The Welsh Counties
The native inhabitants of Wales were descended from Celtic Britons that had been driven out of the fertile English Midlands by the invading Anglo Saxon hordes in the aftermath of the Roman departure from Britain. In fact, the term ‘Welsh’ is the Anglo Saxon word for foreigner. In the 8th Century the Saxons decided to establish a permanent, clearly defined border by erecting the King Offa’s Dyke, an earthwork barrier running from Chester in the North to the Bristol Channel in the South.
Offa’s Dyke marked the western frontier of Anglo Saxon Britain, until the 11th century, when a new invader from across the English Channel arrived. The Normans conquered an area of Wales known as the border zone; to the Normans it was known as the Marches (a French word meaning frontier). The Norman Lords who governed these lands were known as Marcher Lords, they helped to keep order among the natives, preventing insurrection from within.
Over the course of a couple of centuries a hybrid society of Welsh, Saxon and Norman developed, mixing and existing together. By 1277, Wales was split into two divisions, in the South was the Marcher (Norman) Wales and in the North, Native Wales.
A Tough Landscape
Welsh Lifestyle in the Middle Ages
The Northern native Welsh Kingdom was actually split into separate kingdoms ruled by leaders known as Princes, from the Latin Princeps, meaning principal citizen. The most important realms were Deheubarth in the south, Gwynedd in the north and Powys in the east. Contrary to popular belief, these kingdoms were not inhabited by uncouth barbarians. Welsh society had gradually been transforming over the centuries into one that resembled feudal England, that still maintained its Celtic roots.
The Welsh lifestyle was largely dictated by an incredibly unforgiving landscape comprising of high mountains, deep valleys, extensive forests, rivers and marshes, which were not easy to access at the best of times. As a result the Welsh economy was more suited to pastoral farming rather than growing crops. For the Welsh; war involved stealing an enemy’s herd; the farmers were highly mobile and difficult to track, as they journeyed between the best summer and winter pastures.
A Motte and Bailey Fort
Natives vs. Settlers
The Welsh Princes eventually learnt to avoid open, flat ground which the Normans knights favoured. Instead they used their in depth knowledge of their environment, and took to their rugged hills to hide and then harass Norman columns that had to pass through river valleys or coastal plains. However, the Normans were more able at imposing control on their populace, through the use of their motte and bailey forts as substitutes for the more permanent castles already established in England. It was no coincidence that the Marcher Lords were strongest in the broad, flat coastal plains in the south of Wales.
By the start of the 12th century, the balance of power began to shift. The Welsh gradually learnt to use medieval weapons in an effective way, including fully utilising horses as cavalry. Ironically, the Welsh probably only learnt of these methods through escaped hostages that had been kept prisoner at English castles. The Welsh Princes imitated Norman castles and also began deploying armoured cavalry to achieve parity with the Norman lords in the south. By becoming a more settled society, the Princes were able to increase the size of their domains and the degree of control they had over their subjects. The lengths the Princes went to imitate their Norman neighbours was staggering; they even took up some of the more peaceful pursuits such as hunting, planting orchards and gardens. In turn, just like the Normans they surrounded them with walls and ditches.
As the 13th century dawned, the growing of crops became more prominent, settlements became larger, spawning in towns, creating trade networks, making the Princes very wealthy, thus allowing them to build great stone castles and employ siege engines for use against enemy fortresses. Though, all the time the eyes of London were constantly watching, always keeping abreast of the Princes’ activities.
Llywelyn ap Gruffydd
Enter the Protagonists
The Normans liked to occasionally force the Celtic rulers of Scotland and Wales to pay homage to the English Kings, acknowledging them as overlord. I’m sure that the rulers of Wales and Scotland would ordinarily cry outrage at having to do such a thing, but the Normans had wealth and military might on their side, so they usually complied. As a result, the Normans were able to establish dominance of Britain; the Welsh Princes were answerable to the English King, regardless of whether they were dealing with the Marcher Lords or each other.
In 1233, the wind of change was in the air. It started, when a man called Llywelyn Fawr (The Great) became Prince of Wales, the lesser Princes agreed to acknowledge him as overlord, rather than swear allegiance to the English King. Fawr’s grandson, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd went further in 1265, when he declared his support for the rebellious English Baron Simon De Montfort against Henry III. As gratitude for the support, De Montfort agreed to recognise Llywelyn as the Prince of Wales.
However, this fledgling alliance was undone just a year later, when Henry’s son, the future Edward I slew De Montfort at the Battle of Evesham, thus crushing the rebellion once and for all. In 1267, Henry signed the Treaty of Montgomery, which officially confirmed Llywelyn’s title, and also the right to demand homage from the other Welsh Princes.
Edward, who would come to be known as Longshanks ascended to the throne in 1274. In North Wales, Llywelyn wondered whether the new King would uphold the treaty. Edward did the opposite and demand the Welsh Prince to pay homage to him, before he would acknowledge him as the Prince of Wales. Llywelyn was rightfully suspicious and stalled on a decision. His suspicion was further vindicated when he learnt that Edward had provided sanctuary for Llywelyn’s brother Daffydd ap Gruffydd and Prince Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwn of Powys, both of these men had been exiled for plotting to assassinate Llywelyn. Edward also moved to seize Llywelyn’s fiancée, Eleanor de Montfort, wife of the late Simon. Edward did this, because he feared that their marriage would revive opposition to the throne. Llywelyn refused to pay homage to the King until the issues had been settled; in turn Edward refused to acknowledge the Welsh Prince until he complied. On the 12th November 1276, Edward made the decision to force Llywelyn into submission.
The Scenes of War
The war between England and Wales was a real David vs. Goliath, the population of Wales was just 300,000 compared to England’s 4 million. England had the ability to raise more troops, possessed a much wealthier economy and was able to better equip its soldiers. The Welsh army was mostly composed of infantrymen armed with spears and bows, along with 240 armoured cavalrymen, who were inferior to their English counterparts. Llywelyn decided to use the tried and tested method of taking to the hills, using the rugged terrain to elude and harass the English, but that meant abandoning settlements, castles and fields. In the early stages, it seemed that Llywelyn was unable to pursue either the traditional Welsh strategy effectively or the Norman strategy of confronting the enemy on open ground, because of the differential in numbers. Edward appointed a number of Marcher Lords as royal officials in Wales, and charged them with advancing into the native lands and securing a buffer zone surrounding Gwynedd in preparation for Edwards’s main advance. The Lords attacked from three directions; a northern force attacking from Chester, a central force attacking from Montgomery, and a southern force attacking from Carmarthen, the simple objective was to overwhelm Llywelyn’s defences.
In January 1277, the Northern force was able to secure an area around the Clwyd River. Three months later, the Central force had Dolforwyn Castle under siege, just a week later, the garrison surrendered. The commander recognised that resistance was futile, due to the fact that he knew that aid was not forthcoming. The bitter irony was that Llywelyn was close by, but probably wisely decided not to risk the destruction of his army; it must have been a tough decision for him to leave the castle to its fate. In the wake of victory, the English handed the castle to Llywelyn’s brother, and ally of Edward Daffydd, as further reward Edward reinstated him as the Prince of Southern Powys.
Meanwhile the Southern force assaulted Welsh castles in the Tywi Valley. The main castle, Dynefwr fell on the 11th April, the local ruler Rhys ap Moredudd decided to switch sides to the English; another blow for Llywelyn, and that wouldn't be the last defection he would be pained to endure. The Southern force then proceeded to march out of the Tywi Valley into the coastal region of Ceredigion, which was quickly subdued. On the 1st July Edward finally left his base in Worcester with 16,000 men including 800 Calvary, reaching Chester two weeks later. Sensing the threat, Llywelyn sent the Bishop of Bangor to negotiate terms with the King. But the ruthless Edward refused, stating that he thought that Llywelyn needed to be taught a lesson, what’s more, there was no way he was going to back down, not after going to the trouble of assembling such a large force. They marched northwards, with 1800 axe-men clearing a clear path through the woods as they went, as well as helping with passage, it also helped to deny the Welsh the vital tree cover needed for surprise attacks.
On the 20th August Edward reached the Clwyd River, and began work on a new castle, Rhuddian castle. Nine days later he reached the Conway River, but in the midst of the mountains of Snowdonia he halted, electing to send a force under the command of John de Vescey to attack the island of Anglesey, just off the North-West coast of Wales. Two months later, the island was under Edward’s control and had been totally stripped of its crops, all sent back to the English King.
Ready to Fight
Victory for Edward
Llywelyn now found himself surrounded by three forces; the King was across the Conway, Vescey was in Anglesey and the Southern Force commanded by the Edmund Crouchback of Lancaster, the King’s brother. If the crops could have been saved, then Llywelyn might have been able to hold out for a counteroffensive, but with their loss and a bitter winter looming, he was left with little alternative but to surrender, which he did on the 1st November 1277, thus ending the war for Wales.
In the aftermath, Edward drew up the Treaty of Aberconway, which reduced Llywelyn to the Prince of Gwynedd. Edward was very fond of handing out titles and land to those who assisted him, and he did so to Welshmen who decided to pledge allegiance to him, among them was Daffydd, the treacherous brother of Llywelyn. It seemed, as if the Welsh nation had been subdued, for now at least.
The Story Continues
- Edward I and the War for Wales 1282
Edward I thought he had crushed Wales in 1277, but there were those who felt differently...
Excellent Hub about Edward I by scarytaff.
- Llywelyn the Last
More info on Llywelyn from castlewales.com
- Llywelyn the Last - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Wikipedia article on Llywelyn ap Gruffydd
- King Edward I: Invasion of Wales
A highly recommended website, that goes into great detail.
- Welsh Castles of Edward I
Details of the Castles built by Edward
- Edward I of England - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Wikipedia article on Edward I
- Welsh War of Edward I, 1277-1282
A very good website delivering more information on the war.
© 2012 James Kenny
James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on April 17, 2012:
Thanks Eliza, I genuinely didn't know that little fact either. I appreciate you dropping by. Take care.
Lisa McKnight from London on April 17, 2012:
Thanks for this comprehensive history of that particular time in Wales when the English sought to take the land from the welsh. I did not know "Welsh" meant foreigner in Anglo Saxon. Interesting fact.
James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on February 20, 2012:
Thanks Mark, I went to Snowdonia just after Christmas, and the scenery was breathtaking, I managed to glimpse Mount Snowdon briefly, before the clouds covered it up. I'm really pleased that you liked it, because I really enjoyed learning about a part of history that I was totally ignorant of before.
markbennis on February 20, 2012:
This is fascinating to read, I love history and enjoy learning more about it too, Wales is a beautiful place the land and its mountains and stone and medieval ruins leave a scent of what was in those day.
I love Brecon and have enjoyed countless expeditions over its mountainous terrain; this Hub has added texture to my memories, voted up!
James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on February 04, 2012:
Thanks viking305, I like your username. Really appreciate the comment, thanks for dropping by.
James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on February 04, 2012:
Thanks Sherry, I've really enjoyed writing this one, as I was pretty ignorant of Welsh History beforehand.
L M Reid from Ireland on February 04, 2012:
Really very good article about Wales. I always find the history of other countries interesting and enjoy reading them.
Thanks for a good read
Sherry Hewins from Sierra Foothills, CA on February 04, 2012:
Your hubs are so richly detailed, I feel like I've had a history lesson, a very interesting one.