THE WELSH (a brief history of Wales)
The collapse of Roman rule sparked a resurgence of native Celtic kingdoms across Britain, above all in areas such as Wales that had only been slightly romanised. Yet much subsequent Welsh history was one of internal division and of subjugation by its larger English neighbour. Despite a succession of Strong leaders, by 1284 Wales had fallen under permanent English control.
After the Romans left in the 5th century, Britain gradually divided into three principal areas: Wales, England and Scotland. The construction of Offa’s Dyke in the 8th century was the first clear delineation of a boundary between England and Wales. At this time Wales was divided into a number of kingdoms, which thanks to the practice of ‘partible inheritance’, were often subdivided further still (the equal division of an estate between sons)
Wales was a land of multiple kingships complicated by territorial battles, border disputes, internecine rivalries and family quarrels. Any attempt to unify the nation was made even more difficult by the often dramatic and hostile landscape.
Wales between the 5th and 9th centuries saw the growth of a shifting mosaic of competing states ruled by a rapidly changing cast of kings and sub-kings, clans and tribal leaders. Though the external difficulties facing these territories were often formidable – Irish settlers, Viking raiders and above all the expansionist Anglo Saxons to their east.
Welsh disunity and ultimately domination by England were never a foregone conclusion. In 633 Cadwallon, the ruler of Gwynedd aided by Penda, king of Mercia, inflicted a devastating defeat on the great Northumbian king, Edwin. Had Cadwallon brought Northumbria into his own kingdom, he would have made himself the greatest ruler in Britain. Instead, he spent the next year laying waste to Northumbria until he was killed in further fighting with the Northumbrians.
Welsh hopes revived in the 9th century under Rhodri Mawr, ‘ the great’, who united Gwynedd, Powys and the smaller kingdom of Seisyllwg, in the process triumphing in a series of near simultaneous campaigns against the Danes and Anglo-Saxons. But his gains were frittered away with his death in 878.
A more lasting contribution was made in the 10th century by Hywel Dda, ‘the good. By 942 his rule covered Deheubarth, Gwynedd and Powys. Hywel recognised early that Wales was best served by co-operating with the Anglo-Saxons. The price was high, however in 918 he had secured peace for Wales by acknowledging Edward the Elder as his feudal master. As a result, all subsequent English monarchs would claim the over lordship of Wales.
Hywel had understood a central truth: that England was strong because it was well governed. His own attempts to introduce more efficient government to Wales focused on a far-sighted revision of the countries myriad local laws in 945. Significantly Hywel remains the only Welsh monarch to have issued his own coinage. After his death his lands were divided up and Wales was never again wholly united under a single welsh sovereign.