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Llywelyn the Great

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Above: statue of Llywelyn in Conwy's town square

In Gwynedd, Llywelyn ap Iorwerth had come to power in the classic way of Welsh princes bedeviled by the dividing rule of Welsh inheritance - he seized it from his uncle. He proved to be the greatest and most constructive Welsh statesman of the Middle Ages. In his long career he succeeded, by constant warfare, by tactful yielding under pressure and by masterly resilience the moment that pressure was relieved, in bringing under his control most of Pura Wallia. When he died in 1240, full of honor and glory, he left a principality which had the possibility of expanding into a truly national state of Wales. There was a moment when an independent Wales seemed about to become a reality.

Llywelyn deliberately set out on a policy of reconstructing the whole basis of Welsh political life, and not every Welshman was happy about it. Llywelyn lived in an age which saw the emergence of the centralized feudal state. Both France and England presented the spectacle of societies elaborating their administrative machinery, putting their taxation on a new and sounder footing and systematizing their codes of justice, but Llywelyn's principality was small and lacking resources. Hostile English observers could wax satirical about its pretensions to international status.

Gwynedd had always been the core of the power of the princes, and the expansion of Llywelyn's territory gave him the ability to do many things beyond the power of previous Welsh rulers. We find Llywelyn ap Iorwerth (the Great) and Llywelyn ap Gruffydd (the Last) developing castle building on a considerable scale. The remains of Castell y Bere or of Ewloe, Dolbadarn and Dolwyddelan even show distinctive Welsh style. The princes gave charters to the small towns growing in their domains. They supported the abbeys and the friaries. We sense a new Wales coming into being, and, at the moment, it was basically an independent Wales. The great question was, would this new Wales be able to develop to its full potential without interference from without or protests from within? Looming over it was the king of England.

 

Below: Dolwyddelan Castle

 

For over all this hung the vexing yet vital question of the exact terms of Llywelyn's homage to the king. The king was always acknowledged as being at the head of the pyramid and by the 13th century Welsh rulers also accepted the principle that homage should be paid to the King of England. Hywel Dda had done do, far back in the 10th century, and both Owain Gwynedd and the Lord Rhys had done homage to Henry II. The problem was that Llywelyn claimed that the status in relation to the King of England was the same enjoyed by the King of Scotland - that barons were to pay their homage directly to him and not the king, but King John took a different view. He felt that the barons should also do their homage to him. This gave him the right of continual interference in Welsh affairs. At times the relationship between Llywelyn and the king were mutually supportive, in part because Llywelyn managed to marry Joan, the illegitimate daughter of King John, in 1205. But even this family tie soon broke down over the question of homage and disputed territories.

When the Welsh princes were strong they could enforce a grudging acknowledgement of their position from the king. When they were weak, the king granted treaties firmly maintaining his view of homage. Llywelyn the Great had sought to solve the problem before his death. He had two sons, Gruffydd by a Welsh lady and the younger, David, by his wife Joan. Welsh law at the time said that both sons should inherit - a law which had been the cause of so many of those disputed successions which had brought ruin to Wales in the past. Llywelyn made a bold and successful attempt to put this dangerous Welsh law aside in favor of the English system, and finally got the consent of King Henry III - or his advisors - to agree to the succession of David as his sole heir. Then, shortly before his death, he called all the princes of Wales together at Strata Florida Abbey in 1238 and made them swear allegiance to David. Henry III allowed him to succeed, but refused David the direct homage of the barons, eventually leading to war between the king and the new Welsh prince. David and his forces had no change against Henry's large army and withdrew. David died childless shortly thereafter, and it would be up to Llywelyn's grandson, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, to assert Wales' independence once again.

Wales - A History, Wynford Vaughan-Thomas, Michael Joseph Ltd. Publishing, London WC1, 1985.

 

 

Below: Coffin of Llywelyn, Gwydir Chapel, Llanrwst parish

 

Below: Strata Florida Abbey

 

 

The palace of Llywelyn: Pen Y Bryn, The Princes’ Tower.
View the memorial grave slab of Llyweyln's wife, the Princess Joan
Essay: Medieval Welsh Warriors and Warfare
Genealogy of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth and the rulers of Gwynedd

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Copyright © 2009 by Jeffrey L. Thomas