Relation to me: 21st Great-Grandfather
Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, also known as Llywelyn the Great was the Prince of Gwynedd in North Wales, and eventually the de facto ruler over most of the country of Wales. By a combination of war and diplomacy he would dominate over Wales for forty years. During his childhood, Gwynedd was ruled by two of his uncles, who had split the kingdom between themselves after the death of Llywelyn’s grandfather, Owain Gwynedd in 1170.
Llywelyn had a strong claim to be the legitimate ruler of the country and began a campaign to win power over it at an early age. He would be the sole ruler of Gwynedd by 1200. He made a treaty with King John of England in that same year and his relations with the English king would remain good for the next ten years. Llywelyn would marry the king’s daughter Joan in 1205. When King John arrested Gwenwynwyn ab Owain of Powys in 1208 in 1208, Llywelyn took the opportunity to annex southern Powys.
In 1210, the relationship between King John and Llywelyn deteriorated. John would invade Gwynedd in 1211 and Llywelyn was forced to seek terms and give up all of his lands west of the River Conwy. However, he would be able to recover the area the following year in an alliance with other Welsh princes. He would ally himself with the barons and together they forced John to sign the Magna Carta in 1215.
During the following year, Llwelyn was the dominant power in Wales yet again and held a council at Aberdyfi to apportion his lands to other princes. After King John’s death, Llywelyn concluded the Treaty o Worcester with John’s successor, Henry III in 1218. Over the next fifteen years, he would be frequently involved in fights with the Marcher lords, and at times the king. He did however, make alliances with several of the major powers in the Marches as well.
The Peace of Middle in 1234 would mark the end of Llywelyn’s military career. As agreed upon in the two year truce, it would be extended year by year for the remainder of his reign, maintaining his position in Wales until his passing in 1240. He would be succeeded by his son Dafydd ap Llywelyn.
Llywelyn’s Early Life
Llywelyn was born around 1173 as the son of Iorwerth ap Owain. He was also the grandson of Owain Gwynedd, who was the ruler of Gwynedd until his death in 1170. Llywelyn was also a descendant of the senior line of Rhodri Mawr, therefore was also a member of the princely house of Gwynedd. He was probably born at Dolwyddelan, which today is not in present Dolwyddelan Castle, which actually was built by Llywelyn himself. He might have also been born in the older castle that had once occupied a rocky knoll on the valley floor.
There is only little known about his father, who had died when Llywelyn was just an infant. There is also no record of Iorwerth having taken a part in the power struggle between some of Owain’s other sons after his death, even though he was his eldest surviving son. There is also a rumor that has passed down, that he was disabled or disfigured in some way that had excluded him from taking power, whether true or not I am not sure.
By 1175, Gwynedd had been divided between two of Llywelyn’s uncles, Dafydd ab Owain took control over the areas east of the River Conwy, and Rhodri ab Owain took over the areas to the west of the River. His uncles were the sons of Owain by his second marriage to Cristin verch Goronwy. This marriage was not considered valid by the church, as Cristin was Owain’s first cousin, a degree of relationship, which, according to Canon law would prohibit the marriage.
Giraldus Cambrensis refers to Iorwerth Drwyndwn as the only legitimate son of Owain Gwynedd. After Iorwerth’s death, Llywelyn was, at least according to the church, the legitimate claimant to the throne of Gwynedd.
Llywelyn’s mother’s name was Marared, which is occasionally Anglicized to Margaret. She was the daughter of Madog ap Maredudd, the prince of Powys. There is evidence that says that after her first husband’s death, Margaret married in the summer of 1197 to a man named Gwion. He was the nephew of Roger Powys of Whittington Castle. Together they would have a son by the name of David ap Gwion. Some maintain that she had never married into the Corbet family of Caus Castle, near Westbury, Shropshire, and later Moreton Corbet Castle. However, there is in existence a land grant from Llywelyn to the monastery of Wigmore, in which he indicated his mother was a member of the House of Corbet, leaving the issue to be unresolved.
Llywelyn’s Rise to Power
In an account of his journey around Wales in 1188, Giraldus Cambrensis talks about the young Llywelyn as already being in arms against his uncles Dafydd and Rhodri, his account is as follows:
“Owen, son of Gruffyth, prince of North Wales, had many sons, but only one legitimate, namely, Iorwerth Ddwyndwn, which in Welsh means flat-nosed, who had a son named Lhewelyn. This young man, being only twelve years of age, began, during the period of our journey, to molest his uncles David and Roderic, the sons of Owen by Christiana, his cousin-german; and although they had divided amongst themselves all North Wales, except the land of Conan, and although David, having married the sister of king Henry II, by whom he had one son, was powerfully supported by the English, yet within a few years the legitimate son, destitute of lands or money (by the aid of divine vengeance), bravely expelled from North Wales those who were born in public incest, though supported by their own wealth and by that of others, leaving them nothing but what the liberality of his own mind and the counsel of good men from pity suggested: a proof that adulterous and incestuous persons are displeasing to God.”
During the year of 1194, with the help of his cousins, Gruffudd ap Cynan and Maredudd ap Cynan, Llywelyn would defeat Dafydd at the Battle of Aberconwy at the mouth of the River Conwy. Rhodri would pass away in 1195, and his lands, west of Conwy, were taken over by Gruffudd and Maredudd. Llywelyn would rule over the territories that were taken from Dafydd east of Conwy.
Three years later, Llywelyn would capture Dafydd and imprison him. In 1198, Hubert Walter, the Archbishop of Canterbury, convinced Llywelyn to release Dafydd, and he would then retire to England where he passed away in May of 1203. Wales was divided into Pura Wallia, areas that were ruled by the Welsh princes, Marchia Wallia would be ruled by the Anglo-Norman barons. Since the death of Owain Gwynedd in 1170, Rhys ap Gruffydd had made the southern kingdom of Deheubarth the strongest of the Welsh kingdoms, establishing himself as a leader of Pura Wallia.
After Rhys had died in 1197, fighting between his sons would lead to the splitting of Deheubarth between warring factions. Gwenwynwyn ab Owain, the prince of Powys Wenwynwyn, tried to take over as the leader of the Welsh princes. A year after Rhys had died, Gwenwynwyn raised a great army to besiege Painscastle, which was held by the troops of William de Braose, Lord of Bramber. Llywelyn sent some of his troops to help Gwenwynwyn, and in August, though Gwenwynwyn’s force was attacked by an army that was led by Justiciar, Geoffrey Fitz Peter, they were heavily defeated. His defeat gave Llywelyn the chance to establish himself as the leader of the Welsh.
In 1199, Llywelyn captured the important castle of Mold and had apparently started to use the title of “prince of the whole of North Wales”. Llywelyn was probably not in fact the master of all Gwynedd at this time, since it had been his cousin Gruffudd ap Cynan who had promised homage to King John for Gwynedd in 1199.
Llywelyn as Prince of Gwynedd
Gruffudd ap Cynan would pass away in 1200, leaving Llywelyn as the undisputed ruler of Gwyned. A year later, he would take Eifionydd and Llyn from Maredudd ap Cynan on the charge of treachery. During July, he concluded a treaty with King John of England, the earliest surviving written agreement between an English king and Welsh ruler. Under the terms of the treaty, Llywelyn was to swear fealty and do homage to the king. In return, it had also confirmed Llywelyn’s possession of his conquests and allowed cases relating to the lands claimed by Llywelyn to be heard under Welsh law.
Llywelyn made his first move beyond the borders of Gwynedd in August of 1202, when he raised forces to attack Gwenwynwyn ab Owain of Powys, his now main rival in Wales. The
clergy would intervene by making peace between Llywelyn and Gwenwynwyn and the invasion was called off. Elise ap Madog, Lord of Penlyn, had refused to respond to Llywelyn’s summons to arms and was thus stripped of almost all of his lands by Llywelyn as a punishment.
In 1205, Llywelyn consolidated his position by marrying Joan, the natural daughter of King John of England. He previously had been negotiating with Pope Innocent III for leave to marry his uncle Rhodri’s widow, the daughter of Rognvaldr Guoroorson, the King of the Isles. However, the proposal was dropped.
During 1208, Gwenwynwyn of Powys would have a falling out with King John, who had summoned him to Shrewsbury in October, and then arrested him and stripped him of his lands. Llywelyn would take this chance to annex southern Powys and northern Ceredigion and rebuild Aberystwyth Castle. During the summer of 1209, he would accompany King John on a campaign against King William I of Scotland.
In 1210, the relations between Llywelyn and King John had deteriorated. J.E. Lloyd suggests that the rupture may have been due to Llywelyn forming an alliance with William de Braose, the 4th Lord of Bramber, who had fallen out with the king as well and had his lands taken away. While John was leading a campaign against de Braose and his allies in Ireland, an army being led by Earl Ranulph of Chester and Peter des Roches, the Bishop of Winchester, invaded Gwynedd. Llywelyn destroyed his own castle at Deganwy and retreated to the west of the River Conwy. The Earl of Chester would rebuild the destroyed castle, and Llywelyn retaliated by ravaging the earl’s lands. King John would send his troops to help restore Gwenwynwyn to the rule of Southern Powys.
John invaded Gwynedd with the help of almost all of the other Welsh princes in 1211. According to Brut y Tywysogion, he planned “to dispossess Llywelyn and destroy him utterly”. John’s first invasion would be forced to retreat, but then in August of that year, he invaded again with a larger army, crossed the River Conwy and penetrated Snowdonia. Bangor was burned by a detachment of the royal army and the Bishop of Bangor was captured. Llywelyn was forced to come to terms with John, sending his wife Joan to negotiate with the king and her father, by the advice of his council. Joan was able to persuade her father to not dispossess her husband completely, but Llywelyn ended up losing all of his lands west of the River Conwy. He would also have to pay a large tribute of cattle and horses and also hand over all hostages, including his illegitimate son Gruffydd. Llywelyn was also forced to agree that if he had died without a legitimate heir by Joan, all of his lands would revert to the king.
This was the low point of Llywelyn’s reign, but he would quickly recover his position. The other Welsh princes that had supported King John against Llywelyn would soon become disillusioned with King John’s rule and switched sides. Llywelyn would force the alliance with Gwenwynwyn of Powys and the two main rulers of Deheubarth, Maelgwn ap Rhys and Rhys Gryg. They would rise up against John, with the support of Pope Innocent III, who had been engaged in a dispute with John for several years and had placed his kingdom under an interdict. Pope Innocent would release Llywelyn, Gwenwynwyn and Maelgwn from all oaths of loyalty to John and also lifted the interdict in the territories of which they had controlled. Llywelyn was able to recover all of Gwynedd, except or the castles of Deganwy and Rhuddlan, within two months during 1212.
In August of 1212, John planned another invasion of Gwynedd. According to one account, he had just started it by hanging some of the Welsh hostages that were given to him the previous year when he received two letters. One letter was from his daughter Joan, Llywelyn’s wife, the other from William I of Scotland. Both letters had warned him in like terms that if he would invade Wales his magnates would seize the opportunity to kill him or hand him over to his enemies. Due to this, John’s invasion was abandoned.
Llywelyn would take the castles of Deganwy and Rhuddlan back in 1213, and made an alliance with Philip II Augustus of France. He then allied himself with the barons who were in rebellion against King John, then marched on Shrewsbury and captured it without any resistance in 1215. When John was forced into signing the Magna Carta, Llywelyn was rewarded with several favorable provisions relating to Wales, including the release of his son Grufydd who had been a hostage of John’s since 1211. In that same year, Ednyfed Fychan had been appointed seneschal of Gwynedd and was to work closely with Llywelyn for the rest of his reign. Llywelyn had now established himself as a leader of the independent princes of Wales.
Leading an army that included all of the lesser princes to capture the castles of Carmarthen, Kidwelly, Llanstephan, Cardigan and Cilgerran in December of 1215, was another indication of his growing power, and Llywelyn was able to insist on the consecration of WElshmen to two vacant sees that year. Iorwerth was made the Bishop of St. David’s and Cadwgan the Bishop of Bangor.
During 1216, Llywelyn would hold a council at Aberdyfi to adjudicate on the territorial claims of the lesser princes, who had affirmed their homage and allegiance to him. Beverley Smith comments on this by saying: “Henceforth, the leader would be lord, and the allies would be subjects”. Gwenwynwyn of Powys had changed sides again in the same year, allying himself with King John. Llywelyn would call up other princes for a campaign against him and drove him out of southern Powys once again. Gwenwynwyn would die in England later on that year, leaving an underage heir. King John also died that year, and also left an underage heir in King Henry III with a minority government set up in England.
In 1217, Reginald de Braose of Brecon and Abergavenny, who had been an ally of Llywelyn’s and married his daughter Gwladus Ddu, was induced by the English crown to change sides. Llywelyn would respond by invading his lands, first choosing to threaten Brecon, where the burgesses offered up hostages for a payment of one hundred marks. He then headed for Swansea where Reginald met him to offer his submission and surrender of the town. He then continued towards the west to threaten Haverfordwest, where burgesses offered up hostages for the submission to his rule of a payment of a fine or one thousand marks.
The Treaty of Worcester and Border Campaigns from 1218-1229
After King John’s death, Llywelyn concluded the Treaty of Worcester with his successor, Henry III, in 1218. The treaty would confirm him being in possession of all of his recent conquests. From this time until his death, Llywelyn was the dominant force in Wales. Even though there were further outbreaks of hostilities with the marcher lords, particularly the Marshall family and Hubert de Burgh, and at times the king, Llywelyn built up marriage alliances with several of the Marcher families. One of his daughters, Gwladus Ddu, “Gwladus the Dark”, was already married to Reginald de Braose of Brecon and Abergavenny. However, with Reginald an unreliable ally, Llywelyn married another one of his daughters to John de Braose of Gower, Reginald’s nephew, his daughter Marared. He would find an ally in Ranulph, the Earl of Chester, whose nephew and heir John the Scot had married Llywelyn’s daughter Elen in about 1222.
Following Reginald de Braose’s death in 1228, Llywelyn would make an alliance with the powerful Mortimer family of Wigmore, when Gwladus Ddu married, as her second husband, Ralph de Mortimer. Llywelyn was careful not to provoke any unnecessary hostilities with the crown or the Marcher lords. An example of this can be found in 1220, when he compelled Rhys Gryg to return four commotes in South Wales to its previous
Anglo-Norman owners. He also built a number of castles to defend his borders, most of which are thought to have been built between 1220 and 1230. These would be the first sophisticated stone castles in Wales. Llywelyn’s castles at Criccieth, Deganwy, Dolbadarn, Dolwyddelan and Castell y Bere are among the best examples. He also appears to have fostered the development of quasi-urban settlements in Gwynedd to act as centers of trade.
Hostilities broke out with William Marshal, the 2nd Earl of Pembroke in 1220. Llywelyn would destroy the castles of Narberth and Wiston, burning the town of Haverfordwest and threatening Pembroke Castle. However, he would agree to abandon the attack upon the payment of one hundred pounds.
Early on in 1223, Llywelyn would cross the border into Shropshire, capturing Kinnerley and Whittington castles. The Marshall’s would take advantage of Llywelyn’s involvement here to land near St. David’s in April, with an army raised in Ireland and recaptured Cardigan and Carmarthen without any opposition. Marshall’s campaign would be supported by the royal army, which took possession of Montgomery. Llywelyn came to an agreement with the king at Montgomery in October and Llywelyn’s allies in southern Wales were given back the lands taken from them by the Marshalls. Llywelyn himself would give up his conquests in Shropshire.
During 1228, Llywelyn was engaged in a campaign against Hubert de Burgh, the Justiciar of England and Ireland, as well as one of the most powerful men in the kingdom. Hubert had been given the lordship and castle of Montgomery by the king and was encroaching on Llywelyn’s lands close by. The king would raise an army to help Hubert, who started to build another castle in the commote of Ceri. However, in October the royal army was obliged to retreat. Henry had agreed to destroy the half-built castle in exchange for a payment of two thousand pounds by Llywelyn. Llywelyn would raise the money by demanding the same sum as ransom of William de Braose, the Lord of Abergavenny, who he had captured in the fighting.
After his capture, William de Braose chose to ally himself with Llywelyn. A marriage was arranged between his daughter Isabella and Llywelyn’s heir, Dafydd ap Llywelyn. During Easter of 1230, William had visited the court of Llywelyn. It was during this visit that he was found in Llywelyn’s chamber with Llywelyn’s wife, Joan.
On the 2nd of May, Braose was hanged and Joan was placed under house arrest for the year. Brut y Tywysogion, chronicler, commented:
“that year William de Braose the Younger, lord of Brycheiniog, was hanged by the lord Llywelyn in Gwynedd, after he had been caught in Llywelyn’s chamber with the king of England’s daughter, Llywelyn’s wife.”
A letter from Llywelyn to William’s wife, Eva de Braose, that was written shortly after William’s execution inquired whether or not she had still wished for the marriage between Dafydd and Isabella to take place. The marriage did move forward, and the following year, Joan was forgiven and restored to her position as princess.
That same year, Llywelyn would use the title princeps Norwalliae ‘Prince of North Wales’. From that year forth he had changed his title to ‘Prince of North Wales and Lord of Snowdonia’. This was possibly done to underline his supremacy over the other Welsh princes. He didn’t formally style himself as ‘Prince of Wales’ even though J.E. Lloyd comments that “he had much of the power which such a title might imply”.
Llywelyn’s Final Campaigns and the Peace of Middle
In 1231, further fighting broke out. Llywelyn was becoming concerned about the growing power of Hubert de Burgh. Some of his men had been taken as prisoner by a garrison of Montgomery’s and beheaded. Llywelyn responded by burning Montgomery, Powys, New Radnor, Hay and Brecon, before he turned west to capture the castles of Neath and Kidwelly. He would complete his campaign by recapturing Cardigan Castle. King Henry retaliated by launching an invasion and building a new castle at Painscastle, but was unable to penetrate very far into Wales.
A year later, negotiations had continued when Hubert was removed from office and later was imprisoned, much of his power was passed to Peter de Rivaux, including the control of several castles in south Wales. William Marshal had died in 1231, and his brother Richard had succeeded him as the Earl of Pembroke.
Hostilities would break out between Richard Marshal and Peter de Rivaux in 1233. They were supported by the king and Llywelyn made an alliance with Richard. A year later, in January, the earl and Llywelyn had seized Shrewsbury. Richard was killed in Ireland in April, but the king had agreed to make peace with the insurgents. The Peace of Middle was agreed to on the 21st of June and established a truce of two years with Llywelyn, who was allowed to retain Cardigan and Builth. The truce would be renewed year by year for the remainder of Llywelyn’s reign.
Llywelyn’s Death and the Aftermath
During the later years of Llywelyn’s life he devoted most of his efforts to ensuring his only legitimate son Dafydd would follow him as the ruler of Gwynedd, amending the Welsh law that was followed in Gwynedd. His amendments to the Welsh law favored legitimate children in a Church sanctioned marriage had mirrored the earlier efforts of Lord Rhys, Prince of Deheubarth, in designating Gruffydd ap Rhys II as his heir over those of his illegitimate eldest son Maelgwn ap Rhys.
In both cases, by favoring legitimate children born in a Church sanctioned marriage would facilitate better relations between their sons and the wider Anglo-Norman polity and Catholic Church, by removing any “stigma” of illegitimacy. Dafydd’s older but illegitimate brother, Grufydd, was therefore excluded as the primary heir of Llywelyn, though he would be given lands to rule over. This was a departure from the Welsh custom, which held that the eldest son was his father’s heir regardless of his parent’s marital status.
Llywelyn induced the minority government of King Henry to acknowledge Dafydd as his heir in 1220. Two years later, he would petition Pope Honorius III to have Dafydd’s succession confirmed. The original petition hasn’t been preserved but the Pope’s reply refers to “detestable custom…in his land whereby the son of the handmaiden was equally heir with the son of the free woman and illegitimate sons obtained an inheritance as if they were legitimate”. The Pope had welcomed the fact that Llywelyn was abolishing this custom.
In 1226, Llywelyn persuaded the Pope to declare his wife Joan, Dafydd’s mother, to be the legitimate daughter of King John, again in order to strengthen Dafydd’s position. Three years later, the English crown accepted Dafydd’s homage for the lands he would inherit from his father. Almost ten years later, in 1238, Llywelyn held a council at Strata Florida Abbey where other Welsh princes swore fealty to Dafydd. His original intention had been that they should do homage, additionally, Prince Llywelyn had arranged for his son to marry Isabella de Braose, the eldest daughter of William de Braose. As William had no male heir, Llywelyn strategized that the vast de Braose holdings in south Wales would pass to the heir of Dafydd with Isabella. Gruffydd was given appanage in Meirionnydd and Ardudwy, but his rule was said to be oppressive.
Back in 1221, Llywelyn stripped him of these territories, and in 1228 had imprisoned him, he would not be released until 1234. Upon his release he was given part of Llyn to rule, his performance this time was apparently more satisfactory. By 1238, he’d been given the remainder of Llyn and a substantial part of Powys.
In 1237, Joan, the wife of Llywelyn had passed away and he appears to have suffered a paralytic stroke as well. From this time on, his heir Dafydd took over an increasing part of his rule over the principality. Dafydd deprived his half-brother Gruffydd of the lands that were given to him by Llywelyn and later seized him and his eldest son Owain and held them in Criccieth Castle.
Three years later the chronicler of Brut y Tywysogion records: “the lord Llywelyn ap Iorwerth son of Owain Gwynedd, Prince of Wales, a second Achilles, died having taken on the habit of religion at Aberconwy, and was buried honourably”. Llywelyn died at the Cistercian abbey of Aberconwy, which he had founded and was also buried there. The abbey was later moved to Maenan, thus becoming Maenan Abbey, near Llanrwst. Llywelyn’s stone coffin can now be seen in St. Grwst’s Church, Llanrwst. Among the poets who lamented his passing was Einion Wan saying:
“True lord of the land–how strange that today
He rules not o’er Gwynedd;
Lord of nought but the piled up stones of his tomb,
Of the seven-foot grave in which he lies.”
Dafydd succeeded his father as the prince of Gwynedd, but King Henry was not ready to allow him to inherit the position his father had held over Wales. Dafydd was forced to agree to a treaty that greatly restricted his power and was also obliged to hand his half-brother Gruffydd over to the king, who had now had the option of using him against Dafydd. Gruffydd was killed while trying to escape from the Tower of London in 1244, leaving the field clear for Dafydd, but he would die too, without issue, in 1246. He was eventually succeeded by his nephew, Gruffydd’s son, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd.
Llywelyn had dominated over Wales for more than forty years and was one of the only two Welsh rulers to be called “The Great”, the other being his ancestor Rhodri. The first person to have acknowledged him as such seems to have been his near-contemporary, the English chronicler Matthew Paris.
John Edward Lloyd gave the following assessment of the Great Llywelyn:
“Among the chieftans who battled against the Anglo-Norman power his place will always be high, if not indeed the highest of all, for no man ever made better or more judicious use of the native force of the Welsh people for adequate national ends; his patriotic statemanship will always entitle him to wear the proud style of Llywelyn the Great.”
David Moore gives a bit of a different review:
“When Llywelyn died in 1240 his principatus of Wales rested on shaky foundations. Although he had dominated Wales, exacted unprecedented submissions and raised the status of the prince of Gwyned to new heights, his three major ambitions–a permanent hegemony, its recognition by the king, and its inheritance in its entirety by his heir–remained unfulfilled. His supremacy, like that of Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, had been merely personal in nature, and there was no institutional framework to maintain it either during his lifetime or after his death.”