Madoc: Making of a Myth

John Fletcher
From Magonia 6, 1981

About 1170, a Prince Madoc, son of Prince Owen Gwyneth, may, or may not, have sailed west and discovered, (or, after the Egyptians, the Irish, and the Vikings, rediscovered) America. It is possible that lost romances and medieveal geographical texts referred to this voyage, and it was on this, and the secret knowledge of Bristol merchants, who knew of America but wanted to keep it secret because of the Newfoundland fishing banks, that Christopher Columbus set off on his voyage to ‘discover’ America and claim it for Spain.

The story went that Madoc discovered America, returned to Wales with the news, and with a group of followers, disappeared into the tlantic mists, never to be seen again.

The Tudors marked the high water mark of Welsh influence in England. Not only were the Tudors themselves partly Welsh, but they brought to prominence such Welsh families as the Cecils and the Herberts. Perhaps the most famous Welsh man of all in the reign of the red-haired Elizabeth, was Dr. John Dee, cabalist, alchemist, conjuror, antiquary and one-man think tank for the queen.

England was in the midst of her competitive jockeying with Spain for control of the New World, the Spaniards making much of the Pope’s – the ‘papist antichrist’s’ – judgement that the New World should be split between Spain and Portugal. The English were looking for idelogical justification of their imperial adventures and prior proof of ownership.

In 1580, John Dee published his General and Rare Memorials Pertaining to the Perfect Arte of Navigation, which is the first printed reference which we have to the Madoc story. The basis to the British claim to America and the argument for its superiority to the Spanish claim was firmly based on the indisputable historical fact that Madoc had discovered America. Dee, and Richard Hakulyt ten years later, further embroidered the tale by claiming that the Mexican Aztecs were Welsh descendants – drawing extremely dubious parallels between a few Aztec and Welsh words and placenames and referring to several examples in Aztec mythology of white visitors from the East. On such foundations was the British Empire to be founded!

With the new century and the arrival of the Scottish Stuarts and the execution of such Tudor imperialists as Raleigh, the whole story of Madoc went into abeyance for nearly two hundred years.

Two hundred years later, the relationship between Wales and England was vastly different. Wales was reduced to a marginal colony on England’s borders, a source of income for absentee English landlords, who rack-rented their tenants and imposed increasingly capitalist systems of agriculture upon the feudal workforce. Lacking any more a true native aristocracy and intelligensia as in Tudor times, Welsh cultural identity resided more and more among the self-educated non-conformist small farmers, craftsmen and artisans, whose republicanism and (Welsh) nationalism had much in common with similar movements throughout Europe at the time of the French Revolution – people were to be free once more.

The forces of reaction, however, won out, leaving many of the more outspoken radicals dangerously exposed to persecution and prosecution. If the Old World was not to be saved, many – like the Englishman William Blake – cast their eyes across the Atlantic. Welshmen started to rediscover the old Madoc legends. Somewhere in the world, it was believed, lived Welshmen who not only spoke pure Welsh, but whose society and culture were totally unpolluted and uncontrolled by the English. It became very necessary not only to discover such a society, but to emigrate there and escape the English yoke. A New Wales was to be born.

Reports started to come back to Wales in increasing numbers of a tribe of fair skinned, Welsh-speaking Red Indians. John Sevier, founder of Tennessee, knew they had been the first-comers to Alabama, before other Indians drove them out. Francis Lewis of Llandaff, who was to sign the Declaration of Independence as the New York delegate, was captured by Montcalm in the French War, and turned over to the Indians. He met a Chief who conversed with him in Welsh. The frontiersmen knew them well; Daniel Boone had seen their mocassin prints on the trail ahead. The renegade woodsman James Girty knew so many Welsh Indians that he helped compile a Welsh Indian vocabulary. President Jefferson boasted that his family had come from Wales and instructed his two intrepid explorers Lewis and Clark to find the Welsh-Indians (two of their men did so!).

There were literally scores of instances of people reporting that they had actually talked to Indians in Welsh. Up through the endless Mississippi-Missouri basin the Welsh Indians were always one tantalizing step ahead of the expolorers. Expeditions were organised and sent out – some were disasters with only a few shattered survivors returning, others came back with detailed reports of sightings and contacts. At home in Wales, among intellectuals and poets there were serious attempts to establish Madoc and his Welsh Indians in Welsh history, and to relate them to the ancient tradition of the Druids and the Bards which a new breed of intellectuals was reviving.
Central to this movement was the genius Iolo Morganwg [left], inspired poet, prophet, and forger, who virtually invented modern druidism single-handed – with the tradition that the World Truth, known to the Druids, had been passed down from Patriarchal Times within the Welsh nation, and especially amongst its intelligentsia, the Bards. Now Iolo Morganwg, in his inspired writings, was re-releasing this Truth to the world. Iolo had an apparently intuitive perception of the basic intellectual and spiritual forces at work amongst the old Welsh and tribal Celts – a perception that modern scholarship basically agrees with – and a grasp of their functional utility in transforming the starved, neglected and often self-despising Welsh of his own day.

His vision of prehistoric, Druidic Wales, which he described in his poems, and which he claimed to have found in ancient manuscripts, came to him in the vital year of 1791 (significantly enough the honeymoon year of the French Revolution) when millenial expectations were at their height. His work not only inspired the visions of William Blake and the white-sheeted druidism of today, but Iolo became the figurehead in the Welsh Exodus to America and the pursuit of the Welsh Indians.
In all his works he emphasised that the ancient Welsh Bards were, unlike poets in our modern society, who are essentially peripheral and decorative, the rib-cage and spine of the Welsh body-politic – like Homer to the Greeks, or the Old Testament Fathers to the Hebrews. By speaking poetically of practical matters, they were able to fuse the visionary and political in human conscousness, and by feeding both starve neither.

With the suppression of the imaginative, visionary sides of human nature, there is no surprise that it keeps bursting through in the most bizarre fashions. As for example in the phenomenon of Welsh speaking Indians. In the make or break year of 1791, when large sections of humanity thought Heaven achievable on earth, and when many nations, including the Welsh, scented freedom, then the appearance of these Welsh-speaking apparitions is not that amazing.

This article was submitted as a review of the book Madoc: The Making of a Myth by Gwyn A. Williams. It helps to throw a great deal of light on the political, spiritual and social background to the 1904-1905 Welsh revival, and its associated phenomena.