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Anglo-Norman Conquest

© Cadw

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 2009.

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 of Wales. 

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 Wales.

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 mid-Wales.

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 1294-95.

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 might.

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