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Left: Portrait of Llywelyn the Great (Hogyncymru / CC BY-SA 4.0). 	Right: Stain glass window depiction of Llywelyn the Great (Llywelyn2000 / CC BY-SA 4.0).

Was Llywelyn the Great Wales’ Greatest Native Ruler?

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Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, more commonly known as Llywelyn the Great (or Llywelyn Fawr in Welsh) was a Welsh prince who lived between the 12 th and 13 th century. Lylwelyn is considered to be the greatest native ruler of Wales during the Middle Ages , prior to the conquest of the country by the English. Although Lylwelyn was initially the ruler of a small state in the northwestern part of Wales, Llywelyn succeeded in expanding his power beyond the borders of his realm. Eventually, he came to dominate most of Wales. In addition, Llywelyn dealt skillfully with his powerful English neighbors, resorting to diplomacy on some occasions, and war on others.

Early Life and Exile

Llywelyn the Great was born around 1173 in Dolwyddelan Castle (though not in the present structure, but in an older castle of the same name in the Lledr Valley), in the north of Wales. His father was Iorwerth ap Owain, a prince of Gwynedd, and the son of Owain ap Gruffydd (known also as Owain Gwynedd). Although Llywelyn was his father’s eldest legitimate son, he did not inherit the throne, allegedly due to his nose defect. Instead, Owain was succeeded by one of his illegitimate sons (which was permissible under Welsh law). Still, Llywelyn inherited Nant Conwy when his father died. Llywelyn’s mother was Marared, the daughter of Madog ap Maredudd, the last ruler of a united Powys.

Dolwyddelan Castle was built by Llywelyn; the old castle nearby may have been his birthplace. (Jeff Buck / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Dolwyddelan Castle was built by Llywelyn; the old castle nearby may have been his birthplace. (Jeff Buck / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

The rulers of Gwynedd trace their ancestry all the way back to the 4 th / 5 th century AD, towards the end of Roman rule in Britain. The name of the kingdom may have been derived from Cunedda Wledig, a leader of the Votadini Picts, who was transferred by Magnus Maximus (the ruler of the western part of the Roman Empire) to Wales in order to secure the western part of Britain from Irish raiders. Alternatively, it has been suggested that the name Gwynedd comes from the Latin Venedotia. In any case, much of northern Wales was under Cunedda’s rule, and hence he obtained the title ‘King of North Wales’.

Although Roman rule ended in Britain in the early 5 th century AD, Gwynedd continued its existence as a Roman successor state. The fortunes of the kingdom fluctuated in the centuries that followed. Some of the rulers of Gwynedd, for instance, were able to claim the title ‘King of the Britons’, which was a reflection of the power they wielded. Other rulers were less fortunate, as they lost their power as a consequence of civil wars or foreign invasions.

At the time when Llywelyn was born, Gwynedd was a powerful kingdom, but was not in control of the whole of Wales. The realms of southern Wales, known as Deheubarth, were not under the rule of Gwynedd, whereas the eastern part of the country was ruled by the Kingdom of Powys (which had split in two following the death of Madog ap Maredudd and his son, Llywelyn ap Madog, in 1160).

The arms of the royal house of Gwynedd were traditionally first used by Llywelyn's father. (Sodacan / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The arms of the royal house of Gwynedd were traditionally first used by Llywelyn's father. (Sodacan / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Unfortunately for Llywelyn, his father died a year after his birth. Dafydd ap Owain, the ruler of Gwynedd, and Llywelyn’s half-uncle, considered the infant as a potential threat to his position. Therefore, he decided to have the boy exiled. It is likely that Llywelyn grew up in Powys, where he was protected by his maternal relatives. Little is known about Llywelyn’s life in the years following his exile. We do know, however, that he returned to Gwynedd in 1194, and asserted his claim as the legitimate ruler of the kingdom.

Reclaiming the Throne and Expanding His Territory

At that point of time, Gwynedd had been divided into two parts. Dafydd ruled the area to the east of the River Conwy, whilst one of his half-brothers, Rhodri ap Owain, ruled the area to the river’s west. With the aid of his half-cousins, Gruffydd and Maredudd, the sons of Cynan ap Owain, Llywelyn defeated Dafydd at the Battle of Aberconwy. After a few years of imprisonment by Llywelyn, Dafydd left for England, where he died in 1203.

A year after the Battle of Aberconwy, Llywelyn seized the lands of his other half-uncle, Rhodri. Although Gwynedd was reunited Llywelyn was not yet its sole ruler, as he was sharing power with the two half-cousins who supported him during his campaign against Dafydd. Gruffydd died in 1200, whilst Maredudd’s lands were seized in the following year, as he was charged with treason. Only then was Llywelyn able to claim sole rulership of Gwynedd.

In the meantime, Llywelyn sought to extend his rule beyond the borders of Gwynedd. In 1200, for instance, Llywelyn captured Mold Castle, which is located to the east of his kingdom. The castle was once part of Gwynedd, when it was captured by Llywelyn’s grandfather, Owain, in 1146. However in 1165, the English king Henry II invaded Wales, and although his campaign was largely unsuccessful, Henry managed to seize Mold Castle from the Welsh. The castle remained in English hands until it fell to Llywelyn in 1200.

Growing Relationship with King John and the English

After the recapture of Mold Castle, Llywelyn assumed the title ‘King of All North Wales’. A year after that, Llywelyn signed an agreement with King John of England , the first Welsh leader to have done so. In return for the allegiance of Gwynedd, the English king allowed Llywelyn to maintain his lands, and granted him the permission to use either English or Welsh laws when resolving land disputes.

Portrait of King John of England. (Dulwich Picture Gallery / Public domain)

Portrait of King John of England. (Dulwich Picture Gallery / Public domain )

In the years that followed, Llywelyn and John maintained friendly relations. In 1205, for example, Llywelyn married Joan, John’s daughter. The Welsh ruler paid homage to his father-in-law for his lands. In return, Llywelyn received the protection of the English, which was important, as it ensured that the powerful Marcher Lords (nobles appointed by the King of England to guard the border between England and Wales) would not attack his lands.

In 1208, another Welsh leader, Gwenwynwyn ab Owain, the Prince of Powys, had a falling out with John. As a result, Gwenwynwyn was stripped of his lands, and imprisoned by the English king. Llywelyn seized the opportunity to extend his control over Wales by occupying southern Powys and northern Ceredigion, which had once belonged to Gwenwynwyn. In the following year, Llywelyn was in Scotland, where he campaigned alongside the English against the Scots.

A statue of Llywelyn the Great, Conwy. (Rhion Pritchard / Public domain)

A statue of Llywelyn the Great, Conwy. (Rhion Pritchard / Public domain )

Cordial Relations Turned Into War

The cordial relations between John and Llywelyn, however, did not last forever. In 1210, Llywelyn invaded the territory of the Earl of Chester, one of the most powerful Marcher Lords. In the next year, John sided with the earl, and prepared for an invasion of Gwynedd. This was due to John’s concern that Llywelyn was growing too powerful, and therefore the English king sought to reduce his power.

The English also gained some support from within Wales. As Llywelyn had been expanding his realm at the expense of other Welsh princes, he made many enemies. Some, like Gwenwynwyn, came to John’s aid, as they saw this opportunity for revenge, and a chance to regain anything that had been lost.     

The English army sought to capture Llywelyn in his stronghold at Deganwy Castle. The Welsh leader, however, fled to the hills, and launched guerrilla attacks on the invading army. In addition, although John had captured Deganwy Castle, he was not able to keep his men supplied. As a result, between starvation and retreat, the English chose the latter.

Ruins of Deganwy Castle in Wales. (Mattcymru2 / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Ruins of Deganwy Castle in Wales. (Mattcymru2 / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Three months later, however, the English were back in Wales. This time, John was better-provisioned, and had much more success. Most of Gwynedd was overran by the English army. Fortunately for Llywelyn, he was married to John’s daughter, and was therefore able to send her to intercede with the English king. In the end, Llywelyn was forced to surrender the Four Cantreds. In addition, he was required to pay a fine of 20000 cattle, and 40 horses. Nevertheless, Llywelyn was allowed to remain in power.

Retaliation and a Truce

Llywelyn’s defeat did not last for long, and he had the opportunity to regain what he had lost to the English. John was growing increasingly unpopular amongst the Welsh, which allowed Llywelyn to launch a revolt in 1212. Interestingly, the revolt received the blessing of Pope Innocent III, who liberated Llywelyn, as well as the other Welsh rebels, from their oaths of allegiance to the English king.

Portrait of Pope Innocent III who liberated Llywelyn and excommunicated King John of England. (Public domain)

Portrait of Pope Innocent III who liberated Llywelyn and excommunicated King John of England. ( Public domain )

John was involved in a dispute with the pope since 1205, and excommunicated since 1209. Llywelyn also formed an alliance with John’s enemy, Philip II, the King of France, to further strengthen his position against the English. As a result of the revolt, Llywelyn recaptured the territories previously lost to John.

Another opportunity for Llywelyn to increase his power presented itself in 1215. In that year, John’s barons revolted against the king, and Llywelyn threw his support behind them. Lywelyn attacked the Marcher Lords, and greatly increased his territories. Amongst the areas seized from the English were Shrewsbury, Carmarthen, Cardigan, and Montgomery.

Llywelyn’s military successes meant that his rule had now been extended to the south of Wales as well. In 1216, whilst Llywelyn was still campaigning against the English, Llywelyn was recognized by the other Welsh princes as their overlord at a meeting in Aberdovey. Llywelyn was now the undisputed leader of Wales, though he did not adopt the title ‘Prince of Wales’.

John died in 1216, and the baron’s revolt (known as the First Barons’ War) ended in 1217. In 1218, Llywelyn paid homage to Henry III, John’s successor, on behalf of the Welsh princes, and had his territorial gains confirmed by the Treaty of Worchester.

Although Llywelyn was now the most powerful man in Wales, it did not mean that he could rule in peace. Instead, there were some problems he had to deal with. The most serious of these began in 1223, when the Earl of Pembroke attacked the western part of Wales from Ireland. As a result of this invasion, Llywelyn lost Carmarthen, Cardigan, and Montgomery.

Moreover, the Welsh army, led by Llywelyn’s son, Gruffydd, was defeated by the earl. The conflict only ended with the earl’s death in 1234. Llywelyn succeeded in forging an alliance with the new earl. In the same year, a truce was arranged with Henry. As a result, Llywelyn was able to spend the rest of his reign peacefully.

Death, Succession and Legacy

The question of succession was also on Llywelyn’s mind. In 1212, Llywelyn and Joan had their only son, Dafydd. In 1220, Llywelyn had Dafydd recognized as his named heir by the English king, Henry, the boy’s uncle. Nevertheless, Llywelyn also had an older illegitimate son, Gruffydd, who also had a claim to the throne.

Manuscript drawing showing Llywelyn the Great with his sons, Gruffydd and Dafydd. (Lampman / Public domain)

Manuscript drawing showing Llywelyn the Great with his sons, Gruffydd and Dafydd. (Lampman / Public domain )

Llywelyn was aware that if he were to follow Welsh law regarding the question of succession, the kingdom would be divided between his two sons, as had happened after his grandfather’s death. Therefore, Llywelyn sought to replace the native Welsh custom of shared inheritance with primogeniture. In 1229, Henry acknowledged Dafydd as Llywelyn’s sole successor, to the exclusion of Gruffydd.

Joan died in 1237, and Llywelyn suffered a massive stroke later that year. As a result of his debilitation, the reins of government were taken over by Dafydd. Three years later, Llywelyn died at the Cistercian Abbey of Aberconwy, and was buried there. Llywelyn is considered to have been the founder of the abbey. Later on, however, Llywelyn’s stone coffin was moved to St Grwst’s Church, in Llanrwst, where it can still be seen today.

Cistercian Abbey of Aberconwy in Wales. (JohnArmagh / Public domain)

Cistercian Abbey of Aberconwy in Wales. (JohnArmagh / Public domain )

There is little doubt that Llywelyn the Great was a capable ruler. This is evident, for instance, in the fact that he is only one of two native Welsh rulers who is honored with the epithet ‘the Great’, the other being Rhodri ap Merfyn, who ruled during the 9 th century AD. Nevertheless, Llywelyn’s greatness was a personal one. In other words, although Llywelyn succeeded in extending his control over most of Wales, he did not succeed in establishing institutions that would guarantee its preservation beyond his death.

It seems that towards the end of his life, Llywelyn was trying to shape a constitutional policy to ensure that his control over Wales would be passed down to his heirs. Nevertheless, there is no evidence to suggest that he ever sought to impose more than a ‘de facto’ rule over his fellow Welsh princes. In any case, Wales was conquered by the English in 1283, less than 50 years after Llywelyn’s death.

Top image: Left: Portrait of Llywelyn the Great (Hogyncymru / CC BY-SA 4.0 ).       Right: Stain glass window depiction of Llywelyn the Great (Llywelyn2000 / CC BY-SA 4.0 ).

By Wu Mingren

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