Tuesday, 14 October 2014

The British dimension: Wales

Books I've consulted for this and the post about Scotland:

David Carpenter, The Struggle for Mastery. The Penguin History of Britain 1066-1284 (London: Penguin, 2004)

Dan Jones, The Plantagenets: the Kings who made England (William Collins, 2013)
Marc Morris, A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain (London: Windmill Books, 2009)
Michael Prestwich, Plantagenet England 1225-1360 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005)
Miri Rubin, The Hollow Crown: A History of Britain the Late Middle Ages (London: Penguin, 2006)

"Caernarfon castle interior".
Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0
via Wikimedia Commons


Wales was culturally strange to the English. Even at the highest levels the inhabitants spoke Welsh and this made them incomprehensible to the French-speaking English aristocracy. Even more importantly, the Welsh had different inheritance rules from the English, ‘partible’ inheritance rather than primogeniture. This was the main reason why there was no single political authority in Wales.  Rather than a recognisable nation-state it was a complex pattern of petty lordships.

Following his Conquest of England William the Conqueror established earldoms along the Welsh marches at Chester, Shrewsbury and Hereford. All these earls encroached into Welsh territory and gave Norman names to the lands they conquered. By 1200 the marchlands included part of Flintshire and Montgomeryshire, most of Radnorshire, Breconshire and Glamorgan, most of Monmouthshire, the southern part of Carmarthenshire and virtually the whole of Pembroke. These lordships were anomalous, neither Welsh nor English and very much a law unto themselves.

However, in Gwynedd in the remote and inaccessible north west of Wales the Welsh aristocracy survived. In the early thirteenth century the greatest of these was Llywelyn ap Gruffud, who in 1205 had married Joan, the illegitimate daughter of King John. John’s troubles were Llywelyn’s opportunity. In 1212 he made an alliance with France, joined the baronial plot against John, and recovered territory that he never lost. In 1215 he captured the royal castles at Carmarthen and Cardigan, throwing out many of the marcher families, and in 1216 the Welsh rulers recognised him as their leader. He had gained far more power than any other ruler of Gwynedd and was the first to conceive of Welsh unity.  In 1218 the Treaty of Worcester with England recognised his position. He was nominally the king’s subject, but in reality he could act independently. He died in 1240 with his power intact and was remembered in both the English and Welsh chronicles as Llywelyn the Great.

Llywelyn was succeeded by Dafydd, his son by Joan. His uncle, Henry III, accepted him as Prince of Gwynedd, but would not allow him to succeed to all Llywelyn’s territory.  He confiscated and kept for himself a large and comparatively prosperous area known as the Four Cantrefs, the territory between the rivers Dee and Conwy.  Dafydd died childless in 1246 and power passed by the traditional partible inheritance to the sons of Gruffudd, the illegitimate son of Llywelyn the Great.

Llywelyn the Last

By 1256 one of these sons, Llywelyn, had ousted his brothers. In 1257 he recovered the Four Cantrefs and in 1258 he gave himself a new title – no longer Prince of Gwynedd but Prince of Wales. By taking advantage of Henry’s domestic troubles, he advanced into the marchlands of Brecon, Abergavenny and upland Glamorgan and allied with Simon de Montfort in 1264.

In the Treaty of Montgomery in 1267 Henry recognised Llywelyn as Prince of Wales, while Llywelyn recognised Henry as his king. Llywelyn was now lord of about three-quarters of the area of Wales, comprising perhaps 200,000 people. Arguably, this was the most independent and productive period of Welsh history. But there were structural weaknesses that he was unable to overcome. His claim was contested by his brothers and by other Welsh lords.

When Llywelyn refused to pay homage to the new king Edward I on the grounds that he was imprisoning his intended wife, Eleanor de Montfort, Edward declared him a rebel in November 1276 and gathered an army and navy at Chester to invade Wales.  This was a serious campaign. As Dan Jones writes (p. 301) 
‘Hundreds of thousands of crossbow bolts were ordered from Gloucestershire. Warhorses were bought in the specialist markets in France, wheat and oats ordered from the justiciar of Ireland. Vehicles were requisitioned from private owners all over England. The royal mints produced silver pennies to pay the many thousands of soldiers drafted to fight for England’s security and the Plantagenet family’s honour.’ 

On the campaign teams of engineers cut paths through the forests to create roads.

Edward knew that he faced a difficult campaign in hostile territory, and his strategy was to reinforce his power by building castles. The first was built by a force of nearly 2,000 men on a spur of rock on the Dee estuary and christened ‘the Flint’, the name it has borne ever since.
"Flint Castle 01" by Immanuel Giel - Own work.
Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons 

The conquest of Wales

Edward’s anglicising policies aroused great resentment in Wales, causing his chief ally, Llywelyn’s youngest brother, Dafydd ap Gruffud to turn against him. On Palm Sunday  1282 Dafydd attacked Hawarden Castle. 
Hawarden Castle: "The corner" by marin nikolov -
originally posted to Flickr as the corner.
Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

On the following days the castle at Aberystwyth was destroyed and Rhuddlan Castle suffered serious damage.  After some months of hesitation Llywelyn joined the revolt. Once more Edward marched into Wales and again he took Anglesey, this time by means of a bridge of boats.  But on 6 November the English suffered a humiliating defeat as the crossed from Anglesey to the mainland. Five days after his victory Llywelyn issued a message of defiance to Edward: ‘The people of Snowdonia do not wish to do homage to a stranger of whose language, manners and laws they are entirely ignorant.’  ‘This was a war between peoples, a veritable clash of civilisations.’  On 11 December Llywelyn was killed near Builth; the English captain sent his severed head to Edward. Dafydd then assumed the title Prince of Wales, but by this time English food and reinforcements were arriving from Ireland and Gascony. In January two great assemblies in England, one in Westminster, the other in York, granted Edward funds for his campaign. In March the invasion of Gwynedd began. Dafydd was captured near Llanberis at the foot of Mount Snowdon in June 1283 and hanged, drawn and quartered at Shrewsbury on 2 October, the highest-ranking man to date to be executed for treason.  He is the first prominent person in recorded history to have been put to death in this fashion.

From this period Wales, with the exception of the March with its quasi-independent aristocracy, was under English rule. A statute at Rhuddlan in 1284 declared: 
‘Divine providence, which is unerring in its dispositions …has now of its grace wholly and entirely converted the land of Wales …into a dominion of our ownership.’  
Under the Savoyard architect, Master James of St George, the greatest castle-builder of the age, an iron ring of castles was built round Snowdonia at Caernarfon, Conwy, Harlech and Beaumaris, the most elaborate strongholds of thirteenth-century Europe.
Beaumaris castle from the air
by Cadw - http://cadw.wales.gov.uk/daysout/beaumaris-castle/?lang=en.
Via Wikimedia Commons 

The castle at Caernarfon in particular was designed to make an intriguing statement. With its multi-angular towers and with dark bands of stonework along the walls, it was a concept derived from the Theodosian walls of Constantinople. According to Welsh legend Caernarfon was the birthplace of the emperor Constantine, and the castle can be seen as an imperial crown etched in stone.  

In April 1284 Edward arrived at Caernarfon to inspect the building works. With him travelled the queen, who at that time was entering the ninth month of what was probably her sixteenth pregnancy. On 25 April she gave birth to a son, who was baptised Edward after his father. The tradition that he presented his son to the Welsh as their future ruler is a sixteenth-century embellishment.  In 1301, at the age of seventeen, Edward of Caernarfon was given the new title of Prince of Wales, used in the past only by the rulers of Gwynedd, but now revived for the heir to the English throne.

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