Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Llywelyn the Great

Llywelyn carved stone head

Phil Carradice, in his book Highlights of Welsh History, does a very good job of summarising the career of Llywelyn the Great. This is the extract:

By the 13th century, Wales was dominated by three great principalities – Gwynedd, Powys and Deheubarth. Of these Gwynedd was easily the most powerful and it was from this northern region that the leadership of the Welsh drive for independence was to come.


After a long period of internal strife, by 1199 Llywelyn ap Iorwerth as he came to be known, emerged as the ruler of Gwynedd. He immediately drove the Normans back beyond Offa's Dyke, to the very boundaries of Chester, consolidating his position in the north and even making inroads into some of the regions of Powys. His growing power and military strength were feared by the other Welsh rulers, however, and they supported the English King John in his subsequent invasion of Gwynedd. Llywelyn was forced to submit but as difficulties for John soon arose in England, culminating in the signing of Magna Carta, Llywelyn joined forces with several English barons to attack royal positions and strongpoints in Wales.

Dolbadarn Castle, guarding the Llanberis pass into Snowdonia
Dolbadarn Castle, guarding the
Llanberis pass into Snowdonia

Soon, Llywelyn managed to gain the support of several Welsh rulers and set out on a series of campaigns against the English power bases in South West Wales. He was so successful that in 1204 King John had little option but to recognise him as Lord of Gwynedd. He even gave his illegitimate daughter Joan in marriage to the Welsh ruler. In 1208 Llywelyn conquered the southern part of Powys but his success was beginning to work against him as more and more of the 'petty princes' of the country became fearful for their own independence. John took advantage of this, invaded and forced Llywelyn to agree to humiliating terms.

Such a setback did not last long and, with John clearly aiming at total control of Wales, yet another power shift took place. Those Welsh rulers who had previously aided the English king now fell into line behind Llywelyn to present a united front. John was thwarted in his aims and Llywelyn had clearly become the dominant force in the Welsh military and political spectrum.

At a great Council of Welsh rulers at Aberdyfi in 1216, Llywelyn arbitrated on disputes over conquered land and was openly acknowledged as the leader of independent Wales. He began to call himself 'Prince of North Wales '. He would now answer on behalf of all the independent kingdoms of Wales to any external power, thus ensuring that the English king would no longer be able to play off one ruler against the rest.

Bere Castle
Bere Castle
Having spent huge amounts of time and energy building up an extensive and powerful kingdom within Wales, Llywelyn was not about to let it fragment and divide after his death. 

He sought to ensure the future of his country by replacing the traditional Welsh practice of dividing up inheritance equally among all male heirs. Yet he was limited in what he could do. Perhaps almost in desperation, in October 1238 he again summoned the Welsh princes to a council, this time at Strata Florida Abbey. Each of the rulers swore allegiance and undying loyalty to Llywelyn's son and heir, Dafydd. Knowing the men with whom he was dealing, Llywelyn cannot have felt entirely secure in their assurances.

He was right to worry. The Princes went home from Strata Florida and promptly forgot their vows. In the years ahead it was to be an important factor.

When he died in April 1240, Llewelyn was, effectively Prince of Wales, even though he was content to use only the title of 'Prince of Aberffraw and Lord of Snowdon '. Never again was the country to be so unified or so powerful. Llywelyn the Great, undoubtedly, deserves his accolade.

[Pictures from Cadw brochure on Heroes & Heroines of Wales: Llywelyn the Great]

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