One of the scenes in the book, A Time of Goodbyes, shows Owain’s encounter with the ‘Tithe Wars’. It’s a concept totally alien to us, but was part of a larger question on religion and the state in the 19th Century.
Although prevalent in Ireland, it hit Wales and to a lesser degree rural England. People were expected to pay a tithe – a tenth of their annual earnings, to the Church of England. This never sat well with many parts of the country. In Ireland, the majority of the four provinces were Catholic. In Wales, the majority of Protestants in rural areas were nonconformist. Yet they still had to pay this tithe, whereas their own religions were dependent on contributions from their congregation. So, as well as paying for their own church, the people found themselves paying for a church that was not their own religion – the money for which was deemed to fall into central coffers, away from their principality. They were aggrieved, to say the least.
Payment was made in kind (for farmers, a proportion of their produce) until the 1830s, when it was required to be made by coin. The idea of a religious body, speaking a different language to the masses in Wales, levying a charge for which they saw no benefit, drew a lot of anger and nationalism.
In the 1880s, the anger became violence, as Wales followed the Irish into a phase of civil disobedience, with the church resorting to bailiffs to extract payment they felt owed to them, in many cases. This became quite heated, especially when police or troops were used, always from outside the locality. In the worst extreme, there were riots in Denbigh, but there were also episodes of unrest during the bailiff visits in Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion. The hotbed was Pencader, very close to the Rebecca Riots of a generation before. Unrest did spread north, but reports only spoke of trouble up to Pontrhydfendigaid. I have added a little poetic licence to bring it closer to Frongoch, in order to mark the history in the story.
There was a political struggle to divorce the church from the state – disestablish and disendowment. Why should one religion be bankrolled by the nation, while others were expected to self support? The end result was that the tithe became payable only by the landlord. Thus the tenants no longer saw the money go to the church.
By the early 20th Century, the Welsh protestant church had been split from the Church of England, to become the ‘Church in Wales’ in 1920. A small piece of trivia to end this; this event led to the formation of the longest word in the dictionary ‘anti-disestablishmentarianism’. Try and get that on a triple word score…
The Tithe Wars continued and there were cases in Suffolk, as recently as 1934. The tithe system was phased out in the 1950s and by 1970 had become a footnote in history.