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Wales / Cymru

A Land of Mountains, Lakes and Legends


Medieval Welsh folklore abounds in stories of heroes who leap on to bubbles without breaking them ... of missionary saints who sail the sea on leaves. These legends are the product of a land whose remote mountains, lakes, windswept cliffs and languid sands still have the power to unfetter the imagination.

Dotting around the landscape are the many castles with which Welsh history is closely linked. First came the Romans, who built roads into the interior and forts to defend them - the finest Roman legacy in Wales is the legionary base which covered more than 50 acres at Caerleon on the Usk in Gwent.

The period that followed was the most colourful in Welsh history. Arthur, the legendary king of the Britons, led Celtic resistance to the Saxons during the 6th century, and South Wales is rich in Arthurian sites. They extend to the north, too, for according to various accounts that mingle fact with fiction, he killed monsters both at Aberdovey and in Snowdonia. A little later, Celtic saints sailed to and from Ireland, busying themselves with souls, animals, and all kinds of miracles, and snubbing the Christians from Canterbury, and even St. Augustine himself, by refusing to submit to Rome. They and their troublesome Welsh princes were eventually contained behind the Dyke, built by Offa, the Saxon king, at the end of the 8th century down the east of the country from the north coast to Hereford.

Next came the conquests of Wales - made, not by kings and large armies, but by a handful of adventurous Norman lords, commissioned by William, and inspired by his promise that they could rule what they won in battle. One of these lords was Robert Fitzhamon, who captured the Old Roman fortress of Cardiff in an attack from the sea, establishing a castle which can be seen today.

Other Norman lords built castles at strategic points in the lowlands areas to safeguard their successes. One of these, with a rectangular keep, is at Chepstow; another, with the more advanced and less vulnerable circular keep, is at Pembroke. The rise of the Welsh prince Llewellyn the Great in the late 12th and early 13th centuries, and his fierce attacks on the domains of the Border Lords, led to the building of a double, and sometimes triple, line of fortresses along the border - Gwent's Grosmont, Skenfrith and White castles are examples.

By 1282, Edward I had broken the power of the Llewellyns by defeating Llewellyn the Great's grandson, Llewellyn ap Gruffydd. To mark his conquest he built massive fortresses thoughtout Wales - at Builth Wells, Aberystwyth, Flint, Rhuddlan, Conway, Caernarvon, Harlech and Beaumaris. These "Edwardian" castles, famous thoughout Europe for their military architecture, combined palatial living quarters with highly sophisticated defensive designs.

The castles remained virtually impregnable until the introduction of cannon in the 14th century. It was these weapons, firing cannon balls 22 inches in diameter and larger than the shells used in the 20th century battles, that helped Owen Glendower, hero of the Welsh nationalism, to take Harlech in 1401 during the last great Welsh rebellion. His rebellion failed. The Welsh became involved in the Wars of the Roses and when Henry V died, a descendant of Llewellyn the Great married Henry's widow. It was their son, Henry Tudor, who, supported by the Welsh, defeated Richard III at Bosworth Field to become Henry VII - the first of the Tudors - thus giving Wales a sense of victory over England.

It was left to Henry VIII to pass the Statute of Union in 1536 that joined Wales to England for good. In the Civil War, Wales was on the king's side, despite its discontent at the indifference to Wales of both the Tudors and Stuarts. A tradition of dissent grew up which, fanned by the forerunners and followers of Wesley, developed in the 18th century into Methodism. This religion swept Wales and left an enduring mark on the country. In the following century came the Industrial Revolution, and the development of the coalfields, metals industries, and railway.


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