An English Lady in 19th-century Wales

It’s a curious thing, but one of the most significant figures in nineteenth-century Welsh cultural history is an upper-class English woman: Lady Charlotte Guest.

Lady Charlotte (born Charlotte Bertie in 1812, daughter of an English earl, brought up in Lincolnshire) came to live in Wales only after her marriage, in 1833, to the wealthy iron-master and MP for Merthyr Tydfil, Sir Josiah John Guest. She’d had, as a child, a passion for literature, medieval history and a range of other subjects, and an education that fostered her interests. And, fortunately for historians and biographers, she kept a diary for much of her life.

During the two decades or more that she spent in Wales, apart from rearing 10 children and becoming actively involved in local philanthropic work and promoting education, including adult education, she taught herself Welsh and translated into English the beautiful medieval Welsh tales to which she gave the name by which they are today most commonly known: The Mabinogion. (And if you’ve never read it, you should, although you might do better with one of these two modern editions.)

In 1852 her husband died and she took over management of his great ironworks for some years until she married her son’s tutor, Charles Schreiber, and the pair became avid collectors travelling Europe to create what would subsequently become the Schreiber Collection of ceramics in the V & A Museum.

A note on Lady Charlotte Guest
Short encyclopedia biography
Extracts from Lady Charlotte’s journal, 1833-52 (with biographical introduction)
Bust of Charlotte Guest (and bust of her first husband Josiah John Guest)
Merthyr’s famous sons and daughters

Merthyr Tydfil
Merthyr Tydfil and the iron industry

Some of the earliest Mabinogi manuscripts: The Red Book of Hergest and The White Book of Rhydderch
More on the Mabinogion
Project Gutenberg edition

Later, I should try to follow this up with something on Augusta Hall, Lady Llanover (of whom there’s much to be said about strong womanhood, harps and the invention of Welsh costume). In the meantime, here (after the fold) are the opening paragraphs of one of the stories in the Mabinogion, The Dream of Maxen Wledig.


Maxen Wledig was emperor of Rome, and he was a comelier man, and a better and a wiser than any emperor that had been before him. And one day he held a council of kings, and he said to his friends, “I desire to go to-morrow to hunt.” And the next day in the morning he set forth with his retinue, and came to the valley of the river that flowed towards Rome. And he hunted through the valley until mid-day. And with him also were two-and-thirty crowned kings, that were his vassals; not for the delight of hunting went the emperor with them, but to put himself on equal terms with those kings.

And the sun was high in the sky over their heads and the heat was great. And sleep came upon Maxen Wledig. And his attendants stood and set up their shields around him upon the shafts of their spears to protect him from the sun, and they placed a gold enamelled shield under his head; and so Maxen slept.

And he saw a dream. And this is the dream that he saw. He was journeying along the valley of the river towards its source; and he came to the highest mountain in the world. And he thought that the mountain was as high as the sky; and when he came over the mountain, it seemed to him that he went through the fairest and most level regions that man ever yet beheld, on the other side of the mountain. And he saw large and mighty rivers descending from the mountain to the sea, and towards the mouths of the rivers he proceeded. And as he journeyed thus, he came to the mouth of the largest river ever seen. And he beheld a great city at the entrance of the river, and a vast castle in the city, and he saw many high towers of various colours in the castle. And he saw a fleet at the mouth of the river, the largest ever seen. And he saw one ship among the fleet; larger was it by far, and fairer than all the others. Of such part of the ship as he could see above the water, one plank was gilded and the other silvered over. He saw a bridge of the bone of a whale from the ship to the land, and he thought that he went along the bridge, and came into the ship. And a sail was hoisted on the ship, and along the sea and the ocean was it borne. Then it seemed that he came to the fairest island in the whole world, and he traversed the island from sea to sea, even to the furthest shore of the island. Valleys he saw, and steeps, and rocks of wondrous height, and rugged precipices. Never yet saw he the like. And thence he beheld an island in the sea, facing this rugged land. And between him and this island was a country of which the plain was as large as the sea, the mountain as vast as the wood. And from the mountain he saw a river that flowed through the land and fell into the sea. And at the mouth of the river he beheld a castle, the fairest that man ever saw, and the gate of the castle was open, and he went into the castle. And in the castle he saw a fair hall, of which the roof seemed to be all gold, the walls of the hall seemed to be entirely of glittering precious gems, the doors all seemed to be of gold. Golden seats he saw in the hall, and silver tables. And on a seat opposite to him he beheld two auburn-haired youths playing at chess. He saw a silver board for the chess, and golden pieces thereon. The garments of the youths were of jet-black satin, and chaplets of ruddy gold bound their hair, whereon were sparkling jewels of great price, rubies, and gems, alternately with imperial stones. Buskins of new Cordovan leather on their feet, fastened by slides of red gold. …

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3 Responses to An English Lady in 19th-century Wales

  1. David Foster says:

    Thanks for publishing this. There was a short article about her a few months ago (I think in the WSJ) and I was curious to know more about her.

  2. Sharon says:

    WSJ? I’m blanking on what that would stand for. (Wall Street Journal? Surely not?)

  3. David Foster says:

    That’s right, Wall Street Journal..there are actually a lot of rather quirky articles in there.

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