At the beginning of the medieval period, Wales was a region which comprised of a number of kingdoms. Christianity had already arrived and became widely adopted in the region. While Angles and Saxons overwhelmed the East and South of the British Isles in the 5th century, they were unable to push into the Wales which lay on the West of the Isles.
However, Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to the East rapidly grew in power and before soon, Welsh kingdoms found themselves in a defensive position trying to secure their lands against Anglo-Saxon incursions from the East. From 11th century onwards, Wales was continuously under Norman threat and by the late 13th century, Edward I of England effectively brought Wales under direct English rule.
Kingdoms in Medieval Wales
Like most other regions on the British Isles, Wales was divided into a number of territories or kingdoms in the early medieval period. These territories were originally lands under certain families and over time, the consolidation of the territories gave birth to sizable kingdoms.
Notable kingdoms in early medieval Wales included Gwynedd which lay to the north, Powys which lay to the East and Deheubarth to the South. Other minor kingdoms existed as well but politically, Gwynedd remained one of the most significant while from a strategic viewpoint, Powys was immensely significant because it bordered on the Anglo-Saxon territory of the Kingdom of Mercia.
Consolidation of Welsh Territories
Until the 8th century, the process of consolidation of kingdoms continued all around Wales. During this period, different Welsh kingdoms were frequently pitted against each other, often over dynastic wars or attempts to annex new lands to their territories. By the 8th century, these struggles started leading to kings who effectively extended their authority over most of Wales.
The first to accomplish this was Rhodri The Great in the 9th century. As King, he ruled over Gwynedd, Powys and Seisyllwg. The second person to rule over an even greater part of Wales was Hywel the Great who ruled over most of the north as well as the south in the 10th century. The last person who effectively became ruler of entire Wales and took the title of the ‘King of Wales’ was Gruffydd ap Llywelyn who ruled over entire Wales in the 11th century before being defeated by the Anglo-Saxons.
Conquest by the Normans
Normans from northern France defeated Anglo-Saxons of England in 1066 and effectively conquered the kingdom. They soon proceeded to annex other neighbouring territories. From 1066 to 1074, Normans were able to range deep into the Welsh south. North Wales faced a civil war in 1075 and Normans exploited this to extend their control into north of Wales as well. By 1093, Normans essentially had control of most of the Welsh kingdoms.
Welsh Rebellion and Norman Reconquest
In 1094, Welsh territories began to revolt against the Welsh rule. The sizable Welsh kingdom of Gwynedd was re-established in the north of Wales and Ceredigon was also in Welsh control by 1136. Powys also regained independence from the Normans and was under Welsh rule until the late 12th century. In the early 13th century, a strong Welsh leader rose to seize control of most of Wales and be the last great Welsh of the medieval period.
This was Llywelyn the Great who had extended his control over most of Wales by 1240. However, the consolidation of power accomplished by Llywelyn was lost in the wake of his death and by the late 13th century, English kings actively exercised significant power over Wales. Edward I of England launched a large-scale military campaign into Wales in in 1276 and then in 1282, effectively bringing Wales under English dominion.
Wales in Late Middle Ages
By the late medieval period, Wales had effectively come under English rule and was incorporated as a part of the English territories. Although many laws and restrictions initially sought to restrict the social status of the Welsh, by the 15th century, Welsh were actively involved in the Wars of the Roses. The end of the war came with the ascent of Henry Tudor in 1485 who was himself of a Welsh descent and effectively laid the basis for a Welsh dynasty’s rule over England.
Society in Medieval Wales
The medieval Welsh society was overwhelmingly rural until the early 11th century. The lifestyle was directly attached to owning a piece of land and based on the ownership of land, the Welsh society was divided into the free and the unfree. The free descended of well-known ancestry and owned sizable portions of land, often in common with the family group at large. The unfree received lands from notable Welsh landowners and lords, and were required to pay homage, food and other services to the lord in return.
Hywel the Great became ruler over most of Wales in the 10th century. One of his most enduring legacies was the codification of a law which came to be called the ‘Law of Hywel Da’. This law defined the exact reparations that would be taken against the injury, death or insult caused by one party to the other. It also specified the amount of fine and other ramifications that the party responsible must suffer. Hywel’s laws accorded a significantly important position to the women in the social hierarchy and gave them significant rights over their property and children.
Welsh Literature and Art
The bulk of Welsh literature through most of the medieval period was as oral poetry. A number of famous poets are recorded in medieval Welsh history. Poets began to be actively engaged with the courts of different Welsh princes by the 12th century and received direct patronage from these princes. This remained the case until the early 14th century when the traditional Welsh nobility declined in power and a new gentry class rose. This class continued the patronage of the poets and it was in this period during late 14th century that the most celebrated Welsh poet, Dafydd ap Gwilym, lived. Welsh medieval poetry was marked by sound chiming and other musical elements. Art forms such as wood carving and music flourished in medieval Wales, both reaching brilliant heights by the late medieval period.