to God in it. Welsh also had a thriving literature written in a standardized register based largely on the language of Morgans' Bible. Although hymnography often tends to quash talent rather than nurture it, Welsh-language hymnography was the medium of quite a few brilliant poets, such as Ann Griffiths, whose work was preserved in oral tradition before being fixed in writing.

On the other hand, the Bible wasn't translated into Cornish in its entirety until 2011, as part of the  language-resurrection movement.

It's a supreme irony that the good prospects for the Welsh language owe a great deal to the shrewdness, temperament and intellectual disposition of an English Monarch whose main goal was to consolidate her power. 


  1. Is it possible that Elizabether 1 spoke Welsh herself? The Tudors were from North Wales only a couple of generations back from Elizabeth.

    1. Historian David Starkey has mentioned that Elizabeth spoke at least some Welsh to Welsh speakers in her Court. The reason was to keep certain information private. There is also some indication that the great 'Shakespeare' made transitive puns on Welsh words -- puns that only make sense when translated into Welsh.