Llywelyn the Last
Llywelyn ap Gruffydd or Llywelyn Ein Llyw Olaf (c. 1223 – December 11, 1282)—meaning Llywelyn, Our Last Leader—was the last prince of an independent Wales before its conquest by Edward I of England. He is sometimes called Llywelyn III of Gwynedd or Llywelyn II of Wales.
Genealogy and early life
Llywelyn was the second of the four sons of Gruffydd, the eldest son of Llywelyn the Great, and Senena ferch Rhodri. The eldest was Owain Goch ap Gruffydd and Llywelyn had two younger brothers, Dafydd ap Gruffydd and Rhodri ap Gruffydd. Llywelyn is thought to have been born around 1222 or 1223. He is first heard of holding lands in the Vale of Clwyd around 1244. Following his grandfather's death in 1240, Llywelyn's uncle, Dafydd ap Llywelyn had succeeded him as ruler of Gwynedd. Llywelyn's father, Gruffudd, and his brother Owain were initially kept prisoner by Dafydd, then later transferred into the custody of King Henry III of England. Gruffudd later died in 1244 in a fall while trying to escape from his cell at the top of the Tower of London.
This freed Dafydd ap Llywelyn's hand as King Henry could no longer use Gruffudd against him, and war broke out between him and King Henry in 1245. Llywelyn supported his uncle in the savage fighting which followed. Owain meanwhile had been freed by Henry after his father's death in the hope that he would start a civil war in Gwynedd, but remained at Chester, so that when Dafydd died unexpectedly in January 1246 without leaving an heir, Llywelyn had the advantage of being on the spot. Llywelyn and Owain came to terms with King Henry, but were restricted to Gwynedd Uwch Conwy, the part of Gwynedd west of the River Conwy, which was divided between them. Gwynedd Is Conwy, east of the river, was taken over by King Henry.
When Dafydd ap Gruffudd came of age, King Henry accepted his homage and announced his intention of giving him a part of the already much reduced Gwynedd. Llywelyn refused to accept this, and Owain and Dafydd formed an alliance against him. This led to the Battle of Bryn Derwin in June 1255. Llywelyn defeated Owain and Dafydd and captured them, thereby becoming sole ruler of Gwynedd Uwch Conwy.
Llywelyn now looked to expand his area of control. The nobility of Gwynedd Is Conwy resented English rule. This area, also known as "Y Berfeddwlad" had been given by King Henry to his son Edward and during the summer of 1256 he visited the area, but failed to deal with grievances against the rule of his officers. An appeal was made to Llywelyn, who in November 1256 crossed the River Conwy with an army, accompanied by his brother Dafydd whom he had now released from prison. By early December Llywelyn controlled all of Gwynedd Is Conwy apart from the royal castles at Dyserth and Deganwy.
Llywelyn now turned south, where he had the support of Maredudd ap Rhys Grug of Deheubarth. They took control of Ceredigion then moved on to Ystrad Tywi which was given to Maredudd as a reward for his support, dispossessing his brother Rhys Fychan who supported the king. An army led by Stephen Bauzan invaded to try to restore Rhys Fychan but was defeated in June 1257, with Rhys having previously slipped away to make his peace with Llywelyn.
Rhys Fychan now accepted Llywelyn as overlord, but this led to a problem for Llywelyn, as Rhys' lands had already been given to Maredudd. Llywelyn restored his lands to Rhys, but the result of this was that the king's envoys approached Maredydd and offered him all Rhys' lands again if he would change sides, and Maredudd paid homage to Henry in late 1257. By early 1258 Llywelyn was using the title Prince of Wales, first used in an agreement between Llywelyn and his supporters and the Scottish nobility associated with the Comyn family. In 1263, Llywelyn's brother Dafydd went over to King Henry.
In England, Simon de Montfort defeated the king's supporters at the battle of Lewes in 1264, capturing the king and Prince Edward. Llywelyn began negotiations with de Montfort, and in 1265 offered him the sum of 30,000 marks in exchange for a permanent peace, in which Llywelyn's right to rule Wales would be acknowledged. The Treaty of Pipton, June 22, 1265, established an alliance between Llywelyn and de Montfort, but the very favourable terms given to Llywelyn in this treaty were an indication of de Montfort's weakening position.
After Simon de Montfort's death, Llywelyn opened negotiations with the king, and was recognised as Prince of Wales by King Henry in the Treaty of Montgomery in 1267. He was to pay a tribute of 25,000 marks in yearly instalments of 3,000 marks, and could also if he wished purchase the homage of Maredudd ap Rhys of Deheubarth for another 5,000 marks. However, Llywelyn's territorial ambitions gradually made him unpopular with some of the other Welsh leaders, particularly the princes of south Wales.
The Treaty of Montgomery marked the high point of Llywelyn's power. Problems began to arise soon afterwards, initially a dispute with Gilbert de Clare concerning the allegiance of a Welsh nobleman holding lands in Glamorgan. Gilbert built Caerphilly Castle in response to this. King Henry sent a bishop to take possession of the castle while the dispute was resolved, but when Gilbert regained the castle by a trick the king was unable to do anything about it.
Following the death of King Henry in late 1272, with the new King Edward I of England away from the kingdom, the rule fell on three men, one of whom, Roger Mortimer was one of Llywelyn's rivals in the marches. When Humphrey de Bohun tried to take back Brycheiniog, which had been granted to Llywelyn by the Treaty of Montgomery, Mortimer supported de Bohun. Llywelyn was also finding it difficult to raise the annual sums required under the terms of this treaty, and ceased making payments.
In early 1274 there was a plot by Llywelyn's brother Dafydd and Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn of Powys Wenwynwyn and his son Owain to kill Llywelyn. Dafydd was with Llywelyn at the time, and it was arranged that Owain would come with armed men on February 2 to carry out the assassination; however he was prevented by a snowstorm. Llywelyn did not discover the full details of the plot until later that year, when Owain confessed to the Bishop of Bangor. He said that the intention had been to make Dafydd prince of Gwynedd, and that Dafydd would then reward Gruffydd with lands. Dafydd and Gruffydd fled to England where they were maintained by the king and carried out raids on Llywelyn's lands, increasing Llywelyn's resentment. When Edward called Llywelyn to Chester in 1275 to pay homage, Llywelyn refused to attend.
Llywelyn also made an enemy of King Edward by continuing to ally himself with the family of Simon de Montfort, even though their power was now greatly reduced. Llywelyn sought to marry Eleanor de Montfort, Simon de Montfort's daughter. They were married by proxy in 1275, but King Edward took exception to the marriage. When Eleanor sailed from France to meet Llywelyn, Edward hired pirates to seize her ship and she was imprisoned at Windsor Castle until Llywelyn made certain concessions.
In 1276, Edward declared Llywelyn a rebel and in 1277 gathered an enormous army to march against him. Edward's intention was to disinherit Llywelyn completely and to take over Gwynedd Is Conwy for himself. He was considering two options for Gwynedd Uwch Conwy, either to divide all of it between Llywelyn's brothers Dafydd and Owain or to annex Anglesey and to divide only the mainland part between the two brothers. Edward was supported by Dafydd ap Gruffydd and Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn, and many of the lesser Welsh princes who had supported Llywelyn now hastened to make peace with Edward. By the summer of 1277, Edward's forces had reached the River Conwy and encamped at Deganwy, while another force had captured Anglesey and taken possession of the harvest there. This deprived Llywelyn and his men of food, forcing them to seek terms.
What resulted was the Treaty of Aberconwy, which guaranteed peace in Gwynedd in return for several difficult concessions from Llywelyn, including confining his authority to Gwynedd Uwch Conwy once again. Part of Gwynedd Is Conwy was given to Dafydd ap Gruffydd, with a promise that if Llywelyn died without an heir he would be given a share of Gwynedd Uwch Conwy instead. Llywelyn and Eleanor de Montfort were eventually married at Worcester in 1278. However relations with Edward gradually deteriorated. Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn had been given back his lands by Edward, and a bitter dispute developed between Llywelyn and Gruffydd over lands in Arwystli. Llywelyn wanted the dispute settled by Welsh law but Gruffydd wanted English law to apply, and was supported by the king.
Llywelyn and Eleanor had one daughter, Gwenllian, born at the royal home Garth Celyn Aber Garth Celyn on the north coast of Gwynedd on or about 19 June 1282, was captured by Edward's troops in 1283, and held Sempringham Priory in England for the rest of her life. Died without issue.
Last campaign and death
By early 1282 many of the lesser princes who had supported Edward against Llywelyn in 1277 were becoming disillusioned with the exactions of the royal officers. On Palm Sunday that year Dafydd ap Gruffydd attacked the English at Hawarden castle then laid siege to Rhuddlan. The revolt quickly spread to other parts of Wales, with Aberystwyth castle captured and burnt and rebellion also in Ystrad Tywi in south Wales, also inspired by Dafydd according to the annals, where Carreg Cennen castle was captured.
Llywelyn, according to a letter he sent to the Archbishop of Canterbury John Peckham, had not been involved in the planning of the revolt. However he felt obliged to support his brother, and a war began for which the Welsh were ill-prepared. Personal tragedy also struck him at this time. On or about 19th June 1282, his wife Eleanor de Montfort died at the royal home Garth Celyn (now known as Pen y Bryn, Abergwyngregyn) in giving birth to a daughter Gwenllian.
Events followed a similar pattern to 1277, with Edward's forces capturing Gwynedd Is Conwy and again capturing Anglesey and taking the harvest, though the force occupying Anglesey suffered a defeat when trying to cross to the mainland. The Archbishop of Canterbury tried to mediate between Llywelyn and the king, and Llywelyn was offered a large estate in England if he would surrender Wales to Edward, while Dafydd was to go on crusade and not return without the king's permission. In an emotional reply which has been compared to the Declaration of Arbroath Llywelyn said he would not abandon the people whom his ancestors had protected since "the days of Kamber son of Brutus". The offer was refused.
Llywelyn now left Dafydd to lead the defence of Gwynedd and took a force southwards to try to rally support in mid and south Wales and open up an important second front. At Builth Wells he was killed while separated from his army. The exact circumstances are unclear and there are two conflicting accounts of his death. Both accounts agree that Llywelyn was tricked into leaving the bulk of his army and was then attacked and killed. The first account says that Llywelyn and his chief minister approached the forces of Edmund Mortimer and Hugo Le Strange after crossing a bridge. They then heard the sound of battle as the main body of his army was met in battle by the forces of Roger Dispenser and Gruffudd ap Gwenwynwyn. Llywelyn then turned around to rejoin his forces and was pursued by a lone lancer who struck him down. It was not until some time later that an English knight recognised the body as that of the prince. His head was then severed and delivered to London, where it was paraded through the streets. This version of events was written in the north of England some fifty years later and has suspicious similarities with details about the Battle of Stirling Bridge in Scotland. An alternative version of events written in the east of England by monks in contact with Llywelyn's exiled daughter Gwenllian ferch Llywelyn and niece Gwladys ferch Dafydd states that Llywelyn at the front of his army approached the combined forces of Edmund and Roger Mortimer, Hugo Le Strange and Grufudd ap Gwenwynwyn on the promise that he would receive their homage. This was a deception. His army was immediately engaged in fierce battle during which a significant section of it was routed causing Llywelyn and his bodyguards to become separated. At around dusk Llywelyn and a small group of his retainers (which included clergy) were ambushed and chased into a wood. Llywelyn was surrounded and struck down. As he lay dying he asked for a priest and gave away his identity. He was then murdered and his head hewn from his body.
The poet Gruffydd ab yr Ynad Coch wrote in an elegy on Llywelyn:
Do you not see the path of the wind and the rain?
Do you not see the oak trees in turmoil?
Cold my heart in a fearful breast
For the king, the oaken door of Aberffraw
There is an enigmatic reference in the Welsh annals Brut y Tywysogion, "…and then Llywelyn was betrayed in the belfry at Bangor by his own men". No further explanation is given.
With the loss of Llywelyn, Welsh morale and the will to resist diminished, Dafydd was Llywelyn's named successor. He carried on the struggle for several months, but in June 1282 was captured in the uplands above Garth Celyn at Bera Mountain, together with his family, brought before Edward, then taken to Shrewsbury where a special session of Parliament condemned him to death. He was dragged through the streets, hanged, drawn and quartered.
After the final defeat of 1283 Gwynedd was stripped of all royal insignia, relics and regalia. Edward took particular delight in appropriating the royal home of the Gwynedd dynasty. In August, 1284 he set up his court at Garth Celyn (Aber Garth Celyn now Abergwyngregyn, Gwynedd) With equal deliberateness he removed all the insignia of majesty from Gwynedd; Llywelyn's coronet was solemnly presented to the shrine of St. Edward at Westminster; the jewel or Coron Arthur was an even more prized treasure; the matrices of the seals of Llywelyn, of his wife, and his brother Dafydd were melted down to make a chalice; the most precious religious relic in Gwynedd, the fragment of the True Cross known as Cross of Neith, was paraded through London in May of 1285 in a solemn procession on foot led by the king, the queen, the archbishop of Canterbury and fourteen bishops, and the magnates of the realm. Edward was thereby appropriating the historical and religious regalia of the house of Gwynedd and placarding to the world the extinction of its dynasty and the annexation of the principality to his Crown.
Most of Llywelyn's relatives ended their lives in captivity — with the notable exceptions of his younger brother Rhodri who had long since sold his claim to the crown and endeavoured to keep a very low profile, and a distant cousin Madoc ap Llywelyn who led a future revolt and claimed the title Prince of Wales in 1294. Dafydd's two surviving sons were captured and incarcerated at Bristol Gaol where they eventually died many years later. Llywelyn's elder brother Owain Goch disappears from the record in 1282 and the presumption is that he was murdered. Llywelyn's daughter, Gwenllian, was sent to the convent of Sempringham in Lincolnshire, where she died in her fifties. Llywelyn's surviving brother Rhodri (who had been exiled from Wales since 1272) survived and held manors in Gloucestershire, Cheshire, Surrey and Powys and died around 1315. His grandson; Owain Lawgoch later claimed the title Prince of Wales. The male blood line of Cunedda was believed to have become extinct after his assassination in 1378 but may have survived in Welsh society through the family of Sir John Wynn, 1st Baronet of Gwydir (a descendant of Owain Gwynedd) up until the mid 18th century and may survive today.
Photographs © Wendy and Andrew McGregor. Click on any image for a larger view.