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Who are the Welsh?

by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the November 1997, A.S. XXXII issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.

It is often said that history is written by the victors. While this is a bit overstated, it is in large part true. Case in point is the Welsh. The word 'Welsh' derives from the Saxon word 'vealh' which means foreign. Only the North American natives were so grievously mislabeled.

Whatever the label, the Welsh are a people with a strong identity, which is amazing considering that there has been a Welsh nation for only short periods of history. It is only a common Celtic heritage and geography that bind the Welsh together which was their strength and their weakness.

The best known part of Welsh history is their struggles against English domination, or more precisely, Norman and Plantagenet domination. Which ironically ended when one of their own, Henry Tudor, gained the English throne. What this essay will explore however, are the events which set the stage for this heroic conflict.

The shorthand description of the origins of the Welsh is that they are the Celtic remnant of the original population of Britain pushed into the hills by later invasions. While broadly correct this formulation hides a number of subtle facts.

The first of which is that the Celtics were not the original inhabitants of the island, but were themselves invaders arriving around 400BC. The details of this invasion are hazy, as there are no written records, and the archaeological evidence is muddled by the long term trading that occurred beforehand. Whether it was a quick military invasion, or slow assimilation, by 55BC when Julius Caesar invaded, he found there a Celtic culture.

The lands that would become Wales came under Roman occupation, and life there was typical of the rest of Roman Britain. Being on the fringe of Roman influence, these lands were the first to be abandoned beyond the last of the Roman legions departed in 410.

While the main invasions that were to afflict Britain were from the Saxons and the Angles, the first invaders to reach Wales were the Irish. To counter the Irish, members of another Celtic tribe, the Gododdin, from around what will be the Edinbourgh area, were imported. The leader of this group would found a dynasty that would rule the area of northern Wales known as Gwynedd. In southwestern Wales, the Irish remained forming the region known as Dyfed. Further to the east, where Roman influence remained strongest, the local inhabitants consolidated into the minor kingdom of Gwent. The rest of Wales eventfully became Powys.

What has gone unnoticed that these and other smaller dynasties managed to survive to almost the eleventh century. The same topography that made Wales so hard for later conquers also made it difficult for any of the local rulers to overcome their neighbors. Not that they didn't try. Over the next five centuries a number of kings though conquest and marriage would unite Wales, only for it to collapse upon their death. These failures would lead to English and later Norman domination.

There are two names that are remembered in Welsh literature from this period of formation: Taliesin and Arthur. Taliesin, bard and poet, much of his reputation rests on a few lines in the Welsh annuals. The works ascribed to him were not written down till several centuries later and bearing the marks of much reworking.

In one of history's little ironies, much of what we know of Arthur comes from Welsh sources, much of his exploits occurred in the English Midlands. In addition he was more of a Roman then a Celtic. In another irony, Arthur, whose fame rested on his successful resistance to the Saxon invaders, became the touchstone hero of another set of invaders: the Normans. The Romance of Arthur formed a part of the Norman effort to seal their hold on Britain.

The career of Arthur points out another aspect of Welsh culture. While their reputation rests on their legendary residence to outsiders, they represented the last bastion of Roman culture. Roman names on tombstones could be found for over a century after the Romans had left. Roman organization and law formed the model of Welsh government.

Christianity, brought in by the Roman troops, never disappeared from Wales, and so did not need to be re-Christianized, unlike Saxon England. Celtic monasticism first formed in Wales before it moved to Ireland where it blossomed. The Welsh church became so rooted and so conservative that was the last of the Celtic churches to come back under the control of Rome.

So the story of the Welsh is more then that of a people pushed to the ends of the earth. It is a story taking foreign ideas and putting a Celtic twist to them. It is a story of inter-tribal warfare. It is a story of surviving without ever winning. It is a story that extends beyond King Arthur and longbows.

 

Bibliography

Chadwick, Nora. The Celts. 1st ed. New York: Penguin (Non-Classics) Books, 1970.

Cunliffe, Barry. The Celtic World. New York: Greenwich House, 1986.

Gerald of Wales. The Journey through Wales/The Description of Wales. Trans. Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin (Classics) Books, 1978.

Laing, Lloyd Robert. Late Celtic Britain & Ireland 400-1200 AD. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979.

The New Encyclopedia Britannica Vol. 29. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica Inc., 1986. pp. 127-129.

 

Copyright © 1997 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.

 

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