1588: Elizabeth's Great Achievement: Robin Evans Extols the Outstanding Success of 1588: Not the Defeat of the Spanish Armada but the Publication of the Welsh Bible

By Evans, Robin | History Review, September 2003 | Go to article overview

1588: Elizabeth's Great Achievement: Robin Evans Extols the Outstanding Success of 1588: Not the Defeat of the Spanish Armada but the Publication of the Welsh Bible


Evans, Robin, History Review


The defeat of the Spanish Armada was both a nationalistic and religious success and its effect on the English psyche has been such that 1588 remains a key date in English history. However, the year also witnessed another event within Elizabeth's realm whose short- and long-term effects were, arguably, far more significant than the Armada, especially in Wales.

Wales and the Reformation

Wales became part of the new English nation state by the Acts of Union (1536-1543), and religious legislation, so important in the establishing of that state, passed originally by the English Parliament of Henry VIII, now applied equally to Wales. However, the Welsh proved indifferent to the English Reformation--simply because they could not understand it!

The Welsh were chiefly a monoglot people, as indeed were the English during this period, but English was the only official language of this nation state. The Bible and the Book of Common Prayer were now available in English, to be read in all the churches of England and Wales. Uniformity was the order of the day, be it political, religious or linguistic. This uniformity would threaten the very existence of the Welsh language and Welsh national identity, and the government soon realised that a choice would have to be made between the nation state's desire for religious uniformity on the one hand, and linguistic uniformity on the other.

For the English Reformation to have any real impact on Wales, the language issue had to be addressed. Fortunately there existed in Wales a small group of influential men, both humanist and Protestant in outlook, who fervently believed the Welsh language to be integral to the future of the Protestant faith in Wales. The basis of their faith stemmed from their belief in the priesthood of all believers and that the Bible, not the Church, was the supreme authority on matters of faith. It is no surprise therefore that in two of the first books to be printed in Welsh during the early years of the Reformation--Yn y llyfr hwn by Sir Sion Prys (1546) and Holl synnwyr pen Cymro by William Salesbury (1547)--both authors call vociferously for a Bible in Welsh.

The Church of England in Wales

The accession of Elizabeth I led to a religious settlement which attempted a middle way between the extremes of her predecessors. But her church faced greater problems in Wales, and Welsh indifference to the English Reformation continued during the early years of her reign. The laity was guilty of ignorance on a mass scale and superstition was rife. There were also serious deficiencies within the church, including poverty, abuses such as pluralism and insufficient clergy and preachers of quality. While the gentry outwardly conformed, they made no real attempt to ensure the success of the new church and actually undermined efforts at raising standards by paying low stipends to the clergy. But the lack of Welsh language material constituted one of the Elizabethan Church's greatest problems and challenges and it had to be addressed.

For the first time in well over a century, there were Welsh bishops in Welsh dioceses and 13 of the 16 Elizabethan bishops in Wales were Welsh or had close connections with Wales. They were also intelligent men of vigour and vision who soon gained the nation's admiration and were capable of raising the standard of the clergy, shaking the Welsh from their lethargy and promoting the Elizabethan Church, but adequate provision in Welsh was the key. The more progressive reformers immediately realised that the people needed a Bible in their native language, Welsh; and therefore they had to find someone competent enough to carry out the task, a scholar with a mastery of Greek, Latin and Hebrew. Despite its rich literary tradition, there was no standard version of Welsh to assist the translator; nevertheless, the calls for a Welsh Bible grew apace.

The Scriptures in Welsh

William Salesbury instigated the petition to Parliament in 1561 calling for a Welsh and a Cornish Bible and eventually an Act of Parliament in 1563 authorised the translation of the Scriptures into Welsh and for that translation to be used in all parishes where Welsh was normally spoken. …

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