It was 11 December 1282. Dusk was setting in on this winter's
evening, when a band of English soldiers in Powys stumbled across a
group of weary Welsh fighters who had become separated from their
main army. The two groups fought a deadly skirmish. Only afterward
did the English realise whom they had just killed - Llywelyn ap
Gruffudd, Prince of Wales and Lord of Snowdon, the last-ever ruler
of independent Wales.
His body may have been taken for burial at the abbey of Cwm Hir,
but the English carried off his severed head, to be displayed over
the gate to the Tower of London. An Anglesey poet, Gruffudd
ab yr Ynad Coch, wrote a furious lament: 'Why, O my God, does the
sea not cover the land, Why are we left to linger?'
In Wales Llywelyn ap Gruffudd is still remembered as Ein Llyw
Olaf, 'our last leader'. His death effectively ended the
independence of Wales - but what kind of country was this
Wales? Europe had not yet become a continent of nation states
as we know them today. It was still a patchwork of feudal
domains in which ruling dynasties fought bitterly amongst
themselves and against each other, lusting after power and land.
For poor peasants, life remained hard whoever became king.
Medieval Wales, including Anglesey (part of the northern kingdom
of Gwynedd), was no stranger to invasion. For 800 years after the
Romans left, external threats had determined the nature of Wales
and defined its borders. First came Irish raiders, from the west.
Then came Angles and Saxons, who had conquered the lands of the
Britons to the north and east. Then came the Vikings, seafarers and
settlers from Scandinavia, who gave the name Anglesey (Ongulls ey)
to Môn. In 1066 the Normans, of Viking-French descent,
conquered Anglo-Saxon England, and soon their mail-clad warlords
also came storming along the North Wales coast. In the 1080s they
raised a 'motte-and-bailey' castle (a wooden tower on a high
mound) at Aberlleiniog on Anglesey. This fascinating site, hidden
away in the woods, was excavated and restored for public access in
Against all odds, the rulers of Gwynedd managed to hold out
against invaders. They survived by switching sides, by arranging
political marriages, whether with Vikings or Normans, or by paying
homage to English kings when they had to. However conflict between
English and Welsh remained the 'default' position. By the high
Middle Ages, the rulers of Gwynedd were building their own castles
in the Norman style. They held court on Anglesey at Aberffraw,
Rhosyr and Llanfaes.
The most powerful Welsh ruler of the Middle Ages was Llywelyn I
ap Iorwerth, known as 'the Great' (1173-1240). He fought against
his uncles to secure the throne of Gwynedd and became an ally and
later an opponent of King John of England, whose daughter Joan
became his wife. Despite many setbacks he became overlord of most
After Llywelyn's death, northeast Wales fell into the hands of
the English King Henry III, while northwest Wales was divided
amongst his heirs. In 1255 Llywelyn ap Iorwerth's grandson,
Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, battled for supremacy within Gwynedd and went
on to recapture northeast Wales from the English. By the Treaty of
Montgomery in 1267, Henry III recognised Llywelyn II as Prince of
The peace was too fragile. The historic agreement unravelled
when Llywelyn ap Gruffudd quarrelled with Edward I, the new king on
the English throne. Within ten years he had again lost a swathe of
territory to the English. He wisely decided to bide his time, but
in 1282 his brother Dafydd, who had been granted lands in northeast
Wales, rashly attacked Hawarden Castle. Llywelyn was drawn into
this conflict, which led to his own death in the mud of
Edward I (1239-1307) was a tireless fighter against England's
neighbours. He was known as 'Longshanks' and 'Hammer of the Scots'.
In 1284 his conquest of Wales was recognised by the Statute of
Rhuddlan, which also made Anglesey a county. The economy of Wales
thrived, but tensions simmered between the invaders and the
population, with a rebellion led by Madog ap Llywelyn in
To impose his rule, Edward I built a chain of powerful castles
around the coast of North Wales - at Harlech, Caernarfon, Conwy and
finally Beaumaris, on Anglesey. The Welsh population of nearby
Llanfaes was evicted to a new township at Newborough, in the Rhosyr
district of southwest Anglesey.
Beaumaris Castle was the deadliest fortification of its day,
with the latest concentric defences. Its moat was linked to the sea
and its inner ward had six towers and two massive gatehouses. It
was designed by a Savoyard master of castle-building, James of St
George. Limestone was quarried at Penmon. Work began in April
1295, employing about 2,000 labourers, carpenters and masons.
The castle was never completely finished, but modern visitors to
Beaumaris still marvel at this awesome display of medieval military
English rule survived the great Welsh uprising of 1400-12, led
by Owain Glyndŵr. This might have led to the creation of a modern
Welsh nation, with its own parliament and the support of allies in
France and Scotland - but English power prevailed.
Still, history plays some unexpected tricks. In 1485 Henry Tudor
seized the English throne in battle. He was partly of Welsh origin
and descended from an Anglesey family. The rise of the Tudor
dynasty coincided with the passing of medieval Europe, with an end
to castles and knights - and the rise of the brave new world of
commerce and gunpowder.
-- by Philip Steele