By Jennifer Paxton, Ph.D., The Catholic University of America
The Anglo-Saxon settlements in Celtic-speaking regions began in the 5th and 6th centuries and continued to the 12th. The unsystematic Welsh ruling and the rival rulers that kept fighting each other and allying with external enemies to defeat one another created a winning chance to conquer Wales. King William took that chance, but it was not as easy as it seemed.
When the Anglo-Saxon settlers moved to Celtic-speaking areas after the Roman Empire failed, they stopped at the Welsh borders. However, the Welsh and the English kept raiding each other, while sometimes Welsh rulers allied with the English to defeat another Welsh ruler. For example, King Oswald of Northumbria died in a battle with the English and their Mercian and Welsh allies. Later, in the eighth century, Mercia had to build a dike to keep the Welsh attacks away.
Gruffydd ap Llywelyn
The Mercian dike kept the Welsh and the English the same for centuries. In 1055, a powerful Welsh ruler named Gruffydd ap Llywelyn brought all the Wales under his rule by force. Gruffydd then struck an alliance with a disgruntled former English earl and helped him to raid the English border town of Hereford. It took the English royal forces several campaigns to subdue Gruffydd. King Edward’s right-hand man, Harold Godwinson, managed to drive him into the far northwest of Wales, where it is supposed, he was ultimately killed by one of his Welsh rivals in 1064.
Gruffydd’s death had far-reaching implications. Wales fell back apart to its smaller units and was exposed to new threats from new kings. William the Conqueror could never fully conquer disintegrated Wales since he had other places to care for. The waves of Anglo-Norman incursions into Wales continued until Wales finally got a real ruler.
This is a transcript from the video series The Celtic World. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Marches of Wales
The Welsh had an unstable border and a hybrid society of the Welsh and the Anglo-Norman at border areas, called the Marches of Wales. The Marches were a good place for some people to escape to and a potential source of rebellion. The English kings tried to keep these areas under control by sending their noblemen there until they finally decided to conquer Wales.
Conquests of King Henry II
In the mid-12th century, King Henry II had most of western France and a big part of Wales under control. Henry II did not want to conquer Ireland and preferred mending the existing problems, but in 1155, the pope, Adrian IV, issued the bull Laudabiliter, which gave the English king the authority to invade Ireland to reform the church. The bull had to wait a long time to be noticed.
At the time, Ireland had a better ruling system than Wales, although they were quite similar before. In the mid-12th century, Ireland had only four or five rulers at the same time, which made the political situation a lot clearer than in Wales. However, the opposing alliances were still common. Ireland had two major opposing alliances: the king of Ulster and the king of Leinster on one side, and the king of Connacht and the king of Breifne on the other.
Learn more about prehistoric Ireland and the Celts.
Diarmait Mac Murchada
When the king of Ulster was killed in 1166, the king of Leinster—Diarmait Mac Murchada—faced many threats. One of his big enemies was king of Breifne, Tigernan O’Rourke, and Diarmait was accused of kidnapping his wife—Derbforgaill. However, the kidnapping was staged. In other words, Derbforgail went with Diarmait willingly. Soon after this incident, Diarmait became tired of Derbforgaill and allowed her recapture.
Thus, when Diarmait’s ally died, Tigernan got his revenge by the help of Rory O’Connor, king of Connacht. Diarmait was sent to exile, but on his way, he met a papal representative in Lismore, who told him about the inactive Laudabiliter bull. Diarmait began searching for Henry II of England to use the bull and regain the throne of Leinster.
Henry II did not want to get involved personally but told Diarmait to see if any of Henry’s vassals were willing to help. Thus, Diarmait ended up in Wales, where he recruited Richard Fitz Gilbert de Clare, lord of Strigoil ‘Strongbow’. Diarmait offered Strongbow the opportunity to marry his daughter and become the next king of Leinster.
Daimait allied with more men: Robert FitzStephen, a Norman baron with close ties also to the Welsh aristocracy, and Robert’s half-brother Maurice FitzGerald. These men became the ancestors of the famous Fitzgerald family in Ireland. Apparently, they were also uncles of Gerald of Wales, who later wrote a history of the invasion.
Learn more about politics and literature in Wales.
Welsh Invading Ireland
Diarmait began the series of invasions to Ireland in 1170, and after two days, they conquered Waterford. Strongbow married Diarmait’s daughter, Aoife, in Waterford Cathedral. This wedding, recorded as a famous painting by Daniel Maclise in 1854, showed how the future of Ireland would be. The painting now hangs in the National Gallery in Dublin.
Thus, the Welsh and the English conquered parts of Ireland to create a new path for Ireland’s future.
Common Questions about the Welsh and the English
In 1155, the pope, Adrian IV, issued the bull Laudabiliter, which gave the English king the authority to invade Ireland to reform the church.
Gruffydd ap Llywelyn was a powerful Welsh ruler who brought all of Wales under his rule by force. Gruffydd struck an alliance with a disgruntled former English earl and helped him to raid the English border town of Hereford. It took the English royal forces several campaigns to subdue Gruffydd.
Ireland had two major opposing alliances: the king of Ulster and the king of Leinster on one side, and the king of Connacht and the king of Breifne on the other.