About Wales: The Beginning of Wales

The traveler to the British Isles soon becomes aware of distinct dialectal differences as he moves around from town to town and county to county. For example, the inhabitants of Liverpool in the Northwest use a dialect completely different from that of Manchester, only a few miles away. The Cockneys of London, in the Southeast, are well known for their equally colorful speech habits, documented early in the 20th century by George Bernard Shaw in such plays as "Major Barbara" and "Pygmalion" and later recorded in such Hollywood movies as "My Fair Lady." 

It is something of a surprise to visitors, as they travel into Wales, over the centuries-old and much-worn ditch and earth-mound barrier known as "Offa's Dyke," for almost without warning they find themselves in areas where not only the dialects become incomprehensible, but where even the basic language itself has changed. The roadside signs "Croeso i Gymru" let it be known that one is now entering a new territory, inhabited by a different people, for the translation is "Welcome to Wales," written in one of the oldest surviving vernaculars in Europe. To account for the abrupt linguistic change, one must journey far, far back into history. 

From evidence found in such caves as Paviland, in the Gower Peninsula in Southwest Glamorgan, and the Elwy Valley in Flintshire, it is known that the area now known as Wales was probably inhabited as early as 250,000 BC (the Lower Paleolithic Age), and 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. 

It was at that time that mainland Britain became an island, separated from the continent of Europe and the large island to the west that is now known as Ireland. Then, in what we call the Neolithic Age, just around 5,000 years ago, many settlers came over from the European continent and perhaps from Ireland. Their huge stone structures, the Megaliths and their chambered-tomb companions, the Cromlech, dot the landscape of much of southwestern Britain even today. The immensity of these undertakings points to the skills and ingenuity of their builders, even if time and weather have long since eroded evidence of their purpose. 

These were the same people who built Stonehenge, perhaps their finest monument, certainly the best known, although even this is dwarfed by the huge circle at Avebury, not too far away. The inner circle of uprights at Stonehenge was formed of the so-called "blue stones" transported somehow from the mysterious heights of Preseli, far away in Southwest Wales, long considered a holy or magic mountain and still an area regarded with awe by the locals. 

By 2,000 BC, people entering the island of Britain included those we now call the Beaker Folk, who it is believed came from the area of the Rhine River in Germany. Excavated battle axes, bronze knives and other weapons of war and hunting show us that these people were already quite expert with the use of metal, a skill they passed on to the native tribesmen. 

By 1,000 BC, the Iron Age proper 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 mixed, 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. More advanced metalworking seems to have been introduced as a result of contact with the Halstatt culture of Austria, from an area near present-day Saltzburg. 

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. It was also at this time that 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, despite their relatively few numbers. They were part of a great-unified Celtic "empire" encompassing many different people all over Northern Europe. 

The Greeks called these people, with their organized culture and developed social structure, Keltoi, the Romans, Celtai. We call them 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 certainly much-better armed legions of Rome. 

On the European continent, as a result of the administrative skills and military power of Rome, the majority of the Celtic languages eventually gave way to those stemming from Latin. Very few modern European languages can be derived from Celtic, despite its former widespread use. But in Britain, at least for a few hundred years after the Roman victories on mainland Europe, the Celts held on to much of their customs and especially to the distinctive language which has survived today as Welsh. 

This language, used throughout most of Britain at the time of the Roman invasions (except in the far north where Pictish survived for a while) was derived from a branch of Celtic known as Brythonic: it later gave rise to Welsh, Cornish and Breton. These differ from other Celtic languages derived from the branch known as Goidelic: namely, Irish, Scots, and Manx Gaelic (now confined to a western fringe in Ireland, to the north and west of Scotland, or to the history books as an extinct spoken tongue). 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. 


 16th Century Map of Wales

From what we know of the Druids, they 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 Roman armies first arrived in Britain in 55 BC under Julius Caesar, but there was no significant occupation until a century later. Caesar had some interesting, if biased comments concerning the native inhabitants. "All the Britons," he wrote, "paint themselves with woad, which gives their skin a bluish color and makes them look very dreadful in battle." He also vividly described human sacrifices supposedly practiced by the Celts, but this may have been mere propaganda to justify his conquests. 

It was not until an expedition ordered by the Emperor Claudius that permanent expeditions to the grain-rich southeastern territories of Britain begun in earnest. From their base in what is now Kent, the Roman armies began a long, arduous and perilous series of battles with the native Celtic tribes. In what was later to be called Wales, the Romans were awestruck by their first sight of the druids who accompanied their warriors to battle. Roman historian Tacitus described them along the shores of the Menai Strait (in present-day Anglesey) as being "ranged in order, with their hands uplifted, invoking the gods and pouring forth horrible imprecations." By attacking and killing these druids, their wives and children, the Romans were able to defeat the formations drawn up against them. 

As on the Continent, superior military discipline and leadership advanced weaponry, along with a carefully organized system of forts connected by straight roads, led to the eventual triumph of Roman armys. I it was not long before a great number of large, prosperous villas and farms were established in many parts of lowland Britain, but especially in the southeast and southwest. 

The villas, the remains of many of which can be seen today, testify to the rapidity by which most of lowland Britain became Romanized, for they functioned as centers of a settled, peaceful and urban life. Mountainous Wales and Scotland were not as easily settled; they remained "the frontier", sparsely settled rugged, misty lands where military garrisons were strategically placed to guard the Northern and Western extremities of the Empire. 

The windswept western plateau that is now Wales would surely have been left alone if it had not been for its valuable mineral deposits, including lead, tin and gold. The fierce resistance of its tribes meant that two out of the three Roman legions in Britain were stationed on the Welsh borders. Deva (Chester) in the northeast, was the largest roman fortress in Britain, covering some sixty acres on the banks of the River Dee and guarding the approaches to North Wales. Two impressive Roman fortifications remain to be seen in Wales proper: Isca Silurium at Caerleon, in Gwent with its fine ampitheatre (shown at above) and remains of a huge bath complex; and Segontium, near Caernarfon, in Gwynedd. 

Though the Celtic tongue survived in Britain as the medium of everyday speech, Latin being used mainly for administrative purposes, a great deal of Latin words entered the native vocabulary, and many of these are still found in modern-day Welsh. Today's visitors are surprised to find hundreds of place names containing Pont (bridge), while ffenest (window), pysgod (fish), milltir (mile), mil (thousand), mor (sea), mel (honey), melys (sweet) cyllell (knife), ceffyl (horse), perygl (danger), eglwys (church), milwr (soldier), cantor (singer), llyfr (book), sant (saint) and many others attest to Roman influence (though many of these may have entered the language in subsequent centuries). 

Rome had became Christianized with the conversion of Constantine in 337, and thanks to the missionary work of Martin of Tours in Gaul and the edict of 400 AD that made Christianity the only official worship of the Empire, the new religion was brought to Britain, where the Romanized people quickly adopted it. Due to the activities of the Christian missionaries, who introduced the monastic system into the island, the old Celtic gods had to slink off into the mountains and hills to hide, reappearing fitfully and almost apologetically only in the poetry and myths of later ages. 

When the city of Rome fell to the invading Goths under Alaric, Roman Britain, which had experienced hundreds of years of comparative peace and prosperity, was left to its own defences under its local Romano-British leaders. Apart from the mountainous, agriculturally poor north and west, much of the island eventually crumbled under the onslaught of Germanic tribes, themselves under attack from tribes coming from the East. These tribes wished to settle in the sparsely populated, richly fertile lands across the narrow channel that separated them from the islands of Britain. 

The Germanic invasions of those islands, like those of the Romans before them, met fierce and prolonged resistance; they were stopped from conquering the whole island by such Romano-British leaders as Arthur (Arthur's Stone to the right), most certainly a Christian warrior king based in Wales. More than three hundred years of fighting took place between the native Celts, who with one or two notable exceptions were never strong enough, or capable enough, to offer organized resistance. 

The ever-increasing number of Germanic newcomers spread westward like a slow moving flood, were eventually contained. By the end of the sixth century, Britain had more or less sorted itself out into three distinct areas: the Teutonic East, the Britonic West and the Britonic-Pictish North soon to be invaded and settled by the Scotti, from Ireland, who brought their Gaelic language with them. 

It was these areas that later came to be identified as, England, Wales and Scotland, all of which were to develop with very separate cultural and linguistic characteristics. As early as 440, an anonymous writer penned the following:

Britain, abandoned by the Romans, passed into the power of the Saxons (Chronica Gallica) 
The writer could not possibly have been referring to the whole of Britain; it was far too early for that, but it is certain that the Saxons had come to much of the islands to stay. The people of Wales had a new, powerful and numerous enemy with which to contend.

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