The birth of Wales

Wales was once part of the Roman province or diocese of Britannia and indistinguishable in principle from the rest of Roman Britain. Following the decline in Roman power during the latter half of the fourth century the native British threw out the remaining Roman administrators and in the year 409 established their own government, headed by a high-king or Vortigern. However, the notion of an independent Britannia survived only for a generation or two, as from the mid fifth century onwards, Britain became increasingly the target for a variety of Germanic insurgents who gradually established their dominance over much of the south and east of the country.

The fifth and sixth centuries AD encompass the period in British history known as Sub-Roman Britain, which is distinguished by the almost complete lack of any contemporary records and the consequent lack of knowledge regarding events in the period. However it appears that in the absence of any central Romano-British authority the old tribal traditions reasserted themselves and new kings emerged. These native Brythonic kings naturally challenged their Germanic counterparts, but defeats at the battle of Deorham (in 577) and Chester (in 613) signalled the success of the invaders.

In the early seventh century the figure of Cadwallon ap Cadfan challenged the Germanic ascendancy. In a pragmatic alliance with king Penda of Mercia, Cadwallon defeated and killed the Northumbrian king Edwin and brought that land under his sway. But Cadwallon's reconquest of North Britain was short-lived, as Oswald, son of Aethelfrith, came south from exile in Dal Riada and after victory at the battle of Heavenfield re-established Germanic Northumbria.

Cadwallon ap Cadfan was the last Brythonic king to seriously challenge the new Germanic kings of Britain and after his death the native British retreated to their strongholds in the West. The great central and eastern mass of Britain became England and Brythonic rulers survived only in Strathclyde, in the West Wales of Dumnonia and in what became known as Wales itself; the land of the 'Waelisc', foreigners.

Early Medieval Wales

Wales was born a land of petty kingdoms whose boundaries and names shifted in line with the fortunes of their kings. In the north there was Gwynedd, in the centre Powys, with Dyfed/Deheubarth in the south-west and Glywysing/Morgannwg in the south-east. These kingdoms and many more warred against each other and the hated 'Saxons' who constantly threatened from the east.

The origin of these kingdoms and the dynasties that ruled them are obscure and intertwined with the stuff of myth and legend. We know of the names of at least two early kings of Wales, the sixth century rulers named Maelgwyn - the 'dragon of the island' and king of Gwynedd, who claimed descent from the semi-mythical North British chieftain Cunedda - and Vortipor - the 'tyrant of the Demetians' who held sway in the south west in the kingdom of Dyfed.

They may have dreamed of reasserting their authority in the lost lands of Lloegr but after the death of Cadwallon ap Cadfan, Wales retreated into its self and sought solace in the ascetic Christianity of its saints. The Welsh were not however, to be left in peace, and faced the persistent threat from the east, in particular from the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia which grew to dominate the political landscape of Britain in the seventh and eighth centuries.

Time and time again Mercia attempted to advance its borders to the west - the south eastern fringes of Glywysing were over-run in the seventh century only to be recovered soon after; Powys was won back from the 'Saxons' by the sword by Elisedd ap Gwylog according to the record of the Pillar of Eliseg - and time and time again thrown back.

Wales in the Viking Age

At the end of the eighth century when Offa became king of Mercia, and claimed to be Rex Angalorum, or king of the English, he contented himself with building his famous dyke to act as a boundary marker between his realm and that of his western neighbours. But his successor Coelfrith had other ideas, and over-ran much of Gwynedd and raided Dyfed, it seemed only a matter of time before Mercia would expand its boundaries as far as the Irish Sea.

Then the kingdoms of the English shuddered and fell under the impact of the Viking Great Army, and in Gwynedd there arrived an entirely new dynasty in the form of Merfyn Frych. Merfyn and more importantly his son Rhodri Fawr who succeeded in 844, brought a new vigour and determination to Gwynedd and fought off the Viking threat and pushed back the Merican invaders.

And Wales needed rulers of vigour and determination as the scale of Viking raiding grew. But although the Vikings harried the coast and plundered the monasteries and churches but they made no permanent large scale settlement in Wales; - there was no Welsh equivalent of Jorvik or Dublin or Orkney. Perhaps the Vikings found insufficient reason to stay or perhaps the ferocity of the opposition drove them elsewhere.

Encouraged by a victory over the Viking army of Ormr in 856 Rhodri also sought to extend his reach beyond the confines of Gwynedd across the whole of Wales. To what extent he was successful in this ambition remains an open question, but his ambition set a precedent for others to follow.

The sons and grandsons of Rhodri Fawr followed in his footsteps, moving into the kingdoms of the south, they united Powys with Gwynedd and brought Cerdigion under their control. It was the combined threats of the descendants of the great Rhodri and the pagan northmen that drove the kings of the south to the court of Alfred of Wessex seeking his protection and support.

When Hywel Dda, who first built Deheubarth on the foundations of Dyfed and extended his sway over Gwynedd as well, creating a wider hegemony than that of his great-grandfather Rhodri, he was careful to make the same trip to the court of the kings of Wessex to assure the English king of his good intentions. Hence in the year 937 when the Scots, the Welsh of Strathclyde and the Norse all united to unsuccessfully challenge the authority of Aethelstan, at the battle of Brunanburh, the Welsh of Wales remained pragmatically aloof from this great alliance.

Gruffudd ap Llywelyn

In the year 1018, one Llywelyn ap Seisyll a man of obscure origin seized the throne of Gwynedd and to bring some degree of legitimacy to his usurpation he married Angharad, the daughter of Maredudd ab Owain, the king of his southern neighbour Deheubarth.

Llywelyn was eventually ousted but his son named Gruffudd ap Llywelyn was to return and retake Gwynedd in 1039. Gruffudd, undoubtedly the most ruthless and capable of all of the Welsh kings, made it his business to challenge and defeat every other native ruler and whose singular achievement was therefore to unite all Wales under his own rule between the years 1055 and 1063.

Gruffudd carefully exploited the political divisions within England and pushed the English back to the very walls of Chester, reclaiming territory that had been 'lost' for generations. But the prospect of a Wales united under one king was not an attractive sight from the perspective of an English king sat at Westminster and so Edward the Confessor let loose the infamous Harold Godwinson, who in a series of campaigns was able to bring Gruffudd to heel.

In the end the Welsh, dismayed by the ravages of Harold's army gave him what he wanted; Gruffudd's head and thus persuaded Harold to leave them alone.

And so Harold did, as his ambitions lay elsewhere, as he patiently waited for Edward to die and his opportunity to take the English crown. Harold was content to allow Wales to remain under its native kings so long as they remained divided.

Wales and the Normans

Of course Harold lasted only a few months as king, his life terminated on the battlefield of Senlac as a new Norman dynasty took power in England.

After the Battle of Hastings William I consolidated his grip on England, but displayed little interest in conquering Wales, and contented himself with securing the western borders and establishing an alliance with Rhys ap Tewdwr of Deheubarth, the dominant Welsh ruler of the time. His son William II showed less interest in such diplomatic niceties and allowed his more avaricious subjects the freedom to take from Wales what they could.

Norman knights such as Robert Fitz Hamon and Bernard of Neufmarche carved for themselves mini-kingdoms by dispossessing a native tywysog, built their motte and bailey castles, established their new borough towns, and fought their small scale wars, and gave birth to the Marcher Lordship, the in-between lands that were neither of Wales or of England.

The southern Welsh kingdoms of Gwent, Brycheiniog and Morgannwg soon fell to these piratical adventures and for a moment the rest of Wales seemed about to follow in their wake, but the great rebellion of 1094 made it clear to the Normans that Wales would not fall as easily under their control as England.

Under the leadership of Cadwgan ap Bleddyn and later Gruffudd ap Cynan the Welsh threw back the Norman invaders and rebuilt and reinvigorated Powys and Gwynedd respectively. In the south west Rhys ap Gruffudd was to later perform the same trick with Deheubarth, but the Norman grip on the south-east stayed secure and provided a base for further encroachments.

Royal policy towards the Welsh waxed and waned in line with the authority of the crown. During periods of English weakness, the native Welsh sought to take advantage and reassert their independence. When the English were blessed with a king of some capability they would ride into Wales with an army at their heels and seek to force the submission of these rebellious princes and to chip away at their autonomy.

If Wales had managed to unite itself it might have been able to withstand the pressure from its English neighbour. As it was Wales remained divided, and the divisions grew larger. On the death of Madog ap Maredudd in 1160, Powys was divided into northern and southern halves, and with the death of Rhys ap Gruffudd 1197, Deheubarth also fractured into pieces as the many sons of Rhys squabbled over their inheritance.

Only Gwynedd now stood as the bastion of Welsh Wales and from the time of Owain Gwynedd its rulers began to see themselves as leaders of the Welsh nation itself, styling themselves as Prince of Wales. In their attempts to claim this wider hegemony Owain and later Llywelyn ap Iorwerth found themselves struggling against the indifference of their compatriots who often preferred a master far away in London rather than one closer at home in Aberffraw.

They persevered in their endeavours until the final conflict between Edward I and Llywellyn ap Gruffudd which ended on that bleak day in December 1283 when Llywellyn was ambushed outside Builth, and his head delivered to the English king in London. His brother struggled on for another year only to be hanged, drawn and quartered at Shrewsbury for his pains.

And so Edward I issued his Statue of Rhuddlan in 1284, pronounced that Wales was forever more part of England and forged from the remains of Gwynedd a principality that would be bestowed on his infant son to match his title as Prince of Wales.

From Rhuddlan to the Acts of Union

In order to fully establish his control over Wales, Edward I undertook a truly massive programme of castle building, one of the major civil engineering projects of the medieval age. In fact so extensive and so costly was this programme of monumental military agrandisment that it effectively bankrupted the English crown and left Edward bereft of the funds needed to finance his attempts to add Scotland to his idea of united empire of Britain.

Edward's great settlement left Wales divided within itself; a Principality under the control of royal sheriffs and justices and a Wales of Marcher Lordships, ruled by a variety of English nobles; but united in its resentment against the English occupation.

The resentment regularly boiled over in a succession of revolts in the years after Edward's conquest; much to the annoyance of the English authorities. When Owain Llawgoch appeared to have attracted the support of the French and seemed likely to lead an attempt to re-kindle Welsh rule, the English organised a hit squad and had him killed on the banks of the Seine. But the resentment continued to fester and exploded in Owain Glyndwr's revolt of 1400 an event which shook the complacency of the English government as the revolt engulfed the whole of Wales.

In the end the revolt was crushed and brought forth the inevitable reaction in the form of penal legislation that rendered the Welsh as second class citizens within their own country and created the sorry spectacle of sundry Welshmen petitioning Parliament to be made 'English' and so avoid the restrictions imposed.

Wales and the Tudors

The Tudor dynasty that took power in England after 1486 were, of course, of Welsh extraction. (Well Henry VII was a quarter Welsh.) Possibly it was his distant Welsh heritage that inspired Henry VIII to produce the Acts of Union 1536-1543 which formally incorporated the territory of Wales into England and created a single unified state. The acts also gave the native Welsh citizenship of this new Tudor Britain and placed them on an equal footing with the English.

To the run of the mill peasant this probably meant little but to the minor Welsh nobles who had hidden in the shadows since the time of Edward I and sought to maintain their status, this was the opportunity to assume the advantages of public office and quietly build their estates.

The Welsh however, remained an essentially conservative people; they were dismayed by the new Church of England and its Protestant doctrines. Anxious to preserve her own religious settlement Elizabeth I ordered the translation of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer into the Welsh language. Another example of Elizabethan pragmatism but a matter of extreme significance to Wales as it allowed the development of a new contemporary literary language that became an expression of national identity.

Wales after the Tudors

Wales might now well have become part of the soon to be christened British Empire but it remained an essentially agricultural backwater of this new empire whose economy was based on the export of livestock and foodstuffs to the major cities of its English neighbour.

The native Welsh gentry might well boast of their descent from some ancient Welsh king (or invent such a link of one was not readily available), but sent their children to public school and to the universities at Oxford and Cambridge, and became more anglicized with each succeeding generation.

As the genty became more 'English' they became more divorced from the gwerin, the commonfolk, who took their new Welsh bibles and became more Protestant that the English Church had quite anticipated and so withdrew from the established Church of England, built their own chapels and viewed with disdain the antics of their so called social betters.

The industrial revolution

It was the arrival of the age of steam that transformed Wales and most particularly the south. In the narrow valleys of Glamorganshire and Monmouthshire there was iron ore, coal and plenty of water, perfect locations for the new iron foundries required by the infant industrial revolution.

The once small village of Merthyr Tydfil became the world's first industrial town, and the Victorian tourists came to gawp at the sight of its belching chimneys which they likened to a vision of hell itself. Cardiff, once a comparatively insignificant town commanding a crossing of the river Taf, became a major port and the conduit through which the black gold flowed down the valleys and into the world beyond.

From Ireland and from England and across the world the people flowed into south Wales, drawn by the expansion of the coalfields and the wealth that flowed from them. The south east experienced a massive increase in population and in the process was transformed by the sheer weight of numbers into something quite alien to the previous Welsh experience.

The industrialization of the south east created the ideal breeding ground for the new doctrines of socialism and labourism; the red flag was first flown in Britain at Hirwaun Common near Merthyr Tydfil in 1830, and gave birth to the long tradition of militancy for which South Wales became noted.

The twentieth century and beyond

After seven centuries or so of being subsumed within England, Wales might have been expected to have become just another adjunct of England, differentiated only by some half remembered Celtic 'heritage'. But the Welsh appear to be a stubborn lot, and despite expectation has spent most of the twentieth century gradually becoming more, rather than less different than its larger neighbour.

Wales had already received its own university in 1893 and in 1907 added its own National Library and National Museum. In 1920 the Church of England was formally disestablished within Wales and ceased to be the state church.

In 1955 Wales was given its first capital city in the form of Cardiff, in 1964 its own Secretary of State, in 1982 its own television channel in the form of Sianel Pedwar Cymru, and in 1999 its own 'parliamentary' institution the National Assembly for Wales.

There was even the Welsh Language Act of 1967 that granted equal status to the Welsh language throughout Wales. Indeed contrary to all expectations the Welsh language has survived and thrived despite the pressures of the English 'global village'.

If there is one thing that has characterised the history of Wales, it is the number of times that the imminent death of the nation has been prophesied. Whether it was the death of Rhys ap Tewdwr or Llywellyn ap Gruffudd; the defeat of Owain Glyndwr; or the confident predictions of the Victorian leader writers of the Times newspaper, or their modern day equivalents at the Daily Mail - there has always been someone willing to write the nation's obituary.


John Davies A History of Wales (Allen Lane, 1993)
P Salway Roman Britain (OUP, 1991)
Roger Collins Early Medieval Europe 300-1000 (Macmillan, 1999)
Kari Mundi The Welsh Kings (Tempus, 2000)