Wales, you said, “Llanfairpwllgwyngyll…”
Wales is a Celtic nation to the west of the British Isles. In spite of centuries of cultural oppression, a quarter of the population speaks Welsh, which today carries an official status. Political awakening is recent with the creation of a National Assembly in 1999.
The Welsh are Celts and are more precisely descended from Brythonic people. In the 5th and 6th century they were driven to the west of the British Isles by Anglo-Saxon invaders. It is because of the conflicts with their English neighbours that the different Brythonic kingdoms were united to form Wales.
In the 13th century, the attempted establishment of a sovereign state was thwarted by the assassination of the prince of Wales, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, and by the conquest of the territory by Edward I of England in 1282. The revolts that followed were largely suppressed for more than a century, culminating in the liberation war of Owain Glyndŵr, 1400–04. In 1536, after a short period of independence, Wales was split by England and the language was outlawed.
In the 20th century the coalfield of the south of Wales became the most industrialised region of the world. It was in this same period that native speakers brought about a renaissance of Welsh nationalism. In 1925 the Nationalist Party of Wales appeared. The Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (the Society of the Welsh Language) used civil disobedience in 1962 to obtain rights for the language. It was only in 1999 that the Welsh saw their efforts come to fruition with the creation of the Welsh Assembly, albeit with limited legislative powers. It did, however, allow them to make Welsh the official language of the country alongside English.
|Name||Cymru | Welsh |
Wales | English
|Population||3,139,000 inhab. (2018)|
|Languages||Cymraeg | Welsh (official)|
English | English (official)
|Number of native speakers||857,000 | Welsh (2017)|
|State of guardianship||United Kingdom|
|Official status||Principality of the United Kingdom with its own assembly|
|Capital||Caerdydd | Welsh |
Cardiff | English
|Historic religion||Christian Methodist|
|Flag||Y Ddraig Goch | Welsh |
(The Red Dragon)
|Anthem||Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau | Welsh |
(Old Land of MyFathers)
|Motto||Cymru am Byth | Welsh |
- 940 • Welsh law codified by King Hywel Dda.
- 1282 • Assassination of Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffydd; English invasion.
- 1404 • After four years of war, Owain Glyndŵr establishes an independent Welsh parliament.
- 1536 • Annexing by the English under Henry VIII.
- 1847 • The government forbids the teaching of Welsh in schools. In 1870, the Welsh Not is established (punishment for children caught in the act of speaking Welsh).
- 1920s • Withdrawl of the Church of England and the creation of Urdd Gobaith Cymru; formation of the Welsh Nationalist Party (Plaid Cymru).
- 1960s • Start of the armed campaigns of MAC and the Free Wales Army; the Welsh Office is established; first Plaid Cymru Member of Parliament, 1966; first Welsh Language Act, 1967.
- 1997 • Majority vote for devolution; establishment of the National Assembly in 1998; first general election of Wales in 1999.
In 1956, the Liverpool Corporation announced its intention to flood the valley of Tryweryn and the village of Capel Celyn, to provide water for Liverpool in England. Despite protests from the Tryweryn Defence Committee and Welsh deputies, British parliament endorsed this decision. The villagers were expelled from their houses and bodies were exhumed from the cemetery. In spite of the anecdotal character of this event, Tryweryn was a turning point in the modern history of Wales. A nation awoke. In 1963, the construction site in Tryweryn was shelled, marking the start of a long armed campaign. In 1965, the opening ceremony of the dam was invaded by thousands of protesters. It was in this era that the “society of the Welsh language” was created, launching 40 years of non-violent action. In 1996, Gwynfor Evans became the first MP of Plaid Cymru.
Wales lies to the west of Great Britain. It shares its eastern border with England, while to the north, west and south, it is bordered by two seas – the Irish Sea and the Celtic Sea. The administrative history of Wales is complex. Historically, the country is made up of thirteen historical regions, which are called ‘Siroedd’ in Welsh. In 1972, a local government Act created eight regions based on this country, whose names are uniquely Welsh save for three of them which are bilingual names. In 1996, a reform took place to endow the new Welsh regions. Today, it is divided into nine counties, three towns and ten country divisions (the map represents the regions which were in force between 1974 and 1996) corresponding more to the historical reality. The biggest towns and the capital (Cardiff) are found in the south. Swansea and Newport, two ports famous for their role in the industrialisation of the country, have prospered thanks to the exploitation of iron ore.
Of the Celtic languages, Welsh is certainly the most practised language. Closely related to Cornish and Breton, it is part of the Brythonic languages. Many books, including grammar books and dictionaries were edited in the 17th and 18th centuries. It is at this time that the language was standardised. In 2018, there were just over 850,000 native speakers, corresponding to approximately 28% of the population. The north-west of Wales is traditionally an area where Welsh is more active. More than 50% of the population speaks Welsh in certain sectors such as Gwynedd. Thanks to devolution, Wales has a special policy which allows it to manage its own language policy. After the Government of Wales Act (1998), Welsh and English would be treated as equal. Thus, Welsh was strongly present in justice, public services, road signs, the media and all areas of public life. Sianel Pedwar Cymru (S4C), the Welsh television channel, broadcasts fully in Welsh. The BBC does the same in the field of radio. Although the UK has signed and ratified the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages, its tradition of oppression of language minorities and the power of the English language, especially English immigrants, could jeopardise the future of the Welsh language.
Since 1999, some administrative powers were devolved to Wales, but they were limited and in contrast with Scotland, the Welsh Assembly had no lawmaking or tax collecting powers. In 1999, the new Labour Party obtained a running majority and in 2007 Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party, governed in a four-year coalition with Labour, but are now again in opposition. However, in a referendum held in 2011, the Welsh voted overwhelmingly for direct law-making powers for the National Assembly. The principal preoccupations of the Welsh remain the rights of workers, public services, the Welsh language, housing under pressure by what the Welsh term “English colonisation”. The themes of decentralisation and the environment also trouble the Welsh political world. Recent opinion polls show that 32% of the Welsh are in favour of greater self-government. This is a relatively new development.
The most representative Welsh parties (some of which are localised elements of British parties)
- Plaid Cymru / Party of Wales (Separatist progressive)
- Welsh New Labour (composed of British New Labour, progressive)
- Welsh Liberal Democrats (composed of British Liberal Democrat Party, pro-decentralisation)
- Welsh Conservatives (composed of British Conservative and Unionist Party, conservative, evolving on decentralisation issues)