What is the actual origin of the Prince of Wales? With the death of Queen Elizabeth, and the ascension of Charles to the throne of England, Charles has designated his son, William, to replace him as the Prince of Wales. Readers of my books will be aware that the reason the Prince of Wales is the son of the English king is because, back in 1284, after King Edward I conquered Wales, he hauled his 8 month pregnant wife to Caernarfon so she could give birth to Edward II in his half-built castle there. Then in 1301 Edward gave this son the title, Prince of Wales. Ever since, the Prince of Wales has been the son of the English king. King Charles himself was invested as the Prince of Wales in 1969 at Caernarfon Castle.
Though both Wikipedia and many youtube videos explain a great deal about the history of the title, there are some crucial gaps that require further clarification. Perhaps the most important is that the title “Prince of Wales” didn’t exist at all in Wales before 1301.
At the risk of stating the obvious, within Wales, the primary language spoken was Welsh. Thus, every Latin, French, or English translation of a Welsh concept is exactly that– a translation. And vice versa. Welsh culture was very different from Norman Feudalist culture. The Welsh had their own traditions, customs, and laws. Specifically for our purposes, the very words “King” and “prince” as understood by the Normans or English were understood differently in Wales. This may seem like splitting hairs but, as you’ll see, language has power, especially when it is used as a weapon against an entire people.
I’ll begin by talking about the word that was used by both the English and the Welsh in the middle ages to refer to the ‘prince’ of Wales–because it wasn’t, in fact, prince at all.
It was the Latin word princeps, which translates into English along the lines of foremost leader or principle leader and was used as a title by some of the early emperors of Rome. https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=prince In 1165, having led an alliance of Welsh kings to defeat King Henry II of England, the King of Gwynedd, Owain ap Gruffydd, used it for the first time in reference to himself in a letter to the French king suggesting an alliance. In the letter, he calls himself Walliarum Princeps. Commentators, who’ve mistakenly translated princeps to prince, thereby suggest that Owain was demoting himself from king to prince. Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, he was acknowledging that he was more than just the King of Gwynedd. He had become the Principle Ruler of Wales. https://www.jstor.org/stable/41219622
The Welsh interpreted the Latin princeps to mean the same as the Welsh tywysog, which in English again becomes foremost or principle leader. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tywysog
Owain’s grandson, Llywelyn ap Iorwerth used a similar title for himself in the early 13th century, styling himself tocius norwallie princeps, which the Welsh understood to mean principle leader of the whole of North Wales. What it didn’t mean, despite the ubiquity of modern translations, is “Prince of the whole of North Wales”.
Though the claim that Wales was designated a ‘principality’ in 1216 is near universal, the actual Latin word used in medieval documents is principatus, which translates to dominion, pre-eminence, or leadership. The word meant ‘principality’ only in the sense of being the pre-eminent, primary, or first place. And it is connected to the English word ‘prince’, as in the son of the king, only in that both words are derived from the Latin word princeps.
Getting back to Wales, both Llywelyn ap Iorwerth and his grandson, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, in his time, were forced under duress to come to terms with the English king in order to maintain dominion over their lands. Each bought off the English king with cash and, despite English claims of their inferiority, continued to refer to themselves as Princeps or Tywysog. In the case of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, he styled himself Wallia Princeps or Tywysog Cymru, and his people understood that to mean, “Principle leader of Wales.” One of his last letters written from Garth Celyn is signed Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, Tywysog Cymru ac Arglwydd Eryri. Principle Leader of Wales and Lord of Snowdon.
The important thing to understand about all this is that the English use of the word “prince” was a deliberate attempt to imply the permanent structural subservience of the ruler of Wales to the King of England. Such a view was never accepted by the Welsh, in much the same way that when King Edward bent the knee to the King of France for his Duchy of Gascony, he did not see himself in any way as inferior or subservient to Phillipe.
With the death of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, however, the English gained control of the narrative, and the language of King Edward became the only language in use. History has shown Edward to have been a master of propaganda throughout his reign, but no more so than his usurpation, and then transformation, of the title of the principle leader of Wales’. Princeps, as well as tywysog, come simply to mean prince; King Edward reserves all power to himself; he bestows a now meaningless title on an eight year old boy; and 738 years later, William, King Charles’s son, is the new Prince of Wales.