Wales in Context

It’s believed that Wales as an area of land has been inhabited in some form or another since at least 250,000 BP (before present). The most recent continuous human habitation period dates from the end of the last ice age between 12,000 and 10,000 years (BP) when the island of Britain would have still been connected by dry land to the rest of mainland Europe and Ireland

The earliest known recorded history of the country now known as Wales (Cymru in Welsh) begins around 6,000 BP with the Neolithic age which led to the remarkable Bronze and Iron Age. Both the Bronze and Iron Age became a crucial part of Celtic Britain, European development and the Celtic peoples overall dominance. The Celts were a warlike people but they were also skilled craftsmen who pioneered production and trade in iron, bronze and gold. They developed a distinct culture, language, spiritual beliefs and a settled farming existence in Europe and Britain which lasted undisturbed for many centuries. The first indigenous language of the whole of Britain would have been an early form of Welsh called Brythonic / Brythoneg.


In around 75AD, after 30 years of fierce fighting, the Romans eventually invaded and occupied Wales. It can be said that they brought many benefits to Wales and there would have been inter-marriages between the Romans and the Celts, but they did not manage to subjugate the native Celts of Wales under their rule and eventually left. Soon after Roman withdrawal from Wales and Britain, in around 450 AD, the native  Celtic population in what was to become England fought the next set of invaders; the Germanic tribes of Saxons, Angles and Jutes who invaded the eastern side of England from the 5th and 6th century onwards in substantial numbers.

There followed many centuries of wars between the native Celtic Britons and the Saxon invaders and over time the Celtic Britons were slowly pushed to western and northern Britain; to Cornwall, to Brittany,to what was eventually to become Wales, northwards to what was to become northern England, and then to what was to become Scotland (Alban in Welsh / Brythonic)


Sporadic attacks by the Vikings often happened simultaneously as attacks by the Saxons and kept occurring until the end of the 10th century.  It can logically be noted that most of what is now northern and western England is still largely as Celtic as it is Saxon Germanic or Norman.

In 1057 Wales arguably for the first time became a fully independent and unified country under it’s king Gruffydd ap Llywelyn who reigned until his death in 1064, a feat with only a few precedents or successors.

The next set (and arguably the most troublesome) of invaders to invade Britain after the Saxons were the Normans from northern France. When William the Conqueror conquered the English and became King of England in 1066 he did not attempt to conquer Wales. However he did grant land along the English Welsh border to powerful Norman lords and the Normans gradually brought in Norman populations to occupy and colonise Welsh towns. These lords sometimes encroached on Welsh territory of their own accord.

The Normans eventually started on a campaign to try and conquer Wales which lasted many centuries, resisted robustly by the Welsh throughout. One of the most well known of these defenders of Welsh independence was Llywelyn ap Gruffydd (LLywelyn ein llyw olaf/Llywelyn the last) from the Royal dynasty of the House of Gwynedd. The three guardian lions seen on the present day Royal coat of arms of Britain and of the House of Windsor were originally the three guardian lions of Wales, having come from the personal coat of arms of Llywelyn.

After centuries of fighting the Normans managed to occupy the country effectively through an elaborate programme of castle building and settlement of Welsh towns. Wales has the highest ratio of castles per square mile and per head of any country in the world and some of the most impressive castles ever built.


Further armed rebellion of one form or another continued against the Normans in Wales, such as the revolt of Owain Glyndwr in the early 15th century, who was crowned ruler of Wales in the presence of emissaries from France, Spain and Scotland at his Machynlleth parliament in 1404.


Glyndwr led a 15 year war against Norman English rule in Wales which also saw the French joining the Welsh military struggle as allies. Glyndwr and his men also pioneered guerilla warfare techniques which have been an influence on many modern and historic freedom fighters around the world – Che Guavara and Fideol Castro being obvious examples. Glyndwr also established national institutions such as Welsh universities, a separate Welsh church and a revival of the egalitarian Welsh laws of Hywel Dda. Glyndwr is celebrated today as one of the main founding fathers of modern Welsh nationhood.

In 1485 Welshman Henry Tudor the 7th became King of the whole of Britain, and the Welsh Tudor dynasty, including the iconic Henry the 8th and Elizabeth the 1st together with her infamous Welsh consultant; creator of the British secret services and the 007 myth John Dee, ruled Britain until 1603. The Welsh Tudor dynasty and the Welsh speaking Elizabeth the 1st can be said to be the first of the dynastic rulers of the new modern Britain that was emerging.


And, although the acts of legal jurisdiction annexation between Wales and England that came in at this time were not campaigned or asked for by the people of Wales themselves and have always been controversial, as have been other Tudor actions, armed insurrection and unrest seems to have largely stopped for a period, probably largely due to the Tudor dynasty’s Welsh pedigree.


In the 18th and 19 the century, the radical non-conformist and egalitarian Welsh character was seen again in the now world leading industrial hub of south Wales, where the fight for political reform, worker’s rights and resistance of the exploitation of workers by rich owners saw a huge socialist movement and mobilised civil unrest.

By 1850, there were more people employed in industry in Wales than in agriculture, making Wales the world’s first industrial nation. As a result the nation’s economy and society were transformed. There were many valuable minerals under the surface of the Welsh landscape – without them Wales could never have become an industrial nation.


Coal, of course, was the most significant; at the height of production in 1913, Cardiff was the biggest coal port in the world and the total output of the Welsh coalfields was nearly 61 million tonnes. Welsh coal had a world-wide economic influence comparable to that of oil today. Welsh slate roofed the homes and the factories of industrial communities throughout the British Isles and the world’s most prominent countries. Copper, lead and other metals were also hugely important Welsh exports.

The wooden ships of the Royal Navy in the 18th century were sheathed in Welsh copper and carried cannon made of Welsh iron. Welsh rails united the USA and Tsarist Russia in the 19th century, whilst the basic process of steel production still used today was pioneered in Blaenafon, South Wales in the 1870s.


The worldwide demand for these materials led to important developments in transport pioneered in Wales. The Welsh transport infrastructure includes universally acknowledged masterpieces of civil engineering such as the Pontcysyllte aqueduct, the Menai and Conwy bridges and some of the largest docks in the world at the time of their completion.






The worlds first successful steam locomotive ran at Merthyr ferndale-005-jpgvvffTydfi l in 1804, whilst the world’s first public passenger railway opened in the Mumbles, Swansea in 1807. Phenomenal volumes of trade were handled — in 1913, some 40 million tonnes of coal were railed to the South Wales ports, for export by Welsh-owned steamers and the world’s first 1 million pound cheque was signed at the Coal Exchange in Cardiff in 1901.Under the direction of David Lloyd George, minister of munitions, later secretary for war and eventually prime minister, Welsh industry in particular contributed massively to the war effort of World War 1 and World War 2: making steel, meeting the need for shells and satisfying the navy’s voracious appetite for quality steam coal, not to mention the lives of it’s soldiers. 

The demand for labour in the industrialised communities of South East Wales as well as in Amlwch on Anglesey meant that Wales experienced internal migration rather than mass emigration. Between 1760 and 1914, some two-thirds of the population moved to live and work in the industrial South-East of Wales. This, as mentioned meant that that there was an increased tension and a need for political reform and of worker’s rights, as well as a general resistance of the exploitation of workers by rich owners, which saw a huge radical socialist movement and civil unrest.

This was brought to the surface through armed resistance by the people, as was seen in the Merthyr riots of 1831, where for the first time in the world the red flag of revolution was flown, which was later adopted internationally in Russian, Chinese, Vietnamese, European and south American revolutions and civil wars, and which gained extra potency as the symbol of the working classes following the resulting execution of trade unionist ‘Dic Penderyn’ (Richard Lewis) despite proof of his innocence and a public campaign to pardon him.


The Newport rising of 1839 went further than the Merthyr riots and threatened to turn into a full scale national armed revolt against the British government. The British army was called in on both occasions and 24 protestors were killed in the pitched battles of the Newport rising.

The Newport Rising was the last large scale armed rebellion against authority in mainland Britain. These events directly resulted in the political and social reform of workers rights and the establishment of Trade Unions in Wales and Britain, as well as the Labour party itself, both of which still have an enormous effect on the politics and Government of Wales, Britain, the USA and many other countries across the world.


The red flag first seen in the south Wales riots was used as the emblem of the Labour party of Britain from it’s inception in 1900, and the red branding is still used today. Welsh Labour is now a party in it’s own right and is one of the parties to be found in the newly formed Welsh Government.


Elsewhere in North Wales, The Great Strike at the Penrhyn slate Quarry, Bethesda between 1896 -1897 and 1900 -1903 became the longest running dispute in Britain’s industrial history. A palpable result of all these strikes, riots and upheavals also was that many Welshmen went on to become radical pioneers of the most significant social reforms of the 20th century; Lloyd George introduced the old-age pension in 1909, and in 1948 Aneurin Bevan founded the National Health Service (NHS) which provides free medical care to all the people in Britain. It is one of the first such institutions in the world and is a world leading example of large scale social welfare.


Political and national democratic representation seems to have largely taken over from armed insurrection in Wales during the 20th and 21st century, which has seen an increasing consensus and support for a modern democratic self government for Wales. In 1997 the people of Wales voted for its first devolved law making government; the first time Welsh law has been made in Wales by a Welsh Government for over 600 years.

The language rights of Welsh speakers are now also officially images-jpggggyghpromoted and a bilingual policy is actively encouraged in Wales – a long way from the days when the British government tried to banish the Welsh speakers of Wales from speaking their own native language and demand that they only speak English.

Present day Wales with a population of over 3 million people has two official languages – Welsh and English. There are currently over 600,000 Welsh speakers in Wales, around 150,000 in England and Scotland and up to a million in the rest of the world. Welsh is still the second most spoken native language in the whole of Britain and third largest after Punjabi in general. Welsh (Cymraeg) is taught on the education curriculum of Wales, as is English.


The Welsh today are descended from many people. European Celtic tribes first honed and developed their rich intricate culture here, and pioneered with bronze, iron and gold production and its resulting trade accross the Western world. Roman, Saxon and Norman invasions gradually pushed these Celtic Celtic Britons into what is now known as Wales / Cymru, where they became the Welsh people (‘Cymry’ in Welsh, meaning fellow countryman or compatriot).

It was their unique beliefs, language and cultural identity which sowed the seeds of  modern Wales, both Welsh and English speaking. Inward and outward migration has added diverse new layers of population across history to this hardy country on the Western Atlantic coast of Europe.

According to recent international research by the Welsh Government there are known to be 16 million people in the Welsh and English speaking world of Welsh ancestry, 11 million of them in the USA, although the actual number of people of recent Welsh heritage in the whole world is likely to be double the 16 million figure due to women losing their Welsh surnames through marriage etc.

As can be seen from evidence all over the world, the surnames of Wales could be said to be representative of one of its best exports – it’s people.

Wales in Pictures