Tag Archives: Llywelyn Fawr


Murder and Mayhem in the Early Middle Ages

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It is common knowledge among anyone who’s spent time wandering the history of Wales that murder and mayhem among the ruling families for power was common.

David Walker (Medieval Wales, 1990) writes:  “Early entries in the Welsh Annales are brief in the extreme, but there are hints of ugly deeds.  In 814, Griffri ap Cyngen was slain by the treachery of his brother; in 904, Merfyn ap Rhodri of Gwynedd was killed by his own men; in 969 Ieuaf ab Idwal of Gwynedd was seized by his brother Iago and imprisoned; in 974, Meurig ab Idwal was blinded” (p. 6).

He further points to the book Courtier’s Trifles by Walter Map, who satirized the reign of Gruffydd ap Llywelyn (1039-63 AD), who ruled all of Wales from 1055 until his death.  He writes:  “I name Hywel, whom you caused to be smothered in secret when he was on a mission for you; Rhydderch, whom you received with a kiss and embrace and killed with a knife in your left hand; Tewdws, whom as he walked and talked with you, you tripped up with your foot and cast down the sheer rocks; and your nephew Meilin, whom you secretly captured by guile and let him die loaded with chains in your dungeon.” (p. 6)

This entry from Wikipedia is classic:  “Hywel ap Ieuaf (died 985) was a King of Gwynedd in north-west Wales from 979 to 985.

Hywel was the son of Ieuaf ap Idwal who had ruled Gwynedd jointly with his brother Iago ab Idwal until 969. In that year the sons of Idwal quarrelled and Iago took Ieuaf prisoner . . . In 974 Hywel raised an army and drove his uncle from Gwynedd temporarily. Iago was able to return, but was forced to share power with his nephew. In 978 Hywel made another attempt to take the kingdom from his uncle, raiding the monastery at Clynnog Fawr. In this raid Hywel was helped by English troops, possibly provided by Aelfhere, Earl of Mercia. Hywel defeated Iago in battle in 979, and the same year Iago was captured by a force of Vikings, possibly in Hywel’s pay, and vanished from the scene. Hywel was left as sole ruler of Gwynedd, but apparently did not set his father free, since according to J.E. Lloyd, Ieuaf remained in captivity until 988.

In 980 Hywel faced a challenge from Iago’s son, Custennin ab Iago, who attacked Anglesey in alliance with Godfrey Haraldsson, a Viking chief from the Isle of Man. Hywel defeated them in battle, killing Custennin and putting Godfrey and his men to flight. Now securely in possession of Gwynedd, Hywel aimed to expand his kingdom to the south. He again made an alliance with Aelfhere of Mercia and attacked Brycheiniog and Morgannwg with some success, although he was not able to annex these kingdoms. However in 985 his English allies turned on him and killed him, possibly alarmed by his growing power. He was succeeded by his brother Cadwallon ap Ieuaf, who had not been on the throne long when Gwynedd was annexed by Maredudd ap Owain of Deheubarth.”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hywel_ab_Ieuaf

This is much like the open warfare that erupted among the sons of Owain Gwynedd upon his death in 1170:  his youngest sons, Dafydd and Rhodri (children of Cristina), systematically eliminated all of their rivals, including Hywel, the eldest (d. 1170).  “Dafydd drove out Maelgwn in 1173, sending him fleeing to Ireland.  Another brother, Cynan, died in 1174, removing one more contender for the throne. The same year Dafydd captured and imprisoned his brothers Maelgwn (who had returned from Ireland) and Rhodri.”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dafydd_ab_Owain_Gwynedd

However, Llywelyn ap Iowerth (son of another dead brother) overthrew his uncle in 1294 and claimed the throne for himself.  Thus began the remarkable rule of Llywelyn Fawr.

Other examples:

Gruffydd ap Llywelyn (d 1244) did everything in his power to undermine the rule of his brother, Dafydd.  Dafydd retaliated by imprisoning him at Criccieth Castle.  Gruffydd ultimately fell to his death trying to escape the Tower of London in which he’d been imprisoned by Henry III.

Llywelyn ap Gruffydd imprisoned his brother, Owain from 1256 to 1277 to prevent him from vying for the throne of Gwynedd.  Their younger brother, Dafydd, defected twice to the English crown and tried to assassinate Llywelyn in 1274.


Aber Castle (Garth Celyn)


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Aber Garth Celyn was the seat of the Princes of Wales since Aberffraw and Deganwy were destroyed sometime in the early middle ages.  With the fall of the Royal House of Wales and the subsequent conquering of Wales by Edward I, the location of Garth Celyn was lost to history.  It is only in the last 20 years that we have a better idea of where it might be.

One possibility put forth by CADW, the Welsh Archaeological society, is at ‘y Myd’–a man-made mound to the west of the Aber River in North Wales.  “Excavations at Abergwyngregyn, near Bangor, unearthed the remains of a medieval hall dating back to the 14th century, the period when Llywelyn the Great and Llywelyn the Last were fighting for Welsh independence.” [a note from Sarah–that the archaeologist would say this is somewhat surprising since Llywelyn was killed in 1282, otherwise known as the 13th century. If the best they can do is the 14th century, then there’s no evidence this hall dates from the time of the princes.]

“A test dig on the same site in 1993, revealed medieval pottery, a bronze brooch and a coin dating back to the post-conquest era.

“You can see a large area with some substantial walls and the floor plan of a medieval hall with large wings either side,” said John Roberts, archaeologist for the Snowdonia National Park Authority.

“There’s also an enclosure which has features that might relate to industrial activity – metalwork or large ovens.””  http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/northwestwales/hi/people_and_places/history/newsid_9140000/9140324.stm

These excavations were covered over in 2010 to protect them.

Another possibility for the location of Garth Celyn, and the one I chose for my books, is just on the other side of the river and includes a still-standing tower, situated on a hill overlooking the Lavan Sands and with a view of Anglesey.

From the Garth Celyn web page (the page is gone, so I just have to quote it here):  “During the centuries between 1283 and 1553, the English crown owned the home and allowed it to become derelict, while at the same time expunging any mention of ‘Garth Celyn’ from the written record.   It is not until the time of Henry Vlll, that his surveyor, John Leland notes, ‘the palace on the hille still in part stondeth.’

Then, on June 14, 1551, Rhys Thomas of Aberglasney, appointed by Roger Williams, the surveyor of crown lands in north Wales, to be the deputy surveyor, obtained a lease for himself for the house.  Subsequently, on 27 April 1553 King Edward VI, seriously ill with tuberculosis, granted the royal manors of Aber and Cemais to William Herbert, earl of Pembroke and William Clerke.  Rhys Thomas and his wife, Jane, then built a house among the ruins of the palace.

Culturally speaking, one of the most important records of Garth Celyn is found in the letters written in the last months of Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffydd’s life to Edward I and the Peckham, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The royal llys of the Welsh princes excavated on Anglesey does not include a motte, and bears no relationship to the kind of Norman construction CADW is proposing the Llywelyns either built or repurposed at Aber. In addition, Welsh rulers were moving from one royal llys to another as administrative centers from before the Normans arrived in Britain.  http://www.angleseyheritage.com/key-places/llys-rhosyr/

As the house itself, the following is a written account from 1874:

Aber Village August 1874                                        

The castle of Llywelyn is but a few minutes walk from the centre of the village.

To reach it by the quickest and most picturesque road you have to traverse the nook at the back of the mill and to scramble over the loose stones that rise about the surface of the widespread stream. Once over the somewhat perilous brook, you have to pass a gate, then a field, still following the side of the watercourse. Mounting a steep rustic ascent you find yourself a few minutes more before a huge barbaric Round Tower, the principal and almost only vestige of Llywelyn’s Castle at the present day. Attached to this Tower is an interesting looking structure built entirely we are told of the ruins of the ancient palace. It is at present used as a farmhouse. This most picturesque house is well worth a visit, though from its private isolated character it is known to few out of its immediate neighbourhood. 

The farmer’s wife, though little prepared for the intrusion, nevertheless kindly allowed us to traverse the house, contenting herself with showing us alone one particular room in the tower, a clothes press and four chairs, evidently as old as the building itself and quite as primitive.

She also favoured me with a bit of lighted candle and led me to the steps of a vast cellar or dungeon under the tower, telling me to inspect it if I wished, which I hastened to do – I beg pardon, I did not hasten, for the steps down to it were so slimy, damp, and shaky, that any over haste would have been accompanied with serious bodily harm, so needs was to be slow and cautious.

On descending into this cavern, as well as the faint light of the candle would permit of, I noticed several contiguous cells with prison – like apertures. Could these possibly have been dungeons? At least there were good reasons for the conjecture. At the further end of the cavern, or cellar, or prison, or whatever it was and had been, I could perceive the commencement of a subterranean passage, which led, I was afterwards informed, to some solitary spot in the glen – for what purpose, must be left to the imagination, for there are no printed memorials to the spot, nor any written ones, unless Lord Penrhyn, the owner of the property, happens to have any such in the archives of his Castle.



The Rising of 1256

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I bet you didn’t know there was a Welsh Rising of 1256 did you? This date, even more than the Battle of Bryn Derwin in 1255, is the point at which Llywelyn ap Gruffydd began to assert his authority in Wales beyond Gwynedd and to place himself squarely in the forefront as the inheritor of his grandfather’s vision of a Wales united under one, supreme Prince.

In 1256, Prince Edward of England was only seventeen years old.  He had been ceded lands in Perfeddwlad, or Gwynedd Is Conwy (Gwynedd east of the River Conwy), by his father, King Henry.  But both his parents still held authority over them, for the most part, and had been responsible for overseeing their welfare.  They had not done a good job, as usual giving sycophants and hangers-on Welsh lands about which none of the parties involved cared a whit.

These lands, by no coincidence, had been fully in the control of Llywelyn Fawr before his death, and at the death of Prince Dafydd, had fallen under English control.  In November 1256, at the request of the people themselves, Llywelyn  took his men across the Conwy River and into what was then English territory.   They conquered the entire area, with the consent of the people in it, within a week.

Much of these lands Llywelyn then gave to Dafydd, his brother, whom he’d just released from prison.  Only eighteen himself, Dafydd had united with Owain in 1255, but with his defeat, had suffered only a short incarceration before Llywelyn forgave him–and established him as a fully authoritative Prince of Wales in his own right.

As the Chronicle of the Princes states for 1256:

“In this year the gentlefolk of Wales, despoiled of their liberty and their rights, came to Llywelyn ap Gruffudd and revealed to him with tears their grievous bondage to the English; and they made known to him that they preferred to be slain in war for their liberty than to suffer themselves to be unrighteously trampled by foreigners. And Llywelyn at their instigation and by their counsel and at their request, made for Perfeddwlad, and with him Maredudd ap Rhys Gryg; and he gained possession of it all. And after that he took the cantref of Meirionydd into his hands. And the land that belonged to Edward, the earl of Chester, the son of king Henry, he gave to Maredudd ab Owain, and Builth he gave to Maredudd ap Rhys, and keeping naught for himself, but only fame and honor.”

Sources:  Llywelyn ap Gruffydd by J. Beverly Smith




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Deganwy is one of those castle-forts that has become part of the legend of Wales, although very little of it remains.

This plan http://www.castlewales.com/deganwy1.html shows a reconstruction of the early medieval fort.  It was the seat of “Maelgwyn Gwynedd, the foremost historical figure of the 6th century in north Wales, patron of St Cybi and St Seiriol, but reviled as a drunken tyrant by the chronicler Gildas. Excavations on the western summit in 1961-66 confirmed occupation in the 5th and 6th centuries.”  http://www.castlewales.com/deganwy.html

“The area below the castle is called Maesdu (Black Meadow) and was, doubtless, the site of many bloody battles. The lower ground of the later bailey may have been the site of a settlement of serfs and bondmen; while Maelgwn’s stronghold stood atop the higher of the later castle’s twin peaks. It would have been largely of wood, although the defences included some dry stone walls. These were excavated by Leslie Alcock in the 1960s. A dozen sherds of Dark Age pottery, imported from the Mediterranean, were also discovered, showing the exceptional taste and far-reaching contacts of Gwynedd’s Royal dynasty.  Deganwy appears to have been first occupied during the Roman period, but was popular in the Dark Ages because it was safe from Irish raids. The place was burnt down when struck by lightning in AD 860.” http://www.earlybritishkingdoms.com/archaeology/deganwy.html

Robert of Rhuddlan built a castle at the site in 1080, which the Welsh captured, to the point that Gerald of Wales called it a ‘noble structure’ in 1191.  King John burned it to the ground early in the 13th century, Llywelyn Fawr rebuilt it in 1213, and then Dafydd destroyed in advance of the English attack in 1245, to the point the English “were forced to shiver in tents”.

“The campaign of Henry III saw the construction of walls and towers, the ruins of which survive today. The castle, with towers on each hilltop and a bailey on the saddle between, had an associated borough which received a charter in 1252. It was under construction from 1245-54 but was never completely finished.  As Henry became more embroiled with his own troubles, the power of the Welsh prince Llywelyn ap Gruffydd was growing. In 1263, after a long siege, he captured this outpost of English power and systematically demolished it. When Henry’s son, Edward, advanced across this territory in 1283 he camped at the ruins of Degannwy, but recognizing the greater strategic value of a riverside site and also the political impact of a castle across the river Conwy, which up until then had been the frontier of the essential Gwynedd, he founded his new castle at Conwy. Degannwy was abandoned.

The ruins visible today belong mainly to Henry III’s castle. The defences of the bailey – earth banks and ditches on the north side, the base of two D-shaped gatehouse towers, and the curtain wall hastily built by Edward I on the south – can still be recognized. The mass of fallen masonry near the base of the gatehouse is a relic of the demolition of 1263.”  http://www.castlewales.com/deganwy.html

A pic from our recent visit in 2016:
Deganwy small


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



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.



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


Senana, Mother of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd

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Senana, by all appearances, had to have been quite a woman.  She was the daughter of Caradog ap Thomas ap Rhodri ap Owain Gwynedd, the great king of Gwynedd during the twelfth century.  Her husband was the illegitimate son of Llywelyn Fawr, the great Prince of Wales.

Llywelyn Fawr ruled Wales with a strong hand, and as his death approached, he made a fateful choice:  that Dafydd, his legitimate son through his wife, Joanna, herself an illegitimate daughter of the King John of England,  would rule after him.  In so choosing, he put Wales on a course for inevitable conflict.

Llywelyn Fawr died in 1240 and Gruffydd immediately began agitating for his own power.  By 1241, Dafydd had imprisoned him in Criccieth Castle, along with his eldest son, Owain.  Senana pleaded first with Dafydd to free her husband and son, and when Dafydd refused to bend, went herself to Shrewsbury where King Henry of England was holding court, to ask him to intercede with Dafydd.  King Henry agreed.  What’s more, she got him to write up a charter dividing Gwynedd into two equal portions, one for Dafydd and one for Gruffydd, and thus indicating his proper patrimony.

Senana then gathered her family together (all except Llywelyn who was free and at sixteen, an adult) and went with them to England.

Unfortunately for her, King Henry immediately threw Gruffydd and Owain into the Tower of London.  On March 1, 1244, Gruffydd made a rope out of sheets and attempted to lower himself down from a high window. The sheets broke and Gruffydd fell to his death.

Senana, then, was left alone in England with Owain and her two younger sons, Dafydd and Rhodri.  At that point, she did not return to Wales, but stayed under the protection of the King of England, who still held Owain captive, although less confined then his father.  In so doing, she left Llywelyn alone in Wales beside Prince Dafydd, such that when he died unexpectedly and without an heir in 1246, Llywelyn alone was there to take the reins.  That is not to say she wasn’t proud of him for doing so.   He had carved some lands for himself out of what could have been his father’s.  The history books do not record her thoughts–it is only later, when Llywelyn refused to share power and lands with his brothers, that Senana fought for their rights against him.

Purportedly, Owain, was allowed to hotfoot it to Wales as soon as the news hit that his uncle was dead.  It served the English crown’s purposes to foster dissension among the Welsh royal brothers, but he’d lost six years–years in which Llywelyn had wooed supporters and proven himself a war leader.

And then, in 1252, when Dafydd was fourteen and now a man by the standards of Wales, Senana returned to Wales to try to help him establish his own lands.  At first Dafydd was under the tutelage of Llywelyn, but then Owain gifted him a small portion of land, which Llywelyn had not, thus uniting the two brothers against him.  This is the last mention of their mother in the historical records.

(Llywelyn ap Gruffydd.  J. Beverly Smith.  Cardiff:  University of Wales Press)


Historiography of the Welsh Conquest

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Thank you to Brynne Haug for the next installment of her essay on the conquest of Wales. The following video is of our visit in May 2014 to Caernarfon Castle, the centerpiece of King Edward’s conquest of Wales.


While there has been some measure of historical debate on the benefits and detriments of the English conquest of Wales on the country itself, the majority of scholars have agreed that in terms of identity and culture, the conquest had a negative impact. Wales prior to 1282 was fiercely independent, its people pastoral and very much devoted to the land on which they lived. In the years that followed the conquest, however, Edward I, in an attempt to “civilize” the Welsh, built walled towns throughout Wales and brought English settlers to live in them. Thus, by the beginning of the fourteenth century, the Welsh—who were in theory entirely excluded from these English towns of privilege—were, in the words of R.R. Davies, “outsiders in their own country.”[1] Historians have not argued that such attempts at “civilization” had a positive effect on Wales; even economically, England destroyed local systems rather than bolstering them.[2] However, historians have debated whether the actions of certain individuals had an effect on the outcome, good or bad, for Wales.

Historians agree that Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, Prince of Wales, and King Edward I of England were primary players in the conflict between Wales and England. The tension between the two countries, however, was not new. The Brut y Tywysogion, a Welsh chronicle redacted in the 13th century and written in Middle Welsh, spoke of “battle between the Britons [Welsh] and Saxons” in 760 and of repeated skirmish with the English throughout the intervening centuries.[3] The Anglo-Normans were persistent in their efforts, even after they had taken the greater part of Britain.

Given this drawn-out conflict between Wales and England, it is not surprising that what historians have debated most widely is what caused the subjugation to occur when it did—not the content of what occurred. In particular, historians focus the size of the role that Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, whatever his intentions, played in bringing about the conquest of his lands. The debate focuses on whether the conquest would inevitably have occurred in that period, or if Llywelyn’s flagrant disrespect of King Edward I precipitated Wales’ subjugation. The most simplistic interpretation of the conflict, summed up by Ifor Rowlands, is that the attack Edward launched on Wales resulted from behavior by Llywelyn that “challenged royal overlordship in the most blatant fashion,” and that the ensuing wars were a direct “punitive expedition . . . launched to purge the contumacy” of a “disobedient vassal.”[4] Without passing judgment on either party, Rowlands’s interpretation sees Llywelyn’s behavior as a violation of the terms of the society in which he lived: as an underling of King Edward, he had to have known his refusal to pay homage to him would bring the wrath of the king down on him.

Early historiography tended to take such an approach. John E. Morris, writing in 1901, studied the wars in an English context, focusing on the influence of Welsh conflict on the development of English warfare; he viewed the real power in the wars as lying in the Welsh March, balanced between the impetuous Llywelyn and the “destined conqueror of Wales,” Edward I.[5] He emphasized the agency of Edward and questioned the Welsh account of the events leading up to Llywelyn’s death.[6] This attitude is consistent with the tone taken by historians writing in that era. According to later historiographical discussion, some scholars went further, arguing that Llywelyn’s “high-handed” political and military behavior cost him many allies, and not only initiated a war with England, but also divided an already fractious Wales.[7] The kingdom he built, according to J.G. Edwards, was far beyond his military capacity to maintain, and his arrogance and need for personal power influenced his desire for status as a Prince of Wales and ultimately led to the downfall of his kingdom to such an extent that Edwards convicted him of “fumbl[ing] his way to disaster.”[8] J.E Lloyd, who wrote in the early 20th century, did not go so far, but rather argued that Llywelyn ap Gruffudd’s qualities “hardly matched those which had raised his grandfather above all the other princes of the nation.”[9] Such negative interpretations of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd’s character and agency are relatively common in historiography of the early half of the 20th century, but more recent studies of the period have come to a different conclusion.

Early historians, some modern scholars argue, might not have misjudged Llywelyn’s arrogance—he was stubborn and prideful, and lost allies as a result of his overbearing treatment of his fellow Welsh leaders—but have overlooked the necessity of his actions. Edward I’s increasing demands on Wales, and his imperialist attitude, were incompatible with Wales’ continued existence as a semi-independent polity.[10] The princes of Gwynedd used royal language to describe themselves; J. Beverley Smith argues that they could not give Edward the total submission he required without sacrificing the image they had created for themselves and that Llywelyn’s course of action was therefore the only one that had a hope of preserving independent royalty in Wales.[11] The idea that Llywelyn’s arrogance and neglect for the welfare of Gwynedd and Wales caused Wales’s fall has not entirely been discredited: Michael Prestwich writes that Llywelyn “unwisely overestimated his own strength,” through hubris bringing about his own ruin to the good fortune of the English.[12] R.R. Davies in particular, however, is adamant that Llywelyn’s actions were deliberate and necessary. Llywelyn not only did what he believed was in the best interests of his people, but he chose the only path he could in good conscience take. Edward I’s “concept of the nature of overlordship,” Davies argues, “could not be squared with Llywelyn’s concept of a native principality of Wales.”[13] Davies sees Llywelyn’s choice as the only one that offered any chance for his country; he goes so far as to suggest that Llywelyn’s action was “the only hope of retaining a semblance of true political independence.”[14] The two views do not seem mutually exclusive; Llywelyn may have overestimated himself, but the actions he took were necessary for an independent Wales.

[1] R.R. Davies, “Edward I and Wales,” in Edward I and Wales, ed. Trevor Herbert and Gareth Elwyn Jones (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1988), 3.

[2] James Given, “The Economic Consequences of the English Conquest of Gwynedd,” Speculum 64 (1989), 12.

[3] Brut y Tywysogion; Or, The Chronicle of the Princes, ed. John Williams ab Ithel (London: Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts, 1860), 7.

[4] Ifor Rowlands, “The Edwardian Conquest and Its Military Consolidation,” in Edward I and Wales, ed. Trevor Herbert and Gareth Elwyn Jones (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1988), 41.

[5] John E. Morris, The Welsh Wars of Edward I (New York: Haskell House Publishers, 1901), 23.

[6] Ibid., 183.

[7] Davies, Conquest, Coexistence, and Change, 328.

[8] J.G. Edwards, Littere Wallie (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1935), lxi.

[9] J. Beverley Smith, 3.

[10] Davies, “Edward I and Wales,” 9.

[11] Beverley Smith, 5.

[12] Michael Prestwich, The Three Edwards: War and State in England, 1272-1377 (London; New York: Routledge, 2003), 10.

[13] Davies, Conquest, Coexistence, and Change, 330.

[14] Ibid., 329.


The Succession (1170 AD) in Gwynedd

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1170 AD was a tough year in Gwynedd. It was the year Owain Gwynedd died and as is often the case with a strong king, his death brings about a vacuum waiting to be filled with intrigue and fratricide.

Because his brother, Rhun, had already dThe Fourth Horsemanied, Hwyel ap Owain Gwynedd, the second son, was the eldest surviving son. Unfortunately for Hywel, Owain had a lot of sons and the contention among them at their father’s death was fierce. While the tradition in Wales, under Welsh law at the time, was to split the kingdom among all the surviving sons, in practice, this rarely happened amicably.

Hywel, although beloved of his father and his choice to succeed him, did not survive 1170, as he was killed by two of his younger brothers, Dafydd and Rhodri, who conspired against all of their brothers through the urging of their mother, Cristina. Although Rhodri supported Dafydd’s bid to the throne, Dafydd eventually turned on him too.

Owain’s sons included:

Rhun and Hywel, both illegitimate

Iorwerth and Maelgwyn, both children of Gladwys, Owain’s first wife

Dafydd, Rhodri, children of Cristina, Owain’s second wife

Cynan, Rhirid, Madoc, Cynwrig, Einion, Iago, Ffilip, Cadell, Rotpert and Idwal (all illegitimate)

Madoc, according to legend, was so upset by the infighting among his brothers that he sailed to the New World.

Wikipedia has a good summary of what happened:

“As the eldest surviving son and elding, Hywel succeeded his father in 1170 as Prince of Gwynedd in accordance with Welsh law and custom.However, the new prince was immediately confronted by a coup instigated by his step-mother Cristin, Dowager Princess of Gwynedd.

The dowager princess plotted to have her eldest son Dafydd usurp the Throne of Gwynedd from Hywel [who was illegitimate], and with Gwynedd divided between Dafydd and her other sons . . .The speed with which Cristen and her sons acted suggest that the conspiracy may have had roots before Owain’s death. Additionally, the complete surprise of the elder sons of Owain suggests that the scheme had been a well kept secret.

Within months of his succession Hywel was forced to flee to Ireland, returning later that year with a Hiberno-Norse army and landing on Môn, where he may have had [his brother] Maelgwn’s support.Dafydd himself landed his army on the island and caught Hywel off guard at Pentraeth, defeating his army and killing Hywel.Following Hywel’s death and the defeat of the legitimist army, the surviving sons of Owain came to terms with Dafydd. Iorwerth was apportioned the commotes of Arfon and Arllechwedd, with his seat at Dolwyddelan, with Maelgwn retaining Ynys Môn, and with Cynan receiving Meirionydd. However by 1174 Iorwerth and Cynan were both dead and Maelgwn and Rhodri were imprisoned by Dafydd, who was now master over the whole of Gwynedd.”

Peace prevailed until 1194 when his nephew, Llywelyn ap Iowerth, seized the throne. He would become known as Llywelyn Fawr (Llywelyn the Great).  http://www.castlewales.com/llewelyn.html

O England’s hate is my love unsleeping, Gwynedd my land,
Golden on every hand to the myriad reaping.
For her bounty of mead I love her, winter content,
Where turbulent wastes of the sea but touch and are spent;
I love her people, quiet peace, rich store of her treasure
Changed at her prince’s pleasure to splendid war

One I have loved, uneluding, dearly possessed,
Two I have wooed, by greater praise be they blessed –
Three, yea, and four, with fortune lavish of gold,
Five maidens I’ve won their white flesh fair to behold,
And six more bright than the sun on my city’s strong walls
With never a treacherous rede to blemish delight;
Seven by heaven! though hardly won was the fight –
Yea eight of whom I have sung: but to bridle the tongue
Lest heedless a careless word slip – the teeth they are strong

I love a bright fort on a shining slope,
Where a fair, shy girl loves watching gulls.
I’d like to go, though I get no great love,
On a longed-for visit on a slender white horse
To seek my love of the quiet laughter,
To recite love, since it’s come my way.

–Hywel ap Owain Gwynedd.

Translation from Gwyn Williams (trans.) Welsh Poems, 6th Century to 1600 (London: Faber & Faber, 1973) p. 43


The Conquests of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth

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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.”  http://www.castlewales.com/llewelyn.html

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.


Eryri (Snowdonia)

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Eryri, Snowdonia in English, was the place in Gwynedd to which the Princes of Wales retreated, and their final stronghold when the English pressed on them from every side.  Mt. Snowdon (Yr Wyddfa) has always been at its center, but it traditionally included the Carneddau range and essentially all the land west of the Conwy River. It is the land the Edward allowed Llywelyn ap Gruffydd to keep in the 1277 treaty.  Today, as a national park, it includes 838 square miles.

From John T Koch, Celtic Culture: An Historical Encyclopedia:
“The first literary mention of Eryri occurs in the 9th century Historia Brittonum, where an account is given of the downfall of the semi-legendary 5th century king Vortigern.  Pursued by his revolted Anglo-Saxon mercenaries and hated by his Brythonic countrymen, the king’s magi direct him to build a stronghold in a secure place on the far side of his kingdom.  Such a place is found in Eryri . . .

“The place-name Eryri has had two Celtic roots proposed to explain it:  1) that it describes a high place [from the Latin eryr]  or 2) that it denotes the abode of eagles [Welsh eryr ‘eagle’].  Of course, even if Eryri had not originally meant ‘eyrie’, this idea would automatically occur to any Welsh speaker, writer, or poet . . . In a transferred sense, eryr is often used as a kenning for ‘hero’ in Welsh poetry, which adds further significance to the place-name as the traditional mountain stronghold of the strongest and most militaristic independent Welsh kingdom, Gwynedd.”

1262 marks the year that Llywelyn ap Gruffydd styled himself for the first time as “Prince of Wales and Lord of Snowdon (Eryri)”.  Llywelyn Fawr had referred to himself as ‘prince of Aberffraw’, which his grandson no longer mentions, although others continue to refer to him as its lord (J. Beverly Smith Llywelyn ap Gruffydd p. 145).  Because the latter was never recognized by the kings of England, the second Llywelyn chose to focus on Wales instead of Aberffraw   Both, however, were ‘lord of Snowdon’ and believed that this land encompassed not only Eryri as present historians have come to know it, but to all the lands in Gwynedd from the Dee to the Dyfi Rivers (Smith, p. 188).

The primary castles in Eryri are:  Dolwyddelan, Dolbadarn, Garth Celyn, and Castell y Bere.  The fort to which Koch refers is Dinas Emrys, on the western slopes of the Snowdonian mountains.

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