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(The Pentre Ifan Neolithic Burial Chamber, West Wales, UK, which connects to the changes experienced in prehistoric Britain as Early European Farmers changed the landscape. (Tony Martin Long / Adobe Stock)

SCIENCE & TECH: The History of Wales, in a Nutshell

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When talking about the history of the United Kingdom, England and Scotland tend to steal the spotlight. That’s a shame, because Wales, a land of stunning landscapes and rich cultural heritage, boasts a history that stretches back thousands of years. From evidence of Neanderthals during the prehistoric to Roman occupation and Medieval struggles for independence, Wales has been shaped by various forces and influences. To cover a nation’s entire proud history in one piece barely does it justice but this is a brief overview of the key periods and figures that have left a mark on the nation’s identity.

Wales Through The Ages- The History of Wales

Like the rest of the United Kingdom, Wales’s fascinating history begins in prehistoric times, with evidence of early human habitation dating back to the Paleolithic era. A Neanderthal jawbone, found at the Bontnewydd Paleolithic site in the valley of the River Elwy shows early humans roamed the Welsh landscape around 230,000 years ago.

Slightly later, a red skeleton dyed in Red Ochre known as the Red Lady of Paviland was found in the Gower Peninsula’s Limestone caves in 1823. Actually believed to be the remains of an adolescent male, the Red Lady has been dated to the Upper-Paleolithic period, making him/her around 33,000 years old. This makes it the oldest known ceremonial burial in Europe.

On a less macabre note, jump forward another 30,000 years and Wales reaches the Neolithic period. This saw the development of farming communities and the construction of impressive megalithic structures like the burial chambers at Bryn Celli Ddu and Pentre Ifan.

 (The Pentre Ifan Neolithic Burial Chamber, West Wales, UK, which connects to the changes experienced in prehistoric Britain as Early European Farmers changed the landscape. (Tony Martin Long / Adobe Stock)

During the Bronze Age (around 2500 to 800 BC) Wales experienced significant advancements in metalworking, as evidenced by the discovery of bronze tools and weapons. The best example of this metalwork, however, is made from gold, The Mold Gold Cape, found at Bryn yr Ellyllon, near Flintshire, Wales is arguably one of the most impressive Bronze Age pieces of metalwork discovered in Europe.

Leading up to the Roman era, the Iron Age (around 800 BC to 43 AD) saw further social and technological changes. In particular impressive hill forts, such as those at Tre’r Ceiri and Castell Henllys, were built. These heavily fortified settlements suggest a move towards a more organized and hierarchical society and certainly came in handy when the Romans came knocking.

Resisting The Romans

In 43 AD the Roman conquest of Wales and therefore its Roman Era began when Emperor Claudius’s legions swept into Wales. The Welsh tribes put up a brave fight but by 48 AD the legions had established control over most of Wales.

The emphasis here should be on most of Wales. The Romans never managed complete domination in Wales, something down to the mountainous terrain and fierce resistance offered by local tribes. In particular, the Silures and Ordovices united under the legendary leader Caradog, proved to be a fairly constant thorn in Rome’s side.

The construction of military fortifications, including the impressive Caerleon and Caernarfon forts, underscored the strategic importance of Wales in the Roman campaign. Domination took 30 years to complete and lasted for roughly 300 years. During that time Roman influence brought huge changes to native Welsh society. 

Caernarfon Castle was strategically important for any conquest of northern Wales. (Kadpot / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Caernarfon Castle was strategically important for any conquest of northern Wales. (Kadpot / CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Romans loved infrastructure and the first roads, such as Sarn Helen (which stretches 160 miles/ 257.49 km) were built and aided trade and communication across the region. Roman-founded towns like Venta Silurum (Caerwent today) and Segontium (near modern-day Caernarfon) became both centers of trade and administration. The Romans also brought in new farming techniques and encouraged the mining of valuable resources like gold, copper, and lead. 

Despite these boons, this Romanization wasn’t uniform. The country’s rugged landscape and the constant resistance from some regions limited the spread of Roman culture. By the early 5th century, Roman influence was beginning to diminish as the Empire as a whole strained under pressure from external invasions and internal decay.

By around 410 AD the Roman legions had backed out of Britain as a whole, leaving a major power vacuum in their wake. This would lead to a period of upheaval and transformation in Welsh history. The legacy of the Roman era, however, remained evident in the infrastructure and cultural imprints left behind such as the Welsh folklore surrounding figures like Macsen Wledig, which were based around a real Roman General, Magnus Maximus. 

 

The Early Middle Ages (383–1000) And New Threats

With the Romans gone the numerous British states were left to govern themselves. The Romans had left a fragmented landscape, and local leaders soon seized the opportunity to establish their own rule. One such figure was the above-mentioned Magnus Maximus, a Roman general who declared himself emperor and whose descendants, according to tradition, helped shape early Welsh kingdoms.

This period saw the rise of many small kingdoms, including Gwynedd, Powys, Dyfed, and Gwent. These kingdoms often chose to clash over territory and power rather than work together but did share cultural and linguistic ties. These early kingdoms were the first step towards a distinct Welsh identity.

During this period Christianity also played a key role. It helped unify the region and figures like Saint David and Saint Illtud worked to spread the young faith by building monasteries that would later become important centers of learning.

These were not peaceful times. The threat of external invasions, especially from the Anglo-Saxons and later the Vikings loomed constantly. The Battle of Chester in 616 AD and the battles that followed highlight not just Welsh resilience but how precarious times were. Despite these pressures, the early Middle Ages were a time of cultural flourishing, with the production of notable literary works such as the “Mabinogion” and the codification of Welsh law under Hywel Dda in the 10th century, laying the foundations for a cohesive national identity.

The opening few lines of the Mabinogian, from the Red Book of Hergest, scanned by the Bodleian Library (1-Jesus College/Oxford, CC BY 4.0)

The opening few lines of the Mabinogian, from the Red Book of Hergest, scanned by the Bodleian Library (1-Jesus College/Oxford, CC BY 4.0)

Rise of Gwynedd: 700–1066

Of particular importance during this period was the rise of the Kingdom of Gwynedd from 700 to 1066 AD. A preeminent power in Wales, under the leadership of figures like King Cadwaladr and later, Rhodri the Great, Gwynedd expanded its influence and consolidated control over much of northern and central Wales. Rhodri Mawr (Rhodri the Great), who ruled in the 9th century, was instrumental in uniting several Welsh kingdoms through both conquest and strategic marriages.

Map of the Kingdom of Gwynedd, c. 830 (my work/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Map of the Kingdom of Gwynedd, c. 830 (my work/CC BY-SA 3.0)

The kingdom’s power was solidified by its impressive geographical advantages, with the rugged mountains of Snowdonia providing a formidable natural defense against enemies. This period also saw the continued threat of Viking incursions. However, under capable leaders like Rhodri, the Welsh were able to resist and even repel some Viking raids, contributing to the kingdom’s stability and strength.

Gynedd’s cultural landscape was rich and vibrant. Under such great kings, its royal court was home to Welsh art, poetry, and scholarship. The laws codified by Hywel Dda, who ruled in the early 10th century, were influential in promoting justice and governance, and these laws would endure long after his reign.

In 1063, the death of Gruffydd marked the end of an era. The last ruler to unite all the Welsh kingdoms, his death left his kingdom, and the rest of Wales, vulnerable to enemies new and old. His death paved the way for the eventual Norman invasion and altered the course of Welsh history dramatically.

High Middle Ages (1000–1283), Here Come The English

Beginning in 1000 AD, the High Middle Ages were a time of much change for the Welsh kingdoms. It was a time marked by both internal strife and external threats, particularly from the Norman invasion. Gruffydd’s death ushered in a time of fragmentation, during which various princes fought for control. Their inability to see the bigger picture left Wales vulnerable to Norman incursions following their conquest of England in 1066.

Under the infamous William the Conqueror, the Normans began assaulting Welsh territories beginning in the late 11th century. They quickly built a network of castles and fortified towns, such as Chepstow and Cardiff, which helped them to assert control and military dominance. 

Despite Norman efforts, the Welsh weren’t ones to go down without a fight, and their resistance proved formidable. Figures like Rhys ap Tewdwr and later, the princes of Gwynedd, were pivotal in resisting Norman expansion. The landscape of Wales, with its challenging terrain, played a crucial role in enabling this resistance. In the early 12th century famous Welsh leaders like Owain Gwynedd successfully defended their territory against the Normans. 

Artist’s impression of Owain Gwynedd (Public Domain)

Artist’s impression of Owain Gwynedd (Public Domain)

The Dominance of Gwynedd And The First Prince Of Wales

The early 13th century saw the rise of Llywelyn the Great (Llywelyn ap Iorwerth) who returned Gwynedd to its place as the dominant Welsh Kingdom. His political acumen and military prowess enabled him to consolidate power and bring other Welsh princes under his influence and by the time he died in 1240 he pretty much ruled all of Wales.

Portrait of Llywelyn the Great (Hogyncymru / CC BY-SA 4.0).

Portrait of Llywelyn the Great (Hogyncymru / CC BY-SA 4.0).

A prime example of his political acumen was his marriage to Joan, the daughter of King John of England, which helped secure temporary peace with the English crown. Llywelyn was such a power that in 1216 King Henry II essentially gave up on conquering Wales. 

He agreed to sign the Treaty of Worcester, which in 1218, formally acknowledged Llywelyn’s supremacy, granting him the title of Prince of Wales. This one event marked a high point for Welsh independence, but sadly it was short-lived. After Llywelyn’s death in 1240, his successors faced mounting challenges. Llywelyn’s son, Dafydd ap Llywelyn, inherited his father’s kingdom but Henry III of England chose to block him from claiming all of Wales.

 

Edwardian Conquest (1216–1283)

Llywelyn’s grandson, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, known as Llywelyn the Last, sought to continue his grandfather’s legacy. Initially, he enjoyed successes, including the Treaty of Montgomery in 1267, which recognized him as Prince of Wales. However, his refusal to pay homage to the new English king, Edward I, led to conflict.

Edward, I launched a comprehensive military campaign against Wales in 1277, followed by a more decisive invasion in 1282–1283. Llywelyn the Last was killed in battle in 1282, and his brother Dafydd was captured and executed the following year. The conquest culminated in the Statute of Rhuddlan in 1284, which effectively turned Wales into the English kingdom.

An image from a manuscript containing the text of the Statute of Rhuddlan by a single scribe and dating from the second half of the 15th century. (Public Domain)

An image from a manuscript containing the text of the Statute of Rhuddlan by a single scribe and dating from the second half of the 15th century. (Public Domain)

Edward I’s conquest brought significant changes. The construction of formidable castles like Caernarfon, Conwy, and Harlech cemented English control, and the introduction of English administrative practices marked the end of Welsh autonomy. Despite this, the spirit of Welsh identity and resistance persisted, influencing future generations, and maintaining the cultural distinctiveness of Wales. By the end of the High Middle Ages Wales was firmly under English control.

Late Middle Ages (1283–1542), Adjusting To The New Status Quo

Long ago the Romans had learned that keeping the Welsh down was a full-time job, this was a lesson Edward I also learned in time. He may have built castles like Beaumaris and Harlech to ensure the Welsh couldn’t cause him any headaches and to symbolize his control, but it wasn’t enough.

Despite English dominance, Welsh culture and identity endured. The native Welsh aristocracy maintained some influence, and the bards continued to play a crucial role in preserving Welsh traditions and language through poetry and music. The late 14th century saw the most significant uprising against English rule, led by Owain Glyndŵr. Glyndŵr, a descendant of Welsh royalty, declared himself Prince of Wales in 1400 and spearheaded a widespread revolt.

Owain Glyndŵr marble statue in Cardiff city hall. (Public Domain)

Owain Glyndŵr marble statue in Cardiff city hall. (Public Domain)

Glyndŵr’s rebellion garnered significant support and achieved notable victories, capturing key strongholds, and gaining recognition from foreign powers like France. However, by 1415, the uprising had faltered due to internal divisions and the superior resources of the English crown. Glyndŵr disappeared, possibly living out his final years in hiding, and the rebellion gradually subsided.

The late Middle Ages concluded with the Acts of Union in 1536 and 1542 under Henry VIII, which officially incorporated Wales into the Kingdom of England. These acts abolished the Welsh legal system for good and brought Welsh governance fully under English control. Despite this, Welsh culture and identity remained resilient, setting the stage for future cultural and political developments.

Early Modern Period, Wales And The United Kingdom

Wales was in for yet more changes following Henry VIII’s split from the Catholic church. The Reformation altered Welsh society by replacing Catholicism with Protestantism. Henry’s falling out saw the dissolution of the monasteries, significant centers of Welsh culture and education for centuries. The ever-resilient Welsh adapted and the Bible’s translation into Welsh by William Morgan in 1588 played a crucial role in preserving the Welsh language and promoting literacy.

The English Civil War, lasting from 1642 until 1651, and the subsequent Commonwealth period under Oliver Cromwell also impacted Wales. Many Welshmen had fought on both sides of the fighting, with some supporting the Royalists and others the Parliamentarians. The restoration of the monarchy in 1660 brought stability, but the social and economic challenges persisted.

The early modern period also saw the beginnings of industrialization, particularly in the form of mining and metalworking. The exploitation of natural resources, such as coal and slate, laid the foundations for the Industrial Revolution that would profoundly transform Wales in the following centuries. Despite significant political and religious changes, Welsh culture and identity remained robust.

Conclusion

From prehistoric settlers to Roman occupiers, from medieval princes to Norman invaders, and through periods of English domination and cultural resurgence, Wales has maintained a distinct identity. Despite the challenges posed by conquest and integration, the spirit of the Welsh people has endured. The preservation of the Welsh language, the continuation of unique traditions, and the rich historical legacy all contribute to the vibrant nation that Wales is today. 

Visitors from abroad often think the United Kingdom, Great Britain and England are all one and the same. However, a few minutes in Wales with its unique language and signage will teach any visitor an important lesson. Wales has a long, fascinating history, something the Welsh are quite rightly proud of.

Top image: Wales Welsh flag waving on the top sunrise mist fog.  Source: Oleksii/Adobe Stock                   

 

By Robbie Mitchell

 





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