A Brief History
On January 18, 1884, Welsh physician Dr. William Price attempted to cremate the remains of his infant son, Jesus Christ Price, who had died of natural causes at the age of 5 months. A believer and proponent of the ancient Druid religion, Price believed burying dead people would somehow “pollute” the earth, and therefore dead people should be cremated. In Britain at the time, there were strong mores against cremation and as such an angry mob developed when Price was conducting the open-air cremation on a hilltop. The mob swarmed the doctor and prevented the cremation, starting a legal battle which ultimately resulted in The Cremation Act of 1902, which legalized cremation in Britain. In fact, the British law did neither allow nor disallow cremation, and Price won his court case, setting the precedent for allowing cremation without fear of criminal prosecution. William Price, physician, nationalist, advocate of the Druid religion and believer in universal suffrage for all men (Chartism) regardless of social status or wealth, was one of History’s interesting characters, one you may not have heard of (though you will today!).
Price was born in 1800, a time in history between the modern era and a time when old traditions were still much in evidence. His father was a priest of the Church of England, while his mother had merely been a maid prior to their marriage. A marriage between people of such different social classes in Britain (Wales, to be precise) was still socially proscribed at the time. William had 3 older siblings and his father suffered from mental illness, though not actually diagnosed as such by medical professionals. (You be the judge…) The elder William Price was prone to bathing nude in local ponds, or completely clothed. Which was more shocking to the local population is unknown, but such habits do leave one wondering about how the congregation would perceive their priest! Additionally, Fr. Price would gather snakes and carry them around in his pockets, and often fly into fits of rage. It seems logical that growing up with such a quirky father must have some effect on young William. The Rev. Price also had the habit of spitting on stones, to “improve their value,” and he carried a small saw with him to remove the bark from trees which he would burn while muttering incantations. Father Price also had violent incidents where he actually shot at a woman whom he believed was stealing sticks from his hedges and another incident involving throwing a garden tool at a man.
William proved a bright boy and did well with his schooling. Speaking Welsh at home, William became accustomed to speaking English while in school. Although his father wanted the lad to become a solicitor (lawyer in the United States), William decided to pursue an education in the practice of medicine. Family members provided William with the tuition needed for his studies and apprenticeship to a surgeon. Chronically low on funds, William nevertheless persisted in achieving his medical education and moved to London to continue his education and apprenticeship. William earned his keep tending to the medical needs of wealthy patients and was admitted to the Royal College of Surgeons of England. The now Dr. Price decided to forego the more lucrative prospects of practicing medicine in London and returned to Wales where he began his work as a general practitioner of medicine.
In 1821, William had set up practice in Glyntaff, Wales and also set up a rented farm where he raised cattle and goats until he was evicted. In 1823, the young doctor was elected Chief Surgeon at the Brown Lenox Chainworks in Pontypridd while establishing patients of social and economic significance. With his practice taking him to Treforest, “a revolutionary town,” Price found like minded Welsh nationalists and liberal thinkers. He also became acquainted with the ancient Druid religion and practices at this time. Price became interested in the Neo-Druidic movement and joined The Society of the Rocking Stone, becoming a leading member of the group. Price provided lectures about Welsh language and culture on a weekly basis, especially espousing the use of the Welsh language that was being superseded by English. He also advocated for the establishment of a Druidical Museum and school, but failed to raise the requisite funds.
By 1839, Price had also become an ardent supporter of the Chartist movement and had acquired 7 cannons to be used in the struggle for voting rights in the event of violent revolution. The Newport Uprising of November 1839, in which 10,000 Chartist demonstrators were violently put down by the authorities at Newport, Monmouthshire, had resulted in the death of 22 protesters and the wounding of another 50 or more. Authorities arrested 200 protesters and the 3 main leaders of the protest were convicted of treason and given the sentence levied against “traitors,” that is, being hanged, drawn and quartered. (These 3 became the last condemned people in England and Wales to be so executed.) Fearing the inevitable government crackdown on known Chartists, Price fled to France, unceremoniously disguised as a woman. While in Paris, Price became fascinated with a display at the Louvre of a stone with Greek inscriptions that he mistook for Druidic, creating in him a profound, albeit falsely so, moment of epiphany in which he became dedicated to the Neo-Druidic movement. Price “interpreted” the Greek inscription as a divine prophecy from a Druid/Welsh prince that a special man would come, teaching the Welsh language and re-establishing the Druid religion. Of course, Price “knew” that he himself was that divinely inspired person. .In 1840 Price had returned to Wales and established himself as the founder and leader of a Druidic group, finding at least some followers. Price preached the evils of marriage, as the institution allegedly resulted in the slavery of women. Instead, he advocated for open sexual relations. He began changing his appearance in accordance with his evolving beliefs, including letting his beard and hair grow wild, donning a fox fur cap, and wearing an emerald green cloak. He held “Druidic” ceremonies and rites, and espoused vegetarianism. Of course, he continued to advocate for Welsh nationalism. Price once more failed in a bid to establish a Welsh/Druid museum and school. Incurring serious debt, Price again fled to France in 1861.
While in France, Price began producing writings that seem to indicate a break with reality, making claims about ancient Greek writers and philosophers actually being Welshmen, and that ancient Chinese texts were in “reality” works of Welsh writers. He claimed that he was “Lord of the Southern Welsh,” and moved back to Wales in 1866. Price reestablished a medical practice in Wales and at the age of 66 became life partners with a 21 year old girl. Price eventually married her in a “Druidic” ceremony in 1881, seemingly in violation of his belief that marriage was evil. The ceremony was reportedly quite the spectacle of paganism and drew an appreciative and amused crowd. In 1871, Price published The Will of My Father, a book written in Price’s own interpretation of the Welsh language, a variation of Welsh Price claimed was the “true language.” In August of 1883, a son was born to Price and his wife, a boy they named Iesu Grist Price, the Welsh form for “Jesus Christ,” a name chosen because Price believed the child was bound for great accomplishments. In reality, the only great accomplishment the child achieved was dying at the age of 5 months and becoming the impetus for legalized cremation in Britain.
Notoriety over the cremation case led to a rapid rise in fame for Price, fame that he capitalized on by producing and selling 300 medals depicting a “cosmic egg” and the snake that supposedly had laid the cosmic egg. A bizarre appearing Price was often invited to speaking engagements where his red clothes with mysterious green lettering and shaggy appearance was no stranger than his ramblings. When Price died in 1893, he was cremated in a public ceremony while wearing ornate clothing said to be a combination of traditional Welsh and Druidic patterns. Placed over 2 tons of coal on the same hill on which he had cremated his son, Price burned while 20,000 people in attendance watched.
Some of the other wacky or unconventional beliefs espoused by William Price included the washing of all coins, as the money was a source of contamination (probably true!) and the practice of refusing to wear socks, as they were somehow “unhygienic.” Price also advocated nudism and would not treat any patients that used tobacco, while also opposing vaccinations and the prescription of most drugs. While denouncing religion as a sanctimonious method to enslave the masses, Price nonetheless became a major influence in the evolution of modern Druidism. In the town of Llantrisant, Wales, a plaque, statue, and eventually a garden were all erected in his memory. William Price was described by historian Ronald Hutton as “Both one of the most colourful characters in Welsh history, and one of the most remarkable in Victorian Britain.” This author agrees!
Question for students (and subscribers): Have you heard of William Price? What do you know about the Druids? Did you know Wales was a country within the United Kingdom? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Cornish, Sophie. Druids: A Beginners Guide To Druids. CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2016.
Michell, John. Eccentric Lives, Peculiar Notions. Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 2002.
Powell, Dean. Dr William Price: Wales’s First Radical. Amberley Publishing, 2012.
The featured image in this article, William Price of Llantrisant (1800-1893) MRCS, LSA, medical practitioner, in druidic costume, with goats by A.C. Hemming from https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/L0014640.html, has been extracted from another file: William Price painting (2).jpg. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.