Historiography of the Welsh Conquest - Sarah Woodbury

Historiography of the Welsh Conquest

Thank you to Brynne Haug for the next installment of her essay on the 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.

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