A brief history of Wales: the resilient nation

As support for Welsh independence appears to grow, Professor Martin Johnes of the University of Swansea considers the history of Wales, tracing its past from a collection of independent medieval kingdoms to one of the most important industrial areas in the world…

Harlech Castle with Snowdonia in the background.

In the 2016 referendum on whether to remain in the EU, there was a small majority in Wales in favour of leaving. The Brexit vote was a shock to many who cherished the idea that Welsh politics and society were more progressive than in England. Indeed, it undermined the very idea that Wales was different to England.

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For many, a belief in Wales as a left-wing society has acted as compensation for the fragility of Welsh identity. Wales does not have the strong media sector, separate legal jurisdiction or national confidence that Scotland enjoys. Of course, the Welsh language is clear evidence that Wales and England have distinct cultures, but only a fifth of its people actually speak Welsh, its position as the dominant community language of the rural west is in retreat, and the legal requirements for Welsh to be taught to all children and used in all public documentation have sometimes caused controversy. Support for Welsh independence appears to be growing but it remains a minority position. Despite the patriotism evident in sport, there is often a frustration among advocates of independence that the people of Wales can appear unambitious and even regressive in their attitudes towards Welsh nationality. And yet, given the history of the nation, the fact that Welsh identity still exists at all is in many ways remarkable.

 

The roots of Wales

The roots of the Welsh nation lie in the political and cultural changes brought about by the emergence of what’s come to be known as Anglo-Saxon England. Wales was formed from the population in the western peninsula that was not subsumed by the rise of Anglo-Saxon culture and polities. But, apart from a few brief years in the 11th century, Wales was never a single independent political unit. Instead, medieval Wales was a collection of different kingdoms, united by a common language, law and sense of difference to the English, but divided by rival ambitions and territorial claims.

Those divisions made Wales vulnerable and, for the two centuries that followed the Norman conquest of England, Welsh territory was lost both to the English crown and to individual barons. The last of independent Wales was conquered in 1282–3, after Edward I lost patience with incessant rebellions against English rule and influence. He followed up his military victory by building castles and colonial towns from which, in theory at least, the Welsh were excluded from living. The Welsh were also taxed and denied certain legal rights. There was no attempt to destroy the Welsh language, but Wales was now a colony, ruled and exploited for English gain.

A depiction of Llywelyn Ap Gruffydd, styled the Prince of Wales
A depiction of Llywelyn Ap Gruffydd, styled the Prince of Wales, who was defeated in the 13th century at the hands of King Edward I, to whom he refused to pay homage. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Some learned to live with the new realities, but resentment simmered, particularly in times of economic hardship, when the laws against the Welsh were enforced more vigorously. In 1400, this resentment exploded into a rebellion under Owain Glyndŵr that spread across the whole nation, destroying much of the economy in the ensuing violence and retaliations. The destruction it caused led to some reconciliation on both sides, but the race laws that denied Welshmen some legal rights remained, even if they were not always prosecuted.

 

Equality or assimilation?

Despite the inferior status of the Welsh, the Welsh and English gentry intermarried. In 1485, Henry Tudor – a product of such cross-border inter-tangling – seized the throne and suddenly the king of England was someone with a Welsh heritage. It seemed the Welsh, who thought of themselves as the original Britons, had come back into their inheritance and recovered control of what they had lost to the Saxons.

Henry Tudor, later Henry VII
Henry Tudor, later Henry VII, was born at Pembroke Castle in South Wales, the son of Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)

The Welsh may have regained some dignity, but they remained discriminated against in law. In response to the resentment this created and the political unrest it risked, two acts of union were passed in 1536 and 1542–3 that together essentially abolished any legal difference between Wales and England. The acts were welcomed in Wales for the equality they bestowed, but this was also an annexation and assimilation that was to have profound consequences down the centuries. Henceforth, Welshness was an emotion rather than a legal or political identity. 

Wales remained culturally distinct because the majority of its people spoke Welsh until the end of the 19th century. Welsh survived conquest and annexation because the state never tried to prevent it being spoken and even enhanced its status through sponsoring the Welsh translation of the Bible in order to bolster Protestantism in Wales. Nonetheless, English was the language of power and administration, and anyone who wanted to advance in life had to speak it. By the end of 18th century, the Welsh gentry had largely become English speakers, although they too did nothing about the language their tenants spoke.

The Welsh language was also protected by geography. Wales may have been politically assimilated into England but its mountains limited communication and movement westwards. Before the spread of the railways in the 19th century, most of Wales was relatively cut off from England and that helped keep the Welsh language, and thus Welsh identity, alive. 

Pembroke Castle, birthplace of Henry Tudor, later Henry VII
Pembroke Castle, birthplace of Henry Tudor, later Henry VII. (Photo By RDImages/Epics/Getty Images)

 

Industrial invigoration

Before the late 18th century, Wales was seen by the English as a backwater, but the industrial revolution changed this. Through iron and coal, Wales became one of the world’s most important industrial areas. The wealth this generated, along with the wider European movement for national renewal, reinvigorated Welsh identity. A middle class set about building a nation, creating national publications, institutions, festivals and sports teams.

Religion was important to the reinvigoration of Welsh identity too. The majority of people were Nonconformists rather than Anglicans, and this was seen as further evidence that Wales and England were different. This new Wales was prosperous and confident, and it was also proud to be part of the British empire. Imperial power was key to Welsh industrial success and the vast majority of the Welsh population saw Welshness as interwoven with Britishness.

Yet, beneath this veneer of Welsh-British patriotism, industrialisation created a cultural chasm within Wales that had not existed before. At first, movement from the countryside to the new industrial regions reinforced Welsh culture there, but gradually industrial communities developed their own vibrant cultures, based around class politics and popular pastimes. The growing industrial communities also attracted people from England in huge numbers and cultural assimilation with England now sat alongside the existing political assimilation. Industrial and rural Wales began to look as if they had different cultures, especially as migration from England and the cultural capital associated with speaking English undermined the Welsh language in urban communities.

c1910: Coal miners in the pits at Bargoed, near Cardiff
c1910: Coal miners in a pit near Cardiff. Industrialisation created a cultural chasm within Wales that had not existed before, says Martin Johnes. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

 

The survival of Welsh identity

The economic collapse of the 1920s and 1930s destroyed Welsh national confidence and led to mass migration to England. The impact of this on the Welsh language, alongside the long-term decline of the chapels and the rise of a mass British popular culture with cinema and media at its heart, led to fears over the very survival of Wales.

In the 1950s and 1960s, all political parties started to look for ways of recognising Welsh nationhood. Thus, Cardiff was made a capital city, the red dragon was recognised as the official flag, the declining Welsh language was given legal status, and a government post was created to look after Wales. These initiatives came about through a combination of political pressures and protests from within Wales, and a willingness within government to recognise the plurality of the United Kingdom.

Cardiff Bay
Cardiff Bay. Cardiff became the capital city of Wales and the red dragon was recognised as the official flag. (Image by RF/Getty Images)

By 1999, this process had led to the creation of the National Assembly for Wales. For the first time in its history, Wales had a democratic institution of national self-government. Yet, in the referendum that led to its creation, only a quarter of the electorate voted in favour, while half of people chose not to vote at all. The reality was that, although a mundane sense of Welsh identity was very powerful, the political implications of this were narrow.

This raises questions about the nature of Welsh identity in the past. From the medieval age onwards, there is clear evidence of a commitment to Wales amongst the literate classes, but how deep this went amongst the mass of people is a different matter. Many people lived difficult lives and were probably consumed more by daily challenges than questions of nationality.

However, the survival of Welsh identity was never down to the elite alone. There is evidence of a popular pride in the Welsh language, although this did not mean that people did not also want to speak English. History itself was also important to the survival of Wales because it provided tales of times when the Welsh were self-governing or rose up against their chains of servitude. This overlaid internal divisions and offered the Welsh a sense of being more than just a region or culture. This history and patriotism were inscribed into the landscape through place-names, legends, and the emotions inspired by mountains, hills and even individual streets. A sense of what it meant to be Welsh was brought alive in sport, literature and fireside stories. The projects of the middle classes might have given voice to a sense of national identity, but their invented traditions worked because they gave form to something much wider, if more abstract.

Gareth Edwards, a Welsh international rugby player, during the 1972 Five Nations Championship in 1972
Gareth Edwards, a Welsh international rugby player, during the 1972 Five Nations Championship. (Photo by Larry Ellis/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

But no matter how much people have cared about Wales, the political, cultural and economic framework within which modern Wales existed was British and dominated by England. After medieval colonialism faded, there was little direct oppression of the Welsh because they were Welsh. Their language was looked down upon, patronised and condemned, but this never translated into policies designed to actually stop people speaking or feeling Welsh. Indeed, there were times in the 20th century when the British state, in supporting Welsh in public life and education, seemed more progressive in attitudes towards the language than many Welsh people. When Welsh was made a compulsory subject in schools at the end of the 1980s, it was not because of a widespread public demand.

A crown stands by a Welsh flag
A sense of what it meant to be Welsh was brought alive in sport, literature and fireside stories. (Photo by Don Dutton/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

This should not be interpreted as external largesse. Since Wales was part of the British state, some of the officials and representatives of the latter were Welsh. Moreover, there was pressure placed upon the state by a small but effective protest movement to recognise the Welsh language and Welsh identity. The movement’s demands were also often perfectly just and conceding them was part of a wider liberalisation of the British state, as it recognised the rights and freedoms of its different citizens.

Yet Wales always remained on the periphery of the state. In the modern period, it may not have been oppressed but nor was it often at the centre of government thinking. As social democracy and regional policy went into retreat from the middle of the 1970s, Wales became more vulnerable again to the vagaries of the free market. Just as it had in the 1920s and 1930s, this led to fears for the very future of the Welsh nation. The creation of a National Assembly stemmed those fears, but Brexit has brought them back.

History suggests that Welsh identity is more resilient than often feared, but the past is no guide to what might happen in the future. In the economic, political and cultural turmoil caused by a combination of Brexit, global warming and technological change, it may be that Wales will wither away. Indeed, the very concept of nations might be rejected as a quaint but divisive historical legacy. Equally, such is the level of disruption and uncertainty in British and global politics that Wales might be on a long road to becoming an independent nation.

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Martin Johnes is Professor of Modern History at Swansea University and the author of England’s Colony? The Conquest, Assimilation and Re-creation of Wales (Parthian Books, 2019)