Posts for Tag : history


Was King Arthur real?

Whether or not King Arthur was a real person is an either/or query.  He either was or he wasn’t.  Many scholars, researchers, and Arthurophile’s have strong opinions on this topic, both for and against.  Because of the paucity of written records (most notably, Gildas fails to mention him), much of the academic work has come down on the side of ‘wasn’t’–or at least if Arthur was a real person, his name was not ‘Arthur’ and he possible wasn’t even a king.  In another blog (here), I list the original sources that posit the existence of King Arthur.

Obviously, since I’ve written a novel about King Arthur, he’s very real to me!

Wikipedia has a remarkably thorough analysis of the subject:

For now, I’d like to point to two aspects of the ‘wasn’t’ camp that I find particularly interesting, as they have to do with the development of Welsh myth and the transformation of Wales from a pagan culture to a Christian one.

One theory about King Arthur was that his stories were originally not about him at all, but about Gwydion, one of the sons of Don and a chief character in the Four Branches of the Mabinogi.  In these tales, Gwydion, while evident through much of the Mabinogi, is completely absent from the stories that include Arthur, implying that the ancient poet did a global ‘find and replace’. This theory was originally posited by Sir John Rhys, writing at the end of the 19th century.

The second curious aspect of the development of Arthur, which parallels the Gwydion relationship, is the way in which the character adopted not only the characteristics of Gwydion, but of Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon, the last ‘King’ of Wales (died 682 AD).  Included in the books of Taliesin are not only poems about Arthur, but also about Cadwaladr.  It is Cadwaladr whom the Welsh tales describe as sleeping in a cave on Mount Snowdon, and whose return the Welsh await (see my post on The Great Prophecy of Britain).

I would love for Arthur to have been a ‘real’ person, but I find the discovery of the way in which myth becomes ‘real’, as well as the ‘real’ becomes myth fascinating.  It is almost a parallel process:  many scholars of celtic myth believe that the stories of the Don or Tuatha de Dannan (in Ireland) were once ‘real’ to the people who told them, but with the coming of Christianity, their tales were either adopted and transformed into Christian parable, or faded into the realm of fable.  Similarly, Gwydion (a mythic character) or Cadwaladr (a ‘real’ one) might have had their stories blended into the tale of King Arthur–for Gywdion, the stories were sanitized and made palatable for Christian audiences, and for Cadwaladr, his story was submerged into the tale of an already more famous and reknowned hero and thus made more ‘mythic’.


Santa Claus and the Wild Hunt

ThorThe origins of Santa Claus, like most Christmas traditions, are rooted in a blend of Christian and pagan traditions.

‘Santa Claus’, as he is currently represented in the United States, most resembles Sinterklaas, the Dutch St. Nicholas. “In the year 303, the Roman emperor Diocletian commanded all the citizens of the Roman Empire, including the citizens of Asia Minor, to worship him as a god. Christians, who believed in only one god, resisted the emperor’s orders and as a result were imprisoned. Saint Nicholas was among the many imprisoned. He was confined for more than five years, until Constantine came to power in 313 AD and released him. Later in life, Saint Nicholas became the Archbishop of Myra and the guardian of merchants, sailors and children.

He performed many good deeds including miracles. It is said that Saint Nicholas stopped storms at sea to save sailors and brought dead children back to life. The legend of Saint Nicholas, who died 6 December around 340, became very popular in the Medieval Ages, when Italian soldiers transported his remains from his burial site in Myra to Italy. In Bari, a small town in Southern Italy, a church was built in Saint Nicholas’ name, and soon Christian pilgrims from all over the world visited the church and took his legend home with them. As the tale of Saint Nicholas spread throughout the world, his character was adapted, taking on characteristics of different countries.”–117.html

Santa Claus as we know him today in the United States is much more than a Christian gift giver, however. What about the sleigh and reindeer, for example? That’s where the ‘characteristics of different countries’ comes in. When the Germanic tribes were gradually converted to Christianity, the Church had an overt policy of incorporating pagan traditions into Christian ones, which is how we get Christmas in the first place. In Wales, the first day of winter was celebrated on Nov. 1, but many pagan cultures celebrated the solstice (see my post here: and thus Jesus’s birth occurred then too, rather than in the spring when it most likely happened.

One adaptation I find fascinating is the writing of The Heliand, the first four books of the Bible in Saxon, except Jesus is turned into a thane and the twelve disciples are his warriors. See it here:

Anyway, back to Santa … “One of the most famous and enduring Wild Hunt mythology strands comes from Germanic folklore from Germany, Norway, Sweden and Denmark, recounting how at  Yuletide, Woden or Wotan in the Anglo Saxon tradition or Odin in Scandinavian lands led the Wild Hunt through the heavens. In pre Christian oral traditions it would seem, however, Odin chased wood elves or, sometimes, beautiful maidens at the Midwinter Solstice around December 21, one of the main times the Hunt was seen.  Some accounts say he dropped gifts at the foot of his sacred pine for the faithful, possibly one of the origins of Christmas presents. Odin’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir was the source for the legend of the eight reindeer of Santa Claus. Santa himself was the old Holly King/Odin and Saint Nicholas rolled into one.

When Odin was demonised (he can still be seen in his devilish persona as Black Peter or Black Rupert in St Nicholas Day processions in Europe) Odin’s huntsmen and women became the ungodly dead, who unable to gain admission to heaven, were released from hell to hunt for—what else but souls?”

“Long before Christianity spread throughout the world, Pagan rituals and customs were prevalent throughout the lands and there was another whose arrival was long awaited by the inhabitants of northern Germany and Scandinavia – Odin the Wanderer or Wodan, the father of all the gods. Also known as the warrior god, the legends that became part of our Santa tradition were mostly of the benevolent kind. It was Odin who traveled the skies by night on his sled with his eight-legged horse Sleipner bringing gifts of bread for those in need.

According to Viking lore, the northern Germans and Scandinavians celebrated Yule, a pagan religious festival heralding the arrival of the winter solstice from mid-December to early January. During this time, many believed that Odin, disguised in a long blue-hooded cloak, would travel to earth on his eight-legged horse, to observe homesteaders gathered around the campfires to see how content the people were and for those in need of food, he left his gifts of bread and disappeared.

As traditions grew over time, the children of these lands would anticipate the arrival of gift-bearing Odin and would fill their boots with straw, carrots or sugar and place them near the fireplace so that Sleipnir could come down to eat during his midnight rides. Odin would then reward these kind children by replacing the food with gifts and candy treats inside the boots.”

And now we have Santa visiting children on Christmas Day.


The Battle of Cymerau 0

Footsteps in TimeThe fortunes of the Welsh ebbed and flowed in the 13th century, but between 1255 (the Battle of Bryn Derwin when Llywelyn defeated his brothers, Dafydd and Owain) and 1277, they were on the rise.

One of the first important battles was that of Cymerau.

In September of 1256, Stephen Bauzan, Prince Edward’s officer in south-west Wales, brought a substantial force of men to Ystrad Tywi, located in the northern portion of Deheubarth at the base of the Cambrian Mountains.

Thus, on the eve of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd’s advance into Perfeddwlad, a force was arraigned against Maredudd ap Rhys Gryg, the Welsh lord of those lands. Llywelyn and Maredudd, eyeing each other with mutual concern about their own power and authority, struck an alliance, and perhaps this is the true impetus for Llywelyn’s foray east of the Conwy River. After he took all of Gwynedd under his control, he swept south, taking over all of Wales from the Dee River to the Dyfi, and then turning southwest towards Ystrad Tywi and taking all those lands for Maredudd.

Then, Llywelyn turned back east and drove towards Welshpool, through the lands of Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn in Powys. Further south, he took lands from Roger Mortimer, including Builth, initiating a lifelong animosity between the two men.  Llywelyn found himself in possession of almost the whole of Wales and the chroniclers realized he was cut from the same cloth as the great Kings of Wales who preceded him.  They began to speak of him in the same breath as his grandfather, Llywelyn Fawr.

All this activity forced Prince Edward to engage his Marcher barons–Mortimer, Bohun, Lestrange, Valence–none of whom was enthused about the idea of challenging Llywelyn. Edward was also short of funds. But he had no choice but to attempt a counter measure and try to wrest back some of the lands that Llywelyn had taken from him.

At Edward’s behest, Bauzan again set out (hard to see why Edward entrusted this mission with him, given the disaster of the previous year, but he did).  On 31 May 1257, he reached Llandeilo Fawr and camped. During the night, Maredudd ap Owain and Maredudd ap Rhys drew their forces close.  At dawn, they attacked in a shower of lances and arrows. For two days, the English cowered under the onslaught. Rhys Fychan, an ally of Edward and Prince Llywelyn’s nephew, who’d encouraged the whole endeavor, slipped away and made for Dinefwr.  This was the Welsh court of Maredudd ap Rhys Gryg, to which he thereby transferred his allegiance.

The next day, the English attempted to retreat to Cardigan, but at Coed Llathen the force lost many of its supplies.  Then, at Cymerau, the Welsh and English forces met openly on a battlefield. The Welsh so routed the English that 3000 men were recorded as having fallen.  It was an embarrassing and epic defeat for Edward.  Unfortunately for Llywelyn, his alliance with Maredudd ap Rhys Gryg was irrepairably damaged by his acceptance of Rhys Fychan back into the fold, and Maredudd defected again to the king before the year was out.

These details come from:

Marc Morris, A Great and Terrible King, Edward I and the Forging of Britain.

J. Beverley Smith, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd.

And Wikipedia has a great description here:


Welsh Surnames

It is a standing joke among people who know Wales that there are only a handful of Welsh surnames (last names), consisting primarily of Jones, Evans, Roberts, Thomas, Williams, and Davies. Among English speakers, these last names are clearly derived from first names. Why is that? Why don’t the Welsh have the huge variety of surnames like the English do?

The answer lies in the moment that the Welsh switched from the patronymic system of names (Sarah ferch Ronald; Carew ap Daniel) where a child’s name contained a first name, then ‘son of’ or ‘daughter of’, and then their father’s name, to a system where everyone in the family had the same surname.

In England, this transition occurred soon after the Norman conquest of 1066.

“Before the Norman Conquest of Britain, people did not have hereditary surnames: they were known just by a personal name or nickname.

When communities were small each person was identifiable by a single name, but as the population increased, it gradually became necessary to identify people further – leading to names such as John the butcher, William the short, Henry from Sutton, Mary of the wood, Roger son of Richard. Over time many names became corrupted and their original meaning is now not easily seen.

After 1066, the Norman barons introduced surnames into England, and the practice gradually spread. Initially, the identifying names were changed or dropped at will, but eventually they began to stick and to get passed on. So trades, nicknames, places of origin, and fathers’ names became fixed surnames -names such as Fletcher and SmithRedhead and SwiftGreen and PickeringWilkins and Johnson. By 1400 most English families, and those from Lowland Scotland, had adopted the use of hereditary surnames.”

In Wales, this process didn’t begin until after the Norman conquest of 1282. Sometimes a long time after: “In 1292, 48 per cent of Welsh names were patronymics, and in some parishes over 70 per cent …” The key is to understanding Welsh names is that “the stock of Welsh surnames is very small … attributable to the reduction in the variety of baptismal names after the Protestant Reformation.”

Martin Luther posted his ‘Ninety-five Theses’ in 1517. This page details how the reformation took hold in Wales on a larger scale than in Ireland and other regions of the UK.

It’s a strange progression to go from religious reformation to everyone in Wales having the last name ‘Evans’!

By contrast, there was a much greater variety of names in Wales in the thirteenth century and earlier.

In comparison, among the English, the tradition of surnames was well established by the 13th century. From the subsidy rolls of 1292, everyone has a surname. “The largest group is formed by local surnames, those derived from place-names. Out of some 800 taxpayers no less than about 350 have names of this type …

Surnames of relationship derived from font-names number about 65, but some are more or less uncertain. Nearly all consist simply of a font-name, as (Reinaud) Abel, (Robert) Baudri, (William) Reyner. The only exceptions are (John) le fiz Michel, (William) fil. Marie. The last is the only indubitable case of a surname having been derived from a woman’s name, but a possible case is (Katherine) Swote. Most of these surnames, were probably patronymic or inherited. But it was common in early London for apprentices to take their master’s surname, or sometimes his font-name, for a surname. A certain case of the latter kind is (Ralph) Miles (Bridge), but probable ones are (Walter)Milis, (Richard) Pentecoste (Bridge), (Geoffrey) Fouq‘ (Walbr), (Richard) Wolmer (Bill).

The remaining surnames are mostly by-names or nicknames. About 130 persons have such names. There are a number of personal appellations, as the English Barn, Brother, Langman, Molling, Shailard, the French Bacheler, Cosin, le Fount, Galopin, Palmere, the German Winterman, perhaps Junkur; names of animals, English such asBulloc, Hog; Bunding, Pecoc; Burbat, Hering; Fros; the French Louet, Motun; Hairon, Partrys; various concrete words such as the English Fot (possibly a font-name), Gut, Heued; Cope, Hod, Punge; Box; Cros, Horn, Knotte; the French Oingnon, Pointel; abstract words, as possibly Leyk, May.

A good many surnames are derived from adjectives, mostly English, as Brun, Dreye, Dun, Flinthard, Gode, Grete, (le) Long (Lung), le Rede, Saly, Scharp, Skelfol, pwrgode, le Wyte, but some French, as (leBlund, Curteys, le Gay, Hauteyn, la Jouene, le Megre, le Rous, le Simple, Sotel. Bahuvrihi formations are the English Godchep, Hauekeseye, Langpurce, Lythfot, perhaps Capriht, Trigold, the French Deusmars, Trenmars. Skipop is a formation of the type Shakespeare.”




King Owain Gwynedd 0

The Good KnightOwain was born Owain ap Gruffydd around 1100 AD, the second son of Gruffydd ap Cynan.  Owain ruled from 1137 to 1170 AD.   His rule was marked by peace initially, at least with England, as Owain took advantage of the strife in England between Stephen and Maud for the English throne to consolidate his power in Wales.  That conflict lasted for 19 years (, finally resolving in the rule by Stephen but with the inheritance of the throne upon his death by Maud’s son, Henry.

Owain “married, firstly, Gwladys, the daughter of Llywarch ap Trahaearn; and secondly, Christina, his cousin, the daughter of Goronwy ap Owain ‘the Traitor,’ Lord of Tegeingle, to whom he remained constant despite the active disapproval of the Church.” He had many sons and daughters, not all of whom are documented.

His first  relationship was with a woman named Pyfog, of Ireland, by whom he had two sons:  Rhun and Hywel.  Rhun, a most favored son, died in 1147.

“As a young man in the 1120s, Owain was largely associated with his elder brother, Cadwallon, in restoring Gwynedd’s prosperity on behalf of their ageing father. Together, they directed the military campaigns which added Meirionydd, Rhos, Rhufoniog and Dyffryn Clwyd to Gwynedd proper. Thus, at his accession to the throne, upon Gruffudd’s death in 1137 – Cadwallon having died five years earlier – the groundwork for an impressive career had already been firmly set.”

Owain did have to deal with his younger brother, Cadwaladr.  As with Llywelyn ap Gruffydd in the 13th century, Owain, as the second son, was a charismatic and strong ruler (and, apparently, fair).  His younger brother, Cadwaladr, had somewhat less honor and although the two split Gwynedd between them upon their father’s death, in 1143 Cadwaladr was implicated in the murder of Anarawd ap Gruffydd of Deheubarth.  Owain responded by sending his son, Hywel, to strip him of his lands in the north of Ceredigion and banished Cadwaladr to Ireland.

In response, Cadwaladr returned to Wales at the head of an army of mercenaries (this is the subject of Ellis Peter’s 20th Cadfael chronicle, The Summer of the Danes and my work in progress The Good Knight), to the extreme displeasure of his brother.  Cadwaladr was driven into permanent exile in 1155 AD.

Back to King Henry.  He gained power in 1154, ruling as Henry II.  In 1157, he attacked Wales.  His goal, as was generally the case for the English kings, was to force Owain to give up some of the lands he had gained at English expense, particularly in Powys, and to force Wales into the status of ‘dependent’ state, instead of ‘client’ state—an important difference in the eyes of both the Welsh and the English.

Henry II was, for the most part, not successful.  Other than an initial stalemate, Owain continued to rule Wales as he saw fit, and left a consolidated country for his heirs when he died in 1170.  Gwynedd was split among Owain’s many sons.  For problems with the succession, see


The Revolt of 1136 0

Warfare was nearly constant in Wales both before and after the Norman conquest.  Of course, the Normans didn’t actually conquer Wales–only parts of it–until the final defeat of Llywelyn in 1282.

In the years since 1066, however, the native Welsh princes and kings had lost out to the conquering Normans.  Deheubarth, the southwestern region of Wales, was flatter and more accessible than the northern areas, and had been of particular interest to the conquerers.  They had successfully overrun much of it by 1136, but in that year, the time was ripe for rebellion:

“By 1136 an opportunity arose for the Welsh to recover lands lost to the Marcher lords when Stephen de Blois displaced his cousin Empress Matilda from succeeding her father to the English throne the prior year, sparking the Anarchy in England.

The usurption and conflict it caused eroded central authority in England. The revolt began in south Wales, as Hywel ap Maredudd, lord of Brycheiniog (Brecknockshire), gathered his men and marched to the Gower, defeating the Norman and English colonists there at the Battle of Llwchwr.”

One of the lords of Deheubarth, Gruffydd ap Rhys, saw an opportunity to regain what he’d lost in the last few years and journeyed to meet with Gruffydd ap Cynan of Gwynedd, his father-in-law, to enlist his aid in the revolt.

Gruffydd ap Rhys left his wife, Gwenllian (Gruffydd ap Cynan’s daughter), at home to hold the fort (so to speak).

But Maurice of London and other Normans took Gruffydd’s absence as an opportunity to lead raids against the Welsh. Needing to defend her lands, Gwenllian raised an army, which was then routed near Kidwelly Castle.  The Normans captured Gwenllian and beheaded her.  Two of her sons, Morgan and Maelgwyn, also died (one slain in battle, one captured and executed).

When the two Gruffydds heard about Gwenllian’s death and the revolt it inspired in Gwent, Gwenllian’s brothers, Owain and Cadwaladr, invaded Deheubarth, taking Llanfihangel, Aberystwyth, and Llanbadarn.

Following these events, the Battle of Crug Mawr occurred in October, 1136.  “At Crug Mawr, two miles outside Cardigan, the Welsh forces were confronted by Norman troops drawn from all the lordships of South Wales. The Normans were led by Robert fitz Martin, lord of Cemais; Robert fitz Stephen, constable of Cardigan Castle; and William and Maurice fitz Gerald, uncles of Gerald of Windsor.

After some hard fighting, the Norman forces were put to flight and pursued as far as the River Teifi. Many of the fugitives tried to cross the bridge, which broke under the weight, with hundreds said to have drowned, clogging the river with the bodies of men and horses. Others fled to the town of Cardigan, which however was taken and burned by the Welsh though Robert fitz Martin successfully managed to defend and hold the castle; it was the only one to remain in Norman hands at the end of the rebellion.”

Unfortunately, both Gruffydd ap Rhys (of Deheubarth) and Gruffydd ap Cynan (of Gwynedd) died in 1137, the former in battle or otherwise irregular circumstances, and the latter of old age.  Anarawd succeeded to his father in Deheubarth and Owain to Gwynedd.

The Chronicle of the Princes (the Red Book of Hergest) has this to say:

“And after joining battle, with cruel fighting on every side, the Flemings and the Normans took to flight, according to their usual custom. And after some of them had been killed, and others burned, aand the limbs of the horses of others broken/ and others taken captive, and the greater part, like fools, drowned in the river, and after losing about three thousand of their men, they returned exceedingly sorrowful to their country. After that, Owain and Cadwalader returned, happy and rejoicing, to their country, having obtained the victory honourably/ with an immense number of prisoners, and spoils, and costly garments and arms.”


Simon de Montfort 5

Simon de Montfort led a rebellion, successful for a time, against King Henry III of England, and paid the ultimate price at the battle of Evesham, falling in defeat to the forces of Edward (at the time, Prince of England).

“Simon de Montfort was born in France in about 1208. His father was a large landowner, but when he died he left his land to Simon’s older brother Amaury. The de Montfort family had owned land in England in the past and Amaury suggested that Montfort should visit Henry III in to see if the land could be reclaimed.

Montfort arrived in England in 1230. Henry liked Simon, was sympathetic to his claim and gave him back his family lands. The king also agreed that Montfort should become the new earl of Leicester. In return, Montfort promised to pay a fee of £100 and to supply sixty knights in time of war.

The new earl of Leicester also agreed to become the king’s steward, which involved him in organizing ceremonial functions. This pleased Montfort as it enabled him to meet most of the rich and influential people in England. As he was short of money Montfort hoped that this would help him to meet a rich widow.”

Simon married King Henry’s sister–a scandal at the time since the King opposed the marriage and she was the richest widow in England.

“What instigated the rebellion of 1258? Henry had been king for forty-two years, and had proven himself to be a very poor ruler. He was wholly incompetent, a poor governor, resisted Magna Carta, and repeatedly denied the barons their rightful position as his counselors. The rebellion of the barons against Henry was not instigated by Simon alone. At the beginning of the baronial movement, Simon was merely one of many dissatisfied barons, and could hardly have been regarded as their “leader.” As a result, no strictly contemporary account casts Simon as the sole leader, or even as one of the more prominent leaders in 1258. 

While Simon was one of the sworn signers of the 12 April Confederacy, which began the revolutionary movement, he was also one of the twenty-four authors of the Provisions of Oxford, a member of the fifteen-man privy council, and sat on other committees, as too did the earls of Gloucester, Hereford, and Norfolk, Roger Mortimer, John fitz Geoffrey, Peter de Montfort, and the Bishop of Worcester. . . .

“As 1263 began, the barons grew increasingly dissatisfied with Henry and his “leadership.” As in 1261, a large number of barons organized and approached Simon, asking for his support in a rebellion. He was reluctant to join, but did so at the request of Gilbert de Clare, son of the deceased Richard of Gloucester. The barons’ disgust soon turned to rage, with Louis IX of France’s issuance of the Mise of Amiens. Louis had been cast in the role of arbitrator of the dispute between Henry and Simon over the Provisions of Oxford. As was to be expected, Louis sided with Henry, and “freed him from obedience to the Provisions, which, (he) stated, ran directly against the holy and royal rights of kingship.” The Mise of Amiens proved to be the spark needed to begin the Battle of Lewes. With this battle, Henry’s forces were defeated, he was imprisoned, and his son and heir to the throne, Edward, was taken hostage to ensure Henry’s good behavior. After the battle, Simon became the de facto head of the English government.  Simon ruled England in Henry’s name for the next fifteen months.”

Montfort recognized Llywelyn ap Gruffydd as the Prince of Wales in 1265 and held him enough of a friend to offer Llywelyn his daughter in marriage, but he’d been unlucky in battle, and in the end, the rising star of Prince Edward couldn’t be stopped.   Edward, who’d actually joined the barons against his father back in 1259 had switched back before the armed conflict began, and now took advantage of the barons’ weakness and pugnacity.  By the end, he convinced all but a very few to come over to his side, whether with cajolery, righteous anger, or outright bribes.

The last battle at Evesham is described in detail here:

and with the map here:


Wales and Scotland: War, Rebellion, and Edward I 2

Footsteps in TimeEdward had his eyes on Wales for thirty years, ever since Llywelyn ap Gruffydd’s forces had swept through his lands (held custodially by Edward’s parents and guardians) in 1256.   (see my post:  Llywelyn’s army marched all the way to Deheubarth that summer and fall, and set the stage of Llywelyn’s twenty year supremacy in Wales.  However, it wasn’t until 1267 that Edward’s father, Henry III, acknowledged Llywelyn as the Prince of Wales, a title he inherited from his grandfather–and another ten years after that before things fell apart for the Welsh prince.

Edward participated in the Ninth Crusade (see my post: and despite the fact that his father died in 1272, he didn’t return to England until 1274, at which point he immediately turned a covetous eye on Wales.  Why Wales instead of Scotland?  It seems likely that Wales looked the easier target.  Scotland had always been a separate kingdom, whereas Wales had fallen under the jurisdiction of England as a principality since the turn of the 13th century.  Thus, invading Scotland meant attacking the rule of a reigning monarch; attacking Wales meant reining in a rebellious prince–a different matter entirely.  In addition, in the winter of 1274, Dafydd ap Gruffydd, Llywelyn’s brother, conspired to assassinate Llywelyn and only a sudden snowstorm averted the attack.  Dafydd, a long time friend of Edward from childhood, fled to England, and to Edward.  Perhaps Edward believed if he unseated Llywelyn, he’d have a malleable prince in Dafydd.

For Scotland’s part, when King Alexander III of Scotland married Margaret of England in 1251 (Henry III’s daughter), Henry had tried to insist that Alexander give homage to him.  Alexander refused.  By 1261, at the age of 21, Alexander was well on his way to having as grand a plans for Scotland as Llywelyn had for Wales. He maintained a firm grip on power until his death in 1286.

By then, Llywelyn had been murdered (in 1282) and Wales had fallen finally, and permanently, to Edward.   Subsequently, in 1283, Edward hanged, drew, and quartered Dafydd, the first man of standing to die such a heinous death.  Edward inflicted the same death on William Wallace in 1305.

Exiles in TimeWith King Alexander’s death, Edward saw Scotland as ripe for picking.  With no obvious heir (all of Alexander’s children had died by 1284), only a granddaughter, Margaret, remained.   When she died in 1290, upwards of fourteen different magnates claimed the throne, and they turned to Edward to arbitrate the dispute.  He, of course, wanted whoever was crowned to swear allegiance to him.  They all refused and eventually John Balloil was appointed king.  Still, Edward maintained that he was the rightful overlord–and when he demanded the Scots join him in a war against France, the Scots instead allied with France.  Unfortunately, this gave Edward the excuse he needed to invade Scotland, which he did in 1296.    (see my post:  This led to William Wallace’s rebellion in 1297.


Daily Living in the Middle Ages 0

The tapestry to the right is The Triumph of Death, or The 3 Fates, a Flemish tapestry (probably Brussels, ca. 1510-1520), located now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Depected are the three fates, Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos, who spin, draw out and cut the thread of Life, represent Death in this tapestry, as they triumph over the fallen body of Chastity. This is the third subject in Petrarch’s poem The Triumphs. First, Love triumphs; then Love is overcome by Chastity, Chastity by Death, Death by Fame, Fame by Time and Time by Eternity.

Pretty gloomy, eh?

From a modern perspective, life in the Middle Ages appears not to have a lot to recommend it.  For example, for the majority of women, their lives consisted of unceasing labor, hand-to-mouth existence, a total lack of political representation (although that was not much different than for the majority of men, if they were landless), restrictions of the Catholic Church, societal acceptance of physical abuse, and the very real possibility in dying in childbirth at a young age.

For men, it wasn’t much different, substituting dying in battle for childbirth and you aren’t far off.  Both men and women died of illness and infection, such that the median lifespan during this time was in the middle forties.

But people did live then.  They raised their children, they cared for one another, and it does seem from what has been passed down to us, that they found beauty and pleasure in their lives.

Digging deeper into history, there is far more going on there than simply than the Hobbesian  “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.  (This quote, by the way, has been taken out of context for most of its life.  Hobbes wasn’t describing life in the Middle Ages; he was explaining what life would be life without a strong monarchy.  In his opinion, absolute monarchy was a way to avoid the war of ‘man against man’.)

While a strong central government in England, led by Edward I in the 13th century, did have some affect on averting war within the nation, it led to more wars against other nations, and in Wales in particular, a far less free and materially wealthy existence.

In fact, if you look at the consequences of the Industrial Revolution in the 17th and 18th centuries, the lives of average people, in terms of nutrition, longevity, cleanliness, etc. were on the whole far, far worse, than their lives would have been as peasants in the Middle Ages. has a good series of descriptions about different aspects of life in the Middle Ages. For example:

“Medieval villages consisted of a population comprised of mostly of farmers. Houses, barns sheds, and animal pens clustered around the center of the village, which was surrounded by plowed fields and pastures. Medieval society depended on the village for protection and a majority of people during these centuries called a village home. Most were born, toiled, married, had children and later died within the village, rarely venturing beyond its boundaries.

Common enterprise was the key to a village’s survival. Some villages were temporary, and the society would move on if the land proved infertile or weather made life too difficult. Other villages continued to exist for centuries. Every village had a lord, even if he didn’t make it his permanent residence, and after the 1100′s castles often dominated the village landscape. Medieval Europeans may have been unclear of their country’s boundaries, but they knew every stone, tree, road and stream of their village. Neighboring villages would parley to set boundaries that would be set out in village charters.

Medieval peasants were either classified as free men or as “villeins,” those who owed heavy labor service to a lord, were bound to the land, and subject to feudal dues. Village life was busy for both classes, and for women as well as men. Much of this harsh life was lived outdoors, wearing simple dress and subsisting on a meager diet.

Village life would change from outside influences with market pressures and new landlords. As the centuries passed, more and more found themselves drawn to larger cities. Yet modern Europe owes much to these early medieval villages.” is another good site. Much of this is oversimplified and specifically related to the Feudal system, which was not uniform across Europe. The differences between what went on in France verses Wales, for example, are very great.

Welsh people were not farmers but herders, had fewer villages, and land ownership was more egalitarian:

“Wales in the Age of the Princes was not a primitive society.

There were three main social groups: the uchelwyr - the upper class, thebonheddwyr - the freemen and the taeogion - the unfree peasants. Each group had its role in society.

The taeogion (villeins) lived in compact villages in the fertile lowlands. Organised by the maer y biswail (the mayor of the dunghill), they supplied the needs of the princely court. They also had to do farm work for the prince each year. Tied to the land, they could not leave their own village. Their arable crops were vital for Wales. Edward I realised this and, in his 1277 invasion, his forces quickly took Anglesey and seized the grain harvest.

The lowlands were linked to the hills economically. Farming communities moved from the hendref, their main settlement in the lowlands, to the hafodwith its upland pastures each summer. The upland farmers were generally bonheddwyr (freemen) who lived in kinship groups, each looking after its owngwely (clan land). They performed military service for the prince, but did not do menial tasks like the taeogion. The upland farms were also vital to Wales. They enabled the Welsh to keep their economic and political independence when the Marcher lords occupied the fertile lowlands.

While the traditional view is that the Welsh were not an urban people, over 80 towns were established in the period 1100-1300. Towns did develop more in the Marcher lordships because these areas were richer, but the Welsh princes also encouraged the development of towns, often near their castles. Trade increased in tandem with these new towns and Wales exported primary goods like cattle, skins, fleeces and cheese. Imports included necessities like salt, wheat and iron, but reliance on these imports would be a weakness against an aggressive King of England.”



The Conquests of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth

Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, born around 1172, was the grandson of Owain Gwynedd and ruled Wales from the late 12th century (certainly by 1200) to his death in 1240 AD.  He married Joanna (Joan), the eldest (albeit illegitimate) daughter of King John of England.

Llywelyn “proved to be the greatest and most constructive Welsh statesman of the Middle Ages. In his long career he succeeded, by constant warfare, by tactful yielding under pressure and by masterly resilience the moment that pressure was relieved, in bringing under his control most of Pura Wallia. When he died in 1240, full of honor and glory, he left a principality which had the possibility of expanding into a truly national state of Wales. There was a moment when an independent Wales seemed about to become a reality.”

The Chronicle of the Princes (Ystrad Fflur edition) details the events of the 13th century in more detail than virtually any other contemporary source, particularly from a Welsh perspective, albeit one written by monks.   Llywelyn’s conquests are treated with some detail and give insight into the kind of ‘constant warfare’ to which the above quote refers:

1211 In this year Llywelyn ab Iorwerth led frequent attacks against the Saxons, harassing them cruelly. And because of that, John, king of England, gathered a mighty host and made for Gwynedd, planning to dispossess Llywelyn and to destroy him utterly. And the king came as far as Chester and to the castle of Degannwy. And there the host suffered lack of food to such an extent that an egg was sold for a penny-halfpenny; and they found the flesh of their horses as good as the best dishes. And because of that the king having lost many of his men, returned in shame to England without having fulfilled aught of his mission. And he returned again in August, and with him a host which was greater and fiercer.  And Llywelyn, being unable to suffer the king’s rage, sent his wife, the king’s daughter, to him by the counsel of his leading men to make peace with the king on whatever terms he could. And after he had accepted safe conduct to go to the king and to come away from him free, he went to the king and was reconciled to him. And then all the princes of Wales made peace with the king, except the two sons of Gruffudd, son of Yr Arglwydd Rhys. And the king with great joy and victory returned to England.  And he commanded Falkes, sheriff of Cardiff, to take all the host of Glamorgan and Dyfed with him to force the sons of Gruffudd ap Rhys to yield or else to drive them from all the kingdom. And Rhys and Owain, being unable to counter such great might as that, sent messengers to Falkes to draw up peace for them; for there was no place for them to flee in all of Wales. And Rhys and Owain went to the king under safe conduct of Falkes; and the king received them into reconciliation and into peace.

1212 In this year Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, prince of Gwynedd, being unable to bear the injuries which the men from the new castles were inflicting upon him, made a solm pact with the princes of Wales, namely, Gwenwynwyn, Maelgwn ap Rhys, Madog ap Gruffudd Maelor, Maredudd ap Rhobert. And he rose up against the king, and by the end of two months, he laid seige to all the castles which the king had built in Gwynedd, and took them all except two, Degannwy and Rhuddlan.  And three leaders of gentle birth from Wales were hanged in England, namely, Hywel ap Cadwallon, Madog ap Maelgwn, Meurig Barach.  And Pope Innocent the Third absolved three princes, namely, Llywelyn ab Iorwerth and Gwenwynwyn and Maelgwn ap Rhys, from the oath and allegiance they owed to the king of England. And he enjoined upon them, for the remission of their sins, to direct friendly endeavour and action against the iniquity of that king. And he interdicted the churches for five years in all England and Wales, except for the territory of those three princes and those who were leagued with them.

1213 In this year John, king of England, went to the archbisho of Canterbury to do penance. And he recalled the archbishop and the bishops and the clerics who had gone into exile because of the interdict on the churches. And he swore, too, that he would restore everything that he had taken from the Church.  And Llywelyn ab Iorwerth took the castle of Degannwy and the castle of Rhuddlan, and he gained possession of them.

The included map shows the lands Llywelyn Fawr controlled directly (yellow) and those belonging to his client princes (gray) circa 1271 AD.


Owain Gwynedd’s birthday

The Good Knight When was Owain Gwynedd born?  Here’s the truth:  no idea.

Okay, that’s not entirely true.  Like Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, nobody seems to have recorded the date Owain Gwynedd was born, or even the year.  This is fine as far as it goes, because we can make some general estimates.  The problem arises when the birthdays for his many, many children haven’t been recorded either.  Nor his siblings.  Nor the dates of his marriages.

My go-to-guide, John Davies History of Wales doesn’t discuss birthdays or ages, probably because he knows it’s fraught with difficulties, but many web sources try.  For example, here’s one huge root of the problem, the Wikipedia entry, citing a book by John Edward Lloyd  A history of Wales from the earliest times to the Edwardian conquest (Longmans, Green & Co.) written in 1911.  This has Owain born c. 1100, and a long list of his offspring  (

Now, if you make the mistake of clicking on some of those links, for example, Iorwerth ab Owain Gwynedd, the eldest son of Owain’s first wife, Gwladys, you find that this same 1911 source has him born in 1145 while neither Rhun nor Hywel get birthdays.  As they were full grown men by 1143, when Hywel is tasked with rousting his uncle Cadwaladr out of Ceredigion, you have to think he’s at least 20 at the time.  While Owain might have had mistresses and wives concurrently, among the Welsh princes, that was actually uncommon.  In addition, there is no mention in the annals of any sons of Owain Gwynedd but Rhun (who died in 1146) and Hywel until the 1150s.

Click on Dafydd ab Owain GwyneddOnce again, no birthday, but he is first mentioned in the annals in 1157, which means at the latest, he was born in 1143/44, since Welsh boys became men at the age of fourteen.  Obviously, we now have a problem, since this 1911 source has the eldest son of Owain’s first wife being born in 1145, and the eldest son of his second wife born a year earlier.

It gets worse.  The Castles of Wales site, normally very reliable, has Owain Gwynedd born as late as 1109.  If this is true, however, then for Hywel to be  20 in 1143, than he would have to been fathered by Owain at the precocious age of 14, and his elder brother Rhun even earlier.  Not impossible, but . . .

Furthermore, Citing The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens (by Mike Ashley, Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc. New York, 1998), elsewhere on the site, it makes the claim that Owain was born c. 1100 (so I give them a pass on that), but now Dafydd, the eldest son of his second wife Cristina, was born in c. 1135.

Deeper into a search, the EBK site reports that Owain’s father, Gruffydd, married Angharad in 1195 (when he was 40) and had three sons (Cadwallon, Owain, Cadwaladr) and some daughters, including the youngest, Gwenllian.  Fine. But it is Gwenllian who elopes with the much, much older Gruffydd ap Rhys in 1113.  Whoa.  Note that the particular entry on Gwenllian, which actually has citations, not all of which I have access to, has her born c 1197, which by necessity must push all these other dates back into the earlier 1190s to make any of this work.

Here’s a hilarious family tree, showing the problem of not analyzing what you’re reading.  It actually shows this first son of the first wife being born after the second son of the second wife (Rhodri this time).  I’d love to find those sources.


Medieval Shields

While we’re on the topic of medieval warfare, the medieval shield was not a standard item, but evolved over a period of time depending upon the needs of the warrior who held it.

“The early Middle Ages saw a quite crude form of armor and shield. Metal had not begun to be widely used, so both armor and shields were commonly made of wood and animal hide. The shields tended to be small, round objects that served a minimal level of close-range defense. As the Middle Ages passed, and advances in technology allowed the development of new armor and weapons, a new shield was needed.

Different shapes and sizes of shield were adapted, each to serve a specific purpose. Features such as handles were added to shields in order to make them more practical in battle. New methods of warfare continuously necessitated revisions of shield design.”

A portion of the Bayeux Tapestry displaying warriors on horseback and their use of the kite shield.

A portion of the Bayeux Tapestry displaying warriors on horseback and their use of the kite shield.

The following are the most common medieval shields:

The Kite Shield

Where early medieval shields were lightly constructed and tended to be small, the kite shield was a larger shield that first came into use around the 10th century. The kite shield was adapted so that the soldier could protect his foreleg while in combat. The shield itself was wide at the top, and tapered toward the bottom. Many kite shields possessed a gradual curvature, so that it would better fit the contour of the soldiers body.

An innovation that was added to the kite shield at a later point was the attachment of enarmes to the back of the shield. The enarmes were leather straps that allowed the knight or soldier to attach the shield to his forearm, rather than try and hold one strap with his wrist. Functionally, the enarmes greatly increased the likelihood that the soldier could hold on to his shield, an important consideration when in the heat of battle.

The kite shield is the type of shield featured on the Bayeux Tapestry, a medieval tapestry chronicling the Norman invasion of England in 1066. Thus, the kite shield bears a heavy association to the medieval Norman style of armor and warfare, a style heavily reliant on cavalry.

The Heater Shield

or heater-shaped shield is a form of European medieval shield, developing from the early medieval kite sheld in the mid 13th century.

Smaller than the kite shield it was more manageable and could be used either mounted or on foot. From the 15th century, it evolved into highly specialized jousting shields, often a bouche containing a notch or “mouth” for the lance to pass through. As plate armor began to cover more and more of the body, the shield grew correspondingly smaller, until by the mid 14th century, it was hardly seen at all outside of the tournament. Heater shields were typically made from thin wood overlaid with leather. Some shields, such as that of Edward, the Black Prince from his tomb in Canterbury Cathedral, incorporated additional layers of gessocanvas, and/or parchment.

The Targe

The targe was a variation of the medieval round shield that has become closely associated with the Scottish warrior. Normally, the targe was a slightly larger shield than the buckler, but it was used in the same manner. A targe was intricate in its construction and decoration and many of the exampled of Scottish targe’s that we have today are beautiful. They were commonly constructed of wood and covered in black cowhide leather. The front of the targe was embossed with an intricate celtic pattern, part of the reason that the Scottish targe has remained so widely recognized.

The Buckler

A buckler differs from a shield in that the latter is carried by straps and worn on the arm whereas the former is held in single-hand in a “fist” grip.  It is difficult to trace the history of the weapon as many times any type of round shield or small targe would be called buckler, regardless of whether it was held in the fist or worn on the arm.[2]  The buckler was a small, maneuverable, hand-held shield for deflecting and punching blows. It was usually round and made of metal but occasionally of hardened leather or layers of wood. (Tarassuk & Blaire, p. 105).  Bucklers were typically round and frequently between 8 to 16 inches in diameter, but octagonal, square, and trapezoidal versions were also known.

Considerable varieties of bucklers were developed.  Often a pointed spike protruded from the central boss or umbo.[3]  Many bucklers were pointed with a central tip or several smaller “teeth”.  These points could be used offensively to great effect as well as aided in binding and deflecting an opponent’s weapon.  John Stow wrote in 1631 how using the buckler’s long “pyke” (a spikes 8- 12 inches long) it was the habit of the old fighters “either to breake the swords of their enemies, or suddenly to runne into them and stab”. (Aylward, p. 17).  An English Royal proclamation in 1562 even complained of “bucklers with long pykes in them.” (Norman, p. 24) and a spiked buckler from c. 1607 was even found at the Jamestown settlement fort in Virginia.  Some 16th century bucklers also had raised metal rings, hooks, or bands that allowed for the catching or knocking of opposing blades.


The Pavise

The last type of medieval shield that we will cover was called the pavise. Most commonly used by bowmen, the pavise was a large, convex shield that was used as a full body protection. Bowmen and archers, because they were set at a distance from the main battle, rarely wore strong armor. The lack of armor necessitated some type of shield from the arrows of the opposing archers, and the pavise served that purpose marvelously.

It is thought that when the archer chose his position, the pavise was planted in the ground by using a spike attached to the bottom of the shield. He was then able to shoot by standing up and to restring his bow or nock a new arrow by squatting down behind the planted pavise, thereby shielding himself from enemy fire. Handles affixed to the back of the shield allowed him to grab it and move any time movement became necessary.

The large surface area of the pavise allowed them to be used as the canvas for artists, as well. Many examples of medieval pavises have the coat of arms for the city where the shield was made painted on them. Others have paintings of religious icons on them. The pavise saw a more prolonged existence than some of the other shields, because archery was a constant throughout the medieval period, up until the invention and wide use of gunpowder and firearms in the 18th century.