William the Conqueror

6: The Coming of the Normans

Who were the Normans?

The duchy of Normandy came into existence in AD 911 as the result of settlement of the lower Seine Valley in northern France by Northmen or Vikings. With its energetic inhabitants and its well-structured system of government, Normandy became perhaps the most dynamic region of Europe.

Its basis was feudalism, a system whereby the Duke granted lands to his followers sufficient to enable them to maintain mounted knights to serve him in war.

Following the Battle of Hastings in 1066, William, Duke of Normandy, became William I, King of England, and rapidly won control over his entire kingdom.

The early Norman attacks on Wales

The Wales of 1066 was enfeebled as the result of the fall of Gruffudd ap Llywelyn three years earlier. There was much feuding and blood-letting among those who claimed his power before any of the Welsh kingdoms gained widely acknowledged rulers. William established earldoms at Chester, Shrewsbury and Hereford, all of which were held by men of strongly aggressive tendencies.

By 1086, the Earl of Hereford had brought about the extinction of the kingdom of Gwent, the Earl of Shrewsbury had built a castle at Montgomery and had taken much of the Welsh borderland into his possession, and the Earl of Chester had struck deeply into Gwynedd.

During the reign of William II, the Welsh rose in revolt, and by 1100 the Normans had been driven out of Gwynedd, Ceredigion and most of Powys.

William, however, recognised the rule of Rhys ap Tewdwr in Deheubarth and accepted that of Iestyn ap Gwrgant in Morgannwg. After William died in 1087, invasion gathered pace. Morgannwg - or at least its lowlands - fell to Robert Fitzhammo. Rhys ap Tewdwr was killed. Brycheiniog was seized. The Earls of Shrewsbury drove through Powys and Ceredigion to southern Dyfed where they established a castle at Pembroke.

The Welsh revolt

The Normans became masters of England, a centralised kingdom, in a matter of a few years. Wales, where power was far more decentralized, proved resistant to their power. During the reign of William II, the Welsh rose in revolt, and by 1100 the Normans had been driven out of Gwynedd, Ceredigion and most of Powys.

Gruffudd ap Cynan became ruler of Gwynedd and Cadwgan ap Bleddyn ruler of Powys. Gruffudd ap Rhys ap Tewdwr sought to establish himself in Deheubarth. In the uplands of the borders and the south east, members of the old Welsh royal families struggled to retain a degree of authority.

The creation of the Welsh March

Welsh March soldier
Welsh March soldier

Thus Wales became divided between those regions still under native rule and the lordships controlled from the castles of the Normans - between Pura Wallia and Marchia Wallie. The Norman lords of the March, while subjects of the English king, were not subject to the law of England.

Their fiefdoms were like independent kingdoms whose rulers could, with impunity, hold courts, build castles and wage war. As the March would exist in some form for over 450 years, it became a major and lasting element in the history of Wales.

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