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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:  


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.


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:


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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…)

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 Development of Middle English   Leave a comment


Above: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Peterborough) for 1137, written c. 1154.

The Transition from Old English to Middle English:

Before the first printing press was set up by William Caxton in 1476, many copies of books were lost. The more popular books, re-written many times, like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, have survived, although Chaucer’s original manuscripts have been lost. Other works are known through a single surviving copy.

The writings of most early modern authors, from Shakespeare onwards, were prepared for printing in modern editions by editors who almost always converted the original spelling and punctuation into modern standard forms. For example, an early edition of Henry IV Part I printed in 1598 contains the following words spoken by Falstaff:

If I be not ashamed of my soldiours, I am a souct gurnet, I have misused the kinges presse damnablie. No eye hath scene such skarcrowes. Ile not march through Coventry with them, that’s flat.

It contains several unfamiliar features of spelling and punctuation, some of which, like souct gurnet, obscure meaning for the modern reader. It probably means ‘soused’ which has two meanings in modern English, both ‘soaked’ and ‘preserved’ in salted water or ‘pickled’ in vinegar, as in ‘soused herrings’. When we work out that gurnet may mean ‘gherkin’, we begin to make some sense of the phrase. The policy of modernising the spelling and punctuation of old texts which began with the eighteenth century dictionaries has obscured the regional spellings which still existed from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century and the gradual development of a recognisably standard form of spelling in English. Shakespeare, for example, was from Stratford, literally at the crossroads of these dialects, which also explains, in part, his lexical variety. However, few of his plays were printed and published during his lifetime, since they were first written to be performed rather than read. So while the original spellings of Chaucer’s ME manuscripts of 1390s survive into printed text, those of Shakespeare’s manuscripts in the Early Modern English of the 1590s do not. All printed versions of old texts compromise in reproducing the originals, but original handwritten scripts and facsimiles are often difficult to decipher.

The most important change in manuscripts from OE to ME, for example in The Peterborough Chronicle, is found in the absence of many of the inflections of OE, mainly by their reduction in sound. This led to a greater reliance on word order and the more frequent use of prepositions to show the meanings that might formerly have been conveyed by suffixes. The word-for-word translation of the entry for 1137, written in 1154, reveals this transitional phase:

I ne can ne I ne can tell all the

horrors ne all the pains that they caused wretched-men in this land… that lasted the nineteen winters while Stephen was king… ever it were worse and worse…

…then was the corn dear… flesh and cheese and butter… for none ne was in the land…

Wretched-men died of hunger…

…where so one tilled… the earth ne born no corn… for the land was all ruined… with such deeds… they said openly that christ slept and his saints…

Such and more than we can say… we suffered nineteen winters for our sins.

Another noticeable change was the inclusion of a small number of words, significant in their frequency, which were adopted from ‘Anglo-Norman’, the form of Old Northern French spoken by the Normans in England. Most typical are words like castel and prison, but other words which seem to have been adopted into English by the late twelfth century include:

Abbat, capelain, cancelere, cardinal, clerc, cuntesse, curt, duc, iustice, legat, market, prior, rent, serfise, tresor.

(abbot, chaplain, chancellor,… clerk, countess, court, duke, justice, legate,… service, treasure.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of these words were either part of the lexis of administration and law, conducted mainly in Norman French, or that of the Church, conducted in a mixture of Latin and French. Another important source for the shift in the language after 1150 is the book called Ormulum, written by an Anglo-Danish monk named Orm. At the beginning of his book, he explains why he wrote it:

This book is called Ormulum… Because Orm it wrought… (= made)

I have turned into English… (The) gospel’s holy lore… After that little wit that me… My Lord has lent…

(Word-for-word translation)

Orm goes on to tell future readers, and to warn future scribes, that he had attempted to write correctly every letter and word in English. Not surprisingly therefore, his spelling is consistent and represents a conscious attempt to reform the system of recording sounds, relating each sound to a symbol. For example, he introduced three symbols for ‘g’ to differentiate the three sounds that it had come to represent, and substitutes ‘wh’ for ‘hw’ in OE, providing forerunners of ‘who’, ‘whose’, ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘why’ and ‘when’ in Modern English, and ‘sh’ for ‘sc’ in OE, providing ‘shall’ for ‘sceal’ and ‘Englissh’ for ‘Englisc’. In word-for-word translation, here is an extract from Orm’s rendering of Luke’s nativity verses concerning the appearance of the angel to the shepherds:

An angel came from heaven’s land… in a man’s form…

To shepherds there where they that night… watched their folds.

The angel came and stood them by… with heaven’s light and brightness…

And immediately as they saw him… they became very afraid.

And God’s angel them began… to comfort and to encourage…

And said to them thus on God’s behalf… with very mild speech…

Ne be ye not afraid of me… but be ye very blithe …

For to-you is born now today… saviour of our sins…

A child that is Jesus Christ… that know ye for truth …

Ye shall find a child… in swaddling-clothes wound…

And it is in a crib laid… and there ye it may find.


And soon at once they went forth… to Bethlehem’s city…

And found Saint Mary there… and Joseph her husband…

And also they found there the child… where it was laid in crib …

And soon at once they made-known forth… among Jewish nation…

All that they had heard of Christ… and saw well with eyes.


And our lady Mary took… all that she saw and heard …

And laid it all together always… in very thoughtful heart…

All that she saw and heard of Christ… whose mother she was become.


Above:  The original text of  The Shepherds at the Manger, Ormulum, late twelfth century

Orm’s twenty thousand or so lines of verse are important evidence for some of the changes in the language that had taken effect by the end of the twelfth century in his part of the country. He lived in northern Lincolnshire, now South Humberside, so he wrote in the East Mercian dialect, like the authors of the Peterborough Chronicle continuations. His main objective was to teach the Christian faith in English, and the verses were to be read aloud. His system of spelling was therefore designed to help the reader to pronounce the texts properly. What is especially noticeable is the number of letters he wrote as double consonants. His lines, however, are not great literature, since according to his purpose, they are absolutely regular in metre and therefore monotonous. He is therefore often overlooked even in the limited canon of ME literature, though his writing is very valuable to students of the language.

All present-day dialects of English, including the regional accents in which Standard English may be spoken, can be traced back to the dialects of the ME period (c. 1150-1450) in their pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar. There was no standard form of the language then, and the grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation varied from one part of the country to another, even within distances of twenty miles. Differences in spelling, punctuation, vocabulary and grammar in manuscripts are first-hand evidence of varied usages and forms of pronunciation, and of the changes which took effect over the period. When this evidence is examined systematically, knowledge of the probable dialectal region in which a text was written can be deduced.


Geoffrey Chaucer, writing in the 1390s in the southern Mercian, or London dialect, used the new form of subject pronoun, which by his time had been ‘borrowed’ by the Northern dialect of ME from ON and had spread southwards, but did not become completely assimilated into the Southern dialect until the beginning of the fifteenth century:

And thus they being accorded and ysworn

However, he used the older forms for the object and possessive, as in:

And many a lovely look on hem he caste

Men sholde wedden after hir estaat

The vocabulary of the northern text, Cursor Mundi contains a number of words derived from OE. It was written in the North of England in the last quarter of the thirteenth century. It consists of thirty thousand lines of verse, retelling Christian legends and Bible stories. The following couplet is one indicator of its Northern origins. In the ME original, wrong (in the southern Mercian dialect used later by Chaucer), is ‘wrang’, loth is ‘lath’ and ‘angry’ is ‘wrath’, all three retaining the long /a:/ vowel:

Wrong-doing is loth to hear of justice

And pride is angry with humility

An example of the East Midlands dialect in ME from the thirteenth century worth examining is the only surviving manuscript of the medieval Bestiary, which was based on the belief the animal and plant world was symbolic of religious truths – the creatures of this sensible world signify the invisible things of God. Later scientific knowledge revealed that some of these things were not true of the real animals described, while other animals, like the unicorn, phoenix and basilisk are purely imaginary, the stuff of myths, legends and Harry Potter books! Here is the description of the eagle’s flight in modern word-for-word translation:

Show I wish the eagle’s nature…

How he renews his youth

How he comes out of old age

When his limbs are weak

When his beak is completely twisted

When his flight is all weak

And his eyes dim…


A spring he seeks that flows always

Both by night and by day

Thereover he flies and up he goes

Till that he the heaven sees

Through clouds six and seven

Till he comes to heaven.

As directly as he can

He hovers in the sun.


The sun scorches all his wings

And also it makes his eyes bright.

His feathers fall because of the heat

And he down then to the water …

Falls in the well bottom

Where he becomes hale and sound

And comes out all new …

The variety of ME can be seen in that there were many possible spellings for the same word, according to the period and the dialectal area in which a particular manuscript was copied. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary has the following twenty-seven spellings for ‘shield’ from Old English to Modern English:

scild, scyld, sceld, seld, sseld, sheld, cheld, scheld, sceild, scheeld, cheeld, schuld, scelde, schulde, schylde, shilde, schelde, sheeld, schield, childe, scheild, shild, shylde, sheelde, schielde, sheild, shield.



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