Chapter 2


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A Sense of Wales

Though it is now apparent that a great mingling of the different people took place in Britain for centuries after the initial Anglo-Saxon incursions, in the western peninsular now known as Wales, the majority of the people remained primarily Celtic (Celtic village to the left). They were soon to be isolated from their fellow Britons in Cornwall to the south and Cumbria to the north. From the momentous year 616, the date of the Battle of Chester, which divided the Celts the north from those of the southwest, the people of Wales were mostly on their own. They soon began to think of themselves as a distinct nation in spite of the many different rival kingdoms that developed within their borders such as Morgannwg, Powys, Brycheinion, Dyfed and Gwynedd. It is also from this period that we can speak of the Welsh language, as distinct from the older Brythonic.

In a poem dated 633, the word Cymry appears, referring to the country of Wales. Historians see its use signifying the beginnings of a feeling of self-identity among the Britons, desperately trying to hold on to their lands in the face of unrelenting pressure from the Germanic tribes already in possession of most of the eastern half of the British island. It was not too long before the native people themselves came to be known as the Cymry, though outside Wales for many centuries they continued to be known as Britons.

At this point, we should point out that the word Welsh is a later word used by the Saxon invaders perhaps to denote people they considered "foreign" or at least to denote people who had been Romanized. It originally had signified a Germanic neighbor, but eventually came to be used for those people who spoke a different language. The Welsh people themselves still prefer to call themselves Cymry, their country Cymru and their language Cymraeg.

Most historians think that, apart from the area now known as Wales, the British (Brythonic) kingdoms that survived in the north and west were Rheged, Gododdin and Strathclyde (in present-day Scotland). A new theory is that these kingdoms were in northern Wales, the confusion arising out of Geoffrey of Monmouth's identification of Britannia with the whole of Britain instead of with Wales alone. Accepting the former view, we see Wales as being cut off politically in the seventh century, Strathclyde continuing as a centre of the old poetic traditions for a few more centuries when the burden (and the honor) fell to Wales. It is also thought by many historians to be the birthplace of St. Patrick.

Surviving works in Old Welsh date all the way back to the late seventh century, making them part of the oldest attested vernacular in Europe. Composed either in the northern kingdom of Strathclyde (in present day southwest Scotland, soon to be overrun by invaders from Ireland, speaking Gaelic), or in a north Wales kingdom, the earliest Welsh-language poems are part of what is known as the heroic tradition. Taliesin and Aneirin are the two most well known poets of the old Celtic bardic traditions, regardless of their place of origin.

Aneirin is best remembered for the poem "Y Gododdin," which commemorates the heroics of small band of warriors and their allies at the Battle of Catraeth about 600 AD in which they were defeated by a much larger force of Angles. In the poem, after slaying many times their number of enemies, all except one of the band were killed. Their willingness to die is emphasized as a duty owed their lord in return for his hospitality. According to the poet, their deaths also ensured them everlasting glory.

Perhaps one of the most significant features of "Y Gododdin," as far as later literature is concerned, is that it is the first work to mention the Welsh warrior-leader Arthur. He was described as a paragon of virtue and ferocity, though nothing like the figure that has come down to us from the works of later authors. Catraeth has been generally accepted as being Catterick, in Yorkshire, but new scholarship has placed it in Wales itself, perhaps in Clwyd, in the northeast.

Chapter 2 Continued
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