Anglesey is rich in prehistoric remains. The first evidence of humans on the island comes from the Mesolithic period, about 7000 BC. Throughout the next several millennia, the various tribes that occupied Anglesey erected numerous stone burial chambers, standing stones, and hill forts, many of which survived the ages in good condition and can be visited today.
Archaeologists have uncovered many sites on the island rich with prehistoric artefacts such as pottery and stone tools. One of the most spectacular finds was that at Llyn Cerrig Bach. In 1943, land was being cleared near this lake for building a runway for the nearby Royal Air Force base. Peat was being dug from the bog near the lake and an iron chain was found. This chain was used for a while for pulling vehicles that were stuck in the mud. It was soon discovered, though, that the chain was actually an ancient one that was originally used to chain slaves together. Further investigation uncovered a trove of scores of items ranging from iron spearheads and parts of chariots to a bronze trumpet.
These items date from the height of the Celtic era (second century BC to first century AD), just before the time when the Romans occupied Wales. The place where the items were found was at the base of a small cliff overlooking what is now bog but would at that time have been open water of the lake. The Celts apparently had a tradition of sacrificing valuables by ritually casting them into a lake; they would particularly do this after a victorious battle. This explains the predominance of military equipment in the Llyn Cerrig Bach hord.
Another interesting Celtic find is the Hendy Head, found on Hendy Farm near Llanfairpwll. Heads like these, which have been found throughout the Celtic world, probably represented gods and might have been used for ceremonial purposes. The tops of the heads were often flat, perhaps for placing offerings. Many stone heads also had small holes drilled in one side of the mouth (clearly seen in the picture above). This might have been used for giving drinks to the god during ceremonies, or perhaps for holding a pipe or branch.
At the time of the Roman occupation of Wales (first century AD), Anglesey was one of the last strongholds of the Celts and their druidic priests. The Romans decided that it was vital to invade Anglesey and destroy the Druids, who were maintaining native resistance against the Romans. The Roman historian Tacitus gives an account of the ensuing battle on the shores of the Menai Straits:
By the shore stood an opposing battle-line, thick with men and weapons, woman running between them, like the Furies in their funereal clothes, their hair flowing, carrying torches; and Druids among them, pouring out frightful curses with their hands raised high to the heavens, our soldiers being so scared by the unfamiliar sight that their limbs were paralysed, and they stood motionless and exposed to be wounded.
The Romans eventually won the battle, subdued the Druids, and cut down their groves of sacred oaks.
After the Romans withdrew in the 4th century Anglesey came under the influence of the Kings of Dublin. Numerous raids occurred and it is likely that Irish settled in parts of the island. The island has numerous stone remains of round house foundations that date from this time. They traditionally are called cytiau'r Gwyddelod ('huts of the Irish'), although there is no evidence that these were actually occupied by Irish settlers. Eventually war broke out around 400 AD in which the Welsh, supported by Celts from the north of England, vanquished the Irish from the island.
The collection of Welsh traditional tales, The Mabinogion, tells the story of Branwen, daughter of the King of North Wales, who lived at this time. One of the main royal seats was at Aberffraw on Anglesey. The King of Ireland, Matholch, came there to marry Branwen and took her back to Ireland. This marriage, though, was not enough to calm the tensions between the two kingdoms. Branwen was ill treated in Ireland and sent word of her woes back to Anglesey. War then broke out between the two kingdoms and Branwen was returned home, but only after great loss of life on both sides. On her arrival back to Anglesey, Branwen died of a broken heart that she should have been the cause of such destruction.
The early medieval period saw the flourishing of the Celtic Christian church throughout Britain and Ireland. Anglesey was no exception and two main monasteries were founded; St. Cybi's at what is now Holyhead, and St. Seiriol's at Penmon, in the north-east corner of the island. Viking raids during this period caused much destruction at these settlements, as well as at the royal court in Aberffraw. However, after the end of Viking activity in the 12th century Anglesey flourished. Many of the churches on the island had their beginnings at this time. A number of these medieval churches are well preserved and still in use today.
Another of the main royal courts at this time was at Llys Rhosyr, near present-day Newborough. The site of this court has been discovered and archaeological excavations have been going on since 1992. Details of what has been discovered at this site are on the Current Archaeology and Mentor Môn web sites.
The 13th century saw conflict between Wales and her neighbour England, which was now ruled by the descendants of the Norman invaders. Edward I of England twice launched campaigns against Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, the last Prince of Wales. In both cases Llywelyn was defeated in part because Edward cut off grain shipments from Anglesey that were feeding the Welsh army. After the final defeat Edward built a series of castles around the coast of Wales to subdue the natives, including Beaumaris Castle on Anglesey and Caernarfon Castle, just across the strait on the mainland.
Anglesey has links to one of the royal dynasties of British history. A prominent medieval family on the island was that descended from Ednyfed Fychan, the right-hand man of Llywelyn the Great, grandfather of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd. One of his descendants was Owain Tudor, who was born on Anglesey at Plas Penmynydd. Owain joined the court of Henry V and, after the King's death, secretly married his widow. This act gave their grandson, Henry, a claim to the throne. In 1485 Henry and his supporters met King Richard III in battle on Bosworth Field in Leicestershire. The King was killed and Henry was crowned Henry VII. This was the start of the Tudor era and the House of Tudor, which include Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.
From the 18th century onwards Anglesey became important for two reasons: copper and travel to Ireland. Parys Mountain, in the north-west of the island, had been a site of copper mining during the Roman period and possibly much earlier. In the 1760's full scale mining was begun there to satisfy demands for the metal for production of guns, metal plating for ships, and coinage. At its peak Parys Mountain was the largest copper mine in the world and employed 1500 people. The end of the Napoleonic wars meant a reduction in the demand for copper and a sudden decline in the fortunes of the mine. Today virtually the whole inside of the mountain has been removed and the area looks like a lunar landscape.
Many of the coastal bays on Anglesey had served as small ports throughout the ages, but by the 18th century Holyhead had emerged as the main port, primarily because it is the closest point to Ireland. At this time travel to Ireland was hazardous; not only was there the crossing of the Irish sea, but ferries had to navigate the treacherous currents of the Menai Strait to get to Anglesey from the mainland. Travellers from England also had to negotiate the narrow roads through the Snowdonia mountains and around the headlands along the North Wales coast. The union of Great Britain and Ireland in 1800 increased the need to make this route easier to travel. In 1810 Thomas Telford was commissioned to build a new road through North Wales and across Anglesey. This included the first major suspension bridge in the world, the Menai Bridge, across the Menai Strait.
The coming of the railways several decades later lead to competition between Holyhead and the town of Porthdinllaen, on the Welsh mainland, for the primary rail route leading from London to a port serving Dublin. Holyhead won the honour (by a single vote in the House of Commons, according to legend). Subsequently a rail bridge, the Britannia Bridge, was built by Robert Stephenson in 1850.
Bridges over the Menai Strait
Copyright © 2012 Warren Kovach, Anglesey, Wales. All Rights Reserved. The photographs and text on these pages may be downloaded and viewed for your own interest, but you MAY NOT distribute them, reproduce them on other web sites, or use them in any form for any commercial purpose without the express permission of the copyright holder.
Last modified 8 June, 2012