Monday, 7 March 2011

Little Country

On 1 May 1707, the united Kingdom of Great Britain was created by the political union of the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland.

Can you spot what's missing here?

On a recent and inspirational stay with many dear friends in an off grid converted cow shed in Mid Wales, a conversation struck up about whether Wales was a country or not.

(I say conversation, but out of necessity a conversation requires two or more people to offer trade thoughts and information. If you know me, when I talk about Wales there is rarely opportunity for anyone else to get involved. Perhaps soliloquy is a more appropriate noun.)

I started the 'discussion' by stating that I didn't think Wales had ever existed as a country in its own right.  My friends disagreed and said that of course it is a country, you idiot.  The subject of Wales and its identity as a distinct country has played on mind ever since, and seems relevant in light of the Welsh people voting overwhelmingly for more powers being granted to the Senedd.

And, of course, Wales is a country. And yes, I am an idiot.

But I think my point was that, according to what most people understand a country to be, Wales is a country.  But it's more complicated than that.  When we think about British history and the United Kingdom, we think of four countries - England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  Easy.  But, I don't see four countries; I see two countries and two ideas or concepts.

Northern Ireland is a very difficult subject and one which I know little about, so I shall not offend anyone by attempting to write about it here.  But, needless to say, it is not an ordinary country.  It was created in the aftermath of Irish independence and has long been riven by those that want it to be the United Kingdom, those that want it to be the Republic of Ireland and those that couldn't really care less so long as everyone stops killing each other over it.  So let's put the whole thing to one side, walk slowly and sheepishly away and pretend I never mentioned it.

So the Act of Union put into effect in 1707 created the United Kingdom. The hitherto separate Kingdoms of England and Scotland got together, gave each other a big hug and decided to hang out forever more. Best friends forever.  After centuries of bitter squabbling and bloodshed - accurately and irrefutably described in Braveheart and other similar historical documents - the Auld Enemies were joining up and soon would conquer most of the known universe.  

To this day, the monarch of England is also the monarch of the Scots (not Scotland mind...never King or Queen of Scotland, only of Scots; one can't reign over the moors and mountains of Scotland itself, only over the folk that live in it.  I like that).  Queen Elizabeth II is the Queen of England and the Scots.

But where is Wales in this?  Where is the lovely little country I grew up in and harp on about so? Well, by the time the love in of 1707 occurred, Wales had been 'absorbed' into the Kingdom of England and had existed as such for a good 500 years or so.  The word 'absorbed' is almost the official term for the event, but in reality the geographical area we now call Wales was annexed by Edward I - otherwise known as Longshanks (he was a big lad apparently) or the Hammer of the Scots (I again refer you to the supreme historical document that is Braveheart. I think Edward was played by Edward Woodward observing closely the standard the-English-make-the-best-psychotic-villains Hollywood protocol).  Previous to Edward's Welsh Wars of the 13th century, 'Wales' was a vaguely insulting term for the collection of principalities and micro-states in the extreme west of the British mainland. The word derives from the Anglo Saxon words Wēalas and Waelisc meaning 'foreign land' and 'foreigner'.  It was insulting because these Celtic speakers of Brythonic languages that are now still alive in the form of modern Welsh, Cornish and Breton were definitely here before the opportunist Scandinavian migrants turned up in the uncertain and rudderless aftermath of Roman rule. A bit cheeky to then refer to the incumbent residents as foreigners, I'm sure you'll agree.  Take over the land, but at least do it politely.  

The spread of Anglo Saxon culture pushed the Brythonic speaking people further and further west and north until all that remained were a collection of tiny countries in what we now call Wales, Cornwall (spot that naughty Anglo Saxon foreigner word again) and those that migrated to Brittany as a result of the pressure from the east.  These tiny Kingdoms argued among themselves constantly and were never truly unified.  Occasionally, a very shrewd and, if we're honest, lucky ruler would manage to find himself ruling over a lot of them at once (notably Llewellyn Fawr (or the Great) who ruled over the Kingdom of Gwynedd and managed to incorporate the Kingdoms of Powys and do deals with various sycophant rulers of Deheubarth), but no one ever managed to rule over them all.  Llewellyn Fawr only got away with it because he'd done a deal with King John of England to send lots of cash and do as he said.  The trouble is that these brief arrangements of near-union of the Welsh peoples could never last because all the sons of a dead King inherited the land equally and immediately set about killing each other, carving up the kingdoms and generally undoing all the work done by their fathers.  

At no point leading up to the Welsh Wars is there a single entity called Wales.  The next best effort after Llewellyn Fawr was his son Llewellyn the Last who repeated the trick of conquering, subduing and doing deals with his Welsh neighbours to control a big chunk of what Wales is now.  However, with a name like that he should have seen what was coming next.  To cut a long story short, King Edward of England got fed up with not being in charge of absolutely everything and decided to act in the best tradition of his Norman forefathers and attack and kill and dominate everything that he could get his long hands on.  So, he invaded Wales and began what was at the time one of the bloodiest and largest military campaigns Europe had ever seen.  The Welsh, infighting and quarrelsome and divided as ever (much of Edward's Norman English army was provided by the Welsh who didn't like Llewellyn's bullying), stood no chance and Llewlelyn the Last ended up with his body in a Welsh abbey and his head on a spike in the Tower of London where you could have a good look at it for the next fifteen years.

Ironically, it was in a way Edward's spectacular conquest of the Celtic states to the west of his Kingdom that created what we call Wales today.  The 'country' we now call Wales was born out of the utter destruction and near-annihilation of dozens of independent self-governing states all now coming under the rule of England and its monarch.  Wales as a country is probably the result of the aggression of a Norman English monarch.

So a political and historical view of a nation of Wales is a difficult thing to understand.  Nevertheless, people say that it is the culture of Wales - the Welsh language, traditions, regional identities and so on - that set it apart as a distinct country.  This is true where I grew up in Carmarthenshire and also Ceredigion, Gwynedd and in many other areas of Wales.  But these cultural distinctions are harder to define in the border areas and in pockets such as Pembrokeshire and the Gower peninsula where Scandanavian and English influences are more engrained and perhaps even the main feature of the area's cultural identity.  Logic says that the further west you go, the further you travel from England and into the extremities of Wales, the more 'Welsh' the culture will be.  But, way out west, Pembrokeshire is very much an area of Wales influenced by English culture, far more so than Carmarthenshire to the east of the county.  The county's superb natural seaports meant that it was so long inhabited by Vikings and later the Norman English that indigenous Welsh cultural characteristics began to disappear.  Old Welsh churches in the west don't have steeples - that's an English style.  Pembrokeshire churches have steeples. The place names are more Scandanavian than Welsh: Bosherston, Skrinkle, Tenby, Caldey, Skomer to name a few.  As for Monmouthshire, well that hardly feels like Wales at all; aside from the occasional Red Dragon fluttering from a castle built by Normans to warn the Welsh what would happen if they started acting up again, it's hard to know where Gloucestershire ends and Wales begins.

My point is that it is hard to define the country of Wales as we know it now.  When we blithely list the four countries in the UK we barely know what we're talking about.  Historically, it has been a mess of micro-states grouped together by what they are not as much as what they are.  And trying to use culture is equally problematic.  Is it the language?  In many parts of Wales that is what is considered to be the defining feature of Welsh culture, but the Valleys is possibly one of the most fiercely 'Welsh' and proud areas and the Welsh language isn't much more than a background hum in those areas.

I think that the reason I'm thinking about this is at the moment is because of the recent referendum and also because I have often heard nationalists tub thumping about a free and independent Wales while citing inaccurate and sometimes plain wrong 'facts' about what Wales has been.  I would consider myself as a person that would like to see Wales govern itself and operate more outside of the union of England and Scotland.  However, I think that it should do so with a stark understanding of its own history and culture; there should be a sense of newness rather than reversion.  Mainly because in reality there isn't an old and idealised Wales to revert to.  If Wales is to be its own country, it must be a new and shiny thing; it's got to be a new place because there never has been an old place.  And when one is in the middle of the Welsh wilderness, walking through the ancient granite bones of the country and feeling the weight of millions of years of geology and wildness, that's an exciting idea.


  1. Interesting article. I agree that many don't know the background and all the intricacies with the separate kingdoms and different influences. However I'd still say Wales was a country.

    A country can have many influences and cultures within it. For instance England, where so English customs and badges of identity would be meaningless to parts of the population, especially at the extremes like Northern England.

    A lot of the Welsh identity and nationhod has come from that oppressed mindset, whether real or imaginged. It is the same in many places, as something binds people together. It will be interesting now that we've had the Welsh Assembly for almost 15 years and now the new powers whether this will wane as they realise there is lots they don't agree on.

  2. Thanks Paul! And I agree - the identity of the Welsh and Wales, Cymry and Cymru, in its modern form is irresistibly strong and to call it a country is entirely appropriate. I think I just felt the desire to articulate how complicated a place Wales is to my friends - Wales and Welshness is often simplified as a stereotypical cartoon when the reality is far more intricate, subtle and laden with difficulties and paradoxes than even quite enlightened people can appreciate at first glance.

    I guess that an oppressed mindset is inevitable in a country that has as one of its most popular tourist attractions castles built by foreign invaders to intimidate and dominate the locals! That mindset is almost engrained into our psyche, although I do believe that is now changing with a more forward and progressive vibe that is in no small part due to the Senedd and also popular Welsh culture.

    Having said that, not agreeing on stuff is a hallmark of Welsh politics and peoples. North v South, East v West, Welsh v English v Wenglish, rugby v football, town v country, devolution v union. The list goes on and on...

    Being argumentative and mischievous is something that gives a Welshman particular pleasure!


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