The History of Wales “Summarised” | From Mammoths to Mining
In the Beginning—Pre-History
Long before modern humans turned up, Wales was inhabited by what we would call cave men and women. You know the stock character—with the animal skin sash, bone club, and the grunting. Sometimes they’re at the mouth of a cave with dinosaurs stomping in the surrounding forest, which is a bit off. Dinosaurs became extinct 66 million years before any hominids whittled clubs.
These cave men and women were Homo neanderthalensis a sub species of human and they preferred forests to shadowy caves. They were also not as stupid as we’ve been led to believe. They were even able to cook meals for themselves.
The earliest human remains in Wales were found at the Bontnewydd Paleolithic site. This was a jawbone and teeth from a Neanderthal child, thought be 230,000 years old. This site is one of only three in Britain to offer up fossils of a subspecies of human.
200,000 years later, The Red Lady of Paviland was buried. Ironically a modern male skeleton, dyed in red ochre. He was found on the Gower Peninsula, alongside the bones of a woolly mammoth, including a tusk and skull. At 30,000 years old, it’s considered the most ancient ceremonial burial site in Western Europe.
Wales Takes Shape
Modern humans started to properly carve out a future in Wales around 31000 BC, after the last ice age. Much like their Neanderthal cousins before, early Homo sapiens would have had woolly mammoth on the menu and fended off sabre-toothed tiger attacks.
In approximately 8000 BC Wales became the shape we know and love today and was occupied by Mesolithic hunter gatherers. Rudimentary farming societies were still a way off and started ‘cropping’ up 4000 years later. This period in Welsh history is also marked by the creation of dolmens, which are chambered burial tombs—such as Bryn Celli Ddu and Tinkinswood.
Fancy Tools & Farming
Hunter gatherer communities relied first on sharpened sticks and stone tipped spears, then bow and arrows to bring down prey. Whilst they were amazingly adept, this rugged way of life was energy heavy and not too productive.
However, one critical day, in the final few thousand years of pre-history—farming and animal rearing began. Hunter gatherers started putting down roots, literally and figuratively. This marked the gradual end to a traditional way of life, beckoning in a new era, where tools would be forged from subterranean ore and the land would be worked—making hunting and gathering trips obsolete.
In Wales the first meta tools are dated to 2500 BC, copper followed by bronze. The stone age was over, man.
The Language of Wales
During the British iron age (800 BC – 100 AD), before the Romans arrived, the Celts ruled supreme. In Wales, Cornwall, and Devon they were the Celtic Britons, distinct from Irish, Scottish, and Manx Celts—known as Gaels.
The Welsh language is a living artefact of this time— a time before English. The arrival of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes from Denmark and Northern Germany saw the evolution of Old English. An amalgamation of three similar languages from continental Europe.
The invaders began aggressively pushing native Celts west and north, which may explain why an ancient Celtic language was able to evolve into Welsh without dilution.
Roman Occupation & Departure
At its peak in 117 AD the Roman Empire covered 1,900,000 square miles. The Roman conquest of Wales began in 48 AD and lasted until 383 AD. Unlike elsewhere in Britain, it was a purely military operation. Wales was fiercely but unsuccessfully defended by two dominating tribes, the Ordovices and Silures. Few tribes bothered. These two were extremely bold and tough.
The only Roman town in Wales is Caerwent.
In 383 AD, Roman Emperor Magnus Maximus removed troops from western and northern Britain—ending Roman occupation.
Start of the Royal Welsh Dynasties
Magnus Maximum plays a part in Welsh mythology and is sometimes referred to as the founding father of the Royal Welsh Dynasties of Powys and Gwent. The tale goes that he married a visionary British woman, who in naming her wedding desires, demanded sovereignty be given back to the people. The smouldering point for Welshness.
Self-Governing Age of Saints
Like most of Britain, after the Romans left, Wales was free to do as it pleased.
One thing it continued, was Christianity. The period between 411 to 700 AD saw the building of many monasteries—directed by religious leaders. This is the era of saints, with the most famous being Saint David—the patron saint of Wales.
It’s said that Saint David was a man capable of magic. One event is remembered above others. He was giving a speech in what is now Llandewi Brefi in Ceredigion, and as he was speaking, raised a small hill beneath his feet. Then a dove settled on his shoulder. An extra miracle, but a miracle all the same.
The First King of Wales
Until post 700 AD, Wales was a series of autonomous tribes each with their own leaders and customs. Having a single ruler was not a thing.
“I am your king, King Arthur”
“I didn’t know we had a king—I thought we were an autonomous collective”.
This was to change in the early medieval period. It was the traditional way property was inherited. Fathers would divide it up equally between their sons, of which there were often lots. This led to ever more fractured territories, making it difficult for one person to preside over anything but a molehill.
However, under the Welsh Laws of the time there was scope for an ultimate ruler.
Rhodri the Great or ‘King of the Britons’ seized this opportunity, through bravado and some quirks of fate. He was previously the ruler of Gwynedd, an inheritance from his father—who claimed the title after the extinction of the Cunnedda’s male line. He was also, possibly his own creation, maternally related to the Powys royal line. This allowed him to claim kingship of Powys alongside Gwynedd, putting him in control of much of Wales.
He then spent his reign fighting off Viking raiders and warring with the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms which made up middle and South West England—Mercia and Wessex. He died in 873 AD, doing what he loved.
Last Independent Ruler of Wales
In 1075 the killing of Welsh ruler Bleddyn ap Cynfyn sparked a civil war in Wales. As this was raging, the Normans snuck in the back door and conquered Northern Wales. This lasted for around 20 years.
Wales, full of spirit, was having none of it. In 1094 there was a revolt against the Norman rule. The next couple of hundred years were perhaps the most violent is Welsh history with brutal battles being fought over Welsh territories. From the chaos, one of Wales’ most powerful leaders rose up. Llewelyn the Great.
With his sons he fought hard for control of Wales, coming up against both Henry III and Edward I.
His quest would prove the death of him and his family. In the end, the only person left fighting was his brother Dafydd ap Gruffud. He continued his weakening resistance until 1285, when he was captured by King Edward’s troops and hung, drawn, and quartered. A grim end to independent Welsh Rule.
At this point, Wales effectively became a part of England. The people of Wales were never one for a silent goodnight though.
The First Welsh Parliament
For a brief time around 1400 or so, Welsh Nobleman Owain Glyndŵr fronted a rebellion against King Henry IV. He was the last native Welshman to hold the title ‘Prince of Wales’—a descendant of the Princes of Powys.
Owain was responsible for setting up and holding the first ever Welsh Parliament in Machynlleth. Sadly, his rebellion faded, but Owain was never captured. What became of him was a mystery. He passed into story—a legendary figure of Welsh national identity.
In response to Owain’s revolt, the English crown passed repressive penal laws banning the Welsh from carrying arms, holding office, and living in fortified settlements. These were overturned by the Laws of Wales act in 1535.
In 2006 the Owain Glyndŵr society discovered one of his direct descendants, John Skidmore, who gave up the secret of his resting place in Herefordshire. A closely guarded family secret for 600 years.
All Quiet on the Western Front
Following Owain’s revolt against the crown Wales became a formalised part of England, with Welsh representation in the English parliament. What followed was 300 years of quiet, or at least no significant violence.
It was during this time, in 1588, that William Morgan completed the first translation of the Welsh Bible. This is one of the most important books ever written in Welsh.
The Industrial Revolution
One of the biggest turning points in history. The Industrial Revolution is the basis for all modern civilisation and life as we know it today. It was the shift from time consuming hand production methods to complex machinery.
Throughout the 19th Century industrialisation spread around Wales, with ironworks and coal mines becoming a huge source of employment. The boom in industry allowed the population of Wales to double.
Coal mining, often associated with Wales, reached its peak in the early 20th Century—with a quarter of a million people working in the South Wales Coalfield and beyond. The Port of Barry, at the time, was the largest coal exporter on Earth.
The Great War & Dylan Thomas
Until 1914, war was thought of in a very different way. Young men had images of riding into battle, of banners flying, and glorious victories. War was considered medieval. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. The industrial revolution and modern engineering had been busy in the wings, devising all manner of war machinery.
Imagine the fear of seeing a tank for the first time? As it charges over no man’s land. Not only were tanks introduced into warfare, but artillery and aircraft too. WW1 was a monster, the likes of which the world had never seen. When the dust clouds settled, it’s estimated there were at least 16,000,000 dead. 40,000 of these were men from Wales. It’s said that WW1 almost hollowed out an entire generation.
Beyond the obvious loss to life and post-war disillusionment, The Great War shocked Wales at its economic core. The Treaty of Versailles forced Germany to take responsibility for WW1 and make amends by offering up vast quantities of resources
One of these resources was coal. France essentially had free coal throughout the 1920s. This flooding of the market took its toll on Wales. It was partly responsible for triggering a terminal decline in the Welsh mining industry.
WW2 also impacted Wales severely and solidified Welsh support for The Labour Party, a response to social deprivation and poor worker’s rights following a post-war economic collapse.
However, from adversity comes strength and creativity. The modernist poems of the young Dylan Thomas entered the Welsh limelight just before WW2. His direct, yet metaphorical words were an antidote to hard times. They were also compassionate, and remembered, when the world was trying to forget. Thomas would come to be revered as one of the great poets of the 20th Century.
Dylan Thomas – Fernhill – 1945
Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.
And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
And the sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams.
All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air
And playing, lovely and watery
And fire green as grass.
And nightly under the simple stars
As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars
Flying with the ricks, and the horses
Flashing into the dark.
And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
The sky gathered again
And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise.
And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house
Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,
In the sun born over and over,
I ran my heedless ways,
My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace,
Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.
There are many ways to read into a poem, but the consensus it that Fernhill is exploring a loss of innocence—or the division of adult reality and childhood fantasy.
Much of the literature of this era, including the work of other modernist writers like T.S. Eliot dealt with such themes. It was a conscious move to introspection and existentialism, both during and after the horrific consequences of world war.
Decline of the Coal Industry & Devolution
After the end of WW2, what remained of the Welsh coal mining industry gradually faded. By the early 1990s only one deep pit still operated. This was a time where Welsh nationalism had a resurgence. In 1997, after the Labour election win as promised, the devolution of Wales took place. The Welsh Assembly in Cardiff was built.
Political independence from England also coincided with an increase in people speaking Welsh, which in 2001 was a quarter of the population over three years old. This was a 20-year peak
Like England, the Welsh economy diversified towards the latter half of the 20th Century and into the 21st. Wales focused on the services sector, but also on agriculture, aerospace, construction, electronics, and renewable energies to name a few.
Green Wales, 21st Century Environmental Leaders
Wales, with its sooty back story, has surprised the world by doing what so many countries seem unable to. Taking the global environmental crisis seriously and investing in renewable energy. Already, 48% of Welsh energy is from green sources—on target for 70% by 2030. Wales also recycles a larger quantity of household waste than almost any other country in the world. Second only to Germany.
Wales has been ahead of the game for a while. Even in the 1970s there were environmental stirrings, marked by the creation of CAT—The Centre for Alternative Technology. This is dedicated to educating people on alternative ways of living and sustainability. It’s still going strong.
What Wales does well and in the wake of Extinction Rebellion protests has pledged to do even better, is support local renewable energy initiatives. Currently there are 63,000 in Wales, and this is set to go up and up.