Longsword by David Pilling

Monday, 6 November 2017

Book review

As a change of pace, here's my review of a new book by Dr Sean Davies and published by Pen & Sword Books on the Welsh wars of Edward I. Regular readers of this blog will know of my interest in Edward's reign, and this book is an interesting, though not wholly successful, attempt at tackling a big subject.

Dr Sean Davies’s new book on Edward I’s so-called conquest of Wales is an interesting addition to a thorny subject that continues to ignite emotions to this day, 700 years after the fact: witness the recent controversy over the proposal to erect a giant ‘iron ring’ artwork in Flintshire to commemorate Edward’s castles.

Unfortunately the book is a mixed bag and suffers from its brevity. Just 183 pages is inadequate to cover the full gamut of Edwardian campaigns in Wales, with a lengthy introduction that seeks to provide the backstory of English-Welsh relations from the advent of the Saxons in Britain. Davies manfully attempts to address everything, but in such a short work, covering such a lenthy period and detailed subject, is bound to fall short. For more in-depth analysis of the original source material, John Morris’s 1901 masterwork The Welsh Wars of Edward I (from which this book heavily draws upon) is still essential reading. More recently, the books of Paul Martin Remfry build upon Morris’s study and provide detailed analysis of Edward’s military campaigns, their organisation and implementation. In this last respect, Davies’s claim to have produced the ‘first scholarly account’ of the conquest of Wales in 100 years is questionable.

Unlike recent popular histories of Edward I’s Welsh affairs, Davies makes an effort to approach the subject in an even-handed manner. Yet as the book progresses a certain noticeable bias does creep in. Davies claims the princes of Wales treated their opponents in a ‘chivalrous’ manner absent from their ruthless English counterparts. This might reasonably be said of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd in the sense that he did not kill his treacherous brothers. Otherwise he showed little mercy in disinheriting Rhodri, imprisoning Owain and doing nothing for Dafydd after 1263. Welsh princes in general were not kind to their enemies: the Welsh chronicles, Bruts and Annales Cambriae, are littered with examples of Welsh noblemen mutilating their kinsmen in order to bar them from succession. This custom was practiced elsewhere, of course, notably among the Byzantines, but the blinding and castration of one’s relatives does not amount to the medieval concept of chivalry.

Davies also makes the unfortunate claim that Llywelyn and his brothers desisted from attacking church property during their wars against Edward, while the English pillaged and destroyed with abandon. The author appears to be unaware of (or has deliberately omitted) the charges laid against Llywelyn and Dafydd of plundering religious houses in North Wales and Staffordshire. Davies also provides the reader with an incomplete picture of the relationship between Dafydd and the future Edward I. In 1264 forces under their joint command attacked the estates of Robert de Ferrers, Earl of Derby and Edward’s most hated rival at this time. The author’s decision to omit Ferrers altogether leaves a gap in his narrative, especially since Ferrers and Dafydd later became brothers-in-law.   

Elsewhere Davies is on more solid ground, and provides some compelling arguments. His account of Llywelyn’s early military success is excellent, in particular the Welsh prince’s effective siege operations against the Mortimers of Wigmore. Davies convincingly argues against the view of Edward I’s most prominent recent biographer, Michael Prestwich, that Edward was mistaken in using such large numbers of native Welsh troops in his Welsh campaigns. Davies makes the point that the alternative - small numbers of English levies and foreign mercenaries - had failed time and again and would surely have proved disastrous. Davies does not indulge in hero-worship of Llywelyn, though he clearly finds him an admirable figure. The complaints laid against Llywelyn’s lordship in Gwynedd, his extortionate taxes and breaking of native custom, are acknowledged if hurriedly passed over. Llywelyn’s political errors, specifically his failure to perform homage to Edward, are also discussed, though in general criticism of the prince is rather muted. Davies frequently quotes chunks of poetry, composed in praise of Llywelyn by contemporary Welsh bards. The poetry is nice to read, but again leaves the reader in no doubt as to the author’s sympathies.

There are some factual errors. Davies mistakenly names Edward I’s brother, Edmund of Lancaster, as commander of military operations against Rhys ap Maredudd in 1287. In reality it was Edmund of Cornwall, Edward’s cousin, who led crown forces against Rhys. Davies repeats John Morris’s claim that Edward’s Gascon mercenaries suffered 30-50% casualties in the final months of the war of 1283. This highlights a key weakness of the book, namely Davies’s tendency to parrot other authors without checking their sources. Morris gave no reference for these casualty figures, and there is little in the Welsh Rolls or other sources to support them. Davies also sometimes struggles to maintain his objectivity when assessing the character and actions of King Edward, and it was a mistake (in my view) to publish the unsupported allegations of Matthew Paris. Chapter headings such as ‘Crushed under the heel of Longshanks’ also do little to maintain a tone of professional disinterest.  

With regard to Edward’s campaigns in Wales, Davies is careful to acknowledge the king’s military competence; his skill at organisation and logistics and ability to react swiftly to a crisis. Davies’s account of the wars is heavily influenced by John Morris, that inescapable source, complemented by Prestwich and Marc Morris and quotations from the Ancient Calendar of Correspondence. To his credit, Davies does quote correspondence in full, though again he has a slightly annoying habit of referencing other scholars instead of giving his own opinion: the text throughout is larded with ‘According to Professor Rees-Davies…’ or ‘According to Dr Marc Morris…’ and so on. Davies noticeably resorts to this method when he has something contentious to say, particularly with regard to Edward’s methods of raising finance. A degree of bias is again demonstrated by the author’s unquestioning acceptance of the various complaints against royal administration submitted by Welsh lords after the war of 1277. Petitions from this era were always driven by vested interests, and cannot be fairly credited without due analysis: J Beverly-Smith, in his seminal study of the career of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, makes this point. Davies simply takes them all at face value and encourages the reader to do the same.

This leads on to Davies’s startling use of the term ‘apartheid’ to describe post-conquest conditions in Gwynedd. The use of such a modern, emotionally and politically loaded term in a serious study of medieval history is not acceptable. The alleged policies of racial segregation inside Edward’s new bastide towns are not mentioned in any surviving legislation from the reign: they are first outlined in the Record of Caernarvon, which dates from the mid-14th century. Petitions dating from Edward’s reign and afterwards provide a muddled view, with some evidence of the English king deliberately encouraging English-Welsh intermarriage inside the bastides. The subject of precisely when and why the ‘apartheid’ policies were introduced is well worthy of study, but Davies makes no effort to do so. It is true that a policy of displacing Welsh communities was employed in the new lordships created for Reynold de Grey and Henry de Lacy, Earl of Lincoln, but these were administered separately to Edward’s royal demesne lands in Gwynedd. A more in-depth study of the relevant sources, such as the Survey of the Honour of Denbigh, would have been ideal.
Ultimately, for all its positive elements, this book relies too heavily on second-hand interpretation and previous accounts of Wales in Edward I’s time. Primary sources are extensively quoted, but there is little sign of any original research. This is a shame, since a great deal of primary source material relevant to the subject remains to be accessed and interpreted.

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