Chapter 3


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A Unified People

The visitor to West Wales cannot help but notice that many of the holy shrines lie in valleys, or hollows, often hidden from the sea. One of them, at St. Govan's (left), is placed in a steep, narrow crevice in the coastal rocks themselves, completely concealed. For the sea was the pathway of the marauding Vikings, intent on voyages of plunder and easy pickings from the poorly defended, but richly endowed monastic communities of the Celtic Church. Despite its own hiding place, down in the lovely, sheltered valley of the Glyn, St David's itself, perhaps the holiest spot in Wales, was still plundered in 999 and its Bishop killed.

Place names all round the Welsh coast signify a Viking presence, including Anglesey and Great Orme in the North, and Swansea and Flat Holme and others in the South. In the latter half of the ninth century, the danger presented by the terrifying sight of the long, high-prowed Viking ships and their fierce crews did, however, produce an enormous benefit to Wales. For in Wales, as in England, the need arose for some kind of political unity under strong leaders to defend their own property and that of the Church.

While the various English kingdoms eventually united under Alfred the Great in the face of the threat of complete subjugation by the Kingdom of the Danes, something similar took place in Wales. Sad to relate, its results were not as firmly established or as permanent as they were over the border.

The first leader of importance to emerge among the Welsh was the warrior king Rhodri Mawr (Rhodri the Great). In 855, through skilful alliances and practical marriages, he became king of Powys as well as much of the rest of Wales. Successful in warding off Danish attacks, even killing in battle the Viking leader Gorm, Rhodri gave his country a short but welcome period of unity and stability.

Unfortunately for the future of an independent Wales, Rhodri Mawr's death in 878 was followed by a period of internal strife, and the alliance of his sons with Alfred led to Wales' dependence upon the English king for protection. Dependence upon its stronger neighbor to the east was to be a permanent feature for the rest of the history of Wales, always struggling, but seldom able to break its chains.

Rhodri was killed in battle fighting an English army; it was left to his grandson, Hywel Dda (Howell the Good, right) to re-establish some sort of predominance among the various petty kingdoms of Wales by wisely keeping the peace with his English neighbors through a policy of conciliation. In his reign, lasting from 904-50, Hywel's territories were known as Deheubarth, which united with Gwynedd and Powys to cover most of Wales with the exception of Glamorgan, in the southeast. The only Welsh king to have earned the title "The Good," he is described in the great medieval history, "The Brut Y Tywysogion" (The Chronicle of the Princes) as "the chief and most praiseworthy of all the Britons."

Chapter 3 Continued
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