More on Poetry & History: The Middle Marches of Wales, the Welsh Bards & the Love Poems of Dafydd ap Gwilym.

The Conquest of ‘the Middle March’ & The Mortimers, 1240-1330:

Searching for the history behind the legend of the ‘Massacre of the Five Hundred Bards’ entails a more detailed understanding of the nature and events surrounding ‘royal Montgomery’ and what became known as ‘the Middle March’, including the lands held (often temporarily) by the Mortimer family in the thirteenth and early fourteenth century, especially at the time of ‘the Welsh rebellions’. Although the Mortimers were first settled at Wigmore in Herefordshire during the reign of William the Conqueror, it was not until the third quarter of the thirteenth century, when Roger Mortimer (III) emerged as one of the principal beneficiaries of the barons’ wars and the conquest of Wales, that they established themselves as a leading family in the Welsh March, and only in the fourteenth century, when Roger (IV) emerged as one of the foremost families in the national politics of the Kingdom of England. The ‘high tide’ of Mortimer power came in 1326, when Roger IV helped his lover, Queen Isabella, to depose and murder her husband, King Edward II. Two years later he became the first Earl of the March, and until November 1330, he and Isabella were the ‘de facto’ rulers of England. In that same month, the tide turned on the family’s fortunes as he was tried and executed for treason.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 0088.jpg
Montgomery & The Marcher Lordships in 1282.

Two developments at the start of the thirteenth century had a long-term impact on the Marcher lordships. The first was the loss of all the Crown’s lands in France during the reign of King John meant that the British Isles became the focus of royal attention. The second was the rise to power of a remarkably charismatic and effective prince of Gwynedd who extended his power across the whole of the Welsh lands. The central Welsh territory of Maelienydd (see the map above) had once been part of the kingdom of Powys but, after the collapse of Gruffudd ap Llywelyn’s ’empire’ when he was killed in 1063, it seems to have been ruled independently by local chieftains. It was an upland region with little scope for economic exploitation by its new lords. During the first decade of the thirteenth century, the descendants of Cadwallon had continued to pursue their claim to the lordship of Maelienydd, although in the courts rather than on the battlefield, with Hywel ap Cadwallon and his nephew Madog ap Maelgwyn filing for their claim to hold Maelienydd from Roger Mortimer to be heard in court. However, when the court decided against them, they were captured in 1212 and hanged at Bridgnorth on the king’s orders, together along with another relative. At the same time, Roger Mortimer (II) benefited from his service to King John, gaining the resources and wealth that enabled him to secure his control over Maelienydd by commissioning the building of an ‘extremely ambitious’ church at the spiritual heart of the area, Abbey Cwmhir. However, the Mortimer hold over Maelienydd again proved to be short-lived.

by Charles Hopkinson & Martin Speight (2011). Published by Logaston Press, Herefordshire.
The cover illustration shows Roger Mortimer (IV) greeting Isabella, wife of Edward II, in front of Hereford in 1326 with the younger Despenser being led off for execution by the gateway into the city after his and Edward II’s capture at Neath, from a British Library MS.

Changing circumstances in both England and Wales led to another swing of the pendulum. Although it did not have a direct impact on the issue of Maelienydd, the growing conflict between William de Braose and King John, which escalated into armed conflict and the downfall of the de Braose family, created the opportunity of Iorwerth of Gwynedd (who was in the process of extending his power over the whole of the Welsh territories) to exert his authority in the region. The Welsh took advantage of the death of Roger Mortimer in 1214 and the succession of his son Hugh. Llywelyn seized and demolished Cymaron Castle in 1215, effectively securing control over Maelienydd and thus ending Mortimer control for another twenty-five years. Having been an independent territory for over two hundred years, it was now under the protection of Gwynedd. Llywelyn’s conquest was formally acknowledged in 1218 by the new regency government of Henry III. With Llywelyn Fawr dominant across much of Wales, it was now the turn of Hugh Mortimer to resort to the courts to pursue his claims to Maelienydd. The courts must have ruled in favour of Hugh, as in 1220 Llywelyn wrote to the regency government refusing to surrender the district to the king as he had already done homage for them. A week later the sheriff of Shropshire was ordered to transfer Maelienydd back to Hugh Mortimer, but when Llywelyn replied that if Hugh attempted to regain his lordship by force, he would be met by force, the issue was dropped. Local disputes over towns such as Knighton and Norton continued and were only resolved when Ralph Mortimer married Gwladys Ddu, Llywelyn’s daughter, in a strategic alliance which was perhaps a tacit recognition of the weakness of the English Crown.

Although the 1230s saw continued fighting in Elfael and Radnor, Maelienydd remained firmly under Llywelyn’s control, as confirmed by two truces in 1234. Interestingly, they confirmed Llewelyn’s possession by conquest and not by right, leaving the door open for the Mortimers to regain control after Llywelyn’s death. When the ‘Great’ Welsh Prince died in April 1240, the king (Henry III) refused to recognise the rights of his only legitimate heir, Dafydd, to his father’s conquests. Llywelyn’s wife and Dafydd’s mother, Joan, was herself the illegitimate daughter of King John. Welsh custom also recognised the rights of the elder illegitimate son, Gruffudd. Soon after his accession, Dafydd agreed to legal arbitration of the disputed lands by the Treaty of Gloucester, but Henry appears to have pre-empted this by ordering the sheriff of Herefordshire to transfer possession of Maelienydd to Ralph Mortimer (II), giving rise to a failed military campaign by Dafydd. This encouraged the marcher lords to recover ‘their’ lost lands and during the following summer of 1241, Ralph recovered the lordship by force and agreed to a truce with the local Welsh lords. The native rulers of Gwerthrynion and Cwmwd Deuddwr acknowledged his control in 1241, soon followed by those of Maelienydd. By this relatively unrewarding conquest, Ralph had made clear his determination that the Mortimers were not to be left out of the border barons’ race to carve out for themselves territories and spheres of influence in Powys. Crucially, in the light of the events which were to follow twenty years later, the young Llewelyn ap Gruffudd sealed a charter in which he gave an assurance, for himself and his heirs in perpetuity, that he would surrender all claims upon Gwerthrynion and Maelienydd. With control again secure, in 1242 Ralph deputed his eleven-year-old son Roger to fortify the castles of Maelienydd at Cefnllys and Knucklas. The former replaced the demolished castle of Cymaron as the chief castle of Maelienydd.

Even though Maelienydd was the central lordship in Wales for the Mortimers, their control was to remain precarious with it reverting to Welsh rule on many occasions before the final collapse of the fight for Welsh independence in the last quarter of the thirteenth century. In 1246, when Llywelyn ap Gruffudd came to power in Gwynedd, Roger Mortimer (III) also succeeded his father. The bitter feud now acquired a family dimension, as the two men were first cousins, both being grandsons of Llywelyn ab Iorwerth. Llywelyn first needed to establish his control over Gwynedd, but as he did so he became aware of the oppressive rule of the English in other parts of Wales. This simmering discontent came to the boil in 1254 when Henry III gave all his lands in Wales to his son and heir, the Lord Edward, whose officers pursued a policy of raising the rents of the people. When it became clear that the officials had the full support and direction of the Lord Edward for their rack-renting, the people of Perfeddwlad in northeast Wales appealed to Llewelyn. In 1256, together with his brother Dafydd, Llywelyn answered their appeal, crossing the River Conwy with an army into the territory, before sweeping down to south Wales, seizing territories, including Gwerthrynion. Roger Mortimer raised an army in response, but there is no evidence of any engagements in the central Marches. Like his grandfather, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd was able to take advantage of the growing political crisis in England as the relationship between the king and the barons deteriorated once more. A truce was agreed, but within two years this had broken down. Meanwhile, although appointed to the Council of Fifteen in 1258, Roger (III) was sufficiently distrusted by Henry III to be omitted from the list of tenants-in-chief whom the king summoned to London in April 1260, and it was not until the following winter that he began to move into the royalist camp. His principal reason for doing so was probably because he realised that without the king’s support he was liable to lose much of what he and his ancestors had fought to seize from the Welsh over the previous century and a half.

In 1260, with Roger (III) absent from home, Llewelyn attacked the royal castle at Builth Wells which was in the charge of Mortimer, while other Welsh forces from Ceri and Cadewain attacked Knighton on the edge of Maelienydd. The fall of the castle at Builth prompted the Welsh lords of Elfael Uwch Mynydd, also held by Roger Mortimer, to switch their allegiance to Llywelyn. Despite these setbacks, Mortimer and the Marcher lords were instructed to agree another truce with Llywelyn, which they did, but again it only lasted two years. The Mortimer chronicle, almost certainly written at Wigmore abbey starts with the story of the Norman Conquest, but the text, as we now have it, was undoubtedly written at the turn of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. However, there is strong evidence to suggest that it is composed of at least three sections written at separate times over a period of about a century and a half, from about 1262 to c. 1413. In November 1262, the Welsh of Maelienydd seized Cefnllys castle at night, called upon the officials of Llywelyn for help, and destroyed it. Roger Mortimer quickly raised troops, but, soon after his arrival at Cefnllys, Llywelyn arrived with a large army forcing Mortimer to take refuge in the ruins of the castle. The Welsh troops were then free to rampage around the countryside, destroying castles until Mortimer was forced to accept safe passage back to Wigmore, thus ceding Maelienydd to Llewelyn. In occupying Maelienydd, Llywelyn, of course, had acted in direct contravention of the charter he had agreed twenty years earlier, adding to Roger’s fury. But although he gained some revenge when he led an army against Llywelyn near Abergavenny, he was unable to make inroads into his former territory. It may well be that it was the fall of Cefnllys and this loss of Maelienydd that prompted the writing of the first part of the Mortimer chronicle, which would explain the importance placed on the Mortimer claim to it.

The second part of the Mortimer chronicle begins with Roger II (d. 1214) and then tells the story of the family through to the early fifteenth century and the Glyndwr Rising. The physical layout of the chronicle, consisting of roundels with explanatory passages attached, made it easier to add pieces of information later. This second chronicle reflects the Mortimers’ changed circumstances and newfound priorities. Great importance, for example, is given to the Welsh ancestry which Gwladys Ddu, the daughter of Llywelyn Fawr, had brought to the Mortimers through marrying Ralph (II) and giving birth to Roger III. A great visual show was made of her ancestry in the manuscript, with a great floriated initial and a genealogy ascending through the great Welsh kings of the Dark Ages, some of them legendary, like King Arthur, and others mythical.

The aim of the chronicle was clearly to set out Mortimer claims of descent from Welsh royalty, confirmed in the text by references to stories of the descendants that were reminiscent of those of their British ancestors, especially the ‘Arthurian’ legends. For example, there is the story of Roger III’s ‘Round Table’ at Kenilworth in 1279, a form of pageantry that had never been seen before. It lasted three days and was attended by King Edward I, who personally knighted Roger’s three sons. It ended with Roger himself being declared the victor and bearing a golden lion in triumph to Warwick. This story tells us that the chronicle was designed to tell the Mortimer story in such a way as to turn them into fictional heroes of romance, fitting progenitors of so great a family. Thus the chronicle itself had a powerful propaganda value. The story of Roger providing an ‘extremely fast horse’ to aid the Lord Edward’s escape from Hereford castle in 1265 before the Battle of Evesham was also told in a romanticised style, serving the same purpose, as well as emphasising Mortimer loyalty to the Crown, contrasted with Llewelyn ap Gruffudd’s ‘treacherous’ support for de Montford.

Following the Battle of Lewes (1264), with the king under his control, Simon de Montfort and Henry III agreed to the Treaty of Pipton with Llywelyn in June 1265, granting him full recognition of his title as Prince of Wales and ceding him his conquests throughout Wales. However, after the Battle of Evesham in August of the same year, the treaty was rapidly repudiated, but the Marcher lords were unable to take effective action against Llywelyn, which was implicitly acknowledged by the Treaty of Montgomery of 1267 that broadly confirmed the terms agreed at Pipton. The new treaty, however, contained some ambiguous aspects, particularly in relation to Maelienydd, that were to provoke continuing conflict:

In the land of Maelienydd, the nobleman Roger Mortimer shall be allowed to erect or to build a castle as he wishes; let restitution of that castle and that land be made to Llywelyn if he claims a night therein and if it is adjudged to him.

In England, Henry III had died in November 1272, and when Edward returned from the crusade in 1274 to assume power as Edward I, relationships with Llywelyn began to deteriorate. Llywelyn had already stopped paying the crowns the amounts agreed at Montgomery, and refused to attend Edward’s coronation. The same year, following Llywelyn’s discovery that his brother Dafydd and Gruffudd ap Gwenwynwyn of Powys were conspiring to murder him, the two conspirators took refuge in England, where Edward I gave them asylum and a free hand to raid the borders. As Edward was determined to assert his authority, Llywelyn was summoned to do homage. Understandably, he refused until the fugitives were returned to his justice. The impasse continued, and five times Llewelyn refused the summons until the king finally decided on war to resolve the situation. Although some of his kingly predecessors had been powerful war leaders, the difference now was that Edward’s realm was entirely limited to the British Isles. When combined with a strong Welsh prince capable of uniting the whole of Wales, the conquest had finally become a necessity. Three armies were assembled to strike into the north, central and southern Wales, with Roger Montgomery as one of the commanders of the central army, aimed at Llywelyn’s newly built castle at Dolforwyn.

The marcher lords were at the forefront of Edward I’s first war against Llywelyn in 1277, whom he had recognised as overlord of the whole of princely Wales just five years earlier. Roger Mortimer III was one of the magnates who, with meeting with the King at Westminster in November 1276, had considered Llewelyn’s offer to do homage under certain conditions, among them that Roger would be one of the guarantors of his safety. Llywelyn’s offer was rejected, he was declared a rebel and war broke out almost at once. The Marcher lords were eager to turn the tables on the Welsh and Roger was appointed captain of the king’s army in Shropshire, Staffordshire and Herefordshire, with his base at the royal castle of Montgomery. He was responsible for the central sector of the Anglo-Welsh front and for the state and security of the roads to be used by the advancing English armies, restoring fortifications along the way and enlisting Welsh ‘friendlies’ by agreement with local Welsh lords. During the summer of 1277, March men from Maelienydd, Gwerthrynion and elsewhere were sent to reinforce the English army in north Wales. As commander of the ‘middle March’, Roger Mortimer (III) had been the first military leader to provide service during the conflict, resisting raids by Llewelyn along the upper Severn before the end of 1276. Roger’s forces, together with those of the Earl of Lincoln, advanced from Montgomery into central Wales, annexing the cantrefi of Ceri and Cadewain, and recovering the lordships of Builth and Gwerthrynion. Together, Mortimer and Lincoln were successful, as David Simpkin (2020) in clearing Llywelyn and his supporters out of the middle March, only strengthening Edward’s already strong trust in his friend. They laid siege to Dolforwyn Castle, which surrendered after ten days, due to the failure of its water supply. For his services, Mortimer was also granted a royal charter to hold weekly markets and an annual fair at Llanfair, which became the ‘New Town in Cedewain’, eclipsing the prince’s borough at Dolforwyn which was soon abandoned in what must have seemed to the Welsh to be like an early act of economic ethnic cleansing, since Newtown was largely populated by English immigrants.

Published in Hereford (2020). See the articles by Philip Hume, The Mortimers and Radnorshire (1), the Conquest of Maelienydd; David Simpkin, The Mortimer Retinue for War, 1277-1421 and Chris Given-Wilson, Chronicles of the Mortimer Family, c. 1250-1450.

The Welsh Wars of Independence & The ‘High Summer’ of the Mortimers, 1277 – 1283:

In 1277, Roger (III) took part in the blockade of Llywelyn’s mountain fortress of Eryri (Snowdonia) in Gwynedd. In July, when Edward I himself took the field, Llywelyn had been constricted to the mountainous north-west and in November he submitted conditionally to the king, who had no desire to prolong an expensive campaign into the winter. With such overwhelming force of arms, the English army swiftly regained the territories gained by Llewelyn, forcing him to accept the terms of the Treaty of Aberconwy in November 1277. The Treaty, humiliating for the north Welsh, meant that the English were again lords of most of Wales and, although allowing him to keep his title as ‘prince of Wales’, confined Llewelyn’s authority and mobility to the west of Conwy. This time, the Mortimers did gain final control of Maelienydd, a task that had taken them two hundred years to complete and during which time they had managed control in approximately only eighty of those years. Roger Mortimer was rewarded for his role in the campaign with the newly created Marcher lordships of Ceri and Cedewain to the north of Maelienydd. When added to the lordships of Radnor, Presteigne and Narberth that came with his marriage to Maud de Braose at the start of his career, the Mortimer domination of the March was almost complete. Roger III was even able to withdraw Wigmore from the jurisdiction of the sheriff of Herefordshire so that he could exercise the power of Marcher lord there too.

The years between the two Welsh wars, 1277-82, were the ‘high summer’ of Roger Mortimer’s career. For thirty-five years his fortunes had ebbed and flowed but all had now come right for him: he had regained his lands and had acquired new ones; he had held high offices, and as a result, his influence and status in the kingdom had increased immeasurably. When a military man of action was required, he was one of the king’s first choices. In 1279, he was granted the lands he had conquered in central Wales by the English Crown. His long experience of fighting and negotiating with the Welsh meant that his advice on Anglo-Welsh matters carried great weight in council, hawkish though it might be. Roger Mortimer III was the first of his family about whom a judgement of character can be made with any confidence. He was certainly successful, which in the secular society of the times called for an appetite for power, toughness unscrupulousness (including, on occasions, controlled thuggery) and an ability to recognise and use what opportunities came his way. He clearly possessed all these faculties in abundance. At least one chronicler recorded that his major character defect was avarice, shown especially in his rapacity for land. In the view of another contemporary, he was the most famous man and most powerful knight known through the ages. He was certainly capable of ruthlessly suppressing the rebellion, but there is no evidence that he conducted mass executions among his Welsh tenants, including those newly acquired.

The rebellion that broke out in Wales in March 1282 took the English Crown by surprise, but King Edward responded quickly and forcefully. He again appointed three commanders to form a front along the borders and, trusting Roger’s tried fidelity, circumspection and industry, gave him responsibility for the central section. Roger proceeded to garrison his castles at his own expense, and with money from the exchequer raised troops for the campaign and for the defence of Montgomery Castle. Roger crushed Welsh opposition in his section, but it was not eliminated, and after his death that October, it was reported that no revenue could be collected from his Welsh tenants because of the unsettled state of the country. His tenants were said to be in a fickle and haughty mood due to the absence of their lord. This may be an indication of the level of defiance which led to the legend of the massacre of the bards. In addition, of the eighteen members of the immediate Mortimer retinue, Simpkin calculates that the local men were amplified by the addition of several English knights and ‘outsiders’ placed under Mortimer’s command at short notice to strengthen the security of the region, perhaps only for the duration of the two campaigns. Perhaps the majority of his fighting men had no particular personal loyalty to him. Simpkin concludes that any retinue-level unity that might have been forthcoming in the aftermath of the campaign was undermined by the apparent pacification of Wales as well as the death of Sir Roger…

This means that it is difficult to make out the simplistic assertions about the early Mortimer retinue for war: a combination of evidence-based problems, sporadic campaigning, the death of the head of the family amid the wars, and the extraordinary nature of the Mortimers’ command on the middle March means that all that can be said is that it was something of a hybrid nature, relatively large for its time during the wars of 1277 and 1282-83 but with some degree of stability. Maelienydd had not been directly affected by the latter campaign, though the final events in the life of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd happened on its western edges. Hard-pressed in Gwynedd, Llywelyn marched south taking homage from the men of Rhaeadr and sojourning at Abbey Cwmhir. The following day, Llywelyn was travelling with a small bodyguard when he was ambushed, killed and beheaded. Therefore, any short-term war ‘atrocities’ against the local Welsh population (and/or its leadership) could only have been carried out in this campaign, in the course of the Edward’s army’s search for the Llywelyn’s fugitive brother Dafydd, David ap Gruffudd, in the spring and early summer of 1283 which ended with his capture in June.

Both of Roger III’s sons were in the field when Llywelyn ap Gruffydd broke out of his mountain strongholds in Gwynedd to campaign in central Wales. They followed the tendency of Roger (III) to serve gratuitously, without crown wages; or, when payments were made they were done so in large cash sums which did not give any precise of the size or composition of the retinue being covered. The circumstances of his presence in the area of Builth and his death there in December remains the subject of much speculation among historians. It has been claimed that the Welsh prince was the victim of English treachery, that the two Mortimer brothers decoyed him into a trap by feigning disloyalty to the king; there was also talk of actual disaffection among certain marcher lords. Whether or not he had been duped, Llywelyn had, no doubt, come from Gwynedd towards the March to see if he could profit from the disorder following the death of Roger (III), perhaps by opening up another front to ease the English army’s grip on north Wales. In the event, the Welsh were defeated to the west of the River Irfon, near Builth, and Llywelyn was killed. The accusation that the Mortimer brothers had enticed him into the area, with their mother Maud also involved in setting the trap, has never been proved, but it remains a strong possibility, especially since one chronicler related that he became separated, with only one retainer, from the mass of his army. David Stephenson (2017), however, has shown the extensive involvement also of Welshmen of the central Marches who had become disillusioned with Llywelyn’s rule of their territories.

It was early in 1283 that King Edward himself took to the offensive, and this may mark the beginning of the events on which Ossian’s poetic references to the treatment of The Welsh Bards were based, though the setting may also be an earlier one, perhaps the First War of Independence in 1277. Anticipating a summer campaign, Edward ordered reinforcements to muster at Montgomery Castle in May under Edmund Mortimer. The king had already written to his brother Roger (of Chirk), encouraging him to so conduct himself against the king’s Welsh enemies where his father was captain of the king’s garrisons that the king… may seem to recover to some extent in the son what he has lost in the father. However, on 25th April, the last centre of Welsh resistance, the castle of Bere, seven miles west of Dolgellau, had surrendered. The king’s army no longer faced an organised opposition and instead set about hunting down Dafydd ap Gruffudd, who had taken to the hills. Edmund was one of the barons summoned to Shrewsbury for the trial who condemned Dafydd to be hung, drawn and quartered. The war was over and Edward I had achieved the military subjugation of Wales, a project in which all his predecessors had failed.

Wales & The March after the Conquest, 1287-1327:

There were two further Welsh rebellions and campaigns; in 1287, against Rhys ap Maredudd, and in 1294-5, to put down the rising of Madoc ap Llewelyn, but there is little evidence of large-scale warfare or of acts of atrocity. The years between the war of 1282-3 and that of 1294-5 were formative ones for the next generation of Mortimers, who seem to almost to have acted as a complementary team in their attempts to fill their father’s boots. Due to his role in the demise of Llewelyn at Irfon Bridge, Roger Mortimer of Chirk was distrained to receive knighthood earlier than his elder brother Edmund, who did not join the royal household, doubtless because as the elder brother he would have needed to be present on the family estates on the Welsh March more constantly. But Edmund’s seniority was recognised in the military status of the brothers after they worked closely together in dealing with the rebellion of Rhys ap Maredudd. Roger was summoned to obey the Earl of Hereford as well as his sibling Edmund.

Whilst the king acknowledged that his writ did not run in the March, in the last resort he reserved his authority over the Lords Marcher as tenants-in-chief, especially in the case of disputed titles to lordships. In 1290, Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester and Lord of Glamorgan, and Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford and Lord of Brecon were at loggerheads, mainly over a disputed debt. In 1291 the two earls were summoned in their capacities as lords of the March and arraigned before the king and council at Abergavenny, and the following January before parliament at Westminster. Gilbert de Clare was found guilty of waging war after the king’s injunction and Humphrey de Bohun of defying the king by claiming that he was entitled to act in the March of Wales in a way he could not do in England. The two lords were sentenced to imprisonment and forfeiture of their marcher lordships during their lifetimes; but the king soon relented and commuted their sentences to fines, which they seem never to have paid. King Edward’s masterful management of this affair and the severe penalties meted out to two prominent marcher lords must have had a traumatic effect on their peers. What the lords had considered as being their prerogatives, the king and his council now considered to be privileges awarded at royal behest, and the extent to which the king could interfere constitutionally in the affairs of the March was to prove a running sore between strong and ambitious kings and the marchers. The cherished symbol of their status, the right to wage war, had been abolished by a royal proclamation. Edward I’s intervention of 1291-92 constituted a precedent and a turning point in the standing of the marcher lords, especially as he had demonstrated that he had even been prepared to humiliate the two lords. In the same year, 1292, he persuaded the marcher lords to pay a tax on their lands in Wales as a contribution towards a subsidy granted to him by parliament two years previously.

Nevertheless, the forty or so marcher lordships, comprising the other half of the country, were left intact and remained in existence until 1536. Throughout the fourteenth century, strong undercurrents of discontent needed only the emergence of a strong leader to unite Wales in rebellion. That leader ‘materialised’, almost by accident, at the very turn of the century in the shape of Owain Glyndwr. Exactly how the marcher lords acquired and were able to hold on to their special constitutional status in Wales has been the subject of continual debate. It is argued on the one hand that they simply acquired the regal powers of the Welsh princes they dispossessed. The basic units of Welsh territory and administration within the gwlad (the territory of a single prince) were the cantrefi consisting of two or more cymydau which can be loosely equated to the English Hundreds. By annexing a relatively small cantref or cymyd, with its llys or administrative court, an invading lord stepped into the shoes of the local Welsh prince or lord, just as if one Welsh prince had defeated another and annexed his territory. On the other hand, the lords’ powers were openly or tacitly granted by the king as rewards for carrying out their conquests on the Crown’s behalf. The March of Wales was not, however, a homogeneous region, subject to a uniform style of conquest and administration. It was through a diversity of circumstances that the lords of the March won the prerogatives which were later collected into a set of privileges recognised by thirteenth-century lawyers.

The position was further complicated by the fact that the marcher lords also held lands in England by normal feudal tenure; by the end of Edward’s reign in 1307, seven out of ten of them. A specific instance of the marchers’ autonomy related to castle-building; the earls of Hereford would have had, at least in theory, to obtain a licence to build a castle in Herefordshire, but in their marcher lordship of Brecon, they could have built one without reference to the Crown. The marcher lordships were to exist for more than another two centuries but their constitutional status would never again be as secure as it had been before the reign of Edward I. Furthermore, the conquest of Gwynedd and the de facto unification of England and Wales had rendered obsolete the justification for the very existence of the marcher lordships, namely the suppression of any threat to England. Although the marchers were conspicuously involved in the civil strife of Edward II’s reign, during the rest of the fourteenth century they were, by and large, left to their own devices at home.  A particular cause of Welsh resentment, however, was the status and privileges of the boroughs ‘planted’ in Wales, which often extended miles beyond the town’s actual boundaries. Newtown was a case in point, established by Roger Mortimer (III) in the 1270s, which, with its commercial advantages from which he would benefit, supplanted a nearby Welsh town. At White Castle, a township never developed at all, while at Grosmont the beginnings of a town are clear. Monmouth is a township that grew into a market town, while Oswestry grew into an important sub-regional centre in the middle March.

For two centuries, the priorities of the English Crown lay across the Channel and in England itself. Conquest of Wales would be too expensive and time-consuming when control through feudal overlordship gave the crown as much as it needed. While at times the Crown was content for the Marcher lords to acquire what they could, on their own they did not have the resources to sustain conquests, particularly in the mountainous areas, and were therefore always venerable to Welsh revival. For the Mortimers, as Philip Hume has put it, this was the cauldron that shaped their destiny. They were one of the few families that had ‘come over with the Conqueror’, participated in the initial Norman expeditions into Wales and survived into the fourteenth century, remaining politically and militarily active. They continued to grow in wealth, status and influence. Apart from being a personal, bitter and familial feud, also at stake were the regal-like powers and influence of a Marcher lord. It was noted by A. C. Reeves (1983) that for the Mortimers to have survived for over three centuries as Marcher Lords was a political and biological feat.

The Mortimer chronicler continued to make the case for the lands which the Mortimers claimed or held. An emphasis, for example, was placed upon the grant of Ceri and Cedewain to the Mortimers, and much was also made of the injustice whereby the lordship of Chirk was transferred to the Arundels following the death of Roger Mortimer of Chirk in the Tower in 1326. Roger Mortimer of Chirk, the younger brother of Edmund Mortimer I, was (according to the Lansdowne MS in the British Library), wickedly and unjustly detained in the king’s prison within the Tower of London for four years and a half, and died there. It was also important, given the prolonged minorities of the fourteenth century and the political instability following the catastrophe of 1330, for the Mortimer chronicle to emphasise the continuity of tenure enjoyed by the Mortimers. The career of Roger (IV) is narrated in considerable detail, showing him as the leader of the opposition to Hugh Despenser in 1321. The ‘revolution’ of 1326 is then covered briefly, following which Roger was made Earl of March in 1328 and held a great tournament at Ludlow and Wigmore. He spent a great deal of money on this, but Edward III did not repay him in the proper manner. However, his disgrace, execution and the forfeiture of the earldom in 1330 are completely omitted from the chronicle, which reports only that he was buried with honour at Shrewsbury.

The Wigmore Annal, a chronicle held in the John Rylands Library in Manchester, is a much less complex text, comprising eight folios of straightforward reporting covering the history of the abbey of Wigmore and the Mortimer family from the Conquest onwards. Particular attention is given to Anglo-Welsh affairs, from an unequivocally Anglo-Norman standpoint. The text refers to the grant of Ceri, Cedewain and Dolforwyn castle to Roger III in 1277, and the death of Llywelyn at Builth ‘at the hands’ Edmund (I) in 1282. The Wigmore Annal confirms that it was during the second half of the thirteenth century that the deeds and concerns of the Mortimers first induced those whom they patronised to set down the history of the family and its chief seat of power; but that it was still primarily in a local context, that of the Welsh March, that they were perceived as acting. Both these manuscripts and others dealt with by Chris Given-Wilson (2020), draw on the Fundamentorum Historia of the original chronicle, composed in 1262, but not copied into some of them until 1399-1401 when the second part was added. This should not be considered as a vehicle for the propagation of the Mortimers’ royal claims. As Griffin has pointed out, its use of Arthurian and other British legends illustrates the prophetic significance attached to such material, and may even have been designed to make a larger point, that a Mortimer might one day re-assemble the Empire of Britain, and thus prove himself an Arthur or Cadwalader returned to unite the kingdom. Appropriation of legendary ancestors was far from uncommon, of course. But of the great families of medieval Britain, only the Beauchamp earls of Warwick can rival the Mortimers in either the quantity or quality of the surviving propaganda written on their behalf. The Fundamentorum Historia is also a text which has affinities with and is clearly influenced by many different kinds of literary production. Parts of it are closer to being closer to the style of classical romance than to that of history, perhaps even closer to the Welsh bardic traditions.

The Greatest Bard of all? – Dafydd ap Gwilym:

Welsh classical poetry started with the love poems of Dafydd ap Gwilym in the middle years of the fourteenth century. It is usual to see the influence of the Provencal troubadours (however indirectly) as the originating impulse behind Welsh love poetry. As I wrote in my previous article, this started in the middle of the twelfth century with the work of Gwalchmai, Hywel ab Owain and Cynddelw. The troubadours in the South of France in the late eleventh and early twelfth century, though Latin love lyrics have been found, albeit scantily, pre-dating those of the troubadours. Conran has suggested that love songs on troubadour lines were sung in Welsh not merely as soon, but before, they were sung in the Parisian French of the trouvéres, who were a product of the last third of the twelfth century. Certainly, by the mid-fourteenth century, Dafydd ap Gwilym was happy to take hints from the literature of the continental languages. There were two main sources of Welsh love poetry, both of them indigenous, however, and arising out of the specialised role of the bard in Celtic society. The first was tied up with his relocations with the womenfolk of the tribal chieftain or king. A house-poet, such as Cynddelw was in his youth, would be required to sing songs to the lady of the house in her chamber. As a poet, he had sometimes to eulogise the noble ladies of the court, and to write elegies for them when they died. A separate technique was devised for this purpose, with its own vocabulary and conventions. Among the latter is the idea that the poet was in love with the women he praised. This is certainly very like one explanation of the Amor Purus of Provence.

The second source of Welsh love poetry was important due to its future development. This was the ‘Boasting Poem’, first found in Gwalchmau and Hywel ab Owain, where the poet praises himself, says what a fine warrior he is, how pretty the scenery is all around him and how loyal he is to his king. Naturally, women played an important part in this. Gwalchmai tells us of all the girls who have fallen in love with him. Critics of Dafydd ap Gwilym’s poetry have tended to compartmentalise it, however, pigeon-holing his poems into ‘nature’, ‘comic adventures’, ‘high-minded’ poems to Dyddgu and many baser ‘invitations’ to Morfudd, etc. Conran claims that this tendency ignores the salient fact about most of them, which is that they form one of the most artfully constructed self-portraits in the history of poetry. The girls who mock him at Llanbadarn are as much part of his self-portraiture as his agonised reflections on them. One thing he does not reveal very often is his tenderness. It was the self-portrait that fascinated, enchanted and exasperated Dafydd’s contemporaries. Gruffydd Gryg remarked on the glibness with which Dafydd threatened to die for any girl he sang to, adding that it was a wonder the poor man hadn’t died already, twenty times over.

Dafydd was one of the greatest of the Welsh poets and one of the great poets of Europe. He was born at Bro Gynin near Aberystwyth, at some time between 1320 and 1340 and died c. 1370-80. He was buried by the Cistercian monks in the graveyard of Strata Florida abbey in Ystrad fflur (Valley of the Flowers) near Tregaron in Cardiganshire (Ceredigion). In his Preface to Nigel Heseltine’s translations, Frank O’Connor, who had originally published them through the Cuala Press in Dublin in 1944, claimed that the oddities of Celtic metrics make a literal translation from Welsh and Irish impossible. As a poet himself, Heseltine translated Dafydd ap Gwilym into a loose, ‘poetic’ prose form which helps to explain his themes rather than mimicking his Welsh forms in English. O’Connor claims that, unlike his bardic predecessors, Dafydd revealed himself less as a Welsh courtly bard and more as a fourteenth-century European troubadour. He shows us the late medieval world in all the bright colours of a contemporary manuscript, like the one shown above: the abbeys, the convents, the preaching friars, the inns. O’Connor continues:

The crack is there, for we see the friars at work, eliminating the humanists who will form the next synthesis, but the medieval synthesis is still intact for when the joke is over Dafydd will recommend himself to the ‘Holy mother of all happiness robed in purple who lives between Mynyw and the sea.’ Poetry is still one of the public arts.

Morfudd, who is anything from a married woman to a nun, lives wherever the poet happens to be performing at a particular moment. His best poems are little ‘turns’ and have the formal perfection of something that has to be performed. The Welsh element of his work is strongest when, in the middle of a joke, he suddenly loses himself in a storm of images and when he throws upon a conceit and suddenly proceeds to emotionalise it until…

like a sunlit landscape behind a cloud of rain, it becomes full of mystery. That strange iridescent Celtic quality is best seen in poems like the exquisite one on his own burial where the conceit dies away into a sob or in that magnificent poem “Morfudd’s Pilgrimage” where it mounts into a tremendous invocation to the waters of Wales and then is hushed in the beauty… (of Morfudd).

Cover of Nigel Heseltine’s translation of Dafydd’s poetry (1968) pamphlet, The Piers Press, Banbury, Oxon.

The poetry of Dafydd ap Gwilym marks a clean break with the patriotic poetry of the Gogynfeirdd, emblematic as that was of the national resurgence of the Welsh under the leadership of the House of Gwynedd in the thirteenth century. Now, suddenly, Wales had a man with a keen, appreciatively eye for every aspect of nature. He sang of stars and sunshine, trees and birds, summer and winter, with the same zest as he narrated his adventures with girls. Dafydd was pre-emptively the first and best master of the cywydd, the metrical composition in general not running to more than sixty or seventy lines, whose unit is a rhymed couplet each of whose lines consists of seven syllables, one line ending with a feminine or unstressed, the other with a masculine or stressed syllable, and each line normally employing the rhythmic devices of the cynghanedd. Though the awdl (ode) would continue in use, the new metre, sinewy, masculine and handsomely controlled, would dominate the formal compositions of Welsh poets for the next three hundred years and would engage the skills of many fine poets into the eighteenth century. It was natural enough that the landed nobility who came to the fore in Welsh society after the destruction of the princes and the sequestration of their territories would look for different qualities in poets no longer resident at courts but itinerant between those houses where they might seek hospitality and reward in return for entertainment. Even so, poetry remained a social art, not much concerned with the inner wrestling of a poets’ soul, but instead looking outward to a known audience and its declared requirements. Since the composition and recitation of poetry in the homes of the nobility became a business, a livelihood, a craft, as well as an art, it was only right that the late medieval bard should perfect himself in it and receive instruction from his betters both as to the form and content of the poetry. He learned history as well as ‘ancient story’, heraldry and genealogy. In addition, he was trained in metrics and grammar, sometimes through written works, but more often through oral instruction. These were carefully trained bards whose works bear witness to their mastery of the poetic craft, and more popular entertainers who addressed themselves to humbler and less sophisticated hearers. The ‘higher’ poets, many of them members of the upper class they composed for, were jealous of their status and met periodically to debate the regulation of their order and the practice of their craft. Their poetry remains of profound interest: not simply because high culture is rather rare, but also because it exemplifies what is possibly the lowest limit of natural endowment that high civilization can have, and yet come to flower.

The first thing that we can note about this poetry is that it does not fit any of the earlier literary categories. It is neither tribal nor feudal in origin; it is not narrative, dramatic or argumentative. It may contain elements of all three, but none of them is essential and all are likely to be absent in any given poem. The Welsh lived in a poverty-stricken country, having no capital city and only one town – Oswestry – that had any kind of means to support them. The homes of the noble families, the uchelwyr or ‘high men’, together with a few Cistercian Abbeys, like Strata Florida or Valle Crucis near Llangollen, which were Welsh in sympathy, were the only possible basis for a civilised existence. The hospitality that the poets continually praised was not a polite diversion from the real business of living: it was a brute necessity if Wales was to survive as a cultural entity for all. The main function of the poet remained the praise of his lord, to which he dedicated his art and his life. Besides the lord himself as the master of his home, the poet was also concerned with the house, where culture and gracious living could be found and hospitality dispensed; the feast, the secular ‘sacrament’ for the whole community; the lord’s lineage, the main link between him and his people, the werin; the journey from one house to another, the continual circulation of poets and minstrels across the country, a peculiarly Celtic institution, the cylch or gorsedd of bards, revived by Iolo Morgannwg and others in the eighteenth century together with the National Eisteddfod.

Corresponding to these images in Dafydd ap Gwilym’s poetry, particularly in his love poetry, are the ‘anti-images’. Opposing the lord was the outlaw, the thief, the outcast; opposed to the house was the glade in the birchwoods, or more explicitly, the shed where the poet hopes to tryst with his love; instead of hospitality and feasting in the great house there were the rituals of the birds and the love-feasts; in place of the lord’s lineage, the roots going down into the rich soil. And then there was Dafydd ap Gwilym’s freedom as a lover like the wantonness of the wind that bloweth where it listeth, and instead of the bardic circuits was the lover’s exile from his beloved, and his sending a llatai or love-messenger, usually a bird or animal, to plead his case from afar. This poetic device was not unknown to earlier poets, but Dafydd ap Gwilym made it very much his own by right of poetic conquest. He established it as a cywydd-kind that outlived the poets of the nobility. The llatai-cywydd is normally much less concerned with the lady in the case, or the poet’s devotion than with the creature entrusted with the delivery of his message. Practically anything natural could be a llatai – bird, fish, sun, wind or wave. What resulted was a ‘nature poem’ set in the context of a not very personal love poem. It allowed the poet to describe by analogy (dyfalu) a closely observed creature, as in The Seagull, or a natural phenomenon, as in The Wind. It challenged him to a set-piece; it demanded that he show off his poetic skills. The results, as Gwyn Jones attested, are ‘at their best dazzlingly fine’. Yet it is his Satire, as well as his love-themes, which impress most because these poems are rich in anti-images: the town tavern, where Dafydd ap Gwilym had such a series of unfortunate experiences, represents these best:

I came to a choice town with my handsome young servant: all seemed clean and lively and a likely place for a good supper which I enjoy like any other Welshman. I took a room in the common inn… not a bad lodging… and called for wine.

Then what should I see but a pretty young slender girl in the house … aha my pretty one! … such a bonny appearance, like the rising sun even, drew my attention.

“I’ll buy her a feast,” I thought, “And some wine will give us both courage;” It’s a good game for young people inviting a girl, however shy, to sit down beside you on the bench.

My luck was good, the whispered invitation put away her shyness and we sat down to a feast, and if it had been a wedding feast, they could scarcely have done us more honour. And now I went more boldly with my whispering; … whatever was said though, no one heard a word.

Love was not idle and it was arranged that I should come to the pretty creature when the company were all in bed. When I considered, (what an idiot I was!) that all were asleep except the girl and me, I went with my expert cleverness to find the girl’s bed. (She had dark hair, dark eyes and black were the brows she’d on her). But then the trouble started!

I came upon a damned obstruction in the shape of three Englishmen in one stinking bed, pedlars with their three packs lying around. … Hicken and Shockin or Shack or some such names. And then one of the scummy-mouthed louts started up in a monstrous rage and muttered to the other two,

“There’s a Welshman creeping about in the dark on some trickery or other: he’ll rob us if we let him, watch out for yourselves!”

It’s easy to be clumsy when you’re in danger and I was not exactly nimble; as soon as I made a sound I brought down a fine lot of trouble on myself and hurt my leg and struck my shin against the edge of a stool, (O the ostler that left that in the way!) The stool made a loud noise when my leg hit it. In my wretched haste, I struck this and that and could find no clear course among the obstacles. … I crashed my forehead against a table, down it fell and everything on it, down fell the trestles and all the other furniture, and then there was a cauldron that crashed down like a loud sounding gong. The noise that I made… could be heard through the whole house; at the clang of the cauldron they set up a shout that there was some rogue here and all the dogs began to bark after me. The ostler roused the whole household… what a miserable tale… and they scowled around me in a circle searching and seeking for me while I, the poet, haggard now and wild, kept silent in the dark.

In hiding as I was, and a very frightened man. I prayed then with a bold prayer, and by the great charity and grace of Jesus I was delivered from my unlucky scrape and I got myself back from my unlucky scrape… to my poor old bed. By the goodness of the Saints, I escaped and may the Lord most High forgive me!

(‘Trouble at a Tavern’, transl. Nigel Heseltine/ Anthony Conran)

Trouble at a Tavern, at first sight, looks like a straightforward medieval rough-and-tumble in the fabliau tradition. Few people will fail to be amused by the story of a conceited young man about town making a date with a girl at an inn, and failing to keep it because he bumps into furniture on the way to her room and wakes the whole house. It is a glorious farce, but if you read it merely as a romp you are in danger of ignoring the poet’s background. Dafydd came from a family known to have befriended the Anglo-Norman cause. The towns in Wales, like nearby Newtown, founded by the Mortimer family, were largely Anglo-Norman preserves in the fourteenth century so that Dafydd’s playing at being a fine young noble at a tavern in a town was, therefore, an Anglo-Norman kind of behaviour; and his irony is self-directed for playing the Englishman, right from the start. This explains his use of the term ‘may Welshmen love me!’ as a sort of swearword when he knocks his shin on the (English) ostler’s stool. And at the very peak of his misadventure, with all hell let loose around him, he stumbles on the three Englishmen in one ‘foul bed’. It is surely a judgement on him that the first thing they splutter is ‘it’s a Welshman!’ and therefore a thief after their belongings. Returning to his henwal, literally his ‘old lair’ by the wall, content (at least for one night) to be poor and Welsh, because that, at least, was safe.

Earlier in this article, we identified the town tavern as an ‘anti-image’, contrasting with the central ‘image’ of the house of a Welsh nobleman: the phrase ‘without treasure’ refers mainly to the girl Dafydd has tried to seduce; but at a Welsh house, Dafydd would have had his ‘treasure’, or payment, as a bard. The unheroic self-mockery of this poem would have been unthinkable in the poetry of the Cynfeirdd or Gogynfeirdd. No lover in any language, and certainly no poet, has confessed to missing the mark more often than Dafydd ap Gwilym. Uncooperative husbands, quick-triggered alarms, crones and walls, strong locks, floods and fogs and bogs and dogs are for ever interposing themselves between him and golden-haired Morfudd, black-browed Dyddgu, or Gwen the infinitely fair. But he was a great trier, even during Sunday Matins in Llanbadarn Church. For half a century after Dafydd’s poems were written, when it came to writing a love poem, poet after poet tried to follow Dafydd’s craft, with varying degrees of success. Their work was often confused with that of Dafydd in the manuscripts and was only when it was weeded out by Thomas Parry’s mid-twentieth-century edition of his works, that it became possible to properly evaluate his uniqueness.

Literary Sources:

Anthony Conran (1967), The Penguin Book of Welsh Verse. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Gwyn Jones (1977), The Oxford Book of Welsh Verse in English. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nigel Heseltine (1968), Twenty-Five Poems: Dafydd ap Gwilym (see the insert above).

One thought on “More on Poetry & History: The Middle Marches of Wales, the Welsh Bards & the Love Poems of Dafydd ap Gwilym.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: