In the turbulent 200 years following the destruction of the unified kingdom of Wales in 1063, the Anglo-Normans had begun the piecemeal conquest of the country, while the warring Welsh dynasties of Gwynedd, Powys and Deheubarth rose and fell.
Each of those three dynasties enjoyed periods as the most dominant of the Welsh ‘kingdoms’ and sought leadership over the others, but it was ultimately Gwynedd that emerged as the strongest. It was Owain Gwynedd (d1170) who is first known to have experimented with the title ‘Prince of Wales’, choosing to do so because the limited power of Welsh leaders meant that they were ridiculed by their Anglo-Norman enemies when they tried to use the title ‘king’.
English kings were keen to make all the Welsh ‘kings’ and ‘princes’ perform oaths of fealty and homage to them on an individual basis, but Owain Gwynedd and his descendants would seek to secure the oaths of lesser Welsh leaders themselves, and to see that the prince of Gwynedd was the only Welsh leader to make submission to the English king. Inherent even in this model, of course, was the ultimate overlordship of the king of England.
The power of Gwynedd declined in the civil strife that followed Owain’s death, but was revived under his grandson, Llywelyn ap Iorwerth (often referred to as Llywelyn ‘the Great’). Llywelyn (d1240) played a major role in the resistance to King John that led to Magna Carta, emerging as the undoubted leader of the native Welsh polity and joining the wider opposition to the king.
As a consequence, in the minority of John’s son, Henry III, Llywelyn was able to win an acceptance of his conquests. Along with other major concessions from the English state, his position was acknowledged in a truce agreed under the Treaty of Worcester (1218).
But the question of whether this deal would hold when Henry matured and England got stronger remained. Llywelyn’s achievements were nibbled away at in the later years of his reign, then destroyed in the short reign of his son, Dafydd (d1246).
Seeking formal recognition for Wales
The memories of this, and the need for a more formal treaty of recognition of the rights of Wales, would be taken on board by the next great leader of Gwynedd, Llywelyn’s grandson, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd.
Llywelyn slowly built his power and authority in Snowdonia, first establishing his supremacy over his brothers, then looking to expand his borders. Political fighting in England and the misrule of English officers in Wales helped Llywelyn’s cause and, in late 1255, he burst out of Snowdonia, freeing eastern Gwynedd (the Perfeddwlad) from royal rule before extending his military reach to the depths of south Wales.
It was in this period of spectacular and sustained Welsh military success ‒ with most of the other native lords bound to Llywelyn by homage and fealty ‒ that the Gwynedd leader began to officially use the title Prince of Wales (Princeps Wallie).
But Llywelyn was aware of the precariousness of his achievement and determined to secure his legacy by means of a formal treaty with King Henry III of England. The situation was imaginatively outlined by the St Albans chronicler Matthew Paris (d1259), who wrote that the Welsh feared unity across the border because then the English would “blot us out from the face of the earth, and crush us irreparably, like a clay pitcher”.
To bring about peace, Llywelyn was said by Paris to have offered Henry £3,000, with a further £200 promised to the king’s eldest son, Edward, and £166 to the queen; a large amount, likely to have equated to the Welshman’s annual income.
Paris wrote: “The king, on hearing this proposition, trusting to evil counsel, replied with anger: ‘What means this? One good man is of more value than the amount they offer for the required peace.’”
Llywelyn’s peace treaty
If this was one of Llywelyn’s earliest recorded attempts at bartering for peace, it would not be his last, and – despite continued Welsh military success – the price he would be required to pay for a treaty would only continue to rise. While political instability in England had undoubtedly helped Llywelyn’s rise to supremacy, the same chaos at the heart of the English realm proved fatally damaging to the Welsh leader’s hopes of gaining a workable and lasting treaty that would secure the future of his fledgling principality.
King Henry and his son were not necessarily opposed to granting such a treaty in the years after 1258, but many of their most important English nobles were hostile to Llywelyn and his ambitions. The expansion of Gwynedd had been at the expense of a host of powerful marcher lords and, in the succeeding years, there would be almost constant border warfare involving countless breaches of truces.
Both the delays in agreeing a formal treaty and the military successes that Llywelyn enjoyed led him to build a principality that was enlarged beyond anything he had originally planned, and beyond anything he could realistically hope to defend in the long term. Yet, as the baronial wars in England drew to a close and the royal family had both the time and inclination to make peace with the prince, Llywelyn had known almost nothing but military success.
Lengthy negotiations began at Shrewsbury on 28 August 1267, with the papal legate Ottobuono – the future Pope Adrian V – heavily involved. The talks concluded on 25 September, and four days later the key players were at Rhyd Chwima, a ford on the river Severn that lies 2.5 miles north-west of the town of Montgomery, to sign the treaty.
The meeting at the border between England and Wales only emphasised what seemed to be the establishment of formal diplomatic relations between the two countries, with Henry prepared to travel west to meet Llywelyn and bringing along his sons, Edward and Edmund.
By the terms of the treaty, Llywelyn’s titles of Prince of Wales and Lord of Snowdonia were recognised for him and his heirs, and he was granted the homage and fealty of all Welsh barons, with the exception of Maredudd ap Rhys Gryg. Among the prince’s acknowledged territorial gains were the Perfeddwlad, Gwerthrynion, Builth and Brycheiniog, and the treaty was said to supersede any previous agreements between the English crown and the Welsh prince.
Neither king nor prince was to receive fugitives or enemies of the other within their lands, while Llywelyn was to make provision for his troublesome younger brother Dafydd, a clause that seems to have been the cause of much of the wrangling in the talks at Shrewsbury.
A heavy financial burden was placed on Llywelyn in return for the treaty. He was to pay Henry £16,666, plus a further £3,333 if the king ever chose to grant the prince the homage of Maredudd ap Rhys Gryg (which he later did). Llywelyn was to pay £666 immediately, to deliver another £2,666 by Christmas, and to then pay £2,000 annually.
Such sums were vastly more than the £3,366 that Matthew Paris wrote Llywelyn had offered for peace in 1258. Perhaps the humiliation Llywelyn felt at the king’s belittling rejection of this earlier offer even played a part in the negotiations.
Disputed lands and unresolved positions
If the requirements placed upon Llywelyn for the treaty he had sought for so long were huge, perhaps more troubling were the matters that were left unresolved. In 1267, Llywelyn was holding a variety of territories that were disputed with the marcher lords and that received no mention at all in the treaty, while the deliberate fudging of decisions on other land ownership issues hinted at the problems that would soon arise. This left the way open for the issues to be decided by legal action, and even by private war.
Arguably of even more significance was the prince’s formal acceptance of the position of tenant-in-chief of the king of England, something that also carried the seal of papal approval. While Llywelyn hoped that this would bring him the king’s protection, he struggled to come to terms with the nature of the corresponding responsibilities, and with Edward’s interpretation of them.
Above all else, it was clearly acknowledged that Llywelyn’s land, authority and titles were given by the grant of the king of England, and were not the prince’s by right.
The phoney war
The problems inherent in the treaty were emphasised by the fact that one open war was already raging at the time it was signed; this was in Glamorgan, between Llywelyn and the powerful marcher lord of the region, Gilbert de Clare. The victory of de Clare was secured and underlined by the construction of mighty Caerphilly Castle, and Llywelyn’s reverse here would signal his slow retreat back to the very depths of Snowdonia.
Meanwhile, Edward’s crusade took him away from Britain for four years from 1270, and when he returned as king in 1274 he was determined to impose his interpretation of regal rights, something he felt had been abused in the reign of his father Henry, who had died in 1272. This would have an enormous impact on English political life, but arguably of even more significance was the way Edward interpreted his rights in Wales and Scotland.
One of the clearest expositions of Llywelyn’s view of limited English overlordship is seen in a letter of 1273. The prince, engaged in ongoing clashes with the marcher lords, had been building a prized new castle at Dolforwyn, just six miles west of Montgomery. In Edward’s absence, the marcher lords dominated the regency government and had written to Llywelyn, in the king’s name, ordering that the building work should stop. That prompted the prince to reply with the following outraged missive:
“The king knows well that the rights of [Llywelyn’s] principality are totally separate from the rights of his kingdom although Llywelyn holds his principality under his royal power, and he has heard and in part seen that Llywelyn and his predecessors have had the power to build castles, fortresses and markets within their borders without the favour of anyone or the announcement of new work.”
Llywelyn, fearing his marcher enemies and angered by breaches of the Treaty of Montgomery, refused to enter England for Edward I’s coronation and then missed repeated opportunities to perform homage to the new king.
It would be too simplistic to say that he refused to perform homage, as there are indications that Edward was aware of the growing problems the prince was dealing with and sought ways to exploit them. There was also no suggestion that the king would honour the ancient diplomatic conventions of a meeting on the border of England and Wales.
In 1275, the king came as far as Chester and messengers passed between him and the prince who was just a few miles away, to the west of the river Dee. A meeting at the ancient border crossing of Gresford may have been acceptable to Llywelyn, but not to Edward, who waited in vain in Chester. The king would later write to the pope: “In order to receive [Llywelyn’s] homage and fealty we had so demeaned our royal dignity as to go to the confines of his land.”
The legal justification for conquest
Edward I was aware that Llywelyn was having trouble with his brother and other native Welsh lords, and that the prince’s popularity within Gwynedd itself was on the wane. Many of Llywelyn’s problems were financial, and had been caused by his attempts to meet the payments he had promised at Montgomery.
Professor Beverley Smith, a biographer of the prince, found that Llywelyn had paid £7,333 by the end of 1269, but the 1270 payment was first delayed, then made in instalments. The prince’s situation was not helped by the poor harvests of 1270 and 1271, and the part-payments and excuses continued to late 1273. It was only in February 1274 that Llywelyn claimed his failure to pay was a matter of principle, because the king had failed to uphold the treaty.
In those years, Llywelyn’s relationship with one of his most important churchmen, Bishop Anian II of St Asaph, collapsed. Financial complaints from the community of Gwynedd that would later be made against Llywelyn’s exacting rule also need to be considered. The fiscal demands made by the prince eroded the support base he enjoyed from even his heartlands and from the most trusted ministerial families in Gwynedd, suggesting that the financial promises he had made to the crown at Montgomery were unsustainable.
As pointed out by the eminent Welsh historian Sir Goronwy Edwards, by both failing to do homage to the king and not paying the money he owed him, Llywelyn had shattered the ‘legal cornerstone’ on which the entire Treaty of Montgomery was constructed.
Edward was given a clear legal justification for his first Welsh war of 1277. When the conquest was completed after the second war of 1282–83, the acknowledgement made at Montgomery that Llywelyn held his land and titles by gift of the king gave Edward the justification to keep what he had taken.
Dr Sean Davies is the author of Edward I’s Conquest of Wales (Pen & Sword Books, 2017)