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Saunders Lewis

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Saunders Lewis (born John Saunders Lewis) (15 October 1893 - 1 September 1985) was a Welsh poet, dramatist, historian, literary critic, and political activist. He was a prominent Welsh nationalist and a founder of the Welsh National Party (later known as Plaid Cymru). Lewis is usually acknowledged to have been among the most prominent figures of twentieth-century Welsh-language literature. Lewis was a 1970 Nobel nominee for literature, and in 2005 was voted 10th as Wales' 'greatest-ever person' in a BBC Wales poll.[1]

File:Saunders Lewis 1936.jpg

Early life

South Wales Borderers cap badge, showing the Sphinx

South Wales Borderers Cap Badge showing Egyptian Sphinx

Born into a Welsh family living in Wallasey, England, in 1893, Lewis was studying English and French at Liverpool University when the First World War broke out. After serving as an officer with the South Wales Borderers he returned to university to graduate in English.

In 1922, he was appointed as a lecturer in Welsh at the University College of Wales, Swansea. During his time at Swansea he produced some of his most exciting works of literary criticism: A School of Welsh Augustans (1924), Williams Pantycelyn (1927), and Braslun o hanes llenyddiaeth Gymraeg (=An outline history of Welsh literature) (1932).

Founding Plaid Cymru

His experiences in World War I, and his sympathy for the cause of Irish independence, brought him to Welsh nationalism, and in 1925 he met with H.R. Jones and Lewis Valentine and others at a 1925 National Eisteddfod meeting, held in Pwllheli, Gwynedd, with the aim of establishing a Welsh party.[2]

Discussions for the need of a "Welsh party" had been circulating since the 19th century.[3] With the generation or so before 1922 there "had been a marked growth in the constitutional recognition of the Welsh nation," wrote historian Dr. John Davies.[4] By 1924 there were people in Wales "eager to make their nationality the focus of Welsh politics.[5]"

Lewis and Jones both represented two other organizations, founded only the previous year, with Lewis heading The Welsh Movement and Jones heading the Welsh Home Rulers. The principal aim of the party would be to foster a Welsh speaking Wales.[6] To this end it was agreed that party business be conducted in Welsh, and that members sever all links with other British parties.[7] Lewis insisted on these principles before he would agree to the Pwllheli conference.

According to the 1911 census, out of a population of just under 2.5 million, 43.5% of the total population of Wales spoke Welsh as a primary language.[8] This was a decrease from the 1891 census with 54.4% speaking Welsh out of a population of 1.5 million.[9]

With these prerequisites Lewis condemned "'Welsh nationalism' as it had hitherto existed, a nationalism characterized by inter-party conferences, an obsession with Westminster and a willingness to accept a subservient position for the Welsh language," wrote Dr. Davies.[10] It may be because of these strict positions that the party failed to attract politicians of experience in its early years.[11] However, the party's members believed its founding was an achievement in itself; "merely by existing, the party was a declaration of the distinctiveness of Wales," wrote Dr. Davies.[12]

The Lewis Doctrine 1926-1939

During the inter-war years, Plaid Genedlaethol Cymru was most successful as a social and educational pressure group rather than as a political party.[13] For Saunders Lewis, party president 1926 - 1939, "the chief aim of the party [is] to 'take away from the Welsh their sense of inferiority... to remove from our beloved country the mark and shame of conquest.'" Lewis sought to cast Welshness into a new context, wrote Dr. Davies.[14]

Lewis wished to demonstrate how Welsh heritage was linked as one of the 'founders of European civilization.[15] Lewis, a self-described "strong monarchist," wrote "Civilization is more than an abstraction. It must have a local habitation and name. Here its name is Wales."[16][17] Additionally, Lewis strove for the stability and well-being of Welsh-speaking communities, decried both capitalism and socialism and promoted what he called perchentyaeth; a policy of 'distributing property among the masses.[18]"

Tân yn Llŷn 1936


Welsh nationalism was ignited in 1936 when the UK government settled on establishing a bombing school at Penyberth on the Llŷn Peninsula in Gwynedd. The events surrounding the protest, known as Tân yn Llŷn (Fire in Llŷn), helped define Plaid Genedlaethol Cymru.[19] The UK government settled on Llŷn as the sight for its new bombing school after similar locations Northumberland and Dorset were met with protests.[20]

However, UK Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin refused to hear the case against the bombing school in Wales, despite a deputation representing half a million Welsh protesters.[21] Protest against the bombing school was summed up by Lewis when he wrote that the UK government was intent upon turning one of the 'essential homes of Welsh culture, idiom, and literature' into a place for promoting a barbaric method of warfare.[22] Construction of the bombing school building began exactly 400 years after the first Act of Union annexing Wales into England.[23]

On 8 September 1936, the bombing school building was set on fire and in the investigations which followed Saunders Lewis, Lewis Valentine, and D.J. Williams claimed responsibility.[24] The trial at Caernarfon failed to agree on a verdict and the case was sent to the Old Bailey in London. The "Three" were sentenced to nine months imprisonment in Wormwood Scrubs, and on their release they were greeted as heroes by fifteen thousand Welsh at a pavilion in Caernarfon.[25]

Many Welsh were angered by the judge's scornful treatment of the Welsh language, by the decision to move the trial to London, and by the decision of University College, Swansea, to dismiss Lewis from his post before he had been found guilty.[26] Dafydd Glyn Jones wrote of the fire that it was "the first time in five centuries that Wales struck back at England with a measure of violence... To the Welsh people, who had long ceased to believe that they had it in them, it was a profound shock."[27]

However, despite the acclaim the events of Tân yn Llŷn generated, by 1938 Lewis' concept of perchentyaeth was firmly rejected as not a fundamental tenet of the party. In 1939 Lewis resigned as Plaid Genedleathol Cymru president citing that Wales was not ready to accept the leadership of a Roman Catholic.[28]

Lewis was the son and grandson of prominent Welsh Calvinistic Methodist ministers. In 1932, he converted to Roman Catholicism.

Second World War

Lewis maintained a strict neutrality in his writings through his column Cwrs y Byd in Y Faner. It was his attempt at an unbiased interpretation of the causes and events of the war.[29]

Outside of the party's initial position on the war, party members were free to choose for themselves their level of support for the war effort. Plaid Genedlaethol Cymru was officially neutral regarding involvement the Second World War, which Lewis and other leaders considered a continuation of the First World War. Central to the neutrality policy was the idea that Wales, as a nation, had the right to decide independently on its attitude towards war,[30] and the rejection of other nations to force Welshmen to serve in their armed forces.[31] With this challenging and revolutionary policy Lewis hoped a significant number of Welshmen would refuse to join the British Army.[32]

Lewis and other party members were attempting to strengthen loyalty to the Welsh nation "over the loyalty to the British State.[33]" Lewis argued "The only proof that the Welsh nation exists is that there are some who act as if it did exist.[34]"

However, most party members who claimed conscientious objection status did so in the context of their moral and religious beliefs, rather than on political policy.[35] Of these almost all were exempt from military service. About 24 party members made politics their sole grounds for exemption, of which twelve received prison sentences.[36] For Lewis, those who objected proved that the assimilation of Wales was "being withstood, even under the most extreme pressures.[37]"

University of Wales by-election, 1943

Prior to 1950, universities could elect and return representatives to the UK parliament. In 1943 Lewis contested the University of Wales parliamentary seat at a by-election, his opponent was former Plaid Genedlaethol Cymru deputy vice-president Dr. William John Gruffydd. Gruffydd had voiced doubts about Lewis' ideas since 1933,[38] and by 1943 he had joined the Liberal party. The "brilliant but wayward" Gruffydd was a favorite with Welsh-speaking intellectuals and drew 52.3 per cent of the vote, to Lewis' 22 per cent, or 1,330 votes.[39]

The election effectively split the Welsh-speaking intelligentsia, and left Lewis embittered with politics and retreated from direct political involvement.[40] However, the experience proved invaluable for Plaid Cymru, as they began to refer to themselves, as "for the first time they were taken seriously as a political force.[41]" The by-election campaign led directly to "considerable growth" for the party's membership.[42]

Tynged yr Iaith and the 1961 census

see also Tynged yr iaith

In 1962 Lewis gave a radio speech entitled Tynged yr iaith (The Fate of the Language) in which he predicted the extinction of the Welsh language unless action was taken. Lewis' intent was to motivate Plaid Cymru into more direct action promoting the language, however it led to the formation of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (the Welsh Language Society) later that year at a Plaid Cymru summer school held in Pontardawe in Glamorgan.[43] The foundation of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg allowed for Plaid Cymru to focus on electoral politics, while the Cymdeithas focused on promoting the language.

Lewis gave his radio speech responding to the 1961 census, which showed a decrease in the number of Welsh speakers from 36% in 1931 to 26%, out of a population of about 2.5 million.[44] In the census; Merionnydd, Ynys Mon, Carmarthen, and Caernarfon averaged 75% concentration of Welsh speakers, with the most significant decrease in the counties of Glamorgan, Flint, and Pembroke.[45][46]

Responding on the calls of Welsh devolution, in 1964 the Labour Government gave effect to these proposals establishing the unelected Welsh Office (Welsh: Swyddfa Gymreig) and Secretary of State for Wales.

Nobel Nominee

In 1970, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature. His literary works include plays, poetry, novels and essays. He wrote mostly in Welsh, but he also wrote some works in English. By the time of his death in 1985 he was amongst the most celebrated of Welsh writers.

Political criticisms

Lewis' perceived "elitist views,"and a "condescending attitude towards some aspects of nonconformist, radical and pacifist traditions of Wales" drew criticism from fellow nationalist such as D.J. Davies, a leftist party member.[47] Davies argued in favour of engaging English-speaking Welsh communities, and stressed the territorial integrity of Wales. Davies pointed towards Scandinavian countries as a model to emulate, and was active in the economic implications of Welsh self-government.[48]

In many ways it was Davies' ideal of Welsh nationalism which was adopted after the Second World War, wrote Dr. Davies. But it was Lewis' "brilliance and charismatic appeal" which was firmly associated with Plaid Genedlaethol Cymru in the 1930s.[49]

In 1936, in the midst of the turmoil of Tân yn Llŷn, Lewis praised Adolf Hitler when he said "At once he fulfilled his promise — a promise which was greatly mocked by the London papers months before that — to completely abolish the financial strength of the Jews in the economic life of Germany."[50] However, in the 1930s other British politicians including Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George also made favourable comments about fascist leaders.[51]

Literary activity

Lewis was above all a dramatist. His earliest published play was Blodeuwedd (The woman of flowers) (1923-25, revised 1948). Other notable plays include Buchedd Garmon (The life of Germanus) (radio play, 1936), Siwan (1956), Gymerwch chi sigarét? (Will you have a cigarette?) (1956), Brad (Treachery) (1958), Esther (1960), and Cymru fydd (Tomorrow's Wales) (1967). He also translated Samuel Beckett's En attendant Godot into Welsh.

He published two novels, Monica (1930) and Merch Gwern Hywel (The daughter of Gwern Hywel) (1964) and two collections of poems as well as numerous articles and essays in various newspapers, magazines and journals. These articles have been collected into volumes including: Canlyn Arthur (Following Arthur) (1938), Ysgrifau dydd Mercher (Wednesday essays) (1945), Meistri'r canrifoedd (Masters of the centuries) (1973), Meistri a'u crefft (Masters and their craft) (1981) and Ati ŵyr ifainc (Go to it, young men) (1986).

Works in English and translations

  • Lewis, Saunders (1997), Monica. Translated by Meic Stephens. Bridgend: Seren. ISBN 1-85411-195-7.
  • Lewis, Saunders (1985-2002), The plays of Saunders Lewis. 4 vols. Translated by Joseph P. Clancy. ISBN 0-9540569-4-9, 0715406485, 0954056957, 0715406523.
  • Lewis, Saunders (1993), Selected poems. Translated by Joseph P. Clancy. Cardiff: University of Wales Press. ISBN 0-7083-1194-6.


  • Griffiths, Bruce (1989), Saunders Lewis. Writers of Wales series. Cardiff : University of Wales Pres. ISBN 0-7083-1049-4.
  • Jones, Alun R. & Gwyn Thomas (Eds.) (1973), Presenting Saunders Lewis. Cardiff: University of Wales Press. ISBN 0-7083-0852-X.
  • Jones, Harri Pritchard (1991), Saunders Lewis : a presentation of his work. Illinois : Templegate. ISBN 0-87243-187-8.
  • 'Lewis, Saunders (1893-1985)'. In Meic Stephens (Ed.) (1998), The new companion to the literature of Wales. Cardiff : University of Wales Press. ISBN 0-7083-1383-3.
  • Chapman, T. Robin (2006), Un bywyd o blith nifer: cofiant Saunders Lewis. Llandysul, Gomer. ISBN 1-84323-709-1. In Welsh, but the only complete biography.


  1. [ Bevan is ultimate Welsh hero extracted 12-04-07]
  2. John Davies, A History of Wales, Penguin, 1994, ISBN 0-14-014581-8, Page 547
  3. Davies, op cit, pages 415, 454
  4. Davies, op cit, Page 544
  5. Davies, op cit, Page 547
  6. Davies, op cit, page 548
  7. Davies, op cit, page 548
  8. BBCWales History extracted 12-03-07
  9. BBCWales history extracted 12-03-07
  10. Davies, op cit, page 548
  11. Davies, op cit, page 548
  12. Davies, op cit, page 548
  13. Davies, op cit, page 591
  14. Davies, op cit, page 591
  15. Davies, op cit, page 591
  16. Davies, op cit, page 591
  17. Royal plans to beat nationalism Tuesday, 8 March 2005 extracted 29 Oct 07
  18. Davies, op cit, page 591
  19. Davies, op cit, page 593
  20. Davies, op cit, page 592
  21. Davies, op cit, page 592
  22. Davies, op cit, page 592
  23. Davies, op cit, page 592
  24. Davies, op cit, page 592
  25. Davies, op cit, page 592
  26. Davies, op cit, page 593
  27. Davies, op cit, page 593
  28. Davies, op cit, page 593
  29. Davies, op cit, page 599
  30. Davies, op cit, page 598
  31. Davies, op cit, page 598
  32. Davies, op cit, page 599
  33. Davies, op cit, page 598
  34. Davies, op cit, page 599
  35. Davies, op cit, page 599
  36. Davies, op cit, page 599
  37. Davies, op cit, page 599
  38. Davies, op cit, page 610
  39. Davies, op cit, page 610
  40. Davies, op cit, page 611
  41. Davies, op cit, page 611
  42. Davies, op cit, page 611
  43. Morgan, K O, Rebirth of a Nation, (1981), OUP
  44. BBCWales History extracted 12-03-07
  45. BBCWales History extracted 12-03-07
  46. BBCWales History extracted 12-03-07
  47. Davies, op cit, page 591
  48. Davies, op cit, pages 591-592
  49. Davies, op cit, page 592
  50. United Kingdom Parliament: Debate on Government of Wales Act 1998. Retrieved 31 August 2006.
  51. Canadine op cit p52

External links

Party political offices
Preceded by
Lewis Valentine
President of Plaid Cymru
Succeeded by
John Edward Daniel
br:Saunders Lewis

cy:Saunders Lewiseu:Saunders Lewis kw:Saunders Lewis ru:Льюис, Сондерс fi:Saunders Lewis

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