Thomas Stephens (1821–1875) was one of the most engaging and controversial scholars of nineteenth-century Wales. While many of his contemporaries regarded his scholarship as incendiary and iconoclastic, others recognised his extensive research and keen critical approach as revolutionising Welsh scholarship into a modern, critical field of enquiry. In a biographical sketch which prefaces the posthumously published second edition of his magnum opus, The Literature of the Kymry (1849, second edn 1876), B. T. Williams noted how Stephens, an amateur scholar and chemist in Merthyr Tydfil, became ‘general referee on all subjects relating to the Welsh language and antiquities’ as ‘[s]cholars from all quarters of Europe wrote to him for his views on disputed historical, philological, and antiquarian questions’. Indeed, he notes that ‘[t]he publication of this correspondence, if it could be got together – and there is no doubt that it could – would be welcomed by all Celtic scholars.’ Fortunately for ‘all Celtic scholars’, as well as for anyone interested in the history of Wales or the history of ideas, a critical anthology of this correspondence has now, a mere 144 years later, been ‘got together’ and published, as The Correspondence of Thomas Stephens: Revolutionising Welsh Scholarship in the Mid-Nineteenth Century Through Knowledge Exchange.
Born in the Vale of Neath, Stephens moved to the rapidly growing industrial centre of Merthyr Tydfil in 1835 as apprentice to a chemist, David Morgan. On Morgan’s death in 1841, Stephens took over the business, which was to become the most prosperous chemist’s shop in Merthyr. However, Stephens’s early twenties were not filled merely with business, and from 1840 he also began competing, and winning, at eisteddfodau, quickly collecting prizes and praise for his scholarship. At the 1848 Abergavenny Cymreigyddion Eisteddfod, he won a prize sponsored by the Prince of Wales for the best essay on the ‘History of the Language and Literature of Wales, from the time of Gruffydd ap Cynan, and Merlin, to that of Syr Gruffydd Llwyd and Gwilym Ddu’. This essay was, with the encouragement, assistance, and guidance of people like Lady Augusta Hall (Gwenynen Gwent), a patron of Welsh culture and the inventor of the Welsh costume, and Lady Charlotte Guest, the translator of the Mabinogion and later iron master, published the following year as The Literature of the Kymry.
The first section of the anthology of his letters looks at his early success and the praise, guidance, and encouragement Stephens received from established Welsh scholars. The first letter is from the noted Welsh antiquarian and historian, Thomas Price (Carnhuanawc), who wrote, just having adjudicated on an essay by Stephens about salmon fishing, rebuking the younger scholar’s incendiary language. The letters in this section also show the patronage and guidance which Stephens received in the publication of Literature of the Kymry, particularly from the publisher William Rees, and in dedicating and presenting a copy of the book to a member of the royal family, from Charlotte Guest.
The most notable exchange of letters in this section are between Stephens and the elderly Welsh poet and antiquarian, Walter Davies (Gwallter Mechain). In these, the young Stephens asks Davies to review his new book, a task to which Davies initially agrees but then declines because of his poor health and old age. These letters take the form of a passing of the torch from one generation of Welsh scholarship to the next. They are also particularly engaging in their friendly and convivial tone: Stephens’s gentle teasing of Davies and Davies’s complaints about his companion, ‘heniant’ who will not let him undertake the work. However, it is also a bittersweet correspondence, as Stephens’s last letter goes unanswered – Davies died less than a month after Stephens’s last letter to him.
Stephens’s success invited enquiries, but it was also built on the exchange of information between Stephens and other scholars, especially Welsh scholars. The second section in the anthology focuses on this exchange of knowledge by looking at some of the enquiries and answers which were sent and received by Stephens. He exchanged letters with Ebenezer Thomas (Eben Fardd) about place names in Caernarfonshire, discussed the history of Caerphilly Castle with the antiquarian, engineer, and manager (later master) of Dowlais Ironworks, George T. Clark, and translated and interpreted a poem by Gwylim Tew for the Monmouthshire antiquarian Thomas Wakeman. Other letters communicated requests to view, transcribe, borrow, or obtain manuscripts and books, illustrating how scholars negotiated access to Welsh manuscripts in the period before the establishment of Wales’s national library, museum, or university. These letters show Stephens requesting copies of manuscripts from Charlotte Guest, while the Welsh historian and writer Jane Williams (Ysgafell), acting on the advice of Augusta Hall, asked Stephens for a copy of a poem. In particular, letters from W. W. E. Wynne to Stephens show the practicalities of accessing the immensely important Hengwrt-Peniarth collection of manuscripts.
The exchange of knowledge was not only within Wales as Stephens soon garnered an international reputation for his scholarship. The third and fourth sections of the anthology focus on his Irish and continental European correspondence, respectively. These sections show Stephens’s international influence as well as the networks of knowledge exchange which stretched between an amateur scholar in the south Wales valleys and some of the most notable minds of nineteenth-century Europe.
Stephens’s Irish correspondence began with a letter from a fellow Welshman who asked Stephens to weigh in on a dispute between Welsh and Irish scholars about the origins and purposes of cromlechs. Stephens was soon in contact with James Henthorn Todd, exchanging information about the Welsh and Irish language, medieval history, and poetry. Their exchange shifted to discussion of a medieval plague, a subject of interest to the surgeon and antiquarian William Wilde, to whom Todd later showed Stephens’s letters. Wilde then began to correspond with Stephens to inform his history of disease in Ireland, as well as providing introductions for Stephens to correspond with other prominent Irish scholars, namely Eugene O’Curry and John O’Donovan. This was not all of Stephens’s Irish correspondence, as he also exchanged information with the academic William Rushton and the architect and antiquarian Richard Rolt Brash, but this string of connections provides important insight into how reputation and introduction facilitated the international exchange of ideas in the nineteenth century.
Stephens’s reputation as a scholar spread across Europe, and, indeed, the globe. His correspondents mention discussing his work with prominent continental European scholars, such as Jacob Grimm and Leopold von Ranke, the father of modern historical studies. Similarly, correspondents also discussed other continental European scholars with Stephens, such as the linguists Johann Kaspar Zeuss and Franz Bopp and the legal scholar Ferdinand Walter.
Stephens corresponded directly with several major continental European thinkers. He discussed Welsh and Breton legendry with the Breton philologist Théodore Claude Henri, vicomte Hersart de la Villemarqué. When the French historian Henri Martin visited Wales, La Villemarque supplied Martin with a letter of introduction to Stephens. Stephens introduced Martin to an eisteddfod at Aberdare, and on Henri’s return to France, began a correspondence on a range of topics related to Welsh, Irish, and Celtic history, religion, and legendry. Stephens’s fame on the continent was aided by the translation of Literature of the Kymry into German in 1864 by the German Arthurian scholar Albert Schulz (San Marte), with whom Stephens also corresponded. He also communicated with German scholars based in Britain, such as the linguist and royal librarian, Carl Meyer, and the Oxford philologist, Friedrich Max Müller.
This continental correspondence highlights the networks and connections between Welsh and wider European scholarship. These networks allowed the letter writers to exchange ideas on methodologies and approaches to scholarship, and both Welsh and non-Welsh correspondents commented on ‘Welsh’ (or ‘German’) scholarship as exhibiting particular characteristics or methodologies. It also allowed for an international comparative approach to scholarship, something which Stephens used to great advantage. Other scholars sought Welsh examples to augment their own study. The Swiss linguist Adolphe Pictet, wrote to Stephens about the names of Welsh rivers and their meaning to augment his survey of Celtic place names.
The final two sections of the anthology focus on the subjects for which Stephens was best known and most notorious, both in his own time and after: his determination to use his prodigious research skill and critical approach to scholarship to examine, and ultimately debunk, many of the cherished pseudo-historical figures and institutions cherished by his contemporaries. Or, as one later commentator characterised his approach: ‘Here is a popular tradition, let us go kill it’.
In Literature of the Kymry, Stephens warned the reader that ‘the daring spirit of modern criticism is about to lay violent hands upon the old household furniture of venerable tradition’. Accordingly, he subjected such cherished legends as the massacre of the Bards by Edward I to scrutiny and dismissal. Following on from this, he turned his attention to many of the legendary characters, stories, and institutions who had been embellished, invented, or popularised by Iolo Morganwg and his nineteenth-century descendants, such as Hu Gadarn, Dyfynwal Moelmud, the bardic alphabet, and the bardic traditions of the Chair of Glamorgan. This daring, critical approach cost Stephens the approval of many of his contemporaries, but ensured his reputation as a ground-breaking and revolutionary historian. However, while Stephens was certainly a singular scholar the letters in this section show that he was not alone. Many of his correspondents both in Wales and abroad supported and praised Stephens essays and articles. These letters show the nature and tone of private conversations between these scholars, as they encouraged and enabled Stephens to dismantle the mythic history of Romantic Wales a generation before many of the characters and institutions were exposed as the forgeries of Iolo Morganwg.
The letters also show the lengths to which Stephens went to obtain the research necessary for such an approach, especially as his iconoclasm cost him the support of patrons. In one notable letter, Stephens asks Thomas Wakeman to obtain a copy of one of Iolo Morganwg’s manuscripts, then at Llanover, as Augusta Hall had refused him access: ‘her ladyship has a pique against me’. Stephens also turned outside of Wales for assistance. This allowed him to employ an international and comparative approach to his subject. In researching Hu Gadarn, for example, Stephens was able to draw on examples from Breton folklore, French romances, and Irish legends researched and provided by international correspondents.
All of these traits are displayed in the correspondence surrounding Stephens’s best-known controversy, and the subject of the final section: the (non-)discovery of America by the twelfth-century Welsh prince, Madoc ap Owen Gwynedd. In 1858, a prize was offered on at the first ‘national’ eisteddfod at Llangollen for the best essay on Madoc’s discovery. This had been an important story in the early modern period, used to solidify a British claim to North America, and had come again to prominence from the late-eighteenth century, even sparking in the fateful voyage of John Evans up the Missouri in search of the Mandans. In a well-researched essay, Stephens proved that far from having discovered the New World, Madoc stayed at home and died in Wales. The essay split the judges and Stephens was denied the prize, causing outrage, public spectacle, and one of the most notable clashes between critical and romantic scholarship in nineteenth-century Wales. The results of his research were only published posthumously, in 1893.
Stephens’s correspondence related to the scandal and to the Madoc question shows the support, encouragement, and assistance he received and the efforts to which he went to critically examine the history of Wales. After the controversy at Llangollen, Stephens meticulously researched the history of Madoc further, chasing up a range of sources, and enlisting the assistance of researchers and librarians in Wales and England. He also wrote to Quakers he had known from boyhood to investigate any links with Quaker immigration from Wales to America. Like with his research into other quasi-historical legends, he did not limit his enquiries to Britain, writing to an American scholar at Yale to whom he had previously sent books, and, though him, receiving information from the American ethnologist, philologist, and historian, John R. Bartlett, who had also examined the Madoc question for an eisteddfodic essay.
In his initial public response to the judges’ decision not to award him the prize at Llangollen, Stephens characterised his approach to Welsh history:
‘His ambition … was to be the interpreter of the claims of the language and literature of the Principality to neighbouring and continental nations; he had hitherto done so to the best of his ability, and had the satisfaction to find that he was considered to be an honest exponent of well-founded claims; and he would still continue to urge strongly and persistently every merit honestly pertaining to the history or national character of the Kymry …; but he thought it lowered them as a people, to be arguing claims which they could not prove.’
As national myths and quasi-historical narratives are currently contentious subjects relative to nationalism and identity in Wales and Britain, Stephens’s work seems particularly relevant to our own times. The letters collected in this anthology show how these subjects were explored, investigated and debated in nineteenth-century Wales. They also reveal the wide networks of knowledge exchange which stretched across Wales and between Wales and the wider world, allowing a chemist and amateur scholar in Merthyr Tydfil to begin revolutionising the study of Welsh history.
The Correspondence of Thomas Stephens: Revolutionising Welsh Scholarship in the Mid-Nineteenth Century through Knowledge Exchange, edited, arranged, and with an introduction by Dr Adam N. Coward, and published by Celtic Studies Publications (2020).
 B. T. Williams, ‘The Life of Thomas Stephens’ in Thomas Stephens, The Literature of the Kymry, ed. by D. Silvan Evans, 2nd edn (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1876), p.xxvii.
 This publication is an outcome a project funded by the Leverhulme Trust and based at the University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies: ‘Knowledge Exchange and Social Networks: European Learning and the Revolution in Welsh Scholarship’
 Stephens Literature of the Kymry (1849), pp. 343–45. The story was very popular in late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century Wales, Britain, and Europe, becoming symbolic of Romantic Wales and Romanticism in general, represented in the famous poem by Thomas Gray, art such as ‘The Bard’ by Thomas Jones, and a poem reportedly learned by heart by all Hungarian students.
 Coward (ed.) The Correspondence of Thomas Stephens, p. 54.