Nationalism movements are all the rage these days. Kurdish in Syria and Iraq grabs headlines, while Catalan demonstrations in Spain have eclipsed the formerly grandiose Basque independence movements. Here in the United Kingdom, Scotland only barely remained after a referendum failed, and talk of another is looming in the face of Brexit. Wales, however, is a different story.
I journeyed to Cardiff, the Welsh capital and largest city, to discover a bit about Welsh history, and to find out if Welsh nationalism is a thing or not. And while I learned a lot, Cardiff didn’t make it easy for me.
Welsh rarebit is one of the best parts of a trip to Wales!
My first stop was at Cardiff Castle. It was, in a word, magnificent. Strong fortress walls, an old keep built in the motte and bailey fashion commonplace in Norman times, and a grand main house, lived in until 1947, are the central features here. But a careful look reveals a bit more. High above the castle flies the red dragon of Wales. I eagerly start the audio tour, hoping to find out more about this, one of the UK’s four countries.
The tour is great. The castle itself was built by William I in 1081, though it was significantly enlarged (and lived in) by the Marquess of Bute during the Victorian era, by which point Cardiff was a major city and Wales completely incorporated into England. Only a single tidbit of Wales as a non-English entity exists in an otherwise relatively perfect audio tour.
I’m obviously living wrong.
In 1404, Owain Glydnwr, really the last true Welsh independence leader, captured the castle and burned Cardiff to the ground. His rebellion was ultimately put down by 1409 – though Glyndwr was never captured and his burial location and date of death are still a mystery – by Henry V. Since that point, Welsh independence has never really been an issue.
The original keep.
Wales has never really been a united country. Dueling principalities were the common theme, and these rivalries were exploited by the English for purposes of conquest. Llywelyn ap Gruffud, the last Welsh Prince of Wales, was ultimately killed in battle in 1282, and after the conquest of the country was completed by a Edward I, the title of Prince of Wales has gone to the male heir apparent to the English throne. Hence even the title of their leader has implied a subjection by their neighbors for centuries.
After punitive measures following the 1404 Glyndwr upraising were lifted by Henry VIII and Wales was officially incorporated into England in 1707. However, the Welsh language survived despite English dominance of all other areas of society. One of the largest forms of Welsh resistance was religious-based, as the Presbyterian Church of Wales gained support in the 19th century and many pushed for the decertification of the Church of England. Further steps were taken politically in the late 20th century as a 1997 referendum led to the 1999 establishment of the Welsh Assembly.
It is a fascinating history, and I journeyed from Cardiff Castle to the National Museum in Cardiff, itself in a beautiful Edwardian building near the seat of the Welsh government, to learn more. Sadly, there was none. Exhibits are basically non-existent between prehistoric times and modern, a shame given that everyone I spoke with in Cardiff identified first as Welsh and second as British. The Museum of Cardiff was no better, with a single corner of a room dedicated to history prior to the 19th century. Is this an oversight or an intentional means of again subjecting the Welsh to English dominance?
The Edwardian city center
Today, the Welsh independence movement exists, though not as strongly as that in Scotland. It is more apparent (so I am told) in the north of Wales than in Cardiff, although even here, all government signs are in both Welsh and English. (Most business signs are solely in English, though.)
Welsh is an odd-looking language to me, with lots of double letters and y’s.
In 2015, a YouGov poll found that 17% of Welsh people would support independence in a referendum, so it isn’t as if this is something imminent. (However, more recent polling around Brexit showed that a larger number would support independence in light of an exit of the EU, though still far from a majority.) Only the future will tell whether or not this upwards trend will continue, or whether Wales as a part of greater England is a permanent fixture.
Regardless, Cardiff is a fascinating entry point into Welsh history and nationalism, as well as a charming city with an amazing castle. A visit is well-warranted!
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