Welsh History: Consolidation of a Kingdom

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Political Union

In the year 1200, Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, the grandson of Owain Gwynedd, became ruler of the kingdom of Gwynedd, and under his strong and determined leadership, Wales was once more united as a single political unit. Llywelyn was ultimately successful in resisting English influence in Wales, and the charismatic leader received homage from the other Welsh princes.

In 1216, Llywelyn was recognized as their nominal leader, a true Prince of Wales. Modern historians agree that entries in Brut y Tywysogion show Llywelyn’s power, influence and confidence. Known to the future as Llywelyn Fawr (Llywelyn the Great), the Welsh prince felt secure enough to pay his respects to the new English king Henry III at John’s death in 1216.

Henry III was determined to show who was master in Wales, and despite all Llwyelyn’s achievements, the struggle for dominance began anew after his death. Quarrels between Llwyelyn’s two sons, Dafydd and Gruffudd, undid practically all that their father had accomplished. The laments of the court poets who had enjoyed something of a cultural renaissance during the great prince’s long reign, were also laments for the passing of the old bardic order that died with the death of their beloved patron.

For all intents and purposes, the Welsh were now leaderless. Despite their bravery and prowess in battle, their armies had to yield to superior forces. In 1247, at the Treaty of Woodstock, East Gwynedd was ceded to King Henry. In 1254 the English king granted control of all the Crown lands in Wales to his young son, Prince Edward.

Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, the grandson of ap Iorwerth, did his best to restore the situation. Through military conquest, after imprisoning his brothers and taking the kingdom of Gwynedd for himself, Llywelyn was able to re-unite much of his country in order to assert his claim to be called Prince of Wales. The title was accorded him officially by Henry III in 1267 at the Treaty of Montgomery, recognizing the Welsh leader’s claim.

The Welsh people now had their own prince, they governed their own territories under their own laws, and they were able to conduct their own affairs in their own language free from English influence. Edward the First’s accession to the English throne in 1272 completely reversed the tide of affairs. The great struggle had to begin anew.

The Edwardian Conquest

The short period of peace between English and Welsh following the Treaty of Montgomery was an illusion. Dafydd defected to the English. King Edward then took a huge army into Wales to assert his might. In his mountain stronghold of Gwynedd, Llywelyn’s Welsh armies at first inflicted defeat after defeat upon the invading English who were not used to fighting in mountainous terrain.

The Welsh did not have the resources or the manpower to keep up the struggle for long. After suffering heavy defeats in the field and lacking any significant support, Llywelyn’s great achievement at Montgomery was completely negated. At the Treaty of Aberconwy in 1277, he was forced to accept humiliating terms and to give up most of his recently acquired lands.

Edward followed up his successes by erecting strong, easily defended, forbidding castles at the strategic points of Flint, Rhuddlan, Aberystwyth, and Builth, garrisoned by large detachments of English soldiers and their families, and settled by merchants and immigrants.

Without having much of a choice and hoping for better fortune in the future, Llywellyn simply waited for better circumstances. The harsh methods used by Edward to control the conquered principality were soon to produce a major revolt.

The rebellion was initially led by Dafydd, now re-converted to the cause of his country, but Llywelyn quickly asserted his authority. His soldiers took the castles of Builth, Aberystwyth and Ruthin and utterly destroyed a large English force in Gwynedd. Edward had to devote the whole of his English kingdom’s resources to deal with the “malicious, accursed” Welsh, yet it was a mere chance encounter that effectively ended the Welsh dream.

Separated from the main body of his army at Cilmeri, in Powys, Llywelyn was killed by an English knight unaware of the Welsh prince’s identity. Upon discovery, Llewelyn’s head was sent to London for display as that of a traitor.

After Llywelyn’s death, the struggle continued fitfully under Dafydd. The lack of needed resources to conduct a long campaign brought his stubborn resistance to an inevitable end. King Edward was determined to “check the impetuous rashness of the Welsh, to punish their presumption and to wage war against them to their extermination.” (Matthew Paris, cited in Stephens, A Most Peculiar People, p. 9). Dafydd was quickly captured and executed as a traitor.

In 1294, the Statute of Rhuddlan (the Statute of Wales) set down Edward’s plans regarding the governing of Wales – apart from the Marches, left more or less as quasi-independent earldoms as rewards for their help in disposing of the Welsh problem – and creating counties where the English pattern of courts was firmly set in place.

Edward’s troubles with the Welsh were at an end. From that time forward, Wales was to pay a subordinate role as an integral part of the kingdom of England.

In 1301, King Edward made his son, Lord Edward(who had been born at Caernarfon Castle), Prince of Wales and Count of Chester. Ever since that date, these titles have been automatically conferred upon the first-born son of the English monarch.

Edward then began his second massive castle-building program. He spared no expense to create such world-heritage sites of today as Caernarfon, Conwy, Harlech, and Beaumaris in addition to the earlier structures at Flint and Rhuddlan. Below the huge, impregnable castle walls, new English boroughs were created, and English traders were invited to settle.

With the help of the architect Master James of St. George, and with what must have seemed like limitless resources in manpower and materials, Edward showed his determination to place a stranglehold on the people of Wales, who were hemmed in on all sides.

The struggle did not die out completely, but occasional rebellions were easily crushed; it was not until the death of Edward III and the arrival of Owain Glyndwr that any Welsh leader felt confident enough to challenge their English overlords. In the meantime, a whole new era of Welsh literature was to develop and flourish.

Literary Revival

After the death of Dafydd ap Gruffudd, the place of the Welsh princes as patrons of the poets was filled by the native Welsh gentry. Their growing importance and influence had been recognized as early as 1176. This was the calling together of the bards of Wales to compete for a chair — the tradition of the national Eisteddfod. It was to become of major importance to the continuance of the craft of the Welsh bards.

The native gentry, the land-owing classes, now maintained the Welsh bardic order, especially since poetry now dealt with secular themes. Free from the obligation to write works in praise of lords and princes, they were most welcome at special occasions such as religious festivals or seasonal feast times.

In addition, there was an increased contact with France and French literature that could encourage the Welsh poets to emulate such works as Roman de la Rose. A body of literature was created in Wales that fully equalled that produced in either England or the Continent.

Many modern writers see Dafydd ap Gwilym (1320-70) as the greatest Welsh poet of all time, but he was most certainly the most distinguished of medieval Welsh poets.

Dafydd’s poems sang the praises of nature, of beautiful women, and finally, the fullness and joy of life itself. His poetry contains no reference to any racial tension or national bitterness.

As exemplied by the works of Dafydd ap Gwilym, the period was one of the most glorious times in Welsh literary history. A contemporary of Dafydd was Llywelyn Goch (1350-1390) whose best-known poem is perhaps “Marwnad Lleucu Llwyd” (The Death of Lleucu Llwyd), one of the finest love-poems in Welsh.

Despite the beauty of this particular poem, Llywelyn Goch is not as well-known as Iolo Goch (1320-1398) one of the first of the Gentry Poets, famous for writing eulogies to the gentry and others in Wales. Iolo had experienced the horrors of the Black Death. Unlike Dafydd ap Gwilym, he wrote poetry that showed his concerns for social disintegration and the necessity of preserving order, thus anticipating countless generations of Welsh poets with the same concerns.

Not all poets presented the image of a stable and peaceful society. Under the surface, things were not what they seemed; resistance to the English regime was too long-standing and too deep-seated to remain dormant forever. It soon led to revolt.

Rebellion

When the long-awaited revolt finally materialized, Owain Glyndwr was ready. His banner was the Red Dragon, the old symbol of victory of Briton over the Saxon. The way had been prepared not only by the men of literature, but also by earlier uprisings begun by Madog ap Llywelyn and by Owain Lawgoch.

Hailed as a brave and skilful soldier, Owain Lawgoch fought for the king of France against the English. He was hailed by Welsh poets as a deliverer but was betrayed and killed in 1378. His legend lived on in the hearts of the Welsh.

Popular Welsh prophetic tradition, united with great social unrest, opened the door for Owain Glyndwr, Lord of Glyndyfrdwy (the Valley of the Dee) who seized his opportunity in 1400 after being crowned Prince of Wales by a small group of supporters.

Repressive measures undertaken by the new King Henry, and the penal legislation of 1401 that further restricted Welsh civil rights at the expense of English settlers, gave Owain the support he needed.

As a wealthy landowner at Sycharth, overlooking the Shropshire Plain, Owain was well-educated, well-traveled, and greatly experienced in civil and military matters. Yet he was willing to leave the security and prosperity he enjoyed at Sycharth to risk everything in his desire to create a self-governing Welsh state.

The revolt began with a dispute over land between Owain as Lord of Glyndyfrdwy, and Reginald de Grey, Lord of Rhuthin, but a few miles distant. The English Parliament treated Owain’s attempt at redress with contempt. Owain and his small band of warriors struck back, attacking some of the newly-created English boroughs in Wales. They captured Lord Grey, seized Conwy, threatened Harlech and Caernarfon, and managed to take a great deal of North Wales under their control. The Welsh people now had a chance to fight back under a trusted leader.

By 1404, all had gone well with the rebellion. Glyndwr possessed a magnetic personality, for he rallied the long-suffering people of Wales, strengthened their armies, and inspired their confidence. In June, 1402, Henry IV’s invading army was totally destroyed at Pilleth.

At Machynlleth, where he was crowned as Prince of Wales, it didn’t seem too ambitious for Owain to believe that with suitable allies, he could even help bring about the dethronement of the English king. Thus he entered into a tripartite alliance with Henry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland and Edmund Mortimer to divide up England and Wales among them.

From such a promising beginning to a national revolt came a terrible, disappointing conclusion, even more upsetting because of the speed at which Welsh hopes crumbled with the failure of the Tripartite Indenture.

After Henry Percy was killed at the Battle of Shrewsbury, the increasing boldness and military skills of Henry’s son (the English Prince of Wales and later King Henry V) began to turn the tide against Glyndwr. Owain’s parliament was the last to meet on Welsh soil for six hundred years — the last occasion that the Welsh people had the power of acting independently of English rule.

By the end of 1409, the Welsh rebellion had dwindled down to a series of guerilla raids led by the mysterious figure of Owain, whose wife and two daughters had been captured at Harlech and taken to London as prisoners. Once again the imposition of harsh, punitive measures was enacted against any signs of further resistance to their rule. The Welsh people were forced to pay large subsidies; they were prohibited from acquiring land east of Offa’s Dyke or even within the boundaries of the English boroughs in Wales.

To Charles VI of France, Glyndwr wrote “My nation has been trodden underfoot by the fury of the barbarous Saxons.”(cited in Stephens, A Most Peculiar People, p. 12). The Welsh leader went into the mountains, or into a secret monastery, becoming an outlaw. He may have suffered an early death, for nothing was further known of him either by the Welsh or the English.

The failure of Owain’s dream of an independent Wales was a crushing disappointment: for the first time since the Anglo-Saxon conquests, the old prophecies had seemed to be near fulfillment. Yet, despite the failure of the rebellion, so recent in their memory, and so glorious in its early days, the struggle was not over; many Welshmen continued to hope that one day they would regain their lost sovereignty.