The 'mailed Norman fist' came to dominate much of Wales in the years after the Conquest, but by 1400 national pride returned, with the heroic exploits of Owain Glyn Dwr. How did Wales and the Welsh survive the turbulent medieval years?
By Ian Bremner
Last updated 2011-02-17
The 'mailed Norman fist' came to dominate much of Wales in the years after the Conquest, but by 1400 national pride returned, with the heroic exploits of Owain Glyn Dwr. How did Wales and the Welsh survive the turbulent medieval years?
'This nation may now be harassed, weakened and decimated by your soldiery... but it will never be destroyed by the wrath of man.' (The Chronicler, Gerald of Wales, put these words into the mouth of an old man when faced by an invading English king.)
By the 13th century most of Wales had felt at least the tentative grasp of the mailed Norman fist, while large areas of it had settled into uneasy rule by Anglo-Norman barons.
Only the ancient principality of Gwynedd maintained its theoretical independence. After the conquest of Britain that followed the victory at Hastings in 1066, Norman power expanded throughout the British isles, penetrating into the heart of Wales, and across the Irish sea into Ireland itself.
With it came feudalism, knights, monasteries and manors; together they dragged Wales from its native British past into a European future. In response Wales became renewed, its native culture was redefined, and its national identity was codified for the first time.
Some historians argue that many of the institutions we take to be Norman are actually the developments of existing Anglo-Saxon tools of government, given Norman names and housed in the castles and abbeys that we still see as the greatest physical legacy of the conquest.
William I and his heirs built hundreds of castles across the British isles, both as shelter for their unwelcome lords and as symbols to cower the local population; to remind them that while they formed the overwhelming majority of the population, the Norman lords held power over them.
It should be remembered, however, that before the 13th century, the Norman and then Angevin kings paid little attention personally to extending their authority into Wales or Ireland.
The 'fringe' of Britain offered the opportunity to turn themselves into mini-magnates, with their own estates.
Before the loss of Normandy and most of the other Angevin lands in France by King John, the Angevins understandably devoted their attention to their primary French estates. Henry II only intervened in Ireland to stop his own barons becoming too powerful there, and royal policy remained largely 'reactive', according to Professor Davies.
The barons moved into the 'hinterland' and the crown only intervened when it felt it to be necessary, or was threatened. At all times, any lands taken by the advancing barons remained in their possession only by the grace of their king.
One of the reasons that many of the Norman lords followed William the Bastard in his highly risky invasion of Britain in 1066, was the promise of reward.
To them, the many powerful warrior lords squabbling over the relatively modest size of Normandy itself, the 'fringe' of Britain offered the opportunity to turn themselves into mini-magnates, with their own estates. The only thing between them and power was the local population and its traditional leaders.
The best land went to the king and his inner circle and so it was in Wales (and then Ireland) that the most ambitious lords found their challenge and opportunity. The Angevin kings realised that their authority could only reach into central Wales through the power of their own nobility.
This action of extending power through ambitious individuals (often without the crown's consent), however, turned out to be a two-edged sword. In order to subdue the native population, these lords would need to raise and maintain a significant military presence. These forces could be just as easily used against the king in Westminster as to attack the Welsh princes in Gwynedd.
However compromised, the Norman and Angevin kings allowed this settlement to continue and so by the reign of Henry III (1216-72), Wales could be called a 'half conquered country', in Professor Bartlett's words. Needless to say, only the lords were Norman; the vast bulk of the settlers that followed in their wake were Saxon-English and brought their native tongue with them.
On the eve of the wars unleashed by Edward I's invasion in 1276, Wales had essentially become divided into three zones. The outer one, along the south coast and traditional English border, belonged to the so-called 'Marcher' lords, the descendants of those first advancing Norman barons and the crown itself.
Often branches of the great noble houses and bitter rivals, these 'Marcher' lords were the first line of England's defence against Welsh invasion; they also formed the shock troops of noble and Crown incursions into central Wales.
Here we can see the continuation of a separate Welsh society, with clear traditions, customs and native laws.
As befitted such a strange nether-land of authority and conflict, the Marches enjoyed their own law for many generations. It was a hybrid of local customs and the common law. The central area of Wales changed hands on many occasions, depending on who had the initiative at any one time.
If a strong Welsh prince won the support of his rivals and faced a weak or divided English Crown, like that of Henry III, then the Welsh prince's influence would extend to the centre.
When faced by a strong English king or an aggressive generation of Marcher lords, the native Welsh princes would be hemmed within the ancient principality of Gwynedd in the north-west: greater Snowdonia and neighbouring Anglesey. Here we can see a clear continuation of a separate Welsh society, with clear traditions, customs and native laws.
We should not forget that the Vikings continued to raid north-west Wales well into the 1130s. In the 11th century, parts of Wales remained Norse lands, and it was only the increasing incursions of the Normans that shifted the Welsh perspective on the world from Scandinavian centred to Anglo focused.
From then on, Wales became internally divided, with the native inhabitants spending as much time fighting each other as the Anglo-Normans. As Professor Davies has written:
'In the 12th and 13th centuries the paradox of the diversity of Wales on the one hand and the convictions of its own unity on the other came into ever sharper focus. On the capacity of the Welsh to resolve, or to fail to resolve, that paradox would turn very considerably the very survival of Welsh political independence'.
The first half of the 13th century saw the native Welsh on the offensive. They were led by a prince, who was one of many to be called Llywelyn, but the only one to earn himself the title, 'Great.'
Having expanded his power as far south as Powys by 1208, he then fought off the attempt by King John to conquer Wales in 1211-12. Due to the humbling of King John (1199-1216) by his barons (they forced him to agree to the rulings of the Magna Carta), the French invasion of 1216, and the succession of Henry III, aged only nine, the English Crown had lost its authority.
The Treaty of Worcester in 1218 recognised Llywelyn's authority in Wales, and secured the dominance of Welsh as the main language, but with Norman French making inroads through the nobility.
Llywelyn had married Henry III's sister, but this did not stop the two of them disputing jurisdiction over Wales. For 20 years Llywelyn the Great ruled most of Wales, but failed to pass his power on to his son.
By 1255 his grandson, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd had gained power in Gwynedd, just as Henry III sought to extend his influence there through force of arms. However, the king failed to conquer Wales, or win the personal loyalty and support of the crucial Marcher lords.
The Civil War in England between Henry III and his barons, meant that from 1258 the crown's attention was drawn back to the heart of the kingdom. Indeed, it was Henry's failure to defeat the Welsh that gave his enemies another stick with which to beat his government.
This left the ambitious regional lords room to expand their influence, and so Llywelyn gained more land, defeated the royal army, established links with the Scots, and declared himself the first and last native Prince of Wales.
Llywelyn then allied his cause with that of Simon de Montfort, the last baron to stand unequivocally against Henry III. De Montfort defeated the king at the battle of Lewes in 1264, and then recognised Llywelyn's title as Prince of Wales in return for a promised payment of £20,000.
He led a nation secure in its past, with a strong oral tradition of myths and legends, but one somewhat behind the social change wrought in the rest of northern Europe.
The Treaty of Montgomery, in 1267, ratified the deal, signed now by the restored Henry III. It marked the peak of Llywelyn's power, with the notion of a Welsh Principality recognised to have its own statehood elements.
Llywelyn now faced the problems of having no heir, rival brothers who claimed their traditional inheritance (which by Welsh law should have been split between them all) and only a £5,000 income to pay the £16,000 he owed Henry III to secure the treaty!
These constraints forced Llywelyn to levy high taxation and exert an oppressive rule, surrounded all the time by his own noble rivals and the ever present Marcher lords.
Never one to sit around and be attacked, Llywelyn went on the offensive and besieged the massive Marcher fortress at Caerphilly in the south east, built to stop the Welsh ever reaching the river Severn. Now at the peak of his power, he ruled three quarters of the Welsh population.
He led a nation secure in its past, with a strong oral tradition of myths and legends, but one somewhat behind the social change wrought in the rest of north Europe. Only one in ten of the Welsh lived in towns, but their national business, sheep, secured vital wheat and iron imports in return for the wool exports that underpinned the economy.
These vast sheep ranges remained the main source of the wealth of Wales, and with the limited use of coinage, land remained the main medium of exchange for everything, including military service.
Throughout the Middle Ages, the Welsh princes remained vassals of the English king, holding their estates at his will, for which they had to pay public homage.
In 1274, the Coronation of a new king took place at Westminster, one recently returned from crusade and paying homage to the King of France for his own lands in France.
Edward I, known to history as the 'Hammer of the Scots' had every right to expect and demand that Llywelyn paid homage to his new king. However, the Welsh prince refused a total of five summons to pay this homage, and then tried to marry the daughter of Edward's old enemy, Simon de Montfort.
Throughout the Middle Ages the Welsh princes remained vassals of the English king, holding their estates at his will, for which they had to pay public homage.
Two years later Edward I's patience ran out. He led the largest army seen in England since 1066 into Wales, with 9,000 of the 15,000 infantry actually being raised in Wales.
Edward, a significant warlord in how own right, marched into Gwynedd and forced Llywelyn's submission. The Treaty of Aberconwy restricted Llywelyn's influence to the west of Conway Castle. Edward then set about building and rebuilding the first of the castles, which endure to this day, constructed as the 'symbols of subjugation' around the throat of native Welsh independence.
Edward I now controlled more of Wales than any previous English king ever had. It is unlikely that he would have sought any further conquest if the Welsh had remained 'loyal' subjects by his own definition. Instead, it transpired that Edward eventually destroyed Welsh independence, stamped on her customs and then imposed the rule of English law.
In 1282 the Welsh, chaffing under English overlordship rebelled. Limited outbreaks of resistance become a united uprising. This was eventually led by Llywelyn himself, who captured key castles and defeated the royal army. Edward responded by leading an even greater host into Wales.
Seeing that the two sides would not be easily reconciled, the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Peckham, tried to negotiate a settlement. He offered Llywelyn land and titles in England if he would relinquish his position in Wales.
The Welsh council, however, in a statement that is a foretaste of the Scottish 'Declaration of Arbroath', told the Archbishop that Edward had broken his words and treaties, and said that he 'exerts a very cruel tyranny over the churches and ecclesiastical persons'.
They would nevertheless be unwilling to do homage to a stranger whose language, customs and laws are totally unknown to them.
The statement, dated 11 November, goes on to declare:
'Likewise the people of Snowdon say that even if the prince were willing to give their land to the king, they would nevertheless be unwilling to do homage to a stranger whose language, customs and laws are totally unknown to them.'
It went on to say that acceding to the English would be worse than being ruled by the Saracens.
Spurred on in what was by now a true war of national liberation, the Welsh fought on, attacking the lumbering English knights and disappearing into the woods and hills, spurring Edward to clear paths through the woods.
In a significant blow to their cause, Llywelyn was killed in a skirmish with an English foot soldier, almost by accident, and his severed head was then sent off to be shown in London as proof of his death.
The revolt faltered, but sustained itself for several months into 1283. With the death of their internationally known leader, uncertainty set in and the Welsh eventually submitted.
Edward now established settler towns, built even more castles, encouraged English migration and kept all local offices in English hands. As one Welsh historian wrote: 'the idea of "Wales" lives thereafter in the words of the poets'.
The Statute of Rhuddlan (1284) codified the settlement and saw the imposition of English common law in the principality, on all matters, except land claims. Gwynedd (the heart of the principality as defined by the Welsh claimants to the title of prince) was divided into the counties of Anglesey, Caernarfonshire, Flint and Merionethshire.
Wales was left with its language, but daily business increasingly took place in English. Taxes were collected in coin for the first time, and the burden of tax fell hardest on the poor.
The cost of all this fighting and colonisation cost England over £240,000, including £40,000 spent on the castles. It left the crown dependent upon massive loans from the Ricardi bankers, and parliamentary grants of taxation.
One unforeseen consequence of the Welsh and later Scots wars was to fundamentally change the place and role of the English parliament. The fighting and castles had to be paid for and only by regular grants of taxation could the king raise the necessary funds.
This meant regularly calling a parliament and extending its membership, and therefore those who paid tax, to the commoners, as well as the nobles and clergy. In time, the Welsh would also be summoned to the English parliament.
This necessity probably did more than anything else in the Middle Ages to forge a sense of unity and identity in the native Welsh.
The greatest visible legacy of the conquest remains the castles designed by Master James of St George from Savoy, using the latest European ideas.
Beaumaris in Anglesey, the last one to be built, is the best designed while Caernarfon remains the most impressive structure, inspired as it is by the walls of Constantinople. Harlech, standing proudly upon the cliff edge that used to form the coastline, seems to best represent the symbolism of subjection that Edward I intended.
Together, this ring of stone reflected both the nature of subjugation and the realisation that castle strongholds are the only way to control a dissident rural population. Many of the northern Welsh towns that we know today grew up beside the castles, which are many-walled for protection, and all placed along the coast to allow trade and re-supply in times of war.
English settlers, enticed by free land grants and the jurisdiction of their own laws, arrived by the thousand. They destroyed native churches, rebuilt others, and gradually brought Wales into the orbit of Canterbury. Thus they denied the Welsh their claim to appeal directly to the Pope.
Edward's conquest had now become nothing short of a deliberate attempt to stamp out Welsh national identity, and to make the Welsh his subjects, just as the English were. As Professor Davies has written: 'Such a conquest entailed the eradication of the memory of the conquered peoples'.
Wales's most treasured national artefacts were taken to London, including the royal insignia and Y Groes Naid, said to be a fragment of the true cross on which Christ was crucified. To Edward, the principality just became another 'land' for him to own, ruled from Westminster just like the rest of his kingdom.
Although his attempt at forced union would eventually fail in Scotland, Edward I's attempted colonial domination of Wales, 'had given way to an ideology of unity, uniformity and conquest.'
Ironically, it probably did more than anything else in the Middle Ages to forge a sense of unity and identity in the native Welsh. They may have lost their political independence, but the Welsh gained a written statement of a national consciousness that survives to this day.
The statute of Rhuddlan covered Gwynedd, and left the Marcher lands and royal estates to the south and east unchanged. Continued rebellion in the north, most notably in 1294, where many of the new, but half-finished castles quickly fell, demonstrated the vital position of the Marcher lords in a crisis.
Seven of Edward's ten earls possessed Marcher estates, including the powerful Mortimer, Fitzalan, Bohun and de Clare families. Edward had to be careful in not alienating them, while also reducing their capability to oppose him, or fight amongst themselves. A strong king won their respect, a weak one alienated them at his peril.
With defeat at home, the Welsh infantry retained and increased their place at the heart of royal armies, forming 10,000 of the 12,000 foot soldiers led by Edward to defeat William Wallace at Falkirk in 1298. Around 5,000 of these soldiers served at Bannockburn (1314) and Crecy (1346), dressed in their distinctive white and green.
They remained, however, disobedient and riotous soldiers, on one occasion almost killing Edward I himself in a camp dispute in Scotland. Undisciplined in combat, the Welsh mercenaries often murdered, rather than captured, opponents with ransom value. T
he gradual rehabilitation of the Welsh gentry helped restore their discipline, as the Welsh soldiers only really obeyed their own native officers. Within a generation, the Welsh were again allowed to hold positions as Sheriffs and in government.
The last great national rising against English rule in the 13th century came in 1294, as the impact of the great 1290 tax demand fell on the Welsh - at the same time as Edward demanded soldiers to fight for him in France.
These pressures pushed the Welsh into their last revolt for a century. Edward I led the 35,000 men raised to fight in France into the principality, and on one occasion killed 500 rebels as they slept.
The most resonant irony of the conquest remains the installation of the son of the English king as Prince of Wales, that most honoured title in an independent Wales.
Perhaps the most resonant irony of the conquest remains the installation of the son of the English king as Prince of Wales, that most honoured title in an independent Wales. Knowing this, Edward I made his son, later to be Edward II, the first English Prince of Wales in 1301.
Born in Caernarfon by Edward senior's deliberate design, the young Edward inherited the principality and all the royal estates in Wales.
By the time of his brutal death after his removal from the throne, the Welsh remained one of the few groups to be loyal to their king. The main force used in his removal, needless to say, followed the Marcher lords.
The new English king, Edward II (1307-27,) had reason to fear a union between his Scots, Irish and Welsh enemies. Never the warrior his father was, Edward junior inherited the debts and bitter legacies of Edward I's wars.
While the fighting did spread to Ireland, however, after the Scots' victory at Bannockburn, and the Welsh princes received some encouragement from Robert the Bruce, the feared alliance never became reality.
What did happen was that the collective threat from his neighbours allowed Edward II to settle some old scores, and he moved against Roger Mortimer, one of the most powerful Marcher lords, who led the reforming opposition to the king.
Mortimer ruled Carmarthen and south central Wales in a way that angered the local population. One of the reasons why Edward may have won the eventual loyalty of the Welsh was that, while his enemy Mortimer attacked them, Edward made them feel part of things. No longer just a subjugated people but subjects of the realm, occasionally they were called to the king's parliament in some number.
...Welsh culture lived on in the stories of the bards...
By 1322 the king was strong enough to arrest Mortimer, but the latter escaped from the Tower in 1324 and fled to Paris, becoming the estranged queen's lover. Together they invaded England, and forced Edward II's flight into Wales, where he was arrested. In 1328 Mortimer became the first Earl of March, and ruled England with the queen, until the legitimate heir, Edward III removed him in 1330.
Edward II's deposition and death, as legend has it, by a red-hot poker up the rectum (his ornate tomb rests near the Welsh border in Gloucester cathedral), showed that even the Crown was no longer sacrosanct. Only the Welsh seemed to mourn him, and the chronicler Walsingham noted '...the remarkable way in which he was revered by the Welsh'.
The Welsh continued to revolt against English hegemony from time to time but gradually their middling sort, the 'gentry', accepted English law and language in order to gain office and position for themselves.
Increasing numbers sent their heirs to élite universities in England, but Welsh culture lived on, in the stories of the bards and the preaching of the native clergy in the principality.
The cult of the Britonic-Welsh hero, King Arthur (once used by Edward I to justify his claim to rule all Britain,) was renewed again, with the prediction by Merlin that one day Wales would again rule England.
This resurgence of Welsh culture and a period of stability is further reflected in the legacy of Dafydd ap Gwilym, who did not play up nationalist tension but wandered the land, 'singing in praise of nature, women and life.'
He made no mention of the ravages of the Black Death. In March 1349, the great plague that had swept across England penetrated to the corners of Wales. Within a year, one in four people died. Over time, an estimated population of around 300,000 in 1300, became 200,000 by 1400.
Across the British isles the Black Death caused massive social change. In England in 1381 the Peasants' Revolt followed attempts by the government to legislate against wage increases. In Wales, the falling population and continued machinations of the Marcher lords, led to calls for internal reforms of the Welsh land laws and the gwely landholding system.
By now, this effectively repressed the Welsh in their own land. It was based on the practice of cyfran: equally dividing estates between male heirs, thereby constantly reducing their size and income. It collapsed after 1350, greatly aided by the impact of the plagues.
Thereafter, the Welsh economy continued to focus on sheep farming and profitable wool exports, aided by the development of steam-power. Institutionally Wales continued to suffer. The church lacked strong independent leadership and cohesion, and so the English clerical hierarchy gradually extended its authority.
In 1400 the greatest hero of medieval Welsh history emerged, to show that independent aspirations had not disappeared...
In 1400 the greatest hero of medieval Welsh history emerged, to show that independent aspirations had not disappeared, and Wales was still far from a centrally administered part of the English state.
Owain Glyn Dwr led a revolt that, for a while, extended his authority across all Wales. While the English nobility and crown fell into crisis after the tyranny of Richard II, Owain led a rebellion that lasted ten years, and reminded the English crown not to take its hegemony for granted.
Owain himself, a wealthy and well connected man, was partly motivated by local noble rivalry. His main allies were the Tudors of Anglesey and some limited French support.
However, the military skills of the future Henry V (heir to Richard II's replacement, Henry IV), the defeat of his Percy allies (the noble rivals of Henry IV), and the peasant-based nature of the revolt, led to failure.
Despite several significant victories, Glyn Dwr disappeared, and died an outlaw in the hills, refusing Henry V's offer of a pardon in 1415. 'The last and longest Welsh war of independence was over.'
With him died the personification, if not the spirit, of Welsh national identity: 'Very many say he died; the prophets insist he did not.'
What remained was a clear sense, in many Welsh people, that they had a separate and different identity from the English, even if for now they were the subjects of an English king and his law.
Only centuries later, during the period of the Reformation, would Henry VIII pass what later came to be called the 'Acts of Union' with Wales in 1536 and 1543, finally abolishing the Marcher lordships.
These bound Wales to the rapidly expanding Tudor state machine, as never before. Henry VIII, in some ways the heir to Edward's idea of an 'English Empire' in Britain, codified the union with Wales and had himself made king rather than lord of Ireland.
Perhaps the Welsh had the last laugh after all, for Henry of course, was a Tudor; a Welshman. As Merlin had predicted, the Welsh once again ruled England.
The Age of Conquest, Wales 1063-1415 by RR Davies (OUP, 1987)
The First English Empire - Power and Identity in the British Isles, 1093-1343 by RR Davies (OUP, 2000)
Domination and Conquest by RR Davies (CUP, 1990)
When was Wales? by GA Williams (Penguin, 1985)
Edward I by M Prestwich (Yale)
Gerald of Wales, 1146-1223 by R Bartlett
The Making of Europe - Conquest, Colonisation and Cultural Change, 950-1350 (Penguin, 1993)
England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings (OUP, 2000)
Wales by John Davies (Penguin)
Medieval Wales by AD Carr (Macmillan)
Ian Bremner is Associate Producer of the BBC History of Britain series. He studied history at the Universities of Leeds and Vanderbilt (USA), and has worked as a journalist for ABC News and BBC Current Affairs.
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