Born into a Welsh family living in Wallasey, England, in 1893. Lewis was studying English and French at Liverpool University when the First World War broke out. After serving as an officer with the South Wales Borderers he returned to university to graduate in English.
In 1922, he was appointed as a lecturer in Welsh at the University College of Wales, Swansea. During his time at Swansea he produced some of his most significant works of literary criticism: A School of Welsh Augustans (1924), Williams Pantycelyn (1927), and Braslun o hanes llenyddiaeth Gymraeg (An outline history of Welsh literature) (1932).
Discussions of the need for a "Welsh party" had been conducted since the 19th century. With the generation or so before 1922 there "had been a marked growth in the constitutional recognition of the Welsh nation," wrote historian John Davies. By 1924 there were people in Wales "eager to make their nationality the focus of Welsh politics. Lewis's experiences in World War I, and his sympathy for the cause of Irish independence, brought him to Welsh nationalism. In 1925 he met with H. R. Jones, Lewis Valentine and others at the National Eisteddfod, held in Pwllheli, Gwynedd, with the aim of establishing a "Welsh party". Lewis and Jones represented separate organizations, both founded the previous year. Lewis headed Y Mudiad Cymreig ("The Welsh Movement") and Jones heading the Byddin Ymreolwyr Cymru ("The Welsh Home Rule Army"). They founded Plaid Genedlaethol Cymru ("National Party of Wales") (which would become Plaid Cymru), on 5 August 1925. The principal aim of the party would be to foster a Welsh speaking Wales. To this end it was agreed that party business be conducted in Welsh, and that members sever all links with other British parties. Lewis insisted on these principles before he would agree to the Pwllheli conference.
According to the 1911 census, out of a population of just under 2.5 million, 43.5% of the total population of Wales spoke Welsh as a primary language. This was a decrease from the 1891 census with 54.4% speaking Welsh out of a population of 1.5 million. With these pre-requisites, Lewis condemned "'Welsh nationalism' as it had hitherto existed, a nationalism characterized by inter-party conferences, an obsession with Westminster and a willingness to accept a subservient position for the Welsh language," wrote Davies. It may be because of these strict positions that the party failed to attract politicians of experience in its early years. However, the party's members believed its founding was an achievement in itself; "merely by existing, the party was a declaration of the distinctiveness of Wales," wrote Davies.
During the inter-war years, Plaid Genedlaethol Cymru was most successful as a social and educational pressure group rather than as a political party. For Saunders Lewis, party president 1926 – 1939, "the chief aim of the party [is] to 'take away from the Welsh their sense of inferiority... to remove from our beloved country the mark and shame of conquest.'" Lewis sought to cast Welshness into a new context, wrote Davies.
Lewis wished to demonstrate how Welsh heritage was linked as one of the 'founders of European civilization. Lewis, a self-described "strong monarchist", wrote "Civilization is more than an abstraction. It must have a local habitation and name. Here its name is Wales." Additionally, Lewis strove for the stability and well-being of Welsh-speaking communities, decried both capitalism and socialism and promoted what he called perchentyaeth: a policy of "distributing property among the masses".
Lewis was, in fact, ill-equipped to lead any party, or indeed even convince his immediate colleagues of his theories. Historian Geraint H. Jenkins writes:- "..Lewis was a cold fish. His reedy voice, bow tie, cerebral style and aristocratic contempt for the proletariat were hardly endearing qualities in a political leader, and his conversion to Catholicism lost him the sympathy of fervent Nonconformists. Heavily influenced by the discourse of right-wing French theorists, this profoundly authoritarian figure developed a grand strategy, such as it was, based on the deindustrialization of Wales. Such a scheme was both impractical and unpopular. It caused grave embarrassment to his socialist colleague D. J. Davies, a progressive economist who, writing with force and passion, showed a much better grasp of the economic realities of the time and greater sensitivity towards the plight of working people.
Saunders Lewis perceived the early development of BBC radio broadcasting in Wales (which was almost entirely in English) as serious threat to his aim of arresting the decline of the Welsh language (then down to 36%) and turning Wales back into a 100% Welsh-speaking nation. At the same time he also recognised that if he could exert influence and pressure on the BBC, the Corporation could become a useful tool to serve Plaid Cymru's political ends. In 1929 he declared it would soon be necessary to arrange for "thousands of Welshmen to be prosecuted for refusing to pay for English programmes". The following year Lewis was commissioned by E.R. Appleton, Director of the BBC's Cardiff radio station, (who had banned broadcasting in Welsh) to broadcast a talk which would "explain Welsh Nationalism". On vetting the script, which advocated political nationalism in preference to "cultural nationalism", Appleton decided it was too controversial and inflammatory to be broadcast. In October 1933 the University of Wales Council, which had been lobbying for more Welsh-language broadcasting, appointed a ten-man council to press the case with the BBC. It included David Lloyd George, William George, W. J. Gruffydd and Saunders Lewis – who was continuing to incense the BBC by publicly alleging it was "seeking the destruction of the Welsh language". The University Committee, which was described by BBC Director General John Reith as "the most unpleasant and unreliable people with whom it has been my misfortune to deal" gained ever more influence on the BBC in Wales not least in the selection of BBC staff – a function delegated to the Committee by the Corporation. As newspapers of the time noted, appointees seemed primarily drawn from the families of the Welsh-speaking elite including "the son of a professor of Welsh and the offspring of three archdruids". Saunders Lewis's assiduous campaigning over the years was to succeed in cementing an ongoing Plaid Cymru influence within the BBC. When the BBC's Welsh Advisory Council was eventually established in 1946, although half its members were Labour, several Plaid Cymru supporters were appointed including Saunders Lewis's successor as Plaid Cymru president, Gwynfor Evans.
Welsh nationalism was ignited in 1936 when the UK Government settled on establishing an RAF training camp and aerodrome at Penyberth on the Llŷn Peninsula in Gwynedd. The events surrounding the protest, known as Tân yn Llŷn ("Fire in Llŷn"), helped define Plaid Genedlaethol Cymru. The UK Government settled on Llŷn as the site for its training camp after similar proposed sites in Northumberland and Dorset met with protests.
However, UK Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin refused to hear the case against building this 'bombing school' in Wales, despite a deputation representing 500,000 Welsh protesters. Protest against the project was summed up by Lewis when he wrote that the UK Government was intent upon turning one of the "essential homes of Welsh culture, idiom, and literature" into a place for promoting a barbaric method of warfare. Construction of this military academy began exactly 400 years after the first Act of Union annexing Wales into England.
On 8 September 1936, the building was set on fire and in the investigations which followed Saunders Lewis, Lewis Valentine, and D. J. Williams claimed responsibility. The trial at Caernarfon failed to agree on a verdict and the case was sent to the Old Bailey in London. The "Three" were sentenced to nine months imprisonment in Wormwood Scrubs, and on their release they were greeted as heroes by 15,000 Welsh people at a pavilion in Caernarfon.
Many Welsh people were angered by the judge's scornful treatment of the Welsh language, by the decision to move the trial to London, and by the decision of University College, Swansea, to dismiss Lewis from his post before he had been found guilty. Dafydd Glyn Jones wrote of the fire that it was "the first time in five centuries that Wales struck back at England with a measure of violence... To the Welsh people, who had long ceased to believe that they had it in them, it was a profound shock."
However, despite the acclaim the events of Tân yn Llŷn generated, by 1938 Lewis's concept of perchentyaeth ("home ownership") had been firmly rejected as not a fundamental tenet of the party. In 1939 Lewis resigned as Plaid Genedlaethol Cymru president, saying that Wales was not ready to accept the leadership of a Roman Catholic.
Lewis was the son and grandson of prominent Welsh Calvinistic Methodist ministers. In 1932, he had converted to Roman Catholicism.
Lewis maintained a strict neutrality in his writings through his column Cwrs y Byd in Y Faner. It was his attempt at an unbiased interpretation of the causes and events of the war.
Outside of the party's initial position on the war, party members were free to choose for themselves their level of support for the war effort. Plaid Genedlaethol Cymru was officially neutral regarding involvement the Second World War, which Lewis and other leaders considered a continuation of the First World War. Central to the neutrality policy was the idea that Wales, as a nation, had the right to decide independently on its attitude towards war, and the rejection of other nations to force Welshmen to serve in their armed forces. With this challenging and revolutionary policy Lewis hoped a significant number of Welshmen would refuse to join the British Army.
Lewis and other party members were attempting to strengthen loyalty to the Welsh nation "over the loyalty to the British State". Lewis argued "The only proof that the Welsh nation exists is that there are some who act as if it did exist."
However, most party members who claimed conscientious objection status did so in the context of their moral and religious beliefs, rather than on political policy. Of these almost all were exempt from military service. About 24 party members made politics their sole grounds for exemption, of whom 12 received prison sentences. For Lewis, those who objected proved that the assimilation of Wales was "being withstood, even under the most extreme pressures".
Prior to 1950, universities could elect and return representatives to the House of Commons. In 1943 Lewis contested the University of Wales parliamentary seat at a by-election; his opponent was former Plaid Genedlaethol Cymru deputy vice-president Dr William John Gruffydd. Gruffydd had voiced doubts about Lewis's ideas since 1933, and by 1943 he had joined the Liberal Party. The "brilliant but wayward" Gruffydd was a favorite with Welsh-speaking intellectuals and drew 52.3% of the vote, to Lewis's 22%, or 1,330 votes.
The election effectively split the Welsh-speaking intelligentsia, and left Lewis embittered with politics; he retreated from direct political involvement. However the experience proved invaluable for Plaid Cymru, as they began to refer to themselves, as "for the first time they were taken seriously as a political force." The by-election campaign led directly to "considerable growth" in the party's membership.
see also Tynged yr iaith
In 1962 Lewis gave a radio speech entitled Tynged yr iaith ("The Fate of the Language") in which he predicted the extinction of the Welsh language unless action was taken. Lewis's intention was to motivate Plaid Cymru into more direct action promoting the language; however it led to the formation of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (Welsh Language Society) later that year at a Plaid Cymru summer school held in Pontardawe in Glamorgan. The foundation of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg allowed Plaid Cymru to focus on electoral politics, while the Cymdeithas focused on promoting the language.
Lewis's radio speech was in response to the 1961 census, which showed a decrease in the percentage of Welsh speakers from 36% in 1931 to 26%, of the population of about 2.5 million. In the census the counties of Meirionnydd (Merionethshire), Ynys Môn (Anglesey), Caerfyrddin (Carmarthenshire), and Caernarfon (Caernarvonshire) averaged a 75% proportion of Welsh speakers, with the most significant decreases in the counties of Glamorgan, Flint, and Pembroke.
Responding to calls for Welsh devolution, in 1964 the Labour Government established the Welsh Office (Welsh: Swyddfa Gymreig) and Secretary of State for Wales.
In 1970, Lewis was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature. His literary works include plays, poetry, novels and essays. He wrote mostly in Welsh, but he also wrote some works in English. By the time of his death in 1985 some rated him as amongst the most celebrated of Welsh writers.
Lewis's perceived "elitist" views, "and a "condescending attitude towards some aspects of the Nonconformist, radical and pacifist traditions of Wales" drew criticism from fellow nationalists such as D. J. Davies, a leftist party member. Davies argued in favour of engaging English-speaking Welsh communities, and stressed the territorial integrity of Wales. Davies pointed towards Scandinavian countries as a model to emulate, and was active in the economic implications of Welsh self-government.
In many ways it was D. J. Davies's ideal of Welsh nationalism which was adopted after the Second World War, wrote John Davies. But it was Lewis's "brilliance and charismatic appeal" which was firmly associated with Plaid Genedlaethol Cymru in the 1930s.
In 1936, in the midst of the turmoil of Tân yn Llŷn, Lewis praised Adolf Hitler when he said "At once he fulfilled his promise — a promise which was greatly mocked by the London papers months before that — to completely abolish the financial strength of the Jews in the economic life of Germany." However, in the 1930s other British politicians also made favourable comments about fascist leaders.
In 2001 Lord Elis-Thomas, himself a former Plaid Cymru President, declared in a television documentary on Lewis that he was "lousy as a politician, lousy as a writer, but a good Catholic".
Lewis was above all a dramatist. His earliest published play was Blodeuwedd (The woman of flowers) (1923–25, revised 1948). Other notable plays include Buchedd Garmon (The life of Germanus) (radio play, 1936), Siwan (1956), Gymerwch chi sigarét? (Will you have a cigarette?) (1956), Brad (Treachery) (1958), Esther (1960), and Cymru fydd (Tomorrow's Wales) (1967). He also translated Samuel Beckett's En attendant Godot into Welsh. His plays drew on a wide range of material and covered a range of subject matter including Welsh mythology and history, as well as the Bible, although he also wrote plays set in contemporary Wales.
Lewis wrote the libretto for Arwel Hughes's opera Serch yw'r doctor (Love’s the doctor), based on Molière's L'Amour médecin (first performance 1960 by Welsh National Opera).
He published two novels, Monica (1930) and Merch Gwern Hywel (The daughter of Gwern Hywel) (1964) and two collections of poems as well as numerous articles and essays in various newspapers, magazines and journals. These articles have been collected into volumes including: Canlyn Arthur (Following Arthur) (1938), Ysgrifau dydd Mercher (Wednesday essays) (1945), Meistri'r canrifoedd (Masters of the centuries) (1973), Meistri a'u crefft (Masters and their craft) (1981) and Ati ŵyr ifainc (Go to it, young men) (1986).Lewis, Saunders (1997), Monica. translated by Meic Stephens. Bridgend: Seren. ISBN 1-85411-195-7.
Lewis, Saunders (1985–2002), The Plays of Saunders Lewis, 4 vols, translated by Joseph P. Clancy. ISBN 0-9540569-4-9, ISBN 0-7154-0648-5, 0954056957, 0715406523.
Lewis, Saunders (1993), Selected Poems, translated by Joseph P. Clancy. Cardiff: University of Wales Press. ISBN 0-7083-1194-6.
In March 1983, at the age of 89, Saunders Lewis was made an honorary Doctor of Letters of the University of Wales at a ceremony specially conducted at his home in Penarth. The Catholic Herald, reporting the honour, noted that in the previous year Lewis had made a plea for Mass to be said in Latin in Wales rather than in the "foreign language of English", which he pointed out was "a later arrival".