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Wales has been described as one of the oldest countries in the world, with evidence of human habitation stretching back nearly 200,000 years. The European Celts, who arrived just after 600 BC, brought the popular Welsh attributes of eloquence, warmth and imagination. The subsequent Roman presence has been mythologised as a period of benevolent rule, perhaps due to the comparative chaos of the ensuing period, when raiding Irish pirates and Scots (the Brythons) arrived. Elements of Christianity arrived in the 5th century from Ireland, and was most famously proselytised by a monk called Dewi (later Normanised into David, patron saint of Wales). This nascent Christianity was grafted onto the contumaciously held Celtic belief system, with its sacred wells, holy men and hermit saints.

The period from the 5th to the 11th centuries was coloured by Anglo-Saxon pressure and invasion, and it was also around this time that the Brythons began to call themselves

Viking invasions in the 9th and 10th centuries served to unify the individual Welsh kingdoms which had developed. Ironically, just as the threat of invasion caused Wales to develop as a recognisable entity, it also caused it to fall further under the control of the English crown. In 927, the Welsh kings recognised Athelstan, the Anglo-Saxon king, as their protective overlord. During the next century, William the Conqueror took full advantage of this precedent, setting up powerful and incursive feudal barons along the Welsh border.

Attempts were made in the 13th century to secure Wales as an independent state, and the poignantly named Llywelyn the Last managed to get himself recognised as the first Prince of Wales by Henry III of England in 1267. The nation's untrammelled joy was brief, however, with Henry's warlike successor, Edward I, soon casting the net of fealty over his neighbour. The crowning insult came in 1302 when the title of Prince of Wales was given to the English monarch's eldest son. Edward's authority was made further evident by the construction of a number of massive castles and the assignment of English colonists to set up English-style boroughs and counties.

The last armed opposition to English rule came in 1400, when Owain Glyndwr made a claim to the principality of Wales, as a descendant of the princes of northern Powys. His rebellion was crushed by Henry IV, whose imposition of severe punishments caused feelings to remain bitter for many years.

Wales lay slumbering until the 1730s, when it was woken and sullied by the Industrial Revolution, and stirred and given a new identity by rampant Methodism. Coal, copper, slate and tin production led to a phenomenally increased population, rapidly changing the country's make-up from fragmented rural communities to urbanised mining and industrial centres. The smoky cities were hotbeds of nonconformism, nationalism, trade unionism, liberalism and support for the Labour Party. Change was slow but inexorable: Plaid Cymru, the Welsh National Party, was formed in 1925; the Welsh language was made legally acceptable in 1942; Cardiff was made the official capital in 1955; a Welsh minister of state was appointed with cabinet rank in the British government in 1964; and today, Plaid Cymru holds several seats in the House of Commons. Welsh culture and language also prevailed; Wales got its own Welsh-language TV channel in 1982.

Wales has entered the 1990s still adjusting to the collapse of its traditional coal and steel industries. It left the decade with a Welsh Assembly and a renewed sense of purpose. Large-scale unemployment persists, despite diversification programmes. The current Labour government's policies are certainly more Welsh-friendly than those of the Conservatives, but the likelihood of Wales emerging as a separate nation remains slim.


The eisteddfod is a thoroughly Welsh institution that tends to leave the non-Welsh mystified. The word means a gathering of bards, and traditionally the eisteddfod was a contest involving poetry and music. The first was held in 1176, but their popularity dropped off after the 17th century when they raised the ire of the dour nonconformist Protestants. In the 1860s the National Eisteddfod Society was established to revive the old traditions, and there are now three major eisteddfodau as well as several local contests. The Welsh male voice choir is another Welsh institution, associated with the coal mining communities of south Wales. These choirs have their routes in Methodism, and their repertoires are particularly strong on hymns. Although many of the communites which spawned them have turned up their toes, the choirs are hanging in (although some have had to open their doors to women and visitors).

Wales is a nation of nonconformists, so it's not surprising that Protestant nonconformist sects took off in a big way here. Christianity has been in Wales since the 5th century, and during the Reformation Wales became part of the Anglican church. In the 18th century the new industrial working classes proved fertile recruiting ground for various sects, particularly the Baptists, Methodists and Congregationalists. By 1851 80% of the population was nonconformist and in 1920 the Anglican church pulled out of the country. The nonconformists are traditionally rather puritanical, and until recently pubs stayed shut on Sundays. These days, however, only 220,000 Welsh people identify as nonconformists.

The one thing that marks Wales out so distinctly from the rest of Britain is the survival of Welsh as a living language. Despite its weird and seemingly unpronounceable double ls and consecutive consonants, Welsh is an Indo-European language, from a Celtic offshoot. Its closest linguistic cousins are Cornish and Breton. During the Roman occupation, many people became Latin-Welsh bilingual, and Latin's influence on the Welsh language is still apparent. The language was fully developed by the 6th century, and is one of the oldest in Europe. The Industrial Revolution brought an influx of English-speakers into the country, and between 1800 and 1900 the percentage of Welsh speakers dropped from 80% to 50%. These days only 20% of the population, mostly in the northwest and west, speak Welsh. Activists are working to bring the language back to life - it is now legal to speak Welsh in court, several bilingual publications are produced and Welsh S4C (Channel 4 Wales) televises daily Welsh programs. A Welsh Language Board was set up in 1988 and in 1994 the Welsh Language Act - giving Welsh equal validity and making it illegal to discriminate against Welsh-speakers - was introduced.

Welsh food is not particularly well-known, but it does exist. The leek, of course, is the national symbol, but you'll also find laverbread (a mixture of seaweed, oatmeal and bacon served on toast), rarebit (cheese on toast with the added flavour of mustard and beer) and Glamorgan sausages, a meatless delight made from cheese, breadcrumbs, herbs and leek.

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