Is Wales a country? Is Wales part of England (no!)? And could Wales ever become independent? Here’s everything you need to know!
‘Cymru am Byth! [Wales forever!]’The rallying cry of Welsh patriots.
During Covid-19, the town of Llaynmynech was divided in two. The border between Wales and England cuts right down the middle of Llanymynech’s high street, and for the first time in centuries, an ancient border between two nations had been resurrected.
Llanymynech is half in Wales and half in England, but until lockdown laws reimposed the old border (which had largely been defined by King Offa of Mercia, way back in the 8th century AD), there had been little difference on either side; in recent years, at least. As the different governments in Cardiff and London imposed different laws, the border became more confused than ever, highlighting the stark differences that do exist in both countries.
It was the first time in my life – as a concerned British citizen – that I’d truly begun to appreciate just how different England and Wales really are; and just how many similarities there are too. The events in Llaynmynech showed that the Welsh dragon was rising, and with the Scots also screaming for independence, support for Welsh independence was also on the increase. The idea of an independent Wales is stronger than ever, with the latest statistics showing that at least 20 per cent of the nation supported this.
This got me thinking, is Wales a country? There’s no doubt, that yes, Wales is a country. It has a unique Celtic history, a language older than English and a national parliament (the Senned) in the capital, Cardiff.
But as part of the United Kingdom, and with close ties to England, I wondered: to what extent is Wales really a ‘sovereign’ nation? In this article, I answer the question: ‘Is Wales a country?’. Keep reading, to find out more!
Table of Contents
Is Wales a country?
“It would be absurd to rule out independence.”Mark Drakeford, First Minister of Wales.
Located in the southwestern part of the island of Great Britain, Wales is one of the four distinct countries – or ‘home nations’ – that constitute the United Kingdom. It is bordered by its neighbour England to the east, the Bristol Channel to the south and the expansive Irish Sea to the north. To the west, it’s flanked by St. George’s Channel, creating a turbulent maritime boundary between Wales and Ireland.
Wales’ geographical positioning makes it a place of spectacular natural beauty. The land is an amalgamation of rugged coastlines, verdant valleys, majestic mountains, and picturesque rural landscapes that transition seamlessly into vibrant urban areas. The country’s capital and largest city, Cardiff, lies in the southeastern part, sitting on the edge of the Bristol Channel.
Wales is also home to three renowned national parks – Snowdonia, Pembrokeshire Coast, and Brecon Beacons. These parks offer a visual feast of the diverse Welsh landscapes, from the towering peaks of Snowdonia to the pristine beaches of the Pembrokeshire Coast.
The geography of Wales doesn’t just dictate its physical boundaries; it also shapes its unique character, but so often, also sees the Welsh defined in opposition to their English neighbours (the name ‘Wales’ means ‘foreign land’ in Anglo-Saxon dialects of old).
Travel to Wales, and you’ll instantly notice the changes as soon as you cross the border. Signs become bilingual, as English and Welsh are displayed side by side, the Welsh dragonflies along the Union Jack, and woe betide any naive tourist who still believes themselves to be England!
With a history dating back to the native Britons that called this island home, long before the Romans, English and Normans ever set foot in Britain, Wales has all the trappings of a nation-state, including a language, history, culture, flag, national anthem and much more. For all intents and purposes, Wales can be considered a country, but paradoxically, it’s technically not. Because it’s also part of the United Kingdom.
Is Wales a sovereign country?
‘Sovereignty: Supreme power, especially over a body politic.’Definition by Merriam-Webster.
Defining a ‘country’, though, can be complex, as it involves geographical, political, and cultural factors. In geographical terms, a country is a distinct area of land. Politically, it typically refers to a self-governing entity recognized by other nations, akin to a ‘sovereign state’ in international law.
Culturally, a ‘country’ often signifies a region associated with a specific group of people sharing a common history, language, or traditions, echoing the term ‘nation’. In the real world, these definitions intertwine, making a ‘country’ a unique blend of people, governance, and land.
Consider the United Kingdom: a sovereign state made up of four ‘countries’ – England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland (and some would argue, there should be a fifth: Cornwall). Therefore, defining a ‘country’ isn’t one-size-fits-all; it’s context-sensitive and often subject to interpretation and debate.
The term ‘sovereign country’ or ‘sovereign state’ is often used to describe a political entity that is autonomous, self-governing, and recognized as such by international law and other states. So, where does Wales fit within this definition?
While Wales is indeed a country, it is not a sovereign country. Instead, Wales is one of four constituent countries – alongside England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland – that form the United Kingdom (UK), a sovereign state. Sovereignty, in this context, is held by the UK, which is internationally recognized as a single sovereign entity.
However, within the UK, Wales has a degree of political autonomy. It has its own parliament, the Senedd Cymru or Welsh Parliament, which has the power to make legislation in a range of devolved areas such as health, education, and the environment. But the UK Parliament in Westminster retains power over several aspects including foreign affairs, defence, and most taxation.
Culturally, Wales has a unique and rich heritage, with its own language, traditions and national symbols, which contribute to a strong sense of national identity. But, while Wales has its own distinct cultural identity and a measure of political autonomy, it does not have sovereign status. It is a country that forms part of the sovereign state known as the United Kingdom.
A brief history of Wales as a country
These technicalities, though, won’t stop anyone in Wales from seeing their land as a country in its own right (they’ve got a Welsh national football team, after all!).
It’s important to look at the complex history of Wales, in order to understand why the Welsh consider themselves to be a country. The story of the Welsh nation stretches back thousands of years, defined by Roman invasions, Christian missionaries and the emergence of powerful Welsh kingdoms.
Early human settlers arrived in Wales following the last Ice Age, around 10,000 years ago. The most tangible evidence of these early inhabitants can be found in the form of ancient standing stones, burial chambers, and hill forts scattered across the landscape. The Celtic culture, associated with the Iron Age and Medieval Period, later began to influence Wales, leaving a lasting impact on the Welsh language and identity.
The Roman conquest of Wales began in AD 48 and lasted about three decades. They established a network of forts across the country, including a major base at Caerleon. Although the Romans brought advancements such as roads and aqueducts, their influence on Wales was less profound compared to other parts of Britain. After the Romans withdrew in the early 5th century, a series of Celtic kingdoms emerged.
These kingdoms were later united under the rule of King Rhodri Mawr in the 9th century, marking the beginning of a distinct Welsh national identity. Throughout the Middle Ages, these Welsh kingdoms battled each other and the Anglo-Saxon invaders from the east. However, the unifying Welsh culture, language and laws, known as the Laws of Hywel Dda, maintained a strong sense of national identity.
The Norman Conquest of England in 1066 significantly affected Wales. The Normans initiated a series of invasions, establishing castles and earldoms throughout the country. Despite this, large areas of Wales remained independent and the Welsh princes continued to rule their own territories.
In the 13th century, the power of the Welsh princes reached its zenith under the leadership of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, also known as Llywelyn the Last. He held the title of Prince of Wales, a designation later adopted by the English monarchy for the heir apparent (a point of conjecture brought up by Welsh nationalists when the title was given to Prince William when his father became King Charles III in 2023).
However, the last independent Welsh territories fell under English rule following Edward I’s conquest in the late 13th century. Edward constructed a ring of formidable castles to consolidate his control and, in 1301, bestowed the title ‘Prince of Wales’ on his son, a tradition that continues to this day. I’m always astounded by the sheer number of castles that you’ll find in Wales (the highest density of castles in the United Kingdom), most of them having been built by the English kings in an attempt to impose their rule over the Welsh throughout the medieval period.
Despite the conquest, Welsh cultural identity remained strong. This resilience was demonstrated in the late 15th century by the uprising led by Owain Glyndŵr, the last native Welshman to hold the title Prince of Wales. His rebellion against English rule was initially successful, but ultimately, he was defeated.
The Act of Union in 1536 formally incorporated Wales into England, under English legal jurisdiction. This move triggered the erosion of the Welsh language and customs as English became the language of administration and power. It also paved the way for the later union of home nations, which we now know as the United Kingdom.
Nevertheless, the 19th and 20th centuries saw a revival of Welsh national consciousness. The Welsh language, culture, and identity were revitalized, and political devolution in the late 20th century resulted in the establishment of the Welsh Parliament, or Senedd, reaffirming Wales’ status as a distinct nation within the United Kingdom.
This brief overview barely scratches the surface of Welsh history, but it paints a picture of a resilient nation, with a deep-rooted language and culture that has withstood centuries of invasion and change. Wales remains proud of its heritage and its national identity, encapsulated by the motto ‘Cymru am byth’ or ‘Wales forever’.
Why can Wales be considered a country?
Are you not yet convinced that Wales is a country? In that case, let’s take a look at the four primary reasons why Wales can be considered a country, even if it’s not technically an independent, sovereign nation:
1. Cultural Identity
One of the most compelling arguments for Wales as a country is its distinct cultural identity, rooted in its unique history and traditions. The Welsh language, Cymraeg, is a potent symbol of this identity. Although English is widely spoken, Welsh is still used in daily life, taught in schools, and displayed on public signs, underscoring the country’s commitment to preserving its linguistic heritage. This bilingualism is just one example of how Wales maintains its cultural distinctiveness.
Wales is also renowned for its contributions to literature, music, and sport. The country has a vibrant tradition of choral singing, and its national sport, rugby union, is a source of great pride, fostering a sense of community and national spirit. Events like the National Eisteddfod, an annual festival of literature, music, and performance, and the celebration of St. David’s Day, the national day of Wales, further attest to the rich cultural life of the country.
2. Political Status
Politically, Wales is one of the four constituent countries of the United Kingdom, alongside England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. While it is not an independent state, Wales has a significant degree of autonomy, with its own parliament, known as the Senedd, which has the power to legislate in a range of areas, such as health, education, and the environment. Established in 1999, the Senedd represents the democratic will of the people of Wales and is a key institution affirming the country’s distinct political identity within the UK.
3. Legal and Educational Systems
While Wales shares a legal jurisdiction with England, it has developed its own distinct legal and judicial systems in certain areas due to the devolved powers of the Senedd. For example, it has introduced progressive environmental legislation and has its own unique measures in education, like the Welsh Baccalaureate.
The country’s educational system is another factor that distinguishes it. The curriculum in Wales deviates from that in England, with a strong emphasis on the Welsh language and history. This emphasis on indigenous culture and heritage underscores the desire of the Welsh people to maintain their unique identity.
4. National Identity
Perhaps the most significant factor that defines Wales as a country is the strong sense of national identity among its people. This sentiment stems from a shared history, cultural traditions, language, and a collective consciousness that distinguishes the Welsh from their British neighbours. From the dragon on the national flag to the resounding chorus of the unofficial national anthem, ‘Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau’, the symbols and rituals of Welshness foster a profound sense of national pride and belonging.
So, while Wales is part of the United Kingdom, it holds a distinct status that gives credence to its recognition as a country. Its unique cultural heritage, political autonomy, distinct legal and educational frameworks, and the robust national identity of its people all contribute to its standing as a country. In essence, Wales is a testament to the fact that a country’s identity is not solely defined by sovereignty but is also deeply rooted in its culture, history, and people.
What is the Welsh language?
The Welsh language, known as Cymraeg in Welsh, is a Celtic language native to Wales, a country that’s part of the United Kingdom. It’s one of the oldest languages in Europe, with roots dating back over 1,500 years, and has strongly influenced the cultural identity and heritage of Wales.
Welsh is still very much alive. While it faced a decline during the 19th and 20th centuries due to the influence of English, revitalization efforts have led to an increase in the number of Welsh speakers, as reported in the most recent census results by the Welsh government. It is taught in schools and universities, and there are numerous Welsh-language media outlets, including television and radio services.
Welsh is known for its distinctive sounds and unique alphabet, which includes 29 letters, some of which are combinations of two characters. Welsh is distinct from English and other Romance languages, with its own unique syntax, phonology, and alphabet. For instance, the Welsh alphabet excludes the letters ‘j’, ‘k’, ‘q’, ‘v’, ‘x’, and ‘z’, but includes unique characters like ‘ll’ and ‘dd’. Additionally, the order of sentence components typically follows a verb-subject-object structure, which is different from English’s subject-verb-object order.
Welsh is a language known for its melodic sounds and is integral to Wales’s literary traditions, being the language of the ninth-century ‘Book of Taliesin’ and the famous ‘Mabinogion’ tales. Today, it is used in all aspects of daily life, including business, media, literature, and the performing arts, with the Welsh government recording an estimated 900,000 Welsh speakers in the last census.
Could Wales become independent?
‘Together, we can win Wales.’Plaid Cymru slogan.
Yes, theoretically, Wales could become an independent country. The question of Welsh independence has been part of political and public discourse, especially in the context of recent political events such as Brexit and the ongoing discussions around Scottish independence. The decision would hinge upon a variety of factors, including legal considerations, economic viability, political will, and, most importantly, the support of the Welsh people.
In legal terms, Wales could become independent if the UK Parliament in Westminster agreed to hold a referendum on Welsh independence, similar to the 2014 referendum in Scotland. If a majority of the population voted for independence, negotiations would likely commence on the terms of Wales’ separation from the UK.
Economically, independence would require careful consideration. Wales would need to assess its financial viability as a standalone country, including questions about the currency it would use, its tax system, public services funding, trade agreements, and more.
Political will is another crucial factor. The main political party advocating for Welsh independence is ‘Plaid Cymru’, or ‘The Party of Wales’. ‘Yes Cymru’, who also advocate for independence, regularly hold pro-independence marches across Wales, with one in in Cardiff attracting as many as 10,000 people in 2022. However, other parties, including those in power, may not be in favour of independence, and the broader political landscape in the UK can influence this discussion. Recent statistics
The most critical factor, however, is public opinion. The success of any move towards independence would ultimately depend on the desire of the Welsh people for self-governance, as expressed through democratic means such as a referendum.
It’s important to note that while discussions around Welsh independence exist, the pathway to independence is complex, requiring significant negotiations, transitions, and potential challenges. Hence, it is a question that would need careful consideration from all stakeholders involved.
Read more: How to Travel to Sark!
Is Wales part of England?
No! And remember that fact if it’s the first time you’re visiting Wales!
The relationship between Wales and England is a historically complex one that warrants a nuanced understanding. In a geographical sense, both Wales and England are part of the same island, Great Britain, and share a border with each other. However, in terms of political and cultural identity, Wales and England are distinct entities.
Politically, both Wales and England are part of the United Kingdom, and while England is the largest and most populous of the home nations, Wales, despite being smaller, maintains its separate political identity.
Culturally, Wales also has a strong separate identity, with its unique traditions, its own language (Welsh), and a vibrant history that has been distinct from England for centuries. This cultural individuality contributes greatly to the Welsh national consciousness.
The term ‘England’ is sometimes erroneously used to refer to the whole of the UK, including Wales. However, this is incorrect and overlooks the distinct identities of the UK’s constituent countries.
Where is the England-Wales border?
The England-Wales border, often referred to as the Welsh Marches, is a geographical delineation that separates England and Wales. This border, stretching approximately 160 miles from the Bristol Channel in the south to the Dee estuary in the north, is the longest that England shares with any of its neighbouring countries.
The borderland has a unique and complex history. During the Middle Ages, it was a contested region, marked by a series of fortifications called the Marcher Lordships. These were established by the Normans to subdue and control the region, leading to the border’s reputation as a somewhat lawless and turbulent area.
Today, the England-Wales border is a peaceful one, and several towns and villages straddle this boundary. Notably, the city of Chester in the north and the town of Hay-on-Wye in the south, famous for its annual literary festival, lie close to the border.
The landscape along the border is characterised by the rolling hills of the Marches, offering beautiful countryside vistas with several areas of natural beauty, including the Wye Valley and the Brecon Beacons in Wales and the Shropshire Hills in England.
The England-Wales border is not just a geographical feature but a marker of the distinct identity of Wales, as separate from England, within the constitutional framework of the United Kingdom.
Is Wales Part of the United Kingdom?
Yes, Wales is indeed a part of the United Kingdom (UK). As I’ve already noted throughout this article, the UK is a sovereign state that consists of four constituent countries: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
Located to the west of England on the island of Great Britain, Wales shares a border with England and is surrounded by the Irish Sea and Bristol Channel. Wales is not merely a region or province of the UK, but rather a country with a significant degree of autonomy to make its own laws.
However, ultimate sovereignty still resides with the UK Parliament in Westminster, which retains powers over areas such as foreign affairs, defence and most taxation.
Is Wales a country or a principality?
“A country as fierce and proud as Wales is never slow to stand up for itself.”George Hughes, writing for North Wales Live.
The status of Wales has evolved over centuries, and it is both historically and contemporarily significant to distinguish between the terms ‘country’ and ‘principality’ when referring to it. In fact, calling it a Principality is seen as offensive by many in Wales, and sparks huge debates over the rights of the ‘English’ monarchy to hold the title ‘Prince of Wales’.
Historically, Wales was known as the ‘Principality of Wales’, a title dating back to the 13th century when England’s King Edward I named his eldest son, the future King Edward II, the ‘Prince of Wales’. The title ‘Prince of Wales’ has since been traditionally bestowed upon the heir apparent to the British throne, a tradition which continues to this day.
However, calling Wales a ‘principality’ in the contemporary sense is incorrect and does not accurately reflect its constitutional status within the United Kingdom. Today, Wales is one of the four countries that make up the United Kingdom, alongside England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.
What is Welsh devolution?
“Devolution is about harnessing the power of community – the diverse community that is the United Kingdom, and the national communities that through devolution can take their futures in their own hands.”Tony Blair, Prime Minster of the United Kingdom, 1997.
Devolution, in a political context, refers to the transfer of powers from a central government to regional or local authorities. Welsh devolution, therefore, denotes the process by which certain legislative and executive powers have been passed down from the UK Parliament in Westminster to a local body in Wales, namely the Senedd Cymru, or the Welsh Parliament.
The journey of Welsh devolution began in earnest in 1997, when a referendum was held in Wales. A slim majority of voters approved the establishment of a devolved assembly, leading to the creation of the National Assembly for Wales (now the Senedd) in 1999.
Initially, the powers of the Assembly were limited. It had the ability to make secondary legislation, under laws passed by Westminster, in areas like health, education, and local government. However, the Government of Wales Act 2006 granted the Assembly the power to pass its own laws in these devolved areas, thus significantly broadening the scope of Welsh devolution.
Further powers were devolved following the 2011 referendum, and in 2020 the Assembly was renamed the Senedd and gained additional law-making powers. The devolution of powers to Wales is a continuing process, enabling more decisions to be made closer to the people they affect. However, some areas, such as foreign policy and defence, remain the remit of the UK Parliament. Devolution has allowed Wales to address local issues more directly and has led to distinct policies that differentiate it from the rest of the UK.
So, is Wales really a country?
Okay, so you’ve made it all the way to the end of the article. By now, I hope you’ll have formed your own opinion and answers to the question, ‘Is Wales a country? As you’ll have realised, it’s not a simple question to answer.
While it’s easy enough to say that yes, Wales is a country, in light of its unique Celtic heritage, its distinct language, sense of national identity and its devolved parliament, it’s also easy to say that Wales is not a sovereign nation. Ultimately, Wales does not have independence from the United Kingdom, and the parliament in Westminster is still responsible for many Welsh laws.
However, we can call Wales a ‘Home Nation’, and we can respect its fierce sense of national pride, and its historical characters and recognise that Wales is indeed, very distinct from the other ‘countries’ that also make up the UK. In the future, with support for Welsh independence on the rise, we may even see an independent Wales striving to forge its own path in the world!
Read more: The Countries That Don’t Exist
FAQ: Is Wales a country?
Here’s an FAQ on the question, ‘Is Wales a country?’.
Q1: Is Wales a country?
A1: Yes, Wales is one of the four countries that make up the United Kingdom, along with England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.
Q2: Is Wales independent from the UK?
A2: While Wales has its own parliament, known as the Senedd, and can make decisions on a range of devolved matters, it is not an independent country. Sovereignty resides with the UK Parliament in Westminster.
Q3: What languages are spoken in Wales?
A3: The two official languages of Wales are Welsh and English. Welsh is widely spoken and taught in schools, but English is also commonly used.
Q4: What is the capital of Wales?
A4: The capital of Wales is Cardiff, which is also its largest city.
Q5: Does Wales have its own culture?
A5: Yes, Wales has a rich and distinct culture, with unique traditions, music, and cuisine. Its history stretches back millennia and contributes significantly to its cultural identity.
Q6: Is Welsh law different from English law?
A6: Although Wales and England share the same legal jurisdiction, there are some differences in laws due to the devolved powers of the Senedd, which can make decisions on certain matters such as education and health.
Q7: Who represents Wales in international affairs?
A7: As part of the United Kingdom, Wales is represented internationally by the UK.
Q8: What is the meaning of the Welsh motto ‘Cymru am byth’?
A8: ‘Cymru am byth’ translates to “Wales forever” in English, demonstrating the strong national pride and identity of the Welsh people.
Q9: Does Wales have its own sports teams?
A9: Yes, Wales has its own national teams in several sports, including rugby, football (soccer), and cricket.
Q10: What is the history of Wales within the UK?
A10: Wales became a part of the Kingdom of England in the 16th Century through the Acts of Union. In the late 20th century, devolution led to the establishment of the Welsh Parliament, or Senedd.