The case of Dr Bowles ('Depositions, arguments and judgements....')

This pamphlet, published by the Honourable Society of the Cymmrodorion in 1773, relates to the case of Dr Thomas Bowles (1695-1773). He was a non-Welsh speaker who was appointed rector of the parish of Trefdraeth in Anglesey in 1766, an incident that aroused controversy in Wales and within the Anglican Church. At this time parishes in Wales were still under the direct authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury and would remain so until the Disestablishment of the Church in Wales in 1920.

Background

Although many bishops of the Welsh diocese were non-Welsh speaking, most of the vicars and rectors in the rural parishes could undertake their duties in Welsh.

There was considerable controversy, therefore, when a non-Welsh speaking priest was given a living in one of the least Anglicised areas of Wales. When Dr Thomas Bowles was instituted as rector of Trefdraeth and Llangwyfan only five of his 500 parishioners understood English. Previous rectors had been hardworking, zealous Welsh speakers who were well respected by their congregations.

Bowles quickly became unpopular with his parishioners. He was unable to communicate in Welsh and his English-only services were unintelligible to the majority of the congregation. It also became apparent that he had little or no intention of learning Welsh.

A campaign to oust him gathered pace. It was led by the two churchwardens, Richard Williams of Treddafydd Ucha (d.1783) and Hugh Williams of Carreg Ceiliog, and supported by John Thomas (1736-69), the headmaster of Beaumaris Grammar School. John Thomas had powerful friends amongst the Welsh-speaking elite and gained support for the cause from the Cymmrodorion Society.

Under pressure from his wife and friends, who were increasingly aware of mounting animosity against him, Bowles began conducting some services in Welsh. These services, however, were often as unintelligible to the congregation as his English ones.

The case

The whole affair eventually led to a case being brought before the Court of Arches in May 1770. The Court of Arches was the main ecclesiastical court of the province of Canterbury and held a wide jurisdiction over matters relating to the conduct of clergymen.

The case against Bowles was based on the Act for the Translation of the Bible into Welsh, 1563, and the Uniformity Act of 1662. These declared that services in Welsh-speaking communities should be conducted in Welsh.

Several witnesses stated that Bowles was unable to conduct services in Welsh and was therefore unable to undertake his duties satisfactorily. It also became apparent that Bowles had attempted to mislead the court by tricking his churchwardens into signing declarations stating that he was able to carry out his duties in Welsh.

The judge, Dr. George Hay, declared that Bowles' appointment was a mistake that contravened canon and statute law, but as Bowles had already been presented with the benefice and had served there for several years, and had at least attempted to undertake some services in Welsh, he could not pass sentence of deprivation. He did, however, express disapproval of Bowles' conduct and refused to grant him costs.

Further reading:

  • Geraint H. Jenkins, '"Horrible unintelligible jargon": the case of Dr. Thomas Bowles'. In Welsh History Review 15 (1990-1991), p.494-523.
  • Geraint H. Jenkins, 'Fresh light on the character of Dr. Thomas Bowles'. In Anglesey Antiquarian Society and Field Club Transactions (1991), p.67-75.
  • Eryn M. White, 'Yr Eglwys Sefydliedig, Anghydffurfiaeth a'r Iaith Gymraeg c.1660-1811' yn Geraint H. Jenkins (gol.), Y Gymraeg yn ei Disgleirdeb: yr iaith Gymraeg cyn y Chwyldro Diwydiannol (Caerdydd: Gwasg Prifysgol Cymru, 1997).

Gregynog Gallery

On 7th and 10th - 14th November the Gregynog Gallery will be hosting Arad Goch Theatre Company.

The Dylan exhibition will remain open as usual to the public, although visitors are advised there may be some disruption in the gallery during this period.

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