We need to rebuild Welsh history from the ground up

Dolbadarn Castle

Steve Jones

Wales. A weak nation. A conquered nation. A colony, enslaved.

Rubbish. This isn’t who we are. We’re not the victims. And to think we are is to see our history through an English lens.

We keep telling ourselves that we ‘need to start teaching our own history’. There is currently a very popular petition on the National Assembly website calling for a debate on this.

But we need to do more than that. Before we start teaching our history we need to rebuild it from the ground up. Because the very foundations that history is built on are cracked.

If you strip back the assumptions, what evidence is there that the Welsh are a conquered people? That we’re this rather pathetic race, subordinate to our superior neighbours?

None. In fact, the only reason we survive as a people with our own history, our own culture, even our own language at all, is because they failed to conquer us.

Compare this with England’s fate. They’ve been conquered by everybody.

Look at who has sat on the throne of England. The Anglo-Saxons had a go. Then the Normans conquered them. Then the Plantagenets (French). The Tudors (Welsh). The Stuarts (Scottish).  The Hanoverians (German). And let us not mention the Windsors (aka the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha).

‘Fortress England’ is rubbish. England is Europe’s village bicycle – everyone has had a ride.

Compare with us – thousands of years of unbroken cultural and linguistic continuity, going back to the Bronze Age. They may call us something different. But Britons or Welsh, we’re still us.

A culture and language that still thrives, even though it’s been parked next to the lingua franca of two of the last centuries’ most ruthless global empires (British and American).

It’s not the conquest of Wales that’s the story. It’s that we haven’t been conquered.


So why do we think we’re second best?

They say that history is written by the winners. This isn’t entirely accurate – history is written by those who have the means to write it.

England didn’t conquer Wales, but they didn’t need to if they could convince us otherwise.

The means of doing that has been to control the narrative. Which they’ve been very careful to do since the 12th century.

The Normans pilfered our monasteries of books, an anglicised landowner class neglected our manuscripts.

England banned the establishment of a printing press outside of London and Oxbridge. And meanwhile, propaganda extolling the virtues of English rule flooded over the border.

The Welsh were ‘too poor, too small, and too stupid’ to look after themselves. A message that reached its crescendo in the 19th century when trains crossed into Wales daily loaded with London’s newspapers.

As the Times thundered in 1866: “A rare existence on the most primitive food of a mountainous race is all that the Welsh could enjoy if left to themselves. All the progress and civilization of Wales has come from England.”

We’ve only just begun to control our own history. At the turn of the 20th century, we started establishing Welsh universities, a National Library, a National Museum, and so on.

However, by then the general tone of Wales’ history was set. The Welsh believed the British version of events, which is that the Welsh were a rather pathetic, conquered people.

And the truth is that most of us still believe it.

The English write their own history. The unconquerable people, frequently conquered. They decided they were the winners, despite all evidence to the contrary, and that the Welsh are the losers. Evidence doesn’t matter if people believe it.

Power is a trick. We believe people have power over us because they tell us they have power. If we just stop believing, their power disappears.

We must stop seeing ourselves as the powerless. We must stop seeing ourselves as victims, waiting to be saved. We must stop seeing ourselves through an English/British lens.

We’re Welsh, and we’re here to stay. Let’s start acting that way.

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  1. The biggest problem is the majority in Wales are either from England or are descendents of English people who have migrated into Wales. So they have no loyalty to Wales and are not in the least bit interested in the History, Culure or Language of Wales. They are loyal to England. Which is why Wales votes Labour and for Brexit even though Labour have no interest in Wales and can not see how EU financing is keeping Wales from being the equivalent of a Third World Country.

    • CambroUiDunlainge

      I half agree I half disagree with this. I think its more of a case of many settlers have come to a country which did not really teach its identity therefor those settlers and their descendants never really become fully “assimilated”. I don’t think they have loyalty to England necessarily just the vehicle of Welsh identity is missing a few wheels.

  2. Agreeing with the premise that a more positive approach is necessary, I’m not sure about the logic of the argument that England has been conquered while Wales hasn’t. A couple of points, gently pressing against what I see as an essentialism in this post:

    1. Yes, Wales still has its language (sort of — at least to a degree), but doesn’t England too? Yes, the English spoken today is no longer the ‘same’ English spoken by Aethelred, but then neither is the Welsh spoken today that of the early Middle Ages or the Bronze Age (a remarkable claim). Languages change, as do cultures, as they must.

    2. If England is the ‘village bicycle’, then surely Wales is at least a bit of a communal skateboard. The Normans had a fair old spin here, as (it must be admitted) did the Anglo-Normans and the later incarnations of the English. ‘Native’ institutions of religion, politics, law, etc. were displaced time after time. The Welsh language and ‘the culture’ (whatever that means) hang on by the thinnest of threads. Once again: things change, as they must (centres never can hold).

    3. I don’t think we need to look back to ‘unbroken continuity’ with the Bronze Age – that strikes me as mythologising, romanticising, not necessarily productive. Also, I’m not sure that we need to dwell excessively on those others who ‘pilfered our books’ and ‘neglected our manuscripts’ — isn’t that the same trope of the ‘weak nation’, ‘conquered’, ‘colonised’ that you argue we should drop? We are not ‘here to stay’ – nobody is.

    The point I agree with is that none of this matters in the context of where ‘we’ are going, and that encouraging a more positive take on the whole thing is indeed a good idea. Ein dewis ‘ni’ yw dewis pwy ydyn ‘ni’ (os ydy’r ‘ni’ yn bodoli o gwbl – ac wn i ddim a yw hynny mor bwysig). Gwell cyfaddef a derbyn bod Cymru a’r ‘Cymry’ *wedi* cael eu disodli, eu darostwng a’u hanwybyddu droion (ganddynt eu hunain yn fwy na chan neb arall), ond nad yw hynny’n gwneud gwahaniaeth wrth symud ymlaen. “Was mich nicht umbringt macht mich stärker.”

    Gwahaniaeth pwysig rhwng y Cymry a’r Saeson yw nad ydy Lloegr yn gweld bod ots eu bod wedi cael eu ‘concro’ gan y Normaniaid, gan y Llychlynwyr, gan bwy bynnag: mae eu naratif nhw yn cyfri’r pethau hynny fel llwyddiannau, fel episodau positif — yr hyn sy’n bwysig yw lle *maen nhw nawr*. Dylai’r Cymry wneud yr un peth: derbyn bod concro wedi digwydd, a derbyn nad oes ots o gwbl yn hynny! Alan Llwyd, rwy’n credu, nododd sawl blwyddyn yn ôl ei bod hi’n hen bryd inni ‘groesi cerrig y rhyd’, a llunio symbolaeth mwy positif. Rhan o’r gwaith hwnnw yw rhoi’r gorau i gwyno am uned a chenedl a gwlad a diwylliant a hen, hen, hen, hen, heniaith. Mae hen bethau’n tueddu i farw ymhell cyn yr ifanc.

    Diolch am y darn.

    • Robert Williams

      Hannah, ‘rwy’n cytuno gyda’r rhan fwyaf o’ch dadansoddiad, ond mae’n rhaid gofyn, os nad ydym i ‘gwyno am ….. wlad a diwylliant ac ( yn enwedig) hen, hen… iaith’ – wel, beth sy ar ol i gwyno amdano neu i weithio amdano?

  3. I agree with this, but it’s not rebuilding our history as such, our history is what it is. What is needed is the historical narrative – the glue that binds and entices. Our history should be enticing and alluring to the many and not simply to the few who choose to take an interest.

    British history is currently being revised and revisited to write out our significance. Anyone reading Wikipedia would think that English is the oldest language of these isles and that the anglo saxons were some lovely benevolent group who brought civilisation to the land.

    Wales is still the least anglo sacon part of the UK and that is relevant.

  4. Graham John Hathaway

    The sanitised versions of what schools teach of Welsh history, if you are lucky, reflects the dominance of the radio messages by their nature are repetitive, reinforced and compelling. The hill is steep. The dominant will always seek to dominate, by all or any means given and the resources available. Ironically from the very set of people it has power over. Quantify our natural resources, like water eg. Limitless, bountiful, priceless. Wales is a rich Country.
    The fact that our unabridged Welsh history is hidden is simply because it is more powerful than any other part of the UK. Particulaly English.

    It’s therefore eliminated. Wales should be a progressive and prosperous Country but languishes because it’s whipped that way.
    Where do our riches lie, not in history, or culture or language or politics, a rich tapestry as it is, and an envious set of identifiers , but it’s in our land and people stupid!

  5. Quote of the year “‘Fortress England’ is rubbish. England is Europe’s village bicycle – everyone has had a ride.”. Caught me completely by surprise and yes, I did LOL.

  6. Benjiman L. Angwin

    Drudlwyr ei draffwyr i ar dryffun–feirch
    O’i drafferth rhag Fforddun,
    Saeson sang ddyllest yng Ngwestun,
    Bu creu eu calon eu cymun!

    Utterly thorough is horrific horror upon panting — steeds
    From his (Owain Cyfeiliog) battle-work upon the Eastern border,
    English, their shape trampled in Shropshire,
    Their hearts’ blood was their communion!

    – Cynddelw, ‘Canu Owain Cyfeiliog’

  7. Tame Frontiersman

    African proverb: Until lions write their own history, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter

  8. CambroUiDunlainge

    I think there’s two pathways here: the one you’ve presented as Wales as unconquered, and the earthy truth. The earthy truth – one which Michael Sheen also missed out on is that England was not our peoples only foe. Strathclyde for example fought both Viking and Anglo-Saxon… but their major adversary would turn out to be the Scots who would go on to suppress and assimilate them into their culture. William Wallace proud Scot… but he wasn’t was he? He was Cumbrian – one of us. The same goes for “what is now Wales”. Settled by Irish, some driven out, some not (especially in West Wales) – in the north both Llyn and Gwynedd retain their names as originally being Gaelic. Then Cunedda came… then the Merfynion after that (lets face the truth here… probably Irish too). We have been conquered – because in those days to control a country all you had to do is replace its King or gain their allegiance – as the Lord Rhys did with Henry II or even the fact that the only legitimately recognised Princes were those recognised by the English King of the time. Our focus on England stands so prominently that we ignore those sneaky invasions from our West because our modern nation is defined more so with our continued cultural conflict.

    So do we provide a Disnified version of our history? Or the truth? Make no mistake that our union as one nation (I speak of Wales of course not the UK) is in our shared heritage. It is our only bond – history needs to be taught but we need to work out how we can use the history of a fractured nation to unite it in the present day. The English are the “old foe”… but they must not be mistaken as the only foe. We have been as much an enemy to ourselves as Gaels, Saxons and Scots – many of the first two now partially assimilated into Welsh identity to some extent. Just not completely.

    We’re not powerless, we just have to many interpretations of who we are and divide ourselves. Ultimately pressure groups and political parties can only go so far. We need to redefine what it is to be Welsh in an inclusive way: if you are Welsh this is the history of your nation. It is not England. Because we cannot say “This is the history of our people” because as Roger Harris says above about there being so many of English origin in Wales. What our history actually represents is a struggle to define itself. Michael Sheen also said “Who speaks for Wales?” and said that we all do. But speaking for ourselves has never been the problem – its about all of us saying the same thing. While we all want to promote certain aspects of our identity we all have different interpretations for what that identity is… of what parts of it are important too us, and what parts we understand and are able to relate too. If we all speak for our nation… we will find we are all saying different things.

    Promoting the struggle and warnings of internal conflict and how these things have been exploited is key to rebuilding our history in a way that it can build a common ground.

  9. Siarl ap Meurig

    At last, a refreshing breath of truth that will bode ill for the Sais of our land, well said and not before time.

  10. I enjoyed the article’s sentiments and humour, but I disagree withe delusionary statements that Wales has never suffered any effects of colonisation

    England did colonise Wales. That is the reality. The language almost went extinct. Classic economic colonialism of all goods and skilled workers going to England on top

  11. Another aspect of our history that perhaps should be used more is our interpretation of the period from the 18th to the end of the 20th century. Yes we were manipulated and our resources pilaged etc in the industrial revolution, but there was real strength of character and comaraderie in the industrialised parts of Wales. The initial migrations were primarily within Wales from rural to industrial areas and that created new bonds and links within Wales. Later imiigrations were not solely from England – Irish, Italian, Spanish, Belgian, Scottish, Cornish etc and the people who came from across Offa’s Dyke, were not in the main the toffs, but the real hard working and the aspirational. People who set down roots and in the initial waves of migration, learned to speak Welsh and assimilitated, because they didn’t have the hang-ups of the middle classes. Many English aristorcrats had a soft spot for Wales and the prevailing culture of the time – Lady Llanofer and the rest. Our real enemies were the Church of England and a particular element of the gentrified classes – these were the instigators of the blue books and it was a battle for the religious minds of our nation.

    We also have the real cultural gems of Tiger Bay and the docks and industrial areas of our other towns and cities, from Pill in Newport to Swansea and Caernarfon to Connahs Quay etc, which showed how we were a lot more open and welcoming and very comfortable on the world stage in those days than perhaps today and something we can learn from. There are great things here to build on, but the narrative we often use is very British and not really show our Welsh side and the battles the cymreictod fought, just in trying hard in places like Swansea to get just a few hours of education in Welsh.

    Our industrial history has become our history of the labour movement and socialism, but it’s more than that and shouldn’t be described solely through that particular political narrative. Our industrialisation should be about more than the history of the labour party and Keir Hardie – that has it’s place, but is not the only narrative to describe those times.

    • Graham John Hathaway

      I do recognise the colour and pace of life in Wales in the era described. It needed saying, and highlighting.
      The remnants are still visible but slowly vanishing. I’m a “friends of” group of an old colliery spoil tip. The amount of visible regeneration of distinct wild life and flora is remarkable. But not so our politics.

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