The History of Wales

A short overview of the fascinating history of Wales: how the nation was shaped and its current place in the United Kingdom.

The Greatest Jawbone – 230,000-Year-Old Neanderthal Relic Found in Wales

The rugged but beautiful country of Wales has been occupied for nearly a quarter of a million years, and there is physical proof of this in the shape of a jawbone, found at Bontnewydd in North Wales. The site is known as a Palaeolithic site, having been excavated in 1978. Along with the jawbone, which is believed to have belonged to an eleven-year-old boy, various teeth from at least five different individuals were found.
The next oldest set of remains are the so-called Red Lady of Paviland, actually the skeleton of a young man. This red ochre-dyed skeleton is thought to be the earliest example of ceremonial burial in Western Europe, and he is estimated to have lived 33,000 years ago.

Vagaries of weather wrought havoc on early human populations everywhere, but with the receding of the last ice age, men were able to settle and thrive in Wales from 8,000 BC. The beginnings of agriculture burgeoned, with early farming communities springing up from about 4,000 BC. There are many ancient burial chambers and tombs that date from this period still existent and that can be visited today.

The art and science of metal working was discovered at around 2,500 BC and within a relatively short time, bronze was being alloyed and formed into a wealth of items. The climate was pleasant at this time, and this would have made life relatively easy for all. A change for the worse: colder temperatures and so on, is thought to have occurred around 1,250 BC, which meant that people had to be deployed to protect the best, most fertile lands from neighbouring peoples who came in search of resources once their own crops had let them down. Iron implements came into their own from 600 BC with a sword dating from that era being found at Llyn Fawr. This led to a time during which a multitude of hillforts were built over much of the country, and some of these are now tourist attractions, educating people about the rich history of Wales.

Traditionally, historians believed that the population of Wales was very fluid, but this theory has been revised: the current thinking is that, while some groups moved around from country to country, across the sea and the rest of Britain, the basic population of Wales was established by around 2,000 BC, and it is, broadly speaking, this population base whose genetic inheritance can still be found throughout the nation.

Invaders! The Arrival of the Romans

The biggest upheaval to British society was the arrival of the Romans. While some tribes accepted the influx with good grace, submitting to Roman rule and entering into trade deals with the invaders, the Welsh, a fiercely independent people, were more resistant. Thus, the Roman presence in Wales was always that of a military occupation, apart from a small area in the coastal south-west, where Romanisation was accepted and even embraced. The Romans mined Welsh resources quite heavily, depleting stores of gold, copper, lead, silver and even zinc, thereafter abandoning the mines. Despite the animus, the breakaway Magnus Maximus is named in the genealogical histories of several Welsh tribes, including those of Powys and Gwent.
Once the Romans had retreated from Wales, there was little trace of them left behind, unlike in other areas of Britain where enough remnants (beautiful mosaic floors, villas, jewellery, pottery and much more of the minutiae of life in Roman Britain) were left behind so that archaeologists could clearly deduce what life was like for people in those times. In fact, all that can be found to say that Romans ever entered Wales at all, at some Roman roads and military fortifications.

Post-Roman Vacuum Led to Power Struggle

Once the might of Rome receded, Britain shattered back into small tribal units, each scrabbling and fighting for supremacy over their neighbours, with no one clear leader. Invading tribes that would later become the English, namely the Angles and Saxons struggled at first to make inroads against the feisty Welsh, but they did manage to occupy the fringes of the country. A number of fierce battles (the Battle of Chester being one) raged around Britain, and once things settled down – in approximately the 8th Century – Wales, Cornwall and Hen Ogledd* were the only remaining autonomous Brythonic* areas. (*Hen Ogledd covered the area of northern England on the Scottish Borders and Yorkshire, and Brythonic refers to the ancient Celtic peoples who were the forebears of modern Welshmen, Cornish men and Bretons.)

Modern Day: The Battle for Freedom Continues!

Over the next thousand years, the Welsh faces incursions from the Danes, from the Vikings and from their neighbours, the English, as they would become known. Scrappy, the nation fought back, and even though the country was ostensibly an English colony, it never submitted completely, with the Welsh language and many traditions surviving to present times. Welsh is one of the few languages that has, following fears that it would soon become a dead language, managed to fight back and is once again a growing language, being spoken by over nineteen per cent of the population – a number that is growing since the language’s inclusion in school curricula. Wales is still fighting for independence from England, but now does so in a more civilised way: through parliamentary representation and devolution, rather than through battle.