The Modern English term for Wales stems from the Old English wealh, meaning ‘slave’ or later ‘foreigner’, used particularly, but not exclusively, for the Brittonic-speaking peoples of what is now Wales, Cornwall and Cumbria/Strathclyde (Faull 1975; Charles-Edwards 2013, 2). The use of derivations of wealh gained some ground in Wales in the twelfth century and later, but the inhabitants of these areas also had richly developed ideas of their own identity. Above the level of individual kingdoms, they referred to themselves collectively as Britones (and to their land as Britannia, or Prydain in Welsh), stressing a common identity with roots stretching back to the pre-Roman period. Cymry (Welsh for ‘countrymen’) was also used to refer to the Britons from the seventh century, narrowing in the tenth to mean the Welsh more specifically (Pryce 2001).
During the early Middle Ages, there was no single Welsh polity (Map 6). Independent kingdoms governed by Welsh-speaking rulers survived until 1283, and the history of their interaction with each other, with the English and with others is a matter of some complexity, hampered by limited sources for much of this period (general surveys include Lloyd 1911; Davies 1982; Charles-Edwards 2013). Traditionally, society at this time has been seen as ‘tribal’, in that blood ties and small warbands played an important structural role – though there are also signals that the status of the peasantry changed over time, with high levels of slavery (compared with England and Francia) in the ninth and tenth centuries giving way to serfdom and free peasantry in later times, despite the absence of labour service and manorialisation (Davies 2004, 206–20). These conditions probably resulted from the restricted scale of kingdoms in early medieval Wales, which emerged from the mostly upland territories of late Roman Britain, several of them taking their names and boundaries from Roman-period territorial units (Davies 1990, 9–31; Dark 1994, 71–136; Charles-Edwards 2013, 1–26).