Monday, 16 September 2019

Longshanks and the Golden Horde

In mid-October 1271 a mounted column of over ten thousand Mongol lancers and Rumis (Turkish soldiers in the service of the il-khanate) invaded northern Syria. They were led by the warlord Samaghar and dispatched by the il-khan, Abaqa, in response to a plea for aid from the envoys of the Lord Edward.

The Mongols were keen on forging an effective alliance with the Franks, though the latter often disappointed. Mongol envoys had previously journeyed to Tunis to treat with the French king, Saint Louis, only to find him on his deathbed. They may have accompanied and advised Edward during his voyage from Tunis to Acre, which would explain why he was quick to send a team of diplomats to the court of the il-khan. His three envoys - Reginald Rossel, Godfrey Waus and John le Parker - underwent a hazardous journey through Mamluk territory to reach the il-khanate; this was set up to control the southwest section of the Mongol Empire, comprising present-day Iran and neighbouring territories.

At first all went swimmingly. The Mongols stormed past Aleppo, forcing the Mamluk garrison to evacuate the town, and then pushed up the Orontes valley past Hamah in west-central Syria. They appeared to be concentrating for an assault on Damascus, where the governor of the city arrived on 9 November to find the citizens in a state of panic. Eleven years earlier Damascus had been sacked by another Mongol warlord, Kitbogha, and memories were still fresh.

As ever in a crisis, Baibars kept a cool head and concentrated on reinforcing his garrisons in northern Syria. He knew Damascus could not be taken by a force of cavalry with no siege equipment, and left the defence of the city to the provincial garrison. Meanwhile he divided his field army and sent units north and east to Aleppo and towards Edessa, Marasah and the borders of Armenia. This threatened to block the Mongol line of retreat, which caused Samaghar to abandon the siege of Damascus and gallop back to the northeast. By the end of November the Mongols were in full retreat back to the Euphrates.

Baibars - no flies on him.

Sunday, 15 September 2019

The wars of Gwenwynwyn (8, and last)

In 1216 Prince Gwenwynwyn chose to desert Llywelyn ab Iorwerth and go back to King John. He had previously fought for John against Llywelyn, before changing sides.

Gwenwynwyn had played the game pretty well for almost thirty years, ever since he and his brother lured Owain Fychan to Carreg Hofa at night and stuck a dagger in him. Now all his chickens came home to dung on his head, as Llywelyn gathered a grand coalition of Welsh princes to invade Powys:

He [Llywelyn] collected an army and called together nearly all the princes of Wales, and advanced against Powys, taking and subjugating all the land and forcing Gwenwynwyn to flight (Annales Cambriae)

Llywelyn’s hold on southern Powys was confirmed in the Worcester agreements with the government of Henry III in 1218. These set out that the northern prince was to keep all the land he had taken from Gwenwynwyn until the latter’s heirs came of age. He was to provide for the heirs out of the revenues of these lands, while maintaining the dower of Margaret, Gwenwynwyn’s wife, and respecting the existing rights of others.

Llywelyn did not fulfil a single one of these of these provisions. Instead he treated Powys as a conquered territory and ignored Gwenwynwyn’s three sons, who were fostered by Earl Ranulf of Chester. The most forceful of the three, Gruffudd, bore a lifelong grudge against the princes of Gwynedd. Often depicted as a traitor to Wales, Gruffudd had no reason to love the northern princes who murdered his ancestors, invaded and conquered his homeland, destroyed his father and drove him and his brothers into exile. He would eventually get his revenge.

Gwenwynwyn himself died in exile in Cheshire, sometime in 1216. Despite his failure at the end, he held a place of honour in the memory of his descendants. His grandson, Owain ap Gruffudd, was lauded by his poet as ‘wŷr Gwenwynwyn’ or a man like Gwenwynwn. In the fourteenth century Dafydd ap Gwilym, in an elegy or marwnad to his fellow poet Gruffudd ab Adda, praised him as ‘Gwanwyn doth Gwenwynwyn dir’ [any translation welcome…]

Here endeth the saga of Prince Gwenwynwyn ab Owain Cyfeiliog of Powys. There is no more. He lies cold and quiet in his grave. Explicit Liber Terminus.

Saturday, 14 September 2019

The wars of Gwenwynwyn (7)

In December 1204 King John accused Earl Ranulf of Chester of being in league with Prince Gwenwynwn against the crown. Exactly what the allies were plotting is unclear, but a seed of suspicion was planted in the king’s mind. It may be that John resented Gwenwynwyn’s invasion of the Braose lands in the central March, since Wiliam Braose was the king’s protegé and intended to act as a counter to the power of Earl Ranulf in the north.

King John's tomb

In 1208 John summoned Gwenwynwyn to Shrewsbury, where he was arrested. Llywelyn ab Iorwerth took this opportunity to march down from Gwynedd and seize all the lands and castles in Powys. At the same time he attacked Maelgwn ap Rhys, Gwenwynwyn’s ally, and forced the homage of most of the lords of South Wales.

Two years later, Gwenwynwyn reconquered southern Powys with the assistance of John:

 About the feast of Andrew, Gwenwynwn regained possession of his territory, through the help of King John (Brut)

The Cronica de Wallia records that Gwenwynwyn attacked the castle of ‘Walwernia’ (Tafolwern) and ‘Kereynaun’, which must refer to a castle in Caerenion. At the same time Ranulf of Chester attacked Llywelyn in North Wales and occupied Deganwy, which may have been part of a combined operation against the Venedotians. Maelgwn ap Rhys made peace with the king and raised an army of French and Welsh to drive out Llywelyn’s supporters in the south. He failed, but Gwenwynwyn was left secure (for now) in Powys.

The alliance between Powys and King John was one of convenience. John kept hostages for Gwenwynwyn’s good behaviour, and insisted on keeping the castle of Mathrafal in royal hands.

Friday, 13 September 2019

Meanwhile in Outremer...

In mid-November 1271 the Lord Edward rode out from Acre into the Plain of Sharon at the head of some 7000 men, including the Hospitallers and Templars and a large contingent of Cypriots. Edward’s strategy is fairly clear. In recent years the Mamluks had encircled the remnant of the Kingdom of Jerusalem by strengthening the three fortresses of Safad, Beaufort and Qaqun. While the sultan and his field army were in northern Syria, to deal with Edward’s Mongol allies, there was an opportunity to attack one of these forts. Christian and Islamic sources give very different accounts of what followed.

According to the Chronicle of Melrose Abbey in Scotland, Edward acted on the advice of a local hermit, a member of a sect called the Sulian, who lived in the wilderness and worshipped John the Baptist. The Sulian came to Acre and told Edward that the people of Caconia (Qaqun) had gone out to feed their flocks and herds, and were enjoying themselves in the open air. Edward and his men advanced by night marches, to deceive the infidel, and ambushed the holiday-makers early in the morning. The Saracens were massacred, down to the last woman and child, ‘for they were the enemies of the faith of Christ’.

The Melrose annalist does not express disapproval of the slaughter of defenceless innocents. Instead it is presented as a noble act, since they were all pagans and deserved to die.

A different version is supplied by Al-Makrizi, himself a Sunni Muslim and a Mamluk-era historian. According to him, Edward and his crusaders attacked the fortified town of Qaqun. They did not wipe out a bunch of hippy nomads: rather, the crusaders ambushed an armoured convoy on its way to supply the fort. The Mamluks suffered heavy casualties. Over fifteen hundred Turcopoles, native light cavalry, were slaughtered. One of the sultan’s chief cavalry officers, Hosam-eddin, was killed, and another emir, Rokn-eddin-Djalik, badly wounded. The provincial governor, Bedjka-Alai, was forced to evacuate the town. This implies the crusaders destroyed the convoy and then decided to have a slap at storming Qaqun itself.


Rather than a smash-and-grab raid, the crusaders appear to have occupied the town. A messenger raced to inform Baibars, who was at Damascus. The sultan sent an emir, Akousch-Schemsi, with troops hurriedly raised from Ain-Djalout, to recover Qaqun. Upon seeing their approach, the outnumbered crusaders decided to get out of Dodge and retreat to Acre.

The remains of Qaqun can still be seen, and is used by the locals as a goatshed during the winter.

Thursday, 12 September 2019

The wars of Gwenwynwyn (6)

After the massacre of his allies at Painscastle, Prince Gwenwynwyn went from strength to strength. In December 1199, alarmed at the rise of Llywelyn ab Iorwerth in the north, King John confirmed Gwenwynwyn in all his lands in north and south Wales and Powys. This was followed by a grant of the manor of Ashford in Derbyshire, and a visit to Powys by a high-powered royal delegation led by Hubert Walter, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Hugh Bardolf, one of John’s intimates. The purpose of the visit was to explain to Gwenwynwyn the king’s reasons for a truce with Llywelyn, and to obtain his approval. Having used the English to wipe out his local rivals, Gwenwynwyn was now the supreme power in south Wales and perceived as a counterweight to Prince Llywelyn.

In the next year Gwenwynwyn married Margaret Corbet of the Corbets of Caus, a powerful family of the central Shropshire March, who held a significant network of castles in the region. At the same time he forged a partnership with Earl Ranulf of Chester, thus extending Powysian influence into the northeast marches. These alliances meant the Marchers would not combine against Gwenwynwyn when he went on the offensive.

Secure on his northern flank, he was now free to attack his principal enemies, Roger Mortimer and William Braose. Gwenwynwyn was almost certainly behind the Welsh attack on the Mortimer castle of Gwrtheyrnion in Maelienydd. Smart as ever, he took steps to avoid blame: on the very day the castle fell, 7 July 1202, Gwenwynwyn was at Strata Marcella confirming the foundation charter of his father, Owain Cyfeiliog. Two regular members of his teulu, Dafydd Goch and Cadwgan ap Griffri, were absent and probably overseeing the siege operations.

The fall of Gwrtherynion allowed the Powysians to attack the Braose lordships of Elfael, Builth, Radnor and Brecon. It isn’t certain which of these were targeted, but the Rotuli Litterarum record that Gwenwynwyn attacked Braose lands in 1204 and 1205. Again, all this vigorous and sustained military action suggests the disaster at Painscastle had little effect on Powys.

‘When we consider his expansion of the bounds of southern Powys, his power and influence in Deheubarth, the March and even parts of Gwynedd, and his apparent alliance with Ranulf of Chester, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that in the years around the turn of the century Gwenwynwyn enjoyed a primacy within Wales that had few parallels in the twelfth century’. - David Stephenson

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

The wars of Gwenwynwyn (5)

In August 1198 Hubert Walter, Archbishop of Canterbury, sent envoys to negotiate with the Welsh army camped outside Painscastle. According to the Brutiau, the Welsh leaders responded thus:

And the Welsh said that they would burn their cities for the Saxons once they had taken the castle, and that they would carry off their spoils and destroy them too (Peniarth).

This attitude is confirmed by Hubert’s letters to Gerald of Wales, in which he wrote of ‘those proud Welshmen who would take no warning’.

Perhaps the Welsh were confident in their numbers or trusted in Prince Gwenwynwyn. He was probably laying siege to Welshpool, and his allies might have hoped Gwenwynwyn would march to their aid. He did not.

Both armies advanced for battle. They were arranged in the standard three lines, one behind the other; this was the typical pattern for set-piece battles in medieval Wales. The Welsh put their foot soldiers in the front line, cavalry and infantry in the second, cavalry only in the third. The English put infantry in the front, knights in the second, and a big mixed reserve in the third.

The location of the battle is uncertain. Painscastle stands at the meeting of several routes in the valley of the Bach Howey, and the river itself runs a twisting course before the hill on which the castle motte stands. The Welsh probably advanced to block any approach from the old Roman road to the south via Hay on Wye. West of Painscastle was the Welsh-held cantref of Buellt, east an impassable marsh.

The rejection of peace terms enraged the English. A lowly sergeant, Walter Ham of Trumpington in Cambridge, stood up and declared he wished to die, since he was unimportant and the Welsh could not gloat over the death of a nobody. He mounted his horse and charged into the first line of Welsh infantry. Walter rode down two men, seized a third and broke his neck. He then turned and shouted “King’s men, king’s men - come with me, strike, strike, we will triumph!”

The first line or ‘battle’ of English infantry threw discipline to the winds and charged. What followed was Crug Mawr in reverse: it seems the Welsh were caught advancing up the sloping ground of the Begwns, south of the river. The unexpected ferocity of the English assault threw them backwards, into the second line, which rapidly disintegrated and plunged back down to the river. The English commander, Geoffrey Fitz Peter, threw his knights forward to complete the rout and drive away the mounted Welsh reserve.

Local tradition speaks of bones and ancient swords discovered in the trout pool discovered in the south side of the brook. If true, this would suggest many of the Welsh drowned as they tried to escape. The chronicles supply a horrific casualty list:

And so this unheard of massacre and unaccustomed killing occurred, with the rest Anarawd ab Einion, Owain Cascob ap Cadwallon, Rhiryd ab Iestyn and Robert ap Hywel were killed and Maredudd ap Cynan was imprisoned (Annales Cambriae)

The slaughter of so many princes suggests they were killed in the first rush of fighting, as they tried to prevent the rout. Welsh and English sources agree that between three to four thousand Welsh soldiers were slain. The Annals of Chester state that many nobles of Gwynedd were killed, and the men of Llywelyn ab Iorwerth. Only one Englishman died, and he was accidentally shot by a comrade. Walter Ham was slightly injured and suffered from a limp for eight days afterwards.

Paincastle was an utter catastrophe, arguably the worst military defeat ever suffered by the Welsh. There is a distinct whiff of conspiracy over Gwenwynwyn’s involvement. He was in English pay, and no Powysians appear on the list of killed or captured. His actions in the following years suggest the Powysian army was intact, while his local rivals rotted in the Bach Howey.

Tuesday, 10 September 2019

The wars of Gwenwynwyn (4)

In June 1198 Gwenwynwyn gathered most of the princes of Wales under his banner and marched on Painscastle. Inside were the retainers of William Braose, installed there by Maud de St Valery after her victory in 1195.

The plot then thickens, like day-old porridge. The Welsh chronicles do not emphasise Gwenwynwyn’s presence at Painscastle, and it is possible he split his army in two. Pipe Roll evidence suggests John Lestrange still held Welshpool in 1198, and Gwenwynwyn may have taken his Powysian troops to besiege the castle; it was, after all, his ancestral stronghold.

His allies, meanwhile, laid siege to Painscastle. They included Anarawd ab Einion of the house of Elfael and Owain ap Cadwallon of Maelienydd. The house of Elfael had been effectively dispossessed by William Braose in 1195, while Maelienydd was overrun by Roger Mortimer in the same year. Both these princes, therefore, were exiles who may have taken shelter with Gwenwynwyn. The army at Painscastle included a large number of Venedotians, probably sent by Llywelyn ab Iorwerth. The presence of his cousin, Maredudd ap Cynan, would suggest as much. Maredudd was also the younger brother of Prince Gruffydd ap Cynan, the chief lord of Gwynedd at this time.

Gwenwynwyn’s allies sat outside Painscastle for three weeks, unable to bombard the castle since they had no artillery. The Brutiau mention this fact but don’t explain it. Why did they have no siege engines? Were the Powysians supposed to supply them?

The new justiciar, Geoffrey Fitz Peter, gathered an army in England and the Marches and advanced towards Painscastle. One of his first acts was to release Gruffydd ap Rhys, the Lord Rhys’s eldest son, whom Gwenwynwyn had sold to the English the previous year. Gruffydd was granted four marks (£2 14s 4d), which suggests he accompanied the army. Further payments were made to Caswallon, Gwenwynwyn’s brother, and Llywelyn ab Owain Fychan. They, too, were probably serving in the army of Fitz Peter. 

Incredibly, Gwenwynwyn received a payment of £2 1s 8d from the English. Officially this was to compensate him for damages done to him by Caswallon in time of peace. Or was it a backhander? If so, what happened next suggests he came very cheap.