March of the Men of Harlech

(Disclaimer: The personal views expressed below are those of the author of this article, who does not claim to speak for The Rural Voice or for any of its other contributors.)

James Lloyd visits Harlech Castle in Merionethshire, inspiration for one of the most rousing songs in the pantheon of patriotism.

In the United Kingdom, national or local anthems, like many aspects of our public life, are matters of tradition and are not for the state to presume to direct. While the nation’s sonorous salute to the Sovereign has retained its place undisputed since the Jacobite Uprising of 1745, anthems for the Home Nations have been more varied, coming and going with their popularity. Jerusalem is currently in vogue at many English sporting events but there is actually little that is patriotic about it. Flower of Scotland presently enjoys a nigh-unassailable status and yet it is a usurper and some can still remember when it was Scotland the Brave that was sung at football matches.

In 1993, the Secretary of State for Wales, John Redwood, embarrassed himself on television by attempting to mouth his way through Land of my Fathers and frankly who can blame him? For all the present author’s affection for what is (as those well versed in surnames will have noticed) the land of his own fathers too, he cannot but call the Cambrian national dirge insipid and lifeless, its tune torpid and its words generic. It was not sung but moaned. How it ever attained its current conventional status as the anthem of Wales is inexplicable, since the song that it ousted is far livelier in tune and bloodier in lyrics.

Men of Harlech, or rather March of the Men of Harlech as it was originally known, was first published as a tune in 1794. The first set of words followed in 1800. ‘First’ is the correct term, for March of the Men of Harlech, rather than being the title of one song, is in fact a collective term for a whole family of them. Since the 1810s, numerous different lyricists have put their own words, in both English and Welsh, to the same tune. It may be for this reason that the March has never quite commanded the same loyalty as the drearier but more consistent Land of my Fathers, for these are not different versions of the same song. The verses from different authors are not consecutive. These are different songs which happen to share music, title and theme.

That theme is said to be the longest siege in British history, which began at Harlech Castle in Merionethshire in 1460 and dragged on until the fourteenth of April 1468. Legend attributes the foundation of the first castle on this site to Bronwen, sister of Bran the Blessed but the present Harlech Castle was built by Edward I in 1282 as part of his conquest of Wales.

The great siege was part of the Wars of the Roses. In 1461, King Henry VI was defeated at Towton, deposed and driven into exile in Scotland. His distant cousin and rival Edward, Duke of York, became King Edward IV. Harlech Castle, where Henry’s Queen Margaret had made her headquarters the previous year, continued to support the House of Lancaster, one of the last to do so. It was besieged on and off for the next seven years and Harlech village outside was burnt by the Yorkists but the castle had access to fresh water and reinforcements by sea. In 1468, the decreasingly patient Edward sent William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, to reduce Harlech but, when the besiegers submitted their demand that the castle should surrender, the castellan, Dafydd ap Ifan, retorted “I held a fortress in France till all the old women in Wales heard of it and now I intend to hold Harlech till all the old women in France hear of it.”

Pembroke grew weary of the siege and gave charge of it to his younger brother, Sir Richard Herbert but the siege had become even more wearying for the defenders and eventually famine forced the garrison to surrender. Sir Richard was so impressed by Dafydd’s resistance that he promised him his life. When the King heard of this concession, he was furious and refused to honour it.

“Then, by God,” Sir Richard told him, “I will put Dafydd and his garrison into Harlech again and Your Highness may fetch him out again by anyone who can; and, if you demand my life for his, take it!” This snappy retort had the desired effect and Dafydd was not executed.

Although the March is usually reported to concern this siege, it is not contemporary with it and this interpretation actually seems inconsistent with the words. In all of its incarnations, March of the Men of Harlech pits Welshman against Englishman, Briton against Saxon, yet the siege of 1461–8 was not part of an Anglo-Welsh war but was a supporting act in an English civil war. Dafydd ap Ifan was not fighting for the liberation of Wales from the English yoke but out of loyalty to the English King Henry VI. While it is true that most of the defenders were Welshmen and the besieging soldiers Englishmen, it was not the international conflict that the songs seem to describe.

It might make more historical sense to construe the songs as describing an earlier siege, one that did concern a war between the English and the Welsh. In 1404, Owen Glendower captured Harlech Castle and held it for four years, until it was re-captured by the (English) Prince of Wales (the future Henry V). This may, however, be a strained point: The songs were all written in the nineteenth century, so describe whatever the lyricists meant them to describe, even if the description is historically misleading.

The real meaning of the song is probably locked in the mind of Sir Alexander Boswell, who wrote the earliest recorded set of lyrics to go with an arrangement of the tune composed by Joseph Haydn as part of a collection of Original Welsh Airs, which was compiled and published by George Thomson in three volumes between 1809 and 1817. Since it is comfortably out of copyright, the author can think of no more toe-tapping (not to mention easy) a way of ending this blog than with the song, written by a Scotsman to an arrangement by a German, commemorating the siege in an English civil war of a castle built by the English, which has nonetheless become a national anthem for the Welsh:

Dauntless sons of Celtic sires,
Whose souls the love of freedom fires;
Hark, every harp to war inspires
On Cader Idris side.
See the brave advancing,
See the brave advancing!
Each well-tried spear, which Saxons fear,
In warlike splendour glancing!
Proud Harlech from her frowning towers
Pours forth her never-failing powers:
Rouse, heroes, glory shall be ours;
March on, your country’s pride!

Shall heart-rending sounds of woe
Be heard where Conway’s waters flow?
Or shall a rude and ruthless foe
Find here one willing slave?
From mountain and from valley,
From mountain and from valley;
From Snowdon, from Plinlimmon’s brow,
Around your Prince ye rally.
Let cowards kiss th’oppressor’s scourge,
Home to his heart your weapons urge
Or whelm in th’avenging surge
To victory, ye brave!

Photo credits: Harlech Castle from below (Chris Heaton) / CC BY-SA 2.0

Harlech Castle (Mike Searle) / CC BY-SA 2.0