Tag Archives: Wales


King Edward’s complicated relationship with the Welsh


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Sparked by a post yesterday, in which a historian commented that King Edward had a Welsh guard and didn’t ‘hate’ all Welsh as some people seemed to think, I feel compelled to comment.

First off, Edward was an English king who had the interests of the English crown and the English people first and foremost. He conquered all these countries from that position, with the idea that English law/church/language/culture (and that means Norman, really) was far superior to the barbaric north and west. That doesn’t mean he hated all Welshmen. A lot of what he did initially, in fact, was because he loved Dafydd, Llywelyn’s brother, in particular, and felt horribly betrayed by him when he started the rebellion in 1282.

And really, fine that he had a guard of Welshmen, but really, what were their choices? Nobody can prove or disprove that the Welsh did or did not like Edward, but back home, they were taxed to high heaven–deliberately to cripple them–their right to govern themselves was completely absent, and gradually their laws and way of life was disappearing. When Edward built all those castles, he ‘planted’ English towns next to them into which Welsh people were forbidden to live. He razed whole Welsh towns to the ground, including Aberconwy, where Llywelyn had a palace and one of the largest monasteries in Wales (Edward did the same 10 years later at Beaumaris). He proportioned out land to English lords, preventing the Welsh from herding their sheep and cattle (remember, herders were viewed as barbaric compared to farmers) and making a living.

This isn’t because Edward hated Welsh people, and any student of history knows that conquered people are exactly that–conquered. You didn’t see the Saxons murdering English kings either! The Saxons, in fact, were extraordinarily fortunate (after the initial conquest in 1066) in that they were the people at the forefront when the Normans came (like the Welsh/Britons had been when the Romans came) in that they were wholly coopted into the mythology of English superiority. Truly, the Romans had done the same thing to the Welsh back in 43 AD when they came, once resistance had been stamped out. It’s called being complicit in your own subjugation.

Here’s a Scottish example from my own family: My ancestor, Donald McKay fought FOR the English in the American revolution in one of the highland regiments. He was a McKay, from the nosebleed north, and returned home to discover that his lands had been ‘cleared’ by a rival clan that had allied with the English. The McKays were even protestant. Didn’t matter. Anyway, he came home to no land, no status, and no ability to earn a living. The English realized almost immediately that having all these displaced and resentful highlanders roaming Scotland was going to cause trouble, so they gave them land in Nova Scotia (New Scotland, heh), to get them out of their hair. It worked. Eventually Donald’s grandson made his way to Boston, and voila!

So did Edward ‘hate’ the Welsh. No. Did the Welsh ‘hate’ him? Many did, clearly, and perhaps some did not. And really, all through Welsh history, Welsh lords and men colluded with the English against their compatriots. But the fact that he had a Welsh guard and the Welsh fought for him against the Scots doesn’t indicate any kind of love either. Edward’s goal was to extract resources from the Welsh and subjugate their country. Of that there can be no question. I don’t see the point of arguing whether or not they loved him for it.


The Battle of Cymerau

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

One of the first important battles was that of Cymerau.

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

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

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

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

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

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

These details come from:

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

J. Beverley Smith, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd.

And Wikipedia has a great description here:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Cadfan#The_Battle_of_Cymerau


Owain Gwynedd’s birthday

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

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

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

Although I have edited the entry on Wikipedia to reflect the uncertainty of the birthday, if we’d continued to follow the 1911 source, Iorwerth ab Owain Gwynedd, the eldest son of Owain’s first wife, Gwladys, would have been born in 1145, a year after Dafydd ab Owain Gwynedd, the eldest child of Owain’s second wife.  Such a date could be possible for Dafydd, since he is first mention in the annals of wales in 1157. At the latest, that means he was born in 1143/44, since Welsh boys become men at the age of fourteen.  Obviously, we now have a problem.

It gets worse.  The Castles of Wales site, normally very reliable, has Owain Gwynedd born as late as 1109.  While neither Rhun nor Hywel get birthdays, they were full grown men by 1143, when Hywel is tasked with rousting his uncle Cadwaladr out of Ceredigion. If that’s the case, you have to think he’s at least 20 at the time.  If this is true, however, for Hywel to be  20 in 1143, he would have to been fathered by Owain at the precocious age of 14, and his elder brother Rhun even earlier.  Not impossible, but…  http://www.castlewales.com/owain_g.html

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

Deeper into a search, the EBK site reports that Owain’s father, Gruffydd, married Angharad in 1195 (when he was 40) and had three sons (Cadwallon, Owain, Cadwaladr) and some daughters, including the youngest, Gwenllian.  http://www.earlybritishkingdoms.com/bios/gruffcgd.html  Fine. But it is Gwenllian who elopes with the much, much older Gruffydd ap Rhys in 1113.  Whoa.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gruffydd_ap_Rhys  Note that the particular entry on Gwenllian, which actually has citations, not all of which I have access to, has her born c 1197, which by necessity must push all these other dates back into the earlier 1190s to make any of this work.  Unfortunately, to push those dates earlier is problematic, because Gruffydd was imprisoned for between 12 and 16 years, starting in 1081, so the earliest date of his release is 1093. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gwenllian_ferch_Gruffydd



The Triumph of Medieval Propaganda

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Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his History of the Kings of Britain back in the 12th century. It was at the behest of Robert of Gloucester, his patron, that he claims to have transcribed/copied/invented his history, placing King Arthur at the center of a national–and by that I mean English–origin myth. The idea was to justify the conquest of Britain by the Normans as a mirror to what King Arthur had done in the 5th century, including crossing the English Channel from Normandy to  Britain.

Children’s author Phillip Womack (author of The Other Book and The Liberators) said in the Times Online:  “As inhabitants of these islands, we don’t have many myths that bring us together, but King Arthur is one.  I think that we will always seek him as a saviour, whatever situation we’re in, because that’s human nature. The reason the Arthur myths are currently so popular is that they reflect our age brilliantly.”

This is a nice quote, and not at all inaccurate, but none-the-less astonishing because this is EXACTLY WHAT GEOFFREY OF MONMOUTH INTENDED!  He wrote his book in 1139 AD. It was meant to be a mythology for the nation of England, justifying the Norman conquest of England (and particularly Empress Maud’s claim to the throne) and placing her in the line of rulers dating back to King Arthur and earlier.

Geoffrey’s book was an immediate hit, and for the most part taken by the populace to be ‘true’, even if the scholars at the time dismissed it.  One site states:  “There is nothing in the matter or the style of the Historia to preclude us from supposing that Geoffrey drew partly upon confused traditions, partly on his own powers of invention, and to a very slight degree upon the accepted authorities for early British history.  His chronology is fantastic and incredible; William of Newburgh justly remarks that, if we accepted the events which Geoffrey relates, we should have to suppose that they had happened in another world.”

Furthermore: “William of Newburgh  . . . belongs to the northern school of historians, who carried on the admirable traditions of the Venerable Bede. This was a spirit very unlike that which inspired Geoffrey of Monmouth’s mythical “History of the British Kings” with its tales of King Arthur, and William attacks Geoffrey and his legends with great indignation, calling the latter “impudent and shameless lies“. This striking illustration of his historic integrity won for him from Freeman the title of ‘the father of historical criticism’, and the compliment is not altogether undeserved.”  http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15634c.htm

But it doesn’t matter.  Geoffrey had launched the legend of King Arthur upon the world and there was no turning back.


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, 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 renewed sovereignty, most notably under the rule of Owain Gwynedd.



Christmas and the Winter Solstice


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Stonehenge_Winter_Solstice_2007December 21st is the winter solstice in 2017. This is Stonehenge at the Winter Solstice in 2007. I’m pretty sure a whole bunch of those people have no idea why they’re there …

Cultures throughout the world and throughout history have celebrated the winter solstice, carefully calculating it’s date and time for sunrise and sunset, and aligning standing stones, worship sites, and burials in coordination with the sky.  Wikipedia has an excellent catalog of these events:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winter_solstice

“The December solstice occurs when the sun reaches its most southerly declination of -23.5 degrees. In other words, it is when the North Pole is tilted 23.5 degrees away from the sun. Depending on the Gregorian calendar, the December solstice occurs annually on a day between December 20 and December 23. On this date, all places above a latitude of 66.5 degrees north are now in darkness, while locations below a latitude of 66.5 degrees south receive 24 hours of daylight.”  http://www.timeanddate.com/calendar/december-solstice.html

The Romans first linked Christmas with the solstice.  They pegged the event to December 25th because, since 43 BC, this date was the winter solstice in the Julian calendar.  It was only in 1582 that Pope Gregory XIII reconciled the calendar with the actual astronomical solstice, moving the solstice to December 21 (and keeping Christmas on the 25th).

From http://www.essortment.com/christmas-pagan-origins-42543.html:  “In ancient Babylon, the feast of the Son of Isis (Goddess of Nature) was celebrated on December 25. Raucous partying, gluttonous eating and drinking, and gift-giving were traditions of this feast.

In Rome, the Winter Solstice was celebrated many years before the birth of Christ. The Romans called their winter holiday Saturnalia, honoring Saturn, the God of Agriculture. In January, they observed the Kalends of January, which represented the triumph of life over death. This whole season was called Dies Natalis Invicti Solis, the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun. The festival season was marked by much merrymaking. It is in ancient Rome that the tradition of the Mummers was born. The Mummers were groups of costumed singers and dancers who traveled from house to house entertaining their neighbors. From this, the Christmas tradition of caroling was born.

In northern Europe, many other traditions that we now consider part of Christian worship were begun long before the participants had ever heard of Christ. The pagans of northern Europe celebrated the their own winter solstice, known as Yule. Yule was symbolic of the pagan Sun God, Mithras, being born, and was observed on the shortest day of the year. As the Sun God grew and matured, the days became longer and warmer. It was customary to light a candle to encourage Mithras, and the sun, to reappear next year.

According to my go-to online etymological dictionary, Yule: yule (n.) Old English geol, geola “Christmas Day, Christmastide,” from Old Norse jol (plural), a heathen feast, later taken over by Christianity, of unknown origin.

The Old English (Anglian) cognate giuli was the Anglo-Saxons’ name for a two-month midwinter season corresponding to Roman December and January, a time of important feasts but not itself a festival. After conversion to Christianity it narrowed to mean “the 12-day feast of the Nativity” (which began Dec. 25), but was replaced by Christmas by 11c., except in the northeast (areas of Danish settlement), where it remained the usual word.

Revived 19c. by writers to mean “the Christmas of ‘Merrie England.’ ” First direct reference to the Yule log is 17c. Old Norse jol seems to have been borrowed in Old French as jolif, hence Modern French joli “pretty, nice,” originally “festive” (see jolly).

The tree is the one symbol that unites almost all the northern European winter solstices. Live evergreen trees were often brought into homes during the harsh winters as a reminder to inhabitants that soon their crops would grow again. Evergreen boughs were sometimes carried as totems of good luck and were often present at weddings, representing fertility. The Druids used the tree as a religious symbol, holding their sacred ceremonies while surrounding and worshipping huge trees.

In 350, Pope Julius I declared that Christ’s birth would be celebrated on December 25. There is little doubt that he was trying to make it as painless as possible for pagan Romans (who remained a majority at that time) to convert to Christianity. The new religion went down a bit easier, knowing that their feasts would not be taken away from them.” http://www.essortment.com/christmas-pagan-origins-42543.html



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.


December 11, 1282


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Today is the 735th anniversary the death of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, the last native Welsh Prince of Wales.  He was ambushed and cut down by Englishmen, somewhere in the vicinity of Builth Wells (Buellt in Welsh), Wales, late on the afternoon on 11 December 1282.  It was a Friday.

And then Llywelyn ap Gruffudd left Dafydd, his brother, guarding Gwynedd; and he himself and his host went to gain possession of Powys and Buellt. And he gained possession as far as Llanganten. And thereupon he sent his men and his steward to receive the homage of the men of Brycheiniog, and the prince was left with but a few men with him. And then Edmund Mortimer and Gruffudd ap Gwenwynwyn, and with them the king’s host, came upon them without warning; and then Llywelyn and his foremost men were slain on the day of Damasus the Pope, a fortnight to the day from Christmas day; and that was a Friday.
—-Brut y Tywysogyon, Peniarth manuscript 20  (The Chronicle of the Princes)

His head was carried to King Edward I, who ordered that it be displayed on a pike, in London.  Apparently, it stayed on display for over 20 years.  The rest of his body is purportedly buried at Abbey Cwmhir, northeast of Rhayader in Powys.

I wrote Footsteps in Time because there seemed to me to be few events in history where the fate of a nation hinged so profoundly upon the death of one man and I couldn’t stand that it ended the way it did. So I changed it :). At the time, historians said that if Llywelyn had lived only a few more weeks, all of Wales would have flocked to his banner. We’ll never know the truth of that, but his star was in the ascendancy and King Edward was within weeks of running out of both patience and money.

Llywelyn’s brother, Dafydd, was eventually captured and hanged, drawn, and quartered, the first man of significance to experience that particular death.  His death was practice for what Edward did to William Wallace, two dozen years later.  Gwenlllian, Llywelyn’s daughter and only child, was kidnapped from Aber and sent to a convent in England, where she remained a prisoner her entire life.

At Llywelyn’s death, Wales fell under English rule, and Edward declared his own son, Edward II, the new Prince of Wales.

That this happened, and that it is little remarked in historial records, should not come as a surprise.  History is written by the victors, as this comment from an English travel writer, William Camden, dating to 1610, makes clear:  “following rather his owne and his brothers stubberne wilfulnesse than any good hope to prevaile, would needes put all once againe to the hazard of warre, he was slaine, and so both ended his owne life, and withall the British [meaning, not English] government in Wales.”

I visited the site in May at Cilmeri where Llywelyn’s death is commemorated by a lone stone marker.

For more on Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, see:


The Battle of the Menai Straits

Betrayal in the Belfry of Bangor

Biography of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd

The Brothers Gwynedd


Dafydd ap Gruffydd

Dafydd ap Llywelyn, Prince of Wales (d. 1246)

The Death of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd

Eleanor (Elinor) de Montfort

Family Tree of the Royal House of Wales

Gwynedd after 1282

Historiography of the Welsh Conquest

King Edward I of England

Medieval Planned Communities

Memo to Llywelyn ap Gruffydd’s Staff

The Rising of 1256

Senana, Mother of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd

Simon de Montfort

The Statute of Wales (Rhuddlan)

Surprise Holy Day Attack!

Things Fall Apart

Welsh Heraldry

Welsh Independence

Welsh Independence (again)


Halloween in Wales

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fallen princess blogAs I sit here munching candy corn (which my 13 year old declares ‘the best candy’–even better than chocolate–though he can’t have any because he’s allergic to corn), I’m thinking about the Gareth & Gwen Medieval Mystery, The Fallen Princess, which takes place at Halloween.  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

For more customs of Calan Gaeaf: 


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.



Eleanor (Elinor) de Montfort


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Eleanor (Elinor in Welsh) de Montfort (1252-1282) was the wife of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, the last Prince of Wales.  She was the daughter of Simon de Montfort, who was killed in the Battle of Evesham by the forces of Edward I when she was only thirteen.  Her mother, Eleanor of Leicester, was the youngest daughter of King John of England and his wife, Isabella of Angouleme.  Interestingly, that made Elinor’s mother and Joanna, Princess of Wales and the wife of Llywelyn Fawr (Llywelyn ap Gruffydd’s grandfather), half-sisters.  Joanna had been born in 1191.  After Simon de Montfort’s death, Elinor and her mother) found refuge at the Dominican nunnery of Monargis in France.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joan,_Lady_of_Wales

J. Beverely Smith writes:  “Llywelyn’s decision to marry Simon de Montfort’s daughter was revealed in dramatic circumstances at the end of 1275.  Eleanor was travelling from France to join the prince [whom she had already married per verba de presenti–or inabsentia] when she was detained at sea and taken into Edward’s custody.  She sailed in the company of her brother Amaury, and the king was jubilant at a capture which placed Montfort’s son and daughter in his hands and revealed, hidden beneath the ship’s boards, the arms and banner of the Montforts” (1998:390).  Finally, by Edward’s lights, he had real justification for re-entering Wales and forcing Llywelyn to submit to England once and for all.  Note that Elinor was also Edward’s cousin.

For Llywelyn’s part, he had decided to marry Elinor after the events of 1274 when his brother, Dafydd, and other conspirators had tried to kill him.  Nobody knows why he’d waited this long to marry (he was now approaching 50 years old) but his failure to father a child with any woman up until then might have played a role–once married, there was no chance to father a child with another woman who might prove more fertile, AND have that child acknowledged by Edward and/or the Church.

In the end, Edward kept Elinor captive for three years, until after Llywelyn had lost the war of 1277 and submitted to Edward at Rhuddlan castle.  Elinor and Llywelyn were married (again) on October 13th (the Feast of St. Edward) in 1278, at the cathedral church at Worcester.  Edward gave Elinor away.

Wales remained at peace until 1282, when Prince Dafydd’s men launched a surprise attack on English castles on Palm Sunday.  Elinor herself died in childbirth on June 19, 1282 at Garth Celyn, and was buried across the Menai Strait at Llanfair Abbey, beside her aunt, Joanna.  No trace remains of her grave.

From The Chronicles of the Princes (Red Book of Hergest): “And then, on the Feast of St. Edward, the marriage of Llywelyn and Eleanor solemnized at Winchester, Edward, king of England himself bearing the cost of the banquet and nuptial on the feast of St.  festivities liberally. And of that Eleanor there was a daughter to Llywelyn, called Gwenllian and Eleanor died in childbirth, and was buried in the chapter house of the barefooted friars at Llanvaes in Mona. Gwenllian, after the death of her father, was taken as a prisoner to England, and before she was of age, she was made a nun against her consent.”


Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon

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Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon was a real person.  His father, Cadwallon, was killed in the battle of Catscaul or “Cad-ys-gual”, the Battle of the Wall (Heavenfield, near Hexham) in 634 AD.  An unknown usurper, Cadfael ap Cynfeddw, placed himself on the throne of Gwynedd, and was himself overthrown in 655 AD by the twenty-two year old Cadwaladr, Cadwallon’s son, who’d been raised in exile until he could return to claim his birthright.

Cadwaladr is mentioned in the following sources:

The Harlaein Genealogies:  a collection of old Welsh genealogies preserved in British Library, Harleian MS 3859.  They’ve been dated to the reign of Hwyel Dda (10th century).  Cadwaladr is mentioned as the son of Cadwallon and the father of Idwal, all Kings of Gwynedd.

Annales Cambriae (the Annals of Wales):  A single line:  682 – A great plague in Britain, in which Cadwaladr son of Cadwallon dies.

Historia Brittonum:  This text was composed sometime between 828 and 830, attributed to Nennius.  Of Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon, he states:  “Catgualart (Cadwallader) was king among the Britons, succeeding his father, and he himself died amongst the rest.  He slew Penda in the field of Gai, and now took place the slaughter of Gai Campi, and the kings of the Britons, who went out with Penda on the expedition as far as the city of Judeu, were slain.”

The Book of Taliesin:  Taliesin was a Welsh poet born in the mid to late 6th century.  Two poems are attributed to him that mention Cadwaladr.  One is The Great Prophecy of Britain in which he rails against the Saxon incursions and praises the rule of Cadwaladr:  “Cadwaladr is a spear at the side of his men; In the forest, in the field, in the vale, on the hill; Cadwaladr is a candle in the darkness walking with us; Gloriously he will come and the Welsh will rise . . .”  (my interpretation)

The second is the Prediction of Cadwaladr, which is incomplete.  It speaks of Cadwaladr, not Arthur, as the one who sleeps in the mountains to return at the nation’s greatest need.

History of the Kings of Britain:  This is Geoffrey of Monmouth’s romantic and fanciful tale, telling the supposed story of the history of Britain from its founding by Brutus to the death of Cadwaladr.

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

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 now Wales and England—for about five minutes.

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 from Europe.  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.

The rule of Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon sits at the resting point between the Welsh retreat and the Saxon advance.  As romanticized by Geoffrey of Monmouth, he was the last Pendragon, the last King of Wales before the Cymry fell irretrievably under a wave of Saxon invaders.

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