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2 September 2014
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Tintern Abbey

A brief history of Wales

The background to Wales: some questions answered.

When did Wales come into existence?

As a country, Wales began with Henry VIII's Act of Union in 1536. Before that time Wales had been a loose collection of independent kingdoms and lordships with influxes and incursions from Europe. It's believed that Wales, as an area of land, has been inhabited since 250,000 BC

Who are the Welsh?

The Welsh today are descended from many people. Celtic tribes from Europe came to settle the whole of the British isles around 500-100 BC, alongside the original Iron Age population.

It was their language which sowed the seeds of the modern Welsh language. Roman and Saxon invasions pushed the original Britons into the land area of Wales, where they became the Welsh people. Inward and outward migration has added diverse new layers of population across history.

Where does the Welsh flag come from?

Welsh flagThe origins of the Red Dragon flag, or "y Draig Goch", could date back to the Roman period, when the dragon (or draco) was used by Roman military cohorts at the time of the Emperor Trajan. After the Romans left, the Red Dragon remained as a key emblem of Wales and there are accounts of battles against the Saxons under the Red Dragon.

The Tudors adopted the Red Dragon, and the Welsh-born future Henry VII took to the battle of Bosworth Field under the Red Dragon standard.

Where does the word Wales come from?

The origin of the word Wales is a strange one. It is a variation on a common word used hundreds of years ago by the Anglo Saxons to mean foreigners or outsiders. Variations of the same word can be found in other countries, such as Walloon part of Belgium.

Since this word is one given to the principality by the Anglo-Saxons rather than by ourselves, it could be argued that Cymru (meaning friends/companions) is a preferable one to Wales, although the origins are long enough in the past for us to be equally proud of both names today.

Interestingly, a variation on Cymru can also be found outside Wales, as the name of the northern English county of Cumbria has similar linguistic origins.

For more information on Wales' varied past, visit our history portal.

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