Prince(s?) of Wales – San Diego, California

March 1st being the feast of David, patron saint of Wales, puts me in mind of meeting the current Prince of Wales, His Royal Highness Prince Charles, at a cocktail party aboard the Canadian destroyer Gatineau. We were both naval Lieutenants, he serving aboard the Royal Navy frigate Jupiter as Communications Officer and me in one of Her Majesty’s (His Mother’s?) Canadian Submarines with the distinctly un-warlike name of “Rainbow”, after a British cruiser transferred to the Royal Canadian Navy in 1910. Our respective vessels were making port calls to San Diego.

The prince had joined our little circle of submariners who, true to the traditions of “The Trade”, were taking full advantage of free drinks; standing out in a sea of blue uniforms with our distinctive (and ugly) green suits which politicians of the day had foisted on the Navy, Army and Air Force six years earlier when subsuming them into a single, unified “Canadian Armed Forces” – but that’s another story. Like naval officers the world over we launched straight into “shop talk”, asking him about a rumour that he had really wanted to serve in submarines but had been overruled by his security people. He was quick to quash that idea with something to the effect of a horrified “Good Lord, no!”. Personally, I could never understand why anyone with the slightest sense of adventure wouldn’t want to experience life in a “sardine’s revenge” (a tin, squeezed full of people soaking in oil), but there’s no accounting for taste I suppose.

Sailor talk wasn’t likely to last long surrounded by a flutter of awestruck and increasingly agitated American matrons, anxious to get their moment with a real live (bachelor) prince, so he was soon sucked back into the social maelstrom. Watching him work the room was an education in social grace as he made each guest feel like the sole focus of his interest for a few moments, before disengaging discreetly and moving on to the next. It’s always a pleasure to watch a real professional at work, but I confess to feeling extremely grateful at not being trapped in his job at such a young age (he was 26, I was 28). Although, according to my Dad I should have been.

My father had been extremely proud of being Welsh and would occasionally remind me forcefully; “Son, you may have been born in England, but you were CONCEIVED in Wales!” (although a fellow prisoner of war had once described him as “more English than the Brigade of Guards”). Anyhow, according to Dad, my grandfather had traced the family tree and discovered that we, the firstborn sons of the family, were firstborn sons of the firstborn sons and so forth, back some 700 years to the last Welsh Prince of Wales.  Llewelyn ap Gruffydd (pronounced Griffith, without an “s”) had been killed in 1282 by Edward I, king of England, who then proclaimed his own firstborn son and heir to be Prince of Wales, a tradition that continues to this day. By rights, then, I should be legitimate title-holder rather than the colonialist pretender, Charles Windsor.

The only problem with that stirring family legend is that it isn’t true. Llywelyn’s only child, Gwenllian of Wales, was a daughter who died childless in a convent. But never mind – at least I have the consolation of knowing that Llewelyn’s younger brother, my namesake, Dafydd (David) ap Gruffydd, became the first nobleman ever to be hanged, drawn and quartered; executed for the “treason” of proclaiming himself Prince of Wales after his older brother’s death. That, I suppose, is still interesting enough for cocktail party conversation.

In today’s political and social climate the memory is a timely reminder to beware of embracing any attractive-sounding story uncritically, even if it comes from the most honest and upright of sources – and Dad was certainly that. But it also reminds me of the occasional value of useful myths. Dad may not have actually believed the story himself, and may just have been encouraging a young son to take pride in his heritage, but he would often quote the motto of the (English) Princes of Wales – ich dien, German for “I serve” – and lived by that principle to his dying day. And that’s not a bad family heritage in itself.

Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Hapus! (Happy Saint David’s Day)