N. B.: This is a broad overview of the context of Wales – images used are only for rough guidance, and were used because of their Creative Commons copyright status. They should not be taken as exact representations, and academic books (such as the ones suggested in the post) should be consulted for the sake of accuracy.
Once upon a time, there was no such thing as the Middle Ages.
That’s because it was the Middle Ages, which meant that people got up in the morning and went about their business and had no idea that hundreds of years in the future other people would be getting up in the morning and going about their business in the same place, but in different houses and different clothes. They certainly had no idea that, in 2014, people would be trying to figure out what they were doing in 1114, and certainly no idea that historians would call their time “the Middle Ages” or “the Medieval period”.
The people at Caerau had already lived through Roman occupation and gained all the pros and cons of living with and potentially intermarrying with the mixed group of Roman soldiers and settlers, who would have come from all over the Roman empire, which stretched across Europe and extended over parts of Northern Africa and the Middle East. The Roman villa, currently still buried under the Glyn Derw sports’ fields, aroused a good deal of local interest at the time of the first excavation, but the Roman history is for another post. After the Romans withdrew from the British Isles, leaving straight roads, imported plants and animals like rabbits and carrots, and some innovative ideas behind them, we know very little about what happened to those generations of Britons and those of Romano-British descent who remained. History goes ‘dark’ for a little while – we have little surviving information, but we can work a few things out about what Caerau was like based on the scant information we do have, and based on the society which re-emerges into the historical ‘light’ for us later on.
The Wales that emerges for us in the Early Medieval period, before 1066 and all that, was a country divided by many different kingdoms. The people in Wales didn’t call themselves “Welsh” – that was a name given to them which basically means “foreigners” – but instead thought of themselves as the original British, calling themselves “Britains” – a name the Romans had given them. They were united by a common language, however, despite regional and dialectic differences, and so referred to themselves as being from “Cymru”, which chroniclers writing in Latin spelled “Cambria”. That didn’t mean they liked each other, or thought of themselves as being united as one people group – united they most certainly were not.
In Wales, every son, legitimate or not, was entitled to a share of his father’s lands when his father died. This meant that whatever land one man managed to gain for himself got split several ways after he died. You may suppose that this meant that, every now and again, a Welsh prince may accidentally shoot himself while out hunting, or tragically cut his head off while shaving. Indeed, the things the Welsh princes did to their enemies were pretty brutal, and that was just when the enemies in question were their relatives. Often, the princes went to war against one another, and one would conquer another’s kingdom, and so on. This was the situation when the Anglo-Saxon kings were also carving England up and fighting one another, and it was the case when England became politically united under one monarch, and it was still the case when William the Norman came over with his army and defeated Harold Godwinson at Hastings.
That didn’t mean they couldn’t be untied, though – the legendary Hywel Dda [pron. How-el Thar, or Hywel the Good], over-king or high king of all Wales, managed to unite the kingdoms under his rule in the tenth century, and is credited with the codification of native Welsh law. The law texts, known as the Laws of Hywel Dda, unfortunately no longer exist in their earliest form – we have copies that are from the 12th-13th centuries, but historians agree that the core of the law within these texts is much earlier in date. When Hywel Dda died in 950, Wales fragmented again.
Wales was never on William’s agenda when he first crossed the Channel. If the king of France, from whom he held the Duchy of Normandy, had been a stronger king with more control over his dukes, William would never have been allowed to cross the Channel in the first place, and claim the throne of England. But, for various reasons, the king of France could not prevent his vassal gaining more power than he himself had, and William had himself crowned William I of England and Duke of Normandy, and set about consolidating his victory. He had a few rebellions to put down, and the Welsh border to control. Like the chieftains before him, William only wanted to protect his rather fluid boundary from Welsh raids. He put men along the border that he knew he could trust, and gave them lands taken from the original Anglo-Saxon owners. The Normans married Anglo-Saxon widows and the daughters of Anglo-Saxon lords, and consolidated their hold on England and their right to their new lands through this process of intermarriage, force of arms and the implementing of laws and customs.
Good books to read on the Norman Empire:
When William did turn his attentions to Wales, it wasn’t necessarily sinister. He went on pilgrimage to St David’s, Pembrokeshire, travelling through South Wales with a contingent of armed men as befitted a king. The Welsh princes, for their part, really didn’t care that a French-speaking, illegitimate descendant of the Norsemen (which is where the ‘Normans’ got their name) was now in control of England. They understood that the rules of kingship still held the same, and the fractured nature of Welsh society meant that they were perfectly used to regions changing hands, as a change in political management didn’t really affect the day-to-day running of things too much (once the killing had stopped and everything had settled down, of course!).
That was when the princes made their first mistake.
Apparently, everyone had forgotten what happened in 43AD, when Verica, a British chieftain, had some issues with other British chieftains. To sort that out, Verica called for help from the most powerful source he could think of at the time – the Romans. What happened once the Romans came to Britain at Verica’s invitation is, as they say, history. And very good history at that.
Thinking that the Normans would be just like the Anglo-Saxons, the Welsh princes called on the aid of Norman lords to ally with them in their wars against one another. The Norman lords came to their aid in 1096 – and decided they quite liked it there. There followed a smash-and-grab piecemeal conquest of little bits of Wales, where Norman lords managed to break away from their king’s control, since Wales was not part of England and therefore no king of England was able to issue laws or decrees that extended beyond wherever the Welsh border happened to be. This wasn’t intended to bring Wales and the Welsh princes under control of the English king – it was a case of individual lords seeing how much power they could grab for themselves. They then allied with Welsh princes as well as fighting them, intermarried with the Welsh ruling dynasties, and generally did what they liked – controlled only by the fact they had taken oaths to serve the king, who could take their English and Norman lands away from them should they break those oaths.
Wales looked something along these lines:
But, after the Normans, and their Anglo-Norman descendants (or even Cambro-Norman descendants, not to mention Flemings from Flanders and a few enterprising Bretons from Brittany and so on and so forth) had had a go at it, by the thirteenth century Wales looked something like this:
Marchia Wallia means the March of Wales – areas under the control of “Anglo-Norman” lords (but not the king of England directly), and Pura Wallia is the area under native Welsh control. [The earldom of Chester, marked in purple, was very much doing its own odd thing as a power centre for the earls of Chester, which I’m not going to get into.]
Things were not as clear cut as the map above makes out, though. Each individual bit in the March was divided between an “Englishry” and a “Welshry”, and upland areas were still in native Welsh control, even in regions represented on the map as being “Marchia Wallia“.
Good books to read on Wales and the March:
With all of this madness going on, the people of Caerau were getting on with things. They were in what was considered to be Glamorgan, which had once been part of the much larger kingdom, Morgannwg. They served the lords of Glamorgan, whether Welsh or not, and saw the hillfort that their ancestors and predecessors had built remain a strong strategic part of the landscape. The Norman ringwork on its summit is testimony to Caerau becoming part of the conquest of this region of South Wales, and so you might think that the turbulence of the Caerau story ended somewhere around 1100, with the establishment of Norman control over the area, rather than native Welsh princely rule.
Except it didn’t. But that is also for another post… in which I will be exploring the context of medieval Glamorgan in a lot more detail, and putting Caerau into its regional context. I’ll be posting in the meantime about how to write historical essays at undergraduate level (it being marking season and all), and where WBQ students, whose Bac involves a research component, can find primary sources online, and how you handle sources beyond the very basic “what-does-it-say-is-it-biased” formula.
Let me know if this is useful! All comments welcome.