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The Last Prince of Wales

Phil Carradice

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On 11 December 1282, a small skirmish took place close to the River Irfon in Mid Wales.

The battle - if it can be called that - was fought between a party of mounted English knights and a group of unarmoured Welshmen who were clearly travelling on foot - an uneven contest if ever there was one.

The significance of the event, however, is not that the battle took place but in the simple fact that one of the casualties of that minor and otherwise insignificant skirmish was none other than Llywelyn, the last true Prince of Wales.

Llywelyn was the grandson of Llywelyn the Great, the man who had effectively kept the English kings out of Wales for many years and greatly reduced their influence in the Principality.

But by the time his grandson achieved manhood things had changed. The young prince inherited a country that was now under constant threat from its more powerful eastern neighbours.

Wales was divided, the Treaty of Woodstock ensuring that Llywelyn's native Gwynedd was partitioned between him and Dafydd, his younger brother. Such partition was, the English kings reasoned, the only way to keep the Welsh nation weak and so protect their vulnerable eastern border.

It was a situation that could not last. Chafing against such humiliation, Llywelyn first fought against his brother, then imprisoned him and finally declared himself sole ruler of Gwynedd, in direct contradiction to the Treaty of Woodstock.

The punitive and harsh treaty was something that Llywelyn and most Welshmen considered to have been unfairly forced upon them.

With Henry preoccupied with his warlike and rebellious Barons, in 1258 Llywelyn demanded that the lords of Deheubarth and Powys should swear allegiance to him rather than Henry, the English king, and formally adopted the title "Prince of Wales".

He then set off on a series of campaigns against the English and quickly regained lost territory in Gwynedd and Powys. He even found time to take Eleanor, daughter of Simon de Montfort, as his bride, sealing a powerful alliance with the English baron. As if bowing to the inevitable, Henry III formally recognised Llywelyn as Prince of Wales at the Treaty of Montgomery in 1267.

Although he was still expected to pay homage to the English king, Llywelyn had effectively created the Principality of Wales and for a few years an uneasy peace descended across the land.

When Henry died in 1272 he was succeeded by Edward I and for some reason - something that has never been made totally clear - Llywelyn refused to attend his coronation. On five occasions he was summoned to pay homage to the new king and each time he refused.

It was a deliberate snub that could, eventually, have only one result. In 1277 Edward invaded. The winter of 1277 was a hard one and Llywelyn's forces were pushed steadily back by the powerful war machine of Edward's England.

Soon Llywelyn was forced to ask for peace and by the terms of the Treaty of Aberconwy he was deprived of all his lands except those in Gwynedd that lay to the west of the River Conwy.

The next four years passed peacefully enough but Llywelyn was seething with resentment and, like the rest of his countrymen, was determined to end English influence in Wales. When, in March 1282, his brother Dafydd rebelled against Edward, a series of linked revolts broke out all across the country.

Llywelyn had little choice other than to join a rebellion that was clearly going to be a fight to the death.

To begin with the Welsh did well. Edward's army was soundly defeated at Llandeilo and an English seaborne force was destroyed in the Menai Straits.

Yet Llywelyn knew that the longer the war went on the more the balance of power would shift to Edward. He knew he needed more troops.

He went south to recruit soldiers and just outside Builth Wells learned of the presence of a large English force in the area. It was while he and a few followers were reconnoitering the English positions that he was surprised and attacked on the morning of 11 December.

The English knights charged the defenceless Welsh Prince and his party. Llywelyn had no option other than to make a run for cover but in the confusion Stephen de Francton plunged his lance into the unarmoured body of what he then thought was a simple Welsh foot soldier.

Only when he returned to the scene of the skirmish later in the day did de Francton realize he had killed the Welsh Prince and war leader.

Llywelyn's head was cut from his body and sent to London where the grisly object was displayed at the Tower for many months, a warning to all those who dared to defy the might of Edward.

In the wake of Llywelyn's death the rebellion quickly fell apart and within a few years Edward had mercilessly ground Wales beneath his iron foot.

The last Prince of Wales remains, now, as a symbol of a proud and determined people - and of the fight for freedom against oppression, from wherever it might come.

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