Wales - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion

Read about Wales: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...



Wales, part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, united politically, legally, and administratively with England and occupying a broad peninsula on the western side of the island of Great Britain. Wales also includes the island of Anglesey, which is separated from the mainland by the narrow Menai Strait.

Wales is bounded on the north by the Irish Sea; on the east by the English counties of Cheshire, Shropshire, Herefordshire, and Gloucestershire; on the south by the Bristol Channel; and on the west by Saint George’s Channel and Cardigan Bay. The maximum north-south extent of the Welsh mainland is 220 km (137 mi); in an east-west direction the distance varies between 60 and 155 km (36 and 96 mi). The total area of Wales is 20,760 sq km (8,015 sq mi). Cardiff is the capital, largest city, and principal seaport of Wales.


Wales has an irregular coastline with many bays, the largest of which is Cardigan Bay. Wales is almost entirely mountainous, except for narrow, low-lying coastal regions, mainly in the south and west, and lowlands along the English border. The raised plateau of the Cambrian Mountains extends north and south through central Wales and occupies about two-thirds of Wales. Other major highland areas are the Brecon Beacons in the southeast and the rugged, volcanic rocks of Snowdon massif in the northwest. Mount Snowdon, which reaches an elevation of 1,085 m (3,560 ft), is the highest point in England and Wales.

Rivers and Lakes of Wales

The Dee is the principal river of Wales. It originates in the mountains of Snowdonia National Park and flows through northern Wales into England and then into the Irish Sea. The Wye and the Severn rivers rise in the mountains of central Wales, flow into England, and empty into the Bristol Channel. In the south numerous rivers flow through steep valleys, including the Usk, Teifi, and Towy. Bala Lake in Snowdonia National Park is the largest natural lake in Wales. The River Dee flows through it.

Plants and Animals in Wales

Most plant and animal life is similar to that of England. Wales has abundant ferns and mosses in low-lying, wet areas. Grasslands predominate at higher elevations. Some wooded areas, including stands of mountain ash, oak, and various coniferous species, are found in the mountains at elevations up to 300 m (1,000 ft). At higher elevations chiefly small shrubs, coarse grasses, and alpine plants subsist. Among the few animals found in Wales but not in England are the pine marten and the polecat. The red kite was nearly extinct in Britain by the early 1900s. Conservation efforts during the 20th century reestablished this bird of prey in Wales.

Climate in Wales

Wales lies in the path of westerly winds blowing in from the Atlantic Ocean, laden with moisture. The climate, as a result, is mild and wet. The average daily temperature in July is 16°C (60°F), and in January it is 6°C (42°F). Annual rainfall increases with elevation, ranging from 760 mm (30 in) in certain coastal regions to more than 2,500 mm (more than 100 in) in the Snowdon massif.

Natural Resources of Wales

Iron ore and coal have been the most valuable mineral resources of Wales; deposits are located mainly in the south. Today, nearly all the coal mines in Wales have closed. Some high-grade anthracite is found, but output consists principally of bituminous coal. Slate and limestone are also commercially important, and limited amounts of manganese, gold, lead, uranium, copper, zinc, and fireclays are also found. Much of the soil of Wales is of infertile rocky or leached types. The most fertile soils are in the southeast and in a few coastal areas. Much of the electricity generated by the country’s large waterpower resources is exported to England.


The people of Wales, like those of Britain in general, are descendants of various stocks, including Celts, Scandinavians, and Romans. In 2004, the population of Wales was estimated at 2,952,000 (2004 estimate). The population density was 142 persons per sq km (368 persons per sq mi). About three-quarters of the population is concentrated in the mining centers in the south.

Principal Cities of Wales

The major cities of Wales are Cardiff, the capital, principal seaport, and shipbuilding center (2001 population, 305,200); Swansea, a seaport and center of the tin-plate industry (2001 population, 223,200); and Newport (1996 population, 136,789).

Political Divisions of Wales

Local government in Wales was reorganized in 1996, when the 8 former counties and 37 districts were replaced by 22 new unitary authorities. Administration for each authority is the function of popularly elected councils.

Religion in Wales

The Church of England was the established church of Wales and England until 1920, when it was disestablished in Wales. The Welsh branch of the Church of England, the Church of Wales, is the faith of about 110,000 Welsh. The next largest religious body, with about 72,800 adherents, is the Calvinistic Methodist church, known as the Presbyterian Church of Wales.

Languages spoken in Wales

Both English and Welsh are official languages. English is spoken by most of the population. A small percentage of the people speak Welsh only; more than one-quarter of the population speaks both Welsh and English (see Celtic Languages). As part of an effort to preserve Welsh culture, the government supports Welsh language books, plays, and other artworks, and Welsh has been included in the school curriculum since 1970. The British Broadcasting Corporation operates two radio stations in Wales—one that broadcasts in English and one that broadcasts in Welsh—and contributes programming to a Welsh-language television station. There are a number of bilingual publications, and most road signs are in English and Welsh. In 1993 the Welsh Language Act gave equality to English and Welsh in government business and the courts.

Education in Wales

The educational system of Wales is similar to that of England. In 1970 education was made bilingual, and in some districts instruction is given in Welsh, and English is taught as a second language. See England.

The principal institution of higher education is the University of Wales (1893). The university has branches in Aberystwyth, Bangor, Lampeter, Newport, and Swansea. It also includes the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff; Glyndwr University (formerly the North East Wales Institute of Higher Education); Swansea Metropolitan University (formerly the Swansea Institute of Higher Education); Trinity College, Carmarthen; and the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. In 1992 the Polytechnic of Wales in Pontypridd became Glamorgan University, the second university in Wales. In 2004 the University of Wales, Cardiff, and the University of Wales College of Medicine merged to form the independent Cardiff University.

Culture of Wales

Despite the proximity of Wales to England, the Welsh have retained a distinctive cultural identity based on literature (in both the English and Welsh languages), music, and sport. The Royal National Eisteddfod features a range of competitions and activities, principally in the arts and entirely in the Welsh language. It is held each year in a different locality in Wales. A multilingual International Music Eisteddfod is also held annually in Llangollen. The international opera star Bryn Terfel got his start at eisteddfods.

The Welsh literary tradition is one of the oldest and richest in Europe, dating back more than 1,000 years to the bards, Celtic poets who composed, recited, and sang long epics. The most notable of the early Welsh bardic poets were Taliesin and Aneirin. In about AD 600, Aneirin wrote Y Gododdin, a long poem describing the ill-fated efforts of a group of British warriors to recapture a fortress from the Saxons. The Mabinogion, composed between the mid-11th and late 13th centuries, is a collection of 11 prose stories and one of the most important works of early medieval European literature. Leading Welsh writers of the 20th century include poets Dylan Thomas, R. Williams Parry, and R. S. Thomas; novelists Gwyn Thomas, Caradog Prichard, and Kate Roberts; and playwright and Welsh-language activist Saunders Lewis.

Cultural Institutions

Principal libraries include the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth, and the Library of the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff. Major museums include the National Museum and Gallery in Cardiff and the Museum of Welsh Life in Saint Fagans. Two museums are dedicated to two of what were Wales’s most important industries: the Big Pit National Mining Museum in Blaenavon and the Welsh Slate Museum in Llanberis. The most notable performing arts company is the internationally renowned Welsh National Opera.

Art and Music

Richard Wilson, Augustus John, and Gwen John are among the best-known Welsh painters, although the tradition of painting in Wales continues in the work of Kyffin Williams, Ceri Richards, Ernest Zobole, and others.

Music in Wales is most strongly associated with choral singing, stemming from the religious revival of the late 18th century, but orchestral music grew in importance over the last century. Wales also maintains a long and rich folk song tradition, and since 1906 the Welsh Folk Song Society has collected and published this material. Traditional instruments, especially the harp, are still played. Local and national music festivals play an important role in the cultural life of the region. Pop and rock are also strongly represented, from Shirley Bassey and Tom Jones to the Stereophonics and the Manic Street Preachers. A lively Welsh-language rock scene, which includes such bands as the Super Furry Animals and Catatonia, has further transformed Welsh-language culture in recent years.


The chief economic activities of Wales include manufacturing and tourism and other service industries. The last two decades of the 20th century saw major changes in the Welsh economy, marked by the decline of traditional heavy and extractive industries (especially coal mining) and the initiation of a flow of foreign investment. The foreign investment, largely via the Welsh Development Agency, went principally into electronics, motor component manufacture and assembly, and chemicals. Manufacturing continued to decline in importance, while the service sector expanded, especially in the area of financial services. The government continues to be a major employer, primarily in the areas of health services and education.

Agriculture of Wales

Much of the land in Wales is used for agricultural purposes, although farm income remains low. In general the raising of livestock—mainly sheep, beef cattle, and dairy cattle—is more important than crop cultivation. Crops include barley, oats, potatoes, and hay. Organic farming, especially for vegetables and dairy products, is increasingly prevalent.

Manufacturing and Mining in Wales

Wales is home to a diverse manufacturing sector. The refining of metal ore, much of which is imported, has long been a major industry. Almost all the tin plate and much of the aluminum of the sheet steel produced in Britain are made in Welsh plants. Since the 1940s many new industries have been established. These include oil refining and the manufacture of plastics, electronic equipment, synthetic fibers, and automotive parts. In recent decades, production of sophisticated consumer electronics, telecommunications equipment, and other high-technology manufactures has expanded. Milford Haven, in southwestern Wales, is a major petroleum-importing port and refining center.

Mining, once a mainstay of the economy, is no longer a major source of revenue or employment in Wales. The rich coal fields and iron ore deposits of southern Wales helped fuel Britain’s Industrial Revolution. By the 1980s falling domestic demand and declining competitiveness in international markets forced most coal pits still operating in Wales to close. Welsh mines also produce limestone and slate.

Tourism of Wales

The Welsh coast is a favorite destination for British vacationers, and its mountains have long attracted walkers and climbers. Since the 1970s tourism has developed into one of Wales’s most important economic sectors. The Welsh Tourist Board coordinates the promotion of tourism in the region. Its efforts are helped by the fact that one-quarter of the country has been designated as a National Park or Area of Outstanding National Beauty. National parks include Snowdonia National Park, the Brecon Beacons National Park, and the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park. The National Botanic Garden of Wales opened in 2000 near Llanarthney, Carmarthenshire.

Government of  Wales

Wales is governed as a part of England, and Wales is represented by 40 members in the House of Commons. Since 1999 Wales has had its own elected assembly, although it continues to send members to Parliament in London. The Welsh assembly, or Senedd, has 60 members and is led by an executive committee. Unlike Scotland, which obtained a new parliament, the new Welsh assembly does not have the power to raise taxes. It is only able to distribute the monies it receives from the British government. In 2007 the Welsh assembly was granted the power to make laws, with the approval of the London Parliament.

The new assembly took over most of the responsibilities previously handled by the secretary of state for Wales. Some of these responsibilities include economic development, the environment, education, local government, health services, housing, transportation, the arts, and language. The British government continues to control foreign affairs, defense, taxation, overall economic policy, social security, and broadcasting.


The earliest inhabitants of Wales, like those of the rest of Britain, were a short, dark race, generally referred to as Iberians. These were succeeded by Celts, possibly first of the Gaelic division, although in the earliest historic times Wales, like Britain, was occupied by Cymric or Brythonic Celts. At the time of the coming of the Romans in 55 BC, the tribes of Wales represented a mixture of the primitive Iberians with the later invading Celts. They bore the general name of Cymry.

After a long struggle the subjugation of these tribes was completed during the ten-year reign of the Roman emperor Vespasian in the 1st century AD. The Celtic inhabitants of Britain, fleeing before the wave of Anglo-Saxon invasion, took refuge in the Welsh mountains, where, in time, they were merged with their native kin and maintained their independence against the Teutonic conquerors. The country was divided into several areas, of which Gwynedd, Gwent, Dyved, and Powys were the most important. Offa’s Dyke, built during the reign of Offa, king of Mercia, was an earthwork extending the length of the Welsh border; it helped isolate the Welsh from the English.

Subjugation by England

Between 1062 and 1064 Harold Godwinson (later Harold II) overran Wales with an English army after a struggle with Gruffydd ap Llewellyn, king of Gwynedd. William I, the Conqueror, forced recognition of his sovereignty from the Welsh princes, but they raided the English border, for protection of which the early Norman kings erected a number of feudal lordships with very extensive powers, the so-called lords of the marches. The marcher lords were a turbulent class and a source of trouble to the kings, but they served their purpose in holding the Welsh back. In 1136 the Welsh won a victory over Henry I, King of England, but were again reduced to homage by Henry II. Llewellyn ap Gruffydd, Prince of North Wales, sided with Simon de Montfort against Henry III, but later submitted to the king. In 1273, however, he refused to pay homage to the new English king, Edward I, who in 1276 invaded Wales and compelled Llewellyn to submit to humiliating terms, including the surrender of the eastern portion of his lands and the annual acknowledgment of fealty. Llewellyn rebelled in 1282, but died, and his brother David ap Gruffydd, who carried on the struggle, was captured in 1283 and beheaded. In 1284 Edward I completed the conquest of Wales and, by the terms of the Statute of Rhuddlan, it became an English principality.

Last Rebellion

In 1301 Edward I conferred on his oldest surviving son, later King Edward II, who was born in Caernarfon (Caernarvon), Wales, the title of Prince of Wales. This sufficiently satisfied the pride of the Welsh to keep them loyal for 100 years. It has become traditional for the firstborn son of each monarch to be given the title of Prince of Wales. The national spirit survived, however, and was nourished by the songs of the bards. When Henry IV seized the English throne, a revolt began in Wales, which, under the leadership of Owen Glendower in 1402, became formidable. Henry IV repeatedly invaded the country, but the revolt was not suppressed until the death of Glendower, about 1416. Glendower’s was the last national uprising. The Welsh submitted to Henry VII, the first Tudor king, whom they regarded as their countryman. Tudor policy toward Wales stressed assimilation and equality. By the Act of Union of 1536 Wales was incorporated with England, its inhabitants receiving all the rights and privileges of English subjects. Welsh representatives then took their seats in the English Parliament, and customary Welsh laws that differed with those of England were abolished. The Welsh gentry continued to exercise local authority in the name of the monarch, from whom they held their lands.

Welsh Nationalism

In time, however, the anglicization of the gentry created a breach in Welsh society that was further deepened by religious differences. Slow to adopt Protestantism, the Welsh people were decidedly cool to Oliver Cromwell’s Puritanism and had to be persuaded by force. In the 18th century they began to lean heavily toward Calvinism, and the growth of the Calvinistic Methodist Church was an assertion of Welsh nationalism; it culminated in 1920 in the disestablishment of the English church in Wales. This coincided with party politics, for the Welsh voted overwhelmingly for the Liberal Party, which supported disestablishment. Wales in turn supplied the party with one of its most forceful leaders, David Lloyd George.

Welsh nationalism has been kept alive up to the present by the Plaid Cymru Party (founded in 1925), which has at times elected members to the British Parliament and otherwise kept pressure on the major parties to protect the special interests of Wales. In 1979 a Labour Party plan to devolve some powers to an elected assembly in Wales was voted down by the Welsh people by a margin of four to one. The Conservative Party that was elected later that year dropped any further plans for a Welsh government. In 1997 the Labour Party came into power supporting the idea of devolving some of Parliament’s powers to national legislatures in Scotland and Wales. In a referendum held in September 1997 barely more than half of Welsh voters supported the creation of a Welsh assembly, with 50.3 percent for and 49.7 percent against. The assembly was given responsibility for handling annual grants from the treasury in London for health, education, and transport.

Elections for the new Welsh Assembly were held in 1999, and the assembly convened later in Cardiff. A Welsh Labour Party administration took control, although with only 28 seats it did not hold a majority in the 60-seat assembly. In 2003 elections the Labour Party won 30 seats, still one short of an outright majority. The election was notable for the low voter turnout (38 percent) and the high number of women assembly members (30) to take office. In 2007 the Labour Party lost ground, falling five seats short of a majority, and formed a coalition government with the nationalist party, Plaid Cymru. As leader of the largest party, Rhodri Morgan remained first minister, a post that he had held since 2000. Also in 2007 the Welsh assembly was granted the power to make laws, with the approval of the Parliament in London.

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