The History of Wales

The History of Wales

by John Graham Jones

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In the years since its original publication, John Graham Jones’s The History of Wales has become the standard concise account of the history of Wales and its people. It traces the main outlines of Welsh history, beginning with the earliest settlements by the Celts and including the Roman and Norman invasions, Edward I’s conquest of the region for England, the subsequent Acts of Union, the widespread effects of the Reformation and the growth of Puritanism and Methodism, and the dramatic transformations wrought by the industrial revolution. Succinct biographies of key figures, descriptions of major historical sites, and a glossary and timeline help to make this the perfect introductory volume for the general reader.
This new edition brings the book fully into the present, offering a new chapter on contemporary Wales, a new preface, and a thoroughly updated reading list.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783161683
Publisher: University of Wales Press
Publication date: 02/15/2015
Edition description: New edition
Pages: 168
Sales rank: 740,261
Product dimensions: 7.70(w) x 4.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

John Graham Jones was an archivist at the National Library of Wales. He lives in Aberystwyth.

Read an Excerpt

The History of Wales

By J. Graham Jones

University of Wales Press

Copyright © 2014 J. Graham Jones
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78316-170-6


Pre-Norman Wales

The earliest inhabitants

There is some evidence of human habitation in Wales as long ago as 250,000 BC. But positive remains date only from late Palaeolithic times (c. 50,000–8,000 BC) and show that the people were cave-dwellers. The rock-shelters and small caves in which these primitive hunters lived include the Cae-gwyn cave near St Asaph, Paviland in Gower, Coygan in southern Dyfed and the Cat's Hole in west Dyfed. They existed in abysmally cold conditions and hunted oxen, reindeer and other wild animals with primitive stone weapons. Certainly, the Palaeolithic population was thinly spread and culturally impoverished; none of the high-quality cave art which flourished in France and Spain was to be found in Wales, which remained on the very fringe of civilization.

Stone-Age caves

The caves which show evidence of occupation in late Palaeolithic or Neolithic times are the oldest human dwelling places and tombs in Wales which we can now identify. Some are now protected as monuments of the earliest human inhabitants of Wales. The most famous is the 'Goat's Hole', Paviland (Gower), in which were found a large number of stone tools and a headless skeleton of a youth ritually buried about 18,000 years ago. The skeleton had been stained with red ochre and became popularly and inaccurately known as the 'Red Lady'.

Mesolithic man

About 6,000 BC the British Isles separated from the mainland of Europe. By this time new immigrants had arrived – called Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age folk – but in Wales their civilization remained primitive. Their weapons were simple, and they fished on the shores and hunted on the fringes of the great forests which had sprung up in the warmer and wetter climate. They were able to make tools from stone, bone and particularly flint. It has been estimated that the number of these people in Wales was very small, perhaps no more than about 300.

Neolithic man

Technology improved as fresh waves of settlers arrived. More advanced cultivation and domesticated farm animals evolved in the Middle East around 9,000 BC. These techniques spread westwards in a number of ways – of greatest significance to Wales were the routes which passed through the Mediterranean basin, along the coasts of Atlantic Europe and via the western seas – and may not have reached Wales until about 3,000 BC, when there is evidence of the use of improved stone axes, the construction of massive stone-built tombs, and the adoption of the practice of herding animals. At around this time cultivation of the land first took place in Wales.

Neolithic remains

Some Neolithic communities in Britain built oblong houses, with ridge roofs carried on rows of posts. Examples have been found at Newton Nottage near Porthcawl and Clegyr Boia near St David's. The burial chamber at Tinkinswood in South Glamorgan is a large trapezoid at the north-eastern end of a cairn 130 feet long and 60 feet wide. It was excavated and partially restored in 1914. The chamber is enclosed on three sides by upright slabs, while a single great capstone weighing about 40 tons forms the roof. It contained the bones of about fifty individuals and pottery resembling that made in southern England. There are similar chambers at St Lythans near Tinkinswood, now completely exposed, at Parc le Breos, Gower, and at Capel Garmon, Clwyd, overlooking the upper Conwy valley. The round cairns of the type found in northern Ireland and south-west Scotland have been found in north-west and west Wales. The best preserved is at Trefnigath, Holyhead, originally 45 feet long and comprising four chambers. The Pentre Ifan 'Cromlech', near Nevern in south Dyfed (the best-known of all Welsh megalithic monuments) has attracted attention by the height of its great capstone under which it was possible for a man to ride on horseback. There remains today the skeleton of a single oblong chamber with a capstone 16 feet long.

Many Neolithic men lived in caves; others existed in open settlements on spurs of land near the coast. Their dwellings were made of wood and have not survived. The use of metal had not yet penetrated to north-west Europe, but implements have been found dating from this period which were ground and polished, made from the abundant supply of the tough and durable igneous rock in Wales. June 1919 saw the discovery at Penmaen-mawr in north Gwynedd of the remains of a 'great axe factory' of Neolithic times. Axes made at Penmaen-mawr have been found as far afield as Wiltshire, south Scotland and northern Ireland. Such discoveries bear witness to a marked freedom of movement and trade.

The great stones of the burial chambers of Neolithic man still stand, towering and majestic, after 4,000 years. Some are round and others long in plan. A fine example of one of the long cairns survives at Tinkinswood, St Nicholas, on the coastal plain of Glamorgan. Large numbers of round cairns are to be found in Anglesey. It is evident from these tombs and from the production of tools that Neolithic man lived in substantial communities, believed in a god and possessed a rudimentary knowledge of engineering.

The Bronze Age

The Beaker folk, who originated in Spain, first sailed into Britain about 2,000 BC. They buried their dead in single graves adorned by a distinctive 'waisted' earthenware pot or beaker. No more than thirty of these have been discovered in Wales, scattered along the coastal plains of the north and south or in the Severn, Wye and Usk valleys – all easily invaded from the east or the sea. They largely failed to penetrate into the western highlands which remained the preserve of the Neolithic people. It was the Beaker folk who introduced metal-working into Britain, as is evidenced by the gold, copper and bronze objects found in their graves. But stone generally remained in use for rough tools, now more imaginatively adapted to the flint dagger, the axe-hammer and the arrow head. The Presely hills in Dyfed provided much of the stone for the great circle of Stonehenge in Wiltshire, and a dozen smaller circles built during this period have been discovered within Wales, all of them on the uplands. Numbers of food vessels have also survived, mostly found on the coastal plains.

A sudden development in the use of bronze occurred after about 1,000 BC, when the first Celts reached the south coasts of Britain. The number and variety of metal tools increased dramatically. Many distribution points for bronze tools have been identified in Wales. People began to clear areas of forest for farming and a substantial increase in the population of Wales took place. People lived further inland, surviving by keeping herds of sheep, pigs and oxen. Crops were raised on the rich soil of the plains.

The Iron Age

The Celts had mastered improved techniques of iron-working and more advanced farming skills such as a two-oxen plough and iron ploughshare. It is during Iron Age B, c. 300–100 BC, that the roots of a distinctive Welsh life and culture can be detected. Low-land agricultural villages were built up, and large numbers of hill-forts were built, especially along the south-west and west coasts and in the border area. A more pastoral economy developed in Wales; wheat, barley and flax were grown in small enclosures, and a number of domestic animals kept. Perhaps the hill-forts were used only for protection during the frequent bouts of strife rather than as permanent homes. Sophisticated iron and bronze implements were widespread and decorated ornaments, weapons and pottery provide evidence of high artistic quality. Yet these people lived crudely, indeed savagely. The squalor of the hill-forts contrasts strikingly with the examples of their highly developed artistic skill.

Iron-Age forts

Most of the prehistoric fortifications in Wales belong to the early Iron Age, to the last five or six centuries before the Roman conquest. By this time there had developed an elaborate tradition of dry-stone rampart building, with timber-framing used on a large scale. These forts were usually sited on isolated hills, the defences following the contours all around. Elaborate systems of defence at entrances developed. Caery Twr, near Holyhead on Anglesey, covers an area of some seventeen acres on the highest part of Holyhead Mountain, and consists of a simple dry-stone rampart. On the north side it is 13 feet thick and up to 10 feet high. Two hill-forts in Gwent – Llanmelin and the Bulwarks, Chepstow – have closely sited, multiple ramparts. The former was laid out as a contour fort with a mesh of ramparts and ditches continuing all around it without interruption. It may have been the tribal capital of the Silures before the Roman conquest. The Bulwarks Camp, Chepstow, is a small promontory hill-fort, originally defended by a double bank and ditch. It enclosed no more than 1.5 acres and was regarded as a strongly defended homestead. The sloping-fronted multiple ramparts again suggest construction in the immediate pre-Roman period.

The Welsh language

In their homeland the Celts employed a tongue spoken over a wide area, now termed Common Celtic, a language which divided into two main groups: Goidelic and Brittonic. The Welsh language was eventually to descend from the Brittonic group. Certainly, the Iron-Age people spoke Celtic languages when they reached the British Isles. Goidelic-speakers occupied the north of Scotland, the Isle of Man and Ireland, while Brittonic took root in Wales, England and the south of Scotland. Considerable intermixture inevitably followed, and Goidelic was probably spoken in some parts of Wales, particularly in the north-west and the south-west. It was to be greatly strengthened by extensive Irish settlement in the immediate post-Roman period.

Roman Wales

The Emperor Claudius invaded Britain in AD 43 in an urgent attempt to secure the north-west frontier of the Roman Empire. Most of the south of England was subdued by the Roman legions within five years. Shortly after AD 70 the Romans began to build the fortresses which were to serve as permanent bases for their legions and to facilitate the control of the military zones in Wales, Scotland and the north of England. Deva (Chester) and Isca Silurum (Caerleon) were begun in AD 74 and served as the major garrison towns of Wales. Each held some 6,000 legionaries – heavily armed and well-paid foot-soldiers. Some twenty-four small forts were constructed and linked by hundreds of miles of specially built roads. Some of these fort sites in Wales carry the element caer (castle or fort) in their place-names today, among them Caerhun, Caersws, and Pen-y-gaer. The Roman conquest of Wales, though fraught with difficulties, was speedily accomplished by AD 78. But it did not in any way transform the lives of the Celtic peoples. While some tribes, such as the Silures in south-east Wales, were moved into recently constructed Roman towns, many smaller groups pursued their traditional way of life undisturbed. Roman Wales always remained a frontier zone. Anglesey was to prove a particular source of resistance; here was the headquarters of the Druids, a cult hated by the Romans.

Three centuries of Roman occupation certainly bequeathed a legacy to Wales. A new element was added to the population of the country; improved agrarian practices were introduced, especially in the Vale of Glamorgan where numbers of large villas were established; more sophisticated mining technology was practised in the search for minerals: gold, iron, copper and lead. Large numbers of Latin words entered everyday speech. Roman pottery and trinkets passed from the hands of the Roman soldiers to those of the natives. Although, when the last Eagle Standard of the Roman legions left Wales permanently in AD 383, the life of the Celtic peoples continued much as before, there was a permanent legacy to the people and landscape of Wales. The roads, forts, dykes and watermills stood as models of engineering, often serving right through to the nineteenth century.

Roman forts

The Roman army, ever methodical, laid out the sites of its forts by means of a cross-staff set up in the middle of the cleared area. The stone fort at Gelligaer shows that a standard measuring-staff of 10 Roman feet was employed in setting out the buildings. They were designed for a professional army, neatly planned and oblong in shape, the size closely related to the numbers in the garrison envisaged. Caerleon covers about fifty acres, designed for a legion 5,300 strong. Roman forts have the same basic layout: the area was divided laterally into three by streets. The central part contained the headquarters, usually flanked by the commandant's house, construction shop and a pair of granaries holding a two-year supply. The front and rear divisions, bisected by streets leading to gates, were largely given up to barracks and stabling. The forts had ramparts of earth strengthened with timber or stone and fronted by ditches on the outer side. Much of this arrangement survives at Segontium on the outskirts of Caernarfon, begun about AD 78 and rebuilt in stone twenty years later. It was excavated by Sir Mortimer Wheeler in the 1920s, and many of the relics he excavated are to be found in a small museum. At Castell Collen built by the Romans on the road leading from their fort at Brecon the banks, ditches and some stonework can still be traced. The remains of gateways can still be seen at Segontium, Brecon Gaer and Neath, while Caerleon Amphitheatre, dating from about AD 80, has been fully excavated. Many of the finds from the numerous excavations at Caerleon are housed in the Legionary Museum near the church.

Cunedda Wledig

Soon after the withdrawal of the Romans, advancing barbarian peoples entered Britain. From the fifth century they pushed to the north and to the west and thus isolated the Celts of Wales from the other Celtic peoples. It was at this time that Wales became a tangible territorial unit. The Welsh were confined, restricted and under attack, particularly by the Irish on the west and the Picts on the north. The Welsh folk-tales in The Mabinogion often refer to the constant coming and going between Wales and Ireland. Colonies of Irish folk had long since settled in Dyfed and in Llyn, but the invaders who followed the collapse of Rome were fierce pirates rather than peaceful settlers.

Tradition records that, at the beginning of the fifth century, Cunedda Wledig and his sons left Manaw Gododdin (a settlement in the country of the Otadini, along the banks of the Firth of Forth, near North Berwick and Edinburgh, and one of the Brythonic kingdoms of north Britain) for Gwynedd (north-west Wales), where they expelled the Irish settlers and founded their own dynasty, their descendants ruling as the royal house of Gwynedd. This tradition, recorded in the Historia Brittonum of Nennius (a compilation of historical and geographical lore dating from about AD 800), is at least partly confirmed by the evidence of Goidelic features in north-west Wales. Einion Yrth, Cunedda's eldest son, is credited with the defeat of the Irish and the consolidation of Welsh influence in the north-west. Cunedda, we are told, was accompanied by eight sons, who gave their names to many of the regions of north and west Wales, among them Ceredig-ion, Rhufon-iog and Edeirn-ion, while the name of his grandson took root in Meirion-nydd.

The other Welsh kingdoms

Cunedda was not the father of all the Welsh kingdoms. Irish influences were even more marked in south-west Wales than in the north-west. This may be attributed to the migration of Goidelic people from the land of the Deisi in southern Ireland in the fourth and fifth centuries. The royal dynasty which emerged in Pembroke or Dyfed in the extreme south-west was clearly of Irish origins. Yet an inscribed stone commemorating a sixth-century ruler styled 'Voteporix the Protector' suggests the presence, too, of Romano-British characteristics. The small inland kingdom of Brycheiniog (or Brecon) nurtured a dynasty which claimed descent from a native princess and an Irish prince from Pembroke or even from Ireland itself. Perhaps this explains why Brycheiniog, together with southern Dyfed, has more inscriptions in the Irish alphabet called Ogam – seven in all – than any other part of Wales.


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Table of Contents


Preface to the First Edition

Preface to the Second Edition

Preface to the Third Edition

1 Pre-Norman Wales

2 From Norman Conquest to Edwardian Conquest

3 From Conquest to Union

4 Post-Union Wales

5 Stuart Wales

6 Methodism and Radicalism

7 The Agrarian and Industrial Revolutions

8 Politics, Nonconformity and Education

9 Wales, 1880 – 1939

10 Modern Welsh Society

11 Wales in the New Millennium

Important Dates

Further Reading

Glossary of Terms

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