“Plantagenet England 1225-1360” Michael Prestwich (Part 4)


In this chapter Prestwich takes a digression from his chronological trot through the Plantagenet era to look at the situation in Wales during this period. It’s very much Wales from the perspective of its interactions with England, and fits in here because Edward I conquered Wales.

He begins by setting the scene in terms of the political situation in Wales during Henry III & Edward I’s reigns in England. A key difference between the two cultures is that in England inheritance is by primogeniture, but in Wales it is not that clear cut. Which means that when there were multiple heirs (as there were in Gwynedd in 1246, for instance) the territory might be shared out between the heirs, or they might fight amongst themselves for who got the inheritance. Obviously England isn’t immune to civil war or inheritance disputes – but in Wales the tendency is for lands to fragment and be reunited only to fragment again. The early 13th Century had seen Llywelyn ap Iowerth reunite Gwynedd into a strong principality, only for it to fragment again after his heir’s death. His great-grandsons fought amongst themselves, and eventually Llywelyn ap Gruffudd was effectively in charge – with one of his brothers imprisoned, one paid off and one still free and at times plotting against him.

Another important facet of Welsh politics at the time is the Marcher Lords. These are the descendents of Norman nobility who hold lands along the border between England and Wales. I’ve always thought of them as a part of England, but this chapter made it clear that’s far too simple a picture. From the perspective of the English crown the Marcher Lords were their vassals, albeit with greater traditional liberties than other English nobles. From the perspective of the Welsh the Marcher Lords were also seen as part of the English invaders, but nonetheless there was a degree of integration between the Marcher Lords and the Welsh. More in the south than in Gwynedd to the north, but even there Llywelyn ap Iowerth married his daughters into Marcher families. However from the perspective of the Marcher Lords themselves they weren’t as firmly English as all that. Prestwich says that they saw themselves as potentially independent – that at the moment their interests aligned with the English crown (useful backup against the Welsh…) but this wouldn’t necessarily always be the case.

Prestwich says that conquest wouldn’t’ve felt inevitable to the people of the 13th Century. It would’ve seemed more plausible that the Welsh and the Marcher Lords would continue to integrate, and the sense of Wales & the Welsh as a separate entity would attenuate over time. But what actually happened was a growing sense of Welsh nationhood, which lead to a desire for recognition as independent. There were often skirmishes between the Welsh and the Marcher Lords, and whenever the English crown was having difficulties (see the bulk of Henry III’s reign) the Welsh would take advantage of it. So from the English perspective it became ever more important to get the matter of English power over Wales settled.

During Henry III’s reign raids by the Welsh on the Marches were met with shows of power by the English. A substantial English army would move some way into Wales, and a castle would be built (or planned) where they had pushed forward to. These gains stopped well short of full conquest, but they did give the English the upper hand. In 1247 the Welsh princes (including Llywelyn ap Gruffudd) acknowledged Henry III’s dominance, and submitted to the jurisdiction of the English crown. This wasn’t a long lasting situation, though – as Henry’s political difficulties increased the Welsh situation also deteriorated. He had left Edward in charge, but this appears to’ve been a mistake. And Llywelyn ap Gruffudd took full advantage of the civil war that developed after 1258, starting to call himself Prince of Wales in this year. But the English civil war also caused Llywelyn difficulties – the uncertainties of the English political situation meant he couldn’t come to a final settlement with them. A settlement was arrived at in 1267, with Llywelyn acknowledge as Prince of Wales by the English, but owing fealty to Henry III – so pseudo-independent.

After Edward succeeded to the English throne Llywelyn should’ve come to pay homage to him – but he failed to do so. This provided a formal reason for the outbreak of war, but Prestwich says that Llywelyn’s marriage to Simon de Montfort’s daughter was also a factor. The prospect of a Welsh prince who was also a de Montfort was unthinkable to Edward. The first Welsh war of his reign followed the pattern of his father’s campaigns – march an army in as a show of force, build a castle. But Edward miscalculated – the show of force wasn’t impressive enough. And the subsequent political situation was mismanaged, to a degree that united the Welsh, even Llywelyn and his brothers. The rhetoric of the dispute was focussed on the law – the Welsh wanted their own traditional Welsh laws, not the ones harshly imposed by Edward I.

The last conflict started in 1282, kicked off by one of Llywelyn’s brothers. Prestwich suggests that Llywelyn would’ve preferred not to start anything at this point, but the choice he now had was to fight with the English against his brother (unthinkable) or fight alongside his brother. Neither side was interested in compromise. Edward wanted the Welsh to submit to his authority unconditionally, and Llywelyn wanted to be recognised as an independent Prince of Wales. The turning point of the war came in late 1282 when Llywelyn was lured out of Snowdonia, perhaps by false suggestions of an alliance with the Mortimers (or by betrayal by some of his own men). His force met the English in battle at the river Irfon, and Llywelyn was killed. His brother Dafydd, now Prince of Wales as Llyweln had no male children, continued the war but Edward pushed on and it was all over but the mopping up. In June 1283 Dafydd was captured and the conquest was over.

There were still rebellions after this, and in particular the rebellion of 1294-5 required significant effort by the English to put down. But what was notable after this was that not all the Welsh were against the English crown. The country didn’t fully integrate into England, and the Welsh retained their own culture. The law codes of the two countries remained different in some respects, but criminal law was brought into line with England and the shire system of England was extended into Wales.

Prestwich also looks at what happened to the English army during these campaigns. One of the reasons for Edward’s success was that he brought a lot of resources to bear on the problem. He recruited sufficient men – not just via the feudal system, but also paid soldiers. And he provisioned and armed them properly, allowing him to keep the army in the field for longer. But Prestwich is keen not to overstate the innovations that Edward brought to the army – he says that the changes were quantitative rather than qualitative, and there’s no particular indication of novel tactics or organisation. Rather it’s that Edward’s logistics were what made the difference – his army was well fed, and supported, even when deep in Welsh territory.