King Edward's complicated relationship with the Welsh - Sarah Woodbury

King Edward’s complicated relationship with the Welsh

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.

For a bit about what happened to Wales in the Edwardian Conquest:

23 Replies to “King Edward’s complicated relationship with the Welsh”

  1. Your last post has completely misquoted/misunderstood my argument and responses, and you have switched off the reply option. That is a shame, and should do you no credit to any fair-minded person reading this discussion. I would like to sign off by saying that I respect your opinion, but your last action in this matter makes that impossible.


    1. I didn’t switch off the reply option. I don’t know why it didn’t appear for you. It is still on the page for me.

              1. Anyway, I’ve lost the thread. Something about motive, I think. We could go back and forth all day on why so many Welshmen behaved in the way they did, but their motives are a bit difficult to fathom since most left no record. Some of the more high-status individuals, such as Hywel ap Meurig or Gruffudd Llwyd, make interesting studies. How to account for Gruffudd’s behaviour? He served Edward I loyally, initially served Edward II and then sent secret letters to Robert de Bruce, offering to start a rebellion in Wales to throw off the English yoke. Then, after Edward II’s overthrow, he flees abroad to try and raise an army to restore the king. He ends his days raising troops for Edward III to fight in France.

                Make sense of that, because I’m not sure I can…!

                1. Well, this is Edward II … but yes, individuals make their decisions for personal reasons, though with these lords, so often personal gain and pride seem paramount. How many times did Ranulf of Chester switch sides during the Anarchy between King Stephen and Empress Maud/Matilda? At least three. And he was married to Robert of Gloucester’s daughter.

                  1. Well Ranulf was notorious, I think. Though the 12th century isn’t really my bag. I remember reading Hammer fo r Princes by Edith Pargeter set in that era. Good book.

                    1. Edith Pargeter/Ellis Peters is one of my all time favorite authors. Her Brother Cadfael novels are wonderful.

                    2. Oops the reply thing has gone wonky again. I read one or two of the Cadfael novels – then there was the series, which really should have had a Welsh actor in the role instead of Derek Jacobi.

  2. Firstly, I disagree that Edward started his reign with an outright intention to oppress the Welsh. This makes no sense, and takes no account of the feudatory world Edward existed in. His intention was to enforce Llywelyn’s vassal status as per the Treaty of Montgomery, just as he had previously enforced the vassal status of Gaston de Béarn, lord of Bigorre in Edward’s duchy of Gascony. Edward viewed the situation in Gascony and Wales in exactly the same light: see J Beverly-Smith’s article for this comparison. If Edward wished to conquer Wales outright, then why did he wait two years (and after six summonses to court) until declaring war on Llywelyn, and why did he not destroy the Welsh prince in 1277, when he had his foot on Llywelyn’s neck?

    Edward’s ‘scorched earth’ policy in his Welsh wars was perfectly standard military practice for the time, and the Welsh themselves practiced it. See the commentary of William le Breton on the behaviour of Richard I’s Welsh troops in France, or the accounts of Welsh troops in Edward’s service in Scotland. This was a nasty, brutal era and nobody waged war in a ‘nice’ way.

    The Iron Ring is largely confined to North Wales, and for good reason. Edward’s enemies were the lords of Gwynedd, not the Welsh as a whole. 10,000 Welshmen fought for Edward against Llywelyn in 1277, a similar number in 1282, while a staggering 22,000 fought for him against Rhys ap Maredudd in 1287. These were vast numbers. The Welsh served Edward not only in Wales and Scotland but England, Gascony, Ireland and Flanders. In 1297 they saved his life at Ghent, and in 1298 were the first to react to the invasion of William Wallace: in fact troops from North Wales were the only ones to fulfil their quota. Since I cannot interview any of these men, and few wrote down their opinions, I cannot state with 100% certainty what they thought of Edward. We can only judge them by their actions.

    1. Edward’s determination to gain control of the Welsh–and Gwynedd in particular–dates back at least to the Rising of 1256 when Llywelyn swept through eastern Gwynedd and Powys (supposedly at the request of the citizens) because their Norman/English overlords were so oppressive. These regions were part of Edward’s domains, but as a minor, it was really the responsibility of his mother. Furthermore, Edward thought that his father was far too soft on Llywelyn in 1267 when he acknowledged him as Prince of Wales. Immediately after gaining the throne, and Dafydd defecting yet again to Edward’s side, Edward begins bearing down on Llywelyn.

      I’m not arguing that thousands of Welshmen fought for Edward. The Welsh kingdoms at the time were at each other’s throats all the time and always had been. Llywelyn Fawr saw himself as ruler of all Wales, and Llywelyn ap Gruffydd attempted to achieve the same. A lot of the lords he brought to heel didn’t like that at all. They colluded with Edward and other Normans as a result. So ironic. An example: Rhys ap Maredudd who worked with Edward to take down Llywelyn, and then found English overlordship to not be quite what he’d expected. “This deal is getting worse all the time!” to quote Lando. So he rebels in 1287 against Edward, just as Dafydd ap Gruffydd, who conspired repeatedly with Edward against his brother, rebelled in 1282.

      My point is that I don’t think Welshmen fighting for Edward means what you think it means. In subsequent years, why did so many Welsh miners work for English owners in the mines? Why did black sharecroppers work for their former slavemasters in the south? Why do any oppressed people take the jobs that are open to them?

      1. I’m afraid you’re picking and choosing here. When Edward and Llywelyn actually met in 1269, they seemed to have got along very well: Llywelyn even sent a letter to Henry III saying how ‘delighted’ he was with the meeting. At this point the prince saw Edward as his ally against the ambitions of Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester. Llywelyn experienced his first major defeat in Glamorgan, at Gloucester’s hands, while Edward was still abroad. I disagree that Edward started ‘bearing down’ on Llywelyn as soon as he became king. Llywelyn owed Edward homage via the terms of Montgomery. He wouldn’t give it, citing the presence of Dafydd and Gruffudd at Edward’s court as reasons. Edward went so far as to go to Chester to take Llywelyn’s homage. Still the two men would not meet. This situation could not go on forever. After 1277 and the Treaty of Aberconwy Edward permitted Llywelyn to keep his title, waived the war indemnity fee of £50,000 and allowed Llywelyn to marry Eleanor de Montfort, despite Edward’s personal distrust of the Montfort family. In a medieval context, these were quite major concessions to a defeated enemy.

        I utterly reject any comparisons between Welsh troops serving in Edward’s armies and later Welsh miners, black sharecroppers, Native Americans, or whatever. I deal in the era itself and the concerns that drove men of that era, not false comparisons with entirely different timeframes and societies. Ultimately, to define Welshmen of the 13th century as patriots or traitors or slaves (etc) is to rob them of agency. I could quote any number of examples of men who served both Edward and Llywelyn, and switched back and forth as it suited them. Equally, many of the Welshmen who fought for Edward in Flanders and Scotland must have fought against him only a few years earlier. It isn’t an easy subject and deserves proper scrutiny.

        1. “Permitted Llywelyn to keep his title” and “allowed Llywelyn to marry Eleanor de Montfort” are the breaking point here where we truly must part ways in our understanding of the English conquest of Wales. Caernarfon Castle used to have an exhibit that said, “if only Llywelyn had been willing to swallow his pride and bend a knee to Edward, none of this need have happened.” Your post seems to me to be in this vein.

          And this, “I utterly reject any comparisons between Welsh troops serving in Edward’s armies and later Welsh miners, black sharecroppers, Native Americans, or whatever. I deal in the era itself and the concerns that drove men of that era, not false comparisons with entirely different timeframes and societies.” Compare is what historians do, so I’m very surprised you would say this. Besides which, these are not false comparisons. Edward’s behavior towards the Welsh is in keeping with his behavior towards the Scots, and the subsequent behavior of his descendants towards pretty much every ethnic group they encountered. What happened with the Tudors in Ireland or the Puritans’ conquest of Native Americans in Massachusetts, didn’t arise out of nothing.

          I’m really not sure why you are so adamant that the Welsh of their time wanted to serve Edward or would have done so if they had better options. As I quote from a letter to the Archbishop Peckham from the Council of Wales in 1282, “The people of Snowdonia for their part state that even if the prince desired to give the king seisin of them, they themselves would not do homage to any stranger, of whose language, customs and laws they are utterly ignorant. For by doing so they could be brought into perpetual captivity and barbarously treated . . .”

          1. The hard fact of the matter is that Llywelyn owed the King of England homage via the terms of the Treaty of Montgomery. That is undeniable. It is indeed perfectly legitimate to say that if he had performed that homage in 1274, then his later problems may not have arisen: for one thing, it would have deprived Edward of his stated legal justification for war in 1276.

            Responsible historians do not make random comparisons between wildly differing eras and declare a pattern to be formed. 13th century Wales is an entirely different subject to Tudor-era Ireland or 17th century America. You seem to be arguing that Edward’s Welsh wars triggered every single conflict involving the English crown and various ‘ethnic’ groups over the course of the next few hundred years. Sorry, that is absurd.

            I claim that many Welsh people wanted to serve Edward because they did so, in very large numbers, and he had no realistic means of compelling them. Desertion was rife among armies of the era, and his English troops in Scotland were notable for deserting en masse. His Welsh troops did not. These are facts I am quoting, not stuff pulled from my imagination.

            As for the quote: if you’re going to put your faith in 13th century political rhetoric, then you really will have problems. It was all power play, and jockeying for power between rival feudal power-brokers. Morality, as we might term it, was not even part of the game.

            1. My entire argument has been that assuming the Welsh ‘wanted’ to serve Edward (out of respect/loyalty/??) based on the numbers of Welshmen in his armies is to misread the situation. You don’t agree. I suggest that the dire situation back home in Gwynedd was enough to keep a soldier at his post where an Englishman might have other options … you don’t agree. I suggest that the conquest of Wales is hardly unique, even in the ferociousness by which Edward went about it, and comparing to other times and cultures is relevant to the discussion. You don’t agree. Thank you for commenting though, and for sparking this discussion. As we both said at the beginning, Edward’s relationship with Wales was complicated.

  3. Dear Sarah,

    I’m slightly irked that you didn’t have the goodness to address these comments to me directly, since I am the person who wrote the piece on Edward I and the Welsh. I was only made aware of your response because it was shared on a Facebook group, and would have appreciated a proper chance to respond. I disagree with your first paragraph in particular, and you deal in far too many generalities. However, unless you are interested in a proper dialogue, I won’t comment further.

    Best regards,


    1. David–I tried to join the group, but until it’s approved, I couldn’t comment on your post. My intent was not to offend, but to provide an alternative point of view, which I would hope academics can do without each taking offense. I didn’t mention you by name on my site because I wasn’t calling you out. Your position is pretty common, and I wanted to comment generally on it.

      1. I haven’t taken offence, and didn’t realise you were waiting to join BMH. I don’t think my position on the subject of Edward and the Welsh is at all common, or at least not in my experience: quite the reverse. I wrote the piece initially in response to some near-hysterical comments on the group in which Edward was accused of actively trying to destroy the Welsh language and passing laws making it legal to murder Welsh people for the crime of being Welsh. This type of nonsense needs to be opposed if we are to maintain any clear understanding of the past.

        1. Yes, I don’t disagree at all with your position about the language or murder of Welsh people. The suppression of the language in particular came much later, ironically under the Tudors, and again in the 20th century. Edward did, however, have a very direct campaign to oppress the Welsh, particularly in Gwynedd as you say, and very much took a scorched earth approach to conquest, thus his ‘Iron Ring of Castles’, debilitating taxes, and English planned communities.

          I said outright that Edward didn’t ‘hate’ the Welsh. But he did want their absolute obedience. He built giant castles to ensure it and had his own son crowned Prince of Wales so there would never be another Welshman in the role. What I objected to most was your argument that somehow because Edward employed Welshmen in his military or his personal guard, he wasn’t oppressive. Willingness to serve him somehow equated to … what? That the Welsh liked him/didn’t hate him/thought he was a good king? Native Americans enlist in the US military at a much higher proportion than any other ethnic group and have for over a century. This is why the headline of my article was that the relationship was complicated.

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