Reiver by David Pilling

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Edward and Llewellyn, Part One

In August 1267 the ageing Henry III of England travelled with his court to the Welsh border at Montgomery. There he met with Llewellyn ap Gruffydd and granted the Welsh prince all he had long desired, including the Four Cantrefs of Perfeddwlad, the castle and lordship of Builth, and the greatest prize of all, formal recognition by the English crown of Llewellyn's title and supremacy over Wales.

Llewellyn's arms as prince of Gwynedd
Among the signatories to the deal, known as the Treaty of Montgomery, was Henry's eldest son, Edward. This was the first time Edward and Llewellyn had met in person, though they had stood on opposite sides in the recent baronial wars and fought over territory in the Welsh March. An army of mercenaries, sent into Wales on the young Edward's behalf, had been destroyed by Welsh forces at Coed Llathen in 1256. Edward's former lordship of Builth, taken by Llewellyn in 1260, was now officially given over to the prince. Yet despite this long history of antagonism the two men seemed to have got on rather well: two years later, Llewellyn wrote of his 'delight' at a second meeting with Edward. After Edward had departed for the Holy Land, Henry wrote back to Llewellyn, describing in warm terms the prince's friendship with his eldest son.

Thirteen years later, Llewellyn was fated to die in a ditch, slain by Edward's troops. His head was cut off and paraded on a spear through the streets of London, crowned with a wreath of ivy, in mockery of his princely status. Wales itself was conquered and occupied and turned into an English colony, while Llewellyn's regalia was broken up and sent to London, and his living descendants (children of his brother, Dafydd) locked up in convents or English prisons. How, from a promising start, did his relations with Edward collapse so dramatically?

The decline was slow, and far from inevitable. Relations were still amicable in 1269, when Edward intervened on Llewellyn's behalf in a violent territorial dispute with Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester. Edward risked much in doing so, for de Clare was one of the most powerful and volatile nobles in England. He had fought on both sides in the civil wars, and Edward needed his support (and cash) for the planned Crusade. De Clare was furious at Edward's judgement, and chose to stay and fight it out with Llewellyn rather than go east with his royal master.

Llewellyn's failure to prevent de Clare building his impressive castle at Caerphilly in Glamorgan might be seen as the turning point in the prince's fortunes. Up until now his career had been one long success story. Now the Marcher barons detected signs of weakness. In 1273 Humphrey de Bohun, heir to the earldom of Hereford, started to push his ancestral claims to the lordship of Brecon. He moved troops into the region, secure in the knowledge that the regent Edward left behind to govern England, Roger de Mortimer, was himself an aggressive Marcher baron and no friend of Llewellyn.

From Edward's point of view it made sense to leave Mortimer as gatekeeper: he was a strong hand and England was unlikely to fall back into civil conflict with him in charge. For Llewellyn the appointment of Mortimer was a disaster. When he complained to the English court over de Bohun's illegal invasion of Brecon, Mortimer and his advisors responded with shameless duplicity. Having checked the Treaty of Montgomery, they found that 'the land of Brecon' had indeed been ceded to the prince. However, the terms said nothing of who should hold the castles in the region. De Bohun, therefore, was perfectly within his rights to occupy and fortify those castles as he pleased, and hold them against all comers. They finished with an expression of shock and dismay that Llewellyn 'had presumed to besiege and occupy those castles' and warned him to keep the peace in future.

Dolforwyn Castle
Fully aware that he could not afford to let the Marchers get on top, Llewellyn ignored the warning and started work on his new castle at Dolforwyn. When the regents ordered him to cease construction, his bitingly sarcastic response was addressed to the absent king instead of them: "We received letters in your majesty's name," he wrote, "but we are sure they did not have your consent...if you were present in your kingdom. as we hope, we are sure they would not have been sent." Ironically, considering later events, Llewellyn appears to have regarded Edward as his saviour at this point. Only the King of England had the power to stop his over-mighty Marchers from building castles on Llewellyn's lands and doing all they could to expand their power and influence at his expense.

When Edward finally returned in 1274, having survived an assassin's knife in the Holy Land, one subject loomed large in his mind: money. The crusade might have done his reputation a power of good, but it achieved little in material terms and incurred massive debts. He needed cash, fast, and expected large sums from Wales. As the price for his acknowledgement in 1267, Llewellyn had promised to pay the English crown the enormous sum of 25,000 marks (£16,667). For the prince of a proud but poor country, with an estimated annual customs revenue of about £17 (the comparative revenue of England was £10,000 per annum) this was optimistic to say the least. After some bartering, it was agreed he could pay off the amount at a rate of 3000 marks (£2000) a year. At the height of his power, in the mid-1260s, Llewellyn's total income was no more than £6000, so he had effectively waved goodbye to over a third of his annual revenue.

By the early 1270s, Llewellyn's slender finances were creaking under the strain. He was three years in arrears on the annual payments, and had resorted to crippling taxation in order to pay for the arms race with the Marchers. The prince of Wales, as Gwyn A. Williams noted, taxed the subjects of a small country with no major towns and a severely restricted currency to the hilt, built castles on their backs, used every method he could think of to raise money. In this he was no different to any other 13th century princeling, but in Llewellyn's case the available resources did not match his ambition.

In the end he tried to use the fraught political situation as a way of putting off his debts: "The money is ready to be paid to your attorneys," he wrote to the regents in February 1274, "provided you compel the Earl of Gloucester, Humphrey de Bohun and the other Marchers to restore to us the lands they have unjustly occupied." The result was an unsustainable Catch-22. Llewellyn knew that Mortimer would not order the Marchers to desist, which in turn meant Llewellyn was justified in not stumping up the £6000 he owed. Whether he really did have the funds available, as he claimed, is open to doubt.

Edward I 
Edward - perhaps surprisingly, for those who regard him as incapable of compromise - did his best to patch up the situation. His own debts were pressing, and he couldn't afford to let his avaricious Marchers ruin any chance of payment from Llewellyn. He ordered the Sheriff of Shropshire to bring an end to hostilities, stressing that he 'did not want Llewellyn to have any cause for complaining about the settlement made'. If the prince had no cause for complaint, he reasoned, there was no further excuse for defaulting on the arrears.

By now (1274) Llewellyn was in his early fifties, and there was little sign of the final disaster to come, just eight years later. Some compromise over the money and territorial squabbles in the March might yet have been reached. Certain English baronial rebels, such as John de Eyvill, had negotiated favourable terms with Edward under similar circumstances. Edward and Llewellyn were scheduled to meet at Shrewsbury in the autumn to hammer out terms, but Edward fell sick and couldn't attend. If that meeting had gone ahead, Llewellyn - and his country - might yet have been saved.

The fly in the ointment came in the shape of Llewellyn's younger brother, Dafydd. More of him, and the wars of 1277 and 1282, in part two.


  1. Really interesting . As a Welsh lady anything on our history intrigues me and i learnt some new things here. Looking forward to part 2 . Thank you David