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‘The March of Wales’ – Border Country: A Historical Walk in the Black Mountains, following Offa’s Dyke. Part two.   Leave a comment

‘Smash & Grab!’ – The Norman Conquest of Wales:  

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The Norman Conquest of Wales, unlike that of England, was piecemeal, but that served only to expose and intensify Welsh disunity. The invasion was not conducted by the King, or as a religious crusade, but as a piece of private enterprise on the part of the Norman barons, with the King’s agreement. They advanced by the easier valley routes and using the old Roman roads, conducting ‘smash and grab’ campaigns from their newly acquired estates in the Borderlands, which they later gave the French name ‘March’. A little further east William established three great strategic centres, from which the Normans could advance into this area. From Hereford, important in Offa’s time, but re-established in 1066 and based on the cathedral settlement, went William FitzOsbern, establishing Border castles at Wigmore, Clifford and Ewyas Harold, at Chepstow and later at Caerleon. From Shrewsbury, dating from the time of Aethelfleda, Queen of Mercia, re-established in 1071, Roger de Montgomery proved a constant threat in the middle Border to Powys. From William’s third strategic centre at Chester, rebuilt in 1071 on the site of the Roman Deva, Hugh d’Avranches opened a route into North Wales, enabling Robert of Rhuddlan to press forward to gain lands of his own and establish his castle a Rhuddlan.

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The three earls were given widespread powers within their earldoms, untrammelled by the king, but what, if any, instructions they were given with regard to military adventures in Wales is not known; it seems likely, however, that they were advised that they could annex lands in Wales on their own account, but must not involve King William whose primary interests lay elsewhere. In the early twelfth century Henry I, in what is probably an example of the kind of licence that King William granted explicitly or implicitly to his border earls, authorised one of his barons to conquer part of Wales:

King Henry sent a messenger to Gilbert FitzRichard, who was a mighty, powerful man and a friend of the king, and eminent in his deeds. And he came forthwith to the king. And the king said to him: “Thou wert always asking me a portion of Wales. Now I will give thee the land of Cadwgan ap Bleddyn. Go and take possession of it.” And he accepted it gladly from the king. And he gathered a host and came to Ceredigion and took possession of it and made two castles in it.

Certainly the earls rapidly and individually moved aggressively against the eastern districts of Wales, with Earl Roger also launching raids deep into the interior. He became the major figure in the central sector of the Anglo-Welsh borderlands after FitzOsbern was killed in battle in Flanders in 1071. He was one of King William’s trusted lieutenants whom he had created Earl of Shrewsbury by 1074. Ralph Mortimer was his ‘vassal’, having come to England with the Conqueror. By 1086, Ralph was firmly established as a tenant-in-chief, possibly through his association with William FitzOsbern as Earl of Hereford. The Wigmore chronicler records that Mortimer distinguished himself in suppressing the rebellion of the Saxon magnate, Edric the Wild, who had taken up arms against the Normans in Herefordshire and Shropshire, having allied himself with two Welsh princes. The rebels had threatened Hereford and burned Shrewsbury as the revolt spread into Staffordshire and Cheshire. The significance of this rebellion can by judged from King William’s decision to temporarily abandon personal control of his campaign in the north of England to deal with the rising, doing so with the same ruthlessness with which he then ‘harried’ Yorkshire. It is likely that Ralph had come to the king’s notice during this short campaign and by 1086 he held estates which once belonged to Edric. He had also been one of the lords who had put down the rebellion of FitzOsbern’s son, Roger, in 1075. Ralph received a number of the estates that Roger forfeited. As the Earl of Shrewsbury’s kinsman and steward or seneschal, he was allied to one of the most powerful barons in the kingdom and was his right-hand man, holding his Shropshire lands through this service. The Domesday Book records that he held lands and property in twelve English counties, mainly in Herefordshire and Shropshire, with several manors waste in the Welsh March.

Thus began the piecemeal, private enterprise, ‘internal colonisation’ of Wales. The king’s solution to the problem of the Welsh frontier worked whilst his appointees were men with whom he had a personal bond and affinity; but when the earldoms with all their prerogatives passed to their successors by inheritance, there would be distinct dangers for the Crown, as was made evident in Roger FitzOsbern’s rebellion. Wales was very different from England in politics as well as in geography. Although its inhabitants acknowledged a common Welsh identity, it was a country of many sovereign states with mountainous terrain governing their borders and hindering relationships with their neighbours. These petty principalities, perhaps as many as eighteen in number in the eleventh century, were often at each others’ throats, as Giraldus Cambrensis, Gerallt Cymro, described:

This nation is, above all others, addicted to the digging up of boundary ditches, removing the limits, transgressing landmarks, and extending their territory by every possible means. So great is their disposition towards this common violence … hence arise suits and contentions, murders and conflagrations, and frequent fratricides.

A source of perennial political weakness were the rules of inheritance where land was divided equally between all the sons which militated against any constitutional centralisation. A politically fractured Wales made it much easier for the marcher lords to conquer the country piece by piece and conduct a policy of divide and rule; on the other hand, the usual lack of a Welsh national leader made it more difficult to conduct diplomatic negotiations. To what extent individual conquests in Wales were actually licensed is not clear, but many were probably not expressly authorised by the king. From time to time during the Middle Ages, however, a Welsh prince was able to win control over other principalities, form alliances and exert capable leadership over large tracts of Wales; the Welsh would then prove formidable adversaries to the marcher lords. Such Welsh unity was, however, fleeting; it did not long survive the departure of a national leader and the principalities soon reverted to their customary political isolation and division. When there were leaders such as Rhys ap Gruffydd in the twelfth century and Llywelyn ap Iorwerth and Llywelyn ap Gruffydd in the thirteenth, an uneasy modus vivendi between the Welsh and the English would be established after military successes had enabled the Welsh to recover some, and on occasion almost all, of their lands.

If ‘independent Wales’ was politically fragmented, so in one sense was the March. The lords may have, on the surface, presented a coherent power bloc, but the pattern of lordship and power in the March, with the marchers’ individual political agendas and rivalries, would often change. Death and the lack of a direct male heir, or line of heirs, marriage, wardship and the creation of new lordships by the king, as well as forfeiture of them to him, all influenced the development of the March. From a crude beginning, the Norman lordships of the March grew into a complex and multi-ethnic society and a power in their own right. The lords succeeded the Welsh princes in owing little beyond allegiance to the English Crown; they were often decisive in the politics of England and Normandy. As Gwyn Williams (1985) pointed out, their relationship between invaders and invaded, a simple one at first, soon became more complex …

… Very rapidly they became hopelessly enmeshed with the Welsh in marriage, lifestyle, temporary alliance. A new and hybrid culture grew up in the March with quite astonishing speed. Plenty of marchers over time were cymricized … several became more Welsh than the Welsh. … The formation of so peculiar and potent a society was the direct result of Welsh survival and recovery. At first, nothing could stop the Normans … The first smash and grab thrusts from Chester, Shrewsbury and Hereford overran the north and penetrated deeply into the south-west. … the robber barons swarmed all over Wales. 

Marcher Lords, Welsh Princes and Court Poets:

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Above: The Lordships of the Mortimers in Wales in 1282

It was from their lands in the March of Wales that the Mortimers exercised their power and influence in England. Holding lands in Wales as marcher lords they were members of a select group of barons owing allegiance as tenants-in-chief to the king but ruling their lordships with a degree of independence unobtainable by the Anglo-Norman aristocracy in England. Nevertheless, William I did make arrangements for the defence of the frontier, indeterminate as it was, and for the introduction of Norman administration into the English borderlands, a remote area where his representatives would have to have more freedom of action than in elsewhere in the kingdom. The Norman system of castle, manor and borough was dominant in the lowland areas where the Norman advance had been most effective. Weekly markets and yearly or twice-yearly fairs were now a feature of life where country folk could trade. The areas administered in this way constituted ‘the Englishries’. In contrast, in ‘the Welshries’, the more hilly areas, the Welsh by and large retained their own way of life based on the Law of Hywel Dda, but paid tribute to the Norman lord.

Many of the large number of castles that had been built up and down the March were therefore fortified centres of government, each lordship having one main castle and usually other castles the centres of sub-lordships. At first the castles were of the simple motte and bailey type; but, under increased Welsh attacks, were soon strengthened. On each lordship the lord developed certain lands paying in money or kind for their homestead and share of the plots. During the Conqueror’s reign, the Normans had made significant inroads to southern and northern Wales, but in central Wales the raids mounted by Earl Roger of Shrewsbury had not been followed up by more permanent occupation, probably because considerable military resources were needed to deal with a resurgent Powys under Gruffydd ap Cynan. No doubt, Ralph Mortimer was involved in these earlier raids. Unlike the Saxons or the Vikings, the Norman method was not simply to destroy Welsh houses; they marched to a point well inside Welsh territory and built a fortress, from which they proceeded to reduce the surrounding countryside to submission, including any local lords who might object. By the end of the eleventh century, the Welsh Border had undergone unprecedented political change. The Normans of the March who had gained their lands by private conquest ruled virtually autonomously. In these lands the king had little right to interfere. The origins of this constitutional anomaly lay in the Conqueror’s arrangements for the settlement and defence of the Anglo-Welsh frontier.

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The last decade of the eleventh century, however, saw a much more aggressive attitude towards Wales on the part of the Norman lords with lands in the Borders when a Welsh chronicler related with some exaggeration that the French seized all the lands of the Britons. Earl Roger pushed far into Ceredigion and then into Dyfed to set up what would become the lordship of Pembroke. Meanwhile, there was a free-for-all along the Anglo-Welsh frontier; the Welsh cantref (‘hundred’) of Maelienydd, adjoining the Mortimer estates of Herefordshire and Shropshire, offered a natural target for Ralph Mortimer to annex more territory for himself, probably in the early 1090’s when other border lords were acquiring Brycheiniog (Brecon), Buellt (Builth) and Elfael. Maelienydd had once been part of the kingdom of Powys but, after the collapse of Gruffudd ap Llywelyn’s ’empire’ when he was killed in 1063, it seems to have been ruled by local chieftains. It was an upland region with little scope for economic exploitation by its new lords, but by this relatively unrewarding conquest Ralph had made clear his determination that the Mortimers were not to be left out of the Border barons’ race to carve out for themselves territories and spheres of influence in Wales. Even though Maelienydd was the central lordship in Wales for the Mortimers, their control was to remain precarious  with it reverting to Welsh rule on a number of occasions before the final collapse of the fight for Welsh independence in the last quarter of the thirteenth-century. It is likely that Ralph built the castle at Cymaron to secure control of his new lands; this castle, on the site of the cantref’s old Welsh llys (court), became the major fortress of the lordship until it was replaced in the thirteenth century by Cefnllys; it did, however, remain the centre of Maelienydd’s judicature.

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Maelienydd seems to have been Ralph Mortimer’s only significant acquisition of territory in Wales, but his hold on it remained tenuous. In general, the Norman inroads into Wales at the end of the eleventh century met with setbacks. A widespread uprising broke out in 1094 and in many districts, including Maelienydd, the Welsh regained temporary control of their lands. The lords were unable to cope with the crisis and the king had to come to their rescue, a pattern which would be repeated on a number of occasions over the following centuries. In his When Was Wales? Gwyn Williams added colour to this chronicle:

The shattered dynasties … with their backs to an Irish wall, using their own weapons and stealing the Normans’, fought back. They beat the bandits out of the west, only to bring the power of the English king down on their heads. Henry I rolled his power into Wales over Welsh kings and Norman lords alike.

Ralph Mortimer had kept his distance from the rebellion of Robert, the third Earl of Shrewsbury and other barons in 1102, which was an unsuccessful conspiracy to replace Henry I with Duke Robert on the English throne. King Henry confiscated Shrewsbury and took the Montgomery lands in the west, making Carmarthen the first royal lordship in Wales. He imported Flemings and planted them in southern Dyfed where they transformed its agrarian economy, making it ‘the Little-England-Beyond-Wales’ that it is known as today, pushing the Welsh north of a line known as the landsker which still remains a cultural boundary. But that relates more to the other, original long-distance footpath, the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path. Nevertheless, it demonstrates how, by the early twelfth century, the Normans had re-established control over Wales as a whole, other than the remoter parts of the north-west,  even if their hold was to remain tenuous until the end of the next century.

Ralph Mortimer remained a key figure in this consolidation, benefiting from the Earl of Shrewsbury’s disgrace, since the king’s decision not to appoint a successor to the powerful magnate had removed one of the contestants for power along the Welsh border and into central Wales. But in the following early decades of the twelfth century, his attention and resources were increasingly drawn away from his lands on the Anglo-Welsh Border to events in Normandy and the quarrels between the kings of England on the one hand and the dukes of Normandy on the other. For some time, Normandy remained as important as England or Wales to the Norman aristocracy, but the descendants of the first generation of barons in these countries were to become increasingly ambivalent in their attitude to the Duchy, until in 1204 they were forced to choose between their lands at home and those acquired by conquest across the Channel.

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But although Mortimer’s affairs both there and in England, as a loyal supporter of Henry I, would have been expected to prosper, there is no evidence of this in court rolls or chronicles during the twenty-five years from 1115 to 1140, perhaps suggesting that, on the contrary, he and/or his successor fell foul of King Henry and that the Mortimer lands were confiscated by the Crown. The only record is of a marriage alliance between Ralph’s daughter to William the Conqueror’s nephew Stephen, who had been implicated in the 1095 revolt as a possible replacement for William II and had also been involved in unsuccessful baronial revolts in Normandy which had been supported by Louis VI of France. Another record suggests that Ralph died in c. 1115, and that his son Hugh eventually received his inheritance of the Mortimer lands in Normandy, England and Wales. By the 1130s, they had added Maelienydd had fallen to their Welsh lands. But in 1135 Henry I died without a male heir and England descended into civil war between the supporters of Stephen of Blois and Matilda, Henry’s daughter. Once more the attention of the marcher lords were drawn away from Wales, and the Welsh princes seized their chance. Owain Gwynedd, son of Gruffydd ap Cynan, rebuilt Gwynedd into a power, driving it across north Wales to the Dee. He also thrust south into Ceredigion. Powys, in full revival and trying to recreate its ancient principality, was confronted with a new and permanent menace. In Deheubarth, the prince’s sons fought the Normans and each other for their inheritance, and Rhys ap Gruffydd began to establish himself.

The Normans took only five years to conquer England; it took them over two hundred years more for them to subdue and subjugate Wales. For the first 150 years it was subjected to periodic attack and colonisation by the marcher lords. It was beyond the military capacity of the Anglo-Normans, so often preoccupied, as they were, with events elsewhere, to mount a full-scale conquest of the interior. In 1154, the English civil war came to an end with the accession of Henry II, son of Matilda’s match with the Duke of Anjou who had also become Holy Roman Emperor. He established the Angevin Empire, and in two big land-and-sea campaigns brought the Welsh resurgence to a halt. Owain pulled back to the west of the River Conwy, while Rhys was hemmed-in, in his traditional base of Dinefwr (Dynevor). From here, he was able to launch raids against the marcher lords, and these transformed into all-out war when Gwynedd joined in. Clearly, the native Welsh, neither princes nor people, had yet accepted the Anglo-Normans as their masters, however. In 1163, during his first big military expedition into south Wales, one old Welshman of Pencader was asked by Henry II if he thought of his chances of victory, and whether his countrymen could resist his military might. He was, after all, ruler of the European empire of the Angevins as well as king of England. The old man had joined the king’s army against his own people because of their evil way of life, but his reply still amounted to a declaration of independence:

This nation, O King, may often be weakened and in great part destroyed by the power of yourself and of others, but many a time, as it deserves, it will rise triumphant. But never will it be destroyed by the wrath of man, unless the wrath of God be added. Whatever else may come to pass, I do not think that on the Day of Direst Judgement any race other than the Welsh, or any other language, will give answer to the Supreme Judge of all for this small corner of the earth.  

Henry, distracted by the Becket controversy, eventually responded by mobilising a massive expedition in 1165 to destroy all Welshmen. His attempt at genocide collapsed humiliatingly in the Berwyn Mountains in the face of bad weather, bad logistics and good guerilla tactics by the Welsh. Owain Gwynedd again cut loose to the Dee while Rhys took Ceredigion, Ystrad Tywi and much of Dyfed. Powys, threatened with renewed extinction, rallied to the English crown. But by 1170 Owain was dead and his sons began a ‘traditional’ fratricidal war for his inheritance. Henry offered a settlement, formally confirming Rhys in his lordships and making him Justiciar of South Wales. All Welsh rulers took oaths of fealty and homage to the king. By the end of the twelfth century, the frontier which had emerged over two generations or more had been settled.

The old kingdom of Morgannwg-Gwent was replaced by the shires of Glamorgan and Monmouth, two of the strongest bastions of Anglo-Norman power in Wales. In the end, Powys was split into two, Powys Wenwynwyn in the south usually supporting the English crown, while the northern Powys Fadog tended to side with Gwynedd. A core of the old principality of Deheubarth had been re-established, but it was ringed by marcher lordships with a strong base at Pembroke and royal estates around Carmarthen. Much of the south and east seemed to be under almost permanent alien control. Only Gwynedd had ultimately emerged as fully independent. Under Owain’s ultimate successors it grew into a major force, the strongest power in ‘Welsh Wales’ at the time. It was able to combine its natural mountain barrier and its Anglesey granary with its newly learned modes of feudal warfare. Its laws were based on those of Hywel Dda. There was a temporary Welsh overlord in ‘The Lord Rhys of Dinefwr’, Yr Arglwydd Rhys, but Gwynedd had its ‘prince’, an imprecise term which could be charged with constitutional significance. To the south and east, taking in most of the best land and expropriating much of its wealth, there was an arc of marcher lordships owned by the Montgomery, Mortimer, Bohun and the Clare families. Their lands stretched deep into mid-Wales and along the rich and open south coast. As Gwyn Williams commented, …

There was a permanently disputed shadow zone and endless border raiding, but there was also a fine mesh of intermarriage and fluctuating tactical alliances. The beautiful princess Nest of Deheubarth could play the role of a Helen of Troy, precipitating wars over her person.

During this period, the native Welsh were admitted to much of the rapidly developing learning of Europe; there were works on medicine and science in the Welsh language. In a revival arising directly from the struggle for independence, the bardic order was reorganised. Bardic schools were arduous and apprenticeships in the strict metres were long. Gruffydd ap Cynan was credited with the initial impetus, and he was, possibly, the first to systematise the eisteddfodau under the Maiestawd Dehau (‘the Majesty of the South’), The Lord Rhys, Justiciar of the King, who exercised some shadowy, theoretical authority over every lord in Wales, whether Welsh or Norman, and whose eminence endowed the Welsh language and its poetry with prestige. This was the age of the gogynfeirdd, the court poets, when every court and many a sub-court had its official pencerdd, the master-poet who sat next to the prince’s heir in hall, and its bardd teulu, the household poet. The poets had official functions and were the remembrancers to dynasties and their people. They evolved a complex, difficult and powerful tradition which, in the thirteenth century, involved a renaissance influence; princes like Owain Cyfeiliog were themselves poets. Most, like the great Cynddelw in the twelfth century, saw themselves as being in the service of a mission, rather than a simply the servants of a particular prince. Norman lords also succumbed to the charms of the court poets, harpists and singers. Giraldus Cambrensis made a special note of the harmonies he heard:

… when a choir gathers to sing, which happens often in this country, you will hear as many different parts and voices as there are performers, all joining together in the end to produce a single organic harmony and melody in the soft sweetness of the B-flat…

However, this was a period of temporary truce rather than permanent peace, and in the face of Welsh resistance and counter-attack, the marcher lords’ conquests were far from secure; their lands increased and decreased in area. Nevertheless, by 1200 much of eastern, southern and south-western Wales was under Anglo-Norman control. As the twelfth century progressed, there had also been a continuing and accelerated opening up of the land along the Border, many of the great woodland areas being cleared to make way for agriculture, and to provide timber for housing, fuel and ships. In addition, these subsequent decades saw the growth of townships around the Norman castles. Today the Border contains a fascinating variety of towns, while a number of the motte and bailey castles are now no more than mounds, like Nantcribbau near Montgomery. At White Castle, a township never developed at all, while at Grosmont the beginnings of a town are clear. Monmouth is a township which grew into a market town, while Oswestry grew into an important sub-regional centre. It was during this period the parts of Wales under Anglo-Norman control came to be known as marchia Wallie, the March of Wales, whilst ‘independent Wales’ governed by its native rulers was known as Wallia or pura Wallia. With the ebb and flow of conquest and the periodic recovery of lands by the Welsh, the boundaries of the March were constantly changing; the medieval ‘March’ as a geographical term, therefore, had a very different meaning from the early modern ‘March’ which Tudor government used to describe the Anglo-Welsh border counties.

The Fate of Princely Wales & Plantagenet Hegemony:

Within a few years of the beginning of the thirteenth century, Llywelyn ap Iorwerth (‘the Great’), Prince of Gwynedd, had united all the Welsh princes under his overlordship and was also supported by the English barons against King John. With the help of his allies, he had recovered much of the March for the Welsh, including the Mortimer lordships of Maelienydd and Gwerthrynion. In 1234, the ‘Treaty of the Middle’ brought about an uneasy peace between Henry III, the marcher lords and Llywelyn. His triumphs, and those of his grandson, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, further inspired the renaissance of Welsh poetry, which did much to keep alive the desire for independence. However, on the death of the ‘Great’ Welsh Prince in April 1240, the king refused to recognise the rights of his heir, Dafydd (David), to his father’s conquests. Instead, Henry appears to have encouraged the marcher lords to recover ‘their’ lost lands by ordering the sheriff of Herefordshire to transfer possession of Maelienydd to Ralph (II) Mortimer. During the following summer of 1241, Ralph recovered the lordship by force and agreed a truce with the local Welsh lords. Earlier that year, however, they had met Henry III at Worcester, formally submitting to his kingship. In return, he had endorsed their right to resume hostilities with Ralph Mortimer after their truce had expired. In other words, it was not the king’s business to involve himself in disputes between the Welsh lords and the marcher lords.

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Fifty years later, Edward I did intervene decisively in the March, determined to demonstrate that affairs there were his business and that he was the overlord of the marcher lords. In 1267, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd had been recognised as Prince of Wales by Henry III (that is, overlord of the native princedoms beyond the March), but Llewelyn proved reluctant to fulfil his side of the bargain and accept, in turn, the feudal overlordship of the Plantagenets over the whole of England and Wales. Llewelyn had taken advantage of Henry’s problems with his English barons, which culminated in civil war in 1264-5, to expand his territories both at the rival Welsh princes and the English marcher barons: his success made him overconfident, however, and needlessly provocative. In the Statute of Westminster of 1275, Edward declared that he would do right by the March, and anywhere else where his writ did not run, seeking fairness and justice for all complainants. Meanwhile, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, who had inherited his grandfather’s Principality of Gwynedd, and had been an ally of the English rebel Simon de Montfort, refused to pay homage to Edward I. In 1277, determined to subdue Llywelyn and bring him to heel, Edward proceeded by land via Chester, Flint and Rhuddlan, and sent a fleet to cut off food supplies from Anglesey, so that the Welsh prince was forced to accept a negotiated peace. The terms were harsh for the Welsh prince: he was forced to surrender the area known as ‘the four cantrefs’ between Chester and the River Conwy, which Edward then used to create a new series of powerful marcher lordships. Edward also imposed a potentially crippling war indemnity of fifty thousand pounds. It is hard to see how Gwynedd could ever have raised such a sum, but the waiving of the demand was a means by which Edward demonstrated the control he now had over Llywelyn.

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It was Edward I’s single-minded concentration of the kingdom’s resources and his shrewd use of his armies and his navy (to supply them) that brought Welsh independence to an end in 1282 after a second rebellion was suppressed. Llewelyn’s brother Dafydd launched a revolt against the English from his lands in Gwynedd. Ironically, he had been an ally of the English crown but felt aggrieved at the lack of reward for his former services by Edward. Dafydd’s rebellion forced Llewelyn’s hand; instead of crushing the rebellion, he joined it. Edward’s response was to launch a full-scale war of conquest. Proceeding along the north Wales coast as he had done five years before, but now through what was friendly territory, his forces took Anglesey and pushed Llywelyn back into the fastnesses of Snowdonia. Llywelyn then attempted to move south, but was ambushed at Irfon Bridge near Builth, and killed. His brother, Dafydd, was eventually captured by Edward’s forces, possibly through treachery, in June 1283, and hideously executed at Shrewsbury. All of Dafydd and Llywelyn’s lands in Gwynedd were confiscated by the English Crown.

Independent Gwynedd was obliterated along with all insignia and other symbols which might be used to revive the cause. Chief among these were the courtly poets, whose martyrdom was later recorded by the Hungarian poet János Arány to serve as a parable of resistance to another Empire after the ‘heroic’ uprising and war of independence of 1848-49. Arány’s poem, Walesi Bardok (‘The Bards of Wales’; see the link below) is learnt and recited today by every school child in Hungary. It is also available in an English translation. Gwyn Williams wrote of how, with the fall of the house of Aberffraw, the epoch of the Wales of the Princes came to an end:

The Welsh passed under the nakedly colonial rule of an even more arrogant, and self-consciously alien, imperialism. Many historians, aware that the feudal principalities and princes have elsewhere made nations, have largely accepted the verdict of nineteenth-century Welsh nationalism and identified the hose of Aberffraw as the lost and legitimate dynasty of Wales. Llywelyn ap Gruffydd has become Llywelyn the Last. In fact, Wales of the Princes had to die before a Welsh nation could be born. That Welsh nation made itself out of the very tissue of contradictions which was the colonialism which choked it.

The Plantagenet hold on Wales, now extending over the north and west of the country, was accompanied by a second great phase of castle building. Edward rebuilt the castles at Caernarfon, Flint and Rhuddlan and built new concentric ones at Harlech, Conwy, Beaumaris and Criccieth, to overawe the Welsh, standing both as bastions and as symbols of Plantagenet rule. Important market towns grew up around the new castles. But the military occupation of the north-west was also followed up by a constitutional settlement, imposed and established by the 1284 Statute of Rhuddlan. By this, the former principality was placed under the direct jurisdiction of the English crown and Anglo-Norman law. Both Gwynedd and Deheubarth were divided into shires, like in England, and English courts of justice were introduced. Further revolts, in 1287 and 1294 were ruthlessly suppressed, and in 1295 the Earl of Warwick defeated the North Welsh rebel leader, Madog ap Llewelyn, at Maes Madog, in an engagement which presaged the tactical use of ‘mixed formations’ of archers and dismounted men-at-arms in the Hundred Years War.

The king then undertook a great circular progress through Wales to reinforce his authority. Although there was no drastic change in the customs of the people, and the tribal and clan groupings still existed, these slowly broke down over the following centuries. In 1301 Edward granted all the English Crown lands in Wales to his eldest son, ‘Edward of Carnarvon’, now called the Prince of Wales in what some have presented as an attempt to appease the Welsh people. In reality, however, it was a powerful reminder that the days of the native princes were over. Half of Wales became a unified Principality, to be ruled directly through statute by the English king. Gradually, too, there was a resulting decline in the power of the Marcher lordships. The king, concerned at their level of autonomy, had now acquired his own Welsh lands.

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The March of Wales in the Later Middle Ages:

Nevertheless, the forty or so marcher lordships, comprising the other half of the country, were left intact and remained in existence until 1536. Throughout the fourteenth century, strong undercurrents of discontent needed only the emergence of a strong leader to unite Wales in rebellion. Exactly how the marcher lords acquired and were able to hold on to their special constitutional status in Wales has been the subject of continual debate. It is argued on the one hand that they simply acquired the regal powers of the Welsh princes they dispossessed. The basic units of Welsh territory and administration within the gwlad (the territory of a single prince) were the cantrefi consisting of two or more cymydau which can be loosely equated to the English Hundreds. By annexing a relatively small cantref or cymyd, with its llys or administrative court, an invading lord stepped into the shoes of the local Welsh prince or lord, just as if one Welsh prince had defeated another and annexed his territory. On the other hand, the lords’ powers were openly or tacitly granted by the king as rewards for carrying out their conquests on the Crown’s behalf. The March of Wales was not, however, a homogeneous region, subject to a uniform style of conquest and administration. It was through a diversity of circumstances that the lords of the March won the prerogatives which were later collected into a set of privileges recognised by thirteenth-century lawyers.

After his conquest of Wales and the partition of the country into Crown lands and the March, Edward, with his passion for law and order, would have considered the divided administration of the country, the relative independence of the rulers of much of it and its fragmented judicial system as an anathema; but the marchers with their jealously guarded immunities were difficult to dislodge, and although Edward flexed his muscles towards them, he seems to have accepted the political reality of the March, provided his authority as monarch was recognised.  Whilst the king acknowledged that his writ did not run in the March, in the last resort he reserved his authority over the Lords Marcher as tenants-in-chief, especially in the case of disputed titles to lordships. In 1290, Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester and lord of Glamorgan and Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford and lord of Brecon were at loggerheads, mainly over a disputed debt. In 1291 the two earls were summoned in their capacities as lords of the March and arraigned before the king and council at Abergavenny, and the following January before parliament at Westminster. Gilbert de Clare was found guilty of waging war after the king’s injunction and Humphrey de Bohun of defying the king by claiming that he was entitled to act in the March of Wales in a way he could not do in England. The two lords were sentenced to imprisonment and forfeiture of their marcher lordships during their lifetimes; but the king soon relented and commuted their sentences to fines, which they seem never to have paid.

King Edward’s masterful management of this affair and the severe penalties meted out to two prominent marcher lords must have had a traumatic effect on their peers. What the lords had considered to be prerogatives, the king and his council now considered to be privileges, and the extent to which the king could interfere constitutionally in the affairs of the March was to prove a running sore between strong and ambitious kings and the marchers. The cherished symbol of their status, the right to wage war, had been abolished by a royal proclamation. Edward I’s intervention of 1291-92 constituted a precedent and a turning point in the standing of the marcher lords, especially as he had demonstrated that he had even been prepared to humiliate the two lords. In the same year, 1292, he persuaded the marcher lords to pay a tax on their lands in Wales as a contribution towards a subsidy granted to him by parliament two years previously. On one occasion, the king confiscated Wigmore Castle when Edmund Mortimer executed an inhabitant of the royal lordship of Montgomery, thereby encroaching on the king’s rights, and Edmund was only able to recover it after payment of a fine of a hundred marks and providing a straw effigy of the man to be hung on the gallows in the town of Montgomery. In 1297, the men of the Mortimer lordship of Maelienydd submitted a list of grievances to the king who seems to have induced Edmund to grant the men of the lordship charters of their liberties, another example of royal interference in the administration of the March.

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The position was further complicated by the fact that the marcher lords also held lands in England by normal feudal tenure; by the end of Edward’s reign in 1307, seven out of ten of them. A specific instance of the marchers’ autonomy related to castle-building; the earls of Hereford would have had, at least in theory, to obtain a licence to build a castle in Herefordshire, but in their marcher lordship of Brecon, they could have built one without reference to the Crown. The marcher lordships were to exist for more than another two centuries but their constitutional status would never again be as secure as it had been before the reign of Edward I. Furthermore, the conquest of Gwynedd and the de facto unification of England and Wales had rendered obsolete the justification for the very existence of the marcher lordships, namely the suppression of any threat to England. Although the marchers were conspicuously involved in the civil strife of Edward II’s reign, during the rest of the fourteenth century they were, by and large, left to their own devices at home. Edward III needed the support of his barons, many of whom held lands in the March of Wales, during the Hundred Years War with France, especially since it was from their domains that many of the Welsh archers and spearmen were recruited for the king’s armies. In 1354, when there was a possibility of a French invasion of Wales, Edward emphasised that the loyalties of the marchers must be to the Crown. The March of Wales and the borderlands were still viewed with suspicion; they remained territories in which it was difficult to exercise royal supervision and for the Crown to intervene militarily. Throughout the Middle Ages, the marcher lordships were a refuge for rebellious barons, criminals and anyone else who wanted to ‘disappear’.

The English exploitation of Wales and exporting of its wealth, particularly by the late fourteenth century, was a primary cause of intermittent national and regional rebellions. In 1387, eleven archers escorted a convoy of treasure worth close on a million pounds in today’s money from Wigmore to London, which had presumably been ‘milked’ from Wales. A particular cause of Welsh resentment was the status and privileges of the boroughs ‘planted’ in Wales, which often extended miles beyond the town’s actual boundaries. Newtown was a case in point, established by Roger Mortimer (III) in the 1270s, which, with its commercial advantages from which he would benefit, supplanted a nearby Welsh town.

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Much has been written for and against Owain Glyndwr, who appeared as the leader of the Welsh in 1400. I have also written an article about him, published on this site (see the links below). That the catalyst for the national revolt was a boundary dispute between Glyndwr and Lord Grey of Ruthin demonstrates the importance of marking borders along what was now ‘the March’. It left behind widespread destruction on both sides and a country broken by demands for lost revenues. Glyndwr was strongly backed by ‘English’ elements, including Edmund Mortimer, who married Catherine Glyndwr. Many others were hostile to Henry IV’s usurpation of the throne from Richard II. The very public failure of the marchers to contain the Glyndwr rebellion inevitably called into question their continuing utility as a group and reinforced calls for reform of the administration of the March. This demand faltered in the face of England’s preoccupation with the renewal of the French Wars in 1415.

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Rebellion would be followed by repression and by ‘ethnic cleansing’ which was particularly severe in both the Principality and the March after the suppression of Owain Glyndwr’s rebellion. Glyndwr himself disappeared into Herefordshire’s Golden Valley (perhaps to his son-in-law’s manor at Monnington Straddel), so-called because the Anglo-Normans confused the Welsh word for water, dwr, giving its name to the River Dore, with the French word d’or. This misunderstanding was perhaps symptomatic of the continued disjunction between the Cambrian and Anglo-Norman cultures. Welsh hatred re-focused on the marcher lords as the mistrusted agents of English rule. Like Arthur, Glyndwr could not die and Henry V, born in Monmouth, would have had no desire to make a Welsh martyr of him. In 1415, he was to need his men of Monmouth, skilled bowmen, on the field at Agincourt. The outlaw prince was left to live out his days in seclusion, too proud to accept Henry’s twice-offered pardon, but his remaining son was taken into the king’s own service. Arthur would come again in the form of the grandson of Owen Tudor.

(to be continued…)

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Posted July 1, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Anglo-Saxons, Archaeology, Britain, British history, Britons, Castles, Celtic, Celts, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, clannishness, Colonisation, Conquest, Dark Ages, English Language, Ethnic cleansing, Europe, Footpaths, Genocide, guerilla warfare, Humanities, Hungarian History, Hungary, Imperialism, Integration, Ireland, Linguistics, Literature, Mercia, Midlands, Narrative, Nationality, Normans, Old English, Papacy, Plantagenets, Population, Remembrance, Renaissance, Saxons, Statehood, Suffolk, Uncategorized, Wales, War Crimes, Warfare, West Midlands

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‘The March of Wales’ – Border Country: A Historical Walk in the Black Mountains, following Offa’s Dyke. Part One.   Leave a comment

“I was walking the line of Offa’s Dyke in North Wales when

the slanting late afternoon winter light raked across the landscape,

illuminating the folds in the gently rolling hillside.”

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Offa’s Dyke in North Wales (foreground) with Chirk Castle in the distance.

Photo by Kevin Bleasdale, Landscape Photographer of the Year.

(www.ukgreetings.co.uk)

Bucket-lists and Border-lines:

One of the things to do on my ‘bucket list’ is the Offa’s Dyke Path, the long-distance footpath which ‘follows’ the Dark Age dyke allegedly made by the King of the Saxon Kingdom of Mercia to mark the boundary of his territory with ‘the Welsh’ territories to its west. I have done two other long-distance paths, the Pennine Way and the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, together with long sections of the South West Coast Path, between Plymouth and Teignmouth, and completed the Wessex Walk between Uphill and Wells. By comparison with these long-distance paths, only two sections of the Offa’s Dyke path, through the Black Mountains and the Clwydians, really offer the same sort of open walking country. Having completed one short section near Chirk some twenty-five years ago while staying in Llangollen, in this post, I wish to concentrate on the first of the section between Llanthony Priory and Hay-on-Wye, which I hope to tackle this summer (July 2018), fitness and weather permitting! Llwybr Clawdd Offa, as it’s known in Welsh, is Britain’s fourth long-distance path to be officially opened, runs the entire length of the border, from the Severn Estuary near the old Severn Bridge at  Chepstow to the sea at Prestatyn on the north Welsh coast, a distance of 168 miles. Throughout its length, history is brought to life, not just by Offa’s frontier earthwork, but by ancient hill forts, prehistoric trackways, old drover roads, medieval castles and by the numerous small market towns and villages which are linked by the path.

As a footpath rich in scenic variety, as well as historical and literary associations, it will have attractions not just for the seasoned walker, completing the coast-to-coast walk in two or three weeks, but also the amateur historian and archaeologist, and those seeking casual recreation. The footpath was approved by the Minister of Housing and Local Government in 1955 but little progress was made for some years in opening up the many miles of new rights of way needed. Then, in 1966, the National Parks Commission decided to give greater priority to the proposal and three years later, when it became known as the Countryside Commission, came a decision to open the path during 1971. The Offa’s Dyke Association, set up to promote conservation of the Border area along the path, and to work for the path’s completion, were naturally sceptical. But with the exception of a few sections, the route had been completed with waymarks by the target date. On 10th July 1971, the path was formally opened at an open-air ceremony in Knighton, preceded by an inaugural walk along the path north of the town over the Panpunton Hill. More recently, a connecting path to Machynlleth and on to Welshpool (Y Trallwng) has been added, called Glyndwr’s Way, which provides a circuitous historical walk from the Dyke across the Cambrian mountains.

Celts, Romans, Britons and Saxons:

The History of ‘the Border Country’ goes back to Roman times when in A.D. 47 the invaders had reached westward to the Severn. On the other side of the river lay the hill country, defended by strong Celtic tribes: the warlike Silures of the south were led by their Belgic leader Caradoc (Caractacus) who had fled westward to rouse the western tribes: the Ordovices of the central border and the Deceangli of the north. Caradoc was defeated in A.D. 51, and many places along the hill margin, including ‘British Camp’ in the Malvern Hills, claim to be the site of his last battle. Strong resistance continued, however, and it was ten years before the Romans could attack the Ordovices and the Deceangli, following the establishment in A.D. 60 of the fortress and legionary headquarters of Deva (Chester). Only a year later the army had advanced to Anglesey, overrunning the hill forts. In the south, the campaign of A.D. 74 was the decisive one when Julius Frontinius fought a hard battle against the Silures, though it was four years before the Romans could move further west under Agricola.

The Border formed very much a frontier zone in the Roman expansion. Except in the south, in the Wye Valley area, and east of the hill margin, developments were essentially military in character, with no great effect on native life, which went on much as before. Roads linking the several forts that had been set up in this zone ran along the north and south coast routes, based on Deva and Isca (Caerleon), and east-west up the main valleys into the hills, the easiest into what later became Wales. A north-south road linked these roads through the hill margins. During the first century of Roman rule a number of Celtic hill forts were strengthened, for although the Celts had made use of the sharp edges of the uplands for farming, its strategic and military potential was first realised by the Romans as a base for launching their campaigns against the uplands. It was these roads and forts which first defined the border.

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With the withdrawal of the Roman Legions in A.D. 410, Celtic culture saw a renaissance in craftsmanship and bardic poetry, and a growth in political and the rise and spread of Christianity by the Celtic Church. Gradually, various Romano-British kingdoms or ‘fiefdoms’ began to emerge under separate rulers or ‘chieftains’. One of these, Ambrosius Aurelius, may have been the inspiration for the Arthurian legends, having fought a series of battles against the invading Saxons which ended with Badon Hill in about A.D. 515. Along the hill margins, the kingdom of Gwynedd covered the land north of the River Dee and west of the Vale of Clwyd. The Vale itself formed a contested territory between Gwynedd and the great central kingdom of Powys, ‘the Paradise of Wales’ as it was called by the bard who wrote the ‘saga cycle’ of Llywarch Hen. On the southern margins, Brycheiniog covered Breconshire and Gwent, Monmouthshire. Powys was the great bardic centre, from where we find the reference to Taliesin singing at the court:

I sang in the meadows of the Severn

Before an illustrious lord,

Before Brochfael of Powys…

It seems to have been usual for an official bard to be attached to each court, with some lords and princes acquiring reputations as patrons of the bards. The achievement of these early poets was considerable. They created a heroic age, a new legendary past for ages to come. As long as the Welsh tradition lasted, that is to say, for at least another ten centuries, their patrons were taken as models of generosity and courage. The poems and sequences of englynion (stanzas of three or four lines) associated with Llywerch Hen (‘the Old’) were long thought to be the work of the sixth-century prince but were later shown to be about the legendary figure, rather than being by him. They belong to the ninth-century sagas, with the narrative told in prose. Llywarch was a warrior of North Britain, who bore the severed head of his lord King Urien of Rheged from the battlefield, so that it would be buried and not humiliated. He eventually found refuge to the south, in Powys, where he again found himself having to fight the Saxon invaders, and his twenty-four sons, impelled by their own ready valour and their father’s bitter tongue, fought too. One after another they perished in their father’s pride. Gwén, the last of them, arrives late for the battle, to find all his brothers dead. There is no-one left to defend the Gorlas Ford on the River Llawen. Llywerch himself, old as he is, is arming himself for the battle. Here, as Gwén too prepares for battle, father and son enter into dialogue:

Gwén:

Keen my spear, it glitters in battle.

I will indeed watch on the Ford.

If I am not back, God be with you!

Llywarch:

If you survive it, I shall see you,

If you are killed. then I’ll mourn you,

Lose not in hardship warrior’s honour!

Gwén:

I shall not shame you, giver of battles,

When the brave man arms for the border,

Though hardship beset me, I’ll stay my ground.

Llywarch:

A wave shifting over the shore,

By and by strong purpose breaks,

Boasters commonly flee in a fight.

Llywarch urges his last son to sound the horn given to him by his uncle, Urien, if he is hard-pressed in the forthcoming fight. The way that Llywarch mentions it suggests that this horn, in the saga, may have had magical properties. But Gwén replies contemptuously, Though terror press round me, and the fierce thieves of England, … I’ll not wake your maidens! It is the mutual anger between father and son, each insulting each other’s honour, that makes any genuine precautions against tragedy impossible. Magic is irrelevant in this equation. All that matters is human folly and pride. Yet there is an over-riding sense of fate or destiny, a supernatural context in which such situations are allowed, or even willed, to take place. Llywarch is not only pitted against his own pride and folly, but also against hostile destiny – tynged in Welsh – whose design is revealed to him only gradually as his downfall proceeds. And as he grows old, the bard gives him one more opportunity to reveal himself to the in-every-sense bitter end: angry, baffled, useless to man, woman or beast, a prey to pain, remorse, lacerated vanity, and a desperate loneliness. His king, his fellow-countrymen, his Patria, his sons – all are in ruins. Where has it all gone? And where is longed-for Death? As ‘folk-history’, Welsh heroic poetry was driven into the subconsciousness by the trauma of the Anglo-Saxon conquest of the sixth century, and by what Anthony Conran, in his introduction to his own translations of it, called the cultural amnesia of the times. When it re-emerged, it became intimately connected with a whole prophetic tradition, which kept up its messianic rumblings right through to the Wars of the Roses.  

From the late sixth century, the mixed peoples of eastern Britain, generically labelled ‘Anglo-Saxons’ and organising themselves in kingdoms, resumed their advance into the west. It was a long, slow, piecemeal process; some of the advances may not represent straightforward conquests and there is evidence of the transient existence of people who were literally ‘mongrels’. But it was remorseless. The foundation of kingdoms in the north opened an epoch of battles with the North Britons which were to be central to later historical traditions among the Welsh. After a battle near Bath in 577, the kings of Gloucester, Bath and Cirencester were gone and Saxon power reached the Bristol Channel, from where it was able to press on into the south-west. Ceawlin, king of Wessex, drove a wedge between the Britons dwelling between the Severn Estuary and the Irish Sea and those in Devon and Cornwall. A second wedge, driven by Aethelfrith, king of Northumbria, early in the seventh century, separated the Britons in Cumbria from their compatriots, or Cymry, further south. This effectively isolated and created Walleas, the Germanic word for ‘aliens’, or ‘North Wales’, as distinct from Cornwalleas, or ‘West Wales’ including Devon, and Cumbria and Strathclyde, the kingdoms of the northern Britons.  

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Between 650 and 670, the Saxon advance westward had reached the borders of Powys and the River Dee, while the River Wye marked the limit of the advance in the south. In the early seventh century, Northumbria was the most powerful kingdom of the Anglo-Saxon ‘heptarchy’. The ascendancy of the midland kingdom of Mercia began during the reign of the warlike, pagan Penda (623-654). Minor kings after him rose and fell in a period of civil warfare until by 731, Bede tells us, all of ‘Aengleland’ south of the Humber was subject to Aethelbald (716-756). He, therefore, referred to himself as ‘King of the southern English’. He maintained his ascendancy for thirty years until he was murdered by his own bodyguard. From the ensuing civil war within Mercia itself, Offa emerged as the key figure in the Mercian supremacy. He reigned from 757-796 and was the first king to be styled, in imperial terms, as King of the English.

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Who was Offa and why did he build a dyke?

History reveals all too little of the Mercian king whose name is forever linked to the great dyke built in the margins which had been continually disputed by the Welsh and the English. We do know that the means by which he gradually expanded his kingdom and his hegemony over the heptarchy were not always fair. In 793, Aethelbert, the Christian king of East Anglia, paid a visit to Offa to seek the hand of his daughter Aelfrida. He was murdered, either on the orders of Offa, or those of his queen. There are differing accounts of what happened, but it is most likely that Offa realised that, with Aethelbert ‘out of the way’, Mercia could take control of East Anglia, which it did. Offa was then able to deal on almost equal terms with Charlemagne who had once closed his ports to English trade for some three years.

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Above: A Victorian tile from the floor of the choir in Hereford Cathedral depicting the beheading of St Aethelbert by order of King Offa.

Throughout the first half of the eighth century a protracted struggle had gone on between Mercia and Powys as the frontier was gradually driven back from the line of furthest advance marked by various short ‘dykes’ to the more settled frontiers marked by the great running earthwork constructed under Offa, probably after the last Welsh counter-attack in 784. Around this time we can picture the English as settled farmers, with greater craftsmanship and better equipment than their sixth-century predecessors, if with less military skill. The Welsh occupied the hill territory to the west, living in kinship groups (gwelau), were dependent mainly upon the cattle they summer-pastured on the hills and over-wintered in the valley meadows.

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The line of the Dyke extends from Sedbury Cliffs on the Severn, through the Wye Valley and Herefordshire, across the Clun district of ‘Salop’, part of Shropshire today, and northwards via Chirk and Ruabon to the sea at Prestatyn, a distance of 149 miles. Of these, the running earthwork of the Dyke itself is traceable for eighty-one miles, consisting of an earth bank with a ditch, usually on the west-facing side, sometimes with ditches on both sides, and averaging in height some six feet above ground level, and in breadth almost sixty feet. While contemporary manuscripts throw little light on the making of the Dyke, the more recent detailed archaeological surveys have led to a much deeper understanding of the Border as it existed in Offa’s time. Its principal purpose was to provide a frontier between Mercia and the Welsh kingdoms and to control trade by directing it through defined ‘gateways’ in the earthwork. It may, at times, also have been used for defensive purposes, but by the time it was built this would have been largely incidental. Only in a time of relative peace between the Welsh and the Mercians could a work of such a scale be achieved. It must, therefore, have been an agreed frontier. Moreover, although it would have presented something of an obstacle to cattle rustlers, it would have offered little prevention to cattle straying across.

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Above: The course of the path from Chepstow (bottom, left) to Prestatyn (top, right), in relation to surviving dyke sections.

The mastery of difficult terrain through which the Dyke runs suggests that the skill of its builders can only have been acquired through generations of experience. Two precedents on the ground can be found, firstly in the various short dykes that lie both to the east and west of the Great Dyke, and secondly in Wat’s Dyke which runs from Maesbury, south of Oswestry, to Holywell. A third precedent is found in the heroic poetry of the time. The short dykes found in the middle of the Border Country reinforced the most vulnerable sections of the Great Dyke where the hills of Salop are nearest to the Mercian capital of Tamworth. These dykes are similar in construction to Offa’s Dyke and are thought by archaeologists to form cross-valley screens at the head of agricultural land, while cross-ridge dykes controlled traffic along the ridge. These probably date from the time of Penda, representing the military activities of Mercia in the pre-Offan period. They are defensive in character, unlike Offa’s Dyke which represents the consolidation of the Mercian kingdom when the Saxons came to realise the limits of their ability to advance further west. Wat was a hero of Old English legend associated with an earlier Offa, a king of Schleswig and ancestor to the Mercian king. Wat’s Dyke may well have been named by Offa in commemoration of his own namesake, whose deeds were recorded in the epic poem Widsith, among them being his marking of boundaries.

As a boundary, however, Offa’s Dyke is unlikely to have been continuously manned but rather patrolled on horseback. Nevertheless, evidence reveals that it was built under the direction of men trained in military tradition. Offa himself is thought to have master-minded the work, possibly with a group of chieftains, planning both its course and its dimensions. Each landowner along its course was then consulted and subsequently made responsible for the construction of a particular section of it, depending on the extent of his lands or the labour available to him. In turn, this variation in experience and expertise, together with the willingness and size of the local workforce, inevitably resulted in differences in the quality and scale of the work. In some areas, the hostility of the local Welsh population, in particular, may have been a factor. Despite this, further evidence that it was an agreed frontier is contained in the existence of a set of laws governing the movements of both the Welsh and the English across the boundary. An early tenth-century document refers to an agreement between the English and the Welsh relating to Ergyng (Archenfield), a Welsh district between the Wye and the Monnow, now in Herefordshire, which remained Welsh-speaking into the nineteenth century and produced many Welsh ‘notables’. The same document also contains a reference to English territory north of the Wye, in Wales today, belonging to a people known as the Dunsaete. It suggests the existence of a relationship between these peoples which may well have dated from Offa’s time, deriving from Offa’s own laws for the conduct of both English and Welsh along the Border.

Offa’s laws, long thought lost, would then have provided for the setting-up of a “board” comprising both English and Welsh, the task of which was to explain the laws to their respective peoples. Included in the laws was a code for recovering livestock rustled across the Border, and another for the safe-conduct of either Welsh or Mercian ‘trespassers’ found on the “wrong” side of the Border by a specially appointed guide. However, the story that any man found ‘trespassing’ would be subjected to the punishment of losing his right hand, is an apocryphal one. Overall, the skill of the designer and eye for the detail of the landscape are remarkable. With few exceptions, even in the dissected terrain of the middle section of its length, the Dyke’s straights cleverly cling to the west-facing slopes, giving the Mercians the advantage of visual control over Welsh territories. Archaeological ‘detective work’  enabled the mapping of the Border landscape of Offa’s day. The straight alignments of the Dyke, occurring in both flat and undulating terrain, indicate a mixture of pastoral and arable farming; and in the uplands, open moorland. Small irregularities in mainly straight alignment tend to indicate the original presence of woodland. The Mercian farmers seem to have preferred sunny, south-facing slopes for growing crops, disliking the shaded north-facing hillsides which remained wooded. This is represented by alternate straight and sinuous alignments. Very irregular alignments, where the Dyke follows the contours of the landscape, occur where the terrain is especially rough, or where visibility between points was very limited.

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In profile sections, the Dyke varies considerably throughout its length. It is at its most formidable on the hilltops where ridgeways passed through, and on the valley floors where skilful use was made of the east sides, in order to allow the Dyke to descend from the ridges and cross the valleys while maintaining visual contact with the west. Here, too, cultivated clearings required protection in the tradition of short, transverse dykes. In many places, there is evidence of compromise between the Mercians and the Welsh. In some sections, the broad River Severn is left to mark the boundary, whereas, in others, the Dyke follows the slopes of the eastern hills above the Severn.

This suggests that to the south of Buttington, for example, the meadow pastures on both sides of the river were conceded to Powys, for, in The Mabinogion, it was stated that the man would not prosper with a war-band in Powys who would not prosper in that cultivated land. Likewise, in the Wye Valley, both sides of the river were used by Welsh timber traders who needed to land their boats on either bank. The Dyke is therefore high up on the eastern slope, controlling a long stretch of the river upstream to the point reached by exceptionally high tides in the Severn estuary.

For much of the length of the frontier, no trace of the Dyke has been found. From the point where the Dyke reaches the Wye west of Sedbury Cliffs to the Wye west of the Tutshill look-out tower, the sheer river cliffs would have formed a sufficient natural boundary in themselves. Between Highbury and Bridge Sollers in Herefordshire, the Wye again forms the boundary. For the next thirteen miles to Rushock Hill ancient and dense oak woods on the underlying Old Red Sandstone seem to have made the building of a section of dyke unnecessary, if not impossible. In this area, the dyke is only present on what would have been cleared land. For five miles north of Buttington on the Severn, the river again forms the boundary. However, the reason why the Dyke was not completed on the last five miles to the north coast is a matter of conjecture. Certainly, the intention was that it should reach the sea at Prestatyn. We know that towards the end of Offa’s reign the Welsh seem to have made an attempt to capture the land between the Dyke and the Dee. A Welsh legend, recorded in the plaintive lament Morfa Rhuddlan, tells of a fierce battle fought in 795, ending in Welsh defeat. Offa died a year later at Rhuddlan, and it may be that with his death went the driving force behind the Dyke.

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Offa was succeeded by his son, Cenwulf, who reigned until 816. His defeat at the Battle of Basingwerk marked the beginning of the decline of Mercian supremacy on the Border. Wessex was emerging as the most powerful Saxon kingdom, and Mercia was forced to turn its attention southwards. With the Dyke established, however, a degree of stability was brought to the Border Country for a time. Whereas to the east of a line from the Pennines to Salisbury Plain, there is precious little evidence of British survival into the ninth century, even in river names. West of that line, however, and into the upland watershed, there is much evidence. Place-names remain strongly Celtic, though often transmuted; Cymraeg, as well as Brythonic dialects, survived, as did Celtic farm systems and field boundaries. Early laws of the kingdom of Wessex make specific provision for a whole British hierarchy under overall Saxon rule. Further west, Cornwall survived as a British fiefdom, and in the Borderlands of the Wye and the southern Dyke, as English settlement developed, there may have been as much fusion and integration as conflict and conquest.

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The concessions made to the Welsh along the Wye may also have aided this process, as Archenfield remained Welsh-speaking well into modern times, and there is also an abundance of surviving Celtic placenames to the west of the Wye in what is land on the English side of today’s border. Around Welshpool names like Buttington, Forden and Leighton also show gradual Mercian expansion in the Borderlands between 650 and 750 and strengthen the case for the concession of the Severn meadows to Powys on the building of the Dyke. In the Vale of Radnor, names like Evenjobb, Harpton and Cascob again indicate a retreat by the Welsh, but elsewhere on the whole land bordering the Dyke, there is evidence of linguistic retention on both sides. Llanymynych has obviously retained its Welsh name, despite being half in half in England, whereas Knighton is generally known by its English name, despite being wholly in Wales and having a Welsh name, Tref-y-clawdd, meaning ‘the town by the Dyke’. The area between Offa’s Dyke and Wat’s Dyke has remained Welsh-speaking in character until recent times. Despite these examples of variation, we know that the Dyke’s construction was resisted by the Welsh in numerous places along its route. Offa had driven his Dyke from coast (almost) to coast, and as Gwyn Williams (1985) wrote of the Dark Age Welsh, ‘foreigners’ in their own land …

This few and fragile people took the whole of inheritance of Britain on their shoulders. And late in the eighth century they were confronted with an imperial Offa, king of the Mercians, who had the effrontery to score his Dyke across their land and shut them out as foreigners. … The Welsh, as a people, were born disinherited.  

The ‘Compatriots’ (Cymry) & their Bards:

002

By the ninth century, therefore, the Welsh were almost completely shut up behind Offa’s Dyke. Not unnaturally, in their ‘exile’, they turned to the stories of their old homes, in Regen, Elfed, Gododdin and the rich lands of eastern Powys – roughly Cumberland, Yorkshire, SE Scotland and Shropshire respectively, according to the later Medieval geography of Britain. This was the era in which the saga-literature was composed, in the ninth and tenth centuries, about events that took place in the sixth and early seventh centuries, during the heroic age itself. The Welsh had been cut off from their fellow countrymen in the North of Britain and in Cornwall. Only in a few pockets of rugged landscape, like ‘North Wales’ and Cumberland could the ‘Cymry’ (compatriots) be found. The sense of exile must have been further aggravated by the reappearance of Roman missionaries, in the shape of St Augustine of Canterbury, telling them that their traditional Christianity was out of step with the rest of Christendom, and demanding that they should abandon their hatred of the Anglo-Saxons and join with him in converting them. The Welsh ‘saints’ told him that they preferred the idea of the English roasting in hell forevermore!

From this point in time, the geographical centre of gravity also shifted steadily southwards and eastwards: from Mercia to Wessex and from Wessex to Normandy. With it went the Celtic influence on both Church and State as the Celts were driven more and more into the western promontories and peninsulas of Europe by the predominant Rhine-Rhone cultural axis. They were more and more in a state of siege, less and less able to move freely towards imaginative creation. The saga-literature they produced is saturated with feeling for the past. A good deal of it is lamentation of one kind or another. Sometimes it is personal, either for the death of a loved one or, as in Llywarch’s famous complaint of old age, for the speaker’s own changed state. Perhaps even more typical, however, is the lament for a ruined house that the loved one has died defending. Here the loss is by no means merely personal. Cynddylan’s Hall was the tribal centre; its overthrow represents the ruin of an entire society. In the saga of Heledd, the sister of Cynddylan, the lord of Pengwern (Shrewsbury), the English are invading the good land of Powys. They have killed Cynddylan and destroyed his home. In her Elegy on Cynddylan (the poet has composed them for the mouth of the saga’s heroine), Heledd is lamenting over the ruins.

Stand out, maids, and look on the land of Cynddylan; the court of Pengwern ia ablaze; alas for the young who long for their brothers!

Cynddylan the bright buttress of the borderland, wearing a chain, stubborn in battle, he defended Trenn, his father’s town. …

How sad it is to my heart to lay the white flesh in the black coffin, Cynddylan the leader of a hundred hosts.

Heledd has seen all her brothers killed in an unavailing defence of the townships of Powys against the English invader; she has reason to blame their destruction on herself: By my accursed tongue, they are slain!  In the original Welsh, these are superb, tragic images, according to Conran, though perhaps somewhat lost even in his translation, here rendered into verse:

Stafell Gynddylan ys twywyll heno,

Heb dán, heb wely;

Wylaf wers, tawaf wedy.

(Dark is Cynddylan’s hall tonight,

With no fire, no bed;

I weep awhile, then am silent.)

Heledd’s laments are at once heart-rending and fiercely controlled, and many of the englynion on the hall of Cynddylan, the Eagle of Pengwern, the Eagle of Eli (the River Meheli in Montgomeryshire), the chapels of Bassa (Eglwysau Basa, or Basschurch) and the White Town, have the tone of great Welsh poetry. They are of a profoundly dramatic and emotional nature, but were part of a body of saga whose more direct narrative was presented in prose. Our knowledge of these sagas is unsure, for all we have are the fragments that were preserved. We must reconstruct the content of the vanished prose from the preserved verses:

The hall of Cynddylan is dark tonight, without fire, without light; longing for you comes over me.

The hall of Cynddylan, its vault is dark after the bright company; alas for him who does not do the good which falls to him!

Hall of Cynddylan, you have become shapeless, your shield is in the grave; while he lived you were not mended with hurdles.

The hall of Cynddylan is loveless tonight, after him who owned it; ah, Death, why does it spare me? …

The hall of Cynddylan, it pierces me to see it, without roof, without fire; my lord dead, myself alive …

They are enshrined in high dramatic utterance, not the merely ruminative mode of elegy. And as the elegy continues, the lamentation is raised, seemingly, not so much for one man’s death as for the ending of a way of life:

The chapels of Bassa are his resting-place tonight, his last welcome, the pillar of battle, the heart of the men of Argoed …

The chapels of Bassa have lost their rank after their destruction by the English of Cynddylan and Elfan of Powys …

The white town in the breast of the wood, this is its symbol ever – blood on the surface of its grass.

The White town in the valley, glad is the kite at the bloodshed of battle; its people have perished …

After my brothers from the lands of the Severn round the banks of the Dwyryw, woe is me, God! that I am alive …

I have looked out on a lovely land from the gravemound of Gorwynnion; long is the sun’s course – longer are my memories …

The theme, in common with the other sagas of Llywerch Hen, is that of the intertwining of both private and tribal disaster, where the facts of history are interpreted as the workings of fate and the nemesis of human pride. We leave Heledd, ‘the Proud Maiden’ and bereft Princess of Powys in her thin cloak, driving her solitary cow over the mountain pasture. In the soil that moulded her brothers, they now moulder, but she must go on living. Likewise, the Welsh went on living behind the Dyke, and the ninth to the eleventh centuries saw various attempts to create a wider unity within Wales itself, with varying degrees of success, as from time to time powerful leaders emerged: Rhodri Mawr, for instance (844-878) and Hywel Dda, his grandson, who brought together the various areas he had consolidated under the Law of Hywel Dda (the Good). But these two and a half centuries are almost without any surviving poetry. They were also punctuated by long periods of chaos, partly the result of continual Viking raids around the coasts and up the river valleys.

003

The early decades of the eleventh century were troubled times when usurpers like Llywelyn ap Seisyll (1018-1023) seized power. With his son Gruffudd ap Llywelyn, the whole of Wales came under a single ruling family for the first time. On the eve of the Norman conquest, Harold Godwinson defeated Gruffudd ap Llewelyn, the king of Gwynedd. With Gruffudd’s death in 1063, Wales was disunited once more, but Harold, on succeeding Edward the Confessor on the English throne, was unable to take advantage of this weakness, as he had to put all his efforts into the defence of his own crown against the claims of William of Normandy. During the last decades of the eleventh century, Welsh independence grew more and more precarious. For many years prior to the Conquest, Anglo-Saxon kings had claimed lordship over Wales and this loose relationship had been widely accepted by the Welsh princes; Earl Harold’s devastating campaign of 1063 had forcibly reminded the Welsh of the military strength of their English neighbours. As king of England, William I inherited this claim to Wales but, faced with problems in England and Normandy for some years after his victory at Hastings, he had little inclination to involve himself directly in Wales.

(to be continued…)

Posted June 29, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Anglo-Saxons, Archaeology, Assimilation, Britain, British history, Britons, Celtic, Celts, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, Civilization, clannishness, Colonisation, Commemoration, Conquest, Dark Ages, Empire, English Language, Ethnic cleansing, Footpaths, History, Humanities, Immigration, Imperialism, Integration, Leisure, Literature, Medieval, Mercia, Mythology, Narrative, Nationality, Old English, Recreation, Remembrance, Renaissance, Romans, Saxons, south Wales, Uncategorized, Wales, Warfare, Welsh language, West Midlands

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