Redefining British History – Part Two

Its extremely timely to take a look at the history of the four respective nations that make up the United Kingdom. At this very moment in time, British history is being made and the relationships between the nations being redefined – and its all because of bloody Brexit.

Could we be moving towards a quasi-federal state in order to preserve the union? Could we see Scotland hold another referendum on independence? What will happen to Ireland and Northern Ireland if they don’t solve the problem of the backstop?

Whatever happens, before our relationships as countries changes once again its a good time to stop and consider the history of the four nations to date, and how our history is more wonderfully varied than you may first think.

Part one of this post contained an intro to the histories of Ireland and England. Today, we complete our tour of the UK by looking at Scottish history and – my fave – Welsh history!

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Claire from the Hisdoryan blog

Hi. I’m Claire and I run this blog – the Hisdoryan blog (thanks for dropping by!). I’m a proud Cymraes from deepest, darkest rural Mid Wales. I love history – especially Welsh History – and I was very lucky to be able to study it at University. Now I spread my love of history via blogging and social media!

British History

When people say the words British History to me I automatically think of kings and queens and the British Empire. I know its so much more than that, but its weird how your brain automatically jumps to it! I blame years of classroom conditioning.

The British Isles

I think we’re getting better at telling the story of the British Isles as a whole – but very slowly. The study of history is increasingly becoming more diverse and is no longer limited to the study of ‘great men’. As part of this trend people are becoming more interested in the history of the part of the world that they’re from. I think it’s only natural to want to know as much as possible about who you are and where you came from.

Welsh History

In a highly ironic way, I think one of the factors that makes Wales’ history so distinctive is our historical relationship with England. We have been inextricably intertwined one way or another for so long. Yes, we have our own national identity but the shaping of that identity has as much been influenced by external factors (i.e. England) than internal factors. I think the same could probably be said about other parts of the UK.

I also think that our culture and language has been ‘a golden thread’ throughout our history. The history of the Welsh language is such an interesting one. We’re lucking to have a thriving language today, but there are many points in history when its survival wasn’t so assured. Our poetry and music is so different and central to our cultural identity. That’s why eisteddfodau –  our festivals of music, literature and performance – are so important.

Wales in the Early Middle Ages

While England was rapidly moving towards a united country ruled over by one ‘royal family’, Wales was very different. We still had several kingdoms with several royal houses. The boundaries of this kingdoms changed dramatically over the course of time, depending on who was the dominant power. Some kingdoms existed only for brief periods before disappearing altogether! It’s very confusing and sometimes hard to keep track of, even for the most experienced Welsh historian.

Wales also had its own distinct laws as codified in the laws of Hywel Dda (Hywel the Good). The laws are a great source of information on Welsh society at the time. As opposed to primogeniture in England, in Wales all sons had equal rights to their father’s inheritance (its one of the reasons we had so many castles and battles – it was all the infighting amongst multiple heirs!) And the Welsh invented compensation! Galanas was a fine to be paid to a victim’s family by their killer. It was an idea that way ahead of its time.

Top Moments in Welsh History

Its so hard to do, but if I had to choose a Top Three moments to give people the ‘essence’ of Welsh History, I would choose the following;

  • The death of Llywelyn The Last – Llywelyn ap Gruffudd (c.1223 – 1282) was the last sovereign Prince of Wales. He succeeded in uniting Wales under a single ruler and was recognised by Henry III, but when Edward I come to power he put a stop to that. Llywelyn was killed in a skirmish outside Cilmeri near Builth Wells in the winter of 1282, and Edward sent Llywelyn’s sole baby daughter to a convent in England for the rest of her life. The death of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd marked the end of Wales as an independent principality.
  • The translation of the Bible into Welsh – The 1536 Act for the Translation of the Bible into Welsh stated that the Bible and Book of Common Prayer were to be translated within four years, and placed side by side with English versions in every parish church in Wales. William Salesbury did most of the translation, but future bishop William Morgan completed it. This act was a critical milestone in the development of Welsh language and literature, and was one of the reasons Wales had one of the highest levels of popular literacy in Europe in the 17th Century. Welsh became the first non-state language of Europe to be used to officially convey the word of God after the Reformation.
  • The Industrial Revolution – The Industrial Revolution transformed the social, cultural, economic and political makeup of Wales. In fact, some historians call Wales the world’s first industrial nation – it was the first nation in the world to employ more people in industry than agriculture. If you don’t believe me just look at these facts!
    • Cardiff became the largest coal and iron exporting port in the entire world.
    • Felinfoel Brewery in Llanelli invented the canned beer as a result of the region’s tinplating expertise.
    • The Dowlais Ironworks in Merthyr Tydfil were the first major ironworks in the world to produce iron using the Bressemer process.
    • Merthyr Tydfil was also the location for the world’s first railway journey by steam. 

Defining Moment

I’m going to have to go for the Acts of Union which ‘incorporated, united and annexed Wales‘ to England. The 1536 Act laid down principles ‘for law and justice to be administered in Wales in like form as it is in this realm‘. The Act of 1542/3 contained adjustments and further details.

The Acts basically basically bought England and Wales into a closer political, judicial and administrative relationship, building on activity by the English crown that had been taking place in the Principality since the reign of Edward I. The Act also created 13 counties (or shires) that continued in existence until 1974.

I literally could go on and on about the Acts of Union – there is so much to discuss! If you have any questions about it drop me a line and I would be happy to help.

Learn More

If you read one book about Welsh History, make it A History of Wales by John Davies. It was my bible while I was studying History at Aberystwyth University, and it really is like holding the history of the nation in your hand. I also very much recommend St Fagan’s National Museum of History near Cardiff. It was the first open-air museum in the UK and its full of architecturally and historically significant buildings from all over Wales.

Mindblowing Fact

No, I’m not going to repeat the now well-known fact that Wales has more castles per square mile than any other country in the world!

Instead, I’m going to tell you the world’s first ever million pound deal was struck in the Coal Exchange in Cardiff Bay, and that lawn tennis was invented at Nantclwyd Hall, near Ruthin.

Jess from An Historian About Town

Hello everyone! I am the Historian from, also known as Jessica. I am from the middle of Canada, and have been obsessed with history for most of my life. I took two undergraduate degrees in history and medieval studies here in Canada, and then I received my MA in Early Irish History from University College Dublin. Most of my experience is in Irish history (I’ve studied the full run of it), but I also study royal history, style history, Scottish history, English history, and the history of ballet now!

 British History

I think that the term British history largely has to do with where you are and your own history. Being a Canadian, when I hear British history, I tend to think of the British Empire as a whole. Then as an Irish historian, I lean towards Northern Ireland. In terms of the rest of the world, I think it really is a mixture of all four nations; other than a few key figures, I don’t know if they really separate them out.

The British Isles

I think that each nation has their own strong and developed field, complete with talented historians. I don’t know that there are many studies that cover British history as a whole, because I don’t know that that is possible. Some fields of study are better promoted than others- you can’t mention history without tripping over some Tudor! However, if you are looking for a certain area, I can guarantee you some historian has written on it!

Scottish History

I see a lot of parallels between Ireland and Scotland, particularly the between the Highlands and the West of Ireland. However, I think that the incredibly close relationship between Scotland and England plays a big role. Scotland was fairly powerful in its own right, and held that power until the early modern period. I think that the natural landscape also plays a sizeable role in Scotland’s history. The mountains and rocky terrain in Northern Scotland is a crucial character defining moments in Scottish history.

And of course, the method in which Scotland joined in Union with England is key. Wales and Ireland were both conquests, but Scotland joined by an Act of Union. That isn’t to say that everyone in Scotland was thrilled with the situation, but they did join of their own accord rather than by the sword.

Early Modern Scotland

My favourite era of Scottish history has to be the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots! That may be a rather obvious answer, but she really put Scotland on the world stage. Clearly, not always for positive events, but for a nation as small as Scotland, it is impressive. Mary was a cosmopolitan and tolerant ruler who did her level best to lead all of her subjects fairly, irrespective of religion. It is also a fascinating time to look at the Scottish nobles, as it is a perfect sample to witness the continually changing loyalties and bonds. And as a close second, I would have to say the Jacobean risings in the mid-eighteenth century!

Top Moments in Scottish History

  1. Saint Columba’s founding of Iona in 563. This may be a slightly self-serving choice, but Columba hugely influenced the monasteries of Ireland and Scotland. (A lot of people seem to think that there aren’t many connections between Scotland and Ireland, but there are more than you think!)
  2. Mary, Queen of Scots’ return to Scotland in 1561!
  3. The Scottish Enlightenment– David Hume, Adam Smith, Robert Burns, and James Beattie were all largely influential men in their fields. Also notable during this time was the development of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, which resulted in Edinburgh leading medical sciences for much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Defining Moment

It has to be the Union of the Crowns. Because it is such a marked difference from the way that Wales joined, I think it really does define Scotland’s relationship with Wales, Northern Ireland, and England. The Act of Union wasn’t completely smooth sailing, but the Union of the Crowns was rather easy compared to everyone else. And the fact that Scotland still plays such a role for the British monarch is an important indicator!

Learn More

I would start with a trip to Edinburgh, as there are several key spots in the city that give you great insight into Scotland’s history. In particular, I would visit St. Giles’ Cathedral and Holyroodhouse– both are evidence to medieval, early modern, and modern Scottish history. And it is a pop history book, but I love How the Scots Invented the Modern World, by Arthur Herman! It is a quickfire introduction into Scottish history, and the figures who made lasting impacts on the modern world.

Mindblowing Fact

Much of Scotland was ruled by the Irish kingdom of the Dál Riata until the seventh century! The Dál Riata largely ruled what is now the province of Ulster but their kingdom extended in to Argyll in Scotland, and even included Skye.

Many thanks to all my wonderful contributors to this two-part post. I’ve hoped we’ve given you a good intro to, and overview of, the histories of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

If you had to choose your own top three moments of British history that have defined the United Kingdom, what would you go for?

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