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Wales: History & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Wales is an important part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain. In this lesson, we are going to explore Welsh history and see how this nation became politically united with the other British kingdoms.

Wales

The English monarch is formally the ruler of the United Kingdom of Great Britain, which has provided a constant source of confusion for many outsiders. What is the United Kingdom? What is Great Britain? The island of Great Britain, located off of Europe's Atlantic coast, actually contains several nations unified within a single united kingdom. Those nations are England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Wales, located on the southwest edge of the island, is different from England, and its people are not English. They are Welsh, or Cymry in the Welsh language. Yes, the Welsh even have their own language, Cymraeg, actively spoken by about 20 percent of the population. In fact, the UK once even had a prime minister named David Lloyd George who spoke English as a second language--his first was Welsh. So, this small nation has played an important role in British history. Just don't call them English.

Wales (red) within the United Kingdom
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Ancient Welsh History

The first people to live in what is now Wales were not exactly people--at least not Homo sapiens. Neanderthals populated the island over 200,000 years ago. Humans didn't arrive until much later (roughly 30,000 years ago), and they didn't settle down permanently. The modern Welsh people trace their ancestry to the arrival of Celts, an ethnic group from Central Europe, around 1000 BCE. Today, Welsh is one of the oldest Celtic languages still in existence.

Our recorded history of Wales begins with the arrival of Roman forces around 48 CE, who managed to capture nearly all of what is now Wales, England, and Scotland. The Roman Empire was the first to roughly unite the entire island under a single political administration, calling it Britannia. It was only with Roman control that the beginnings of both national Welsh and British identities began to emerge out of the localized tribes and kingdoms.

Medieval Wales

In the 4th century, the Romans began pulling out of Britain and transferring power to local leaders, leading to the establishment of more formalized Welsh kingdoms. For many Welsh people today, it was in this period that true Welsh identity began to form. In the early medieval period these kingdoms grew in size, covered the Welsh landscape with grand castles, and fought off foreign invaders, including Anglos, Saxons, and Normans.

Welsh castle
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A few major figures in Welsh history came out of this time. One of them you may have heard of: King Arthur. While Arthur is considered a national hero to all Brits today, the Welsh particularly claim him as a native son. Now, we may never know for sure who the real Arthur was, or even if he actually existed, but he appears in medieval Welsh texts from an early date, and many places in Wales are claimed as sites of battles connected to both Arthur and his advisor Merlin. In fact, even the name Arthur may descend from the Welsh word arth, which means 'bear.'

Other important aspects of Welsh identity arose in this period as well. In the 8th century, King Offa of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia built a wall between his kingdom and Welsh lands, creating the first official border between English and Welsh people. Around the 12th century, a collection of Welsh epic stories was compiled into the Mabinogion, one of Britain's first literary masterpieces. At the same time, Lord Rhys of the Welsh kingdom of Deheubarth hosted a gathering of the greatest Welsh poets and musicians from across the region. It was called the Eisteddfod, and it is still celebrated today.

Wales and England

As both the Welsh and English kingdoms grew, they came into more contact with each other and the English established practical control over Wales. This relationship would define the next several centuries of Welsh history. In 1400, Wales undertook its first independence rebellion under national hero Owain Glyndwr, who crowned himself as the Prince of Wales.

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