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Some Thoughts About
The Nature of Historical Research
& Medieval Wales

Jeff Thomas 1996

One of the problems facing a project that deals primarily with medieval Welsh history is finding what are considered reliable sources for a given person or topic. Most leading figures of medieval Wales lacked contemporary chroniclers, making the task of learning about them somewhat difficult. Glimpses of certain characters are provided by official court records, charters and the like, while some information can be gleaned from various "traditions," some of which are believable, some of which are not.

In general (excluding the Roman period), as we go further back in time historical facts become more difficult to find, although this is not always the case. A case in point are the two Llywelyn's of the 13th century, about whom we know a great deal more than Owain Glyndwr occupying the records of the early 15th century. Record keeping generally improved with the arrival of the Normans, and most historians feel they're on fairly solid ground in discussing events and persons in Wales beginning with the early 12th century.

Below right: Castell Machen in south Wales

Details and histories of individual castles can be just as elusive as certain medieval characters. There are relatively unimportant castles we know quite a bit about, as well as important castles we know very little of. In general, Edwardian and Norman castles were better documented than those of the native Welsh princes; the Normans were good record-keepers. It is unfortunate that many of Wales' most important castles, like Deganwy in north Wales and Builth in mid-Wales, have all but disappeared. We have records for some vanished castles, while others remain a mystery. The area once known as "Glamorgan" in south Wales is a good example. Guidebooks list as many as a dozen castles with visible remains, although in the 12th century those numbers probably exceeded fifty.

Facts become far more difficult to discern in the period between 800 AD and the arrival of the Normans in the last decades of the 11th century, a time that saw the emergence of separate, identifiable Welsh kingdoms, the age of the so-called "High Kings" of Wales. Still, most historians are comfortable with discussing this era, though many do so with a degree of caution.

Below right: the wonderfully-carved cross at Nevern
Photos Copyright 1994 by Jeffrey L. Thomas.

The next "era back" so to speak, is the period that presents great challenges for the historian. The period falls roughly between the withdrawal of the Romans from Britain (traditionally given as 410 AD) and the emergence of the aforementioned High Kings of Wales about 400 years later. Most historians today dislike the term "Dark Ages," because they feel it conveys certain incorrect notions that have been disproved in recent years. The age was "dark" only because of our inability to see clearly into it, not necessarily because culture and society ceased to flourish in the face of barbarian invasions; the traditional view.

Since "reliable facts" are difficult to come by, most historians approach the era with only with the greatest caution, while many choose simply not to comment on it at all. Faced with what is almost a complete lack a verifiable data or archaeological evidence, the age remains shrouded in mystery, legend and half-truths, populated by a handful of characters both real and mythical. Vortigern, Arthur, Cunnedda share the era with Penda and Maelgwyn Gwynedd, and the debate continues as to both their deeds and in the case of the former, their very existence.

Nevertheless, many would argue that the 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th centuries were important in shaping what later became Wales as we know it today, making it difficult to ignore the period entirely. Scholarship in this century has helped untangle some of the myths and has allowed historians to arrive at some reasonable conclusions, although even these discoveries don't go far enough to achieve a clear understanding of the age.

You may ask, what do the Age of Saints and the early kings of Britain have in common with Wales and her castles? How do we relate the castles of Wales with the times of King Arthur? What does Llywelyn ap Gruffydd have in common with Maelgwyn Gwynedd? Of course, the obvious common thread is the fact that Wales has been struggling against would-be conquerors ever since the first Roman boat touched her shores in 43 AD. Although the struggles for an independent Wales of the 12th, 13th and 15th centuries are more familiar, those same struggles had been taking place centuries before the first castle was erected on Welsh soil. This then is the important common thread shared between the ages.

Even with these difficulties, the Castles of Wales may eventually expand back into this era in a cautious attempt to provide an overview of what little information is available. In the future I suspect that Roman and pre-Roman Celtic Wales will be discussed as this website moves towards a broader overview of ancient Welsh history. Stay tuned. As always, any assistance on any relevant topic would be appreciated.

Jeffrey L. Thomas
e-mail: jltbalt1@verizon.net


An Argument for the Lesser-Known Castles of Wales
Learn more about the Age of Saints in Wales
Learn more about early medieval Wales

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Copyright 2009 by Jeffrey L. Thomas