Historians have described him as ‘the greatest Englishman who ever lived’, but guess what? He was born in Wales.
Thomas Edward Lawrence (1888–1935) was a soldier, a diplomat, a writer and a fellow archaeologist and castle-fan. He is famous for his extraordinary work in the Middle East as a fighter and a negotiator during and following World War I.
He was a man who forged strong relationships between cultures through his compassion for and his knowledge of the people themselves.
Many of us will have heard of the extraordinary legend-like figure of Lawrence of Arabia, and not simply because of the 1962 film about him, in which he was played by Peter O’Toole. Few however will know about his Welsh roots and of his birth in Tremadog, Gwynedd, in August 1888. Nor that this fact may have hugely influenced how the legend came to be.
His family didn’t stay in Wales long after he was born. They moved around Britain and France before finally settling in Oxford. Throughout his younger years, Lawrence – known as Ned – fuelled his passion for the past by numerous trips to the Ashmolean Museum. He enjoyed collecting old copper coins and was quite the young expert on medieval armour and warfare. Later, he achieved a Welsh scholarship to Jesus College, Oxford University, where he studied History and later graduated with first class honours.
Shortly after beginning his degree course, Lawrence embarked on a tour of Wales exploring the Welsh castles.He wrote many letters describing his explorations, including one to his mother penned in Caerphilly in 1907. He described the castle as the last one that he would be visiting during his tour but, “in most respects, my best”.In his letter, he first describes Kidwelly Castle, which he had visited a couple of days earlier, as “just ruined enough to be interesting”. He described its ovens and dungeons as “specially remarkable features”.
Lawrence was incredibly particular and thorough and compiled painstaking plans, drawings and sketches of features and sites he visited at home and abroad, later to be included in his thesis Crusader Castles. He made a special note that he was eager to return to Kidwelly with a camera.
He goes on to describe Caerphilly Castle as simply “magnificent” with features which could not be paralleled. He drew attention to carvings around a chimney, the shape of a flue and the vaulting of a ceiling – the humbler things which many people failed to notice, but, to him, just as important as the impressive towers and doorways.
During his studies, Lawrence also made a trip to Syria, Palestine and Turkey to explore the castles built and occupied during the Crusades, which formed the basis of his thesis. After graduating he returned as a qualified archaeologist to begin his career excavating a site on Euphrates, Mesopotamia.
When World War I broke out Lawrence was assigned to the British Army in Cairo.He brought with him a passion and knowledge of the area, together with experience from his travels, and used this in his role of liaison officer – a diplomat – to forge deep relationships and allies
.He fought alongside the Arab troops and gained the greatest respect from them, earning the title “Lawrence of Arabia” for his role in helping them in their fight against the Turks and his empathy for their cause.
Later, at the bequest of Winston Churchill, Lawrence served as a political advisor to the Middle East Department. He wrote of and published work on his travels and explorations, including his later work as an RAF pilot.
His many letters, now available in print, record his experiences in his own words.
In learning about the remarkable life of this individual, it is fascinating to think that Lawrence’s early beginnings in Wales may well have contributed to his later passion.
He was born a stone’s throw from Criccieth Castle and not far from Caernarfon, Harlech, Dolbadarn and Dolwyddelan castles to name but a few. He toured Wales as a teenager, exploring the ruins.
He carefully recorded them and wrote home to express his delight at their architecture. This was followed by his enthusiastic search for ruins farther afield, in Europe and later in the Middle East, where he made his name.
Lawrence was always keen to document the remains of the historic sites he visited both at home and in the Middle East and recognised the importance of their preservation for future generations.
In Wales, we have over 4,000 scheduled (protected) monuments and almost 30,000 listed buildings. The Historic Environment (Wales) Bill, which is now being considered by the National Assembly, will create new measures for the positive management of change in the historic environment.
Simply put, the Bill and a suite of new guidance to accompany it will mean that our truly world-class heritage in Wales will be better protected, managed and looked after for the future. Wales can certainly be proud of TE Lawrence’s achievements, but I think we are safe to assume that he was as proud of his Welsh heritage.
Lawrence is internationally recognised as the man who made an enormous impact in lands afar. But let’s reflect on the boy fascinated by masons’ marks carved hundreds of years before and who collected coins.
The young explorer who would climb any precipice he could find, just for the sheer sense of achievement and adventure.
And suddenly the legend morphs into ‘Ned’ – the boy from Tremadog who later achieved greatness and quite literally changed the world.
He is said to have called himself an “ordinary man”, but he accomplished extraordinary things.