Wales had been won for Rome by Frontinus and Agricol A.D. 78. When the Romans retired from Britain, Wales resumed its freedom, and suffered its own kings. In the fifth century western Wales was occupied by Irish settlers; later Wales received thousands of Britons fleeing from the Anglo-Saxon conquerors of their island. The Anglo-Saxons stopped at the Welsh barrier, and called the unsubdued people Wealhas—“foreigners.” The Irish and the Britons found in Wales a kindred Celtic stock, and soon the three groups mingled as Cymri—“fellow countrymen”; this became their national name, and Cymru their name for their land. Like most Celtic peoples-Bretons, Cornish, Irish, the Gaels of northern Scotland—they based their social order almost wholly on the family and the clan, and so jealously that they resented the state, and looked with unappeasable distrust upon any individual or people of alien blood. Their clan spirit was balanced by uncalculating hospitality, their indiscipline by bravery, their hard life and climate by music and song and loyal friendship, their poverty by an imaginative sentiment that made every girl a princess, and every second man a king.
Only next to kings stood the bards. They were the soothsayers, historians, and royal counselors, as well as the poets, of their people. Two among them left enduring names—Taliesin and Aneurin, both of the sixth century; there were hundreds more; and the tales they spun crossed the Channel to Brittany to reach polished form in France. The bards constituted a poetic clerical caste; no one was admitted to their order except after strict training in the lore of their race. The candidate for admission was called a mabinog; the material he studied was mabinogion; hence the name Mabinogion for such of their tales as have survived.31 In their present form they are not older than the fourteenth century, but probably they go back to this period, when Christianity had not taken Wales. They are primitively simple, paganly animistic, and weird with strange animals and marvelous events; overcast with a somber certainty of exile, defeat, and death, yet in a mood of gentleness all the world away from the lust and violence of Icelandic Eddas, Norse sagas, and the Nibelungenlied. In the loneliness of Welsh mountains there grew a romantic literature of devotion to the nation, to woman, and, later, to Mary and Jesus, that shared in begetting chivalry, and those wondrous tales of Arthur and his valorous-amorous knights sworn to “break the heathen and uphold the Christ.”
Christianity came to Wales in the sixth century, and soon thereafter opened schools in the monasteries and cathedrals. The learned Bishop Asser, who served King Alfred as secretary and biographer, came from the town and cathedral of St. David’s in Pembrokeshire. These Christian shrines and settlements bore the brunt of pirate attacks from Normandy, until King Rhodri the Great (844-78) drove them off and gave the island a vigorous dynasty. King Hywel the Good (910-50) united all Wales, and provided it with a uniform code of laws. Gruffydd ap Llywelyn (1039-63) was too successful; when he defeated Mercia, the nearest of the English counties, Harold, the future king of England, proclaimed a war of preventive defense, and conquered Wales for Britain (1063).