Wales offers visitors a wealth of beautiful castles.
Photo by Dana Knudsen

The history of Wales, England’s lesser-known neighbor, is much like its own castles. If the history is not penetrated, it can be a barrier that keeps uneducated visitors from truly understanding the lifestyle and culture of the Welsh people. To breach this historical castle, visitors must understand Wales’s fight for independence, the importance of the Welsh language, and Wales’s artistic background. Then visitors can see the beauty that stands at the heart of Wales.

The Curtain Wall: The Welsh Fight for Independence

A castle’s curtain wall is its outermost defense. Tall, thick, and strong, it defines the shape of the castle and protects the inner bailey and keep. Just as breaking down a curtain wall can lead to a castle’s inhabitants, understanding the Welsh’s fight for independence can break down the first barrier that keeps visitors from appreciating Welsh culture.

Long before the Angles and Saxons invaded the island of Britain in the fifth century AD, the Romano-British people, who lived on the western “bump” of the island, were developing their Welsh identity. Having survived the invasion of the Romans, these hardy people were once again subdued by the Normans, who built castles to keep the Welsh people in check.

Owain Glyndŵr is one of numerous heroes of Welsh history who demonstrated great dedication to his homeland. In 1400, a time when Wales was under English rule, Glyndŵr was pronounced a traitor to the English throne and was denied the rights to his Welsh lands. Furious, Glyndŵr raised a rebellion of Welsh followers to retake northern and central Wales. The Welsh flocked to his banner, and English presence on Welsh soil was reduced drastically. In 1407, after Glyndŵr had taken hold of numerous English castles, his supplies began to be cut off from Wales. Glyndŵr’s wife and two of his daughters were captured by the English and taken to the Tower of London, where they died. Eventually, Glyndŵr’s rebellion crumbled, but Glyndŵr was never captured or betrayed. Although he disappeared after 1412, his legacy lives on.

Like Glyndŵr, the Welsh are defined by their stubborn longing for identity and independence. Throughout the ages, they have experienced long periods of invasion and oppression—by the Normans, Vikings, Romans, and Saxons—but they never abandoned their fight for their country’s independence.

Wales hasn’t given up on its dream for sovereignty. According to Tom Taylor, Welsh professor at Brigham Young University, “The notion of the United Kingdom in many people’s mind is very static, but it’s not. There are shifts all the time.” Wales voted for its own government in 1999 and is still considering complete independence from the United Kingdom. “Some believe they want to be part of England, but others don’t,” says Jonathan McColgan, a student who grew up west of Cardiff. Although the Welsh are somewhat torn in their allegiance to the English, they are united in their Welsh identity.

To understand Wales’s continuing fight for independence, visitors can take a tour of the Senedd—the main building of the Welsh National Assembly. But the best way to understand Welsh history is to tour one of the many castles across its landscape. Some of the most picturesque Welsh castles include those at Beaumaris, Chepstow, Harlech, Raglan, Caernarfon, and Criccieth. Walking along the outer walls of these castles and looking at the shining rivers, grassy hills, and azure ocean, visitors will understand why the Welsh have fought so long and so hard for their homeland.

The Inner Bailey: The Welsh Language

The inner bailey of a castle is a fortified enclosure where the core group of the inhabitants of the castle lived. After breaching the first historical defense of independence, it is important to tackle the language of Wales—a pseudo inner bailey.

The Welsh language has often been ridiculed by the English, but according to Professor Taylor, it is the language that “has really bound the Welsh together and kept a sense of nationhood, of pride, of nationalism for thousands of years.” Thus, it is no surprise that Welsh people are cautious to fully embrace the English, who cannot banter in Cymraeg, or Welsh. After all, Wales is the English name for Cymru, and it means “outsiders.” While much of southern Wales speaks English, northern Wales persistently continues to speak only Welsh. When English speakers say hello in the north, the locals may stubbornly answer in Welsh by saying noswaith dda—”good evening.” Surprise them by asking sut mae—”how are you?” They will smile and be pleased that you are attempting to use their language.

The Keep: The Welsh Artistic Tradition

The most heavily fortified part of a castle is its keep, the central tower of the castle that is designed to protect the most prominent people within. Like the keep, a treasure that the Welsh have consistently cherished and protected is their artistic tradition of song, poetry, and art.

The Welsh have been blessed with the gift of voice; it is one stereotype that has accurately defined the country. For McColgan, the memory of Welsh song is the memory that has remained with him the most since coming to the United States. He recalls that as he left Wales, his church congregation sang him the Welsh farewell song: “We’ll Keep a Welcome in the Hillside.” This song’s lyrics explain the Welsh people’s enduring love of music: “This land you knew will still be singing when you come home again to Wales.”

For visitors to enter the “keep” of Wales’s artistry, they can attend the annual National Eisteddfod, a festival of poetry and song. At the Eisteddfod, it may be hard to understand everything that is being said—much of the barddoniaeth (poetry) and proceedings are conducted in Cymraeg—but the bards’ costumes, along with the grand hand-carved chair that is given to the best poet, are distinctly Welsh. The tradition of Eisteddfod dates back to the 1100s and has some of the best singing, art, dancing, and poetry that Wales has to offer.

A father and son celebrate their Welsh pride on Saint David’s Day, a national holiday honoring the Welsh patron saint.
Photo by Dana Knudsen

The Community of Wales

If visitors can understand the defenses of the Welsh and successfully “invade” their hearts, they may be lucky enough to be accepted into the loving Welsh community. Of their caring community, Taylor explains, “In the Great Depression, the valleys had an unemployment rate that was far above almost anywhere else in the country. But there was almost no violence, people helped each other out, and there was a real sense of community that went very deep.” The Welsh tend to their own needs, and that sense of community continues even today. McColgan explains that, though he was born to an English mother and an Irish father, he feels like he is Welsh, just by having grown up in Wales.
While traveling through Wales, be sure to interact with the people. Perhaps, by the end of your journey, you’ll even be lucky enough to hear the song that McColgan heard when he left Wales—and “this land of song will keep a welcome and with a love that never fails.”

—Dana Knudsen