EPISODE #14

An American author on discovering her medieval Welsh roots and how it inspired her writing

Sarah Woodbury
  • Welsh Ancestry
  • Oregon, USA
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I have been fortunate over my adult life to have had two of the best jobs in the world: mother and writer. For twenty years, I stayed home with my four children and homeschooled them, and then twelve years ago, on 1 April 2006, I started writing my first novel, just to see if I could. Since then, I’ve written forty more novels across four different series, all set in medieval Wales.

"My family had always had the tradition that we had Welsh ancestry, but until I started researching it myself, I couldn’t have told you how I was Welsh."

My family had always had the tradition that we had Welsh ancestry, but until I started researching it myself, I couldn’t have told you how I was Welsh. The name Woodbury is very traditionally Saxon, meaning fortified place in the woods, but further research shows that one of my ancestors, William Woodbury, joined the church in Salem, Massachusetts in 1638 self-identifying as a Welshman. As it turns out, in addition to that tantalizing bit of information, I am also descended from a host of Morgans, Thomas’, Kemries, Johns, Rhuns etc.  The line I’ve researched most successfully descends from Llywelyn ap Ifor born around 1300. Many generations later, Anna and Robert Morgan, sister and brother, married into my family line, again in Massachusetts in the 17th century.

Through that family, I am descended from Gruffydd ap Cynan, the great 12th century King of Gwynedd and his grandson, the Lord Rhys, ruler of Deheubarth until his death in 1197.

"One of my ancestors, William Woodbury, joined the church in Salem, Massachusetts in 1638 self-identifying as a Welshman… I am also descended from a host of Morgans, Thomas’, Kemries, Johns, Rhuns..."

All of this I discovered once I started researching my ancestry, initially as a homeschooling research project with my daughter in the late 1990s. Ten years earlier, I had attended University of Cambridge. During one holiday, I was able to visit Wales for the first time. I have particular memories of going to Conwy Castle and walking along the battlements, astounded to think that seven hundred years earlier men and women had lived and died within its walls. To say I fell in love with Wales at that point would not be an understatement. From Cambridge, I continued in academia, ultimately getting a Ph.D. is in anthropology. Though my research wasn’t initially directed at Wales, because my focus was on ethnicity and nationalism, it was easy to pivot to Welsh history and culture once I started writing novels.

"Clearly, there is a demand for novels set in medieval Wales, even if readers don’t know it until they open one of my books!"

Fast forward to 2006 … that first novel I wrote in April of that year was essentially Lord of the Rings fan fiction, but the book I wrote after that was Footsteps in Time, the first novel in my After Cilmeri series. I love history and reading about history, but real history often ends badly for the heroes.  Consequently, when a story involves a main character who dies an unpleasant and premature death, it can be difficult to craft a tale that is an enjoyable read.  This is particularly true of books set in medieval Wales. And few endings have had a greater impact on the progress—or lack thereof—of a country than the death in 1282 of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, the last Prince of Wales.

With his death, King Edward I of England set about eliminating Welsh culture and society to the best of his ability, even to the point of expunging any mention of the Welsh royal court from public documents.  He took the crown, the piece of the true cross, and even the title, Prince of Wales, which from then on would be bestowed only on the eldest son of the King of England.

Footsteps in Time takes the ambush and murder of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, throws in some time travel, and asks what if? What if Llywelyn survived?  That series now includes fifteen novels, all built around this alternate history of Wales.

Some of the challenges of writing books set in medieval Wales certainly include the fact that the country doesn’t have as high a profile as Scotland or Ireland, and too often, people think that if they know something about English medieval society they have a good understanding of Wales in the Middle Ages too. The country is obscure even to the point that, in some cases, when I say I write books set in medieval Wales, there is a moment when my listener’s eyes cross, and I can seem him or her thinking, what’s this about medieval whales?

"When I say I write books set in medieval Wales, there is a moment when my listener’s eyes cross, and I can seem him or her thinking, what’s this about medieval whales?"

As a very simple example, illegitimate children in Wales before the conquest could inherit equally with their legitimate siblings, provided their father acknowledged them. This Welsh custom was an anathema to the Anglo-Norman Church and was one of the first laws King Edward abrogated after the death of Llywelyn. I have found that when I write novels set in Wales, part of my job is to educate my reader, and it is a balancing act to do that without overwhelming the book with historical information.

The Welsh setting may also have been a barrier to traditional publishers in the years I was trying to find one to publish my books. My editors knew what to do with time travel to Scotland, but Wales was a place they knew nothing about, and they didn’t know how to market my books. Fortunately, once I struck out on my own, marketing was never a problem, and my books have since sold over a million copies. Clearly, there is a demand for novels set in medieval Wales, even if readers don’t know it until they open one of my books!

"I’ve written forty more novels across four different series, all set in medieval Wales… my books have since sold over a million copies."

Because I’m always interested in anyone promoting all things Welsh, I joined the GlobalWelsh community early on. Really, the more people who visit Wales and discover its fascinating history, beautiful landscape and language, and current reality, the merrier. My son and I have ourselves been learning (or attempting to learn) Welsh for five years. We still feel like abject beginners, but every time we go back to Wales, we discover that we are doing a little bit better with it than the year before. We were just in the UK for three weeks in September 2018, and we plan to return, hopefully in May of next year. Every visit gives me new insights that I incorporate into my books, and pretty much we return home to Oregon only to start planning our next trip!

 Connect with Sarah: https://globalwelsh.com/globalwelsh-members?id=259 

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