By Jennifer Paxton, Ph.D., Catholic University of America
The harsh mountainous geography of Wales made the country politically fragmented, although it was culturally unified. The high mountains made it difficult to maintain a central authority over all regions. So, the power was divided into several large centers of authority, which had shaky control over their people and could not form a stable ruling system due to continuous conflicts over succession. The political power would be different from ruler to ruler.
Generally speaking, there were three ruling areas in Wales throughout the Middle Ages. Several small kingdoms ruled the south of the country from Dyfed in the southwest to Gwent in the southeast. In the center of the country, the kingdom of Powys dominated the region. And northwestern Wales was governed by the most significant lordship of Gwynedd, who would go on to create an almost native kingdom over the entire country.
Learn more about Celtic languages in the ancient world.
Welsh-English Conflicts in the Middle Ages
The relationship between Wales and its powerful eastern neighbor is the most significant feature of Welsh geographical history.
Following the Roman collapse, Celtic speaking rulers remained in what today is Wales and established a stable reign. However, Wales and different English kingdoms engaged in a lot of cross-border raids, which were mainly brief.
The Norman Conquest of England in 1066 changed the situation, with Norman kings attacking Wales with aims of permanent settlement.
They did succeed in their raids, especially in the south. They established a colony in today’s Pembrokeshire that eventually provided some members of the group that conquered Ireland in the 12th century. But the entire country was not under the control of the Normans. In the late 11th century, Gruffudd ap Cynan, the powerful ruler of Gwynedd, killed the Norman Lord Robert of Rhuddlan and wiped out some of their early successes in north Wales. Another ruler who was driven out by the Welsh was the bishop of Bangor, Hervey le Breton, who was imposed by Normans.
The divided political authority of Wales made it more resistant to Normans, compared to England. For example, by defeating King Harold of England, the Normans achieved significant gains.
Difficult political situations in England always provided the Welsh with great opportunities to take advantage. But they couldn’t take full advantage of this situation because they were not unified and had to fight with each other as well as with England.
Despite the fragmented political authority, some Welsh rulers managed to establish their control over the entire country. One of the most famous rulers was from Gwynedd.
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A Powerful Welsh Ruler, Llywellyn the Great
His name was Llywellyn ap Iorweth, that is Llywellyn son of Iorwerth, also known as Llewellyn Mawr or Llywellyn the Great. He had received this nickname by spreading his rule over a major part of Wales and fighting with the English on an equal footing.
Llywellyn dealt with an issue that recurred in Welsh history. The succession did not have clear rules. Compared to the Scots, who followed the English and adopted primogeniture and stabilized their political system, the Welsh had failed to do so.
To establish himself as a ruler, he had to fight two of his uncles, who were the sons of a previous Gwynedd king. Although he was never safe from the challenges of his own family members, he managed to establish control over the Welsh native rulers. The peace treaty that he made with King John of England and his marriage with King John’s illegitimate daughter, Joan, are good indicators of his authority.
In Ireland and Wales, the rules of marriage were different from those in England. In Ireland and Wales, for children to have inheritance rights, the parents did not have to be married. The only condition was that the father would confirm the child was his. So, he did not have problems marrying the illegitimate daughter of the English King. Quite the contrary, it was a major success for him.
However, Llewellyn and King John failed to maintain a good relationship. The problem was a lack of unity among the Welsh rulers. Llywellyn was drawn into a dispute between his allies, the English noble family of de Braose, and King John. In 1211, King John raided Gwynedd with the support of other Welsh princes, who wanted to defeat Llywellyn and maintain their autonomy.
On the other hand, Llywellyn allied with John’s vassals, who had fallen out with King John, and managed to force John into a settlement. He maintained his rule over Gwynedd and Wales for the rest of his life, until he died in 1240.
Learn more about English invasions of Wales and Ireland.
Common Questions about Medieval Wales and Its Relations with England
Medieval Wales was politically fragmented, although it was culturally unified. The mountainous geography of the country made it difficult to form a central kingdom. Various small kingdoms were ruling different parts of the country.
Llywelyn the Great died in 1240 after his long reign over Gwynedd and Wales. He had defeated King John and forced him into a settlement.
Llywelyn the Great or Llewellyn Mawr was one of the few powerful Welsh rulers during the Middle Ages. He managed to maintain his rule over a major part of Wales and fight with the English on an equal footing.
Initially, Llywelyn the Great signed a peace treaty with King John and married his illegitimate daughter. But this relationship did not last, and they fell into a dispute. Finally, Llywelyn forced King John into a settlement.