My most recent book A History of the English Monarchy covers the English Crown from Roman rule to the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, when the monarchy began to shift into a British institution. Over the next few weeks, I'm posting short extracts from each of the book's seven chapters.
The book's third chapter is called Diluted Magnificence and it focuses on the thirteenth-century monarchy, including the birth of Parliament, the conquest of Wales and the Scottish Wars of Independence. The chapter covers the reigns of three generations of kings between 1199 and 1307 - John, Henry III, and Edward I. This section discusses Edward I's feud with Prince Llywelyn of Wales, which ultimately resulted in an end to the principality's independence.
The resurgence of so-called ‘Celtic nationalism’ in the twentieth century and the inescapable romance of a lost cause saw Llywelyn ap Gruffudd cast as the heroic leader of a lost golden age, but this Gone with the Wind-esque rehabilitation of Llywelyn has more to do with Edward’s vices than Llywelyn’s virtues. By the time Edward I came to the throne in 1272, Llywelyn’s rule in Wales was detested. His military skills and long run of good luck when it came to the internecine incompetence of the neighbouring government in England meant that he was begrudgingly respected, but his attempts to modernise the Welsh economy and his bullying demands for money from his subjects did not make him popular. Wales was, and is, one of the most beautiful countries in the world. However, Llywelyn was sufficiently astute to realise that its stunning hills and mountains made agriculture difficult – in a moment of admirable honesty from any country’s leader, he compared the ‘fertile and abundant land’ of Edward’s kingdom with the ‘barren and uncultivated land’ of Wales. This agricultural shortfall meant that the entire principality relied on a few pockets of arable land for its subsistence, namely the island of Anglesey. The economy and trade networks, drastically underdeveloped in comparison to England’s, were the focus of much of Llywelyn’s reforming zeal, and an indicator of the disparity between the two countries can be gauged by comparing the revenue generated by customs for Llywelyn, estimated at about £17 per annum, against roughly £10,000 for the King of England. The assessment of one modern historian, that despite its internal difficulties England remained ‘a thirteenth-century superpower’, particularly in relation to its neighbours, is fair.
In the centuries after the Norman conquest, English domination over Wales had increased greatly. Nowhere was this more obvious than with the Marcher Lords, English aristocrats who held sway in the disputed borderlands between the two countries. Llywelyn quarrelled with them often and it was their most recent spat that provided him with the excuse he needed to decline his invitation to Edward’s coronation. He must have been desperate to find a reason, because had he gone Edward would almost certainly have kept him there until he could bully him into undoing the Treaty of Montgomery.
Tensions boiled over when Llywelyn’s devious and stupid youngest brother, Dafydd, fled to England after a family quarrel. Edward granted him sanctuary, much to Llywelyn’s anger since it violated the spirit, if not the letter, of previous Anglo-Welsh agreements about political refugees from the two countries. When Edward reiterated his demand for Llywelyn to perform homage before him for his power in Wales, Llywelyn refused. Relations took a further tumble when Edward’s navy intercepted a ship just off the Isles of Scilly carrying Simon de Montfort’s daughter back from exile in France. Llywelyn had proposed marriage to her and she was travelling to Wales to accept. The captured de Montfort girl was taken to Windsor where she was kept in close, if comfortable, confinement for the next three years and Edward informed the Marcher Lords that their antagonism towards Llywelyn would no longer be checked by the English government. Realising, too late, what he had done or perhaps simply accepting that he had been caught, Llywelyn tried desperately to convince the world that he wanted peace. Letters to the Pope and Robert Kilwardby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, attest to Llywelyn’s apparently genuine wishes to avoid conflict with his powerful neighbour. His epistles to Edward cried for peace, but only on condition of partial homage – Llywelyn still had terms and conditions and Edward would not accept them. He did not negotiate, he commanded.