Celtic Spirit in Wales
"Historians once believed the Saxon advance meant the British or Welsh population of England were either slaughtered or driven westwards. This is now considered untrue."
~ Dr. John Davies, Welsh native and Welsh Celtic history expert
The Age of the Celts
During the Iron Age, also known as the Age of the Celts in Britain, approximately five hundred years or so before the Roman invasion, a strong Celtic culture established itself throughout the British Isles.
The people we call Celts gradually migrated to England and Wales over the course of centuries from 500 to 100 BC. The Celts were a group of peoples loosely tied together by similar language, religion and cultural expression.
The Celtic tribes of what we know as Wales today developed regional styles of working iron, gold and other metals. The language that was spoken that held them loosely together was an Insular Celtic language called Brythonic.
It was a variety of Brythonic that was spoken in different parts of Britain and what we know today as Wales. At that time it was the Britons who inhabited what we know as England and Wales. The Brythonic Celtic languages seemed to have been spoken in Wales much longer than England.
And it was this Brythonic language they spoke that eventually evolved into the Welsh language. The existence of a Welsh language would be, for 1500 years and more, one of the defining features of the people of Wales.
Most Welsh, like most Britons, originally were descendants from the Iberian Peninsula as a result of different migrations that took place during the Mesolithic and Neolithic Eras. These peoples laid the foundation for the present-day populations in the British Isles.
British researcher, Stephen Oppenheimer in his book, The Origin of the British, confirms that 96% of the males living in Llangefni in northern Wales derive from peoples of the Iberian Peninsula.
Genetic research done by Oppenheimer on the Y chromosone confirms that the Welsh, like the Irish, share a large proportion of their ancestry with the Spanish Basques. The genetic marker R1b , on the Y choromosone of 83-89% of Welsh males, confirms they are originally from the Basques of Spain.
Another researcher of the Welsh and Wales is Dr. John Davies who is a native of Wales and the leading expert today on the Celts in Wales. He is a graduate of the University College, Cardiff and Trinity College, Cambridge, and he has many publications on the history of Wales and the Celts and worked with BBC on the filming of "A History of Wales."
His research on the Celts of Wales tells us that, like their contemporaries in Britain, they built hill-forts for defense and because of these hill-forts, the economy of some parts of Wales was capable of sustaining communities that bordered on being urban.
During the first century AD the language spoken in Wales and throughout southern Britain was the Celtic Brythonic, a language closely related to Gaulish of Gaul (in France), according to Davies.
The artistic style of the Celts at this time was of metal objects made in Iron Age Wales and Britain. The role of the Druids was a strong part of the Celtic culture and was a kind of pantheism and links have been discerned between it and Hinduism, according to Davies.
We know from the Roman Tacitus in his writings that when the Romans attacked the druids of Anglesey in 61 AD their altars "were drenched with the blood of prisoners," indicating human sacrifice was practiced by the Celts, and one reason the Romans considered the Celts so barbaric.
When the Romans arrived in this area in 48 AD, Wales as we know it today with its borders did not exist. The Romans found five Celtic tribal groupings:
- Deceangli in northeastern Wales
- Ordovices in northwestern Wales
- Demetae in southwestern Wales
- Silures in southeastern Wales
- Cornovii in the central borderlands
The Romans eventually conquered and divided the five Celtic tribes, built Roman forts in what is today Wales, and most of the inhabitants of Wales came to accept Roman rule. Wales became part of the Roman Empire for more than three hundred years and assimilated to the Roman culture and rule.
What is amazing and surprising is that these Celtic people did not replace their native language with Latin and continued speaking their native Brythonic languages. Brythonic adopted some Latin words and terms. Even though the people had adopted the Roman ways, they were still known as Britons to themselves and the Romans and continued speaking Celtic Brythonic languages.The Romans did not distinguish the Welsh from the rest of the peoples of southern Britain. They were all called Britons.
With the collapse of the Roman Empire in Britain, the Romano-British organization and political structures remained. In 420-450 AD, Vortigem (the Gwtheyrn, of Welsh tradition) held authority over much of the former Roman province. He cleverly used the Roman method of using one invader against another.
He used the Brythonic speaking people to settle in northwest Wales and resist the incursions of the Irish. He allowed the Saxons to settle in exchange for their help against the invasions of the Picts (the Celts from Scotland). This way he was able to keep the area we now know as Wales from invasion by the Irish and Scottish.
Although historians in the past have told us the Anglo-Saxons ran off these Celtic tribes that eventually became the Welsh, in truth this was not the case. The Welsh kings held their ground and instead ran off the Anglo-Saxons.
The vast majority of the Celts stayed where they were and adopted the language and customs of their rulers. Their language survives in place names. Most of the rivers of England and Wales have Brythonic names.
The Welsh Language
Welsh speakers, who had previously occupied most of Britain and Wales, stayed where they were and adopted the language and customs of their various rulers whether Roman or Celt.
Varieties of Brythonic spoken in different parts of Britain and by Brythonic-speaking migrants in Brittany began to develop into separate languages.
It is not known for certain exactly when the Welsh language emerged but historians and linguists date it to be about the sixth century AD after the Romans had left Britain. (5th century)
It evolved from the Common Brittonic, the common ancestor of Welsh, Breton, Cornish and Cumbric (now extinct) languages. Therefore, Welsh is fairly closely related to Cornish and Breton of today and more distantly related to Irish, Manx, and Scottish Gaelic spoken today.
The native term for the language is Cymraeg (Welsh) and Cymru means Wales. Welsh originated as an exonym given to its speakers by the Anglo-Saxons meaning foreign speech.
The four periods in history of the Welsh language are:
- Primitive Welsh - the period immediately following the language emergence from Brittonic believed to be about the 6th century AD. Known from place names in Latin texts.
- Old Welsh - 9th to 12th centuries. It appears in writing in a number of manuscripts and as glosses on Latin texts.
- Middle Welsh - 12th to 14th centuries. Numerous texts in this form of Welsh including poetry, prose, legal texts, religious texts, medical and scientific works. Middle Welsh was reasonably intelligible to modern Welsh speakers.
- Modern Welsh - from the 15th century on and divided into Early and Late Modern Welsh. Language of poetry of Dafydd ap Gwilym, one of the leading Welsh poets of the Middle Ages.
The earliest known examples of Welsh literature are the poems of Taliesin, which features Urien of Rheged a sixth century king in what is now southern Scotland. The earliest known example of written Welsh is on a gravestone inscription in Tywyn Church dating from the eighth century.
The poet Aveirin's, Y Gododdin, is a medieval Welsh poem of the description of a battle between the Celts and Northumbrians which occurred approximately in six century AD. The oldest surviving manuscript Y Gododdin dates from the second half of the 12th century.
Y Gododdin is a series of elegies to men of the Brittonic Kingdom of Gododdin, who according to conventional interpretation died fighting the Angles of Deira and Bernicia. The battle took place at Catraethin c.600 AD and survives in the Book of Aneirin.
It is written both in Old and Middle Welsh and is the work of two different scribes. The ruler of Gododdin at the time was Myunddog Mwynfawr and the setting is in southern Scotland and northeast England which was the Brythonic Kingdom in 600 AD. Mwynfawr, who only had an army of three hundred men, was greatly outnumbered by the Anglo-Saxons and fell to defeat in this great battle. Their heroics, even in defeat, are the subject of the elegies.
And, interestingly, Y Gododdin is one of the earliest of Welsh poems to contain a reference to legendary King Arthur:
He charged before three hundred of the finest,
He cut down both centre and wing,
He excelled in the forefront of the noblest host,
He gave gifts of horses from the herd in winter.
He fed black ravens on the rampart of a fortress
Though he was no Arthur.
Among the powerful ones in battle,
In the front rank, Gwawrddur was a palisade.
~ from www.britannia.com
Powys was another Celtic/Welsh kingdom that experienced defeat in battle against the English. The Heledd poems are a magnificent lament on the kingdom's misfortunes.
It was Offa, King of Mercia, that finally brought the Welsh people together as one with his construction of Offa's Dyke in 780 AD. This is the most remarkable monument constructed in Britain and finally defined the territory of Wales, separate from England. It deepened the self-awareness of the people as Welsh and within a generation of its construction, the greater part of the country's inhabitants had become the subjects of a single rule - and they had become Welsh people with a Welsh language.
The process of unity (a Welsh nation) came because of their retaining their own Welsh language and the construction of Offa's Dyke. This process of unity came to a climax under King Gruffudd ap Llywelyn in 1057 AD who united all of Wales under his authority.
Hywel Dda (The Good) brought about the codification of the Law of Wales around 940 AD. The Law of Wales is traditional and not a king-made law. Its emphasis was upon ensuring reconciliation between kin groups rather than keeping of order through punishment. For centuries to come, living under the Law of Hywel would be one of the definitions of Welsh people.
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when Wales became Christianized while under Roman rule. We know today there were Catholic bishops in Britain around 313 AD, but in-depth Christianization of Wales did not take place until after the fall of the Roman Empire (5th century). Wales was Christianized by St. Brynach who came from Ireland to Wales.
William Morgan's Welsh translation of the Bible is considered the first work in Late Modern Welsh and served as a model for literary Welsh.
Today, Wales is a country that is part of the UK and the island of Great Britain. The Welsh people are an ethnic group native to or otherwise associated with Wales and the Welsh language. The language was historically spoken throughout Wales and its direct ancestor is Old British once spoken throughout most of the British mainland.
Wales and Welsh are traced to the Proto-Germanic word "walhaz" meaning foreigner, stranger, Roman, Romance speaker, and Celtic speaker. It was used by ancient Germanic peoples to describe the inhabitants of the former Roman Empire who were largely Romanized and spoke the Latin or Celtic language.
Since the publication of Morgan's Bible translation, Welsh has continued to change and there have been increasing influences from English. I like to call it the language of the double and triple consonants.
Welsh has been spoken continuously in Wales throughout recorded history, but by 1911 it had become a minority language spoken by only 43.5% of the population. The majority of Welsh people speak English today and the majority are British citizens.
While this decline continued over the following decades, surprisingly the language has never died out. With the 21st century there has been a revival of the Welsh language and the number of Welsh speakers are increasing.
Today, Wales has a Welsh-language television channel and radio station broadcast entirely in Welsh. Welsh as a first language is concentrated in northern and western Wales and the extreme southwest region.
Most road signs throughout Wales are bilingual. There are weekly and monthly newspapers and magazines published in Welsh today. About five hundred books are published annually in Welsh. There is quite a thriving Welsh language music scene. There are also Welsh theatre groups and the cultural festival, eisteddfodau, is held throughout Wales each year.
Britannia, as the Romans originally called the British Isles, evolved into five separate countries, England, Wales, Scotland, Republic of Ireland, and Northern Ireland, but each originally was inhabited by Celtic tribes and had the Celtic languages and culture in common. Over time, they evolved into distinct separate countries with their own peoples, culture and languages.