The four and a half centuries between the start of the Anglo-Norman conquest of south-east Wales in 1070 and the union of Wales with England in 1536 have left a legacy of buildings and archaeological sites that help us to visualize the lives of medieval people more clearly than is possible for earlier ages. As a result, historians have reconstructed a society – or rather a number of societies of fascinating complexity: rural folk and townsfolk, hill dwellers and valley and coastal communities, native and immigrant peoples, some rich and others very poor, some known to us by name but the majority now quite anonymous. At the end of the Middle Ages, Wales had a population of about 300,000, perhaps double what it had been in 1070 and yet still hardly the size of the city of Cardiff in 2008. As elsewhere in western Europe, the population had grown steadily for more than two centuries, but between 1310 and 1370 famine, disease and plague of a sort never experienced before cut it by at least a third, and it was not until the sixteenth century that it again reached the level of 1300.
These changes had profound effects on Welsh society: on agriculture and the use of the landscape, on the number and size of towns, and on the growth or decay of local communities. Meanwhile, developments in politics, war and ways of government in the British Isles had a lasting impact on Wales, creating a complex pattern of lordships and counties, administered from courts (or llysoedd), castles and houses whose remains still dot the landscape. Medieval society was, too, a universally Christian society that experienced periods of intense religious enthusiasm. This enthusiasm and spiritual devotion inspired much church and monastery building, sculpture and painting, many examples of which (like Tintern abbey and the font in Cenarth church) enrich our culture today. The small number of Jews who settled in Welsh towns in the wake of the Norman conquest all but disappeared after 1290, when King Edward I expelled the Jews from both England and Wales.
The Welsh experience had much in common with that of other countries in the British Isles and western Europe during the Middle Ages, yet it had a marked social and cultural distinctiveness. In many ways, medieval society was militaristic in tone and violent in action. The patchwork of Welsh kingdoms, some of which (in Powys and Gwynedd) resisted the Anglo-Norman conquest for two hundred years, encouraged their rulers’ rivalries and caused political instability. At the same time, population growth and social mobility produced other tensions and conflicts. Groups of English, Normans, Bretons and Flemings advanced into Wales in the wake of William the Conqueror’s invasion of south-east England in 1066; William himself travelled as far as St David’s in 1081. This migration continued for centuries and, of course, there have been few periods in Wales’s modern history that have not witnessed waves of immigrants. From 1070 to 1282, English and French lords and kings and their descendants struggled with the ruling Welsh lords for dominance in Wales. The organizational changes and influences which the migrants brought with them affected all aspects of Welsh society: they built castles in the landscape, stimulated town life, and gradually formed a parish system for the Church. The imprint of Wales’s medieval past is all around us.
The social impact of migration was lasting. Many incomers intermarried with native inhabitants and settled alongside them, and some of these families provided migrants onwards to Ireland after 1170. In the opposite direction went Welsh folk from the borderland with England (what had become the lordships of the Welsh March) to the English midlands and the West Country. In the lowlands and wider valleys of eastern Wales, and along the southern and northern coasts, these processes gave rise to communities that might be bi- or tri-lingual and developed a distinctive, cosmopolitan culture, for all the tensions that accompanied English and French colonization. A sense of Welsh identity persisted most strongly in Gwynedd, the last region to feel the full effect of these cultural influences.