This week we’ve gone back to the United Kingdom for our second of the four member countries – Wales. While the country has been in a union with England for centuries, it retains a unique culture and national identity.
- Capital of Wales (and the largest city in Wales): Cardiff
- Wales Population (2011): 3,063,456
- Total Area: 20,779 km²
- Official Languages: Welsh, English
- Wales Currency: Pound sterling (£) (GBP)
Tribal civilization is believed to have begun in Wales millennia ago, gradually evolving from hunter-gatherers to more advanced Celtic civilization. These Celtic tribes created a trading network, thrived for many years, and left a lasting impact on the history and culture of Wales. The country is still considered one of six Celtic nations in the world today.
Unlike Scotland, Wales was conquered by the Romans starting in the year 48 AD. While the campaign lasted for 30 years, Roman rule would remain in the region for near on 300. The stories of tribes (especially the Silurs and Ordovices) fighting an ultimately unsuccessful resistance war against the Romans are some of the most well remembered stories of the era. The Romans extracted resources from the land, though most significant industries were located in what is now England. Some of the other key events during Roman rule were the spread of Christianity and the establishment of Welsh medieval dynasties in the year 383.
Following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, Wales fell to Germanic invaders (primarily the Saxons). This didn’t last however, as independent Welsh states free of Anglo-Saxon rule managed to carve out much of what is now Wales at the beginning of the 6th century. These included the kingdoms of Gwynedd, Powys, Dyfed and Seisyllwg, Morgannwg, and Gwent. The borders were constantly in flux as the kingdoms dealt with each other and quarreled with the nearby English kingdoms of Mercia, Northumberland, and Wessex. The Vikings also presented a threat, though the King of Gwynedd, Rhodri Mawr, was able to kill their leader, Gorm, in 856. For a time the Welsh allied with the Norseman against the English, but this broke down, following which the ruler of Gwynedd allied with Wessex to attack other Welsh kingdoms. Rulers and territories continued to rise and fall throughout the 9th and 10th centuries. For a brief period between 1057 and 1063, Gruffydd ap Llywelyn managed to rule over the entirety of the country – he remains the only Welsh king to do so.
Following the rapid conquest of England by the Normans, the conquerors began to set up military outposts along the Welsh border. Despite this, Llywellen Fawr (known as the Great) managed to become the Prince of Wales and receive recognition from England, becoming the de facto ruler through diplomacy and warfare for 40 years. He is still considered one of the most revered figures in Welsh history. His descendants however, were not so lucky. After swearing fealty to England in 1277, Wales was invaded during the 1282 Edwardian conquest. Llywellen ap Gruffudd (the Great’s grandson) was killed and his brother Dafydd was executed. This marked the end of the Welsh princes and the beginning of English rule. Edward constructed castles throughout the country to eliminate resistance. The tradition of an English Prince of Wales began during this time (Edward II was born in Caernarfon) however the Welsh continued to rebel. Owain Glyndŵr briefly won independence in the early 15th century, though he was eventually forced into hiding. A formal Union was later finalized in 1536, as well the transition from Welsh to English law – which has been in place ever since.
Like most of Britain, the industrial revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries brought significant changes to Wales. Large coal and iron deposits contributed greatly to Welsh industry, and consequently cities like Cardiff and Swansea became major ports for the export of these goods. Although much of the manufacturing was based in England, the material importance of Wales cannot be overlooked as a major factor in Britain’s industrialization. Coal production reached its height in the year 1913, with almost 61 million tons produced.
When the first World War broke out, 272,924 Welshmen went off to fight (with about 35,000 killed). Welsh forces are largely remembered for their involvement at Mametz Wood and the Battle of Passchendaele. Politics also began to change during the 20th century, with the Liberal party’s dominance starting to wane. Welsh PM David Lloyd George’s problematic handling of a major coal miner strike contributed to the miners throwing their support behind the Labour party (which remains the dominant party in the country).
After the end of World War II, there was a growing movement of increased Welsh identity and national feeling. The flooding of the Tryweryn valley to create a reservoir for Liverpool (in England) only compounded Welsh nationalism and ire towards the English. The Free Wales Army and Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru formed as a result, and were responsible for bombings of English infrastructure and government offices during the 1960’s.
After a failed referendum in 1979, the Welsh people voted for a Welsh assembly in 1997. It was opened in 1999 and administers Wales directly, although many powers are still held in Westminster. Today Wales is defined as a country of its own within Great Britain. While there remains some support for independence (primarily through the political party Plaid Cymru), it does not have the same proportion of support as the SNP in Scotland. As a result, the status of Wales does not seem likely to change any time in the foreseeable future.
While Wales shares many cultural elements with other Celtic Nations and neighbour England, it remains unique. This can be seen first and foremost through Welsh symbols, namely the red Welsh dragon as well as the leek and daffodil. The Welsh language also remains officially recognized by the government. About 19% of the population can speak it, and some use it as a first language (there are Welsh-language schools throughout the country). Another important distinction between Wales and the other British countries is its patron saint – in this case Saint David. While St. David’s Day (March 1) is not a public holiday, there is widespread support for this.
Wales has always been closely linked with song. Male choirs became popular in the 19th century and remain a lasting symbol of Welsh arts and culture. Many other popular singers (male and female) along with traditional instruments such as the telyn deires (triple harp) and pibgorn (hornpipe) remain popular in both modern and traditional music.
Like the other British countries, sport is hugely important to the Welsh populace. Soccer is very popular – historically most so in the north of the country. While the Welsh national team has had limited success on the world stage (their only major participation is making the quarterfinals in the 1958 World Cup), they have produced some world-class players. While Wales does have its own league, six teams continue to play in the English league system, including the largest two – Swansea and Cardiff. Swansea especially has enjoyed a stable position in the highest division of professional soccer in England, the Premier League, in recent years.
So while soccer is popular, arguably the most important sport in Wales is rugby union. It is viewed “as a symbol of Welsh identity and an expression of national consciousness” (Encyclopedia of Wales), with the sport enjoying massive domestic support. Indeed, the Welsh national team is considered one of the premier teams in the world with successful runs in both the Six Nations Championship and World Cup.
Wales is smaller than England and Scotland, and can be found in the southwestern portion of the island of Great Britain. While the area includes a large coastline and islands, the majority of the terrain is mountainous. The three main ranges that dominate the landscape are Snowdonia (the location of Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales), the Cambrian Mountains, and the Brecon Beacons. Besides England, Wales is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean, the Irish Sea, the Bristol Channel, and St. George’s Channel. Along with the dominating mountainous terrain, Wales possess a variety of landscapes and vast amount of natural beauty.
The three largest Welsh cities can all be found relatively close to each other in the southern portion of the country. Cardiff is the capital and largest. As the major commercial and cultural centre of the country, many major Welsh landmarks (such as Millennium Stadium) can be found here. Swansea, the second largest city, is located on the sandy coast of Wales’ southwest. Newport can be found close to Cardiff while the largest town in the north, Wrexham, is located near the English border.
Did you know?
- Wales is the homeland of the mythical King Arthur
- Some of the most famous Welsh actors are Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Burton, and Anthony Hopkins
- Famous Welsh footballers include Gareth Bale, Ryan Giggs, and Aaron Ramsey
- Wales is known as ‘Cymru’ in the Welsh language
- Wales is home to the 2nd longest place name in the world (good luck): Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch
- It’s believed that the daffodil and the leek are both symbols of Wales thanks to one being misunderstood for the other
- There are more castles per square mile in Wales than any other country
- Millennium Stadium in Cardiff has the largest retractable roof in sports and can seat nearly 75,000
- K, Q, V, and Z are not in the Welsh alphabet
Despite being a part of the United Kingdom, Wales maintains a proud and unique cultural heritage. A rich history full of conflict, heroes, and industrial progress combine with a picturesque landscape to make Wales a fascinating country to discover and visit.
Stay tuned to the Current for our Country of the Week. We’ll explore the familiar and the foreign, plus uncover some hidden gems. Be sure to check out our Currency Spotlight for more information on the pound.
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