Tag Archives: history


Halloween in Wales

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As I sit here munching candy corn (which my 11 year old declares ‘the best candy’–even better than chocolate), I’m thinking about one of the chapters in Daughter of Time. Near the end of the book, Meg experiences Halloween in Wales.  Except that during the Middle Ages, it was called ‘All Hallow’s Eve’, the day before All Saint’s Day, and it was less about candy and more about a belief in actual spirits.

All Hallow’s Eve, or Halloween, has its roots in an older, pagan tradition, called Nos Calan Gaeaf , Welsh for Samhain, a Gaelic word meaning ‘Summer’s End’.  This is the most well-known Halloween tradition in Wales.   http://www.controverscial.com/Samhain.htm  The Welsh translation, interestingly, is ‘the first of winter’.

From the National Museum of Wales:  “A pagan holiday dating back to the Iron Age Celts, Samhain was considered to be the Celtic New Year. It was adopted by the Romans as their own festival when they invaded Britain. Many parts of this festival are echoed in our modern Halloween parties.

Jack O lanterns were originally made from turnips and used to guide the dead back to earth, and the Celts also dressed in costumes much as we do today, but they would use animal skins!  The Romans believed that monsters, gods and magic spells were all around them.”  http://www.museumwales.ac.uk/en/whatson/?event_id=3734

“November 1 was considered the end of the summer period, the date on which the herds were returned from pasture and land tenures were renewed. It was also a time when the souls of those who had died were believed to return to visit their homes. People set bonfires on hilltops for relighting their hearth fires for the winter and to frighten away evil spirits, and they sometimes wore masks and other disguises to avoid being recognized by the ghosts thought to be present. It was in these ways that beings such as witches, hobgoblins, fairies, and demons came to be associated with the day. The period was also thought to be favourable for divination on matters such as marriage, health, and death. When the Romans conquered the Celts in the 1st century ad, they added their own festivals of Feralia, commemorating the passing of the dead, and of Pomona, the goddess of the harvest.”  http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/252875/Halloween

“November was also the month of death in the Celtic calendar, where animals were slaughtered to provide meat for winter. Indeed, the Modern Welsh for November Tachwedd literally means ‘The Month of Slaughter’. This often began with a feast on November 1st where pigs were slaughtered (part of this folklore is preserved in the Cymric (Welsh) legend of Arawn and Hafgan, as told in the Mabinogi of Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed.”  http://www.celtnet.org.uk/recipes/halloween-recipes.php

With the coming of Christianity, these traditions were converted to blend in more with the Christian calendar and Christian sensibilities. “In 601AD, Pope Gregory made an important directive. He announced that Christian missionaries were to take a new tack when attempting to convert pagans to the Christian religion. Christian missionaries he said, where possible, should incorporate the beliefs, festivals and sacred sites of pagan beliefs into the Christian religion. This directive meant that the important Celtic festival of Samhain had to be marked in a Christian manner.

In the year 609 AD, All Saints Day was officially designated a Church feast, which was celebrated in May and was later moved to November by Pope Gregory in 835 AD. The Christian Church may have intended that people would spend their time praying for the souls of the dead on an important holy day. However, the fact that this was a day off from work gave many people even more of an excuse to celebrate Halloween with more excitement and excess than ever.

In the eleventh century, a further festival was added to the church calendar; All Souls Day on 2 November. The three festivals of All-Hallows Eve, All Saints and All Souls were together known as Hallowmas.” http://suite101.com/article/halloween-in-medieval-times-a71922

“Despite the Church’s success in establishing a Christian foundation for the autumn celebrations, many of the ancient customs and traditions associated with them were still practiced by the population. The carving of gourds and the wearing of costumes and masks to scare away malevolent spirits are typical of the superstitions carried over from these celebrations into the All Hallows Eve observance.

The custom of “trick-or-treating” has its origins in a ritual wherein the elders of a village or town would go from house to house and receive offerings of food and gifts for the souls of dead friends and relatives thought to visit on this night. This practice evolved during the Middle Ages, when beggars would travel from village to village and beg for “soul cakes”. Villagers would offer prayers along with the cakes to those who had died in the past year for their transition to heaven.”  http://www.sharefaith.com/guide/Christian-Holidays/all_hallows_eve.html


The Statute of Wales

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King Edward I issued the Statute of Wales (sometimes referred to as the Statute of Rhuddlan) in 1284 as part of his program of subjugating Wales to English law.  For Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, and his people, being able to live under Welsh law had been a primary concern and one of the most compelling reasons to war with England.  Edward, knowing this, saw to it that the Welsh laws were overthrown, and this act was not repealed for centuries.  It was comprehensive and complete–the most comprehensive any King issued during the middle ages  (Bowen 1908).

To download your own copy:   http://www.archive.org/details/statuteswales01bowegoog

This site states:  “At the Statute of Rhuddlan, 1284, Wales was divided up into English counties; the English court pattern set firmly in place, and for all intents and purposes, Wales ceased to exist as a political unit. The situation seemed permanent when Edward followed up his castle building program by his completion of Caernarfon, Conwy and Harlech. In 1300, Edward made his son (born at Caernarfon castle, in that mighty fortress overlooking the Menai Straits in Gwynedd) ‘Prince of Wales.'”

In summary, the Statute instated these laws:

1.  Wales was annexed to the Crown of England

2.  Divided Wales into counties and appointed officers, controlled by the King

3.  Created the office of “Sheriff” and regulated the matter of the courts, abrogating Welsh law in this matter.

4.  Created laws regarding debt, laws, and attorneys, inquests, pleas, trials, and juries, all in accordance with English common law.

5.  Established laws of dower for women (for which there was no formal arrangement under Welsh law)   and inheritance, according to English common law.  He specifically forbade ‘bastards’ to inherit, as had been customary under Welsh law.


Llywelyn ap Iorwerth Takes the Throne


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Upon the death of Owain Gwynedd in 1170 AD, his eldest son, Hywel, purportedly a most capable man, succeeded to the rulership of Gwynedd.  In Wales, all sons, regardless of their legitimacy, can inherit, provided their father had acknowledged them.  This should have been the case with Hywel.

As I wrote in this post, the downside of this enlightened approach to illegitimacy is that it divided the kingdom between all the heirs and fostered animosity among brothers over their portion of their inheritance.  Such was the case when Owain Gwynedd overcame his brothers to take the throne, such was the case many years later after the death of Llywelyn Fawr, and such was the case in 1170.

Thus, Dafydd ap Owain Gywnedd conspired with his mother (Owain Gwynedd’s second wife, Cristina) and brother Rhodri to usurp the throne from Hywel, the eddling, whom his father had chosen to succeed him.  Dafydd drove Hywel out of Gwynedd and ultimately defeated him at the battle of Pentraeth.  After the untimely and suspicious deaths of most of Dafydd’s other brothers, Dafydd eventually ruled most of Gwynedd and parts of Wales all by himself from 1174.  http://en.academic.ru/dic.nsf/enwiki/1255610

Llywelyn ap Iorwerth was born in 1172, at the remote castle of Dolwyddelan, south of Mt. Snowdon.

Iorwerth, Llywelyn’s father, was the eldest legitimate son of Owain Gwynedd, by his first wife Gwladys.  He seems not to have taken part in the upheaval among the brothers and perhaps it had something to do with his disfigurement (he is nicknamed Iowerth Drwyndwn ‘broken nose’).   He married Marared, daughter of Madog ap Maredudd, Prince of Powys.   Thus, Llywelyn was grandson to Owain Gwynedd and of a powerful lineage on both sides.

“The infant prince, being a potential menace to the power of his father’s half-brothers in Gwynedd , probably grew up in Powys under the protection of his maternal relatives. Following an obscure period of apprenticeship in arms (he entered the turbulent arena of northern politics at a very tender age), he combined with his cousins, the sons of Cynan ap Owain Gwynedd, and in 1194 defeated his uncle, Dafydd I, seizing from him a share in the government of Perfeddwlad, which in 1197, he transformed into sole rulership. With the capture of Mold in 1199 he promised to become a leader of the calibre and vision of Owain Gwynedd; in fact, between 1199 and 1203 , he restored the undivided sovereignty of his grandfather over the whole of Gwynedd , including Merioneth and Penllyn .”  In 1194, he was only 22.



King Edward I of England


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“The English have a lot to answer for.”

One of my graduate professors said this in reference to Africa (and I in no way mean to absolve the US of what IT has to answer for, and acknowledging that historically I am as much English as Welsh), but I think of it now whenever I think of Edward I.

Because I’m a Welshophile.

At the same time, history should not judge the man by 21st century standards.  That said, Edward I should be remembered for the following, both ‘good’ and bad’:

1239:  born 17 June

1254:  married Eleanor of Castille (he was 15, she 9)

1265:  Defeated Simon de Montfort at the Battle of Evesham

1270:  Joined the 9th crusade to the Holy Land

1274:  Returned to England to take up the throne (Henry III, his father, had died in 1272)

1275-1290:  Codified existing statues into a more cohesive system of law, some of which was based in the Magna Carta.

1277-1282:  War against the Welsh

The official web site of the British monarchy says:  “Llywelyn maintained that the rights of his principality were ‘entirely separate from the rights’ of England; he did not attend Edward’s coronation and refused to do homage. Finally, in 1277 Edward decided to fight Llywelyn ‘as a rebel and disturber of the peace’, and quickly defeated him. War broke out again in 1282 when Llywelyn joined his brother David in rebellion.

Edward’s determination, military experience and skilful use of ships brought from England for deployment along the North Welsh coast, drove Llywelyn back into the mountains of North Wales. The death of Llywelyn in a chance battle in 1282 and the subsequent execution of his brother David effectively ended attempts at Welsh independence.”  Ha.

1283:  Hanged, drew, and quartered Prince Dafydd ap Gruffydd in Shrewsbury, first man of standing to die in such a fashion, thus ending all hopes of an independent Wales (see above).

1290:  Expelled the Jews from England (http://www.sarahwoodbury.com/its-all-about-money/)

1296:  Began war with Scotland

1305:  Hanged, drew, and quartered William Wallace in London

1307:  Died 7 July

Another pro-Edward page says:  “Edward’s character found accurate evaluation by Sir Richard Baker, in A Chronicle of the Kings of England: He had in him the two wisdoms, not often found in any, single; both together, seldom or never: an ability of judgement in himself, and a readiness to hear the judgement of others. He was not easily provoked into passion, but once in passion, not easily appeased, as was seen by his dealing with the Scots; towards whom he showed at first patience, and at last severity. If he be censured for his many taxations, he may be justified by his well bestowing them; for never prince laid out his money to more honour of himself, or good of his kingdom.”  http://www.britannia.com/history/monarchs/mon30.html




Dolbadarn Castle

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Dolbadarn Castle is only 6 1/2 miles as the crow flies from the Menai Straits, and yet, the topography of the area is such that it was built by Llywelyn Fawr (Llywelyn the Great) to guard the mountain pass from Caernarfon to the upper Conwy Valley.  ‘Its position at the tip of Llyn Padarn allowed the garrison to blockade anyone’s movement through that part of the north, then as now a main link to the rest of Wales. The military worth of the spot was evidently recognized as early as the 6th century but surviving masonry dates no earlier than the 1200’s.’ http://www.castlewales.com/dolbd.html

Llywleyn Fawr built the castle in the early 13th century and it was one of the last defenses of Dafydd ap Gruffydd–Llywleyn Fawr’s grandson–in 1283 after Edward had defeated Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, Dafydd’s brother (Paul Davis, Castles of the Welsh Princes, p. 42).  It was then abandoned.


A visit to Google Earth reveals that the Castle sits on a crest above a slight valley, overshadowed by the enormous mountains behind it.  ‘The site is a narrow outcrop of rock with steep falls on all sides, especially the east, where there is a sheer drop to Llyn Padarn’ (Adrian Pettifer, Welsh Castles, p. 33).  It is likely that some kind of Roman road passed through the area on its way into the mountains, as traces remain of a temporary Roman camp further up the road, once it turns east to Betws-y-Coed.

According to Pettifer, the keep at Dolbadarn, which is the most well preserved piece of it, ‘vies with the gatehouse at Criccieth as Llywelyn the Great’s finest piece of castle architecture’.   All three floors had fireplaces and toilets, even the basement.  The outer walls were high enough to conceal the roof of the upper floor and protect it from being fired by missles (Pettifer, p. 34).

Llywelyn ap Gruffydd kept his elder brother, Owain, at Dolbadarn, for 20 years, before he was released in 1277 as part of the Treaty of Rhuddlan.  An old man by then, Llywelyn provided for him the cantref of Llyn, in which he died sometime before December, 1282 (Smith, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, p. 441).

Dolbadarn Castle was last used by Owain Glyndwyr to hold prisoners during his uprising against the English crown in the 1400s.  http://www.castlewales.com/dolbd.html

*Thanks to Stephen Colbert’s, Better Know a District


Did Cancer Exist in the Middle Ages?

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My dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2001, a few months after my mom had a hysterectomy for uterine cancer.  In 2007, my dad was diagnosed with a second (unrelated) cancer–something horrible called lyposarcoma with a 15 pound tumor in his abdomen. A month after my father died in 2011, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, her second (unrelated) cancer.

How common was cancer in the past?  If cancer is more common now than before it could be because:

1)  we’ve polluted our environment

2)  we live longer than in the past, so we die from things we wouldn’t have had the chance to die from in the Middle Ages

3)  we’ve circumvented natural selection with our advances in medicine so we are frailer than in the past (my entire family might have died from appendicitis before reproducing, for example)

I can’t answer whether or not cancer is more common, but it was common enough in the past to be remarked upon and studied:

“Since the earliest medical records were kept, cancer as a disease has been described in the history of medicine. The earliest known descriptions of cancer appear in seven papyri, discovered and deciphered late in the 19th century. They provided the first direct knowledge of Egyptian medical practice. Two of them, known as the “Edwin Smith” and “George Ebers” papyri, contain descriptions of cancer written around 1600 B.C., and are believed to date from sources as early as 2500 B.C. The Smith papyrus describes surgery, while the Ebers’ papyrus outlines pharmacological, mechanical, and magical treatments.

Based on the information recorded on papyri and hieroglyphic inscriptions, ancient Egyptians were able to distinguish benign tumors from malignant tumors. They were also able to use different treatments, including surgery, and other various modes of medicine.”  http://training.seer.cancer.gov/disease/history/

A recent article reports on the discovery of a 2250 year old mummy who had prostate cancer: “It is the oldest known case of prostate cancer in ancient Egypt and the second-oldest case in history … The earliest diagnosis of metastasizing prostate carcinoma came in 2007, when researchers investigated the skeleton of a 2,700-year-old Scythian king who died, aged 40-50, in the steppe of Southern Siberia, Russia.”  http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/45126192/ns/technology_and_science-science/

No matter how slow and painful a cancer death might be, surgery didn’t sound like a great option:  “The Edwin Smith Papyrus, describes 8 cases of tumors or ulcers of the breast. The document acknowledged that there is no treatment for this condition and recommended cauterization (the fire drill) as a palliative measure. ”  http://medicineworld.org/cancer/history.html

“Hippocrates believed that the body had 4 humors (body fluids): blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. When the humors were balanced, a person was healthy. Too much or too little of any of the humors caused disease. An excess of black bile in various body sites was thought to cause cancer. This theory of cancer was passed on by the Romans and was embraced by the influential doctor Galen’s medical teaching, which remained the unchallenged standard through the Middle Ages for over 1,300 years. During this period, the study of the body, including autopsies, was prohibited for religious reasons, which limited progress of medical knowledge.”

Hippocrates was also the person to coin the term ‘cancer’ from “the Greek words, carcinos and carcinoma  . . . thus calling cancer “karkinos.” The Greek terms actually were words to describe a crab, which Hippocrates thought a tumor resembled.”  http://cancer.about.com/od/historyofcancer/a/cancerhistory.htm

“The oldest available specimen of a human cancer is found in the remains of skull of a female who lived during the Bronze Age (1900-1600 BC) The tumor in the womens skull was suggestive of head and neck cancer. The mummified skeletal remains of Peruvian Incas, dating back 2400 years ago, contained abnormalities suggestive of involvement with malignant melanoma. Cancer was also found in fossilized bones recovered from ancient Egypt. Louis Leakey found the oldest possible hominid malignant tumor in 1932 from the remains of a body, which could be either that of Homo erectus or an Australopithecus. This tumor had features suggestive of a Burkitts lymphoma.”  http://medicineworld.org/cancer/history.html

Throughout, doctors have tried to get a handle on it:

“Zacutus Lusitani (1575-1642) and Nicholas Tulp (1593-1674), 2 doctors in Holland, concluded at almost the same time that cancer was contagious. They made this conclusion based on their experiences with breast cancer in members of the same household. Lusitani and Tulp publicized the contagion theory in 1649 and 1652, respectively. They proposed that cancer patients should be isolated, preferably outside of cities and towns, in order to prevent the spread of cancer.”   http://www.cancer.org/Cancer/CancerBasics/TheHistoryofCancer/the-history-of-cancer-cancer-causes-theories-throughout-history

There were treatments too, not that they necessarily worked:

“Paul of Aegina (~625 – 690 AD)
Paul of Aegina was a most prominent Byzantine physician who believed cancer of the breast and uterus were most common, and he wrote that surgery of uterine cancer was useless. He recommended removal of breast cancer instead of cauterization.

Moses Maimonides (1135 – 1204 AD)
The treatment of large tumors suggested by Moses Maimonides involves ‘excis[ing] the tumor and uproots the entire tumor and its surroundings up to the point of healthy tissue, except if the tumor contains large vessels…[or] the tumor happens to be situated in close proximity to any major organ, excision is dangerous.'”  http://knol.google.com/k/history-of-cancer-treatment#



Castell y Bere


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My daughter says that Castell y Bere is in ‘the freaking middle of nowhere’ which is why King Edward couldn’t convince any English settlers to live there after he conquered Wales.  Plus ‘it’s really, really windy.’

Potentially, that is all you need to know about Castell y Bere, but if that turned you away from visiting, that would be unfortunate.  Historically, Castell y Bere was also one of the most important castles of the Welsh Princes–certainly it is one of the largest and most elaborate.  It sits on elongated plateau of rock in the Upper Dysynni Valley.  Because of its central location (at the time), it helped Llywelyn Fawr, who built it, control the territory along the old mountain road from Cadair Idris to Dolgellau.  It also guards the territory between the Dyfi and Mawddach estuaries (see above mentioned ‘freaking middle of nowhere’).  Llywelyn built it with luxuries in mind, and included stained glass windows, inlaid tile, and stone carvings (Paul Davis, Castles of the Welsh Princes).

Llywelyn Fawr began the castle after a dispute with his son, Gruffydd in 1221 AD.  Llywelyn took these territories for himself, and began work on Castell y Bere.  His grandson, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, added onto the structures, eventually creating a sprawling complex of buildings, surrounded by a system of walls and ditches that made the castle virtually impossible to assault.  It was the last castle to be taken in 1283, after the fall of Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, surrendering to King Edward’s forces without a fight.

King Edward maintained the castle (to the tune of 265 pounds) from 1286 to 1290, but Adrian Pettifer states in his book Welsh Castles, ‘the castle proved too remote to be supplied in times of siege.’  It was burned during Madog ap Llywelyn’s uprising in 1294 and never restored.

Links:  http://www.castlewales.com/cybere.html




Ynys Mon (Anglesey) in the Dark and Middle Ages

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Of all the places in north Wales/Gwynedd, the name for Ynys Mon was deliberately changed by the English/Norman invaders, but it belies the fact that Ynys Mon remains resolutely Welsh, with 7 out of 10 residents speaking Welsh.  Because of its location, the populace suffered greatly over the millenia from foreign invaders, culminating with the wars of 1277 and 1282, when it was conquered as a stepping stone to Eryri, the stronghold of the Welsh princes.  After this last war, Edward deliberately razed much that was Welsh to the ground, including Llanfaes Abbey, the gravesite of Princesses Joanna and Elinor and built Beaumaris over the top of it.  In the process, hundreds of Welsh were ‘resettled’ elsewhere and English people brought in.

“Ethnic cleansing is not a new concept. When Edward I reached Llanfaes, he forced all the Welsh people to move to a new village called Newborough. However, the worst effects were felt in the towns of Conwy, Caernarfon and Beaumaris. No Welsh people were permitted in the towns and they were mostly inhabited by the English with a few people from Ireland, Gascony and Savoy. 1,500 hectares around those towns was also cleared of Welsh people in order that the colonists had fields for crops and livestock. The villages of Aberystwyth and Lleweni were similarly cleared of Welsh people.”  http://www.princesofgwynedd.com/drivingtour.asp?pid=3

The name ‘Anglesey’ is in fact a Viking word from the 10th century, indicating that the Vikings were successful enough in their sacking of the island for a place-name to stick, and be adopted later by the English/Normans.


Anglesey has some of the best farmland in Wales, is one of the flatter areas, and is also the driest region of Wales.  Thus, settlement has existed on Anglesey as long as people have lived in Wales.  Prehistoric megaliths scatter the island:  http://www.megalithia.com/overview/anglesey.html

Knowing a good thing when they saw it, the Romans conquered Anglesey in 61 AD but only after defeating Boudica elsewhere:  “The Romans vehemently opposed the Celtic druids, whom they did not see as pious priests, but as ferocious freedom fighters – terrorists. The druids continuously tried to rally the local population to take up the arms against the Romans. The Roman invasion of Britain had set these men on the run, with the centre of the druid cult becoming, or possibly always being Anglesey, which thus, in the first century AD, was the centre of the Celtic religion in Britain.

This situation is confirmed by the Roman historian Tacitus and Emperor Nero, who specifically identified Anglesey as an island that needed to be conquered. Many troops were relocated from other British locations towards Wales in an effort to do so. However, this power vacuum elsewhere resulted in certain insurrections, such as that of Queen Boudica.

Realising the Roman troops could not maintain order and attack Anglesey at the same time, the Empire forsook a final attack on Anglesey – the conquest of Anglesey was insignificant against the loss of London and the rest of Britain. Hence, it is claimed that the Roman general Paulinus tore up Nero’s orders, returned to London via the newly constructed Watling Street, to meet the army that had been scrambled by Queen Boudica, which had left London, in search of a Roman army they could fight. In the end, the battle occurred in Atherstone, Warwickshire, where the Romans attained an easy victory. Enthusiasm lost against well-oiled organisation.

The fact that “druid terrorists” lived in Anglesey meant that in 61 AD, Suetonius Paulinus managed to get his army across the Menai Strait and massacred the druids and burnt their sacred groves. The Romans remained aware, however, that the druids might continue to pose a problem and hence they constructed the fortress of Segontium, present Caernarfon, on the edge of the Menai Strait, to make sure that what little remained of an intact Celtic culture remained on Anglesey – and did not try to seed dissent in “Roman Britain”.

Tacitus wrote how the battle occurred on the coastline of the Menai Strait: “On the coastline, a line of warriors of the opposition was stationed, mainly made up of armed men, amongst them women, with their hair blowing in the wind, while they were carrying torches. Druids were amongst them, shouting terrifying spells, their hands raised towards the heavens, which scared our soldiers so much that their limbs became paralysed. As a result, they remained stationary and were injured. At the end of the battle, the Romans were victorious, and the holy oaks of the druids were destroyed.””


After the Romans, came the Irish, the Vikings, the Scots, and the Danes (briefly), but it was strong enough defensibly for the Kings of Gwynedd to seat their court on the west coast at Aberffraw from c.860 AD until c.1170 AD.  No trace remains of that court as the llys was dismantled for the building and maintenance of Edward I’s castle at Beaumaris.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aberffraw


King Stephen


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King Stephen’s reign was full of turmoil because of the conflict between him and King Henry’s daughter, Maud (Matilda).  Both claimed the throne of England and tore the country apart trying to get it.  Maud was supported by her half-brother, Robert of Gloucester (the employer of Geoffrey of Monmouth, see:  http://www.sarahwoodbury.com/?p=341), who couldn’t claim the throne because he was a bastard.  Otherwise, he was the richest and most powerful man in England behind Stephen.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has a very lengthy entry on the time of King Stephen, and (in fact) ends with his death in 1154.  The Chronicle describes the brutality of events and reads, in part: “When King Stephen came to England, he held his council at Oxford; where he seized the Bishop Roger of Sarum, and Alexander, Bishop of Lincoln, and the chancellor Roger, his nephew; and threw all into prison till they gave up their castles. When the traitors understood that he was a mild man, and soft, and good, and no justice executed, then did they all wonder. They had done him homage, and sworn oaths, but they no truth maintained. They were all forsworn, and forgetful of their troth; for every rich man built his castles, which they held against him: and they filled the land full of castles. They cruelly oppressed the wretched men of the land with castle-works; and when the castles were made, they filled them with devils and evil men. . . . I neither can, nor may I tell all the wounds and all the pains which they inflicted on wretched men in this land. This lasted the nineteen winters while Stephen was king; and it grew continually worse and worse. . . . To till the ground was to plough the sea: the earth bare no corn, for the land was all laid waste by such deeds; and they said openly, that Christ slept, and his saints.” (James Ingram translation)

“Stephen was the grandson of William the Conqueror and about half-dozen years older than his cousin and rival for the throne, Matilda (daughter of Henry I). After his father’s death in 1102, Stephen was raised by his uncle, Henry I. Henry was genuinely fond of Stephen, and granted his nephew estates on both sides of the English Channel. By 1130, Stephen was the richest man in England and Normandy.

. . . Stephen had promised to recognize his cousin Matilda as lawful heir, but like many of the English/Norman nobles, was unwilling to yield the crown to a woman. He received recognition as king by the papacy through the machinations of his brother Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester, and gathered support from the barons. Matilda was in Anjou at the time of Henry’s death and Stephen, in a rare exhibition of resolve, crossed the Channel and was crowned king by the citizens of London on December 22, 1135.

Stephen’s first few years as king were relatively calm but his character flaws were quickly revealed. Soon after his coronation, two barons each seized a royal castle in different parts of the country; unlike his hot-tempered and vengeful Norman predecessors, Stephen failed to act against the errant barons. Thus began the slow erosion of Stephen’s authority as increasing numbers of barons did little more than honor their basic feudal obligations to the king. Stephen failed to keep law and order as headstrong barons increasingly seized property illegally. He granted huge tracts of land to the Scottish king to end Scottish and Welsh attacks on the frontiers. He succumbed to an unfavorable treaty with Geoffrey of Anjou to end hostilities in Normandy. Stephen’s relationship with the Church also deteriorated: he allowed the Church much judicial latitude (at the cost of royal authority) but alienated the Church by his persecution of Roger, Bishop of Salisbury in 1139. Stephen’s jealous tirade against Roger and his fellow officials seriously disrupted the administration of the realm.

Matilda, biding her time on the continent, decided the time was right to assert her hereditary rights.” With her half-brother Robert, Earl of Gloucester, Matilda invaded England in the fall of 1139. Betwen them, they dominated western England by 1141. “Robert captured Stephen in battle at Lincoln; Stephen’s government collapsed and Matilda was recognized as Queen. The contentious and arrogant Matilda quickly angered the citizens of London and was expelled from the city. Stephen’s forces rallied, captured Robert, and exchanged the Earl for the King. Matilda had been defeated but the succession remained in dispute: Stephen wanted his son Eustace to be named heir, and Matilda wanted her son Henry fitzEmpress to succeed to the crown. Civil war continued until Matilda departed for France in1148. The succession dispute remained an issue, as the virtually independent barons were reluctant to choose sides from fear of losing personal power. The problem of succession was resolved in 1153 when Eustace died and Henry came to England to battle for both his own rights and those of his mother. The two sides finally reached a compromise with the Treaty of Wallingford – Stephen would rule unopposed until his death but the throne would pass to Henry of Anjou.”  http://www.britannia.com/history/monarchs/mon25.html

For Wales, Stephen’s reign allowed some measure of rewnewed sovereignty, most notably under the rule of Owain Gwynedd



The Welsh Longbow

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Bows and arrows have been around since Paleolithic times, with evidence of them as early as 8000-9000 BC in Germany.   http://www.newarchaeology.com/articles/history_bow_and_arrows.php

Kennewick man, the controversial skeleton found in the banks of the Columbia River inKennewick,Washington dates to roughly 7500 BC. A CT scan revealed a stone, projectile point embedded in his hip.

Oetzi the Iceman was found with a quiver of arrows with flint heads and an unfinished yew longbow–taller than he was–in his pack.  He dates to 3300 BC.

A new find in Norway revealed 4500 year old bows and arrows that are very similar in form and function to those found in the Yukon dating to the same time period.TLP blogThe confirmed first use of the longbow was in 633 AD, in a battle between the Welsh, led by Cadwallon ap Cadfan of Gwynedd, against the Northumbrians.   http://www.themiddleages.net/longbow.html

The shot killed Ofrid (or Osric?), son of Edwin of Northumbria, who just happened to be Cadwallon’s foster-uncle.  Cadwallon had allied himself with Penda of Mercia in an attempt to drive the Northumbrians from Gwynedd, after Edwin had defeated his father and taken over the country.  Cadwallon was successful.   http://www.earlybritishkingdoms.com/bios/cadwagd.html

Saxons, as a rule, were not archers.  It is another five centuries before there is any recorded use of a longbow in England.  The men of Wales used longbows against the Normans, from the moment they arrived to conquer England and Wales, up through the death of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd.  One of the greatest victories for Llywelyn was in 1257 before the Battle of Cymerau where the Normans lost 3000 men (http://www.sarahwoodbury.com/cymerau/).  At Llandeilo Fawr, they cowered for two days under a hail of arrows from the Welsh.

Starting 1252 in England, the longbow was finally accepted as a formal military weapon.  “In 1252 the Assize of Arms required that all landowning yeomen with an annual income between 40 to a 100 shillings were to be armed and trained with a longbow (war bow) and the more wealthy yeomen were also required to possess a sword, buckler, dagger and to be trained in their use.”   http://robinhode.webs.com/yeomen.htm

“C.1280: Longbow adopted by Edward I during the Welsh campaigns after seeing how effectively the Welsh used the bow.

1331-1333: Longbow used by Edward III during the Scottish Campaign.

1337-1453b: The hundred years war with France:During this time, the English and Welsh longbowmen were the most prominent part of the English army, sometimes outnumbering the Men-at-Arms by as much as 10:1. The average was a ratio of about 3:1.”   http://www.archers.org/default.asp?section=History&page=longbow

What is it about the longbow that is both effective and also prevented its earlier adaptation?  This has to do with 1)  it’s size, and 2) the length of time required to learn its use.

The standard yew longbow was over 6 feet long (6 ft. 6 inches), with a yard long arrow.  They are powerful weapons that require enormous strength to draw.   In general, the draw weight is 120-150 pounds, with a range between 200 and 300 yards.  “In battle, longbow formations fired 10-12 volleys per minute. Each archer was provided 60-72 arrows. A force of 4,000 longbowmen could loose 240,000 arrows within the space of five minutes.”   http://www.militaryhistory.teamultimedia.com/History%20of%20Weapons/Welsh%20and%20English%20Longbow.html

Thus, in order to master its use, a man must practice.   A lot.  Once King Edward of Englandrealized the longbow’s full potential, he adopted it from the Welsh, such that “To ensure a steady stream of bowmen for his army, Edward I banned all sports except archery on Sundays. Shooting ranges were set up on or near church property so parishioners would follow worship services with archery practice.”    http://www.militaryhistory.teamultimedia.com/History%20of%20Weapons/Welsh%20and%20English%20Longbow.html

Edward III used the long bow to great effect during the Hundred Years War, filling his ranks with Welsh and English longbowmen that decimated the French ranks, particularly at the Battles of Crecy and Agincourt.   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_longbow



Gwynedd after 1282


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After the Treaty of Aberconwy in 1277 AD, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd was reduced to lordship over a small area of land in Gwynedd, mostly west of the Conwy River.  Over the course of the 1282 war, he took back much of what he’d lost.  He was killed, however, on 11 December 1282, and all of Wales ultimately fell the forces of Edward I.  The map at right shows:

   Green:  Gwynedd, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd’s principality
   Blue:  Territories of Dafydd ap Gruffydd
   Pink:  Territories ceded forever to the English Crown


This defeat of the native Welsh forces led by Llywelyn ap Gruffydd and then briefly after Llywelyn’s death by his brother, Dafydd, resulted in a much divided Wales.  On the top of the hierarchy, instead of native rulers, were English (mostly) absentee landowners.  Within the Marche and portions of southern Wales, the native rulers had sided with the English anyway, and thus retained their land.  Among the peasants, their lot in life didn’t change much.

In Gwynedd, however, which had been the seat of Welsh resistance for centuries, the English overlords directly intervened in the life of the local populace and attempted to root out and confiscate the lands of those who’d rebelled.  For example, of the 104 shares of land in the Denbigh area formerly under Welsh control, the English confiscated, through a variety of means, 96 of them, or 92.3% of the total (Given, James.  The Economic Consequences of the English Conquest of Gwynedd. Speculum. Vol. 64. No. 1 1989).

Given goes on to say: “The acquisition of sizable tracts of land allowed the English to work some changes in Denbigh’s ethnic and social composition.  The new rulers made a determined effort to establish an English colony . . . all the original inhabitants of the vill adjoining the head of the honor at Denbigh were removed, and a borough was created in the castle’s shadow.  Other Englishmen were settled nearby.  In the town of Lleweni, for example, only one Welshman, Iorwerth ap Llywarch, was allowed to retain land.  The rest of the village was divided among about 120 English colonists”  (p. 18).

Interestingly, except for confiscating Llywelyn’s own lands, and Edward’s extensive castle building program, Edward’s treatment of western Gwynedd appeared at first to be more lenient in that he deliberately kept the native system of land ownership intact.  Instead, he extracted money from those who owned land in a complete overhaul of the rent and taxation system.   In the past, rent consisted of a combination of food renders, labor services, and compulsory hospitality.  Under the new regime, it was all cash payment and the increases ranged from 78.5% for cash rent from free tenants to a 7-fold increase for bondmen (p. 25).

In order to establish his authority in the region, he built a series of castles across Gwynedd, among them Caernarfon, Beaumaris, Conwy, and Harlech.

The English also:  required individuals to “grind their grain at the lord’s mill, press their grapes at his wine press, bake their bread in his oven, etc.”  and pay for the privilege.  They also were compelled (according to a 1305 record) to attend the local market and to trade only within the (English) borough town walls, resulting in more taxes.  “In a period of twenty years, thanks to steady and determined application, the English administration had managed to increase its take from its Welsh territories almost three fold” (Given p. 25-31).

Other impacts included an overhaul (and rejection) of the long-standing Welsh system of laws set down by Hywel Dda and the impressment of Welshmen into the English miltary.  “Just as the Welsh may have had to bear a disproportionately heavier share of taxation than the English, so it appears that they made a relatively large contribution to royal armies . . . For example, of the 12,500 infantry raised for the 1298 Falkirk campaign, 10,500 (84%) were Welsh” (Given p. 35).

Given concludes that the result of the English occupation forced the Welsh to sell themselves, their property, and their possessions to placate an ever more avaricious English government.  “Sometime early in the fourteenth century, in a petition delivered to Edward II, [petitioners] informed the king that because of their poverty and impotence they had left their lands, unable to pay their rents reliefs, and other dues.  In 1324, the villeins of the commote of Eifionydd . . . were so vexed and impoverished by the demands of the men who were farming the king’s mill and fish weirs that they experienced great difficulty in holding their land . . . [others claimed] that the royal purveyors had so impoverished them that they could barely live”  (p. 43).

Given concludes that, contrary to previous scholarship and received wisdom, “the growth of political authority, generally saluted as one of the positive features of late-medieval  society, may in reality have been one of the primary causes of the crises that afflicted Europe in the late Middle Ages” (p. 44).

That’s possible, but given Edward’s intent to wipe out all memory of Llywelyn, his seat and family, along with Welsh nationalism, this attempt to conquer the Welsh financially makes perfect sense.  Coupled with his castle building program, it shows how successful Edward was not only at defeating the Welsh militarily, but ensuring their material defeat and continued (and continual) subjugation.


The Beginning of the Dark Ages in Britain

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The ‘Dark Ages’ were ‘dark’ only because we lack extensive (or in some instances, any) historical material about the period between 407 AD, when the Romans marched away from Britain, and 1066, when William of Normandy conquered England.

TLP blog“Initially, this era took on the term “dark” . . . due to the backward ways and practices that seemed to prevail during this time. Future historians used the term “dark” simply to denote the fact that little was known about this period; there was a paucity of written history. Recent discoveries have apparently altered this perception as many new facts about this time have been uncovered.

The Italian Scholar, Francesco Petrarca called Petrarch, was the first to coin the phrase. He used it to denounce Latin literature of that time; others expanded on this idea to express frustration with the lack of Latin literature during this time or other cultural achievements. While the term dark ages is no longer widely used, it may best be described as Early Middle Ages — the period following the decline of Romein the Western World. The Middle Ages is loosely considered to extend from 400 to 1000 AD.”  http://www.allabouthistory.org/the-dark-ages.htm

For Wales, the time was no more or less bright than any other.  The relative peace the Romans brought was predicated on the brutal subjugation of the British people.  When the Romans left, the Britons faced the Irish from the west, the Scots from the northwest, the Picts from the northeast and ‘Saxons’ (who were Angles and Jutes too, not just ‘Saxons’) from the east.  To a certain degree, it was just more of the same.  The Britons had their lands back—the whole expanse of what is nowWales andEngland—for about five minutes.

From Gildas:

As the Romans went back home, there emerged from the coracles that had carried them across the sea-valleys the foul hordes of Scots and Picts. … They were more confident than usual now that they had learnt of the departure ofthe Romans and the denial of any prospect of their return. So they seized the whole north of the island from its inhabitants, right up to (i.e. as far south as) the wall (presumably Hadrian’s). A force was stationed on the high towers to oppose them, but it was too lazy to fight, and too unwieldy to flee. Meanwhile there was no respite from the barbed spears flung by their naked opponents, which tore our wretched countrymen from the walls and dashed them to the ground.

From contemporary accounts in 411:


They (the barbarians) reduced the inhabitants of Britainand some parts of Gaul to such straits that they revolted from the Roman Empire, no longer submitted to Roman law, but reverted to their native customs. The Britons, therefore, armed themselves and ran many risks to ensure their own safety and free their cities from the attacking barbarians. The whole of Armorica, [Emap (7)] and other Gallic provinces, in imitation of the Britons, freed themselves in the same way, by expelling the Roman magistrates and establishing the government they wanted. The revolt of the provinces ofBritain and Gaul occurred during Constantine’s tyranny because the barbarians took advantage of his careless government. …

Fastidius — letter to a widow in Britain

We see before us many instances of wicked men, the sum of their sins complete, who are being judged at the present moment, and denied this present life no less than the life to come. This is not hard to understand, for in changing times we expect the deaths of magistrates who have lived criminally, for the greater their power, the bolder their sins. … Those who have freely shed the blood of others are now forced to shed their own. … Some lie unburied, food for the beasts and birds of the air. Others have been individually torn limb from limb. Their judgements killed many husbands, widowed many women, orphaned many children, leaving them bare and beggared … for they plundered the property of the men they killed. But now it is their wives who are widowed, their sons who are orphaned, begging their daily bread from strangers.


It does seem that a ruler named Vortigern invited some Germanic ‘Saxon’ tribes to settle in eastern England, in hopes of creating a buffer zone between the Britons and the relentless invasions fromEurope.  This plan backfired, however, and resulted in the pushing westward of successive waves of ‘Saxon’ groups.  Ultimately, the Britons retreated into Wales, the only portion of land the Saxons were unable to conquer.

From the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

445:  In the fourth year of Vortigern’s reign, the English came to Britain.


449:  The British consulted what was to be done and where they should seek assistance to prevent or repel the cruel and frequent incursions of the northern nations. They all agreed with their king Vortigern to call over to their aid, from the parts beyond the sea, the Saxon nation. … The two first commanders are said to have been Hengist and Horsa.

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

449:  Martian and Valentinian assumed the Roman empire(actually in 450) and reigned seven winters. In their days Hengest and Horsa, invited by Vortigern, king of the Britons to his assistance, landed inBritainin a place that is called Ipwinesfleet; at first to help the Britons, but later they fought against them.


453:  But Hengest was an experienced man, shrewd and skilful. Sizing up the king’s incompetence, and the military weakness of his people, he held a council, and said to the British king “We are a few; if you wish, we can send home and invite warriors from the fighting men of our country, that the number that fight for you and your people may be larger.” The king ordered it be done, and envoys were sent across the sea, and came back with sixteen keels, with picked warriors in them. In one of the keels came Hengest’s daughter, a beautiful and very handsome girl. When the keels had arrived, Hengest held a banquet for Vortigern, and his men and his interpreter, whose name was Ceretic, and told the girl to serve their wine and spirits. They all got exceedingly drunk. When they were drinking Satan entered Vortigern’s heart and made him love the girl. Through his interpreter he asked her father for her hand, saying “Ask of me what you will, even to the half of my kingdom”.


It’s important to point out that Welsh literature, language, and culture flourished during the Dark Ages.  Much of the material in the Red Book of Hergest, the White Book of Rhydderch, and the Black Book of Camarthen date to this time.


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