Wales did not become an official country until 1536, under King Henry VIII’s “Act of Union”. Long before that, though, in the centuries before Christ, Wales was inhabited by a loose assortment of independent Celtic kingdoms. If you think Wales is nothing more than some small, insignificant arm of England, think again. We invite you to expand your knowledge and learn more about the Welsh people, their history, traditions and customs.
The Welsh language is a Celtic one, from the Brythonic branch (rather than Gaelic). The ancient Britons had settled all over present day England, Wales and parts of Scotland. In the early centuries after Christ, the Romans, and then later the Saxons, invaded and occupied England. The Britons who refused to submit were eventually pushed into the land region of present day Wales and became the Welsh people. The name “Wales” (weallas) comes from the Anglo-Saxons, appropriately meaning “foreigner, outsider” which is exactly what the Saxons made these Celtic people in their own native lands. “Cymru” is the name Welsh people give to their own nation, from the Brythonic word “combrogi” meaning "fellow-countrymen". This name has a more friendly etymology, reminding us of their enduring national pride.
Like the history of the Irish, the Welsh story is one of constant struggle against overwhelming odds. The Celtic people have always had a strong warrior spirit, and are not to be underestimated. The Welsh managed to survive Roman Imperialism, Anglo-Saxon invasions, plundering attacks by the Vikings, the Norman Conquest, oppression of powerful overlords, and the constant threat of those pesky, controlling English. Yet their beautiful and imposing castles, their enduring language, their rich mythologies and their cultural identity have managed to survive despite their many challenges. The Welsh people lost most of their territory and constantly struggled for their political independence, yet all the while managing to retain that Celtic spirit. Their determination, tenacity and struggle for identity are nothing short of extraordinary. The 20th century Welsh poet Dylan Thomas perhaps summed up his fellow countrymen best when he described them as “not wholly bad or good”.
In 43 A.D., the Roman Empire conquered southeastern England and created a new Roman province called Britannia. Conquering Wales wasn’t so easy; the Romans had to fight for several more decades before finally defeating their Druids (the Celtic priests and political leaders). This basically ended the Celtic resistance and Wales became tightly under Roman rule. Still, the Celtic tribes were a wily bunch and difficult for the Romans to control. An ancient Welsh saying “Nyd hyder ond bwa” (“There is no dependence but on the bow”) pretty much sums up their often violent resistance to control. The Romans were forced to build a network of forts across their lands in order to keep a watchful eye on these rebellious Celts. Small towns cropped up around these forts as Roman soldiers provided a marketplace for the native people.
Although it was not yet the official state religion of the Roman Empire, Christianity reached Wales in the 3rd century as evidenced by the martyrdom of Sts. Julius and Aaron, two British men killed for the Christian beliefs under the persecutions of Emperor Diocletian. By the late 4th century, Roman occupation weakened as the wobbly Empire began to collapse and the Roman soldiers were forced to return to Italy and defend Rome from barbaric invasions. The last of the Roman soldiers left Britain at the turn of the 5th century and the Roman way of life slowly disappeared. Wales returned to a division of kingdoms. Gwynedd and Powys are names of kingdoms you may recognize.
After the Romans left Britannia high-and-dry, vulnerable and with little protection, the Anglo-Saxon Germanic tribes saw their opportunity to pounce. They invaded eastern England and moved their troops westward subjugating the native Romano-Britons almost with ease; within two centuries the Saxons had reached the borders of Wales. Like the Romans before them, the Saxons found the Welsh not so easy to subdue. For centuries thereafter the Celtic-Welsh and the Germanic-Saxons were at war. In the 8th century, the Saxon King of Mercia (which bordered Wales), built Offa’s Dyke – essentially the first boundary between England and Wales – in order to protect against angry Welsh attacks.
While the Anglos and the Saxons were making themselves quite at home in England (eventually becoming the dominant culture) and pestering the defiant native Celts, the Welsh were also forced to fend off the Vikings who started attacking their lands in the 9th century. A Welsh king of Gwynedd, Rhodri ap Mawr (Rhodri the Great) united a couple of other Welsh kingdoms and won great victories over the Danes – although the Viking attacks continued for another century.
Interestingly, after the Norman Conquest of 1066, the new king of England, William the Conqueror, did not bother Wales (maybe he knew better than to pick fights with the ferociously brave and prideful people). Still, victorious kings do what victorious kings do – they reward their cronies and lords, the people who helped them in victory. King William I made land grants to the many Norman lords who helped in the conquest. These powerful lords were granted large swaths of land around the English-Welsh borders and the Normans would become a constant irritant to the Welsh. The Welsh opposition was strong enough, though, and they managed to maintain their independence – although the Normans gradually eroded away at their territory. The Normans spent 200 years gaining control of Wales, little by little. They did contribute by founding important cities (including Cardiff) and building several monasteries. But for the most part, England was distracted by other troubles and Llewellyn the Great (King of Gwynedd and recognized as chief among other neighboring kingdoms) was free to reign over the still independent state. King Henry III of England recognized the principality of Wales and made the “Treaty of Montgomery” (1267) with Llewellyn, giving Llewellyn the title Prince of Wales.
When Edward (Longshanks) became King of England in 1272 he had higher ambitions to take control of Wales. He called on Llewellyn to pay him homage, but tensions arose and rebellion ensued. Wales was no match for the resources available to England, and Edward I became ruler of Wales. English law was imposed upon the Welsh and Edward built a network of castles to control the people, just as the Romans had built forts more than 10 centuries earlier. Alongside the castles new towns cropped up. The feisty Welsh rose in rebellion again in 1294 but were crushed within a year. Still, in an attempt to garner some Welsh loyalty, Edward made his son and heir to the throne Prince of Wales, a title now given to the heir apparent of the monarchy.
Wales (like all of Europe) became victimized by the Black Death of the 14th century and this resulted in devastating losses to their population. Another illustrious Welshman came onto the scene in the early 15th century, Owain Glyndŵr, uniting Wales and instigating yet another rebellion under the rule of Henry IV. His rebels were successful defeating the English in several battles, but this last major uprising ultimately ran out of steam and Owain escaped, refused the offers of royal pardons and mysteriously disappeared forever.
In 1536, Wales was fully incorporated as its own country into the dominion of England, and at this point they had a lot of practice with English law and government. The assimilation was relatively seamless and they were largely ignored as a sparsely populated, rugged region with a rural society. It seemed they had hardly any practical contribution to make – that is until the industrial revolution came knocking and Wales’ abundance of natural and mineral resources were exploited on a grand scale (coal and iron most notably). They grew prosperous and their population soared by the end of the 18th century. Today the population of Wales is around 3 million and their main industry is tourism.
Aside from their lively rebellious history, the Welsh are also most responsible for giving us the legends of King Arthur and Camelot. In the 12th century a Welshman by the name of Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote “Historia Regum Brittaniae” (History of the Kings of Britain), introducing non-Welsh speakers to the tales of King Arthur. The legends of chivalry became hugely popular in medieval times and heavily influenced the works of other poets throughout Europe.
According to various legends, after the Romans left England, one of the leaders among the native Romano-Britons, Vortigern, invited the Saxons to England in the hopes they would support him against the attacking Picts and Scots from the across Hadrian’s Wall. The Saxons arrived alright, but they decided they liked the island more for themselves and rose against the Britons. The Saxons and the Britons remained in fierce battle. The High-King of the Britons (Uther) fell in love with Lady Igraine and together they had a son, Arthur. Times were dangerous as the war ensued, so Uther gave the baby to his wizard Merlin for safekeeping. The baby was sent away to be raised in the countryside, never knowing the identity of his parents. When Uther died, there was much debate over who would ascend to the High-Kingship of the Britons (no one knew of Arthur). Enter the magical sword embedded in a stone. Whoever was able to pull the Sword from the Stone, it was said, was the rightful heir. Of course lots of local kings attempted to remove the sword, but all to no avail.
As a young man of fifteen, Arthur traveled to London to practice knighthood with his foster brother, Kay, when he realized he had forgotten Kay’s sword. In his search for a replacement sword, Arthur spotted the Sword in the Stone, effortlessly removing it for his friend. He was then crowned as the rightful High-King, although not everyone agreed – various local kings did not exactly want to be led by an adolescent boy and so they rebelled. Uther’s old wizard Merlin came to the aid of Arthur, taking him to a magical lake and introducing him to his friend, Viviane, who lived beneath the water (“Lady of the Lake”). She gave Arthur the magical sword known as Excalibur, contained in a magic casing. Excalibur ensured victory in battle and the magic sheath protected its owner from harm. Arthur was able to use Excalibur successfully in battle with the dissenting kings, and was finally proclaimed High-King of the Britons. He set up his royal residence in Camelot.
Later, King Arthur married Princess Guinevere, a daughter of one of the local kings. Guinevere’s father gave the newlyweds a present: a giant round table. All the Briton knights wanted a seat at that round table, but only the most valiant and heroic were chosen. They became known as King Arthur’s “Knights of the Round Table”. One of the bravest and most handsome of the knights was Sir Lancelot who hailed from Brittany (present-day France). His valor was unmatched by the other knights, so he quickly became a close confidante to the King. He also caught the eye of Lady Guinevere who fell in love with the attractive knight. Uh-oh. Lancelot and Guinevere would steal away behind the back on the king who was entirely ignorant of this duel-betrayal taking place in Camelot (that is, until his evil nephew and next heir to the throne, Mordred, ratted out the adulterous lovers to the king). Sir Lancelot and Guinevere escaped to Brittany with King Arthur hot on their trail, leaving the malevolent Mordred to hold down the fort back at Camelot. Mordred could not wait to be High-King of Britain so he told the people that Arthur had died in Brittany. King Arthur, hearing of this treachery by his nephew, returned to Camelot with his army in tow. Mordred was able to raise an army himself, having given away riches to earn loyalties among the people. During the bloody battle between Arthur and Mordred, the death toll was almost absolute and the two were left in final single combat. Unfortunately, King Arthur’s bitter half-sister, Morgan Le Fay, had stolen Excalibur’s sheath which left Arthur exposed to harm. Although Arthur killed the evil Mordred, he himself was also mortally wounded in battle. He was brought to the Isle of Avalon by three mythic queens and died soon afterwards.
Aside from the forefront legend of King Arthur, in the background the Knights of the Round Table had lots of adventures rescuing princesses, fighting dragons and searching for the “Holy Grail”’. The Welsh believe Arthur existed as a real King who probably lived in the southern portion of Wales (although liberties have been taken with his legendary deeds) and his stories were passed down orally for centuries before Monmouth wrote it down. Some people think that Arthur was not a High-King of Britain, but one of the local chiefs probably from a small kingdom in Wales or Cornwall. Considering how the Welsh and Cornish branches of the Celtic-Britons culturally survived the Anglo-Saxon invasions, it seems more plausible that someone of King Arthur’s courage and resilience was Welsh rather than the average Briton (Englishman) who would ultimately succumb to the Saxon dominance.
In terms of names, Welsh names (like Gaelic names) really stand out to the average English-speaker. English is a Germanic language, after all, while Welsh is a Celtic language. In Wales, like everywhere else in the Western World, has really been influenced by general styles and fashions of the day – so you’ll see familiar names on their charts like Ruby, Grace, Chloe, Emily and Olivia for girls and Jack, Thomas, Joshua, Daniel and Ethan for boys.
Peppered among these trendy names are those of real Welsh significance. For girls they are: Megan (the Welsh diminutive of Margaret); Ffion (Welsh for the flowering plant “foxglove”); Seren (Welsh word for “star”); Carys & Cerys (from the Welsh caru meaning "love"); and Nia (Welsh equivalent to the Gaelic Niamh meaning “bright”). For boys, we see the following Welsh names currently favored in Wales: Dylan (from the Welsh elements dy "great" and llanw "tide, flow"); Rhys (Welsh word for “enthusiasm”); Morgan (from the Welsh elements mor "sea" and cant "circle"); Evan (Welsh equivalent to John); Kian (Welsh equivalent to the Gaelic Cian meaning “ancient”); and Owen (modern form of the Welsh Owain from eoghunn meaning "youth").
Other Welsh names to consider:
Bryn – Means “hill, mount” in Welsh
Gwendolyn – from the Welsh elements gwen "white, fair, blessed" and dolen "ring”
Sabrina – Latinized form of Habren, the original Welsh name of the River Severn (from Welsh mythology)
Wendy – also possibly from the Welsh element gwen meaning "white, fair, blessed".
Gavin – from the Welsh Gawain, one of King Arthur’s popular knights
Griffin –Gruffudd, from gruff probably meaning “dragon” and udd "lord, prince"
Trevor – from Welsh meaning “large farmstead or settlement”
Trystan – Welsh equivalent to an old Pictish name Tristan meaning “tumult, uproar”