The lost history of Wales

John Winterson Richards asks why so few people in Wales know about important moments in our history.

Sunday’s commemoration of the 850th anniversary of the Battle of Crogen – the Welsh equivalent of Scotland’s Bannockburn – passed unnoticed by the Welsh media and the vast majority of the people of Wales.

While it is true that Crogen was not as decisive as Bannockburn, the Welsh in 1165 faced a far more formidable foe than the Scots in 1314. Our ancestors fought not the feeble Edward II but the mighty Henry II at the very height of his powers, who brought the full resources of his Angevin Empire to conquer Wales once and for all. The threat was so serious that it actually united the men of North, South, and Mid Wales – for once – under the leadership of Owain Gwynedd and Rhys ap Gruffydd, the Lord Rhys.

Together, they held the pass at Crogen against a full Royal army, like Leonidas at Thermopylae – but with much happier results, for Henry was forced into a humiliating retreat.

It is perhaps not surprising that this Welsh victory tends to get left out of English history books, but why do so few Welsh people know about it?

Similarly, there appear to be no plans to commemorate the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Castell Mor Graig next year, despite its importance in the history of South Wales and its part in a tale of a different sort of heroism.

Although the maps in history books show Glamorgan as conquered by the Normans at an early stage, so that the attention of historians switches to Gwynedd, the truth is more complex. It seems that Welsh landowners retained some control over the uplands, subject to paying protection money to Anglo-Norman overlords, who built castles like Caerphilly so that they could be used as secure bases for raids against any Welsh who were late with their payments.

The most distinguished of these Welsh landowners, Llywelyn Bren, took advantage of the power vacuum caused by the death of the English Lord of Glamorgan at Bannockburn by laying siege to Caerphilly Castle in 1315. Note that this was over thirty years after the conquest of Gwynedd, the traditional end of Welsh independence.

He met with such initial success that a large army was gathered from all the Marcher Lordships to relieve Caerphilly before his insurrection spread. To block them, he took a strong position on the ridge north of Cardiff. His headquarters were probably in or near Castell Mor Graig, the ruins of which are today next to the Traveller’s Rest pub, where the A469 crests the ridge.

Alas, the obvious strategic and tactical advantages of this position were negated when a Marcher force made a wide flanking move around the ridge via Rudry. Llywelyn was forced to retreat and abandon the siege of Caerphilly. After that, it was only a matter of time before he had to surrender.

In doing so, he asked nothing for himself but begged that his men be spared. This impressed even the King’s enforcer, Roger Mortimer – a hard man even by the standards of Marcher Lords, which is really saying something – and he and others urged the King to pardon Llywelyn. Seeing that this was likely happen, the odious Hugh Despenser, who had now taken over the Lordship of Glamorgan, had Llewelyn hanged, drawn, and quartered, illegally, at Cardiff.

Roger Mortimer had a long memory. A few years later, Despenser fell into his hands and was hanged, drawn, and quartered in his turn.

Welsh history is full of such stories – many of which would be rejected by Game of Thrones producers as too sensational to be credible but which are nonetheless true. The plethora of kingdoms and Marcher Lordships into which Wales was divided means we have as many stories per square mile as we have castles.

So why does hardly anyone know them?

While English armies made a point of targeting Welsh Abbeys, the repositories of our written history, enough has survived to give us an outline of how rich and vibrant our national story could be, but most people seem to think Welsh history is dull and uninteresting, if they think of it at all.

Part of the problem is that Wales has yet to find its Sir Walter Scott, who basically invented modern Scotland’s perception of its history and founded a school of Scottish historical fiction that includes Robert Louis Stevenson, John Buchan, Dorothy Dunnett, and Nigel Tranter.

Nor has Wales found its Braveheart in popular culture. Gwenllian, anyone?

Yet perhaps the real problem is that our Establishment does not want proper red-blooded Welsh history in the schools or in the media. Labour, having let Welsh nationalism out of the bottle in 1997, want no more of it, while the nationalists themselves prefer promoting an image of the independent Welsh as oppressed losers rather than the proud warrior-kings they were. The success of the more virile Scottish brand of nationalism suggests that they are missing the point entirely.

John Winterson Richards is the author of The Xenophobe’s Guide to the Welsh and co-author of The Context of Christ: the History and Politics of Judea and Rome, 100 BC – 33 AD.

26 thoughts on “The lost history of Wales

  1. Most of the independent Welsh were not ‘proud warrior-kings’. They were peasants, struggling to survive whilst their ‘betters’ squabbled and fought for power.

    George Martin was surely right when he wrote in Game of Thrones that:

    ’’The common people pray for rain, healthy children, and a summer that never ends,’ Ser Jorah told her. ‘It is no matter to them if the high lords play their game of thrones, so long as they are left in peace.’ He gave a shrug. ‘They never are.’

  2. The mistake the author makes here is to suggest that the warring tribes in Wales had more in common with each other than those moving in from the east.

    The reality is that they were invariably happier to fight each other than they were to act en masse to defend ‘a nation’. Understandable, given that the territory of Wales and its population was never viewed as a nation by inhabitants or incomers.

    It’s time we stopped trying to re-write our history to suit modern day attempts at nation building.

  3. A really excellent blog (for a change) which makes a good point – why don’t we know and celebrate our history more? Landscapes and upstanding remains of past times are not enough in themselves, come on CADW, start doing your job: championing our history, telling the stories and getting all the people who live in Wales to appreciate and cherish it.

  4. Karen

    ” the territory of Wales and its population was never viewed as a nation by inhabitants or incomers.”

    Oh no? i could quote many instances to the country but they are not the point. The point is: it is now.

  5. I enjoyed reading this article and JWR should be congratulated on reminding us of our past, even if only a part of it.
    He also perhaps raises a far deeper issue; that of understanding that Wales has a past that is peculiar and unique to itself. This past is invariably subsumed into British (and English) history and it is this Britishness that takes priority in the teaching of history, whether in school, colleges or indeed via the media.
    In his History of England, Macaulay begins with a message; that he “…studied the past, not because it provided a contrast with the present, but because it has led to the present.” To understand Wales today we need to understand the past, and to understand history is the deposit of a nation’s story; its culture, literature. music and language and indeed the way it’s people understand life itself To ignore a nation’s past is to deny the existence of that nation; history is full of examples of the use of history to change and twist the past to suit the (political) present.
    Which brings me to today. JWR refers to letting Welsh nationalism out of the bottle – oh, if it were only so! Schools in Wales (even Welsh language schools which intuitively might take a different tack) continue to teach a history of Britain, kings, queens, wars; ask any school child about (say) the Rebecca Riots, the March on Newport, Brad Y Llyfr Gleision and the response is a blank look.
    Sadly, this applies also to other aspects of wider culture – take Welsh (in English) literature. For example, Jack Jones’ writing has been compared to H G Wells; the poetry of Harri Webb is celebrated in much of Europe, Cordell’s Rape of the Fair Country was accepted (but never adopted) as a novel worthy of GCE study (instead of Oliver Twist….).
    It is within the power of the Assembly to set a standard for the teaching not just of Welsh history, but of all things that make us a nation. This is not going to happen because – in deference to JWR – perhaps even more Welsh nationalism will be let out of the bottle?

  6. the English still decide what is taught to our children ,the nott is no longer required, if you brainwash children they don’t ask what else are you not telling us, I was never taught anything about welsh history in school and didn’t hear about bren and others till I picked up a book by TERRY BREVERTON, I was amazed, we had 1 welsh lesson a week 1 hour long and all I learnt was chair, window, and door, and a few songs I learnt but didn’t understand, we should be proud our people have survived all this oppression,and I still stand as a Welshman dispite their efforts to say I am English, cymry am byth

  7. One of the ways in which the cultural deracination of subject/occupied peoples has always been carried out is by denying those peoples access to their own history (other than those parts which are deemed useful to – or are conveniently contiguous with – that of the occupying power).

    I was educated in English-medium schools forty years ago and – apart from the St David stuff – I remember being taught very little of my own nation’s history. Even at ‘A’-level, we got little more than Rebecca and The Blue Books. This was not the fault of the teachers, but of those who set the curriculum.

    Such a bias – which may start out as an instrument of a definite policy – becomes over a few short generations a deeply-ingrained habit which is never called into question except by people who can readily be dismissed as ‘cranks’, ‘romantics’ or even ‘extremists’.

    There must be a concerted move to ensure that every child in our nation’s schools is taught our history first – a situation which would raise no eyebrows in any other country – before going on to learn about how our nation fits into the history of these islands, Europe and the world in general.

    (Oh, and Karen? We know that you think that Wales always was, is, and forever shall be nothing more than a province of western England, but it wasn’t true, it ain’t true and – I hope – never shall be true. You’re becoming a little tiresome).

  8. Karen is so right. It really annoys me when people describe Wales as a nation, rather than the region of England that it really is. On that note, why are there Welsh rugby and football teams? Madness!

  9. I agree with you that it is a shame that we know so little about our history and as regards to
    “Welsh history is full of such stories ……So why does hardly anyone know them?”
    Well the deeds of the vanquished don’t tend to be celebrated in the culture of the vanquisher. That’s got to be the most significant effect whether the deeds are carried out by Welsh, Native Americans, Aboriginies, Estonians etc etc etc.

    “Part of the problem is that Wales has yet to find its Sir Walter Scott..”
    Or a talented virtual reality game programmer with a passion for the medieval history of Cymru.

  10. A few months ago, Professor Huw Bowen wrote about “The Strange Death of Welsh History”: .
    After reading the article, I was sufficiently concerned to investigate the matter in further detail from the perspective of a local history group in Wales, then sent a submission of my findings to the Review Panel regarding the Protected Landscapes of Wales. I felt at the time, that the representation of Welsh cultural heritage was being handled as a secondary matter not only in protected landscapes, but throughout Wales, and that something better was possible.

    Further investigation assured me that knowledge and learning institutions in Wales are producing high quality material and exhibits about Welsh history and archaeology. Most of what is produced is available to the public, particularly to education authorities, local history/archaeology/family history groups, and authors, through the libraries of these institutions. There are online projects such as Casgliad y Werin Cymru/Peoples’ Collection Wales, Welsh Newspapers Online, Cynefin – the controversial tithe maps, with more to come.

    On the other hand, there appears to be a lack of general interest in Welsh history and archaeology – at least in the way that it is being represented at the present time. Education authorities in Wales (and elsewhere) emphasize Big History to the detriment of regional or local history where research skills could be developed. Tourist authorities and marketing agencies are much too ready and willing to accept worn out or recycled historical themes that dampen rather than excite the curiosity of visitors to learn more about Welsh cultural heritage.

    There are approximately 700 local history/archaeology/family history groups in Wales, according to a study conducted by the Wales Council for Voluntary Action in 2014. Many groups are struggling to make ends meet, or to maintain websites that showcase their work and activities. There also seems to be a gap between research institutions/government delivery agencies and local groups in the representation of Welsh cultural heritage. “Engagement” the current buzzword, manifests itself more as “top down management” than “cooperation and collaboration.”

    I also hoped that discussions of the historic environment that have taken place in Wales during the past few years would have resulted in a Historic Environment Bill that generates greater interest in Welsh cultural heritage, but was disappointed. The bill that that recently received first reading imports tried and tested Westminster based law, then establishes a committee of experts to advise the Ministers. Surely there’s something better than that after the consultation and discussion. The cultural heritage of Wales deserves better. Otherwise, we will all bear witness the strange death of Welsh history.

  11. @Karen – Whilst you are almost correct in saying that the rulers of Wales never had any interest in a Welsh state and that Wales was centrifugal in terms of governance, some Welsh kings (from Gwynedd in particular, but also some from Deuheubarth) successfully united what we call today Wales, and managed to bring the whole of Wales (including what was to become the Marches of Wales), as well as parts of what is now England, under one king. Gruffudd ap Llywelyn managed to do this before being killed by his own men on the eve of the Norman Invasion in 1063. Many of these rulers called themselves the ‘Prince of Wales’, i.e. the whole of Wales. The Welsh word for this is ‘Tywysog’, i.e, leader, rather than its English meaning which usually refers to the son of a king rather than the actual monarch. In 1400 when socio-economic strife as well as long suffering under the colonial rule of England (and colonial it was, according to Geraint Jenkins and R.R. Davies, two titans in Welsh historiography, as well as anyone without a political reason to deny such facts), finally led to Owain Glyndwr’s revolt, most of Wales joined him, apart from those parts of Wales which were Normanized and not in the hands of the Welsh. Students from Oxford, men and women from all parts of Wales as well as the Church, joined in the struggle and Glyndwr very nearly won. So popular was the revolt among the Welsh that when the Penal Laws following the revolt came into force, all Welsh people were subject to them, not just a few in isolated areas.

    Also, local people did indeed have a ‘national’ identity; it was hard not to when everyone spoke the same language. The Laws of Hywel were also a uniting factor, as well mythology about various past figures such as Macsen Wledig and the coming from the Old North of the founders of Gwynedd. It would be extremely inaccurate to say that Medieval Welsh people had no sense of Wales at all, and the same can be said for Early Modern Wales despite localism being prominent.

  12. @Ben, There is much you have written that I cannot fault. It seems you too have had an education in our history.

    What a shame so many of the other contributors so clearly have not.

  13. Ignore Karen and the like, There seems to be many of her sort on here. Committed to running wales down and denying the history of our great nation.
    They hate nationlists more than they love anything else.

  14. Karen is SO RIGHT. There is no such thing as ‘Wales’ since it merely denoted foreigner. It is OUTRAGEOUS that there is a ‘Welsh’ Rugby team, let alone a football one. And DON’T START ME on ‘Welsh’ – as everybody knows it is an ENGLISH dialect, just like Geordie.

    And by the Way isn’t it HIGH TIME ‘Ireland’ admitted it is just as English as ‘Wales’ and and crawls back to its mother country.

  15. Being on holiday in Ireland’s western coast does give you a healthy perspective when reading a sensible, level-headed article such as this. I suggest that people read Norman Davies’s ‘The Isles’ before commenting. Many might find themselves shamed into a chastising silence.

  16. Kevin Bates: always remember that Karen and others who use Click on Wales only hate Welsh nationalists because that ideological position grates with their British nationalism.

  17. @David Lloyd Owen, Norman Davies published that book in 1999.

    We now know that the British Isles has never been occupied by Celts, we have no Celtic history other than a recently assumed inexplicable infatuation and, perhaps most importantly of all, there is no Celtic gene pool to be found throughout Cornwall, Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland and there never has been.

    In other words he got it terribly wrong from the outset. But it is still a damn good read!

  18. @Karen,

    Why are you BritNats so obsessed with race? We saw the same in the Referendum campaign in Scotland, where – contrary to what many would have thought beforehand – it was the ‘Yes’ side which was in favour of the contemporary diversity of their society, and the Unionists who were obsessed with The Great British Past(TM).

  19. Actually, it is cultural identity that matters here. The ‘Celtic’ is a badly misunderstood label. Take a look at England as an example.

    Most of the Britons who lived there when the Angles and Saxons took over carried on. There was no wholesale slaughter, rather they had new bosses. In time, Old English became the lingua franca.

    Most of the pre-Conquest (1066) period saw different kingdoms and various Viking incursions. Along come the Normans. Another layer of new bosses and the locals carry on (a bit more downtrodden, no doubt) and acquire Middle English.

    One could argue that the Anglo Norman era ended when A Tudor took over.

    Which period during this time was England’ actually ‘England’? It is about perspective here, but perspectives are best based on evidence. Just as there was a historic Wales there was a historic England.

  20. @Karen, genetics is a fragile basis to deny the celticity of large parts of these islands, due to all of us being here for thousands of years and regularly intermarrying. It’s an acknowledged fact that the pre-Roman inhabitants of Britain spoke a language which is the ancestor of the modern language group called Celtic, of which Welsh is a member. Yes, it wasn’t until the eighteenth century that we worked out that the Celtic languages are related, but to quote from Caesar’s De Bello Gallico ‘we call them Gauls, but in their own language they call themselves Celts’. The original Celtic word would be *Keltoi. On a more personal note, I’ve spoken Irish since I was a child, and my wife has spoken Welsh all her life, please stop telling us we don’t exist.

  21. The Nature article that Matt W points to supports Karen’s argument that DNA evidence does not show any unified “Celtic” grouping existing across Wales, Scotland, Ireland and Cornwall. It also shows that, on average, there are distinct genetic differences between north and south Wales. The research does, however, show that while so-called “Celtic” groups are genetically distinct from each other, they are also distinct from England.

    None of this has much to do with modern ideas of national identity. Welsh identity is the product of a complex mix of historical, cultural and economic forces. Like all national identities, it exists because of the will of the people, not DNA or any idea of race.

  22. It’s more than a bit frustrating that in the 21st century we have people like Karen who appear intend on propagating a politically motivated ancient history for these islands based on it seems, either their poor understanding of history and science or a strategy of selecting bits and pieces of information that support their point of view, regardless of whether those bits of info are sound or not.

    However Karen’s choice of
    as source is reputable and it also informs us that –

    The Welsh appear more similar to the earliest settlers of Britain after the last ice age than do other people in the UK. and
    The analyses suggest there was a substantial migration across the channel after the original post-ice-age settlers, but before Roman times. DNA from these migrants spread across England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, but had little impact in Wales.

    Identity however is not the same as genetics and Karen however much you might like it to be otherwise genetics is not an issue in 21st century Wales.

  23. I thought the days of running down the welsh and ridiculing their history were over but some of the comments on here prove i was wrong. Welsh princes were true princes in ever sense of the word with their own castles, soldiers, crowns and everything else that comes with it. Llywelyn ap gruffydd, when he died most of the nation were in mourning for many years. Thier whole world fell apart. With his death the welsh nation died as well. People were truly heart broken. To say that this great welshman was just a glorified gangster is a disgrace and something no true welsh person would say.
    The history of this great nation has been under attack for many years by people like those above. They hate the idea as wales as a separate nation with it own identity. They will do anything to make you question the idea of a welsh nation. Ignore them.

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