Rebellion and Insurrection
It had been just under 12 years since the death of the Prince of Wales, Llywelyn ap Grufudd, and the annexation of much of Wales by the English crown. Encircling the natural fortress of Snowdonia with the astonishing new castles built by his Master of Works, James St George, Edward I had secured what he believed to be a lasting solution to the Welsh problem. It meant that even should they produce a leader, the will, or the means to resist the King, the Welsh of Gwynedd were isolated and entrapped.
And yet, according to the Annals of Worcester, on the 29th September 1294, the unthinkable happened. The Welsh did rise up in general rebellion, Caernarfon and its castle, the jewel and administrative centre of the King of England’s newly won Welsh lands, was taken and burnt. The town was sacked, its inhabitants slaughtered, and the sheriff of Anglesey, Mr Roger Pulsedon, hanged outside his own front door then beheaded by two of his own tenants. The wooden dock, financial and building records and the town’s Royal Charter were all thrown into the flames. It would take months to lead an army into Wales and, during the time afforded, the rebels occupied the castle and set about dismantling the town walls.
Caernarfon was one of Edward’s new boroughs and boasted a population of approximately 300-400 English, Irish and Savoyard settlers, attracted by all the extraordinary rights and privileges afforded to those prepared to come and live in the King’s new frontier towns. It had not been an easy task to attract them however. Gwynedd would have still been perceived as a hostile environment and a good number of those who did come would have been those directly involved in the ongoing building work at the castle. Men had been drafted in from all over England, scouts sent to every county to recruit masons, carpenters, smiths, ditchers and diggers, and, although they were paid for their work, a number of these men were pressed and forcibly brought to Wales under armed guard to prevent escape! There would be many years of work here and soon families would join the builders, if indeed they didn't journey with them to begin with, and records show that women were employed on a number of the construction sites.
The new towns were part of the post-war settlement in Wales and Edward clearly understood that a military solution was in itself not enough. There had to be civil, economic and administrative provision, and to this end Royal Boroughs were constructed which were physically, economically and militarily attached to the castles. Their purpose, to establish English rule, English law, to promote trade and commerce and a money economy and above all protect the King’s interests. The new burgesses would be expected to undergo military training and in some cases sponsor military personnel to help protect their town. In return they would be granted land to build their houses, land to farm, the freedom to run their town and regulate trade, and would themselves be exempt from many of the tolls and taxes throughout the kingdom. They were also granted a license to hold a market. Caernarfon, as the ancient centre of Gwynedd with both Roman and Welsh connections was chosen from the beginning as Edward’s administrative centre and the Exchequer, where local taxes and tolls would be collected and accounted, was housed within its walls,
The Welsh of course were excluded from the Royal Boroughs, yet everyone within an eight mile radius was required to trade there, in fact it was a legal requirement that someone from each household in that surrounding district attend market. Anyway, with the prohibition on grinding corn, baking bread and brewing beer in force, it would mean that people would have to travel to the Royal Borough just for their basic needs. If anyone was caught trading elsewhere they were prosecuted and many were. Also when they arrived at the town they would find themselves faced with a whole raft of new taxes; pontage to cross the town bridge, murage to enter the town itself - on it went. The Welsh seethed under this alien, apartheid and oppressive New Order.
Wednesday 29th September was the feast day of St Michaelmas. Caernarfon was celebrating, holding its fair that day, and was caught completely unprepared for any attack. It would also have been a day when the Welsh would have been expected in town. At this time the castle had been only partially completed with the south, (the river side), forming a circuit of defence joined as it was with the town wall. Much of the north structure, (the town side), was little above foundation level. This meant that once inside the town there was only a ditch and wooden fence for the rebels to cross to breach the defences. It would prove to be the only time the Welsh succeeded in taking the castle and, as attacks broke out throughout Wales, it would be the most serious threat to Edward’s rule in Wales since the death of Llywelyn. The leader of the rebels in North West Wales was one Madog ap Llewelyn.
Edward’s response was swift, a three-pronged campaign at the head of an army of over 30,000 men saw the rebellion collapse by the spring of 1295. The King and his contingent were ambushed, lost their baggage train and were besieged at Conwy castle. Even after fresh supplies arrived and a surprise raid by English forces recovered part of the goods previously lost, Edward languished at Conwy for several weeks. The decisive victory took place at Maes Moydog near Montgomery where Madog's forces were defeated by the Earl of Warwick who attacked at night and interspersed his cavalry with crossbowmen and archers. Madog himself escaped the battlefield but was captured shortly after and imprisoned in the Tower.
Two things had brought the disaffection of the Welsh to a head. Firstly, heavy taxes levied by the King had fallen heavily especially in those sparsely populated areas where coin was in short supply. It seems also that collection had been carried out in a very heavy handed way by officials of the English Crown (with more than a hint of embezzlement and corruption). Secondly, Edward issued a summons to recruit men in his new lands to fight for him in his upcoming campaign in Gascony little realising that these men were far more likely to fight against him than with him. It was on the very day that the last instalment of taxes was due and the Welsh were supposed to report for duty in Shrewesbury, that the revolt began.
The immediate aftermath of the rebellion saw vast amounts of money and resources return to north Wales. The town walls at Caernarfon had to be virtually rebuilt and the castle hastily completed to a new less ambitious plan. Although it had formed part of the initial strategy for north Wales, construction finally began on a new castle at Beaumaris giving a permanent military presence on Anglesey and protecting the eastern access to the Menai Straits. The town of Caernarfon had to be virtually repopulated and the burgesses excused rents for a period of ten years. In 1306-7 the town was still under-populated and repairs incomplete especially to the dock burnt in the uprising. In the event neither Caernarfon nor Beaumaris castles were ever completed, Beaumaris never even reaching half its intended height.
Madog’s rebellion would remain the most serious threat to English rule until the uprising of Owen Glyndwr over one hundred years later. The attacks were focused against Royal Boroughs and lands in both north and south Wales, and Marcher lordships both old and new. The leader were, in some cases, though not all, remnants of disaffected and dispossessed ancient Welsh dynasties. However, they were taking advantage of a deep and universal resentment and discontent against Anglo/Norman rule in Wales. Maybe it was the recognition of this fact which explains Edward’s leniency in the dealings with the captured leaders; while there were executions, Madog himself was imprisoned and one Morgan ap Maredudd who had led the rebels in Glamorgan was pardoned and entered the King’s service.