History of South and West Wales
Wales today is a dynamic and vibrant place with cities like Cardiff and Swansea offering rich cultural history as well as excellent accommodation, shopping and nightlife. Cool bands such as The Manic Street Preachers, and The Stereophonics, as well as singers such as Cerys Matthews (Catatonia), Charlotte Church, and Kathryn Jenkins all improved the Welsh image. Actors like Catherine Zeta Jones, Rhys Ifans, and Ioan Gruffydd added to this new Cool Cymru image. In addition to this, Wales has always had fantastic scenery, vast swathes of golden sandy beaches, precipitous cliffs and verdant rolling hills.
The beautiful county of Pembrokeshire with its fantastic beaches, Carmarthenshire with its lush green countryside, home to the National Botanic Gardens of Wales . The Vale of Gamorgan and The Heritage Coast offer pretty seaside and market towns as well as quaint villages. Wales has something for everyone. In order to get to this point Wales has seen many struggles, it has been invaded by The Celts, The Romans, and The Normans experienced a Civil War and two World Wars, to name a few.
Prior to the Paleolithic period there were few signs of human settlement in Wales, except a 250,000 year old tooth found in a cave at Pontnewydd near Denbigh in north Wales. Evidence of more established significant communities was found from the early Paleolithic time, notably the skeleton of a man, known as the Red Lady of Paviland was found at Paviland cave in the Gower and dated to around 24000 BC.
Neolithic colonists were the first farmers and set up communities. They built stone circles, the most famous of which is Stonehenge in Wiltshire, made from blue stone from the Preseli Mountains in Pembrokeshire. Wales is peppered with over 150 of these vast burial chambers, and one of the best is Pentre Ifan near Newport, Pembrokeshire.
The Celtic invaders arrived in Britain around 600 BC from Europe. They brought with them the origins of the Welsh language, which bifurcated into Goidelic and Brythonic. Goidelic is spoken in Scotland Ireland and the Isle of Man, while Brythonic is spoken in Wales, Cornwall and Brittany. They Celts also brought metal working skills and preferred iron to bronze, using it for weapons as well as coins. They were deeply religious and their leaders the Druids were powerful priests.
In 55 BC the Romans came to Britain and after many years of fighting by 78 AD much of Wales was under Roman control. Their influence was positive, roads were built and farming practices improved. Their new Christian religion began influencing the Celtic way of life.
The Roman Empire declined and by the end of the 4th century no longer ruled Wales. During this time, Wales was subject to invasion from both the Irish and the Vikings. St Illtud established a school in the The Vale of Gamorgan at Llantwit Major and his protégé St David, established a religious community at St David’s in AD 550. (By 1120 Pope Calixtus declared that two pilgrimages to St David’s were equal to one to Rome!)
The Vikings left evidence of their invasion in the place names of some of the islands off Pembrokeshire: Skokholm, Skomer, and Grassholm.
King Offa constructed Offa’s Dyke in the late 700s, which marked the Welsh boundary and aided the unification of the disparate Welsh kingdoms.
During the 9th century Rhodri Mawr (the Great) defeated the Vikings and created a united Wales. Due to the fact that Wales had no system of primogeniture, where the eldest male inherits everything, land was often split into small parcels on the death of a parent. This meant that Wales was not a stable as England. Hywel Dda (the Good) , Rhodri’s grandson reunified the country and became the King of most of the country. Hywel died in 950 and the country descended into anarchy. His great-great grandson Gruffydd AP Llwelyn took power in 1039 and taking lands from Edward the Confessor before being killed by his own people at the request of Harold, Edward’s successor.
In 1066 following the death of Harold, King of England, The Normans conquered England. At the time William, the Norman King showed no intention of invading Wales. Instead he set up a large group of Barons, known as the Lords Marcher. These Barons were instructed to bring as much of Wales under their control as possible from their positions along the border.
The kings of Deheubarth (South Wales), and Gwynedd, Rhys Ap Tewddwr and Gruffydd Ap Cynan maintained securuty along the borders during William's lifetime by paying homage. In 1087 when William died, his son William Rufus tried unsuccessfully three times to invade Wales. Following these unsuccessful attempts he gave up and left it the Lords Marcher to advance on South Wales, leaving Powys and Gwynedd. Over the coming years the Welsh began to win back their territories.
Llywelyn Ap Iorwerth (The Great) unified a large part of Wales by capturing a number of Norman castles. Throughout his lifetime he maintained a feeble hold on the kingdom which he passed to his son Dafydd. During Dafydd's life this hold became weaker and weaker until by the time of his death in 1246 Wales had very littel unity. Dafydd's nephew and Llewelyn The Great's grandson, Llewelyn Ap Gruffydd (The last) took control of Gwynedd, exiling the English not only from Gwynedd but from most of Wales.
In 1267, The Treaty of Montgomery was ratified by Henry III recognising Llewelyn as the Prince of Wales. Following Henry III 's death Edward I became King of England, Edward forced Llewelyn back to Snowdonia and built the Iron Ring of castles: Aberystwyth; Builth Wells; Flint ; Rhuddlan; Conwy; Caernarfon; Harlech and Beaumaris. In December 1282, Llewelyn was caught and killed by Edward's soldiers.
The years that followed were miserable as Wales was beset with the Black Death and Famine. The Lords Marcher took advantage of this and sized land from debtors who defaulted. Owain Glyndwyr a descedant from both the princes of Deheubarth and Powys crowned himself "Prince of Wales" and led a rebellion. Glyndwr controlled the castles at Harlech and Aberystwyth as well as much of West Wales and sections of the marches until 1408 when they were recaptured for the King. Not much is known of Glyndwr's death, although it is believed that he died in Monmouthshire.
During the War of the Roses Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke entertained his sister-in-law, Margaret Beaufort at Pembroke Castle while her husband Edmund, Earl of Richmond was fighting for the Lancastrian cause in a neighbouring county, where he died a prisoner in Carmarthen Castle leaving a fifteen year old widow. Three months later she gave birth to Henry Tudor in 1456, the future King Henry V11 in the tower which still bears his name. The boy was brought up by his uncle until the age of fourteen, the hostility between the Yorkists and Lancastrians put his claim the throne in great danger. He fled to Brittany returning in 1485 when supporters started a claim against Richard 111 which ended in victory at Bosworth Field.
Although Welsh hopes of the new king were high, Henry IIV failed to live up to this only implementing a few changes.
In 1536 Henry VIII implemented the Act of Union an act that was ratified by a parliament in Westminster that had no Welsh representation. It rescinded the laws laid down by Hywel Dda such as that of partible inheritance which was replaced by primogenture - where the eldest son became the sole heir - thereby setting the scene for many disputes. The act also stated that English were to be the only language spoken in the courts and by official bodies, thus creating a two tier Wales. The English speaking aristocracy and the Welsh speaking masses.
The Civil War
By the time Charles I came to power relations with the Welsh were difficult. Despite this the gentry supported the king. When Parliament installed Oliver Cromwell as leader of the Commonwealth, he rewarded the support of the puritans. His regime gradually became more oppressive and the Anglicans welcomed the return of the monarchy.
In the early 18th century schools were established that taught the bible and other subjects in both Welsh and English.
In the early 19th Century acts of parliament enclosing common land and allowing only the largest land owner to graze there, left smaller farmers squeezed and this forced an exodus to the towns where they were required by the coal and steel industries. Working conditions were appalling and children as young as 6 were working in the mines. In 1832, the Reform Bill failed to live up to expectation and consequently the increased support for the Reformist Chartist movement. A petition of over a million signatures was sent to Parliament and rejected, leading to the Chartist Riots not only in South Wales but also in Northern England. In Newport the Mayor ordered the rioters to be shot and was subsequently knighted by Queen Victoria! 1839-1843 saw the Rebecca Riots, already impoverished Welsh farmers were being levied huge tolls by turnpike trusts for using the roads. For example Rhayader had 6 toll roads leading to town, meaning that it was extremely expensive to travel there, especially on market day when transporting animals.
The rioters dressed as ladies calling themselves Rebecca and her daughters, they attacked gatekeepers and smashed down gates. The name is thought to come from the Old Testament Genesis XXIV 60, a reference to Rebecca recommending that some "Possess the gates of those which hate them". This put an end to the turnpikes.
During the 19th century Welsh language and culture became diluted, partially by the influx of immigrant workers to the coal and steel industries and partly because english became the language of business. To counteract this, in 1885 the Welsh Language Society began and Eisteddfodau were reintroduced.
The Two World wars
During the first world war, living standards in Wales improved due to increased demand for coal and food and the Welsh lawyer David Lloyd George became Prime Minister in 1916. Soon afterwards conscription was introduced and many Welsh farmers and miners turned to the socailist Labour Party. This support increased during the depression which hit Wales badly, with unemployment running at nearly 30%. In 1925 Plaid Genedlaethol Cymru The Welsh National Party formed.
The onset of WWII provided some relief from the depression with the re-armament, and demand for coal and food. The economy in Wales changed with more people entering manufacturing and less in mining etc..
The post war period brought mixed fortunes for the Welsh. On the positive side, health care improved as the new labour government under Clement Attlee formed the National Health Service, under the stewardship of the Welsh MP for Ebbw Vale, Aneurin Bevan. Council housing also improved. On the negative side, employment suffered as the government nationalised the coal industry and began closing coal mines. Cheaper coal was imported from Europe and the mines became uneconomical. Unemployment in Wales was running at twice the national average. Despite this, Labour managed to retain control of Wales although Plaid Cymru were posing a serious threat. In 1964, the Labour government under Harold Wilson created the post of Secretary of State for Wales due to mounting pressure from Plaid Cymru. He also created the Welsh Development Agency. Plaid Cymru were seriously underrated by the Labour government and thought to appeal only to the rural minority. They were surprised in 1966 when Gwynfor Evans won the Carmarthenshire by-election and became Plaid Cymru’s first MP. By 1974, Plaid had 3 MPs and forced the government to look at the question of Welsh devolution. The Labour Government tabled the Wales Act which gave Wales an elected body but they had no power to raise revenue or to legislate. The referendum was held in 1979 and 80% of voters voted against.
In 1979 with over 30% of the Welsh vote, Margaret Thatcher led the Conservative party to victory. In Wales, things went from bad to worse. The Conservatives privatised previously nationalised industries. Jobs in the steel industry, as well as manufacturing and construction were lost and unemployment doubled in five years. A low point in the period was the year long Miners’ Strike which took place between 1984 and 1985.
During the 1980s Welsh Nationalism saw a resurgence and support for Plaid Cymru increased. As did the appetite for the language, previously the number of Welsh language speakers was in decline, this trend began to reverse and continues to do so today. In 1982 S4C was launched, the first Welsh language channel!
In stark contrast to the 1979 election, in 1997 Wales elected no Conservative MPs at all! With Tony Blair and “New Labour” a National Assembly for Wales was a central policy proposal. The first elections for the new assembly took place in May 1999 with Rhodri Morgan as the First Minister. Although the Labour party runs the Assembly, they do not have a majority due in large part to the popularity of Plaid Cymru.
Last Updated: 28 Apr 2015