Treason & Treachery the death of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd
‘Know Sir....that Llewelyn ap Gruffudd is dead, his army broken and all the flower of his men killed.’
Poni welwch chwi hynt y gwynt a'r glaw? Poni welwch chwi'r deri'n ymdaraw?
Poni welwch chwi'r gwir yn ymweiriaw?
Poni welwch chwi'r haul yn hwylaw - 'r awyr? Poni welwch chwi'r syr wedi r'syrthiaw?
Poni chredwch chwi i Dduw, ddyniadon ynfyd? Poni welwch chwi'r byd wedi r'bydiaw.
Och hyd atat ti, Dduw, na ddaw - môr dros dir! Pa beth y'n gedir i ohiriaw?
See you not the oaks lash each other?
See you not the ocean scourging the shore? See you not the truth is portending?
See you not the sun hurtling across the sky See you not that the stars have fallen? Have you no belief in God, foolish men? See you not that the world is ending?
Ah God, that the sea would cover the land! What is left us that we should linger?
The wind can be bone-chillingly cold in mid winter in Wales. And then there’s the rain. Persistent, driving across the hilltops, sitting, saturating the foothills. Just a fortnight to Christmas and the last place these men wanted to be. A small English scouting party had successfully forded the river swell upstream, unseen; the bridge across the Irfon was heavily guarded by the enemy.
England and Wales were at war again.
The men knew that Llywelyn was close trying to muster support to his cause. They also knew the reputation of Welsh fighters, who rarely engaged conventionally but would appear from nowhere, picking men off one by one and melting back into their mist heavy woodlands. Or shooting a cloud of arrows from the cover of the trees, unseen by their adversaries. It was like they had a deal with the Devil himself.
The party picked their way carefully along the riverbank stumbling across ancient tree roots and rocks. Welsh fighters, heathens, wild and fearless, were viewed with an almost supernatural awe by the English footsoldier and to increase the unease, word had also just reached them of the unholy events in the North last St Leonard’s day.
A shadow in the shortening winter light, a creak of leather, a jangle of metal barely heard above the wind and rushing water. Hearts pounding and suddenly, as if they’d appeared from the very earth in front of them, horsemen. Though lightly dressed and wearing no distinguishing arms, they knew these men were not their own. Stephen Frankton, a Shropshire lad, set his lance and spurred his horse. Riding hard he caught one man full on, a mortal blow, he toppled, hit the ground with a hard thud. Screams, confusion and blood, some men fled back to the forest cover. And then silence.
The despoiling of the bodies began even before the last breaths had been taken. Someone called out for a priest, and then suddenly a shout went up, a sword came down, the sickening sound of metal crunching through bone, and a head held high.
The battle was done, it was over.
So runs the account of the death of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, Prince of Wales, by Walter of Guisborough, a chronicler writing at the Augustinian Priory in Yorkshire. Walter may have had details from any number of local men who had been drafted into the English army during the Welsh wars, or from a local landowner, William Latimer, a knight who had fought in the Welsh campaigns and who had himself narrowly survived the Menai pontoon debacle. Despite a number of questions regarding its accuracy it is, and has been historically, the account which has prevailed regarding the death of Prince Llewelyn. However, after more than seven hundred years the circumstances are still a matter of controversy, even the date of his death has been called into question.
On Palm Sunday 1282 Dafydd ap Gruffudd swept down from his stronghold at Denbigh and attacked Hawarden castle precipitating a war which would have dire consequences for himself, his brother the Prince of Wales, and for Wales itself. Dafydd had not acted alone, it seems he had spent months forging alliances with other discontent Welsh lords and in a co-ordinated, well planned campaign a number of castles in west Wales were also attacked and taken. Edward of England was caught completely by surprise, so too it seems, was Llywelyn, who claimed to have no prior knowledge of his brother’s rebellion, though he did not answer calls from the English Crown to suppress it.
The first Welsh campaign against the English had resulted in a heavy defeat and by 1277 Llywelyn ap Gruffydd had been stripped of land and power and, though he retained his title Prince of Wales, was effectively limited to his familial lands of Snowdonia. His capitulation had also finally secured the release of Eleanor de Montfort and in 1278, in a lavish ceremony paid for by the King, Llywelyn at last met and married his wife. At 55 years old and with no children it was imperative that he produce heirs and, by late 1281 Eleanor was with child, a child not just of Welsh royal blood but of English royal blood too, a son to secure his dynasty.
By March 1282 the now 59 yr old Prince must have been much distracted with his wife’s pregnancy and the coming child and, despite the many grievances and legal wrangles with the English Crown, it was hardly the right time to launch a military campaign. Eleanor’s pregnancy however, offered both the impetus and the opportunity for Dafydd to launch a challenge; despite his unreliability, disloyalty and even treachery, he had long stood next in line to his ageing brother and a new child would see his position usurped. By taking advantage of Llywelyn’s preoccupation at home, and fanning the fires of long smouldering discontent with English rule, Dafydd was making a political manouever which, if successful, could effectively wrest power from Llywelyn and place him in pole position within the house of Aberffraw and within Wales. Dafydd’s attack at Hawarden castle was a chaIlenge not only to the authority of the King of England, but to that of Llywelyn too. It was a challenge which would seal the fate of not just himself, in the most gruesome circumstances, but that of his brother the Prince, and of Wales itself.
As it is, Eleanor gave birth to a daughter and then she died. Llywelyn now joined the rebellion and assumed control of it, though it must be a matter of debate whether he would have had Eleanor survived and/or produced a son.
In early November, as Edward I moved his forces along the North coast slowly mopping up resistance, the Welsh achieved a spectacular if unexpected victory on the banks of the Menai Straits near Bangor. A contingent of English forces commanded by Luke de Tany had crossed to Anglesey to establish a bridgehead and were told to wait until Edward and his army reached them, and to allow Archbishop Pecham opportunity to complete his peace mission at Aber. A pontoon of barges had been built across the treacherous waters of the Menai Straits at a place called Moel y Don. But for some reason. (and maybe linked to the vague reports of ‘betrayal in the Belfry at Bangor’ ),Tany did not wait and on November 6th, St Leonard’s Day, he sent his men across. The result was a total disaster for the English. Unexpectedly attacked by the Welsh and with a rising tide the bridge collapsed consigning much of the cream of the English nobility to the murky depths.
As spectacular as this victory was Llywelyn would have known that any real progress would depend on broadening his campaign. So in early December he moved south to try and consolidate support from the Lords of the Middle March and possibly at the invitation of his cousins the Mortimers, who, it seems, had offered to switch allegiance to him. According to the Peterborough Chronicle Welsh forces comprised 160 cavalry and 7,000 infantry. Llywelyn left the bulk of his army in position on high ground above the river Irfon near Builth, with a smaller detachment guarding the Orewin bridgehead against the English army massed opposite.The Chronicle recounts that at the hour of Vespers, at a pre-arranged place, Llywelyn was ambushed, killed and decapitated and his army routed.
The land was under the control of Marcher Lords, some of whom had pledged allegiance to Llywelyn. Three, however - Roger l'Estrange, John Giffard and Edmund Mortimer - were supporters of Edward, and had amassed an army of foot soldiers, archers and cavalrymen. Llywelyn left his men; it is believed that he, and perhaps a group of retainers, lightly dressed and with no identifying colours went to speak to the Marcher Lords before fighting began. In the meantime, archers from the Marcher force crossed a ford around two miles from the bridge, allowing them to attack the Welsh army from another side. As the Welsh turned to confront the archers they left the bridge undefended. The English seized the moment to attack, mounted soldiers charged across Orewin Bridge, causing the leaderless and disorganised Welsh army to flee.
There are two versions of what happened next. The first has it that Llywelyn hurriedly returned to the battlefield, but was cut down by a lone lancer. The second is that Llywelyn and several members of his entourage were separated from the rest of his army and chased into a nearby wood, where he was surrounded and struck down. As he
lay dying, Llywelyn asked for a priest and revealed his identity. He was killed and his head was cut
off. It was sent to Edward at Rhuddlan before being exhibited over the gate to the Tower of London.
The account that Llywelyn was lured into an ambush and then assassinated by the Mortimers is given credibilty from a letter sent by Archbishop Pecham himself - detailing the items found on Llywelyn after his murder.
‘If the king wishes to have the copy [of the list] found in the breeches of Llywelyn, he can have it from Edmund Mortimer, who has custody of it and also of Llywelyn’s privy seal and certain other things found in the same place.’ Archbishop Peckham, in his first letter to Robert Bishop of Bath and Wells, dated 17 December 1282 (Lambeth Palace Archives)
And while it seems Edmund Mortimer was the main instigator in the ambush and death, Roger LeStrange is a major contender. Accounts of a full pitched battle between the English and Welsh forces is detailed in both the Peterborough Chronicle and the Hagnaby Chronicle, though Robert Manning of Bourne, a chronicler of eastern England who had close connections with Sempringham names Robert Body an English knight also associated with Lestrange is said to be the one responsible for the decapitation. A late thirteenth century depiction of Llywelyn, very much alive, kneeing, hands in supplication while a soldier stands above him with sword raised illustrates the moment. As with the circumstances surrounding his death, Llywelyn's final resting place is unclear. His body may have been interred at the Cistercian Abbey at Abbeycwmhir, although his body is said to have been enclosed in a stone coffin on land where Llanrumney Hall was later built in Cardiff.