Wales (Welsh: Cymru; pronounced IPA: /ˈkəmɹi/, approximately
"KUM-ree") is a country and one of the four constituent parts of the United
Kingdom (along with England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland). Wales is located
in the south-west of Great Britain, and is bordered by England to the east, the
Bristol Channel to the south, St George's Channel in the west, and the Irish Sea
to the north.
The term Principality of Wales, in Welsh, Tywysogaeth Cymru, is often used,
although the Prince of Wales has no role in the governance of Wales and this
term is unpopular among some. Wales has not been politically independent since
1282, when it was conquered by King Edward I of England. The capital of Wales
since 1955 has been Cardiff, although Caernarfon is the location where the
Prince of Wales is invested, and Machynlleth was the home of a parliament called
by Owain Glyndwr during his revolt at the start of the fifteenth century. In
1999, the National Assembly for Wales was formed, which has limited domestic
powers and cannot make law.
History of Wales
The earliest inhabitants of Wales were from continental
Europe, who migrated in several waves and who were later subsumed into the
culture and race of the Celts. There is some evidence that the Welsh share some
genetic links with the Basques, and as such are partly descendents of the
pre-Indo-European peoples of Britain and Ireland.
Wales under the Romans
Up to and during the Roman occupation of Britain, Wales (the region called
Cambria in Latin) was not a separate country, but all inhabitants of Britain and
Ireland spoke Celtic languages and were essentially of the same ethnic origin.
The Romans occupied the whole of Wales, where they built roads and forts, mined
gold and conducted commerce, but their interest in it was limited, because of
the difficult geography and shortage of flat agricultural land. They established
only one town in Wales, Caerwent (Venta Silurum). The Silures were the major
tribe of south-east Wales. Their military leader, Caratacus (Caradoc), had
joined them from another, defeated, tribe. Under his leadership, they defied the
Romans for a period after the Claudian invasion, but eventually Caratacus was
captured and taken to Rome, where his dignified bearing made such an impression
on the people that his life was spared.
After the Romans
When the Roman garrison of Britain was withdrawn in 410, the
various states within Wales were left self-governing. One of the reasons for the
Roman withdrawal was the pressure put upon the empire's military resources by
the incursion of barbarian tribes from the east. These tribes, including the
Angles and Saxons, were unable to make inroads into Wales, but they gradually
conquered the whole of England, leaving Wales cut off from her Celtic relations
in Scotland, Cornwall and Cumbria. Wales became Christian, and the "age of the
saints" (approximately 500700) was marked by the establishment of monastic
settlements throughout the country, by religious leaders such as Saint David,
Illtud and Teilo. Wales was divided into a number of separate territories, and
for a single man to rule the whole country at this period was rare, the first to
do so being Rhodri Mawr, during the 9th century. Rhodri's grandson, Hywel Dda,
succeeded in drawing up a standard legal system and brought peace to the
country, but, on his death, his territories were once again divided.
A major difficulty in achieving national unity was the inheritance system
practised in Wales. All sons received an equal share of their father's property
(including illegitimate sons). Liberal as this policy was, it resulted in
frequent internecine violence and the division of small territories into still
smaller ones, so that, by the time of the Norman conquest of England in 1066,
Wales was again fragmented.
The princes of Gwynedd in north Wales, however, were increasingly dominant.
Gruffydd ap Cynan (c.1055 - 1137) was eventually able to fight off a strong
Norman challenge which at one time looked likely to end Gwynedd's independence.
His son, Owain Gwynedd (d.1170) held a strong hold on his principality, though
his sons squabbled and murdered one another after his death. Out of the ensuing
power struggle eventually arose one of the greatest of Welsh leaders, Llywelyn
ap Iorwerth, also known as Llywelyn Fawr (the Great). Internal strife again
broke out after Llywellyn's death, culminating in the rise to power of his
grandson, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd (a.k.a. Llywelyn the Last). Llywellyn's ambition
in uniting Wales under his leadership conflicted with Edward I of England's
suzerinity of Wales, and the war followed. After Llywelyn's death in battle in
1282, only token resistance was offered by the surviving princes. After passing
the Statute of Rhuddlan which restricted Welsh laws, King Edward's ring of
impressive stone castles assisted the domination of Wales, and he crowned his
conquest by giving the title Prince of Wales to his son and heir in 1301.
Wales became, effectively, part of England, even though its
people spoke a different language and had a different culture. English kings
paid lip service to their responsibilities by appointing a Council of Wales,
sometimes presided over by the heir to the throne. This Council normally sat in
Ludlow, now in England but at that time still part of the disputed border area.
In 1400, a Welsh nobleman, Owain Glyn Dŵr or Owen Glendower, revolted against
King Henry IV of England, inflicted several military defeats, and succeeded in
evading capture, but he did not have the strength to survive as a leader.
However, his rebellion caused a great upsurge in Welsh identity and he was
widely supported by Welsh people throughout the country. Some of his
achievements included the first ever Welsh Parliament and plans for two
universities. Subsequently, a Welshman, Henry Tudor, gained the throne as King
Henry VII of England. Under his son, Henry VIII of England, the Acts of Union of
1536 and 1543 were passed, annexing Wales to England in legal terms, abolishing
the Welsh legal system, and banning the Welsh language from any official role or
Industrial Revolution and onwards
In later centuries, parts of Wales became heavily
industrialised, and the social effects of industrialisation led to bitter social
conflict between the Welsh workers and the English factory owners. During the
1830s there were two armed uprisings, in the new town of Merthyr Tydfil in 1831,
and in the Eastern Valleys in 1839, leading to the country becoming a hotbed of
socialism, accompanied by the increasing politicisation of religious
Nonconformism. The first Labour MP, Keir Hardie, was elected for the Welsh
constituency of Merthyr in 1900. In common with many European nations, the first
movements for national autonomy began in the 1880s and 1890s with the formation
of Cymru Fydd. Wales was officially de-annexed from England within the United
Kingdom in 1955, with the term "England" being replaced with "England and
The Twentieth Century
Nationalism only became a major issue during the twentieth
century, with the political party, Plaid Cymru, winning its first Parliamentary
seat in 1966. Largely as a result of this, devolution became the policy of the
Labour party, and the National Assembly for Wales was eventually established in
1998, with power over public spending within the principality.
Wales has been a principality since the 13th century,
initially under the Welsh prince Llywelyn the Great, and later under his
grandson, Llywelyn the Last, who took the title Prince of Wales around 1258, and
was recognised by the English Crown in 1277 by the Treaty of Aberconwy.
Following his defeat by Edward I, however, Welsh independence in the 14th
century was limited to a number of minor revolts. The greatest such revolt was
that of Owain Glyndwr, who gained popular support in 1400, and defeated an
English force at Pumlumon in 1401. In response, the English parliament passed
repressive measures denying the Welsh the right of assembly. Glyndwr was
proclaimed Prince of Wales, and sought assistance from the French, but by 1409
his forces were scattered under the attacks of King Henry IV of England and
further measures imposed against the Welsh.
The Act of Union 1536 abolished the remaining Marcher Lordships, leaving Wales
with thirteen counties: Anglesey, Brecon, Caernarfon, Cardigan, Carmarthen,
Denbigh, Flint, Glamorgan, Merioneth, Monmouth, Montgomery, Pembroke, and
Radnor, and applied the Law of England to both England and Wales, requiring the
English language for official purposes. This excluded most native Welsh from any
formal office. Wales continues to share a legal identity with England to a large
degree as the joint entity of England and Wales. Scotland and Northern Ireland
retain separate legal systems.
Wales was for centuries dwarfed by its larger neighbour, England. Indeed, one
well-known British encyclopedia was said perhaps apocryphally to have had an
entry reading "WALES. See under ENGLAND". In 1955 steps were taken to
re-establish a sense of national identity for Wales when Cardiff was established
as its capital. Before this, legislation passed by the UK parliament had simply
referred to England, rather than England and Wales.
Since 1993 and the passing of the Welsh Language Act it has been law for all
documents produced by public bodies to be in both English and Welsh. Many
private companies have followed suit, producing literature with similar
The National Assembly for Wales, sitting in Cardiff, first elected in 1999, is
elected by the Welsh people and has its powers defined by the Government of
Wales Act 1998. The title of Prince of Wales is still given by the reigning
British monarch to his or her eldest son, but in modern times the Prince does
not live in Wales and has no direct involvement with administration or
government. The Prince is, however, still symbolically linked to the
principality; the investiture of Charles, Prince of Wales took place at
Caernarfon Castle in North Wales, a place traditionally associated with the
creation of the title in the 13th century. The investiture was considered an
insult by some Welsh people, and Welsh folk singer Dafydd Iwan released mocking
singles called Croeso Chwedeg Nain (Welcome 69, although a literal translation
would be Welcome Granny's 60th (birthday)) and Carlo (Charlie). Two members of "Mudiad
Amddiffyn Cymru" MAC (Welsh Defence Movement) George Taylor and Alwyn Jones,
the "Abergele Martyrs", were killed by a home made bomb at Abergele the day
before the investiture ceremony.
Wales is located on a peninsula in central-west Great
Britain. The entire area of Wales is about 20,779 km2 (8,023 square miles). It
is about 274 km (170 miles) long and 97 km (60 miles) wide. Wales borders by
England to the east and by sea in the other three directions: the Bristol
Channel to the south, St George's Channel to the west, and the Irish Sea to the
north. Together, Wales has over 965 km (600 miles) of coastline. There are
several islands off the Welsh mainland, the largest being Anglesey in the
The main population and industrial areas are in South Wales, consisting of the
cities of Cardiff, Swansea and Newport and surrounding areas.
Much of Wales's diverse landscape is mountainous, particularly in the north and
central regions. The mountains were shaped during the last ice age, the
Devensian glaciation. The highest mountains in Wales are in Snowdonia, and
include Snowdon, which, at 1085 m (3,560 feet) is the highest peak in England
and Wales. The 14 (or possibly 15) Welsh mountains over 3000 feet high are known
collectively as the Welsh 3000s. The Brecon Beacons are in the south and are
joined by the Cambrian Mountains in mid-Wales, the latter being given to the
earliest of the geological periods(Cambrian). Consequently, the next two
periods, Ordovician and Silurian were named after Welsh/Celtic tribes from this
The modern border between Wales and England is highly arbitrary; it was largely
defined in the 16th century, based on medieval feudal boundaries. It has
apparently never been confirmed by referendum or reviewed by any Boundary
Commission (except to confirm Monmouthshire as part of Wales in 1968). The
boundary line follows Offa's Dyke only approximately. It separates Knighton from
its railway station, virtually cuts off Church Stoke from the rest of Wales, and
slices straight through the village of Llanymynech (where a pub actually
straddles the line).
The Seven Wonders of Wales is a traditional list of seven geographic and
cultural landmarks in Wales: Snowdon (the highest mountain), the Gresford bells
(the peal of bells in the medieval church of All Saints at Gresford), the
Llangollen bridge (built in 1347 over the River Dee), St Winefride's Well (a
pilgrimage site at Holywell in Flintshire) the Wrexham steeple (16th century
tower of St. Giles Church in Wrexham), the Overton yew trees (ancient yew trees
in the churchyard of St Mary's at Overton-on-Dee) and Pistyll Rhaeadr (Wales's
tallest waterfall, at 240 feet or 75 m). The wonders are part of the traditional
Pistyll Rhaeadr and Wrexham steeple,
Snowdon's mountain without its people,
Overton yew trees, St Winefride wells,
Llangollen bridge and Gresford bells.
For administrative purposes, Wales has been divided since
1996 into 22 unitary authorities:
- 9 counties.
- 10 county boroughs.
- 3 cities - Cardiff, Swansea and Newport.
Parts of Wales have been heavily industrialised since the
eighteenth century. Coal, copper, iron, lead, and gold have been mined in Wales,
and slate has been quarried. Ironworks and tinplate works, along with the coal
mines, attracted large numbers of immigrants during the nineteenth century,
particularly to the valleys north of Cardiff. Due to the poor quality soil, much
of Wales is unsuitable for crop-growing, and livestock farming has traditionally
been the focus of agriculture. The Welsh landscape, protected by three National
Parks, and the unique Welsh culture bring in tourism, which is especially vital
for rural areas.
Light engineering is still an important activity in the main population areas of
the South and extreme North-East, but the economy, as elsewhere in the UK, is
now focused on the service sector.
About 80% of the land surface of Wales is given over to
agricultural use. Very little of this is arable land though as the vast majority
consists of permanent grass or rough grazing for herd animals. Although both
beef and dairy cattle are raised widely, especially in Carmarthenshire and
Pembrokeshire, Wales is more well-known for its sheep farming, and thus lamb is
the meat traditionally associated with Welsh cooking.
Welsh food is usually made from local ingredients. Some traditional dishes
include laverbread (made from seaweed), bara brith (fruit cake), cawl cennin
(leek stew), Welsh cakes, Welsh rabbit, and Welsh lamb. A type of shellfish,
cockles, is often served with breakfast.
Culture of Wales
Though a part of the United Kingdom and in union with England
since 1282, the nation of Wales has preserved its own distinctive culture,
including its language, holidays and music.
Wales is primarily represented by the Welsh Dragon, but other national emblems
include the leek and daffodil. The Welsh words for leeks (cennin) and daffodils
(cennin Pedr, lit. "(Saint) Peter's Leeks") are closely related and it is likely
that one of the symbols came to be used due to a misunderstanding for the other
one, though it is less clear which came first.
The patron saint of Wales is Saint David, Dewi Sant in Welsh. St. David's Day is
celebrated throughout the country on March 1st, which some people argue should
be a public holiday in Wales (although others disagree). Other days which have
been proposed for public commemorations are September 16 (the day on which Owain
Glyn Dwr's rebellion began) and December 11 (the death of Llywelyn the Last).
However, the traditional seasonal festivals in Wales were
Calan Gaeaf (Halloween-type holiday on the first day of winter), Calan Mai, and
Midsummer. Additionally, each parish celebrated a Gwyl Mabsant in commemoration
of its native saint.
Wales is often known by the phrase "the Land of Song" (Welsh: Gwlad y Gân) and
its people have a renowned affinity for poetry and music.
Perhaps the most well-known musical image of Wales is that of the choir, in
particular the male voice choir (Welsh: cor meibion). While this is certainly a
part (though of greatly diminished importance) of the current musical life of
the nation, it is by no means the only or the oldest part, and the choral
tradition does not really stretch back significantly beyond its heyday in the
Much older is the tradition of instrumental folk music. The harp has been
closely associated with Wales for a very long time, and one kind of harp, the
triple harp is uniquely Welsh. Other specifically Welsh instruments included the
crwth and the pibgorn, though both fell out of general use by the end of the
18th century. Due to Nonconformist Christian disapproval, the instrumental folk
tradition fell into decline through the 19th and early 20th centuries, but has
since seen a revival and is now arguably as strong as ever. The principal
instruments are the harp and the fiddle, but many other instruments are used,
and both the crwth and pibgorn are again being played by a small but growing
number of people.
Wales also has a long tradition of folk song which, like the instrumental
tradition, and for the same reasons, was long in decline but is now flourishing
again. One notable kind of Welsh song is cerdd dant which, loosely, is an
improvised performance following quite strict rules in which poetry is sung to
one tune against the accompaniment of (usually) a harp to a different tune.
The original members of the Manic Street Preachers.In the mid- to late 1990s new
Welsh music became unexpectedly fashionable, with the chart successes of bands
including Manic Street Preachers, Catatonia, the Stereophonics and The
Oppressed. These groups helped the media at the time invent the epithet "Cool
Cymru", an answer to Britpop's "Cool Britannia". Prior to that, Welsh acts
including The Alarm, Shakin' Stevens and Bonnie Tyler had all had high profiles,
but there had never been much of a movement.
Around this time, groups such as Super Furry Animals and Gorky's Zygotic Mynci
rose to popularity, and artists such as Tom Jones, John Cale, and Shirley Bassey
had something of a renaissance.
The Welsh music industry is currently in good health, with boundless creativity
from many lesser known groups, and labels such as Ankstmusik, Crai, and
Boobytrap. And, in recent years, a large alternative and punk scene has sprung
up from the Valleys towns in south Wales, of which Lostprophets and Funeral for
a Friend have achieved notable international success. PFS from Haverfordwest in
Pembrokeshire, West Wales created their own disturbing punk sound in 1978, and
in 2003 they signed to Grand Theft Audio Records in Los Angeles, USA. They were
once dubbed the "Welsh Sex Pistols" due to their attitude towards the music
establishment in the UK.