History explorer: the conquest of Wales

Historian and broadcaster Marc Morris visits eight places linked with Edward I's brutally thorough subjugation of the Welsh...

The distinctive polygon towers of Caernarfon Castle. (Photo by Gail Johnson/Getty Images)

In the mid-13th century Wales was to all intents and purposes an independent nation. Its people not only spoke their own language, they also lived according to their own laws and customs, and were governed by their own native princes. Yet in the space of a single generation this independence was decisively terminated. By the end of the 13th century, the halls of the Welsh princes had been razed and replaced by English castles. The country was governed by Englishmen, and English law prevailed. Wales, in a word, had been conquered.

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Anglo-Welsh hostility had a long history – not for nothing were the two peoples separated by the eighth-century earthwork known as Offa’s Dyke – but in the century or so before the conquest this hostility had been sharpened by contrasting economic fortunes. Thanks to its expanding agricultural base, 12th-century England could boast new towns, large cities, great cathedrals, international trade and a plentiful silver coinage. Wales, with its pastoral economy, had none of these things, though Englishmen at the time felt that the fault lay in the Welsh themselves, whom they began to regard as wilfully backward, indolent and immoral – barbarians in need of taming.

A more recent cause of the conquest was political change in Wales. Before the 13th century it had been a country divided against itself, with dozens of petty kings and princes fighting each other for supremacy. Because Welsh custom decreed that a man’s possessions must be divided on his death, any territorial gains made in one generation were generally lost during the next, with brother fighting brother for a share of the spoils. During the 13th century, however, one princely dynasty began to dominate. By 1258, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, ruler of the north-west region of Gwynedd, had achieved such success against his neighbours (and his brothers) that he felt justified in styling himself ‘Prince of Wales’. Nine years later, even the English king, Henry III, was obliged to recognise the prince’s self-proclaimed status.

But Llywelyn failed to appreciate that his success owed much to Henry’s ineptitude. When the old king died in 1272 he was succeeded by his masterful and warlike son, Edward I – better known, thanks to the film Braveheart, by his contemporary nickname, Longshanks. The Welsh leader continued to act as he had always done, meeting English demands for homage and fealty with bluster and defiance, reckoning that he would always triumph if matters came to blows. The scale of his misjudgement became clear in 1277, when Edward led a huge, well-supplied and well-disciplined army into north-west Wales. Llywelyn lost all but a handful of the lordships he had acquired since the start of his career, and Snowdonia was surrounded by several new English castles.

It is a moot point as to whether Edward had intended to conquer Wales completely during this incursion and found it beyond his resources, or whether he had always planned to leave a diminished Llywelyn in place. The mountainous heartlands of the prince’s power would be difficult to conquer and promised little by way of financial return. It was only after a major Welsh uprising in the spring of 1282 that outright conquest became inevitable.

Edward again led a large army along the north Welsh coast, only to suffer a disaster in November when a company of his men were fatally ambushed as they tried to cross the Menai Strait by means of a pontoon bridge. “The people of Snowdonia,” declared Llywelyn and his council a few days later, “do not wish to do homage to a stranger of whose language, manners and laws they are entirely ignorant”. Shortly afterwards, Edward’s own letters proposed “to put an end finally to the matter that he has now begun of suppressing the malice of the Welsh”. Henceforth it would be a struggle to the death.

In Llywelyn’s case, death followed swiftly: he was killed in a skirmish with English forces in mid-Wales the following month. For Wales itself, the agony was more protracted, as Edward cautiously massed the necessary forces for a final push. In March 1283 English troops spilled across the river Conwy and occupied Snowdonia. Llywelyn’s brother, Dafydd, who had led the Easter uprising, was captured on the slopes of Snowdon and taken to Shrewsbury to be executed.

Thousands of others must have died in the fighting, both Welsh and English. The death toll is unknown, but we know that Edward I had raised what were at the time the largest armies ever seen in the British Isles. When the Welsh rose up again in 1294, the king deployed a staggering 37,000 men to crush the rebellion. “What is left to us that we should linger?” wailed one Welsh poet. “No place of escape from Terror’s prison / No place to live – wretched is living!”

Edward’s conquest was brutally thorough. Some secular treasures and sacred relics were carted off to be kept as trophies at Westminster Abbey; others were eradicated. Conwy Abbey, which housed the bones of the prince’s ancestors, was destroyed in order to make way for Conwy Castle. It was his new castles, above all, that cemented Edward’s conquest and symbolised his determination that it should never be undone. “Divine providence,” began his Statute of Wales in 1284, “has wholly and entirely converted the land of Wales into a dominion of our ownership”.

Where history happened: the conquest of Wales


1

Caerphilly Castle (Caerphilly)

Where English forces secured a decisive victory

A major short-term cause of Edward’s first war of 1276–77 was the territorial disputes along the Welsh border between Llywelyn and the English marcher lords. The most serious of these was a clash between the prince and Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester, the legacy of which is the mighty castle of Caerphilly. The earl began building the fortress in 1268 to assert his right to rule upland Glamorgan, and Llywelyn spent much of the next four years trying to destroy it (at one stage, indeed, the Welsh leader succeeded in overrunning the site). But Gilbert was one of the greatest (ie wealthiest) of all English magnates, able to deploy resources on a scale that the prince simply could not match.

At the time of its construction Caerphilly was the greatest building of its kind in the British Isles, its concentric design predating by several years the similar scheme that was used by Edward at the Tower of London. Yet there is no sign that these defences were ever put to the test. The conquest of Wales meant that Caerphilly’s role as a frontier fortress was short-lived.

Go to www.visitcaerphilly.com


2

Rhuddlan Castle (Denbighshire)

Where Edward straightened a river to keep his garrison supplied

To cement his territorial gains after the first Welsh war, Edward built three fortresses: Aberystwyth, Flint and Rhuddlan. Rhuddlan was the most substantial of the three and was intended to serve as the principal administrative seat for the newly conquered territories. It was located not far from Dyserth, where Henry III had built a new castle just 30 years earlier. Henry’s castle, however, had been located on high ground – easy to defend but also easy to encircle – and in 1263 Llywelyn had destroyed it.

Mindful of his father’s mistake, Edward ensured that his own new fortresses could be easily resupplied by sea. At Rhuddlan this called for a major civil engineering project, since the river Clwyd that linked the site to the sea had too many meanders for large ships. During the first three years of construction, a thousand-strong army of diggers laboured to straighten the river.

As the foremost English base in north Wales, Rhuddlan was naturally the muster-point for Edward’s army (and his fleet) when the second Welsh war erupted in 1282. It was also here that the king issued the Statute of Wales in 1284, laying down the legal framework that would be used to govern the newly conquered country.


3

Glastonbury Abbey (Somerset)

Where Edward made a political point to his Welsh foes

At Easter 1278, within a few months of accepting Llywelyn’s homage at Westminster, Edward travelled to Glastonbury to visit the tomb of King Arthur.

We can say with confidence that the tomb was fake, because we know that ‘King Arthur’ had never really existed*. But Edward and his contemporaries had no means of knowing this – to them the legendary king was as real a historic figure as William the Conqueror or Richard the Lionheart. The only problem with Arthur was his origins – he was an ancient British king who had battled against the Anglo-Saxons – or, put another way, a Welshman who had fought the English. To the Welsh, therefore, he was a potent symbol of resistance. They maintained that he had never actually died, and one day he would return to lead them to victory.

Hence Edward’s decision to visit Glastonbury in the immediate wake of Llywelyn’s defeat. In a carefully contrived ceremony, the king wrapped the gold in cloth of gold and had them reinterred in a new tomb. The skull was not reburied, but left on display “on account of popular devotion”.

The real reason, surely, was to make a political point. Arthur was dead, and would not be coming back to save anyone.

Visit www.glastonburyabbey.com


4

Cilmeri (Powys)

Where English forces secured a decisive victory

The Welsh rising that triggered the second Welsh war was orchestrated by Llywelyn’s young brother, Dafydd; there is no good evidence that the prince himself was privy to the plan. Once the war was under way, however, Llywelyn had little choice but to support his brother and the Welsh people in their struggle.

Seeking to avoid the encirclement that had brought about his surrender in 1277, the prince decided in late 1282 to strike at the middle March, hoping to exploit the confusion caused by the recent death of Roger Mortimer, Edward’s commander in the region. On arrival, however, Llywelyn found huge English forces ranged against him.

The two sides met in battle on high ground to the west of Builth, at a place called Cilmeri, and during the encounter the prince of Wales fell. At first he was unrecognised, but at length the English realised they had scored a decisive victory. “Know, Sire,” wrote their captain to his royal master, “that Llywelyn ap Gruffudd is dead, his army broken, and the flower of his men killed”. Letters found on the prince’s body suggest that he had been lured into a trap by Mortimer’s sons, who had pretended to be ready to switch sides.

Visit www.tourism.powys.gov.uk


5

Dolwyddelan (Conwy)

Where Edward made temporary headquarters in 1283

The second war of 1282–83 was a war of outright conquest, with English troops driving right into what had been the heart of Llywelyn’s power. In January 1283 Edward’s forces pushed across the river Conwy into Snowdonia, where they laid siege to the native Welsh castle at Dolwyddelan. Compared with the giant fortresses that Edward was in the process of erecting, the castles of the Welsh princes were small and outmoded.

Dolwyddelan was certainly no match for the English war machine, and its defenders surrendered after a short siege. Two months later Edward himself crossed the Conwy – probably the first English king ever to do so – and in May 1283 he made the castle his temporary headquarters. Its fall was a symbolic as well as a military triumph, for Dolwyddelan had been the birthplace of Llywelyn’s grandfather, Llywelyn the Great, who had built the castle there during the early decades of the 13th century.

Like several other native castles (eg Criccieth and Castell-y-Bere), Dolwyddelan was retained and renovated after the English conquest. Records show that in 1283 a new chamber block was added, along with a bridge and a water mill.

Visit www.betws-y-coed.com


6

Caernarfon (Gwynedd)

Where an imperial seat of English government was established

Just as with the first Welsh war, so too with the second: victory was cemented with a trio of new castles. Similarly situated on the coast, they were more ambitious than their predecessors, and more dramatic. Conwy, with its multiple towers and turrets, looks like something out of medieval romance, while Harlech, perched high on its famous rock, is one of the most visually striking castles ever built. It was at Caernarfon, however, that Edward and his architect pulled out all the stops.

A giant fortress-palace, and the seat of the principality’s new government, this mighty castle also drew its power from the past. According to Welsh legend, Caernarfon was the birthplace of the Roman emperor Maximus (and apparently also his death place: in 1283, Edward reburied Maximus’s bones there, much as he had done with Arthur at Glastonbury).

The fact that Maximus was also said to be the father of the emperor Constantine, founder of Constantinople, almost certainly explains the castle’s unusual design: with its polygonal towers and different coloured bands of masonry, Caernarfon appears to be built in conscious imitation of Constantinople’s walls. Work continued after the revolt of 1294–95, during which the castle was damaged, but despite colossal expenditure it was never fully finished.

Visit www.caernarfon.com


7

Llyn cwm Dulyn, Carneddau mountains (Snowdonia)

Where Edward spent his 45th birthday

In the spring of 1284, almost a year on from the end of hostilities, Edward I returned to Wales to consolidate his conquest. Besides issuing the Statute of Rhuddlan, the king orchestrated a host of special events, including the birth of his namesake son (and future successor) at Caernarfon on 25 April, and, later in the summer, a ‘Round Table’ tournament at Nefyn, where the prophecies of Merlin were said to have been discovered.

Such Arthur-themed entertainment served an obvious political purpose, but one gets the strong impression that by this point Edward was also indulging a genuine enthusiasm. (The Welsh themselves seem to have picked up on this and pandered to it, presenting the king with a coronet they called ‘Arthur’s Crown’). Such enthusiasm would also explain why Edward’s itinerary that summer took him to so many remote locations, for several of them have legendary associations. Bardsey Island, said to be the burial place of 20,000 saints, was one.

Another was Llyn cwm Dulyn, a deep, dark lake some ten miles south of Caernarfon, where Edward spent three whole weeks, including his 45th birthday. Was he waiting, one wonders, for Excalibur to be borne aloft from the waters?

Visit www.snowdoniaguide.com


8

Beaumaris, Anglesey (Gwynedd)

Where Edward built his last great Welsh fortress

The Welsh revolt of 1294–95 had begun, in north Wales, on the island of Anglesey, when the local people in the town of Llanfaes had lynched their English sheriff. The attack had exposed Anglesey as the weak link in Edward’s chain of castles; the king responded by levelling Llanfaes and replacing it with one final giant fortress.

Beaumaris, as its name implies, was built on marshy ground, rather than the usual rocky platform, and Edward’s architect responded by creating a moated castle of perfect symmetry. In terms of total area it was bigger even than Caernarfon, with an outer perimeter that ran for a quarter of a mile, and a harbour that enabled ships of up to 40 tons to dock at the water-gate. The castle’s island location meant that most of the building material had to brought there by ship, and this, combined with the scale of the enterprise – at one stage there were almost 3,000 workers on site – meant that construction was hugely expensive.

Unfortunately for Edward he was by this stage fighting new wars against France and Scotland which drained his treasury. As a result, Beaumaris, like Caernarfon, remained unfinished at the time of the king’s death in 1307.

Visit www.beaumaris.com

Dr Marc Morris is a historian and broadcaster specialising in the Middle Ages and is the author of A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain (Hutchinson, 2009). He is currently writing a history of the Norman conquest.

To read more about Welsh history, go to www.bbc.co.uk/wales/history

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This article was first published in the August 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine