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Medieval Welsh Warriors and Warfare

copyright by Daniel Mersey

Unlike most countries in Europe at the time, the style and method of medieval Welsh warfare was not overly influenced by feudalism. The survival of earlier traditions of pre-Roman and early medieval Celtic culture in Wales was reflected in military terms - not least because the heavily armoured feudal horseman could not properly operate in the rough and hilly ground covering much of Wales.

The Welsh armies which faced Anglo-Norman incursions were based around the individual princes' and chieftains' personal bodyguards (Teulu). The rest of the force would comprise of any local men over the age of 14; this service was seen as a privilege, as opposed to feudal militias who saw such service as an obligation. The only men over the age of 14 who were exempt from such service were those who were tenants on church lands. A prince could call out his host once a year, and they would only have to serve in campaigns outside of their principality for up to 6 weeks..

The Teulu (literally meaning "family") were strongly armed and mounted retainers. They were armed as a feudal knight, in chainmail and helmet, and carrying a shield and lance. Early in this period, the Teulu may have used javelins instead of lances, just like their Norman counterparts. In the C11th, the normal size of a prince's Teulu was 120 men; Llywelyn ap Gryffydd had a Teulu of 160 in 1282.

Extra aid early in the period was enlisted from Irish and Scandinavian mercenaries. In the C15th, Owain Glyndwr was helped by a small number of French troops.

The size of a Welsh prince's host could vary according to the campaign and his own resources. A small raiding party could consist of a very select few only, whereas hosts for stand-up battles could be much larger. Gryffydd ap Rhys of Deheubarth fielded 6,000 foot and 2,000 cavalry in his massive victory over the English at Crug Mawr in 1136. Llywelyn ap Gryffydd fought for Simon de Montfort in 1256 with 30,000 infantry and 500 cavalry; in his final campaign against Edward I in 1282, he had a force of 7,000 foot plus his Teulu of 160.

The men of north Wales were mostly spearmen (the best being from Merionethshire and Cynan), and those from south Wales were mainly archers (the best being from Gwent, who were "accustomed to war"). However, this does not mean that the north Welsh had no archers, or vice versa.

The warriors were dressed in a linen shirt (often red) and linen drawers; they covered these with a woolen cloak hanging to their knees, which was sometimes described as being "thin". Several manuscripts depict Welsh warriors as having only one shoe and their other foot bare - this probably allowed them to keep a balance on hilly or rough terrain. Hair was worn short, and was shaped around the eyes and ears; moustaches were popular, but beards were not.

As mentioned above, the main weapons were long spears and bows, but javelins were also used, as were maces, gisarmes, and axes. A circular shield was carried by the foot soldiers, decorated white, yellow, silver, or blue. The bow used by the Welsh was made of elm, and unlike the way in which the English later utilised it, Welsh bows were fired at close range, as an ambush weapon. During fighting at Abergavenny Castle, one arrow was recorded to have penetrated a horseman's mail covered leg, through his saddle, and into his horse far enough to kill it; another arrow was fired 4" into an oak door.

As mentioned before, the Teulu consisted of better equipped horsemen, known individually as Uchelwr; these upper class warriors also favoured red tunics, and dressed for battle in a similar style to the English knights ("Marchogs"). Although armed with lances, early Uchelwr's probably threw javelins like their Marchog rivals. Heraldry was known from the late C12th onwards, and a good example of an early C13th Uchelwr can be seen on the seal of Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, shown at right.

Below: Statue of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth at Conwy

The tactics used by Welsh armies were formulated to suit the awkward terrain of Wales - this was often the main weapon against the invading English. Primarily, Welsh tactics consisted of ambushes and raids; success in war was measured by the amount of booty brought home. Giraldus Cambrensis notes that it was Welsh habit "to steal anything they can lay their hands on and to live on plunder, theft and robbery". Battle was preferred on marshy or broken ground, which favoured the Welsh's mobility over the clumsy, heavily armoured English knights. The initial onslaught was fierce, but if this did not break the enemy, the Welsh often lost heart. Their spirits were picked up by loud battle cries and war trumpets blowing (according to C12th sources).

The initial charge was a headlong assault accompanied by thrown javelins; this could be followed up by feigned flight (a common tactic amongst lightly armed and agile troops to lead their enemy into a trap). At the Battle of Lincoln in 1141, it was recorded that "On the flank there was a great multitude of Welshmen, better provided with daring than with arms" - as with most Celts of the medieval period, the Welsh relied upon agility and cunning as opposed to armour.

When this agility was forsaken, the Welsh were comprehensively beaten - at Orewin Bridge (1282) and Maes Moydog (1295), the Welsh stood in phalanxes of long spears, like the Scots, and were shot to pieces and charges by Edward I's combination of archers and horsemen.

Although large Welsh forces were capable of besieging castles (ie Builth), the siege tactics employed were not those of a feudal army - the Welsh did not really make use of war engines or other standard medieval techniques of storming a castle. The Welsh relied on keeping the defenders inside their castle (by a strong display of force outside the walls), and preventing supplies getting into the castle - this effectively starved the defenders out. Edward I countered this tactic by placing his newly constructed castles along the coastline - to allow easy supply routes from the sea (the Welsh had no significant navy). In Madog's Revolt, Caernavon Castle was stormed, but in this assault the Welsh came across the rock cut ditch which defended the partially constructed castle.

As each area of Wales was subdued, so the Anglo-Norman and (later) English lords used their Welsh subjects as auxiliary troops. The subdued men of south Wales were used against the north Welsh (the English being aided by the rivalry between Welsh princes); many Welshmen fought in Edward I's campaigns in Scotland (although their morale was usually very low); and Welsh troops were used in Ireland to fulfill a similar role to the Irish kerns and skirmishers. Later English armies also used Welsh troops - both for campaigns in France, and in the Wars of the Roses.

Daniel Mersey, 1997

 

Further Reading:

Heath, I., Armies of Feudal Europe 1066-1300 (2nd Ed), 1989.
Hewitt, J., Ancient Armour and Weapons (Reprinted 1996 by Bracken Books), 1855
Mersey, D., Death of a Prince: Llywelyn ap Gryffydd's struggle for Welsh Independence 1272-1282, Wargames Illustrated 100, 1996.
Morris, J., The Welsh Wars of Edward I (Reprinted 1994 by Llanerch Press), 1905.
Newark, T., Celtic Warriors, 1986.

 

Additional articles by Dan Mersey

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