Arwystli - Sarah Woodbury


Today is a guest post from Brynne Haug, history major at Whitman College and co-conspirator in the study of all things Welsh. Thanks for stopping by!




Arwystli seems an insignificant place—just a small piece of land in the middle of Wales, bordering on the northern kingdoms of Gwynedd and Powys. But Arwystli became instrumental for Wales’s survival in the War of 1282. In February of 1278, when Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, prince of Gwynedd and Wales, faced down King Edward I of England, on the surface he asked only for Arwystli.


Although Llywelyn had agreed to cede it to Gruffudd ap Gwenwynwyn, the lord of Powys, when Gruffudd swore fealty to him in 1263,[1] he later laid claim to it on the grounds that Gruffudd had given up his rights when he betrayed him to the English in 1274.[2] According to Llywelyn, it now legally should return to Gwynedd.


More than a little province was at stake. Edward and Llywelyn had clashed before, and their visions of Wales were at odds. Thus the issue became one of Welsh identity, and the validity of Wales’ judicial system was bound up in that; the legitimacy of one claim over another mattered little. Llywelyn ap Gruffudd maintained that because Arwystli lay in Wales, his dispute with Gruffudd ap Gwenwynwyn of Powys should be resolved in Wales, by Welsh courts. King Edward told Llywelyn that he, as king, would determine when and where the ruling would occur.


In a letter of July 1278 to Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, he wrote, “Llywelyn shall come before the king’s justices in those parts at days and places that they shall make known to him to do and receive what justice shall dictate.”[3] Edward believed that it was his job—moreover, his right—to determine legal and administrative matters large and small. Llywelyn, on the other hand, wanted autonomy.


The dispute at Arwystli, therefore, was not about whether Powys or Gwynedd had claim over a small cantref in central Wales. It became a matter of national identity: a question of whether Welsh law was subject to royal whim, and if Wales deserved to have its legal proceedings—however primitive the English found them—honored and upheld. Gwynedd was the stage on which this drama played out; Llywelyn and Edward were the chief actors. All of Wales, however, had stake in the conclusion. Though it was in its simplest form a matter of pride, a struggle of personal power between Edward and Llywelyn (Gruffudd ap Gwenwynwyn in defiance of Llywelyn took the English side, arguing for application of English law to the situation because Powys bordered on England), Welsh people did not see it that way.[4]


In the earlier conflicts with England, those who had fought had done so for the abstract ideal of “autonomy”; the issues brought up by the initially simple legal dispute of Arwystli inspired fervor against the English, who, if they refused to respect Welsh law and custom, refused to respect Wales.


When Llewelyn and his brother Dafydd went to war, they did so with the agreement that they would “stand together for their laws.”[5] While Llywelyn ap Gruffudd could not have predicted the long-lasting ramifications of his decision to dispute Gruffudd ap Gwenwynwyn’s claim to Arwystli, the choices he made there, in a sense, informed the cohesiveness and strength of identity of his people.




[1] J. Beverley Smith, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd: Prince Of Wales (Cardiff: University Of Wales Press, 1998), 159.


[2] Ibid., 470.


[3] Calendar of Various Chancery Rolls A.D. 1277-1326, “Welsh Rolls” (London: His Majesty’s Stationary Office, 1912), 175.


[4] J. Beverley Smith, 475-75.


[5] R.R. Davies, Conquest, Coexistence, and Change: Wales 1063-1415 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 348.

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