Norman ship

The Norman conquest

The Francophone Normans conquered Wales by a process of raids and colonisation over two centuries.

It was their English-speaking followers who brought their language to everyday Welsh life.

The Battle of Hastings in 1066 was the decisive event in the conquest of Saxon England. Within a year, the Normans were building a castle at Chepstow and had begun their piecemeal conquest of Wales, a process which took well over 200 years.

The conquest started with a series of devastating raids which by the end of the 11th century had affected almost every part of the country. Native rulers were either killed or sought refuge in Ireland. In December 1282, the last native Prince of Wales, Llewellyn the Last, died at the hands of Edward I's forces.

The Welsh had not experienced anything like it since the Roman invasion. This time the invaders brought with them two languages: French and English. The Norman leaders spoke French; indeed the Welsh chroniclers of the period write not of fighting the English but of fighting the French. French words absorbed by Welsh at the time are evidence of the new powers: barwn (baron) and gwarant (warrant).

However, it was the Normans' English-speaking followers who colonised the conquered lands and brought their language to Wales. One well-known example is south Pembrokeshire, long known as Little England Beyond Wales.

The Chronicle of the Princes (Brut y Tywysogyon) states a colony was established in 1105 when Henry I allowed a number of Flemings from modern-day Belgium to settle in the area around Haverfordwest. They were later joined by English settlers - the Flemish and English languages were similar at the time.

This led to the extinction of Welsh in the area, and a legacy of aggression towards the language which has only softened in recent times. However, the invasions also caused a rallying of a Welsh identity and culture under threat.

The famous cleric Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) tells a story of King Henry II of England. During one of the kings many raids in the 12th century, Henry asked an Old Man of Pencader, Camarthenshire, whether he thought the Welsh had any chance.

"Never will it be destroyed by the wrath of man, unless the wrath of God be added," replied the Old Man. "Nor do I think that any other nation than this of Wales, or any other tongue, whatever may hereafter come to pass, shall on the day of the great reckoning before the Most High Judge, answer for this corner of the earth."

In 1282 many of the Welsh would have said the Old Man was being a touch too arrogant.


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