The Normans in North Wales

A talk by Morgan Burgess

Morgan Burgess

A packed roomful of members and friends of the History of Deganwy Group had the pleasure of hearing medieval Wales brought to life on January 18th 2018 by Morgan Burgess, teacher of history at Rydal Penrhos in Colwyn Bay.

She began by describing the background to the Norman dynasty established following William I’s conquest of England in 1066. Wales was not a cohesive whole at this time, but was characterised by infighting, particularly between the kingdoms of Gwynedd, Deheubarth and Powys. This was partly because of the Welsh laws of succession, which meant that land was divided between the surviving sons and brothers of the deceased, rather than passing to a single heir: inheritance was often contested, leading to conflict and fragmentation. Wales therefore was unable to present a united resistance to foreign invasions.

Anglo Norman kings

The Welsh landscape however presented difficulties to the Normans, so they invaded localities rather than the whole country. William the Conqueror initially planned to continue the English custom whereby the Welsh princes paid homage to the English king, whilst retaining overlordship of their lands. However, partly because of the alliances formed between the English resistance to the Normans and the Welsh, the Marcher lordships were created, including the Earldoms of Chester, Shrewsbury and Hereford. These semi-independent territories acted as a buffer between Wales and England, and many motte and bailey castles sprang up, used for defence, supplies and as a base for further incursions. These were the first castles to be built in Britain: in fact, the Bayeux tapestry shows that William the Conqueror brought a flat-pack castle with him when he invaded!

Wales post-Roman

Generally, North Wales was not an attractive proposition for the King, with little to gain for the potential expense. However, following the betrayal of the Prince of Gwynedd, Gruffydd ap Cynan, and his imprisonment in Chester, a power vacuum ensued. This enabled the progress of the Earl of Chester, Hugh d’Avranches (also known as Hugh Lupus and Hugh the Fat) in 1071, and together with Robert of Rhuddlan, his cousin and right-hand man, he made significant gains in North Wales. Motte and bailey castles were built at Rhuddlan, Abergwyngregyn, Bangor, Caernarvon and Aberlleiniog. Robert was also responsible for a connection very local to Deganwy: the building of the castle on the Vardre in 1080. Robert of Rhuddlan commanded Hugh d’Avranches’s forces, and was good at manipulating local disputes; however he was to meet his end near the Great Orme during a joint Viking and Welsh attack.

Following the death of William the Conqueror in 1087, his son William II (William Rufus) saw Wales as a side-issue – at least until a revolt in 1096, led by Gruffydd ap Cynan, who had escaped to Ireland from prison. Various assaults by William II were unsuccessful, due to the unfamiliar landscape combined with Welsh military techniques such as ambush. Meanwhile Hugh d’Avranches, together with the Earl of Shrewsbury, succeeded in pushing Gruffydd onto Anglesey and from there back to Ireland. However this Norman victory was short-lived: just a few days later, the King of Norway, Magnus Barefoot – also known as Magnus Barelegs – arrived with a massive fleet. It is debatable whether this was by design or chance – but in any event, the Norwegian King won a decisive victory at the Battle of Anglesey Sound, fought near Puffin Island. Magnus took control of the island, and for a short time Anglesey was classed as the southern border of Norway!

Gruffydd ap Cynan returned from Ireland and paid tribute to Magnus Barefoot, thus regaining his lands; he later negotiated with Henry I, who succeeded his brother William II in 1100, and although various upheavals ensued over the following years, the status quo was left more or less intact. When Henry I died without a male heir, his daughter Matilda, also known as Maude, claimed her right to the throne but it went to her cousin, Stephen. Matilda did not accept this decision, and England was soon engulfed in civil war, lasting nearly 20 years, during which Wales was largely ignored. Gruffydd’s son Owain Gwynedd took the opportunity to seize back lands, and by the mid 1150s had regained territory including Mold and Rhuddlan, and had much of Wales under his control. However, in 1157 the new king, Henry II, invaded North Wales on the pretext of helping Owain’s brother Cadwaladr. In July of that year, he launched simultaneous attacks by 3 separate forces: his land force was ambushed and defeated at the Battle of Ewloe, and the King barely escaped with his life, whilst his fleet landed on Anglesey and was completely destroyed. Despite this, his coastal attack force forged on and defeated Owain, who had to surrender his land east of the River Conwy. He was allowed to retain Gwynedd and keep his title on payment of a large fine and on condition that he paid homage to Henry II. A few years later however, he joined with the leader of Powys, and moved against the English king again. A massive force was sent by Henry II to Oswestry – but they were forced to retreat because of foul weather, even though it was July!

After Owain’s death in 1170, Henry II tried a different approach, seeking peaceful relations with the Welsh – perhaps to enable a route to Ireland, where there were recurrent rebellions. The throne then passed to his son Richard I, who was more interested in the Crusades than tackling Wales, and from him to King John, by which time Llewelyn ap Iorwerth – Llewelyn Fawr, or Llewelyn the Great – had managed to pull Wales together as a whole. John, again taking a different approach, approved the marriage of his daughter Joan to Llewelyn. The Welsh princes continued to rule their separate kingdoms, and it was not until the advent of Edward I towards the end of the 13th century that Wales was vanquished.

So what did the Normans do for us? Speaking generally, they wanted overlordship of Wales rather than complete submission, much as had been the case before the Norman conquest of England. Their main impact still visible today was the introduction of castles – the remains at Aberlleiniog are well worth a visit, and of course the castle at Deganwy is particularly dramatic.

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