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A History of Wales

John Davies is a native of the Rhondda. He was educated in schools in Treorci, Bwlchllan and Tregaron and at University College, Cardiff, and Trinity College, Cambridge. He taught at the University Colleges of Swansea and Aberystwyth and was for eighteen years the Warden of Neuadd Pantycelyn, Aberystwyth. His other publications include Cardiff and the Marquesses of Bute, Hanes Cymru, The Making of Wales, The Celts and Cardiff: a Pocket Guide. He is the consultant editor of The Encyclopaedia of Wales.

A History of Wales

The area now known as Wales was probably inhabited as early as 250,000 BC (the Lower Paleolithic Age). Hand-worked tools have been found at various sites that date from around 26,000 BC. It wasn't until the retreat of the glaciers during the Ice Age around 10,000 BC, however, that human settlement in any significant numbers could begin.

At that time mainland Britain separated from the continent of Europe and included the large island to the west that is now known as Ireland. Huge stone structures, the Megaliths and their chambered-tomb companions, the Cromlech, dot the landscape of much of southwestern Britain even today.

These were the people who built Stonehenge, perhaps their finest monument, although even this is dwarfed by the huge circle at Avebury. The inner circle of uprights at Stonehenge was formed of the so-called "blue stones" transported somehow from the mysterious heights of Preseli, in Southwest Wales, long considered a holy or magic mountain and still an area regarded with awe by the locals.

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Map of the Dominions of the Angevins
From "A Short History of the English People"
by English historian
John Richard Green, 1874

By 2,000 BC, the Beaker Folk entered the island, believed to be from the area of Germany's Rhine River. By 1,000 BC, the Iron Age had arrived in Wales; there, its people grouped themselves into large hill forts for protection, such as are found at Tre'r Ceiri in the Llyn Peninsula. They seem to have practiced settled farming, but they also worked extensive copper mines, the remains of which can still be seen in such places as the Great Orme (Pen y Gogarth) Llandudno, Gwynedd.

This culture had benefited from prolonged contact with others in the Mediterranean area, whose use of the symbols and patterns so characteristic of Celtic design, is named La Tene, after a village on the shores of Lake Neuchatel in Switzerland. At this time the Celtic languages arrived in Britain, probably introduced by small groups of migrants. The advanced skills of the Celts seemed to have made them dominant in their new western homelands; They were part of a great-unified Celtic "empire" encompassing many different people of Northern Europe.

The Greeks called these people Keltoi; the Romans, Celtai. Celts. In spite of the fact that they were perhaps the most powerful people in much of Europe in 300 BC, with lands stretching from Anatolia in the East to Ireland in the West, the Celts were unable to prevent inter tribal warfare. Their seeming lack of political unity, despite their fierceness in battle, ultimately led to their defeat and subjugation by the much better disciplined, and much-better armed legions of Rome.

Along with the new languages, new religions entered Britain, particularly that of the Druids, the guardians of traditions and learning and caretakers of shrines to the myriad Celtic gods and goddesses. Druids did not commit their learning to writing, they glorified the pursuits of war, feasting and horsemanship. They controlled the calendar and the planting of crops and they presided over the religious festivals and rituals that honored local deities. They had nothing at all to do with the building of huge stone monuments such as Stonehenge and Avebury, in place long before their arrival.

The 13thCentury: Llewellyn King of Gwynedd

In the mid-13th century one man managed to make himself ruler of most of Wales. In 1255 Llewellyn became king of Gwynedd. The Welsh kingdoms of Powys, Deheubarth and Glamorgan recognized Llewellyn as their lord. In 1267 King Henry III of England made the Treaty of Montgomery with Llewellyn. According to the treaty Llewellyn was made Prince of Wales. However he agreed to become the English king's vassal.

In 1272 Edward I became king of England. He was determined to rule all of Great Britain. Since Llewellyn was his vassal Edward summoned him to do homage. Each time he was summoned Llewellyn made an excuse. In 1276 Edward declared him a rebel and raised an army, which marched into Wales. In 1277 Llewellyn was forced to submit and to surrender some territory to the English. However in 1282 the Welsh rebelled.

Llewellyn was killed fighting the English in December 1282 but his brother Dafyd carried on the struggle. However Dafyd was captured in June 1283 and he was executed in October 1283. The rebellion was crushed.

Edward was now ruler of Wales. English law was imposed upon the Welsh and Edward built a network of castles to control the people. Alongside the castles Edward created new towns.

In 1294 the Welsh rose in rebellion, which was was crushed in 1295. In 1301 to try and gain the loyalty of the Welsh, Edward made his son, also named Edward, Prince of Wales.

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United Kingdom, Wales, Aberystwyth Castle
Ceredigion, West Wales

In 1400 Owain Glyn Dwr led another rebellion. Between 1401 and 1403 the rebels steadily advanced, capturing Welsh towns and defeating the English in battle. In 1404 Owain captured the castles at Aberystwyth and Harlech. However in 1405 and 1406 the English began to regain ground. The English recaptured Aberystwyth castle in 1408 and Harlech castle in 1409. Owain and his followers fled to the mountains. They continued to fight until 1413 when Owain Glyn Dwr disappeared from history.

In the late 15th century towns and trade in Wales flourished. Much of the countryside also grew more prosperous.

Then in 1485 Henry Tudor landed with an army at Milford Haven. He marched through Wales into England and after the battle of Bosworth he became king.


In 1517 Martin Luther, a German, started the Reformation. He demanded changes in Christian belief and practices. In 1534 Henry VIII broke with the pope and made himself head of the church in England and Wales. In 1536 Henry dissolved the smaller monasteries in Wales. The rest were dissolved in 1539. Meanwhile Protestant ideas were spreading through Wales. However although Henry made himself head of the church he was not willing to allow many changes. In 1542 a Protestant called Thomas Capper was burned to death in Cardiff. When Henry's daughter Mary became queen in 1553, she tried to restore the old Catholic religion.

When Mary died in 1558 her sister Elizabeth became queen. Elizabeth re-introduced Protestantism. In 1588 the Bible was translated into Welsh.

In 1536 the English parliament passed an act of Union. As a result Wales was united with England. The Welsh were given equal citizenship and were allowed to send MPs to parliament. English law came into force throughout Wales. During the 16th century Wales was gradually growing richer. Most people made their living from farming and cattle. However trade and industry continued to grow. Wales exported more and more wool and woolen cloth. Coal mining flourished. The Welsh iron industry also grew.

Harlech Castle.
Harlech Castle
Charles Wilkinson

In 1642 came civil war between king and parliament. Wales was firmly in the royalist camp (except for the town of Pembroke which supported parliament all the way through the war) and many Welsh soldiers fought in the king's army. By 1644 the king was losing the war. In September the royalist were badly defeated at the battle of Montgomery. In 1645 the parliamentary army captured south Wales. North Wales was still loyal to the king until 1646 when parliamentary soldiers marched into the area and captured the royalist strongholds one by one. The last to fall was Harlech which was captured by parliamentary soldiers on 7 March 1647. In 1648 Parliament decided to disband its army. John Poyer, a soldier in the Parliamentary army, threw in his lot with the king but soldiers loyal to parliament marched to Wales and crushed the rebellion.


In the early 18th century Wales continued to grow more prosperous and a number of splendid mansions were built and many charity schools were founded in Wales. The schools were given a boost by Griffith Jones (1683-1761) who created circulating/mobile schools which were moved every 3-6 months. This helped create widespread literacy in Wales.

In the mid-18th century Wales was still very much a rural society. Welsh towns were very small, even by the standards of the time and the vast majority of people lived in the countryside. Most people lived by farming. However at the end of the 18th century all that began to change with the advent of the industrial revolution.


In the 19th century coal mining and iron working in Wales boomed along with other metal industries: copper, zinc and tin plating and slate quarrying. There was also an important woolen industry in Wales.

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"Rebecca" Riot in South Wales

The population of Wales grew rapidly despite emigration. In 1801 the population of Wales was less than 600,000. By 1851 it was nearly 1.2 million. By 1911 it was over 2 million.

Welsh towns grew very quickly; by the early 19th century they were dirty and overcrowded, resulting in outbreaks of cholera in Wales in 1832, 1848, 1854 and 1866. There was also unrest in the Welsh countryside. There were riots in the years 1842-1844 known as the Rebecca riots. Men dressed as women, called themselves Daughters of Rebecca, and targeted tollgates. (Many roads in Wales were owned by Turnpike Trusts, requiring tolls to use them).

Later in the 19th century wages increased and hours of work were cut. Towns became healthier as sewers were dug. The railways of the 1840s covered Wales and made it much easier for visitors, aiding tourism as an important Welsh industry..