I had a pretty good afternoon out recently castle hunting. During this junket, a thought was raised for me, one that has been in the back of my mind for a while now: just who were the Princes of Powys?
I have, admittedly, not delved all that much into the history of early medieval Wales, but know smatterings that I’ve picked up over the years. For instance, I know about the Norman Conquest of Wales under Henry I that secured the south of the nation as the Welsh March, and I know stuff about Edward I’s Conquest, but that’s really where my expertise ends. I know little stuff about Deheubarth in the south-west, but barely anything about Powys in the south-east. And that’s what I’m hoping to try to put right! So get ready for some craziness, as I attempt to unravel the whole story…
Let’s start with a map. This will probably not be of much use as I go on, as the territories shifted so fluidly it’s almost insane, but you’ll hopefully get an idea, at least, of where everything is. Roughly. Anyway:
So, I recently went to Mathrafal Castle, which is not too far outside Welshpool. First of all, the medieval Kingdom of Powys did not always correspond with the modern county, as for a long period the kingdom stretched into the West Midlands. Immediately following the Roman collapse, however, the centre of power in the area was firmly at Wroxeter. Whether this is where the Kingdom of Powys began, however, is a bit more hazy.
The royal family of Powys claimed descent from the almost-mythic figure of Vortigern and Princess Sevira, a daughter of Magnus Maximus (the Macsen Wledig of Welsh legend). All of that is recorded on the Pillar of Eliseg, outside Llangollen:
So yeah, an appropriately mythical start for the dynasty, though of course, in the years immediately post-Roman occupation, there are some pretty weird and wonderful tales to be heard! In the sixth century, the capital of Powys is known to be Pengwern, but the precise location of this place is also somewhat shrouded in legend – most people seem to agree that it’s likely to be Shrewsbury. However, in 642 the king of Powys, Cynddylan, joined forces with the king of neighbouring Mercia, Penda, to defeat the Northumbrian king, Oswald, at the Battle of Maserfield. Oswald was killed, and gave his name to the modern town of Oswestry. In retaliation, Oswald’s brother Oswiu attacked Pengwern and destroyed the llys (Welsh princes didn’t live in castles, but a ‘llys’, or court) and everyone within – everyone, that is, except the Princess Heledd, who fled into western Powys.
By 717, the llys of the Princes of Powys had been re-established at Mathrafal, and that is where I went!
Mathrafal is a large rectangular enclosure with a motte in the northern corner. The whole design is quite impressive, and I was fairly astounded at how well this thing has survived! There seems to be some debate over whether this is actually the site of the llys, but given the general layout and stuff, it seems suitably impressive that it could be, I suppose!
In 855, the kingdom was joined to that of Gwynedd by Rhodri the Great, who was one of the earliest men to be referred to (posthumously, of course) as King of all Wales – largely as his territories expanded into Seisyllwg (roughly modern Ceredigion) through marriage. Rhodri didn’t live long after the annexation of Seisyllwg, and his lands were split among his four sons as per Welsh custom. His son Merfyn received Powys while Cadell received Seisyllwg, though Cadell invaded around 900 and annexed Powys to himself.
Cadell’s son was Hywel Dda, the famous lawmaker, who succeeded his father in 911. Through marriage, Hywel annexed the kingdom of Dyfed (roughly modern Pembroke), and sometime after 920 created the kingdom of Deheubarth out of both Dyfed and Seisyllwg. Aside from his laws, Hywel is also (somewhat) famous for his voluntary submission to the Saxon kings of England, which he used to great advantage when he annexed Gwynedd in 942, following the unsuccessful rebellion of his cousin Idwal Foel (you may know him as Idwal the Bald..?) and Powys, through the forced marriage of Merfyn’s son Llywelyn to Hywel’s daughter, Angharad. It was in this manner that Hywel claimed lordship over virtually all of Wales (except the south-east), whereupon he introduced his famous Laws in 945.
Hywel died in 950 and was succeeded by his son Owain, who controlled most of Hywel’s land thanks to the early deaths of his brothers. Owain also controlled Powys, of course, and instead of trying to re-take Gwynedd, he looked east to Morgannwg (the modern Glamorgans) and Gwent, having already gained Brycheiniog (roughly modern Brecknock, southern Powys). He also apparently instigated the Annales Cambriæ, the native chronicle that was compiled from the 10th century at St Davids Cathedral. Owain’s son Maredudd, who succeeded him in 988, turned away from the south and again captured Gwynedd for Deheubarth. When Maredudd died in 999, Powys passed to Llywelyn ap Seisyll through his marriage to Maredudd’s daughter Angharad. Llywelyn’s reign was one of prosperity until his death in 1023, when he was succeeded by his son Gruffydd.
Gruffydd ap Llywelyn is immensely important in eleventh-century Wales, as the man who managed to unite virtually the whole of Wales as none of his predecessors had. Following Llywelyn’s death, Gwynedd had reverted to the House of Aberffraw, but by 1039 Gruffydd had gained control of both Powys and Gwynedd. In 1041 he invaded Deheubarth and by 1058 also controlled Morgannwg and Gwent, and was thus recognised by the English as the King of all Wales. It wasn’t to last, though, as the Saxon earls Harold (of Battle of Hastings fame) and his brother Tostig led a combined attack on Wales in 1063, forcing Gruffydd to flee into Snowdonia, where he was killed by his own men.
Wales was once again split into Gwynedd and Powys, ruled by Bleddyn ap Cynfyn, Gruffydd’s half-brother, who founded the House of Mathrafal – see, there was a point to all of that narrative! Bleddyn was killed in 1075, and was succeeded in Powys by his three sons, Iorwerth (killed in 1111 when he was forced into a burning house), Cadwgan (also died 1111) and Maredudd. Cadwgan’s son Owain is famous for the abduction of Nest, wife of Gerald of Pembroke, which caused a minor scandal at the time, and the intervention of the Norman Earl of Shrewsbury. Owain joined forces with the King of Gwynedd, Gruffudd ap Cynan, in resisting the Norman invasion of Wales in 1114, but somehow switched allegiances and became firm friends with Henry I, joining the king of England in his later invasion of Deheubarth where he was killed by Gerald of Pembroke in revenge.
The Welsh March was established across the south of Wales, and Powys reverted to Owain’s uncle Maredudd. During Maredudd’s time, the kings of Gwynedd began to make major territorial annexations in northern Powys, especially under Owain Gwynedd. Maredudd was succeeded by his son Madog, who was on surprisingly good terms with the new king of England, Henry II, assisting in the latter’s wars with Owain Gwynedd (who was in fact Madog’s brother in law). Madog regained a lot of land due to his relationship with the English king and the earl of Chester, including the land around Oswestry and Whittington. When he died in 1160, the kingdom of Powys was split in two, and was never again reunited.
Madog’s son Gruffydd Maelor inherited the north of the kingdom, Powys Fadog (roughly corresponding to modern-day Wrexham County), and his nephew Owain Cyfeiliog inherited the southern portion, Powys Wenwynwyn (roughly modern Montgomeryshire). Owain Cyfeiliog is perhaps most famous nowadays for refusing to meet Gerald of Wales and Archbishop Baldwin during their journey in 1188, for which he was excommunicated. He had, however, founded Strata Marcella Abbey (below) in 1170 as a daughter house of Whitland, and effectively abdicated in 1195 to live out his days there as a hermit.
He was succeeded by his son Gwenwynwyn, who lost virtually all of his lands to Llywelyn the Great in 1212. Gwenwynwyn moved the seat of the Princes of Powys from Mathrafal to Welshpool, though when he died in 1216, Llywelyn overran the entire area and claimed it for Gwynedd.
The ringwork castle at Welshpool (above), much like Strata Marcella, isn’t all that impressive anymore, sadly!
In the north, Gruffydd Maelor was succeeded by his son Madog in 1191, who gave his name to the northern kingdom. Madog was a cousin of Llywelyn the Great, as Gruffydd Maelor’s sister Marared had married Iorwerth Drwyndwn, the eldest son of Owain Gwynedd (who was the brother-in-law of Marared and Gruffydd’s father Madog, remember – ah, inter-marriage!). Madog ap Gruffydd Maelor was on better terms with Llywelyn than either Owain Cyfeiliog or Gwenwynwyn, however, so largely escaped Llywelyn’s attempt to unite all of Wales under him. Madog founded Valle Crucis Abbey in Llangollen in 1201 as a daughter house of Strata Marcella.
The lands of Powys Fadog was split between Madog’s five children, with his eldest son Gruffydd II assuming the title of Prince, building the castle at Dinas Bran in Llangollen and establishing it as the centre of the northern kingdom.
When Gruffydd died in 1269, his son Madog II succeeded him, but was killed in the first English campaign into Wales under Edward I in 1277, when he was attempting to defend his lands. His younger brother Gruffydd Fychan succeeded him, but lost his lands in the final Edwardian Conquest, living out his days as a tenant.
But what of Powys Wenwynwyn? Well, Gwenwynwyn’s son, Gruffydd, kept changing sides from Llywelyn the Last’s brother Dafydd, to Edward I, to Llywelyn himself, eventually dying around 1286 with control of his lands firmly in the hands of his son, who had Anglicized himself as Owen de la Pole (“of the Pool” – that is, Welshpool) and renounced his princedom, for which Edward I granted him the title Earl of Powis, and he retired to live the life of a Marcher Lord at Powis Castle.
In the north, following the death of Gruffydd Fychan in 1289, a procession of young and weak princes followed, with the lands of Powys Fadog given to Reginald de Grey following the Conquest. de Grey built Ruthin Castle, but allowed the hereditary heirs to the kingdom to remain as landowners in the area. Gruffydd Fychan’s son Madog III was in turn succeeded by Gruffydd of Rhuddallt, whose son Gruffydd Fychan II succeeded him. Whoa!
Gruffydd Fychan II was the Lord of Glyndyfrdwy, and the father of Owain Glyndŵr. I feel that everybody knows him, at least, but I am not a fan. Yes, I’m Welsh and I dislike Owain Glyndŵr, I said it! The reasons for this are manifold, but I shall, nevertheless, try to explain!
Owain Glyndŵr was born at Sycharth (above) in 1349 or thereabouts. His father died when Owain was still in his teens, and he was fostered by a local lawyer, David Hanmer, who was later to serve as a legal adviser to Richard II. Owain also studied law, serving as an apprentice in London before returning to Wales in 1383 and his father’s hereditary lordship of Glyndyfrdwy, near Corwen (below). As a landowner, Owain was required to provide military service to the king, which he did, even possibly serving as squire to the Duke of Lancaster (later Henry IV).
So, what have I got against him? Well. You may remember that the lords of Glyndyfrdwy held their lands of the de Grey family, ensconced at Ruthin? In the 1390s, de Grey was accused by Glyndŵr of seizing lands that belonged to him, but the Welshman’s plea was ignored by the court in London. There is also the story that de Grey purposefully informed Glyndŵr too late of a royal command to levy troops for a military action that led to the Welshman being called a traitor. Well, anyway, in September 1400, following the deposition of Richard II by the Duke of Lancaster, Glyndŵr assumed the title of Prince of Wales and led a revolt aimed largely at reclaiming the lands he had lost to de Grey.
Therefore, the entire Glyndŵr Uprising that lasted 15 years and caused untold death and destruction, as well as bringing about a series of anti-Welsh legislation from Westminster, was all because of a land dispute. I cannot begin to describe the vitriolic sentiment that I feel whenever someone refers to Glyndŵr as a national hero. He was a firebrand who caused a massive backlash that he then used to justify his actions. Much like my thoughts on Llywelyn the Last, I feel Glyndŵr has been misunderstood as being a better person than he in fact was. He is certainly not deserving of the reputation as a Welsh Arthur. His motivation was entirely selfish, not as the altruistic national martyr that he is now thought of. And thus do I dismount my soapbox!
Either way, he disappeared after 1412, and it is now widely believed that he died in 1416, with local legends suggesting his burial site to be at Monnington on Wye, near the home of one of his daughters. The only thing that is certain, of course, is that with Owain Glyndŵr, the line of the Princes of Powys finally ended. Later in the fifteenth century, with the accession of the Tudor dynasty, anti-Welsh sentiment noticeably lessened and the need for independence movements and the like effectively died out.
So there you have it! As time goes on, I hope to add to this blog as I visit more places associated with the Princes of Powys.
Until next time!