Welsh History: Introduction

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On the morning of 20 September 1997, a large crowd was gathered at the Cardiff headquarters of Plaid Cymru, the Party of Wales. After a long, tension-filled evening, early enthusiasm was dying; the results of the previous day’s election were showing that too many voters in Wales had turned down the proposal that they be given a chance to have a say in a running of their own affairs, completely free from government control at Westminster.

All the dreams for Wales to have a separate Assembly of its own seemed to be shattered. The saddened gathering was at the point of conceding defeat. Then something happened.

It was as if a lightning bolt of electricity had jolted everyone into wakefulness, turning their sadness into joy. In that half-awake, half-asleep time known in the Welsh language as “y oriau man y bore” (the wee, small hours of the morning), the final tally had come through from the county of Carmarthen. It was in favor. Thus, by a tiny majority, the people of Wales had approved the Referendum. For the first time since the Middle Ages, Wales was going to be allowed some say in the way it was to be governed.

The vote to approve an Assembly did not mean that Wales was going to get full independence from the United Kingdom –hardly any envisioned that, or even wanted that–but nevertheless, a vital break through had been achieved in the long, hard struggle that is the story of the people of Wales.

The history of this tiny nation is primarily an account of that struggle. It is a tribute to the determination of the Welsh to survive against overwhelming odds, a struggle not only effected in its castle-dominated landscape and its once dominant Celtic tongue, but also in its long literary history, also discussed in this course.

The literature of Wales was first created in an age when the flood of Germanic invaders from the continent of Europe threatened to destroy the Celtic Christian civilization of the island of Britain. It documented the struggle to survive against marauding Vikings, conquering Normans, oppressive Marcher lordships, and the ever constant, ever-threatening power of the English monarchs, with their dreams of conquest and the resources to carry out those dreams.

The story of Wales is that of a people who have managed to retain much of their fullness of spirit despite a very early loss of their political independence. It is a story of a people who are still struggling to avert the disappearance of their ancient culture and the language upon which much of that culture depends. The theme is constant: it is a struggle to survive against almost impossible odds.