Prospective purchasers of Matthew Cragoe's An Anglican Aristocracy should not be misled by its subtitle. Cragoe's subject is Carmarthenshire landed society, but his theme is the making of modern Wales. Cragoe seeks to confront an historiography which privileges chapel over church, industry over land, and Liberalism over Toryism. "The current model of Welsh 19th-century society overlooks the fact that, psychologically, membership of chapel-based communities was a relatively new feature. The aristocracy drew great strength from their subscription to a powerfully cohesive, and much older, communal ideology in the countryside, which may be termed 'the moral economy of the landed estate'".
Although the argument is perhaps too hard-driven, Cragoe's work helpfully complicates our understanding of social and cultural change in 19th-century Wales. The noise off-stage is unmistakably that of industrialising, dissenting, and liberalising urban Wales, where the 1868 general election did indeed mark a watershed and the 1872 Ballot Act emancipated the popular armies of nonconformist Liberalism. In Carmarthenshire, however, peasants became Welshmen through different and more protracted processes of cultural transformation. Here an Anglican aristocratic ascendancy remained largely unchallenged until the 1880s. The landed elite remained well defined, socially cohesive, resident, and above all active.
Cragoe makes much of the Anglican revival in later 19th-century Wales. Reformist bishops, a self-improving clergy, and energetic aristocrats revived the fortunes of the church, re-establishing it as the largest single denomination in Wales by 1906.
Cragoe's work is an attempt to rehabilitate Carmarthenshire's landed elite. The county's principal landowners were resident, sympathetic, and integrated into the economic life of local communities. The author confirms the relative poverty of the Carmarthenshire peasantry but attributes this not to landlord rapacity but rather to the shared customary values of a society in which land "was not regarded as being primarily an economic commodity" but was seen "essentially as a mark of status within the local community". These are important insights, and those interested in the making of modern Wales will be grateful to Cragoe for making us think more systematically about the social, cultural, and political contributions of the Anglican aristocracy to the making of Welsh identities in the 19th century.
David Eastwood is professor of social history, University of Wales Swansea.
An Anglican Aristocracy: The Moral Economy of the Landed Estate in Carmarthenshire 1832-95
Author - Matthew Cragoe
ISBN - 0 19 820594 5
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £40.00
Pages - 280