How well do you know your Welsh history?

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Saint David November 13, 2020

How well do you know your Welsh history? We caught up with Welsh history expert Dafydd Ap Ffranc to brush up on the events that will shape the Wales of tomorrow.

How far does the name “Wales” go back, and where did the name originate from?

“Wales” is the English name for our country. We call our country “Cymru”. In Latin it was known as “Cambria” and “Gwalia” and the Latin names have been used in English too. “Wales” comes from the Saxon word “Wælisch” which was their word for Romanised foreigners and slaves. The word itself originally come from the name of a Celtic tribe in modern day Germany and was later applied to all Celtic and Romance speakers. The original Celtic languages closest relative was Latin. These people were often enslaved by the Germanic tribes and as such the Germanic and Saxon word for slave was the same word. The same way the modern English word for slave come from another ethnic group; the Slavs of eastern Europe.

The word itself goes back over 2000 years to the time of the iron age. But in context to the modern nation of Wales it goes back to the time the English arrived in Britain 1500 years ago and encountered the native Britons.

What’s the most defining moment in Welsh history?

I’m not sure if there is a single defining moment that could universally be accepted in Welsh history. There were many defining moments and any one of those could be the most significant for different people. Examples include the Britons initial struggle with the Romans for supremacy of the isles in the 1st century BC, then again in the 1st century AD.

The next defining moment is the role the nation played in taking over the Roman Empire with the brief formation of the Gallic Empire in the 3rd century and the Briton armies who defeated the Emperors in the 4th and 5th centuries.

Then there was the leaving of the Roman troops in the 5th century. The Anglo-Saxon invasions later in the century leading to the loss of south east Britain. The wars of the 7th century that led to the loss of what became northern England.

Next major events were the coming of the Normans and the Great Patriotic Revolts that began in the early 12th century. Then the wars of independence of the two Llywelyn’s in the 13th century. The war of independence of Owain Lawgoch in the 14th century. The war of independence of Owain Glyndwr of the 15th century. The illegal annexation of the 16th century along with the forcing of Protestantism on the Welsh people. The Welsh revivals of the 18th century under Iolo Morgannwg which led to the reestablishment of the Druidic Order of the Gorsedd and the revival of the Eisteddodau.

Over the 18th to the early 20th centuries, England’s oldest colony, Wales, was completely tied up with the British empire which was a difficult period for the nation. The next major events were the establishment of the nationalist party in the inter war years which came out of the failure of the Home Rule Movement and the loss of Ireland from the UK.

Then the dramatic decline of the Welsh language in the 20th century leading to the establishment of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg or the Welsh Language Society during the Civil Rights Movement. They used civil disobedience tactics to win rights for the Welsh speaking community which led to a halt in the decline of the language in the late 20th century.

In 1997, following a century long campaign, Wales had a referendum to restore Welsh statehood and establish a Welsh government which they won. This led to the opening of the Welsh Assembly in 1999 which is now a parliament.

I believe the defining moment of our history has not yet occurred, but we will see it in the next few decades, and that will be the reestablishment of an independent Welsh state. The independence movement is one of the fastest growing movements in the country, and the changing nature of the UK has led most political commentators to accept that the UK in its current form cannot survive much longer.

As Scotland and Wales are experiencing a political awakening and the calls for a united Ireland grow in Northern Ireland, both Celtic nationalists and British Unionists accept change is coming. Either the UK will collapse as all the nations become independent states again, or, if the Union is to survive, it will have to federalise. It is a scary but exciting time in Welsh politics as we are living in an era of great change.

Who was the most significant Welsh figure and why?

So many to choose from. For me though it would have to be Owain Glyndwr. He restored Welsh sovereignty in the 15th century. Unfortunately, he could not secure the survival of that state, but his legacy is one that has inspired the modern nationalist movement. He had a vision for this nation which is becoming the vision for many in this nation today. His actions and his dream continues to inspire new generations who not only aspire to see the Welsh nation to survive but also to thrive as she takes her place among the world’s family of nations while rebuilding her own language, culture and economy within her own borders. A nation that is not afraid to look both inwards and outwards to find a healthy balance.

Sign our petition to make “Owain Glyndŵr Day” on September 16th a public holiday in Wales!

What’s the biggest misconception in Welsh history and why?

Probably the fact that our division was our downfall. There is no evidence that we were any more divided as a nation than the likes of the English, Scots, Irish or anyone else. It is true that for most of our history as an independent nation we didn’t have a unified centralised state. Yet for the time periods in question, this is no different to other contemporary societies, including the English who were divided into many kingdoms or states throughout most of her history. England was unified under exceptional circumstances as most of the kingdoms fell to the Vikings.

The last fully independent kingdom, Wessex, had the responsibility of restoring English rule in the fallen kingdoms, but of course under Wessex rule; the house that went on to rule unified England in the 10th century. Wales, Ireland and Scotland all unified under a single ruler in the 11th century, but their states were never centralised like England. This proved to be an advantage for the Celtic nations over England when the Norman’s came over to Britain in 1066 as they conquered England within months, yet spent over two centuries trying to conquer Wales.

There is a saying that the Welsh were conquered in the 11th century because we were too busy fighting amongst ourselves. If we were not as divisive as people say, then what was happening at that time?

Much of the country had been conquered in the late 11th century. But not as much as England who lost their entire country. We also regained much of the territory we lost in the 11th century by the 12th and 13th centuries.

It is ironic how 11th century Wales and also the other Celtic nations of these isles of Scotland and Ireland are seen as such divided nations. Yet through much of this century, all the Celtic nations experienced their greatest unity, which was greater than that of England’s.

Around the year 1000, King Brian Boru of Ireland subdued all the other Gaelic and Norse Kings of Ireland to become the first King of a united Ireland. In 1039 Gruffydd ap Llywelyn came to the thrones of Gwynedd and Powys in North Wales and became the first King of all Wales. In 1040, King MacBeth came to the throne of Scotland and led the country in a period of progressive reforms and stability.

Ironically, MacBeth is remembered today thanks to an English playwright, Shakespeare. Yet it is made out that Scotland was a divisive society. Yet MacBeth’s Scotland was one of peace, prosperity and stability. The English system of primogeniture and centralisation is seen as the civilised and stable system. Yet in the period England was divided between Saxon and Danish Kings and her centralisation led to the quick conquest of her country in 1066 by the Normans.

The constant wars that followed this in England between rival claimants to the throne and between royalty and barons over the next half a millennium should show that Wales was no more fighting among her own then any other nation, including England.

What is the reason behind the north/south split in terms of language spoken?

The actual divide is one that is exaggerated. It is no greater than the difference between northern English and southern English in England. For a small geographical area, the difference is relatively pronounced, however. But this is mainly due to the geography of the nation. This is a mountainous country and as such the mountains have stood as barriers between communities which are otherwise only a few miles apart, but due to the geography, a 3 miles distance could be up to 30 miles distance if you have to make your way around the terrain.

This has led to communities relatively close to each other developing unique dialects and accents. But this is the common experience of most nations, and mass media such as radio and television has meant people are exposed to the different dialects in the modern world.

We were a few decades behind the English-speaking world however in having daily Welsh language radio and then TV, but that’s not an issue for younger generations. Also, we have the growth of social media which the Welsh language community has embraced. So the north-south divide is no greater a problem for modern native speakers as it is for English speakers in England understanding those on the other side of their country, or even French speakers in the north and south of France where the language varies greatly yet there is no problem with communication. In fact, German speakers in Germany have a far greater problem understanding different German dialects then Welsh speakers do understanding dialects different to their own.

How much importance did geography played in the course of Welsh history?

Geography played a huge role in shaping and dividing communities throughout Welsh history. Rivers and mountains would act as natural barriers between kingdoms. It would have been easier to sail from Gwynedd in the north to Glamorgan in the south then it would to traverse across the mountains. The mountains acted as a barrier for population growth. Where England had vast plains, great communities were able to develop. The only great plains we had were the Glamorgan and Gwent levels. The same small area where the majority of our population live today. This meant our population was never going to rival other countries like England, France or even Ireland.

However, these mountains have played a great role in our natural defence and are the reason a relatively small population has been able to survive despite being on the doorstep to a bloodthirsty power that went on to dominate the whole world and wipe out other peoples, but they could never fully eradicate or subjugate the Welsh, thanks to our unique geography.

What do you think is the most important thing from our past to remember as we look forward to a prosperous future in Wales?

The most important thing to hold onto from our past is their very thing that has united us as a nation through history and that is our language. Cymraeg has been spoken across Wales in various forms for thousands of years. It is the very thing that defines us. Today we have the reality that many, through no reason of their own no longer speak the national language, yet these people are just as Welsh as any Welsh speaker. But until very recently in our national story, up to the 20th century, there was no such thing as a Welshman or woman who didn’t speak Welsh.

If Wales is going to have a future as a nation, then we must restore the language to its rightful place. This won’t happen overnight of course but must be something we aspire too. There is no reason why we can’t ensure all children grow up being exposed to the language, something that a few generations in some parts of the country have not had the privilege of.

Those who don’t speak Welsh shouldn’t be alienated, it is for historical reasons they don’t speak it. But there is no reason why they can’t use whatever little language they know and normalise it in general conversations. They shouldn’t be pressured to learn it but they should be encouraged to accept its central place in our society, they should know it is a part of them and they have every right to claim it as their own whether they speak it or not and if they do decide to learn it they should always be encouraged.

As for a prosperous future, the language is key to that. Every market needs a Unique Selling Point or USP. Welsh is our USP. The fact that we speak English too is a bonus. It means it will be easier for other countries to do business with us but our Welsh language on top of our English language will make us a unique market and stand out from all the other generic English-speaking markets.

Our two languages will give us an advantage in the field of tourism. People like to travel to unique places; the Welsh language ensures our country will have a unique feel as a travel destination. It will also help with the growing heritage tourism market as the diaspora wish to reconnect to their homeland and the language gives them way into the world of their ancestors. English will also ensure a wider audience of travellers as people from other countries use English as a form of trade language or lingua franca if they don’t speak the languages of the countries they travel too.

What role would you like to see St David’s World playing in terms of raising awareness and education of Welsh history?

I would like to see it develop as a platform that unites the people of the nation today and the wider diaspora. The one thing that the diaspora and the people of Wales today have in common is our history. Educating people of that history that unites us will bring us all together, as the worldwide Welsh community rediscovers its roots, and helps in the process of nation building that we all have a responsibility for. Scotland today is reconnecting with her diaspora, and the global Scottish community is helping rebuild Scotland. As a result, Scotland is becoming known across the world as one of the nations of the world. Ireland experienced the same thing in the early 20th century, and it was thanks to the Irish diaspora and her relationship with Ireland that Ireland was able to become a nation again on the world stage.

It is time for Wales to do the same. For the diaspora and Wales to come together and build a future for our nation, whatever path we decide as a community to take.


Image credit: “The Story of Wales” – Green Bay Media for BBC Cymru in partnership with The Open University in Wales
Petition to make “Owain Glyndŵr Day” on September 16th a public holiday in Wales: