The Welsh Wars (1277 & 1282-1283)
In the 13th Century a long and emotional series of wars was fought over the domination of Wales. On the one hand, Welsh princes tried to maintain their political independence; on the other, the kings of England sought to dominate the British Isles and turn the Welsh into their subjects. As neither side was willing to cave in, Wales eventually lost its independence, a lot of people died, and the crown prince of the United Kingdom bears the title Prince of Wales.
Of all Welsh principalities, Gwynedd, in north Wales, was most stable. It controlled both the economically and militarily most important parts of Wales: respectively, the isle of Anglesey and the mountain range of Snowdonia. In times of invasion, the Welsh could retreat into the mountains, shielded by dense forests. Would any enemy be brave enough to follow them, they would have difficulty keeping formation and might get lost among the woods. Generally, this was the moment a lot of angry Welshmen would ambush them and made sure those that lived to tell the tale would tell a horror story.
By 1244 the prince of Gwynedd was Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, grandson of Llywelyn the Great. He had a difficult time right from the start, having to fight a civil war against two of his brothers to ensure his inheritance. Already, the English were claiming Gwynedd as part of their kingdom and demanded he accept king Henry III as his overlord, which he refused. A series of fruitless English campaigns followed, achieving very little and costing quite a lot. The discontented English barons saw it as yet another political failure of their king, and for a large variety of reasons a number of them rebelled. From 1256 on, England would be too busy with internal politics to bother about Wales, and Llywelyn saw the opportunities. Immediately he struck, recapturing those borderlands he had lost, harassing the English border lords at every opportunity, and even striking deep into south Wales. Some of the Welsh lords joined Llywelyn, while a number of others (particularly those of Powys, on the eastern border) remained hostile to him and worked together with the English. But as the English were unable to help them, Llywelyn defeated them and forced them to become his vassals. English influence in Wales had not been so limited in centuries.
The First Welsh War (1277)
By 1277, Edward I was king of England, and the English difficulties in Wales could no longer be ignored. The Marcher lords, who had been so humbled by Llywelyn’s campaigns, were clamouring for the king to take action into his own hands and subdue the prince, who had been styling himself prince of Wales for over a decade. There was a perfectly good reason for an intervention, too: Llywelyn had refused to do homage to king Edward on the grounds that Edward was giving shelter to Llywelyn’s rebel brother, Dafydd. Llywelyn claimed he could not swear fealty to a lord who protected his enemies – a standard rule in the feudal contract. Edward, on the other hand, claimed that, as long as Llywelyn refused to do homage, he had no reason to punish Dafydd. This created a paradox that neither side could break, and eventually it came to war.
Edward, an excellent strategist, had obviously been studying the previous Welsh campaigns in some depth, and had found a way to defeat the Welsh. Aware of the guerrilla style of warfare, he brought with him a huge number of woodsmen to clear the forests, leaving fewer places for the Welsh to hide. Splitting up his army in four different groups, he undertook a large-scale four-pronged attack on the mountain fortress of Gwynedd, as well as capturing the isle of Anglesey, the “Granary of Wales”, which usually fed the Welsh through winter campaigns, by boat. When the English (actually, about two-thirds of the army consisted of Welsh friendlies from South Wales) had advanced to the border of Snowdonia, Llywelyn surrendered. By the terms of the peace he had to give up a large part of his demesne, including most of his south and central Welsh vassals; however, he would maintain Snowdonia and Anglesey as well as the title prince of Wales. Apart from that, he had to pay a considerable fine, well exceeding the overall cost of the war.
The Second Welsh War (1282-1283)
Dafydd, Llywelyn’s younger brother, had, by the peace terms, received some lands in the Perfeddwlad, east of Gwynedd. He reconciled himself with his brother, and began governing his new lands. However, he quickly found out that the war had brought the English deeper into Wales than the peace had dictated, and frequently English justiciaries harassed Dafydd’s subjects. Finding it difficult to bear this, Dafydd discussed with some other small Welsh leaders of the area and decided there was only one course open to them: war. Leading a rising in 1282, Dafydd managed to capture a castle and lay waste to several English villages on a holy day.
Llywelyn had not been informed of this, but he decided to join in, realising that without him the rising was doomed to fail in a matter of weeks. He also felt secure that, now he knew Edward’s strategy, he would be able to beat him. When Llywelyn joined the revolt, similar rebellions happened throughout Wales, and Llywelyn hurried south to Deheubarth, to rally the rebels. Capturing Carreg Cennen castle, he razed it to the ground and then hid his men in ambush. When English troops advanced to recapture it, the ambush was sprung and the English were routed, having suffered severe casualties, including a number of bannerets. This destabilised the whole of South-West Wales for months. By now, however, Edward was pressing on with his attack, using a strategy similar to the one used in the previous war. Having captured Anglesey, he built a pontoon-bridge to Penmaenmawr to bypass the Welsh flank. Llywelyn hurried north. During peace negotiations with Archbishop Peckam of Canterbury, the Anglesey commander Luke de Tany marched his troops across the bridge and led them into the mountains. Hearing of this, Llywelyn abandoned the talks and ambushed De Tany, who was routed: nearly all the invaders were slain and the pontoon-bridge collapsed. Edward saw his plan fall to pieces and had to wait until the bridge was re-built.
Meanwhile, Llywelyn went south again, this time to the vicinity of Buellt (Builth Wells) where he sought to capture and raze the castle and defeat the English army. Posting an advance guard at Orewin Bridge and his main army on the heights above it, he felt his position was secure and together with a small bodyguard left to talk to local Welsh leaders. However, a Welsh traitor revealed to the English a ford in the river, which they then used to cross and outflank the defending Welshmen. Totally surprised, they were slain and the English army fell upon the Welsh army, who, surprised as they were, were destroyed. Their spear-schiltron could not withstand the hail of arrows and as it fell apart they were ridden down by the English knights.
Llywelyn, however, was still away from his army when he came upon the English. Whether this was a scouting force or a cleverly laid trap – treason is sometimes suggested – we do not know, but Llywelyn and his eighteen followers were slain. The prince’s head was cut off and sent to Edward, who then sent it on to London where it was displayed as the heads of traitors were at the time. With Llywelyn dead, the Welsh spirit faltered and Dafydd, Llywelyn’s heir, could not sufficiently rally them. A number of Welsh leaders betrayed the insurgents, who were hunted down. Dafydd was eventually captured, drawn and quartered. Like his elder brother, his head was put on display. Llywelyn’s daughter was put in a convent, where she died some thirty years later, while Dafydd’s sons were locked away in Bristol castle, where they spent the rest of their lives in prison. The Welsh spirit had been crushed, its territory guarded by English castles. Until the rising of Owain Glyndwr, in 1400, Wales was subdued.
Thankfully, a lot of research has been done into both the Welsh Wars of Edward I and the period leading up to it. Sources I used for this article were primarily John Morris’ “The Welsh Wars of Edward I”, and J Beverley Smith’s “Llywelyn II: Prince of Wales”. More general books, such as John Davies’ “History of Wales” are also advisable. And if you read anything, please don’t let it be Christopher Rothero’s “Scottish and Welsh Wars”, released by Osprey Publishing. It’s a generally ignorant account describing only the English aspects.