Medieval Wales and Its Eventual Conquest by England


By Jennifer Paxton, Ph.D., Catholic University of America

Llywelyn ap Gruffydd was Llywelyn the Great’s grandson, and his father was the illegitimate son of Llywelyn the Great. He was also known as Llywelyn Ein Llyw Olaf, which means “Llywelyn the Last” and shows he was the last Prince of Wales.

Image of a ruined castle in Wales.
King Edward I built a series of castles in Wales to solidify his conquest. (Image: DeFacto/CC BY-SA 4.0/Public domain)

Llewelyn’s reign had several features in common with that of his grandfather. One of them was the fact that Wales took advantage of England’s political problems. There was a baronial revolt against King Henry III of England in the 1250s and 1260s, and Llywelyn formed an ally with Simon de Montfort, who was the king’s primary opponent.

The Conquest of Wales by England

Eventually, Wales came under conquest when Llwelyn and King Henry III’s son and successor, Edward I, clashed. The reason for this conflict was the feudal homage Llywelyn had to pay Edward I. Llywelyn married Simon de Montfort’s daughter, Eleanor, which further worsened Edward and Llywelyn’s relations. King Edward thought that the marriage was a power move and tried to stop it.

The two opponents continued their clashes throughout the 1270s, and King Edward took advantage of the hatred of Llwelyn’s younger brother, Dafydd, toward him. He wanted to assassinate his brother to create discontent in Gwynedd. He wanted to help Edward take over a major part of Wales and rule a small remaining part, himself. By 1277, Llywelyn had lost most of the Welsh territory to the English king.

The end of Llywelyn’s rule came with the help of his brother in 1282. Dafydd planned a rebellion against the English. Also, the Welsh lords, who were now under the control of the English, saw that the English king was harsh, and they were not willing to support him. Llywelyn decided to help Dafydd in a war that was obviously not well-planned. In December 1282, Llywelyn was killed in the battle, and for the next 15 years, his head was displayed in London.

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Wales under English Rule

The painting shows Llywelyn being killed during a battle.
Llywelyn was killed in a battle and his head was displayed in London for 15 years. (Image: National Library of Wales/Public domain)

When Llywellyn died, King Edward decided to take over the entire country of Wales, constructing a series of castles. Some of these castles are well-preserved and still standing today, like Rhuddlan Castle.

After Edward conquered Wales, he suppressed the whole country instantly. There were several rebellions against the English king. But none of them was significant until the uprising of Owain Glyndwr in 1400. His character is portrayed in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I. Although Shakespeare depicts Owain as an unreliable person obsessed with the supernatural, he was a decent person. He was a descendant of the native princes of Powys in central wales. He conspired with two English lords who had rebelled against the English king to divide Britain among the three of them.

In 1403, Owain’s allies lost the battle of Shrewsbury. But he continued to resist the English for six years, when he finally had to go into hiding. He was found in 1412 and allegedly died in 1416. But there is no evidence of how or when he died. That’s why legends were born saying that he, like King Arthur, would come again to take back the fortunes of the Welsh.

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The Welsh in English Popular Culture

Although Wales was ruled by the English, it didn’t develop as much as England. The English viewed the country as a distant and remote place, which is reflected in an English expression. It sounds like an ethnic insult against the Welsh. But in reality, it isn’t a slur.

Half figure of King Edward I facing left with short, curly hair and a hint of beard.
King Edward quickly suppressed Wales. (Image: Sedilia at Westminster Abbey / Public domain)

In the 18th century, people who were in debt, like bookmakers who could not pay off their debts, would go to prison. So, some of those at risk of imprisonment escaped to Wales because it was harder to find them there. This kind of escape to Wales was called “welshing on a bet.” In modern days, the meaning of this expression has changed to “refusing to pay debts of honor.” So, this expression does not intend to insult the Welsh. Instead, it shows that Wales was once a haven for those who were in danger.

As it was mentioned earlier, Shakespeare did not present a good picture of Owain. But he did portray the Welsh quite positively. In the play Henry V, the Welsh Captain Fluellen is one of the only honorable characters. Most of the characters are immoral or ambivalent at best. Plus, Henry calls himself a Welsh person (For I am Welsh, you know!) because he was born at Monmouth in Wales.

Another interesting point is that some of the English might be negatively inclined toward the Welsh as they might be toward the Irish and the Highland Scots. One reason could be the early conquest of Wales in the history of England. In the course of history, any possible fears of the English toward the Welsh have disappeared.

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Common Questions about Medieval Wales and its Eventual Conquest by England

Q: How did Llywelyn ap Gruffydd die?

Llywelyn ap Gruffydd died in a war with King Edward I of England. Llywelyn’s brother, Daffyd, initiated the war by staging a rebellion against the English.

Q: Did England invade Wales?

England invaded Wales several times and took over various parts of the country over time. Finally, King Edward I defeated Llywelyn ap Gruffydd and conquered the entire country.

Q: Who conquered Wales?

King Edward I conquered Wales after Llywelyn ap Gruffydd’s brother started an uprising against him. King Edward defeated Llywelyn ap Gruffydd and took over Wales.

Q: Who was Owain Glyndwr?

Owain Glyndwr conspired with two English lords who had rebelled against the English king to divide Britain among the three of them. His allies were defeated, but there is no evidence of his death. Legends say that he, like King Arthur, will come again to take back the fortunes of the Welsh.

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