Edward I Conquers Wales

Author:      Pearson, Charles H.

Edward I Conquers Wales

 

1277

 

 

     Up to the time of Edward I, Wales, which had been partially subdued by

Henry I, was a source of continual disturbance to the English kingdom.  Long

before the accession of Edward, the greater part of Welsh territory was

parcelled out into little English principalities.  Under John and Henry III,

Llewelyn the Great, Prince of Wales, maintained his independence until 1237,

three years before his death, when he submitted in order to secure the

succession of his son David.  Upon David's death, in 1246, the principality of

Wales was divided between Llewelyn and Owen the Red, sons of Griffith ap

Llewelyn, David's illegitimate brother.  Civil war soon followed, and in 1224

Llewelyn made himself master of the land.

 

[See King Edward I: King Edward I gives the Welsh "a native prince who could

not speak one word of English."]

 

     Llewelyn might have reached absolute independence had he not taken part

with Simon de Montfort in the barons' war against Henry III.  With the defeat

and death of Montfort at Evesham (1265) the prospect of a new Welsh

sovereignty vanished; Llewelyn purchased a peace and was recognized by Henry

as prince of Wales, retaining a part of his territories.

 

     When Llewelyn was summoned as a vassal of the English crown to the

coronation of Edward I (1274), he refused.  Twice again was he summoned to do

homage to the King, but still evaded the summons.  Upon his final refusal to

come to the parliament of 1276, his lands were declared to be forfeited, and

in 1277 Edward led an army into Wales.

 

     The whole force of the realm was summoned to meet at Worcester in June,

1277, and so well was the command obeyed that Edward found himself able to

dispose of three armies.  With the first he himself operated along the north,

opening a safe road through the Cheshire forests, and fortifying Flint and

Rhuddlan, while the ships of the Cinque Ports hovered along the coast and

ravaged Anglesey.  The corps d'armee, under the Earl of Lincoln and Roger

Mortimer, besieged and reduced Dolvorwyn castle in Montgomeryshire.  The third

was led into Cardigan by Payne de Chaworth, who ravaged the country with such

vigor that the South Welsh - being probably disaffected to a prince not of

their own lineage - surrendered the castle of Stradewi and made a general

submission.

 

     Edward had avoided the fatal errors of previous commanders, who had

risked their forces in a barren and difficult country.  His blockade was so

well sustained that Llewelyn was starved, rather than beaten, into

unconditional submission.

 

     With singular moderation, Edward had declined receiving the homage of the

southern chiefs. He now granted Llewelyn honorable terms, November 5, 1277.  A

fine of fifty thousand pounds was imposed to mark the greatness of the

victory, but remitted next day out of the King's grace.  Four border cantreds,

^1 old possessions of the English crown, which Llewelyn had wrested from it in

the wars of the late reign, were to be surrendered to the English King, who

already occupied them.  Prisoners in the English interests were to be set

free, and Llewelyn was to come under "an honorable" safe-conduct to London and

perform homage.  Edward had promised David ^2 half the principality, but with

a reservation at the time that he might, if he chose, give him compensation

elsewhere.  He now elected to do this, moved, it would seem, simply by the

wish not to dismember Llewelyn's dominions, and David was made governor of

Denbigh castle, married to the Earl of Derby's daughter, and endowed with

extensive estates.  In every other respect Llewelyn was tenderly dealt with.

The hostages exacted were sent back.  The rent of one thousand marks

stipulated for Anglesey was remitted.  When the Prince of Wales came to London

to perform homage he received the last favor of all, and was married

sumptuously, at the King's cost, to Lady Eleanor de Montfort.

 

[Footnote 1: Subdivisions of counties, corresponding to the English hundreds.]

 

[Footnote 2: Llewelyn's brother.]

 

     There is no reason for supposing that Edward cherished any covert plans

of absorbing Wales into England.  Having wiped out the dishonor of his early

years, and replaced England in its old position of ascendency, he had no

motive for reviving bitter memories or dispossessing a great noble of his

fief.  The King's conduct in giving his cousin to one who was only her equal

through a usurped royalty; the inquests held in the marches to determine

border law; the instructions to the royal judges, to judge according to local

customs; the special commission appointed when Llewelyn thought himself

aggrieved are curious evidence of fair-mindedness in a strong-willed and

almost absolute sovereign.  But in one respect Edward was ill-fitted to deal

with an uncivilized people.  He was overstrictfor the times even in England,

where his subjects almost learned, before he died, to regret the anarchy of

his father's reign.  But his officers were nowhere harsher than in Wales,

where the people, unaccustomed to a minute legality, complained that they were

worse treated than Saracens or Jews.  Old offences were raked up; wrecking was

made punishable; the legal taxes were aggravated by customary payments; and

distresses were levied on the first goods that came to hand, whether

Llewelyn's own or his subjects'.

 

     The people of the four annexed cantreds were soon ripe for rebellion.

David was alienated from the English cause by petty quarrels with Reginald

Gray, Justice of Chester, who insisted on making him answer before the English

courts, hanged some of his vassals, and carried a military road through his

woods.  The Welsh gentlemen complained that they were removed from offices

which they had purchased, brought to justice for old offences which ought to

have been condoned by the peace, and deprived of their jurisdiction in local

courts.  For a time the lady Eleanor tried to mediate between her husband and

her cousin.  But it was impossible that a stern, just man like Edward,

penetrated with the most advanced doctrine of European legists and deriving

his information from English employes, should be able to understand the

position of the chief of a semibarbarous nationality, who thought outrages on

law matters to be atoned for by fines, while he brooded with implacable rancor

over every slight, real or fancied, to his own position as prince of Wales,

representative of a dynasty that had ruled "since the time of Camber the son

of Brutus."

 

     Moreover, Llewelyn thought, perhaps unreasonably, that he had been

betrayed by Edward.  He said that on the day of his marriage the English King

had forced him to subscribe a document to the effect that he would never

harbor an English exile or maintain forces against Edward's will.  There was

little in all this that was not implied in Llewelyn's position as vassal, and

he himself did not complain that the conditions had ever been offensively

pressed.  A king who had granted such liberal terms as Edward might perhaps

claim, with reason, that his conquered vassal should never threaten him with

hostilities.  But the offence was none the less deadly, that it was justified

by the relations of subject and sovereign.

 

     A curious superstition precipitated an outbreak.  In the time of Henry I

some Norman had fabricated the so-called prophecies of Merlin, which were

designed to reconcile the Welsh to the Norman Conquest.  Henry was designated

in them as the lion of justice, and it was given as a sign of his reign that

the symbol of commerce would be split and the half be round.  The prophecy had

already been fulfilled by the regulation for breaking coin at the mint, and

making the half-penny a round piece by itself.  In 1279 Edward issued the

farthing as an entire coin.  The change recalled the memory of Merlin's

prophecy; and the vague oracles, that had been compiled to describe Henry's

dominion over the Saxons, were easily interpreted to mean that a Welsh prince

should be crowned at London, and retrieve what its natives regarded as the

lost dominion of the principality.

 

     Llewelyn, it is said, consulted a witch, who assured him that he should

ride crowned through Westcheap.  But the Prince of Wales also relied on less

visionary assurances.  The "quo-warranto" commission was prosecuting its

labors vigorously, and had produced a widespread discontent in England, where

men said openly that the King would not suffer them to reap their own corn or

mow their grass.  Llewelyn was in correspondence with the malcontents, and

received promises of support.  His brother David was easily induced to join

the rebellion, and began it on Palm Sunday, 1282, by storming the castle of

Hawarden, and making Roger de Clifford, its lord and Edward's sheriff, his

prisoner.  Flint and Rhuddlan were next reduced, and the Welsh spread over the

marches, waging a war of singular ferocity, slaying, and even burning, young

and old women and sick people in the villages.  The rebellion found Edward

unprepared, but he met it with equal vigor and efficiency.  Making Shrewsbury

his head-quarters, and moving the exchequer and king's bench to it, he

summoned troops not only from all England, but from Gascony.

 

     It is possible that the foreign recruits were intended to strengthen the

King's hands against subjects of doubtful fidelity, but no real embarrassment

from the disaffected was sustained.  The troops mustered operated in two

armies, which started from Rhuddlan and Worcester, and enclosed Llewelyn, as

before, from north and south.  Meanwhile the ships of the Cinque Ports reduced

Anglesey, "the noblest feather in Llewelyn's wing," as Edward joyfully

observed.  But the King was faithful to his old policy of a blockade. A bridge

of ships was thrown across the Menai Straits, and the forests between Wales

proper and the English border were hewn down by an army of pioneers. The

King's banner, the golden dragon, showed that quarter would be given.

 

     As the war lasted on, negotiations were attempted; and the Archbishop of

Canterbury, who had threatened the last sentence of the Church against

Llewelyn and his adherents, was sent over to Snowdon to hold a conference.

Llewelyn had already been warned that it was idle to expect assistance from

Rome.  He was now summoned to submit at discretion, with a hope - so expressed

as to be a promise - that he and the natives of the revolted districts would

have mercy shown them.  In private he was informed that, on condition of

surrendering Wales, he should receive a county in England and a pension of one

thousand pounds a year.  David was to go to the Holy Land, and not return

except by the King's permission.  These terms were undoubtedly hard, but could

not be called unreasonable, as, by the subjugation of Anglesey, the

principality was reduced to the two modern counties of Merionethshire and

Carnarvonshire.  Llewelyn and his barons preferred to die fighting sword in

hand for position and liberty.  The Primate excommunicated them and withdrew.

 

     About the time of this interview, November 6th, there was a sharp

skirmish at Bangor.  Some of the Earl of Gloucester's troops crossed over

before the bridge was completed, except for low-water mark, and were surprised

and routed, with the loss of their leader and fourteen bannerets, by the

Welsh.  This encouraged Llewelyn to resume offensive operations, and he poured

troops into Cardigan to ravage the lands of a Welshman in the English

interest.  The English forces in Radnor marched up along the left bank of the

Wye, and came in sight of the enemy at Buelth, December 10th. Llewelyn was

surprised during a reconnaissance and killed by an English knight, Stephen de

Frankton.  After a short but brilliant encounter, in which the English charged

up the brow of a hill and routed the enemy with loss, they examined the dead

bodies, and for the first time knew that Llewelyn was among the slain.  A

letter was found on his person giving a list, in false names, of the English

nobles with whom he was in correspondence, but either the cipher was

undiscoverable or the matter was hushed up by the King's discretion.

 

     Llewelyn, dying under church ban, was denied Christian sepulture.  His

head, crowned with a garland of silver ivy-leaves, was carried on the point of

a lance through London, and exposed on the battlements of the Tower.  The

prophecy that he should ride crowned through London had been fatally

fulfilled.

 

     With the death of Llewelyn the Welsh war was virtually at an end.  With

all his faults of temper and judgment, he had shown himself a man of courage

and capacity, who identified his own cause with his people's.  But David,

though now implicated in the rebellion beyond hope of pardon, had fought under

the English banner against his countrymen, with the wish to dismember the

principality.  The Welsh cannot be accused of fickleness if they became

languid in a struggle against overwhelming power and a king who had shown them

more tenderness than their leader for the time. David's one castle of Bere was

starved into surrender by the Earl of Pembroke, and David himself taken in a

bog by some Welsh in the English interest.  His last remaining adherent, Rees

ap Walwayn, surrendered, on hearing of his lord's captivity, and was sent

prisoner to the Tower.  For David himself a sadder fate was reserved.  His

request for a personal interview with his injured sovereign was refused.

Edward did not care to speak with a man whom he had no thought of pardoning.

He at once summoned a parliament of barons, judges, and burgesses to meet at

Shrewsbury, September 29th, and decide on the prisoner's fate.  It is evident

that Edward was incensed in no common measure against the traitor whom, as he

expressed it, he had "taken up as an exile, nourished as an orphan, endowed

from his own lands, and placed among the lords of our palace," and who hadre

paid these benefits by a sudden and savage war.

 

     Nevertheless, the King, from policy or from temperament, resolved to

associate the whole nation in a great act of justice on a man of princely

lineage.  The sentence, which excited no horror at the time, was probably

passed without a dissentient voice.  David was sentenced, as a traitor, to be

drawn slowly to the gallows; as a murderer, to be hanged; as one who had shed

blood during Passion-tide, to be disembowelled after death; and for plotting

the King's death, his dismembered limbs were to be sent to Winchester, York,

Northampton, and Bristol.  Seldom has a shameful and violent death been better

merited than by a double-dyed traitor like David, false by turns to his

country and his king; nor could justice be better honored than by making the

last penalty of rebellion fall upon the guilty Prince, rather than on his

followers.

 

     The form of punishment in itself was mitigated from the extreme penalty

of the law, which prescribed burning for traitors.  Compared with the

execution under the Tudors and Stuarts, or with the reprisal taken after

Culloden, the single sentence of death carried out on David seems scarcely to

challenge criticism.  Yet it marks a decline from the almost bloodless policy

of former kings.  Since the times of William Rufus no English noble, except

under John, had paid the penalty of rebellion with life.  In particular,

during the late reign, Fawkes de Breaute and the adherents of Simon de

Montfort had been spared by men flushed with victory and exasperated with a

long strife.  There were some circumstances to palliate David's treachery, if,

as is probable, his charges against the English justiciary have any truth.  We

may well acquit Edward of that vilest infirmity of weak minds, which confounds

strength with ferocity and thinks that the foundations of law can be laid in

blood.  He probably received David's execution as a measure demanded by

justice and statesmanship, and in which the whole nation was to be associated

with its king.  Never was court of justice more formally constituted; but it

was a fatal precedent for himself, and the weaker, worse men who succeeded

him.  From that time, till within the last century, the axe of the executioner

has never been absent from English history.

 

     Edward was resolved to incorporate Wales with England.  The children of

Llewelyn and David were honorably and safely disposed of in monasteries, from

which they never seem to have emerged.  The great Welsh lords who had joined

the rebellion were punished with deprivation of all their lands.  Out of the

conquered territory Denbigh and Ruthyn seem to have been made into march

lordships under powerful Englishmen.  Anglesey and the land of Snowdon,

Llewelyn's territories of Carnarvon and Merionethshire, with Flint, Cardigan,

and Carmarthenshire, were kept in the hands of the Crown.  The Welsh divisions

of commotes were retained, and several of these constituted a sheriffdom,

which bore pretty much the same relation to an English shire that a Territory

bears to a State in the American Union.  The new districts were also brought

more completely under English law than the marches, which retained their

privileges and customs.

 

     The changes, where we can trace them, seem to have been for the better.

The blood-feud was abolished; widows obtained a dower; bastards were no longer

to inherit; and in default of heirs male in the direct line, daughters were

allowed to inherit.  On the other hand, fines were to be assessed according to

local custom; compurgation was retained for unimportant cases and inheritances

were to remain divisible among all heirs male.

 

     The ordinance that contains these dispositions is no parliamentary

statute, but seems to have been drawn up by the King in council, March 24,

1284.  It was based on the report of a commission which examined one hundred

and seventy-two witnesses.  Soon afterward an inquest was ordered to ascertain

the losses sustained by the Church in Wales, with a view to giving it

compensation.

 

     Nor did Edward neglect appeals to the national sentiment.  The supposed

body of Constantine was disinterred at Carnarvon, and received honorable

burial in a church.  The crown of Arthur and a piece of the holy Cross, once

the property of the Welsh princes, were added to the King's regalia.  It was

probably by design that Queen Eleanor was confined at Carnarvon, April 25,

1284, of a prince whom the Welsh might claim as a countryman. ^1 At last,

having lingered for more than a year about the principality, Edward celebrated

the consummation of his conquests, August 1, 1284, by a splendid tournament at

Nefyn, to which nobles and knights flocked from every part of England and even

from Gascony.  It was even more a demonstration of strength than a pageant.

 

[Footnote 1: It is said that Edward promised the Welsh "a native prince; one

who could not speak a word of English," and then presented to their astonished

gaze the new-born infant.]

 

     The cost of the Welsh campaign must have been enormous, and it is

difficult to understand how Edward met it.  But no sort of expedient was

spared.  Commissioners were sent through England and Ireland to beg money of

clergy and laity.  Next, the cities of Guienne and Gascony were applied to;

then, the money that had been collected for a crusade was taken out of the

consecrated places where it was deposited.  The treasures put in the Welsh

churches were freely confiscated.  Nevertheless, the Parliament of Shrewsbury

granted the King a thirtieth, from which, however, the loans previously

advanced were deducted.  In return for this the King passed the Statute of

Merchants, which made provisions for the registration of merchant's debts,

their recovery by distraint, and the debtor's imprisonment.  The clergy had at

first been less compliant when the King applied to them for a tenth.  The

Convocation of the Province of Canterbury, April, 1283, replied that they were

impoverished; that they still owed a fifteenth, and that they expected to be

taxed again by the Pope.  They also reminded him bitterly of the Statute of

Mortmain.  Ultimately the matter was compromised by the grant of a twentieth,

November, 1283.

 

     For a few years Wales was still an insecure portion of the English

dominion.  In 1287, Rees ap Meredith, whose services to Edward had been

largely rewarded with grants of land and a noble English wife, commenced

levying war against the king's sheriff.  His excuse was that his baronial

rights had been encroached upon; but as he had once risked forfeiture by

prefering a forcible entry to the execution of the king's writ which had been

granted him, we may probably assume that he claimed powers inconsistent with

English sovereignty.  After foiling the Earl of Cornwall in a costly campaign,

Rees, finding himself outlawed, fled, by the Earl of Gloucester's complicity,

into Ireland.  Some years later he returned to resume his war with Robert de

Tiptoft, but this time was taken prisoner and executed at York by Edward's

orders, 1292.

 

     More dangerous by far was the insurrection of two years later, 1294, when

the Welsh, irritated by a tax, and believing that Edward had sailed for

France, rose up throughout the crown lands and slew one of the collectors,

Roger de Pulesdon.  Madoc, a kinsman of Llewelyn, was put forward as king, and

his troops burned Carnarvon castle and inflicted a severe defeat on the

English forces sent to relieve Denbigh, November 10th.  Edward now took the

field in person, and resumed his old policy of cutting down the forests as he

forced his way into the interior.  The Welsh fought well, and between disease

and fighting the English lost many hundred men.  Once the King was surrounded

at Conway, his provisions intercepted, and his road barred by a flood; but his

men could not prevail on him to drink out of the one cask of wine that had

been saved.  "We will all share alike," he said, "and I, who have brought you

into this strait, will have no advantage of you in food." The flood soon

abated, and, reenforcements coming up, the Welsh were dispersed.  Faithful to

his policy of mercy, the King spared the people everywhere, but hanged three

of their captains who were taken prisoners.  Madoc lost heart, made

submission, and was admitted to terms.  Meanwhile, Morgan, another Welshman of

princely blood, had headed a war in the marches against the Earl of

Gloucester, who was personally unpopular with his vassals.  Two years before

the earldom had been confiscated into the King's hands, and it is some

evidence that Edward's rule was not oppressive, by comparison with that of his

lords, that the marchmen now desired to be made vassals of the crown. Morgan

is said to have been hunted down by his old confederate, Madoc, but it seems

more probable that he was the first to sue for peace.  He was pardoned without

deserve.

 

     As there was then war with Scotland, hostages were taken from the Welsh

chiefs, and were kept in English castles for several years.  But the last

lesson had proved effectual.  The Welsh settled dow peaceably on their lands

and generally adopted the English customs.  Except a few great lords, their

gentry were still the representatives of their old families.  Only five men in

all had received the last punishment of the law for sanguinary rebellions

extending over eighteen years of the King's reign.  Of any massacre of the

bards, or any measures taken to repress them, history knows nothing.

 

     Never was conquest more merciful than Edward's, and the fault lies with

his officers, not with the King, if many years still passed before the old

quarrel between Wales and England was obliterated from the hearts of the

conquered people.

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