Welsh History: The Beginnings of a Nation

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A Nation Emerges

Wales was probably inhabited as early as 250,000 B.C. (the Lower Palaeolithic Age). Hand-worked tools have been found at various sites that date from around 26,000 B.C. It wasn’t until the retreat of the glaciers of the Ice Age around 10,000 B.C., that human settlement in any significant numbers could begin.

In the Neolithic Age, around 5,000 years ago, many settlers came over from the European continent and perhaps from Ireland. Their huge stone structures, the Megaliths and their chambered-tomb companions, the Cromlechs (Cromlechi), dot the landscape of much of Wales even today.

By 2,000 B.C. various Celtic tribes came from the area of the Rhine River in Germany. Excavated battle axes, bronze knives, and other weapons of war and hunting show us that these people were already quite expert with the use of metal, a skill they must have passed on to the native tribesmen.

By 1,000 B.C. the Iron Age proper had arrived in Wales, as its people grouped themselves into large hill forts for protection. They seem to have practiced mixed, settled farming, but they also worked extensive copper mines, the remains of which can still be seen in such places as the Great Orme (Pen y Gogarth)at Llandudno, Gwynedd.

The advanced skills of the Celts seemed to have made them dominant in their new western homelands, despite their relatively few numbers. They were part of a great, unified Celtic “empire” encompassing many different peoples all over Northern Europe. The Greeks called these people, with their organized culture and developed social structure, “Keltoi”; the Romans called them Celtai. We call them Celts.

Very few modern European languages are derived from Celtic, despite its former widespread use. But in Britain, at least for a few hundred years after the Roman victories on mainland Europe, the Celts held on to much of their customs and especially to their distinctive language which has survived today as Welsh.

This language, used throughout most of Britain at the time of the Roman invasions (except in the far north where Pictish survived for a while), was derived from a branch of Celtic known as Brythonic; it later gave rise to Welsh, Cornish and Breton. Along with the new languages, new religions entered Britain, particularly that of the Druids, the guardians of traditions and learning.

The Roman Period

Roman armies first arrived in Britain in 55 B.C. under Julius Caesar, but there was no significant occupation until a century later. It was not until a century later that expeditions ordered by the Emperor Claudius to the grain-rich southeastern territories of Britain began in earnest.

Superior military discipline, leadership and advanced weaponry, along with a carefully organized system of forts connected by straight roads, led to the eventual triumph of Roman arms, especially in the southeast and southwest. Mountainous Wales and Scotland were not as easily settled; they remained “the frontier,” sparsely-settled, rugged, misty lands where military garrisons were strategically placed to guard the northern and western extremities of the Empire. The high, windswept western plateau that is now Wales would surely have been left alone if it had not been for its valuable mineral deposits, including lead, tin, and gold.

Though the Celtic tongue survived in Britain as the medium of everyday speech, Latin being used mainly for administrative purposes, a great deal of Latin words entered the native vocabulary, and many of these are still found in modern-day Welsh.

Rome itself became Christianized with the conversion of Constantine in 337. Thanks to the missionary work of Martin of Tours in Gaul and the edict of 400 A.D. that made Christianity the only official worship of the Empire, the new religion was brought to Britain and quickly adopted by the Romanized Britons.

When the city of Rome fell to the invading Goths under Alaric, Britain, which had experienced hundreds of years of comparative peace and prosperity, was left to its own defenses under its local Romano-British leaders. Apart from the mountainous, agriculturally poor north and west, much of the island eventually suffered the onslaught of Germanic tribes. Under attack from other tribes coming from the east, these Angles, Saxons and Jutes of northern Europe looked longingly at the sparsely populated, richly fertile lands across the narrow channel that separated them from the islands of Britain.

A National Beginning

The Welsh remained a distinct people from the English (Anglo-Saxons) in spite of the many different rival kingdoms that developed within their borders such as Morgannwg, Powys, Brycheinion, Dyfed, and Gwynedd. It is also from this period that we can speak of the Welsh language, as distinct from the older Brythonic.

In a poem dated 633 A.D., the word Cymry appears, referring to the country of Wales. Historians see its use signifying the beginnings of a feeling of self-identity among the Britons, desperately trying to hold on to their lands in the face of unrelenting pressure from the Germanic tribes already in possession of most of the eastern half of the British island. It was not too long before the native people themselves came to be known as the Cymry (companions), though outside Wales for many centuries they continued to be known as Britons.

Apart from the area now known as Wales, the British (Brythonic) kingdoms that survived for a time in the north and west were Rheged, Gododdin and Strathclyde. Surviving works in Old Welsh date all the way back to the late 7th century A.D., making them part of the oldest attested vernacular in Europe. Probably composed in the kingdom of Strathclyde (located in present day southwest Scotland) which was to be overrun by invaders from Ireland, speaking Gaelic, they are part of what is known as “the Heroic Tradition.” Taliesin and Aneirin are the two most well known poets of this old Celtic bardic tradition.

Aneirin is best remembered for Y Gododdin, which commemorates the heroics of a small band of warriors and their allies at the Battle of Catraeth about 600 A.D. in which they were defeated by a much larger force of Angles. Perhaps one of the most significant features of Y Gododdin, as far as later literature is concerned, is that it is the first work to mention the Welsh warrior-leader Arthur.

In 73l A.D. the English churchman and historian Bede called the Welsh “Britons”; it would be many, many centuries before this name would be also given to the English invaders of the Island of Britain (known in Welsh as Ynys Prydain). Bede claimed that the Welsh had possessed no desire to Christianize the pagan English; subsequently, this task had been left mainly to the Irish missionaries, and later to St. Augustine.

In what is known in Wales as “the Age of Saints”, very little is known about St. David except that he died in 589 A.D. What little we do know comes from The Life of St. David written in the late 11th Century by Rhigfarch but supplemented by Geraldus Cambrensis around 1200. David’s fame as a missionary reached Ireland and Brittany, and from the 12th Century the church named for him at St. David’s (Ty Ddewi) in Wales became an important place of pilgrimage.

Though the Welsh Church eventually was forced to conform to the new forms of the Roman Church introduced by Augustine, made permanent by the Synod of Whitby in 664 A.D., political differences remained between Celt and Saxon. In the mid-8th Century, these differences were emphasized when a long ditch was constructed, flanking a high earthen rampart that divided the Celts of the West from the Saxons to the East. The boundary, constructed by Offa, runs from the northeast coast of Wales to the southeast coast. It showed the power of the King of Mercia, but was also a defensive measure, not only giving his territories a well-defined western boundary, but also marking the eastern border of Wales proper. Behind this barrier, as insignificant as it may seem to the modern observer, the people of Wales were able to think of themselves as a separate nation. Behind it, they continued the long, hard struggle to retain their language and culture.

A Unified Nation

In the 8th Century, the sea became the pathway of the marauding Vikings, intent on voyages of plunder and easy pickings from the poorly defended, but richly endowed monastic communities of the Celtic Church. Place names all round the Welsh coast signify to the Viking presence, including Anglesey and Great Orme in the North, and Swansea, Flat Holme, Skomer and others in the South.

In the latter half of the ninth century, the danger presented by the terrifying sight of the long, high-prowed Viking ships did produce an enormous benefit to Wales where the need arose for political unity under strong leaders to defend their own property and that of the Church. In 855 A.D., through skilful alliances and practical marriages, the warrior king Rhodri Mawr (Rhodri the Great) became king of Powys as well as much of the rest of Wales. Successful in warding off Danish attacks, even killing in battle the Viking leader Gorm, Rhodri gave his country a short but welcome period of unity and stability.

Unfortunately for the future of an independent Wales, Rhodri Mawr’s death in 878 A.D. was followed by a period of internal strife, and the alliance of his sons with Alfred led to Wales’s dependence upon the English king for protection. Dependence upon its stronger neighbor to the east became more or less a permanent feature of the subsequent history of Wales, always struggling, but seldom able to break its chains.