ap Gruffydd couldn’t have known it during his tumultuous life, but he would
become known to posterity as Llewellyn the Last. He was the last native born
Welshman recognised as the sovereign Prince of Wales, before Wales was finally
conquered by Edward the 1st in 1282.
Now the title is little more than an honorific bestowed upon the eldest son of
the King or Queen of England, a final insult dreamt up by King Edward to make
certain that Wales knew its place in the new order. But in Llewellyn’s day, it
was not something that came by birth right, but something he took by force of
arms, strategic alliances, and breath-taking diplomacy.
Llewellyn came from good stock to claim the title. He was the grandson of
Llewellyn ap Lorweth – Llewellyn the Great - who had ruled Wales successfully
for nearly 40 years before his death in 1240, and had been one of the many lords
responsible for getting King John to sign the Magna Carta. But Llewellyn the
Last was no primping heir apparent. While his farther, Gruffydd, was indeed the
oldest son of Llewellyn senior, he was an illegitimate child born to the
Prince’s mistress. This wouldn’t have been a problem a few years earlier - in
Medieval Wales sons were sons, whether born in wedlock or not - but Llewellyn
the Great had dedicated the last years of his life to ensuring that only his
legitimate son, Dafydd, would follow him as ruler of Gwynedd, even amending
Welsh law to make sure this happened.
Whether this change of heart came about due to pressure from his wife (who, we
may assume, probably had views) or from his religious faith is unknown, but it
worth noting that he petitioned the Pope to have Dafydd’s succession confirmed,
receiving an unequivocal yes. The Pope even made reference to the “detestable
custom” of allowing the son of a handmaiden to inherit on equal terms with the
legitimate son from with marriage. Interestingly, the Pope does not appear to
have an issue with the act of having sons with handmaidens while married to
someone else, he just didn’t like it when they inherited.
Either way, Llewellyn the Last began life as the second son of a disinherited
father, and a minor noble at best. On the death of his grandfather, his uncle
Dafydd took the title of ruler of Gwynedd, and promptly had Llewellyn’s father
and elder brother Owain arrested, eventually transferring them to the custody of
King Henry III of England. Notably, while Llewellyn the Great had had the title
of Prince of Wales, King Henry only recognised Dafydd as ruler of Gwynedd. The
title Prince of Wales thus disappeared at this stage.
A few years later, Llewellyn’s father died attempting to escape from the tower
of London, and Dafydd, perhaps with a pang of conscience about his brother’s
death, perhaps frustrated that the King wouldn’t give him his due title,
declared war on Henry. In the bloody fighting that followed, Llewellyn supported
his uncle against the forces of England, and was thus in a commanding position
to take control when his uncle Dafydd died without issue in 1246.
The following year, Llewellyn and Owain, now free and returned to Wales, were
forced to settle terms with King Henry. It was not a satisfactory arrangement.
The realm of Gwynedd was split in two, with the King taking the Eastern half,
and the two brothers splitting the Western half between them. Shortly
thereafter, their younger brother Dafydd came of age and paid homage to King
Henry. Henry generously offered Dafydd some land in Gwynedd. Not from the King’s
half of course, but from the already severely shrunk holdings of his two older
brothers. Llewellyn was not impressed, and took up arms against both Owain and
Dafydd, eventually capturing both of them and claiming all of the family’s
remaining lands for himself.
From that point on, Llewellyn looked to expand his borders. The English
controlled area of Gwynedd had been put under the control of Prince Edward,
Henry’s eldest son and the future Edward the 1st. But his officers were harsh,
and the people resented the rule of England. Llewellyn was invited to reclaim
his ancestral lands, which he managed in short order. An English army was duly
sent to protest this incursion, but were soundly defeated by Llewellyn’s forces.
Llewellyn now took unto himself the title of Prince of Wales, although this was
(unsurprisingly) not immediately recognised by the Crown.
Events elsewhere, particularly the defeat and capture of the King by the rebel
baron Simon de Montfort in 1264, gave Llewellyn the opportunity to consolidate
He agreed terms with de Montfort that gave him considerable holdings, and
although these were nullified on de Montfort’s death and the King’s restitution
in 1265, several key military victories and the support of the papal legate put
Llewellyn in such a commanding position that King Henry ultimately recognised
Llewellyn as Prince of Wales in 1267 – in exchange for homage and a hefty annual
fee, of course.
However, Llewellyn had been making enemies as he went. The Lords of South Wales
resented his territorial ambition; some underhanded deals had left other Lords
without the lands that Llewellyn had promised them. Even members of Llewellyn’s
family were aligned against him.
With the death of King Henry in 1272, rule passed to Edward the 1st, whom
Llewellyn had dispossessed of East Gwynedd many years before. That the two men
never got on is an understatement. The power shift strengthened the hands of
Llewellyn’s rivals in the south, making it difficult for Llewellyn to make his
annual payments to the crown. Resenting having his borders encroached, he ceased
attempting to make them.
Shortly after, Llewellyn’s younger brother Dafydd was implicated in an attempt
to assassinate him. He was discovered in time, but he and his co-conspirators
fled to England, where they were maintained by the King, and continued to harass
Llewellyn’s borders. When Edward 1 came to Chester to seek homage from
Llewellyn, he flat out refused to go. By 1276 Edward had declared Llewellyn a
rebel, and raised an army to m
against him. In a final betrayal, Llewellyn’s brother Dafydd, along with the men
with whom he’d plotted Llewellyn’s murder, gave their support to the King.
Against the force Edward had mustered, and struggling to feed his own army
thanks to Edward’s cunning early capture of key farmland and confiscation of the
harvest on Anglesey, Llewellyn was forced to seek terms. The humiliating treaty
stripped Llewellyn of almost all of his land, leaving him only the Western half
of Gwynedd, and forced him to acknowledge King Edward as his sovereign.
It looked like Llewellyn’s fighting days were over, but much of Wales suffered
under the English Yolk and the demands of the Royal Officers. The country was
ripe for rebellion, and, in a final twist, it was Llewellyn’s ne’er-do-well
younger brother Dafydd who instigated it. On Palm Sunday, he attacked the
English at Hawarden Castle. The revolt spread like wildfire, and several other
castles were quickly captured.
Llewellyn now had a choice: support the King he despised, or the brother who had
betrayed him. The Archbishop of Canterbury quickly tried to mediate between
Llewellyn, who still held the title of Prince of Wales, offering him substantial
lands in England if he would but surrender Wales to the King.
At the same time, personal tragedy struck. Llewellyn’s beloved wife Eleanor died
that June while giving birth to their first, and only, child. And so, it must
have been with a heavy heart that he sent an emotional reply to the Archbishop,
refusing to abandon the people his ancestors had protected since “the days of
Kamber son of Brutus”. For what was to be the final campaign of his life, he
massed his troops, and rode out in support of his brother.
While Dafydd held the line in Gwynedd, Llewellyn took his force south to try and
open a second front against Edward. It was while trying to rally support from
the Lords or the Welsh Marches that Llewellyn was betrayed, and murdered.
Invited to receive homage from another lord, he left his army along with a small
group of retainers, including clergy, and was himself wearing only a simple
tunic for this mission of peace. But upon approaching the lord, he heard the
sound of battle as his army was ambushed behind him. Hastening to re-join his
forces, he was pursued by cavalry who, thinking they were chasing a simple foot
soldier, surrounded Llewellyn and his small force, and hacked them to pieces.
When Llewellyn lay dying, he asked for a priest, and it was only when he spoke
to one that his identity was realised. As befitted a traitor to the crown, his
head was hewn from his shoulders, shown to the troops, and eventually hang above
the gates of the Tower of London, the place where his father had died, for 15
years as a warning to others.
The annex of this story is short. With the death of their leader, and in the
face of overwhelming odds, the Welsh lost heart. Dafydd struggled on for a few
short months, before he too was captured and executed. Gwynedd, Llewellyn’s
ancestral home, was stripped of all royal insignia, relics and regalia, and the
seals of Llewellyn’s family melted down and made into a chalice. Edward’s
conquest of Wales was complete.
But of course, as every Welshman knows, Llewellyn the Last wasn’t the true last
Prince of Wales – that title belongs another. But that is another tale.
Do you not see the path of the wind and the rain?
Do you not see the oak trees in turmoil?
Cold my heart in a fearful breast
For the king, the oaken door of Aberffraw
Arms of Llewellyn