History of Wales: An Intriguing Journey Through Time

Wales, a country boasting a rich and diverse history, has shaped today’s modern landscape from its earliest inhabitants in the Iron Age to the bustling modern nation we see now. With its unique blend of Celtic culture, Roman influence and striking medieval architecture, it’s easy for me to understand why Wales has captured the hearts of both historians and tourists alike.

In the early days of its formation, Wales was a patchwork of independently ruled territories, yet still bound together by shared customs and beliefs. It was only in the post-Roman period that the regions began to unite, paving the way for the rise of iconic Welsh figures such as King Arthur and legendary princes like Llywelyn the Great and Owain Glyndŵr.

The 13th and 15th centuries saw Wales embroiled in a turbulent power struggle, leading eventually to the complete integration of Wales with the English Crown. This fascinating history has resulted in an incredible array of preserved castles, monuments, and cultural riches for me to discover, all of which contribute to Wales’s unique identity and character.

Ancient Wales: The Megalithic Period

Around 4000 BC, Wales entered the Megalithic Period marked by the construction of large stone structures. As I explore this significant phase in Welsh history, it’s essential to take note of key sites providing valuable insights into the lives and beliefs of our ancestors at the time.

Significant structures from this period include:

  • Pentre Ifan: This Neolithic megalithic burial chamber, dating back to about 3500 BC, can be found in Pembrokeshire. It’s believed to have been a communal burial site, providing an intriguing window into early community practices.
  • Bryn Celli Ddu: A passage tomb on Anglesey Island, built around 3000 BC. This tomb aligns amazingly with the summer solstice sunrise, indicating an advanced understanding of astronomy and solar events among the prehistoric inhabitants.

Aside from astounding structures, the Megalithic Period in Wales saw the development of distinctive pottery styles such as the Western Neolithic pottery. These ceramics were decorated with intricate patterns, offering a glimpse into the artistic sensibilities of this society.

The table below outlines the key aspects of the Megalithic Period in Wales:

TimelineAround 4000-2000 BC
Famous SitesPentre Ifan, Bryn Celli Ddu
Pottery StylesWestern Neolithic pottery
AstronomyConnections to solar events, aligned structures

The Megalithic Period shares a connection with the Bronze Age, which started around 2000 BC. Metalworking became more prevalent in Wales during this time, with traces of copper, gold, and bronze artefacts discovered at various sites. Stone circles, a remarkable feature of the Megalithic Period, continued to be constructed throughout the Bronze Age, showcasing a long-lasting cultural practice in ancient Wales.

In summary, the Megalithic Period in Wales was characterised by the construction of extraordinary stone structures, artistic pottery styles, and an evolving aptitude for metalworking. Delving into this era, we uncover a captivating world rich with ancient customs that forged Welsh communities and left a lasting legacy in the land’s history.

The Iron Age: Hillforts and Tribes

The Iron Age in Wales is a fascinating period of history, spanning from around 800 BC to the Roman invasion in AD 43. This era saw the rise of hillforts and the formation of tribal territories, as the people of Wales adapted to new technologies and social structures. Let me introduce you to some key aspects of this important period in Welsh history.

During this time, the use of iron gradually became widespread – a significant advancement over the previous Bronze Age. The introduction of ironworking led to the production of stronger, more durable tools and weapons, which in turn impacted agriculture, trade, and warfare.

Hillforts played a crucial role in the Iron Age landscape, as they served as both defensive structures and symbols of power. Here are some notable Welsh hillforts from this period:

  • Dinas Dinorwic: Located in Gwynedd, this hillfort features large stone ramparts and offers stunning views over the Menai Strait.
  • Tre’r Ceiri: Situated on the Llŷn Peninsula, this well-preserved hillfort contains the remains of over 150 stone-built roundhouses.
  • Pen y Dinas: Found on the west coast of Anglesey, this hillfort boasts impressive stone and earth ramparts, as well as evidence of roundhouse settlements.
HillfortLocationKey Features
Dinas DinorwicGwyneddLarge stone ramparts, Menai Strait views
Tre’r CeiriLlŷn PeninsulaOver 150 roundhouses
Pen y DinasAngleseyStone and earth ramparts, roundhouse settlements

During the Iron Age, Wales was inhabited by a variety of different tribes, each with their own identity, culture, and territory. Some important tribes include:

  • Ordovices: Occupying the region of Gwynedd and Clwyd, the Ordovices were known for their resistance against the Roman invasion.
  • Demetae: Inhabiting modern-day Pembrokeshire, Carmarthenshire, and Ceredigion, the Demetae were a tribal federation with strong trade links.
  • Silures: Based in south-east Wales, the Silures were one of the most powerful tribes in the region, also fiercely resisting Roman rule.

As the Iron Age drew to a close, the different tribes of Wales found themselves on a collision course with the might of the Roman Empire. The invasion in AD 43 marked the beginning of a new chapter in Welsh history, characterised by foreign rule, cultural change, and the construction of magnificent feats of engineering such as Hadrian’s Wall.

In summary, the Iron Age in Wales was marked by advancements in ironworking, the rise of hillforts and tribal territories, and the eventual arrival of the Romans. These developments laid the foundations for the complex social, political, and economic landscape that would characterise the centuries to come.

The Romans in Wales: Conquests and Resistance

As we delve into the history of Wales, it’s essential to discuss the influence of the Romans. I’ll shed light on their conquests, resistances, and the lasting impact on Wales.

When Roman forces led by Julius Caesar first arrived in Britain in 55 BCE, they didn’t venture into Wales. However, it was during Emperor Claudius’ reign, in 43 CE, that the Romans began their campaign of conquests in Wales. The process of Roman conquest in Wales mainly occurred between 48 and 78 CE, targeting the prominent Celtic tribes, namely the Silures, the Ordovices, and the Deceangli.

These tribes fiercely resisted Roman rule, and their courageous efforts deserve our attention:

  • The Silures: Known for their ferocious tactics, the Silures, who inhabited modern-day Glamorgan, Monmouthshire, and southern Powys, were led by their formidable chief, Caratacus. After being defeated in southeast England, Caratacus fled to Wales and continued battling the Romans alongside the Silures.
  • The Ordovices: Occupying Mid and North Wales, the Ordovices were another Celtic tribe that fought against the Romans. Their most significant resistance occurred in 77-78 CE, led by their chief, Venutius, who allied himself with disaffected Brigantes queen, Cartimandua, following her betrayal of Caratacus.
  • The Deceangli: Based in North East Wales, the Deceangli were not as actively resistant. Still, Roman forces led by governor Gnaeus Julius Agricola clashed with them in 78 CE.

Despite the valiant resistance of these tribes, Roman forces subdued Wales over time. They built a network of forts, roads, and towns that significantly impacted the country’s development. Some pivotal Roman towns in Wales included Isca Augusta (Caerleon), Venta Silurum (Caerwent), and Deva Victrix (Chester).

Roman TownPresent-day Name
Isca AugustaCaerleon
Venta SilurumCaerwent
Deva VictrixChester

The Roman presence in Wales also led to a cultural fusion as the native Britons gradually adopted aspects of Roman language, religion, and architectural style. However, the tribes maintained their distinct identity, evident in the sporadic rebellions that persisted throughout the Roman era.

By 410 CE, the Romans withdrew from Britain, and their departure from Wales left a country that had been significantly altered by their conquest and colonization efforts. Though the Roman period in Wales had come to an end, the influence they’d left behind continues to shape the country’s identity today.

Wales After Roman Rule: Early Welsh Kingdoms

Following the Roman departure from Britain around 410 AD, the region we now know as Wales began to experience significant changes. A myriad of political and cultural shifts occurred, something I’ll explore in this section. Let’s delve into the fascinating early Welsh kingdoms that emerged during this period.

Although Wales was divided into several smaller kingdoms, it’s essential to understand that some stood out more prominently than others, such as Gwynedd, Powys, Dyfed, and Morgannwg. These kingdoms formed under the rule of dynamic leaders, many of whom are remembered today for their contributions to Welsh history.

In the 7th and 8th centuries, Gwynedd and Powys became particularly powerful and influential. Gwynedd, ruled by King Cadwallon ap Cadfan in the 630s, managed to fend off Northumbrian invaders and ultimately conquer their territory. Meanwhile, Powys under the leadership of King Cyngen ap Cadell saw its borders extend eastward, further expanding its sphere of influence.

The following centuries brought even more evolution to the small Welsh kingdoms. By the 9th century, we witness the emergence of three key regions: Gwynedd, Powys, and Deheubarth. Deheubarth formed following the unification of several smaller south-western kingdoms, including Dyfed and Seisyllwg.

However, the early Welsh kingdoms did not enjoy unchallenged autonomy. They often faced invasions from external forces, primarily the Viking raids that targeted Wales throughout the early medieval period. Some evidence suggests that Rhodri Mawr, ruler of Gwynedd during the mid-9th century, managed to resist numerous Viking incursions successfully.

Despite these external threats, the development of Welsh culture progressed significantly, particularly in terms of its language and literature. It is during this period that the oldest known written works of poetry in Welsh, such as Y Gododdin, were created, which remain important cultural artefacts to this day.

In summary, the period following Roman rule in Wales saw the emergence of various early Welsh kingdoms, with some like Gwynedd and Powys dominating the landscape. While external threats, such as Viking raids, continued to plague the region, the cultural development of Wales flourished.

Key points to remember:

  • Early Welsh kingdoms included Gwynedd, Powys, Dyfed, and Morgannwg among others.
  • Gwynedd and Powys experienced significant growth in power and influence during the 7th and 8th centuries.
  • By the 9th century, Gwynedd, Powys, and Deheubarth emerged as the three principal regions in Wales.
  • External threats such as Viking invasions presented challenges to the early Welsh kingdoms.
  • This period saw important cultural developments, such as the creation of some of the oldest known written works in Welsh.

The Age of Saints: Welsh Celtic Christianity

Wales underwent a significant transformation during The Age of Saints, as it saw the rise of Welsh Celtic Christianity. During this period, which lasted from the 5th to the 7th centuries, Christianity gradually replaced the region’s pagan beliefs. Here, I’ll delve into how this religious shift occurred and the impact it had on the social and cultural landscape of Wales.

Influential figures played an essential role in spreading Christianity across Wales. Among them were leaders like Saint David, the patron saint of Wales, Saint Teilo, and Saint Illtud. Each of these individuals founded monastic settlements, preached to the locals, and facilitated the conversion process. They also established centres of learning and spiritual growth.

Welsh Celtic Christianity was distinct from its contemporaries in several respects. Some differences included:

  • A unique monastic system: Most prominent Celtic monasteries functioned as close-knit communities of monks and their families, with monks often practicing a combination of an eremitic (hermit-like) and cenobitic (communal) lifestyle, unlike traditional monastic structures.
  • The Celtic liturgy: Early Welsh Christians developed their liturgical practices, deviating from the Roman model. This divergence was evident in matters like the timing of the celebration of Easter and the design of religious artwork.
  • A focus on spirituality: The Celtic Christian faith had a strong emphasis on the spiritual connection between mankind and nature. This belief is best illustrated by the close relationship between the early saints and the natural world, which you can still see today in the numerous religious sites situated in picturesque locations throughout the country.

The Age of Saints was marked by the creation of some truly remarkable religious sites across Wales. Examples include:

  • St David’s Cathedral: A magnificent structure located in Pembrokeshire, it holds a special status as a place of pilgrimage.
  • Llandaff Cathedral: Situated in modern-day Cardiff, this stunning building traces its origins to the 6th century when St Teilo first established a religious community.
  • Llantwit Major: Founded by St Illtud, Llantwit Major holds the remains of the once-consequential monastic school known as “Cor Tewdws”.

These early Christian icons’ efforts helped shape the religious milieu of Wales. The Age of Saints helped forge a strong spiritual identity, the effects of which continue to reverberate across the nation today. Yet, Welsh Celtic Christianity did not go unchallenged, as the Anglicisation of the Church and the Synod of Whitby in 664 CE eventually led to its decline. Nonetheless, the rich history of this era remains a significant part of Wales’s story.

Viking and Anglo-Saxon Influences in Wales

I’ve delved into the fascinating history of Viking and Anglo-Saxon influences in Wales, and there’s a lot to uncover. Wales has had its share of turmoil and transformation over the years, with invasions from various poweful groups. Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons have left an indelible mark on this Celtic nation, shaping its culture, language, and identity.

Viking raids began around the 8th century, targeting coastal settlements and communities. These fierce seafarers ventured deep into the British Isles, as well as establishing footholds in Ireland and mainland Europe. Their presence in Wales was felt through a series of attacks, as well as the establishment of settlements like Swansea and Flint.

While many communities faced violence from Vikings, there was also incredibly vibrant trade between Wales and Scandinavia, primarily in goods such as metalwork, and animal fur. Evidence of this commerce can be found through archaeological discoveries, including artefacts such as coins, Danish axes, and ornaments.

As for the Anglo-Saxons, their impact on Wales started around the 6th century, stretching across the islands of Britain. The main interaction between the Anglo-Saxons and the native Welsh took place in the border regions of Wales. This period saw frequent skirmishes and battles for control of resources and territories.

Some key events that shaped the relationship between Wales and the Anglo-Saxons include:

  • The Battle of Chester (c. 616), where the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria defeated the Welsh kingdom of Powys.
  • The formation of the Kingdom of Mercia (7th century), which included large parts of Wales and heavily influenced the Welsh political landscape.
  • The construction of the Offa’s Dyke (late 8th century) by King Offa of Mercia, serving as a formidable barrier between Wales and the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, evidence of which still exists today.

It’s important to note, however, that despite these influences, the Welsh people managed to maintain their distinct identity, with a strong sense of culture and language. During the Viking and Anglo-Saxon periods, Wales saw the birth of a poetic tradition called “yor hon gwylan yn y beirdd” (the cry of the gull among the bards), which celebrated heroic deeds and continued to be used throughout the centuries. Furthermore, the Welsh language continued to thrive, particularly in the kingdom of Gwynedd.

In summary, Viking and Anglo-Saxon influences in Wales were far-reaching, shaping the culture, politics, and economy of the nation. From raids and battles to trade and art, Wales has absorbed various influences that have shaped its unique history and identity.

Norman Impact in Wales: The Marcher Lords

During the 11th century, the Norman invasion in Britain had a significant impact on Wales, particularly due to the formation of the Marcher Lordships. Established by William the Conqueror, these powerful Anglo-Norman barons were granted lands and authority on the Welsh borders, creating a tumultuous political landscape.

The primary objective of the Marcher Lords was to maintain dominance over their Welsh territories, while simultaneously extending Norman influence. As a result, I’ve observed that the Welsh people faced a series of escalating political conflicts and territorial struggles. A few key events worth mentioning are:

  • 1067: The first Norman invasion of Wales was led by William FitzOsbern, which resulted in the rapid subjugation of south-east Wales.
  • 1081: King William the Conqueror, for the first time, made a military expedition to Wales.
  • 1093: The death of the last native ruler Rhys ap Tewdwr initiated a succession crisis, providing the Normans further opportunities to invade.
  • The 1100s: The creation of various lordships such as Glamorgan, Brecon, or Chepstow, which would eventually many control central Welsh territories.

Throughout this period, the Marcher Lords built numerous castles and strongholds, notably Chepstow Castle, Pembroke Castle, and Kidwelly Castle. These fortifications cemented their presence in Wales, but also acted as strategic launching points for further conquests. The continued expansion of the Marcher Lordships led to Welsh resistance, which intensified with famous rebellions led by figures like Owain Glyndwr in 1400.

In response to the looming threat posed by the Marcher Lords, alliances formed among various native Welsh rulers, such as Gruffudd ap Cynan and Cadwgan ap Bleddyn. Eventually, new Welsh kingdoms reunited, including Gwynedd, Powys, and Deheubarth, leading to a resurgence in Welsh power and identity.

Nevertheless, the Marcher Lords dominated considerable parts of Wales for centuries and it wasn’t until the 1536 enactment of the Laws in Wales Acts, also known as the Acts of Union. These acts dissolved the Marcher Lordships, merging them into Wales and the rest of the Kingdom of England.

In summary, the Norman Impact in Wales was significant and multifaceted, with the Marcher Lords exerting considerable influence over the political and territorial landscape for several centuries. The period saw Welsh resistance and the resurgence of Welsh power, culminating in the eventual dissolution of the Marcher Lordships under the Acts of Union.

Llywelyn the Great: Prince of Wales

As one of the most influential rulers in medieval Wales, I cannot cover the history of Wales without discussing Llywelyn the Great. It was his reign that marked a turning point in Welsh history, as he successfully united the majority of Welsh territories under his rule.

Llywelyn the Great, born in 1173, was the grandson of Owain Gwynedd, a prominent ruler from the Kingdom of Gwynedd. Through smart alliances and military campaigns, he managed to expand his territories throughout Wales. With his increased power, Llywelyn began to exercise considerable authority over other Welsh lords, significantly strengthening his position as the de facto ruler of Wales.

Throughout his reign, Llywelyn engaged in diplomatic relations and treaties with powerful English rulers, including King John and King Henry III. Some key highlights of his diplomatic efforts were:

  • 1201 Treaty of Aberdyfi: In this treaty, King John of England acknowledged Llywelyn’s authority over various territories, which solidified his control over the majority of Wales.
  • 1216 Treaty of Worcester: Due to Llywelyn’s support for King John during the First Barons’ War in England, this treaty granted him additional Welsh territories.

Llywelyn’s reign also witnessed significant cultural and political achievements. These achievements include:

  • The establishment of the Principality of Wales, with Llywelyn recognised as the overlord.
  • The promotion of Welsh culture and identity, including efforts to revive the literature and arts.
  • The development of an effective administrative system across his territories.

However, Llywelyn’s reign wasn’t without its challenges. As his power increased, so did resistance from ambitious Welsh nobles and dissenting English monarchs. Despite the obstacles, Llywelyn maintained control over most of Wales until his death in 1240.

In summary, Llywelyn the Great’s reign marked a distinctive point in Welsh history, as he managed to assemble a relatively unified Wales, establish a functional administrative system, and foster the development of Welsh culture. His legacy continues to be revered by the Welsh people and plays a vital role in understanding the rich history of this remarkable country.

Owain Glyndŵr: The Last Welsh Rebellion

As an essential figure in the History of Wales, Owain Glyndŵr led the last Welsh rebellion against English rule. Born around 1359, Glyndŵr was an excellent military leader and a significant Welsh cultural icon. Let’s explore the circumstances and consequences of this final rebellion.

The uprising took place between 1400 and 1415. Glyndŵr initially gained support from the Welsh gentry and nobility, who shared his aim of achieving Welsh independence. Glyndŵr and his supporters relentlessly fought English forces throughout Wales with strategic brilliance and tenacity. Key Welsh military victories included:

  • The Battle of Hyddgen in 1401, where Glyndŵr and his forces drove off a larger army.
  • The capture of the Conwy Castle in 1401, which provided them with a strategic and symbolic foothold.
  • The famous Battle of Bryn Glas in 1402, where Glyndŵr’s forces dealt a crushing blow to the English army.

Glyndŵr’s rebellion gained momentum and he quickly established a Welsh Parliament at Machynlleth in 1404. Owain announced himself as the Prince of Wales and began implementing his vision for an independent Welsh nation.

However, as the years passed and the tide of war turned, Glyndŵr’s dream of independence started to unravel. The rebellion faced a string of setbacks, including:

  • A failure to take key castles like Harlech and Aberystwyth.
  • A famine in 1405-1406 that severely impacted Wales.
  • The Battle of Pwll Melyn in 1405, where the Welsh forces were defeated and suffered crippling losses.

By 1410, Owain Glyndŵr’s power and influence waned as English forces recaptured lost territories and dismantled Welsh strongholds. During this time, more of his allies turned against him, further diminishing his chances for success.

The exact fate of Owain Glyndŵr remains a mystery. Some believe he died in hiding, while others suggest that he may have escaped to a monastery or found refuge with his loyal allies. Despite his eventual failure, Owain Glyndŵr’s legacy endures as the embodiment of Welsh pride, resistance, and national identity. The romantic vision of a benevolent, independent leader fighting against the powerful English adversary still resonates in Welsh cultural memory.

Conclusion: Wales’ Rich and Varied History

Throughout this article, I’ve taken you on a journey through the fascinating history of Wales. We delved into its ancient past, explored the various kingdoms and dynasties that ruled within its borders, and examined the modern influences that have shaped this dynamic nation. Wales boasts a rich and varied history, which is showcased through its:

  • Prehistoric origins steeped in mystery
  • Celtic roots and the influence of the powerful Britons
  • Roman occupation and its lasting impact on Wales’ infrastructure and culture
  • Medieval kingdoms and their intricate dynastic relationships
  • Norman invasion and subsequent resistance from various Welsh lords
  • Union with England, which dramatically shifted Wales’ political landscape
  • Industrial revolution and its profound consequences on the Welsh economy and society
  • Cultural resurgence throughout the 20th century
  • Ongoing political developments as Wales strives for increased autonomy

Wales has been shaped by countless invasions, settlements, industrial developments and political changes. Through the centuries, this small but fierce nation has prevailed, with its people maintaining a strong sense of identity and pride. As we look towards the future, there’s no doubt that Wales will continue to adapt and evolve within an ever-changing world.

The histories touched upon in this article merely scratch the surface of the intriguing and complex story that is Wales. Each topic offers potential for digging deeper, which I’ll be exploring in subsequent articles as part of this comprehensive series on Welsh history. By understanding and appreciating the rich tapestry that makes up Wales’ past, we can gain valuable insights into the heart, soul, and essence of this captivating nation.