07 April 2014

Freedom Fighters: The Welsh Wars

By Lisa J. Yarde

Almost from the moment the Normans took England in 1066 and attempted to subdue the whole of the British Isles, they faced resistance in the west from people who would not be subdued: the Welsh. After 1070, a series of Anglo-Norman castles rose along the English-Welsh border, which for centuries had long been the setting of numerous Welsh battles with the Anglo-Saxons. The frontier came under the lordship of men whom the Welsh despised. The names of Earl Hugh Lupus of Chester and Earl Roger de Montgomery of Shrewsbury were synonymous with cruelty and treachery. Their motte-and-bailey castles in the Welsh Marches represented symbols of oppression; more of them rose across the landscape of Wales than in any other territory the Anglo-Normans sought to control. The Marcher lords of these medieval strongholds pushed the borders of their king’s newly conquered country as far into Wales as they could, but not without resistance from the native people. They refused to accept the conquest of their lands.

Map of medieval Wales
Up to two centuries after King Edward I imposed his rule over Wales and heirs to the English crown thereafter took the title, Prince of Wales, the Welsh fought on. Not until the ascension of King Henry VII, who originated the English Tudor dynasty and descended from 11th century Prince Rhys ap Tewdwr of Deheubarth in southwest Wales, did the Welsh acknowledge English rule. The late 11th century saw a series of conflicts unfold, starting in the year after the conquest. In 1067, Prince Caradog ap Gruffydd’s Gwent in southwest Wales came under attack. The invaders subsequently divided the region into five Marcher lordships at Abergavenny, Caerleon, Monmouth, Striguil, and Usk. Before a new century dawned, Gwent no longer existed outside the dominion of its new lords. Next came invasions of Gwynedd and Powys in the north, followed by the death in battle of Prince Rhys ap Tewdwr, who resisted the Norman invasion into Brycheiniog. Subsequent Welsh counter attacks turned back the tide and brought about the destruction of castles within Ceredigion and Dyfed in the extreme west of the country, but this was a temporary respite.

Monument at Maes Gwenllian
England’s nobles had their own internal squabbles to overcome with the ascension of King Henry I after the dubious circumstances of his brother William Rufus’ death. Once the Battle of Tinchebrai resolved Henry’s right to rule England from 1106 onward, the Welsh suffered a new round of brutal occupation. The interests of Gwynedd and Deheubarth united through the marriage of Gwynedd’s princess Gwenllian to Gruffydd ap Rhys of Deheubarth. When Gwenllian died fighting the Normans near Kidwelly Castle, “Maes Gwenllian” became the rallying cry of her husband and her famous brother Owain as they achieved crushing victories over the English. In 1136, the Welsh drove the English out of the Marcher lordships except at Carmarthen, which then fell into Welsh hands a year later. The death of Gruffydd ap Rhys prevented the Welsh from capitalizing on the momentum of their resistance and soon the English dominated the territory around their Marcher lordships again. Gwenllian and Gruffydd’s son Rhys rose to prominence and fought alongside his uncle Owain against the English, and despite a humiliating capture by the forces of Henry II and an oath of homage to him, Rhys continued the fight for his country. He captured Cardigan Castle in the west and Owain took Rhuddlan Castle in the north.

Llywelyn the Great
Of all the Welsh principalities, Gwynedd emerged as the strongest and most capable of resistance in the 13th century. As more of the surrounding countryside became lost to the English, Gwynedd’s rulers after Owain began to make concessions to keep their gains, sometimes to the detriment of other regions. Owain’s grandson Llywelyn Fawr (the Great) made a treaty with King John of England in 1200 and married John’s daughter Princess Joan. Llywelyn became the dominant power in Wales, warring with the English and their Marcher lords in one instance and making alliances with them in the next, particularly siding with the barons who forced John to sign the Magna Carta in 1215. During his reign of more than 40 years, the Welsh took Cardigan, Carmarthen and Kidwelly. No longer content with his title, he styled himself as Prince of North Wales. His death preceded significant losses by the Welsh under his son Dafydd and his grandson Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, when they faced their most determined enemy, King Edward I.

Edward, an ambitious and ruthless king, used the tendencies of the Welsh to fight among themselves against the people he intended to conquer. He had arranged for a marriage by proxy between Llywelyn ap Gruffydd and Eleanor de Montfort who was Edward’s first cousin. Then Edward welcomed Llywelyn’s rivals into England, for which Llywelyn refused to do him homage. In 1276, when Edward declared war, thousands of Welshmen fought with him to destroy Llywelyn’s power. Faced with defeat, Llywelyn accepted a humiliating treaty at Aberconwy, which restricted his power to his family’s ancient base of Gwynedd, but he finally united with his wife Eleanor. His brother Dafydd, who had sheltered with Edward in earlier years, reunited with him. Revolts against the English continued under Dafydd’s prompting. Although Llywelyn felt some fraternal duty to join the latest revolt, it proved disastrous for him and the English killed him during battle in 1282. After the capture of Dafydd, Edward ordered him executed within the following year. The Statute of Rhuddlan in 1284 established Edward’s rule over Wales, as did his castles at Beaumaris, Caernarfon, Conwy, and Harlech.

Owain Glyndwr
Before the new century, Madog ap Llywelyn, related to the last princes of Gwynedd, attacked Caernarfon and Harlech. His men held out against the English by turning their own battle tactics against them, but by 1295, Madog had surrendered and spent the rest of his life in prison. It may have seemed as if the flames of Welsh revolt were finally subdued, but the last major war for Welsh independence flared to life in 1400 under the rule of Owain Glyndwr. Owain’s descent stretched back to the rulers of Deheubarth, Gwynedd, and Powys, but also incorporated the line of Marcher lords. He spent his youth in England, where he studied law. Upon his return to Wales, he married Margaret Hanmer, the daughter of his teacher. In 1399, a long-running land dispute between Owain and Reginald de Grey over territory in the northern Marches became resolved in Owain’s favor. When Henry of Bolingbroke seized power in England and became King Henry IV in the stead of Richard II, Reginald reclaimed the land. Owain appealed, but Henry IV rejected his claim and sided with Reginald, a member of the king’s council. Further, Henry IV also demanded the annual levy of Welsh soldiers to serve in England’s wars against the Scots, which Reginald interfered with and made it appear as if Owain had refused the summons, a treasonous offense.

By September of 1400, bolstered by the unfairness and illegality he had endured, Owain rose up against the English and claimed the ancestral title Prince of Powys. He and his family burned Reginald’s holdings. Offers of amnesty came for all rebels, except Owain and his cousins Rhys and Gwilym ap Twedwr, part of the line that would culminate in the future Henry VII of England. Owain captured Reginald in 1402 and held him until he received a ransom from Henry IV. No matter how desperate the English became to capture Owain or the coercive or brutal methods they adopted, his people rallied and protected their prince. The scope of the revolt grew and thousands of Welsh supported Owain. However, in 1406 with an invasion at Anglesey, the English made significant strides and began to cut off supply lines to the castles in Welsh control. In 1409, Harlech, where Owain’s wife, daughters and their children lived, fell to the English. The women entered the Tower of London, where the daughters perished with the children. Owain continued the struggle, but as the English relentlessly hunted him, he disappeared into history. Rumors of his life and death abounded for years afterward. Within a few years, his rebellion had died with him.

The Welsh were not cowed just because of English tactics. Rather, the inability of various principalities across Wales in the early medieval period to unite as one nation against their foes ensured the end to the Welsh wars. An important and contradictory factor in the lives of those who called themselves the Cymry, which in their language has invariably meant friend, companion, or brotherhood.

Sources: The Battles of Wales by Dilys Gater, Gwenllian: The Welsh Warrior Princess by Peter Newton, The Scottish and Welsh Wars 1250-1400 by Christopher Rothero, and Owain Glyndwr by Terry Breverton.

Images: Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Lisa J. Yarde writes fiction inspired by the medieval period. She is the author of historical novels set in medieval England and Normandy, The Burning Candle, based on the life of Isabel de Vermandois, and On Falcon's Wings, chronicling the star-crossed romance between Norman and Saxon lovers. Lisa has also written four novels in a six-part series set in Moorish Spain, Sultana,  Sultana’s LegacySultana: Two Sisters, and Sultana: The Bride Price where rivalries and ambitions threaten the fragile bonds between members of a powerful family. Her short story, The Legend Rises, a tale of Gwenllian of Gwynedd, appears in the 2013 HerStory anthology.