Edward I Conquers Wales


Up to the time of Edward I, Wales, which had been partially subdued by Henry I, was a source of continual disturbance to the English kingdom. Long before the accession of Edward, the greater part of Welsh territory was parcelled out into little English principalities. Under John and Henry III, Llewelyn the Great, Prince of Wales, maintained his independence until 1237, three years before his death, when he submitted in order to secure the succession of his son David. Upon David's death, in 1246, the principality of Wales was divided between Llewelyn and Owen the Red, sons of Griffith ap Llewelyn, David's illegitimate brother. Civil war soon followed, and in 1224 Llewelyn made himself master of the land.

[See King Edward I: King Edward I gives the Welsh "a native prince who could not speak one word of English."]

Llewelyn might have reached absolute independence had he not taken part with Simon de Montfort in the barons' war against Henry III. With the defeat and death of Montfort at Evesham (1265) the prospect of a new Welsh sovereignty vanished; Llewelyn purchased a peace and was recognized by Henry as prince of Wales, retaining a part of his territories.

When Llewelyn was summoned as a vassal of the English crown to the coronation of Edward I (1274), he refused. Twice again was he summoned to do homage to the King, but still evaded the summons. Upon his final refusal to come to the parliament of 1276, his lands were declared to be forfeited, and in 1277 Edward led an army into Wales.

The whole force of the realm was summoned to meet at Worcester in June, 1277, and so well was the command obeyed that Edward found himself able to dispose of three armies. With the first he himself operated along the north, opening a safe road through the Cheshire forests, and fortifying Flint and Rhuddlan, while the ships of the Cinque Ports hovered along the coast and ravaged Anglesey. The corps d'armee, under the Earl of Lincoln and Roger Mortimer, besieged and reduced Dolvorwyn castle in Montgomeryshire. The third was led into Cardigan by Payne de Chaworth, who ravaged the country with such vigor that the South Welsh - being probably disaffected to a prince not of their own lineage - surrendered the castle of Stradewi and made a general submission.

Edward had avoided the fatal errors of previous commanders, who had risked their forces in a barren and difficult country. His blockade was so well sustained that Llewelyn was starved, rather than beaten, into unconditional submission.

With singular moderation, Edward had declined receiving the homage of the southern chiefs. He now granted Llewelyn honorable terms, November 5, 1277. A fine of fifty thousand pounds was imposed to mark the greatness of the victory, but remitted next day out of the King's grace. Four border cantreds, ^1 old possessions of the English crown, which Llewelyn had wrested from it in the wars of the late reign, were to be surrendered to the English King, who already occupied them. Prisoners in the English interests were to be set free, and Llewelyn was to come under "an honorable" safe-conduct to London and perform homage. Edward had promised David ^2 half the principality, but with a reservation at the time that he might, if he chose, give him compensation elsewhere. He now elected to do this, moved, it would seem, simply by the wish not to dismember Llewelyn's dominions, and David was made governor of Denbigh castle, married to the Earl of Derby's daughter, and endowed with extensive estates. In every other respect Llewelyn was tenderly dealt with. The hostages exacted were sent back. The rent of one thousand marks stipulated for Anglesey was remitted. When the Prince of Wales came to London to perform homage he received the last favor of all, and was married sumptuously, at the King's cost, to Lady Eleanor de Montfort.

[Footnote 1: Subdivisions of counties, corresponding to the English hundreds.]

[Footnote 2: Llewelyn's brother.]

There is no reason for supposing that Edward cherished any covert plans of absorbing Wales into England. Having wiped out the dishonor of his early years, and replaced England in its old position of ascendency, he had no motive for reviving bitter memories or dispossessing a great noble of his fief. The King's conduct in giving his cousin to one who was only her equal through a usurped royalty; the inquests held in the marches to determine border law; the instructions to the royal judges, to judge according to local customs; the special commission appointed when Llewelyn thought himself aggrieved are curious evidence of fair-mindedness in a strong-willed and almost absolute sovereign. But in one respect Edward was ill-fitted to deal with an uncivilized people. He was overstrictfor the times even in England, where his subjects almost learned, before he died, to regret the anarchy of his father's reign. But his officers were nowhere harsher than in Wales, where the people, unaccustomed to a minute legality, complained that they were worse treated than Saracens or Jews. Old offences were raked up; wrecking was made punishable; the legal taxes were aggravated by customary payments; and distresses were levied on the first goods that came to hand, whether Llewelyn's own or his subjects'.

The people of the four annexed cantreds were soon ripe for rebellion. David was alienated from the English cause by petty quarrels with Reginald Gray, Justice of Chester, who insisted on making him answer before the English courts, hanged some of his vassals, and carried a military road through his woods. The Welsh gentlemen complained that they were removed from offices which they had purchased, brought to justice for old offences which ought to have been condoned by the peace, and deprived of their jurisdiction in local courts. For a time the lady Eleanor tried to mediate between her husband and her cousin. But it was impossible that a stern, just man like Edward, penetrated with the most advanced doctrine of European legists and deriving his information from English employes, should be able to understand the position of the chief of a semibarbarous nationality, who thought outrages on law matters to be atoned for by fines, while he brooded with implacable rancor over every slight, real or fancied, to his own position as prince of Wales, representative of a dynasty that had ruled "since the time of Camber the son of Brutus."

Moreover, Llewelyn thought, perhaps unreasonably, that he had been betrayed by Edward. He said that on the day of his marriage the English King had forced him to subscribe a document to the effect that he would never harbor an English exile or maintain forces against Edward's will. There was little in all this that was not implied in Llewelyn's position as vassal, and he himself did not complain that the conditions had ever been offensively pressed. A king who had granted such liberal terms as Edward might perhaps claim, with reason, that his conquered vassal should never threaten him with hostilities. But the offence was none the less deadly, that it was justified by the relations of subject and sovereign.

A curious superstition precipitated an outbreak. In the time of Henry I some Norman had fabricated the so-called prophecies of Merlin, which were designed to reconcile the Welsh to the Norman Conquest. Henry was designated in them as the lion of justice, and it was given as a sign of his reign that the symbol of commerce would be split and the half be round. The prophecy had already been fulfilled by the regulation for breaking coin at the mint, and making the half-penny a round piece by itself. In 1279 Edward issued the farthing as an entire coin. The change recalled the memory of Merlin's prophecy; and the vague oracles, that had been compiled to describe Henry's dominion over the Saxons, were easily interpreted to mean that a Welsh prince should be crowned at London, and retrieve what its natives regarded as the lost dominion of the principality.

Llewelyn, it is said, consulted a witch, who assured him that he should ride crowned through Westcheap. But the Prince of Wales also relied on less visionary assurances. The "quo-warranto" commission was prosecuting its labors vigorously, and had produced a widespread discontent in England, where men said openly that the King would not suffer them to reap their own corn or mow their grass. Llewelyn was in correspondence with the malcontents, and received promises of support. His brother David was easily induced to join the rebellion, and began it on Palm Sunday, 1282, by storming the castle of Hawarden, and making Roger de Clifford, its lord and Edward's sheriff, his prisoner. Flint and Rhuddlan were next reduced, and the Welsh spread over the marches, waging a war of singular ferocity, slaying, and even burning, young and old women and sick people in the villages. The rebellion found Edward unprepared, but he met it with equal vigor and efficiency. Making Shrewsbury his head-quarters, and moving the exchequer and king's bench to it, he summoned troops not only from all England, but from Gascony.

It is possible that the foreign recruits were intended to strengthen the King's hands against subjects of doubtful fidelity, but no real embarrassment from the disaffected was sustained. The troops mustered operated in two armies, which started from Rhuddlan and Worcester, and enclosed Llewelyn, as before, from north and south. Meanwhile the ships of the Cinque Ports reduced Anglesey, "the noblest feather in Llewelyn's wing," as Edward joyfully observed. But the King was faithful to his old policy of a blockade. A bridge of ships was thrown across the Menai Straits, and the forests between Wales proper and the English border were hewn down by an army of pioneers. The King's banner, the golden dragon, showed that quarter would be given.

As the war lasted on, negotiations were attempted; and the Archbishop of Canterbury, who had threatened the last sentence of the Church against Llewelyn and his adherents, was sent over to Snowdon to hold a conference. Llewelyn had already been warned that it was idle to expect assistance from Rome. He was now summoned to submit at discretion, with a hope - so expressed as to be a promise - that he and the natives of the revolted districts would have mercy shown them. In private he was informed that, on condition of surrendering Wales, he should receive a county in England and a pension of one thousand pounds a year. David was to go to the Holy Land, and not return except by the King's permission. These terms were undoubtedly hard, but could not be called unreasonable, as, by the subjugation of Anglesey, the principality was reduced to the two modern counties of Merionethshire and Carnarvonshire. Llewelyn and his barons preferred to die fighting sword in hand for position and liberty. The Primate excommunicated them and withdrew.

About the time of this interview, November 6th, there was a sharp skirmish at Bangor. Some of the Earl of Gloucester's troops crossed over before the bridge was completed, except for low-water mark, and were surprised and routed, with the loss of their leader and fourteen bannerets, by the Welsh. This encouraged Llewelyn to resume offensive operations, and he poured troops into Cardigan to ravage the lands of a Welshman in the English interest. The English forces in Radnor marched up along the left bank of the Wye, and came in sight of the enemy at Buelth, December 10th. Llewelyn was surprised during a reconnaissance and killed by an English knight, Stephen de Frankton. After a short but brilliant encounter, in which the English charged up the brow of a hill and routed the enemy with loss, they examined the dead bodies, and for the first time knew that Llewelyn was among the slain. A letter was found on his person giving a list, in false names, of the English nobles with whom he was in correspondence, but either the cipher was undiscoverable or the matter was hushed up by the King's discretion.

Llewelyn, dying under church ban, was denied Christian sepulture. His head, crowned with a garland of silver ivy-leaves, was carried on the point of a lance through London, and exposed on the battlements of the Tower. The prophecy that he should ride crowned through London had been fatally fulfilled.

With the death of Llewelyn the Welsh war was virtually at an end. With all his faults of temper and judgment, he had shown himself a man of courage and capacity, who identified his own cause with his people's. But David, though now implicated in the rebellion beyond hope of pardon, had fought under the English banner against his countrymen, with the wish to dismember the principality. The Welsh cannot be accused of fickleness if they became languid in a struggle against overwhelming power and a king who had shown them more tenderness than their leader for the time. David's one castle of Bere was starved into surrender by the Earl of Pembroke, and David himself taken in a bog by some Welsh in the English interest. His last remaining adherent, Rees ap Walwayn, surrendered, on hearing of his lord's captivity, and was sent prisoner to the Tower. For David himself a sadder fate was reserved. His request for a personal interview with his injured sovereign was refused. Edward did not care to speak with a man whom he had no thought of pardoning. He at once summoned a parliament of barons, judges, and burgesses to meet at Shrewsbury, September 29th, and decide on the prisoner's fate. It is evident that Edward was incensed in no common measure against the traitor whom, as he expressed it, he had "taken up as an exile, nourished as an orphan, endowed from his own lands, and placed among the lords of our palace," and who hadre paid these benefits by a sudden and savage war.

Nevertheless, the King, from policy or from temperament, resolved to associate the whole nation in a great act of justice on a man of princely lineage. The sentence, which excited no horror at the time, was probably passed without a dissentient voice. David was sentenced, as a traitor, to be drawn slowly to the gallows; as a murderer, to be hanged; as one who had shed blood during Passion-tide, to be disembowelled after death; and for plotting the King's death, his dismembered limbs were to be sent to Winchester, York, Northampton, and Bristol. Seldom has a shameful and violent death been better merited than by a double-dyed traitor like David, false by turns to his country and his king; nor could justice be better honored than by making the last penalty of rebellion fall upon the guilty Prince, rather than on his followers.

The form of punishment in itself was mitigated from the extreme penalty of the law, which prescribed burning for traitors. Compared with the execution under the Tudors and Stuarts, or with the reprisal taken after Culloden, the single sentence of death carried out on David seems scarcely to challenge criticism. Yet it marks a decline from the almost bloodless policy of former kings. Since the times of William Rufus no English noble, except under John, had paid the penalty of rebellion with life. In particular, during the late reign, Fawkes de Breaute and the adherents of Simon de Montfort had been spared by men flushed with victory and exasperated with a long strife. There were some circumstances to palliate David's treachery, if, as is probable, his charges against the English justiciary have any truth. We may well acquit Edward of that vilest infirmity of weak minds, which confounds strength with ferocity and thinks that the foundations of law can be laid in blood. He probably received David's execution as a measure demanded by justice and statesmanship, and in which the whole nation was to be associated with its king. Never was court of justice more formally constituted; but it was a fatal precedent for himself, and the weaker, worse men who succeeded him. From that time, till within the last century, the axe of the executioner has never been absent from English history.

Edward was resolved to incorporate Wales with England. The children of Llewelyn and David were honorably and safely disposed of in monasteries, from which they never seem to have emerged. The great Welsh lords who had joined the rebellion were punished with deprivation of all their lands. Out of the conquered territory Denbigh and Ruthyn seem to have been made into march lordships under powerful Englishmen. Anglesey and the land of Snowdon, Llewelyn's territories of Carnarvon and Merionethshire, with Flint, Cardigan, and Carmarthenshire, were kept in the hands of the Crown. The Welsh divisions of commotes were retained, and several of these constituted a sheriffdom, which bore pretty much the same relation to an English shire that a Territory bears to a State in the American Union. The new districts were also brought more completely under English law than the marches, which retained their privileges and customs.

The changes, where we can trace them, seem to have been for the better. The blood-feud was abolished; widows obtained a dower; bastards were no longer to inherit; and in default of heirs male in the direct line, daughters were allowed to inherit. On the other hand, fines were to be assessed according to local custom; compurgation was retained for unimportant cases and inheritances were to remain divisible among all heirs male.

The ordinance that contains these dispositions is no parliamentary statute, but seems to have been drawn up by the King in council, March 24, 1284. It was based on the report of a commission which examined one hundred and seventy-two witnesses. Soon afterward an inquest was ordered to ascertain the losses sustained by the Church in Wales, with a view to giving it compensation.

Nor did Edward neglect appeals to the national sentiment. The supposed body of Constantine was disinterred at Carnarvon, and received honorable burial in a church. The crown of Arthur and a piece of the holy Cross, once the property of the Welsh princes, were added to the King's regalia. It was probably by design that Queen Eleanor was confined at Carnarvon, April 25, 1284, of a prince whom the Welsh might claim as a countryman. ^1 At last, having lingered for more than a year about the principality, Edward celebrated the consummation of his conquests, August 1, 1284, by a splendid tournament at Nefyn, to which nobles and knights flocked from every part of England and even from Gascony. It was even more a demonstration of strength than a pageant.

[Footnote 1: It is said that Edward promised the Welsh "a native prince; one who could not speak a word of English," and then presented to their astonished gaze the new-born infant.]

The cost of the Welsh campaign must have been enormous, and it is difficult to understand how Edward met it. But no sort of expedient was spared. Commissioners were sent through England and Ireland to beg money of clergy and laity. Next, the cities of Guienne and Gascony were applied to; then, the money that had been collected for a crusade was taken out of the consecrated places where it was deposited. The treasures put in the Welsh churches were freely confiscated. Nevertheless, the Parliament of Shrewsbury granted the King a thirtieth, from which, however, the loans previously advanced were deducted. In return for this the King passed the Statute of Merchants, which made provisions for the registration of merchant's debts, their recovery by distraint, and the debtor's imprisonment. The clergy had at first been less compliant when the King applied to them for a tenth. The Convocation of the Province of Canterbury, April, 1283, replied that they were impoverished; that they still owed a fifteenth, and that they expected to be taxed again by the Pope. They also reminded him bitterly of the Statute of Mortmain. Ultimately the matter was compromised by the grant of a twentieth, November, 1283.

For a few years Wales was still an insecure portion of the English dominion. In 1287, Rees ap Meredith, whose services to Edward had been largely rewarded with grants of land and a noble English wife, commenced levying war against the king's sheriff. His excuse was that his baronial rights had been encroached upon; but as he had once risked forfeiture by prefering a forcible entry to the execution of the king's writ which had been granted him, we may probably assume that he claimed powers inconsistent with English sovereignty. After foiling the Earl of Cornwall in a costly campaign, Rees, finding himself outlawed, fled, by the Earl of Gloucester's complicity, into Ireland. Some years later he returned to resume his war with Robert de Tiptoft, but this time was taken prisoner and executed at York by Edward's orders, 1292.

More dangerous by far was the insurrection of two years later, 1294, when the Welsh, irritated by a tax, and believing that Edward had sailed for France, rose up throughout the crown lands and slew one of the collectors, Roger de Pulesdon. Madoc, a kinsman of Llewelyn, was put forward as king, and his troops burned Carnarvon castle and inflicted a severe defeat on the English forces sent to relieve Denbigh, November 10th. Edward now took the field in person, and resumed his old policy of cutting down the forests as he forced his way into the interior. The Welsh fought well, and between disease and fighting the English lost many hundred men. Once the King was surrounded at Conway, his provisions intercepted, and his road barred by a flood; but his men could not prevail on him to drink out of the one cask of wine that had been saved. "We will all share alike," he said, "and I, who have brought you into this strait, will have no advantage of you in food." The flood soon abated, and, reenforcements coming up, the Welsh were dispersed. Faithful to his policy of mercy, the King spared the people everywhere, but hanged three of their captains who were taken prisoners. Madoc lost heart, made submission, and was admitted to terms. Meanwhile, Morgan, another Welshman of princely blood, had headed a war in the marches against the Earl of Gloucester, who was personally unpopular with his vassals. Two years before the earldom had been confiscated into the King's hands, and it is some evidence that Edward's rule was not oppressive, by comparison with that of his lords, that the marchmen now desired to be made vassals of the crown. Morgan is said to have been hunted down by his old confederate, Madoc, but it seems more probable that he was the first to sue for peace. He was pardoned without deserve.

As there was then war with Scotland, hostages were taken from the Welsh chiefs, and were kept in English castles for several years. But the last lesson had proved effectual. The Welsh settled dow peaceably on their lands and generally adopted the English customs. Except a few great lords, their gentry were still the representatives of their old families. Only five men in all had received the last punishment of the law for sanguinary rebellions extending over eighteen years of the King's reign. Of any massacre of the bards, or any measures taken to repress them, history knows nothing.

Never was conquest more merciful than Edward's, and the fault lies with his officers, not with the King, if many years still passed before the old quarrel between Wales and England was obliterated from the hearts of the conquered people.

Author: Pearson, Charles H.

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