What the medieval period can tell us about the differences between Wales and Scotland
Owain Jones, lecturer in history at Bangor University
In the wake of a memorable, if narrow, rugby victory against Scotland, with Wales led by a captain named after a Scottish town, the mind can turn to the similarities and differences between the nations of these islands.
Both Wales and Scotland’s anthems in the Six Nations evoke – as anthems will – their nations’ distant past, and Flower of Scotland specifically recalls Robert Bruce and the medieval past of the Anglo-Scottish wars. The unsuccessful English attempt to conquer Scotland came after Wales’ own experience of warfare and conquest at the hands of Edward I.
Both Wales and Scotland are defined by our relationship with our bigger neighbour, England. But if we consider this medieval past in more depth, we are more different than we might think.
When we think of medieval Britain and Ireland we should avoid thinking of our current mental map of these islands, as features fixed in our imaginations and in our political realities – such as the border on the island of Ireland, or the Anglo-Scottish border – were simply not present.
Let’s think of the early twelfth century – say 1125. The line of the current border between Wales and England would be perceptible as a cultural, a linguistic frontier, not dissimilar to the current border. But there would have been other, equally important lines of cultural difference on these islands which are represented by no modern boundary – perhaps most strikingly in northern Britain.
There, the kingdom of Alba which in the tenth century developed in the area north of the Firth of Forth had expanded to the south, absorbing Lothian, where people spoke Northumbrian English, and the Cumbric/Welsh kingdom of Strathclyde. This was the making of Scotland.
Alba in the twelfth century was a changing kingdom. Its centre of power was shifting towards Anglophone Lothian; its kings, especially David I (1124–1153), were surrounded by a French-speaking elite at a royal court increasingly similar to that in England to the south; the towns they founded in their kingdoms spread a northern form of medieval English through the kingdom.
The medieval period saw the development of two expanding, grasping monarchies in the island of Britain – the kingdom of England in the south and the kingdom of Alba, which developed into Scotland, in the north. But both were surrounded by a number of smaller polities to their west and north.
England’s peripheries were largely Brittonic-speaking: already–conquered Cornwall, and the kingdoms of Wales. While the Welsh shared a language, literature, a system of law, and had seen increasing political unity, the experience of the twelfth and thirteenth century was (to over-simplify) one of resistance to external conquest.
Attempts at unity, led usually by kings of Gwynedd such as Llywelyn ab Iorwerth and his grandson, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, were undermined by the attacks and interference of the English king, Anglo-Norman lords, and the hostility and resistance of other Welsh kingdoms such as Powys and Deheubarth.
Eventually, by the end of the thirteenth century, these Welsh kingdoms had been conquered and subjugated by the political class of neighbouring England, and were under the overall control of Edward I, the English king.
Wales was culturally distinct to England, with its greedily conquering monarchy. But, comparably, the smaller kingdoms of northern Britain were very different to the Scottish kingdom.
Rather than comparing Wales to Scotland, it might make more sense to compare the experience of medieval Wales at the hands of the English kings to the experience of the unsuccessful kingdoms of northern Britain at the hands of the Scottish.
Areas such as Galloway, Argyll, and Man and the Isles were conquered and absorbed by Scotland in the course of the thirteenth century, when overlordship turned to conquest. By the Anglo-Scottish wars of the fourteenth century, the similarities of the Scottish and English elite to each other, in terms of language, custom, and even personnel, was much more notable than their differences.
In the areas beyond the Scottish kingdom, however, both rulers and ruled were Gaelic-speaking – figures such as Fergus of Galloway, Somerled of Argyll, and the kings of Man and the Isles. Although these rulers were often Hiberno-Norse in origin (Gaelic and Scandinavian), and retained political and cultural ties to Norway, by this period their courts and their culture were increasingly Gaelic.
Take, for example, Gruffudd ap Cynan, who re-established his dynasty on the throne of Gwynedd with a fleet of ships and the support of Irish kings – he can bear comparison with Godred Crovan, who founded his own dynasty of kings over the sea-kingdom of Man and the Isles. Both men were from Hiberno-Norse Dublin ancestry, and it was these links across the Irish Sea which enabled them to establish their kingdoms.
In the thirteenth century, Somerled, ruler of Argyll and the ancestor of many Gaelic clans, fought against the FitzAlans whom David I had made lords of Renfrew, near Glasgow. David attempted to secure his borders by settling these conquering Anglo-Norman lords on the peripheries of his kingdom, just as Anglo-Norman kings had done with the marcher lords along the borders of Wales.
As happened in Wales, these kingdoms were absorbed or conquered by the Scottish kings and became parts of the late medieval Scottish state. But, as with Wales, the history is not one of passive defeat to inexorable progress, nor did the end of political independence mean the end of their history. The courts of the Lords of the Isles and their monasteries at Iona or Oronsay were important centres of a flourishing culture, just as the poets of the uchelwyr or post-conquest elite in Wales produced some of our finest literature.
Beyond the level of rulers and politics, we should consider the significance of the Gaelic phrase – is treasa tuath na tighearna, people are mightier than a lord.
Just as the modern Welsh have to be understood in terms of their ancient relationship with London, and with broad England across the border, so the Gaels of Britain, in Scotland, were defined by their own relationship with the Anglophone state to their south-east, with Edinburgh.
When we consider the Welsh experience in these islands, we should remember that the idea of Britain and Ireland as an archipelago of four nations, so apparent at this time of year, is a relatively modern one.
It can hide the cultural differences within nations – Cornwall, Gaelic Scotland, or diversity within our own culture – as much as it defines us as different to each other.
Owain Jones is a lecturer at the School of History, Law and Social Sciences.
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