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Wales - a potted history

Wales, as we see it today is a recent development, and did not exist historically at any point occupying the area it does today. Through history, borders changed small kingdoms merged and alliances changed, plus for much of history it has been a part of England or England and Wales. Today it is being moved towards and will gain complete independence from England, ultimately becoming a completely separate country within the European Union. While some people in Wales may understand what is happening, most of the population of England will be unaware of these developments and have had no say on this.

The main reason to write this article was to help explain why there are so many English castles in now what many think of as Wales and to explain the history of Wales joining England to become a single country and the lands that was belonging to various parts at the points the castles were developed.

This article breaks into a number of sections:-

  • Recent and new Wales, the area enclosed within the new Wales, how Monmouthshire got included, also looking at how the new state of Wales is coming into existence.

  • How England and Wales as a single country came about, and included England, Wales and the Marcher Lordships, explaining what marcher lordships were.

  • Historic Wales, looking at the area that was Wales and the Marcher Lordships, and conflicts that existed, and reasons why different groups of castles were built.

There are many external links, most of these go to Wikipedia pages on the topics, allowing further study if you are interested.

Recent or the new Wales

The current or new Wales occupies an area roughly equal to the old Wales and the Marcher Lordships.

The new Wales started to develop in 1964 with the development of the Welsh Office in London looking at development of and application of laws in Wales.  Prior to this there had been a committee of MP's established in 1949 called the Council for Wales and Monmouthshire. The flag of Wales was set in 1959.

Prior to this several acts had separated England and Wales, the earliest of these was the legislation introduced by the Liberal Government elected in 1880 under Prime Minister William Gladstone. It was the first Act since the union between England and Wales in 1535-42 which specifically applied only to Wales. A similar Bill which would have applied in England was rejected by Parliament. The 1881 Act did not apply to Monmouthshire, but was extended to include Monmouthshire in 1915 under wartime legislation which was reaffirmed in 1921. However, later Acts which were specific to Wales, including the Welsh Intermediate Education Act 1889, and the Welsh Cemeteries Act 1908, were also applied to Monmouthshire. Welsh Church Act 1914, which disestablished the Church in Wales in 1920, which up to that point had been a part of the Church of England also applied to Wales and Monmouthshire.

Monmouthshire was the most difficult to allocate, in that at the time of the Domesday survey it was considered part of England and included. It was not listed as one of the 12 counties that formed Wales when the laws of Wales Acts were drawn up and at that time felons were dealt with by the courts that were part of the Oxford circuit rather than part of the Cardiff circuit, as all the welsh counties were. It was given two Knights of the Shire, in common with existing counties in England, rather than one as in the counties in Wales. However the Wales and Berwick Act 1746  mentions so many English and so many Welsh counties and from this you can assume Monmouthshire was part of Wales, but later writers generally referred to it as a part of England. In 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica states that it is a part of England. In the Local Government Act 1933 it listed both the administrative county of Monmouth and county borough of Newport as part of England. Since that there had been a lot of debate on this, with views one way and the other. The situation was settled by a change of law by the Local Government Act 1972, which provided that "in every act passed on or after 1st April 1974, and in every instrument made on or after that date under any enactment (whether before, on or after that date) "Wales", subject to any alterations of boundaries..." included "the administrative county of Monmouthshire and the county borough of Newport". 

The location of the county of Monmouthshire, light green with other recent, but not current Wales counties in green.

The creation of a new state or states

Some may say due to Welsh language and separatist claims, and some feel it was a political move by the Labour Party to retain control in future areas of the country where its core support was, leading to referendums only in those areas where this would have provided this benefit, Wales, Scotland and the north of England. This also provides double representation with Welsh and Scottish MP's voting on English matters and outvoting the reprehensive of the areas where the laws would now affect, while English MP's have no control on a growing number of areas in the administration of Wales and Scotland. Like many things in politics this has been achieved by stealth, a bit at a time.

A referendum on the creation of an assembly for Wales in 1979 (see Wales referendum, 1979) led to a large majority for the "no" vote. However, in 1997 a referendum on the same issue secured a "yes", although by a very narrow majority. The National Assembly for Wales was set up in 1999 (as a consequence of the Government of Wales Act 1998) and possesses the power to determine how the central government budget for Wales is spent and administered (although the UK parliament reserves the right to set limits on the powers of the Welsh Assembly). The 1998 Act was amended by the Government of Wales Act 2006 which enhanced the Assembly's powers, giving it legislative powers akin to the Scottish Parliament and Northern Ireland Assembly. Following the 2007 Assembly election, the One Wales Government was formed under a coalition agreement between Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Labour Party, under that agreement, a convention is due to be established to discuss further enhancing Wales's legislative and financial autonomy. A referendum on giving the Welsh Assembly full law-making powers is promised "as soon as practicable, at or before the end of the assembly term (in 2011)" and both parties have agreed "in good faith to campaign for a successful outcome to such a referendum".

From this it would appear that Wales will become ultimately a separate state.

The creation of England and Wales  (one country)

Prior to 1535 there was England, Wales and the Marcher Lordships. The Marcher Lordships were independent from each other and had complete jurisdiction over their subjects, without recourse to the King of England. The King only had jurisdiction in treason cases, though the Lords each bore personal allegiance to the King, as feudal subjects.

Marcher Lords were strong, trusted Lords appointed by the King to guard the borders with Wales and Scotland. The greatest Marcher Lords along the Welsh border, known as the Welsh Marches included the Earl of Chester, Earl of Gloucester,  Earl of Hereford, Pembroke, and Earl of Shrewsbury while the most powerful Marcher Lords on the Scottish border were the Earls of Northumberland and Bishops of Durham.

The Welsh Marches contain Britain's densest concentration of motte-and-bailey castles. Marcher Lords encouraged immigration from all the Norman-Angevin realms, and encouraged trade from their "fair haven" ports like Cardiff. At the top of this culturally diverse, intensely feudalised and local society, the Marcher Barons combined the authority of feudal lord and vassal of the King.

The Anglo-Norman lordships in this area were distinct in several ways: they were geographically compact and jurisdictionally separate one from another, and they had special privileges which separated them from the usual English lordships. Royal writ did not obtain in the Marches: Marcher lords ruled their lands by their own lawsicut regale ("like unto a king") as Gilbert, Earl of Gloucester, whereas in England fief-holders were directly accountable to the King. Marcher Lords could 'build castles', a jealously guarded and easily-revoked Royal privilege in England. Marcher Lords administered laws, waged war, established markets in towns, and maintained their own chanceries that kept their records, which have been completely lost. They had their own deputies, or sheriffs. Sitting in their own courts they had jurisdiction over all cases at law save high treason. "They could establish forests and forest laws declare and wage war, establish boroughs, and grant extensive charters of liberties. They could confiscate the estates of traitors and felons, and re-grant these at will. They could establish and preside over their own petty parliaments and county courts. Finally, they could claim any and every feudal due, aid, grant, and relief" although they did not mint coins. Their one insecurity, if they did not take up arms against the King, was of dying without a legitimate heir, whereupon the title reverted to the Crown in escheat. Welsh law was frequently used in the Marches in preference to English law, and there would sometimes be a dispute as to which code should be used to decide a particular case.

By 1536 some of these lordships had passed to the crown while others were abolished as a part of what is known as the the acts of union, the Laws in Wales Acts 15351542. From this point neither England or Wales existed, but became England and Wales then referred to as the kingdom of England, Wales having been fully absorbed. The legal system of England and Wales became one and with a few exceptions laws and other matters were the same across England and Wales until the new Wales was created.

The Kingdom of England (including Wales) continued as a separate state until 1 May 1707, when the Acts of Union, putting into effect the terms agreed in the Treaty of Union the previous year, resulted in political union with the Kingdom of Scotland to create the united Kingdom of Great Britain. In 1800, Great Britain was united with Ireland through another Act of Union 1800 to become the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. In 1921, the Irish Free State was created, and the Royal and Parliamentary Titles Act in 1927 officially established the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which exists today.

When you form a limited company in England or Wales, it is the same process, with the Registrar, Companies House based in Cardiff, and you can say registered in England, registered in Wales or registered in England and Wales. Scotland still has a separate legal system and company register. The term England and Wales in law started to appear from 1955.

Historic Wales

In more turbulent times there were many kingdoms, and a great deal of change and no kingdom of Wales existed. The first coming together occurred where a number of independents accepted one as the overlord. In many cases changing allegiances as time progressed and power sifted.

 Wales 1066 - many independent areas,  but we know that much of what we know of as Monmouthshire was considered a part of England.

Norman expansion west, changed the defined the pattern.

Wales 1217 (above)

Yellow: areas directly ruled by Llywelyn;

Grey: areas ruled by Llywelyn's vassels;

Green: Anglo-Norman Marcher Lordships.

Wales after the treaty of  Montgomery 1267

Principality of Wales (1267-1277)

Lands ruled directly by the Prince of Wales

     Gwynedd, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd's principality

      Territories conquered by Llywelyn ap Gruffudd

     Territories of Llywelyn's vassals

Not ruled by the Prince of Wales:-

     Lordships of the Marcher barons

     Lordships of the King of England

By the 13th century, the situation had stabilised where England consisted of a known area, Marcher Lordships were the buffer between England and Wales, having allegiance to the English crown, but being largely independent, and what we can start to think of as Wales became established in north and mid Wales. The two maps above show the areas as it's thought they were in 1217, although there would have been some to and fro with some of the borders. The second map shows the land holding after the Treaty of Montgomery that defined the areas far better.

The Welsh continued to call themselves Brythoniaid (Brythons or Britons) well into the Middle Ages, It was not until about the 12th century however, that Cymry began to overtake Brythoniaid in their writings. Cymry or Wales, or welsh then a feature and via intermarriages, a coming together of up to then separate tribes or groupings happened.

Gruffydd ap Llywelyn (1039-1063) was the only Welsh King ever to rule over the entire territory of Wales, from about 1057 until his death in 1063, and others in Wales recognised the kingship. The entire territory of Wales at this time was what we would think of as north and western part of mid Wales.  For about seven brief years, Wales was one, under one ruler, it had not occurred before or since. Owain Gwynedd (1100-1170) of the Aberffraw line was the first Welsh ruler to use the title princeps Wallensium (Prince of the Welsh), a title of substance given his victory on the Berwyn Mountains.  

Owain Gwynedd's grandson, Llywelyn Fawr (the Great) (1173-1240), wrestling concessions out of the Magna Carta in 1215 and receiving the fealty of other Welsh Lords in 1216 at the council at Aberdyfi, becoming the first Prince of Wales. We show the area controlled by him at this point in the map above left.

His grandson Llewellyn II also secured the recognition of the title Prince of Wales from Henry III with the Treaty of Montgomery in 1267. This is the map we have above right, that shows the areas at that time.

Many of the conditions of the treaty had been anticipated by the Treaty of Pipton (1265) between Llywelyn and Simon de Montfort. The 1267 treaty ceded Builth to Llywelyn, along with Brecon and Gwerthrynion in mid-Wales. Llywelyn was also granted Whittington castle in modern-day Shropshire, previously held by his grandfather in the 1220s, and received an assurance that no castle would be built at Hawarden for sixty years by Robert of Mold, thus helping to secure the north-eastern border of Wales. The treaty also allowed for the reinstatement of Llywelyn's brother, Dafydd ap Gruffudd, into Welsh society after his defection to England in the early 1260s. Though the treaty required Llywelyn to swear homage to the King of England, it was in effect an acknowledgement of the power and authority of the prince, effectively demonstrating his independence.

Caerphilly Castle was started in 1268, by  Gilbert 'the Red' de Clare, one of the Marcher Lords, to limit the advances of  Llewellyn II , who claimed all lands including those of the Marcher Lords in the south as his under the Treaty of Montgomery . This lead to a dispute that the King asked some Bishops to resolve. (See the location guide on Caerphilly Castle   for more on this).

After the succession of Edward I as King of England in 1272, relations between the King and Llewellyn deteriorated, including the imprisonment of Llewellyn's wife Eleanor, daughter of Simon de Montfort, and shortly after  Edward I declared war on Llywelyn in 1276.  Leading to a military defeat for Llewellyn, and the Treaty of Aberconwy included Llywelyn's fealty to England in 1277. Peace was short lived and with the 1282 Edwardian conquest the rule of the Welsh princes permanently ended. With Llywelyn's death and his brother Prince Dafydd's  execution, the few remaining Welsh Lords did homage for their lands to Edward I. Llywelyn's head was then carried through London on a spear; his baby daughter Gwenllian was locked in the priory at Sempringham, where she remained until her death fifty four years later.

To help maintain his dominance, Edward constructed a series of great stone castles. Beaumaris started 1295, Caernarfon, started 1283, and Conwy started 1283, were built mainly to overshadow the Welsh royal home and headquarters Garth Celyn, Aber Garth Celyn, on the north coast of Gwynedd. Edward built or strengthened 17 castles in his reign in Wales.

Caernarfon's symbolic status, as the Kings capital of Wales was emphasized when Edward made sure that his son, the first English Prince of Wales, later to become Edward 2nd, was born here in 1284. According to a famous legend, the King had promised the Welsh that he would name as the Prince of Wales "a prince born in Wales, who did not speak a word of English" and then produced his infant son to their surprise. This has been reinforced several times since, it was the scene of the Investiture of Prince Edward (later Edward VIII) as Prince of Wales in 1911. In 1969, the castle was the setting for the Investiture of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales.

After the failed revolt in 1294-5 of Madog ap Llywelyn, who styled himself Prince of Wales in the so-called Penmachno Document, there was no major uprising until that led by Owain Glyndŵr a century later, against Henry IV of England. In 1404 Owain was reputedly crowned Prince of Wales in the presence of emissaries from France, Spain and Scotland, he went on to hold parliamentary assemblies at several Welsh towns, including Machynlleth. The rebellion was ultimately to founder, however, and Owain went into hiding in 1412, with peace being more or less restored in Wales by 1415.

Although the English conquest of Wales took place under the 1284 Statute of Rhuddlan, a formal Union did not occur until 1536, shortly after which Welsh law, which continued to be used in Wales after the conquest, was fully replaced by English law under the Laws in Wales Acts 1535-1542.


By: Keith Park Section: Castles Key:
Page Ref: wales_history Topic: Castles Last Updated: 03/2009

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