Wales, the Almost Nation

Wales is having an identity crisis. Actually, it's been having one off and on for the past 2,000 years. Is it part of England? Part of the U.K? Or is Wales just ...Wales?

Sometime in Britain's mythological past, King Llud Llaw Eraint had a problem with dragons. Specifically, two warring dragons -one white and one red- whose screams rang through the countryside, causing women to miscarry and livestock to become barren. So, the king lured the dragons in to a deep pit and got them so drunk that they passed out. While the dragons were asleep, he buried them deep underneath a mountain in Wales. "The white dragon is the Saxon," the Welsh magician Merlin once explained. "The red dragon is Cymru [Wales], and so they will fight, red against the white, until at last the dragon of Wales is triumphant over the dragon of the Saxons."

Today, the red dragon of Wales has reappeared. It's everywhere in 21st-century Welsh culture -on the flag, on t-shirts, ashtrays, and bumper stickers, and on the tattoos of patriotic men and women. It embodies the spirit of the country. For 2,000 years, Wales has suffered though waves of invaders and conquerors, and each time, its people have emerged with a deepened sense of national pride. Its character is one of defiance -a red dragon always ready for battle.


Fight as it may, Wales was conquered at various times by the Celts, the Romans, the Normans, and the Saxons. It officially became part of England with the 1536 and 1543 Acts of Unification. On the one hand, Welsh law was abolished and English was declared the language of the land. On the other, its people had a new place to point fingers when things didn't go right. And things often didn't go right in Wales.

In the 18th century, Parliament restricted grazing on public lands. This forced many farmers to give up their livelihood and move to the city, creating a ready labor base for the coming Industrial Revolution. The first ironworks opened in the middle of that century, with slate quarries, coal, and other mining industries following soon after. The work was dangerous and difficult, but worst of all, it was low-paying. By 1793, many working families couldn't even afford to buy corn. (Image credit: Flickr user Still Burning)

Things only got worse following the War of 1812. Food prices rose so high that working-class Welsh families were forced to boil grass for soup. For decades, riots were a widespread and continuous part of life.

By 1846, the British had become convinced that there was something seriously wrong with Wales. Parliament sent three investigators to examine Welsh education, and they came back with a report that declared the Welsh to be lazy, ignorant, immoral alcoholics. In response, Parliament outlawed the Welsh language in schools and even on the playground.

(Image credit: Flickr user Imaginary Grace)

The backlash was a widespread social movement to retain Welshness. Political thinkers in Wales considered breaking away from England, and in 1925, a Welsh nationalist party called the Plaid Cymru was formed just for that purpose. They gained some traction, but the effort was stalled when the Great Depression forced many to leave Wales in search of employment.


Independence movements continued to arise periodically, but without much luck. Then, in 1979, the British decided it was ready to get the country go. Parliament supported a referendum to form a Welsh Assembly, but -ironically- Welsh citizens voted the referendum down by a large majority. Why would a people with such deep national pride give up a chance to move towards self-rule?

As it turned out, the decline of the mining industry and the rise of unemployment during and after World War II left Wales feeling too feeble to stand on its own two feet. At the same time, many Welsh nationalists had become so extreme that they were burning down English-owned holiday cottages, attacking English business owners, and sending letter bombs to English citizens. As Welsh separatists became more and more militant, mainstream Wales started shying away from the idea of independence.

Eighteen years after the first referendum, another measure went before Welsh voters, proposing a Welsh Assembly with legislative powers and control over a £7 billion budget. This time, the vote passed by a narrow margin of 50.3 percent. Two years later, in 1999, the Welsh Assembly opened its doors in the capital city of Cardiff. (Image credit: Flickr user iwouldstay)


Since then, it's been a rocky road for the Welsh government. Political infighting marred the first years of the Assembly, breaking and forging alliances between parties. But now, there seems to be a sense of confidence -and a renewed interest in achieving an independent Wales. The Plaid Cymru, for one, is actively campaigning for full independence. The possibility of meeting that goal isn't too far-fetched, either, given the power the party currently enjoys.

Other political parties disagree with Plaid's aims. And there are plenty of other parties out there, including the Liberal Democrats, the Labour Party, the Conservatives, plus newer parties such as Cymru Yfory, or "Tomorrow's Wales." In general, the Welsh don't want to return to British control, but they don't support complete independence, either. According to a 2007 BBC survey, nearly 70 percent of the population wants to keep Wales within the United Kingdom. Even those who are sympathetic to the cause question how Wales will be able to deal with the economic and social conditions of self-rule.

(Image credit: Flickr user Brainless Angel)

Still, anti-English sentiment exists in a big way. In 2001, a Welsh television presenter was reported to the Commission for Racial Equality for admitting that she hates the English. The woman, Beca Brown, confessed to being prejudiced in a magazine column, but later claimed that she was being "ironic." It wasn't a huge scandal, in itself, but it wasn't an isolated incident. As recently as 2007, radical Welsh nationalists threatened Prince Charles with "most serious repercussions" if he didn't give up his Welsh holiday home. They claimed he would become a "legitimate target for republican action."

Whatever happens, it's clear that the red dragon is still fighting -sometimes with the mythic white dragon, and sometimes with itself.

(Welsh flag image credit: Flickr user Brainless Angel)


The article above, written by Linda Rodriguez, is reprinted with permission from the Jul/Aug 2009 issue of mental_floss magazine.

Be sure to visit mental_floss' website and blog for more fun stuff!

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Interesting but misleading at points... I would probably have mentioned:

Llewellyn (one of them at least!)
The progressive (even by today's standards) laws of Hywel Dda c992 AD
Owain Glyndwr
The cultural role of Eisteddfodau
The Rebecca Riots
The treachery of the Blue Books - you mention the report of 1846 but fail to say explicitly that it was a pack of racist lies!
The Methodist revival of the late 18th century..
The fact that the last census showed an increase in the use of the Welsh language in Wales for the first time in over a century!

Apart from that, there are only 3 other things I can think of that you left out - the sheep, the rain and the singing!
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As a Welsh person now living in Australia, I was very happy to see an article about my people. But that happiness has turned to sadness to hear that there is so much infighting and extremist attitudes towards the English. I have only met a few English people that I actually liked, but I don't hate them. I love British dramas and crime shows. I just wish when I tell people where I am from that they don't refer to me as a Pom. As my Mother is so fond of saying "Wales was Wales, before England ever was", whether this is true or not, I am proud to be Welsh. Thank you for posting.
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Is it part of England? Part of the U.K? Or is Wales just …Wales? No, Yes, No.. Next question please?

Wales is part of the U.K. in the same way as England and Northern Ireland are. It may not be recognised by many (even within the U.K., especially in England), but that doesn't mean it's ceded from the union.
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Supposedly, while the average Englishman could be of about 8-9 different tribal extractions, the Welsh are actually the only native Britons in existence.

Somewhere there was a genetic study about this, showing how starkly different the genetic profiles are; -even from UK people who ~look phenotypically quite similar.

It's like the Welsh are their own separate race.
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