Perched high among the branches of a sturdy oak, a Welsh scout beheld an unbelievable sight. A path, more than a bowshot wide, was being cleared through the woods. Making its way through this clearing was an endless column of warriors displaying a sea of brilliant colors that stood in stark contrast to the dull gray autumn sky. Prominent among the lead group was a nobleman who, at over 6 feet, towered above his comrades. He appeared to be in his late 30s. His face was comely, though flawed by a drooping left eyelid, above which hung a few dirty blond curls peeking out beneath a crown. This was Edward I, king of England.
While we have some idea of King Edward’s appearance, there are no surviving descriptions of his Welsh counterpart, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, an imbalance typical of knowledge about the conquest of Wales. Only a few brief passages in the Welsh annals and in the generally hostile accounts by English chroniclers must stand against the vast volume of material that presents the conquest from the English viewpoint. As a result, most historians have ignored or discounted the activities of the Welsh. By looking at the ‘other side of the hill, however, a different picture of Edward’s Welsh wars begins to emerge.
The native inhabitants of medieval Wales were descended from the Celtic Britons, whom the Anglo-Saxons had driven out of the island’s fertile midlands (the term Welsh was the Anglo-Saxon word for foreigner). In the 8th century the Anglo-Saxons established the traditional Anglo-Welsh border by erecting King Offa’s Dyke, an earthwork barrier running from the city of Chester in the north to the Bristol Channel in the south. While Offa’s Dyke marked the end of Anglo-Saxon annexation of Welsh territory, the status quo was shattered in the 11th century by the arrival of the Normans, who conquered a border zone in Wales known as the Marches (from a French word meaning frontier). Norman warlords known as Marcher lords oversaw the conquered lands and prevented incursions by outsiders. Over time, a hybrid society developed in this frontier area as Welsh, Anglo-Saxon and Norman peoples and cultures mixed together. Until Edward’s invasion in 1277, the country remained divided between Marcher Wales and native Wales.
Native Wales consisted of a number of separate kingdoms ruled by leaders known as princes (from the Latin princeps for the principal citizen). The most important realms were Deheubarth in the south, Gwynedd in the north and Powys in the east. Those kingdoms, however, were not inhabited by tribes of uncouth barbarians, as English historians have represented them. Welsh society underwent a profound transformation during this period, and by the 13th century it had as much in common with feudal England as with its Celtic past.
The Welsh lifestyle was dictated by an unforgiving landscape. The 12th-century chronicler Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis) noted: Because of its high mountains, deep valleys and extensive forests, not to mention its rivers and marshes, it is not easy of access. As a result, the Welsh economy was predominantly pastoral rather than agricultural. In contrast with feudal society, that emphasis on livestock meant that the object in Welsh warfare was to seize an enemy’s herds rather than his territory. Because of the practice of seasonal migration between summer and winter pastures, the Welsh were highly mobile and, therefore, difficult to control.
After their first encounters with the Normans, the Welsh princes learned to avoid open level ground, which favored heavily armed knights. Instead, they relied upon the cover provided by more rugged terrain to harass the slow-moving Norman columns, which were usually restricted to traveling along river valleys or coastal plains. Unlike the Welsh, however, the Normans were able to impose a more permanent degree of control over the lowlands through their use of motte (moat) and bailey earthwork fortifications–rustic substitutes for more permanent castles. It is no accident that the Marcher lords were strongest in the broad, coastal plains of the south.
The balance of power between natives and settlers began to change in the 12th century. According to Gerald of Wales, The Welsh have gradually learned from the English and the Normans how to manage their weapons and to use horses in battle, for they have frequented the court and been sent to England as hostages. By imitating the Normans’ use of castles and armored cavalry, the princes achieved a more equal footing with the Marcher lords. They were now able to increase both the size of their domains and the degree of control they had over their subjects. The success of the princes in establishing greater order within their realms was reflected in their ability to imitate the more peaceful pursuits of the Normans. One late-12th-century Welsh source noted that they began to make orchards and gardens, and surround them with walls and ditches, and to construct walled buildings, and to support themselves from the fruit of the earth after the fashion of the Romans. As a result of a greater emphasis on agriculture in the 13th century, settlements became more permanent, and modest towns were established, to which the princes granted charters for trade. In turn, the princes’ revenues increased, allowing them to erect stone castles and employ siege engines against enemy fortresses. The growing power of the Welsh princes did not go unnoticed in London.
As with the Anglo-Saxons before them, the Normans occasionally forced the Celtic rulers of Scotland and Wales to acknowledge the king of England as their overlord. Using the legal structure of feudalism, as well as military might to back it up, the Normans were able to establish a permanent relationship of dominance. This meant that the Welsh princes were now answerable to the king for their dealings with the Marcher lords and each other.
Nonetheless, Llywelyn ab Iorwerth of Gwynedd, also known as Llywelyn Fawr (the Great), became the Prince of Wales in 1233, when the lesser princes recognized him as their immediate overlord, rather than swearing direct homage to the English king. His grandson, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, went further in 1265, when he supported the rebellious baron Simon de Montfort against King Henry III and obtained Montfort’s recognition as Prince of Wales. That alliance was undone when Henry’s son, Edward, slew Montfort at the Battle of Evesham a year later, but in 1267 Henry III signed the Treaty of Montgomery, which again confirmed Llywelyn’s title and his right to the homage of all other Welsh princes.
Upon Edward’s succession to the throne in 1274, the question uppermost in Llywelyn ap Gruffydd’s mind was whether the new king would also recognize him as the Prince of Wales. Edward demanded that Llywelyn do homage to him before he would acknowledge his title, but Llywelyn, suspicious of Edward, procrastinated. His suspicions soon seemed justified when Edward provided sanctuary for Llywelyn’s brother Daffydd ap Gruffydd and Prince Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn of Powys, both of whom Llywelyn had expelled for plotting his assassination. To make matters worse, Edward seized Llywelyn’s fiancée, Eleanor de Montfort, while en route to Wales. (Because her late husband, Simon de Montfort, had led the rebel barons against his father in 1264, the king feared that this marriage would revive opposition to the throne.) Prince Llywelyn refused to pay homage before those issues were settled, while King Edward refused to address those issues until Llywelyn did homage. On November 12, 1276, Edward resolved to force Llywelyn into submission.
Edward had his work cut out for him, for Llywelyn’s center of power, the realm of Gwynedd, was a natural stronghold. Beyond the buffer zone of subject states, there was the deep Conway (now spelled Conwy) River valley, which acted like a moat for the fortresslike mountains of Snowdonia. Northwest of Snowdonia was the large, fertile island of Anglesey, separated from the mainland by the narrow Menai Strait. Through a program of castle building, the various princes of Gwynedd had tried to improve upon their realm’s natural defenses, but while those modest stone fortresses could repulse the attacks of fellow princes and Marcher lords, they were helpless in the face of a powerful royal army.
The weakness of Prince Llywelyn’s castles reflected the David and Goliath nature of the forthcoming struggle. The entire population of Wales in the 13th century has been estimated at 300,000, whereas the population of England was at least 4 million. Not only could Edward raise more troops than Llywelyn, but, coming from a larger and wealthier country, his forces would be better equipped.
Welsh armies were composed of a prince’s teulu, or personal war band, supported by a large number of milwyr traed, or foot soldiers, provided by a common levy. According to Gerald of Wales, Welsh infantrymen, armed with little more than spears and bows, were lightly equipped so as not to impede their agility. As such, they were better suited for skirmishing than hand-to-hand combat. In an effort to increase the number of infantrymen in his army, Llywelyn resorted to drafting both free tenants below the normal military age of 14 as well as unfree tenants.
Llywelyn maintained a teulu of 240 armored cavalrymen. Nevertheless, in cavalry–the centerpiece of medieval warfare–the Welsh remained inferior to their English counterparts. For the most part they were not as heavily armed as the English and could not afford to support the larger breeds of war horses that were in use on the Continent. In contrast, Edward imported more than 100 war horses from France in 1277, merely to supplement those already maintained by his knights.
With his limitations in mind, Llywelyn chose to rely on the traditional strategy of using the rugged Welsh terrain to elude the more powerful English, rather than confront them in open battle. In order to follow that strategy, however, the Welsh would have to abandon their newly acquired castles, settlements and crops. Caught between the more mobile, pastoral lifestyle of the past and their dependence on the more sedentary, agricultural lifestyle of the future, the Welsh seemed unable to effectively pursue either their traditional strategy of evasion or a new, more conventional strategy of open confrontation.
Edward began the war by appointing a number of Marcher lords as his royal officials in Wales. Bolstered by reinforcements, they were to advance into native Wales and secure as much of the buffer zone surrounding Gwynedd as possible, in preparation for Edward’s main advance, which was scheduled for the summer. Edward hoped that the simultaneous assault of three separate forces from Chester in the north, Montgomery in the center and Carmarthen in the south would overwhelm Llywelyn’s outer defenses.
As early as January 1277, the northern force under William de Beauchamp, with the help of Llywelyn’s brother Daffydd, had secured the area around the Clwyd River. On April 1, the central force under Roger Mortimer placed Dolforwyn Castle under siege. Believing resistance to be futile, the garrison agreed to surrender on the 8th unless relief arrived before then. Although Llywelyn was in the vicinity, he chose not to risk the destruction of his army in a battle to save Dolforwyn. The castle therefore surrendered to the English, who handed it over to their ally, Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn, now reinstated as the prince of southern Powys. Meanwhile, in January the southern force under Payn fitz Patrick de Chadworth had begun its assault on the Welsh castles that controlled the Tywi Valley. With the fall of Dynefwr Castle on April 11, the local ruler, Rhys ap Maredudd, switched his allegiance to the English. Unfortunately for Llywelyn, he would not be the last to defect. Command of the southern force was transferred to Edward’s brother, Edmund Crouchback of Lancaster, who led his troops out of the Tywi Valley and into the coastal region of Ceredigion, which he subdued.
On July 1, Edward left the assembly point of Worcester with the main army and arrived at Chester on the 15th. Llywelyn, who must have been kept informed of those developments, sent the Bishop of Bangor to Edward with an offer to negotiate. Edward refused, believing, no doubt, that Llywelyn still needed to be taught a lesson and that, having gone to the trouble of assembling such a huge force, it should be put to some use.
Edward’s army consisted of 800 horse and large numbers of foot soldiers, including English archers, crossbowmen from Gascony and native Welsh auxiliaries. At the army’s peak in August, records indicate there were 15,600 foot, of which 9,000 were Welsh. To help supply this host, Edward summoned 26 ships from the Cinque Ports (a confederation of coastal towns in southeast England).
As the main body moved northward, it was preceded by 1,800 axmen who cleared a wide path through the woods, depriving Llywelyn’s troops of cover from which to harass Edward’s army. Upon making camp at a site near the Abbey of Basingwark, laborers began the construction of Flint Castle. By August 20, Edward had advanced to the estuary of the Clwyd River, where he started building Rhuddlan Castle. Nine days later, having reached the Conway River estuary, Edward halted. Rather than make a direct assault on the mountains of Snowdonia, he sent John de Vescey with a force of 2,000 foot to go around Llywelyn’s flank by ship and attack Anglesey. For two months Vescey ravaged the island, employing 360 harvesters to gather up crops, which he sent back to Edward to feed his army along the Conway.
Llywelyn was now surrounded by three armies–Edward’s across the Conway, Vescey’s force on Anglesey and Edmund’s to the south. In addition, with the loss of the crops on Anglesey and the approach of winter, his people were faced with starvation. Left with no other option, Llywelyn surrendered on November 1.
Through the Treaty of Aberconway, Edward reduced Llywelyn’s status in native Wales to that of a prince of Gwynedd. In turn, Edward rewarded his Welsh allies; Llywelyn’s brother Daffydd received most of the lands between the Clwyd and Conway rivers. But within Edward’s settlement were planted the seeds of rebellion. Those same Welsh princes who had deserted Llywelyn out of resentment for his overbearing style soon found life under Edward’s rule to be even more intolerable. English officials flaunted an air of superiority after their victory and often disregarded Welsh law, which Edward had sworn to uphold. The degree of dissatisfaction that this behavior engendered is vividly illustrated by the fact that it was their former ally, Daffydd ap Gruffydd, who led the rebellion.
On the night of Palm Sunday, March 21, 1282, Daffydd took the fortress of Hawarden by surprise. The rebels also managed to seize Ruthin and the former Welsh strongholds of Dinas Bran and Dolforwyn. Another English ally, the prince of northern Powys, went over to Daffydd’s side and raided the territory around Oswestry Castle. Llywelyn, who may have been waiting to see if the rebellion would succeed, now joined in, taking command in the north. That allowed Daffydd to travel south, where the rebels had already seized two of the former Welsh castles of the Tywi Valley, along with Aberystwyth, which they destroyed.
Word of the revolt reached Edward on March 25, and he resolved, in the words of a contemporary chronicler, [to] put an end finally to the matter that he had now commenced of putting down the malice of the Welsh. Edward had to act quickly in order to prevent the further spread of rebellion. While waiting for the main army to muster at Worcester, he again appointed three Marcher lords to command the forces at Chester, Montgomery and Carmarthen.
Things did not go as smoothly as before, however. Attempts to relieve besieged castles in the north were repulsed, and in the south the English efforts met with outright disaster. Gilbert de Clare, leading a detachment of 50 horse and 1,600 foot soldiers, raided the area around Carregcennen Castle, which the rebels had destroyed. On June 17, Clare’s column, slowed down by its loot and unprotected by scouts, was ambushed at Llandeilo. Clare escaped, but in his panic he abandoned Carmarthen Castle and the surrounding area. Edward reacted by sacking Clare, but the damage had already been done. Llywelyn arrived in the south to further bolster rebel morale in the wake of their victory. From there, Llywelyn moved north to contest the advance into Maelienydd of the central force under Roger Mortimer, who had already retaken Dolforwyn Castle. In Llywelyn’s absence, however, Robert Tibetot regained the Tywi Valley and retraced Edmund’s route through Ceredigion. Once again, the activities in the south coincided with Edward’s march on Gwynedd.
Leading a column of 600 horse and 4,000 foot out of Chester, Edward reached Rhuddlan Castle by July 17. In late August, he dispatched a force of 200 horse and 2,000 foot, under Luke de Tany, to Anglesey. His objective was not merely to force Llywelyn into submission, as it had been in 1277, but to conquer native Wales. Thus, a pontoon bridge was constructed across the Menai Strait so that the force on Anglesey could attack Snowdonia. Edward’s plans for a simultaneous advance into Snowdonia by Tany’s force and his own, however, were postponed when the Archbishop of Canterbury opened negotiations.
On the island of Anglesey, Humphrey de Bohun replaced Tany as the commander. Whether out of resentment from his demotion, fear that the war would end before he was rewarded with Welsh territory, or just a hunger for glory, Tany disregarded his orders and led a force across the pontoon bridge. Far from taking the Welsh by surprise, his column was ambushed. Numerous foot soldiers and at least 16 knights, including Tany himself, drowned when the bridge collapsed under the retreating troops. The postponement of Edward’s advance into Snowdonia was now extended indefinitely.
If the war of 1276-77 had taught Llywelyn one thing, it was the futility of pursuing a purely passive strategy when faced with the dogged persistence and overwhelming resources of King Edward. But, unable to forestall Edward’s advance into Snowdonia by direct means, either on sea or on land, Llywelyn’s only remaining option was to stop him indirectly. The victory at Menai Strait provided the perfect opportunity to mount an indirect counterattack, which, he hoped, would wrest the initiative from Edward. Llywelyn planned to strike in the central area, around the castle of Builth. A valuable link between English forces in the north and those in the south, the center had recently suffered a blow when its commander, Roger Mortimer, died on October 26, 1282. Mortimer’s sons may have even duped Llywelyn into coming south with promises of aid.
In early December, Llywelyn led his army into Maelienydd, making camp at Llanganten, between the confluence of the Irfon and Wye rivers. From there, he sent a detachment farther south to attack Brecon Castle. It was no coincidence that the owner of Brecon, Humphrey de Bohun, was also the commander of the troops on Anglesey. In fact, that raid succeeded in forcing Edward to replace Bohun so that he could return to Maelienydd to defend his lands.
John Gifford, new commander of the central force, rode south from Montgomery to Llanganten, but he was prevented from crossing the Irfon by a group of Welsh stationed at the bridge. A local resident showed Gifford a ford downstream, over which he sent a detachment of infantry. Early on December 11, Gifford’s detachment surprised the Welsh at the bridge, allowing his knights to charge across. The main Welsh army, consisting of 160 armored cavalrymen and 7,000 spearmen, was encamped on the top of a hill overlooking the bridge. At this crucial moment, Llywelyn was missing, having left earlier on an unspecified errand. The Welsh, instead of scattering Gifford’s forces with a downhill charge, stood on the defensive. Gifford led 200 knights and 2,000 infantrymen in an uphill charge that routed the Welsh.
Unknown to either side, Llywelyn had been killed before the battle in a minor skirmish with the Marcher lord Roger Lestrange at Orewin bridge. Only afterward was his body identified among the 3,000 Welsh killed that day. His head was sent to Edward at Rhuddlan, who dispatched it to London, where it was displayed above one of the gates leading to the Tower.
Daffydd and his advisers decided to continue fighting in the hope that, with the arrival of winter, Edward might abandon the struggle. Even before learning of Llywelyn’s death, however, Edward had resolved to pursue his campaign through the winter. His armies converged on Snowdonia, reducing the Welsh castles one by one. Now a fugitive, Daffydd was finally captured on June 21, 1283, by Welshmen in Edward’s service. In a public ceremony at Shrewsbury, Daffydd was hanged, drawn and quartered. His head was sent to join his brother’s at the Tower of London.
Edward poured an enormous amount of money and effort into both the construction of new castles and the rebuilding of those damaged during the rebellion, all in the hope that this would ensure the pacification of Wales. Once again, however, it was Edward’s plans for how Wales should be governed that precipitated a rebellion. With the introduction of the English shire system into Wales, some features of Welsh and Marcher law remained untouched, while others were done away with. The result was that, as one of Edward’s justiciars noted, The land was much troubled and irritated. The rebellion of another former ally, Rhys ap Maredudd, in 1287 and 1288 reflected that resentment, even if it failed to generate any popular support. Welsh discontent was brought to a head in 1294, when the final payment of an unpopular tax coincided with the raising of Welsh troops for Edward’s campaign in Gascony.
On September 30, 1294, as the Welsh soldiers were due to muster at Shrewsbury, they suddenly mutinied, killing their English officers and attacking English strongholds. The uprising was widespread, even reaching into previously untouched areas such as the Marcher lordship of Glamorgan. Initially led by a variety of local rulers, the Welsh eventually rallied around a distant cousin of Prince Llywelyn, Madog ap Llywelyn. Soon, virtually every important castle in Wales was under siege.
Lulled into a false sense of security because of his new castles, Edward was taken completely by surprise. Fortunately for him, it would be an easy matter to redirect the forces he had already summoned to Portsmouth for his war in Gascony. In early October, Edward ordered the main army to muster at Worcester. However, as an indication of how bad the situation had become, he directed immediate reinforcements to Brecon Castle and the southern port of Cardiff, rather than the usual points of Montgomery and Carmarthen.
Once again Edward embarked on what was, for the Middle Ages, the unusual expedient of a winter campaign. Because the immediate area west of Chester still needed to be cleared, he divided his main army into two detachments. Leading a column of 50 horse and 5,000 foot soldiers, Edward rode south to Wrexham on December 5 and then turned westward toward the upper Clwyd. According to the Hagnaby chronicle, some 10,000 rebels surrendered to Edward. He pardoned them on the condition that they serve with him in France. The rebels, in turn, pledged to hand their leader over to Edward. Madog, however, convinced his followers that it was better to die defending their homes than to do so in a foreign land. The Welsh resistance continued.
On Christmas Eve, Edward was reunited at his new castle on the Conway estuary with Reginald de Grey’s force of 74 horse and 11,000 foot, which had traveled along the coast. The king then decided to conduct another raid. On January 6, 1295, Edward traveled down the northwestern coast of Snowdonia into the Lleyn Peninsula, reaching the town of Nefyn on the 12th. On the return trip, Edward’s raiding party, slowed down by their booty, was ambushed near Bangor. Although the column returned to Conway Castle on the 20th, the baggage train had been lost. To make matters worse, the rough winter seas prevented supplies from reaching Conway. If, according to the Dominican Friar Nicholas Trivet, the king was reduced to dining on salted fish and water flavored with honey, the plight of the common soldier must have been desperate indeed. Instead of cowing the rebels and increasing his food stocks, Edward’s raid resulted in the raising of Welsh morale and the loss of precious supplies.
As in the previous war, with Edward’s advance on Snowdonia stalled, the head of the rebellion judged the time right to launch an indirect counterattack. Madog decided to lead his army eastward to threaten Shrewsbury. According to the Hagnaby chronicle, [Madog] came into Powys with the elite of his Welshmen. The Welsh army camped at Maes Moydog, northeast of Montgomery. English agents, however, informed the commander of the central force of Madog’s location. Gathering together 120 knights and 2,500 infantrymen, William de Beauchamp raced back from Oswestry to his base at Montgomery. From there, he approached the Welsh camp under cover of darkness.
On the morning of March 5, the Welsh prepared to do battle. According to Trivet, They planted the butts of their spears on the ground, and turned the points against the charging cavalry so as to defend themselves from their rush. Initially the results were promising, as the first charge was repulsed with the loss of 10 horses. In the words of the Hagnaby chronicle, The Welshmen held their ground well, and they were the best and bravest Welsh that anyone had seen. Beauchamp then placed his archers between his knights, so that their fire could produce gaps in the Welsh line of spearmen that his knights could exploit. Presumably that tactic succeeded, as the Welsh formation was broken by the second assault and their army was routed. At the cost of only 90 infantrymen, according to the Hagnaby chronicle, the English managed to kill 700 Welsh of the nobler sort. Although Madog escaped, the defeat at Maes Moydog tore the heart out of the rebellion.
In turn, the destruction of Madog’s army may have lifted the spirits of Edward’s troops at Conway, for even though relief had come six weeks before the victory at Maes Moydog, Edward failed to act until five days after the battle. On March 10, a picked party of archers, led by a few knights, made a sortie against the rebel camp. The Welsh, who were literally caught napping, lost 500 men. Even some of the English baggage lost back in January was retrieved. On April 15, an English force was sent to occupy Anglesey, where they began to erect Beaumaris Castle.
The successful raid on the Welsh camp and the attack on Anglesey–following, as they did, on the heels of the defeat at Maes Moydog–drove home to most of the Welsh the futility of further resistance. Edward now embarked on what amounted to a victorious circuit around Wales, during which he received the submission of various bands of rebels. Like Daffydd before him, Madog had become a fugitive. He finally surrendered in late July, after trying to lead a raid into Shropshire. Oddly enough, rather than having him executed, Edward imprisoned him in the Tower.
Despite their eventual defeat, the Welsh leaders had demonstrated a clear grasp of strategy. When the traditional approach of delay and evasion failed in 1277, Prince Llywelyn sought a viable alternative during the war of 1282-83. Since he could not openly challenge Edward’s advance on Gwynedd by land or sea, he resolved to divert it by distracting Edward with an attack on the English central area. Consciously or otherwise, Madog ap Llywelyn followed the same strategy of an indirect attack during the war of 1294-95. Both attempts ended in disaster for the Welsh, but while the defeats of Irfon Bridge and Maes Moydog represented a failure of Welsh forces to stand up to English armies in open battle, they did not necessarily represent a failure of Welsh strategy. In both instances Edward was compelled to postpone his advance on Snowdonia until the threat to his central area had been eliminated. Ultimately, the defeat of the Welsh stemmed from the weaknesses of a small society in transition, rather than any failure on the part of that society’s leaders to understand military strategy.
Ironically, while an independent principality of Wales failed to survive, the title of Prince of Wales has endured. This was co-opted by Edward, who bestowed it upon his son, the future Edward II, in February 1301. To this day, the title Prince of Wales has traditionally been given to the intended successor to the English throne.
This article was written by Paul V. Walsh and originally published in the February 1999 issue of Military History magazine.
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