Wales, like Scotland, was not a unified political entity in the early Middle Ages. It consisted of a number of kingdoms, the largest of which were Gwynedd in the north west, Deheubarth in the south west and Powys in between the two. It was ruled by kings and chieftains, who variously fought each other and whoever happened to be running England. The Normans seized territory where they could, but didn’t have it all their own way; in 1136, the Welsh crushingly defeated a Norman army at Crug Mawr (near Cardigan in case you needed to check).
Along the lands between England and Wales, straddling the old boundary of Offa’s 8th century Dyke, ruled the Marcher Lords. With principle bases in Chester, Shrewsbury and Hereford, the Marcher Lords were appointed by William the Conqueror with enormous powers to do virtually what they liked. So they did. Among other things, they built a large number of castles and the area remains today a veritable feast for any castle-lover.
One unifying leader emerged from the internal struggles and wars in the Welsh heartlands. Llywelyn ab Iorwerth of Gwynedd, also known as Llywelyn Fawr (the Great), made himself effective ruler of the whole of Wales by the time he died in 1240. More domestic strife and bloodshed followed Llwelyn’s passing until his grandson, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, proclaimed himself Prince of Wales in 1258 – a title that was actually recognised by King Henry III of England. Then along came our dear friend, Edward I of England who, naturally, had other ideas…Edward demanded homage from Llywelyn, who repeatedly refused.
The inevitable war that ensued in 1277 culminated in Llywelyn being tricked into a meeting in Builth Wells in 1282 and murdered. Dafydd, his brother, was captured the following year and hanged, drawn and quartered in Shrewsbury. Thus ended Wales’s very brief period of unified independence. And so the last of the Celts who had occupied these lands since before Roman times were finally overcome. From this point on, England ran Wales more or less like a colony for the next 250 years or so.
Edward reinforced English domination through a network of impressive castles – which are still imposing today. In 1301, he generously decided to give Wales their own prince again – his eldest son, the slightly damp Edward (see How Scotland was born), became the first (English) Prince of Wales. I bet that brought a welcome in the valleys.
Despite this, Welsh culture continued to flourish – as it does still. There were a number of rebellions after Edward’s conquest, the most notable of which was probably that of Owain Glyndwr in 1400. By 1403, Glyndwr, in allegiance with two powerful English nobles, Sir Edmund Mortimer and the Earl of Northumberland, had become a serious threat to English rule and the King, Henry IV (both parts). With further support from England’s old enemy, the French, he even succeeded in controlling much of West Wales and holding courts. But, bit by bit, Glyndwr’s power was beaten away and he was reduced to becoming a guerrilla leader hiding in the mountains. By 1413, he had disappeared; no one knows what happened to him. And no further attempt was ever made to forcibly gain Welsh independence.