Brief History of Wales



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The Emergence of Wales from Dark Age Britain

 8th - 9th century CE


The digging of Offa's dyke in the 8th century, as the effective border between Anglo-Saxon England and Celtic Wales, formalizes a situation which has existed for a century and a half. Victories near Bath (in 577) and near Chester (in 613) have brought the Anglo-Saxons to the Bristol Channel and the Irish Sea, restricting the Celtic tribes to the great western peninsula protected by the Welsh mountains.


In this enforced seclusion lies the beginning of the Welsh identity. The region is called Wales from an Anglo-Saxon word wealas, meaning 'foreigners'. Similarly the beleaguered Celts begin to call themselves cymry ('fellow-countrymen'), naming their shared territory Cymru.


Like their Celtic neighbours over the water in Ireland, the Welsh have a strong early tradition of Christianity. But St David, the patron saint of Wales, is a more shadowy figure than Ireland's St Patrick. Little is known of him except that he founds several monasteries in the late 6th century and makes his own ecclesiastical base at Mynyw, now known after him as St David's.


The Welsh retain their Celtic version of Christianity much longer than the English. The Roman calculation of Easter is not accepted in Wales until 768, more than a century after the synod of Whitby.


By the middle of the 9th century the Welsh tribes are beginning to merge into something resembling a nation, through the usual combination of warfare and marriage between the ruling families. Rhodri Mawr (mawr meaning 'the Great') is widely accepted as king of almost the entire region by the time of his death in 878. But centralized power is dissipated by the Celtic custom of sharing an inheritance between all the sons of a royal house.


Rulers in Wales are also, like their neighbours in Anglo-Saxon England, under constant threat from Viking invasions. The Welsh are particularly vulnerable from 838, when the Vikings settle across the Irish Sea in Dublin. But it is Vikings in another form, as Normans, who have a lasting effect in Wales.


Viking influence is shown in Cardiff by names of Dumballs Road and Womanby Street. Swansea is also a Viking name.


Wales and England: 1066-1267 CE


The most prolonged threat to the independent Welsh tribes begins with the arrival of the Normans in England. By this time Wales has settled down as four reasonably stable principalities. In the north is Gwynedd; south of that is Powys; in the southwest of the peninsula is Deheubarth; and in the southeast Morgannwg (or Glamorgan).


William I makes no serious attempt to conquer Wales himself, but he gives the border regions of Chester, Shrewsbury and Hereford as earldoms to his feudal vassals. Armed sorties against Wales are among their responsibilities. Given such a task and considerable power, the Marcher Lords (from 'march' meaning border) become notorious for their anarchy and violence.


Some English speaking colonies or Marcher Towns are established in Wales to administer some areas. New Radnor is an example and is established by the Earl of Hereford to administer the old county of Radnorshire. The Marcher Lord system continued until 1536 and at one stage a large area of North Wales is administered from Chester. There is no precise border between England and Wales


Meanwhile the Welsh principalities are in almost constant warfare among themselves. From time to time a leader acquires enough power to be accepted as paramount over a broad region. One such is Rhys ap Gruffudd in the south of the country. In a series of encounters with English armies in the 1160s, he is sufficiently successful for an accomodation to be reached between himself and the English king.


On his way to Ireland in 1171 Henry II meets and acknowledges Rhys, accepting him as the lord of South Wales and as his feudal vassal.


For a while such compromises bring peace to the region, until signs of weakness in the opposing side prompt the Welsh to claim greater independence or the English to attempt stricter control.


During the 13th century rulers from three successive generations of the royal family of Gwynedd unify the peninsula so effectively that they are accepted as rulers of all Wales. The first is Llywelyn ab Iorwerth. On his death, in 1240, a chronicler describes him as the prince of Wales. His son, David II, is the first man actually to claim that resonant title - in 1244. David's nephew, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, even gets the English king to acknowledge him as prince of Wales. In 1258 Llywelyn receives the homage of all the other Welsh princes.


His status is formalized in 1267 in a treaty agreed at Shrewsbury (also sometimes called the treaty of Montgomery) between himself and the English king, Henry III. Henry acknowledges Llywelyn as overlord of all the Welsh fiefs, and accepts his homage to the English throne as prince of Wales on behalf of the entire region.


This is the peak of national dignity for medieval Wales. The status of the principality changes dramatically with the accession of Henry III's eldest son, Edward I. He proves himself a far more aggressive monarch than his father.


Edward I and Wales: 1277-1301 CE


Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, acknowledged prince of Wales by Henry III in 1267, seems almost to go out of his way to affront Henry's successor, Edward I, after his accession in 1272. He fails to attend the coronation in 1274, declines a summons to do homage, and refuses to discharge a large debt to the English king.


In 1277 Edward moves decisively against his recalcitrant vassal. Three English armies march into Wales, from Chester, Shrewsbury and Hereford. Llywelyn and his forces are soon isolated in the mountainous region of Snowdon. By early November lack of food compels them to surrender.


Llywelyn is forced to sign a treaty on November 9 at Conwy. It strips him of nearly all his territories, reducing the principality to the area of Snowdon. Anglesey is allowed him on lease from the king of England, but the rest of Wales is now to be administered by English agents - a role which they fulfil with such brutality that there is a widespread uprising, headed by Llywelyn, in 1282.


Edward reacts as forcefully as before, with another invasion of Wales during which Llywelyn is killed. But this time the English king takes the whole of Wales into his own hands.


By the statute issued at Rhuddlan in 1284 the principality of Wales is transformed into counties, on the English principle, to be governed by officials on behalf of the crown.


In 1301 Edward adds the final symbolic touch to this suppression of Wales. He revives the much cherished title of 'prince of Wales', bestowing it on his heir, the future Edward II. Ironically Wales now has what it has been fighting for. It is a principality, but an English one. The title has remained, through the centuries, the highest honour granted to the eldest son and heir apparent of the English monarch.


The Welsh, predictably, are unhappy with these arrangements (a further uprising in 1294-5 is ruthlessly crushed by Edward's armies). But the king has a powerful answer.


The very year after the death of Llywelyn, Edward begins the construction of the great castles which are still the glory of the northwest coast of Wales. Each is completed within a few years. Like the clench of a stone fist, these fortresses grip the final Welsh refuge - the region of Snowdonia - from Harlech (1283-9) in the south, to Caernarfon (1283-92) and Beaumaris (1295-8) on either side of the Menai Strait, and on to Conwy (1283-8) in the north. Overawed by these strongholds, Wales remains quiet for a century - till the time of Owain Glyn Dwr.


Owain Glyn Dwr: CE 1399-1416


Richard II, reigning in England from 1377 to 1399, has no son. There is therefore, during this period, no prince of Wales. But Henry IV, seizing the throne in 1399, immediately creates his son Henry prince of Wales. In the following year, 1400, the Welsh proclaim a prince of Wales of their own - Owain Glyn Dwr. It is an act of deliberate rebellion. (Glyn Dwr is also known to the Welsh as Owain ap Gruffudd, and is traditionally spelt Owen Glendower in English.)


Wales in general has supported Richard II, but Glyn Dwr has been closer to the party of Henry IV. At first he seems an unlikely leader, swept up almost accidentally in a minor rebellion.


Under Glyn Dwr's leadership the uprising grows in strength, in spite of an early defeat at Welshpool in 1400. A breakthrough in the power of the rebels comes with the capture in 1402 of Edmund Mortimer, member of an Anglo-Norman family with great estates on the Welsh borders. Mortimer is related by descent to the English throne and by marriage to the Percy family, earls of Northumberland. Glyn Dwr persuades Mortimer to change sides. Mortimer marries Glyn Dwr's daughter.


Henry IV is now confronted by a potentially fatal alliance, with Northumberland able to raise the north of England against him, and Mortimer and Glyn Dwr much of the west and Wales.

The death of the glamorous young Henry Percy ('Harry Hotspur'), defeated by Henry IV in battle at Shrewsbury in 1403, is a setback for the rebels. But in 1404 Glyn Dwr captures the important English strongholds of Aberystwyth and Harlech. He begins now to rule as the prince of Wales, establishing an administration, holding parliaments, negotiating with the pope about Welsh bishops. In 1405 an alliance is even drawn up between himself, Mortimer and Northumberland as to how they will divide England and Wales between them.


But from that year of high hopes the tide begins to turn against Glyn Dwr, largely due to the persistent campaigning of the other prince of Wales, the future Henry V.


In 1408 Glyn Dwr loses Aberystwyth and Harlech. By 1410 he is reduced to the status of an outlaw. After 1412 no more is heard of him. He is believed to have died somewhere in hiding in about 1416.


The long-standing dream of establishing an independent Welsh principality has crumbled yet again. But ironically, before the end of the century, Wales achieves something known in modern times as a reverse takeover (in which a smaller unit takes control of a larger). Instead of a Welsh prince of Wales, there is from 1485 a Welsh king of England and Wales - in the form of Henry Tudor, or Henry VII.


Wales Becomes a Unified Administrative Entity

1536-1800 CE


Acession to the English throne of the Tudor dynasty, with its Welsh origins, transforms Wales from a conquered territory to an integral part of the English kingdom. The change is acknowledged in an act of parliament passed in 1536, with modifications added in 1543. A precise Welsh border is also established in 1536 which has been retained with a couple of small changes. The status of Monmouth was however disputed until 1970 when a court ruling placed it in Wales and the new county of Gwent was created in 1972 which roughly corresponded to it.


The practical purpose of these acts is to give Wales an adminstrative system, based on counties, which is compatible with that of England. It replaces the earlier feudal territories, granted to marcher lords for the purpose of subduing the hostile Welsh. Wales becomes, as a result of these changes, a principality within the English kingdom. From the Reformation onwards, its political story merges with that of England.


Welsh language and literature: from the 16th c. AD

The Reformation, with its emphasis on receiving the word of God in one's own language, brings great benefit to Wales. In the mid-16th there are fewer than 250,000 inhabitants of the principality, yet the Protestant government of Elizabeth I is persuaded to pass an act providing for a Welsh translation of the Anglican liturgy and of the Bible.


The Book of Common Prayer and the New Testament are published in Welsh in 1567. The complete Bible follows in 1588. Both provide an invaluable focus for the Welsh language - the only version of Celtic to remain a living tongue for a large community within the British isles, in an unbroken tradition surviving to the present day.


At the same period as the Reformation, the attitudes of the Renaissance have a beneficial effect on Welsh literature. The Renaissance passion for rediscovering classical texts becomes, in the Welsh context, a scholarly interest in the region's great bardic tradition of oral poetry. Important works are published in the 16th century, analyzing the grammar of the Welsh language and the rules of bardic poetry.


There are periods when the interest in these traditions slackens. And inevitably immigration and other pressures (such as the use of English in schools) gradually reduce the percentage of the population for whom Welsh is the first language.


Nevertheless the figures remain amazingly high. From a Welsh-speaking 54% of the population in 1891, the proportion reduces to 37% in 1921, 26% in 1961 and 20% in 1991. This present-day 20% amounts to about half a million people - more than have spoken Welsh at most periods in the past, and sufficient in number to be provided with radio and television in their own language.


The rediscovery of the bardic past gathers new vigour during the 19th century, answering the twin needs of Welsh nationalism and the contemporary fascination with everything medieval. Soon after Scott popularizes medieval Scotland, Charlotte Guest does something similar for Wales with her translation in 1839-49 of the Mabinogion.


The Mabinogion is a collection of eleven tales, based on the ancient oral tradition but written in prose between the 11th and 13th century for recital at the courts of Welsh princes. The tales survive in two manuscripts of the 14th-15th century, the White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest.


The expression of the Welsh identity through language, literature and music is seen above all in the tradition of the Eisteddfod. Competitions between bards were common in the Middle Ages. The first assembly (the meaning of eisteddfod) to combine both musical and literary contests is generally considered to be a Christmas gathering held in Cardigan castle in 1176 by Rhys ap Gruffudd.


The interest in Eisteddfods (or in Welsh eisteddfodau) declines during the 16th and 17th centuries but is revived in the late 18th century - spurred on by the Cymmrodorion Society, a group of homesick Welshmen living in London. Their enthusiasm leads to regional eisteddfods being held throughout Wales, followed by the decision taken, in Denbigh in 1860, to establish a national body to be known as The Eisteddfod. As a result the first official National Eisteddfod was held in Aberdare in 1861. Now an annual event, it ends each year with the chairing of the bard, the poet whose work in the traditional bardic form has won the top prize.


But the 18th century does more than revive the eisteddfod. It provides a magnficent new outlet for Welsh musical talent with the arrival of Methodism.


Methodism and the chapel choir: from the 18th century

Wales is one of the earliest centres of the evangelical revival in Britain. While the Wesley brothers are still at Oxford, a Welsh layman, Howel Harris, experiences a sudden revelation in 1735 which sends him on the road as an itinerant preacher. From 1737 he teams up with a like-minded curate, Daniel Rowlands. The two are already making a stir in Wales when the Methodist George Whitefield joins them for a few months during 1739.


Methodism, with its richly emotional appeal, suits the Welsh - though the influence of Whitefield means that they adopt the harsher Calvinist variety, emphasizing predestination (an issue on which Whitefield differs from the Wesleys).


Just as Charles Wesley provides the English Methodists with an abundance of satisfying hymns and tunes, so an early Methodist minister, William Williams, does the same for the Welsh (he is the author of more than 800 hymns).


Within this new communal tradition the all-male chapel choir becomes one of the most characteristic of Welsh institutions. The chapel itself is the centre of social and cultural life - particularly in the isolated valleys which acquire a new prosperity during the 19th century on account of their coal.


Coal and iron: 19th - 20th century CE


Wales is well equipped with raw materials for the developing Industrial Revolution. Abundant supplies are available locally to meet the new demand for iron (particularly for railway lines) and for coal (to fuel the furnaces of iron works, railway engines and steamships).


The Welsh supply of coal outlasts the iron, so from the mid-19th century new iron and steel works are established near the harbours of the south coast, round Swansea, Cardiff and Newport. Here foreign ore can be imported, while coal to fuel the furnaces can be fetched the short distance from the mining valleys which run up into the hills.


These mining valleys, with their tight-knit communities centred on the chapel, become the prevailing image of Wales. Yet they are just one specific part of the country, in the south. Elsewhere much of the principality remains entirely agricultural, exporting mainly wool. In the north there is another region of industrial enterprise, quarrying slate to roof new houses for a rapidly expanding national population.


Even so, the valleys are in a real sense the heart of modern Wales. They suffer grievously in the depression of the 1930s, and in the subsequent slackening of demand for high-cost British coal. And they play a correspondingly important part in the development of left-wing Welsh politics.


Welsh Labour and Nationalism: 1900-1999 CE


The Welsh mining town of Merthyr Tydfil plays a significant role in the story of Labour in 20th-century Britain.


The founding father of the Labour party, Keir Hardie, loses his first parliamentary seat (London's West Ham) in the election of 1895. For five years he is out of parliament, campaigning incessantly to establish trades union and Labour solidarity. Then, in 1900, he wins Merthyr Tydfil as the candidate of the new Labour Representation Committee.


For most of the next six years he is the only Labour member in the commons until a sudden change, in the 1906 election, swells the Labour representation in parliament to twenty-nine.


A decisive corner has been turned, and the member for Merthyr Tydfil is now at the head of a strongly developing political movement (Hardie retains the Welsh seat until his death in 1915).


The Labour party suits the radical mood of the Welsh valleys, but it also appeals increasingly to other regions of the principality. In the 1966 election Wales returns 34 Labour members to parliament and three Conservatives. Three decades later, after the 1997 election, there are 34 Labour MPs and not a single Conservative representing a Welsh constituency. But there are now, in a development of equal significance, four members from Plaid Cymru, the party of Welsh nationalism.


Plaid Cymru, meaning simply 'party of Wales', has a magnificently Welsh moment of origin. During the National Eisteddfod in Pwllheli in the summer of 1925 six men meet in an upstairs room of a temperance hotel. Their shared purpose is independence for Wales; together they decide to form a Welsh party. They are ready to contest a parliamentary seat in the general election of 1929, but the party has no electoral success until its chairman, Gwynfor Evans, wins a Carmarthen by-election in 1966.


Under his leadership Plaid Cymru gradually achieves a higher profile in Wales, particularly through the struggle to establish a Welsh television channel.


In the familiar link between language and politics, Plaid Cymru recognizes the importance of Welsh in the nationalist cause - and also the fact that broadcasting will be a crucial factor in the survival of Welsh as a living language. This important argument seems to have been won when the new Conservative government commits itself, in 1979, to a Welsh TV channel.


A few months later the promise is withdrawn, whereupon Gwynfor Evans declares - in May 1980 - that he will begin a hunger strike in October. A summer of demonstrations is followed by the capitulation of the government in September. S4C (Sianel Pedwar Cymru, Channel Four Wales) begins broadcasting in 1982.


Thereafter Plaid Cymru representation at Westminster rises in successive elections. Two seats are won in 1983, three in 1987, four in 1992. Meanwhile the party benefits also from the strong advance of Britain's other Celtic nationalist party, the SNP in Scotland.


SNP successes in the 1968 local elections prompt the setting up of a Royal Commission to look into the issue of devolution, with the terms of reference including Wales as well as Scotland. The Commission, reporting in 1973, recommends Scottish and Welsh assemblies with devolved powers within the United Kingdom. The topic is predictably controversial.


Devolution in Scotland and Wales 1978-1999 CE


After much debate a Scotland Act and a Wales Act are passed in 1978, arranging for a referendum in each region. The acts state that regional assemblies will be established if two conditions are met: a simple majority in favour, but also a minimum turnout of 40% of the electorate.


The referenda are held in March 1979. In Scotland there is a small majority in favour, but only 32% of the electorate vote. In Wales there is a large majority (4:1) against the proposed assembly. Later in 1979 a Conservative government wins a general election, beginning a spell in power which lasts for eighteen years. Conservative policy is anti-devolution (though as a gesture the Stone of Scone is returned to Scotland in 1996). So the issue hangs fire - until 1997.


'Decentralization of power to Scotland and Wales' is in the party manifesto with which Labour wins an overwhelming victory in the general election of 1997. The pledge is quickly delivered. Within weeks of the election a bill is passed, arranging for referenda to be held. The Scots are to be asked two questions: Do they want a Scottish parliament? Do they want it to have tax-raising powers? The Welsh are only to vote on a single issue, whether they want a Welsh assemby with devolved powers which do not include tax raising.


In a 60.4% turnout the Scots vote 74.3% for a parliament and 63.5% for tax-raising powers. In a 50.3% turnout the Welsh vote by a tiny majority (0.6%) in favour of an assembly.


Elections for both assemblies are held in May 1999, on a system of proportional representation. About two thirds of the candidates are returned on a first-past-the-post basis, with the other third added from party lists to achieve the required balance.


In both regions Labour wins the greatest number of seats, while falling short of an absolute majority in either. The second largest vote is in each case for nationalism, with the SNP winning 35 seats in Scotland and Plaid Cymru 17 seats in Wales. The Conservatives come third in both regions, and the Liberal Democrats fourth. But the Liberal Democrats, the most natural allies for Labour, have enough seats to provide a coalition majority in both Scotland and Wales.


The strength of the Plaid Cymru vote surprises and impresses many, though it is also argued that Labour may have lost support by the centralizing manner in which Alun Michael has been virtually imposed by Tony Blair upon the Welsh Labour party as their leader in the run-up to the election.


With 28 seats in the 60-seat assembly, Alun Michael forms a minority government. The assembly is officially opened on 26 May 1999 in Crickhowell House in Cardiff. A new building for the assembly in Cardiff is meanwhile under construction. However, within nine months the arrangement stitched up by Tony Blair comes apart.


In February 2000 the assembly passes a vote of no confidence in Alun Michael. He is succeeded as leader of the Wales Labour Party, and as First Secretary of the assembly, by Rhodri Morgan - the very man kept out of the job the first time round by the vigorous efforts of Labour party headquarters in London.




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