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When the Welsh underdog bites

HDQ france-used-to-torture-and-execute-its-finance-ministers-for-policies-gone-badIn 1283, the last true Prince of Wales, Dafydd ap Gruffud, was hauled up the gallows in Shrewsbury and subjected to the horrifying ordeal of being hanged, drawn and quartered. Whether he died bravely or not we do not know. Personally, I think it is unlikely any human being can be subjected to such cruelty without screaming his head off, but the peeps back in medieval times were apparently made of sterner stuff, as proven by Thomas Blount, who while he was watching his entrails being burnt before him politely declined a drink of water. Why Thomas was subjected to this? Find out more here!

Anyway: with Dafydd dead, his sons incarcerated and the key thrown away, the proud House of Aberffraw was ground to permanent submission. Or maybe it wasn’t—at least not yet…

wounded dragon French nativeEdward I was not only an efficient general, he was also a skilled invader/conqueror—I’m guessing he had it from William of Normandy. Once in control of Wales, he secured his position by building strong fortresses that loomed over the Welsh landscape, a silent and constant reminder of the English king and his steel-covered fist. By the 1280s, many Welsh were sick of war. They’d lost fathers, brothers, sons to the conflicts, and with the English ending up victorious many also lost their lands, new English lords replacing the Welsh nobles. It was a tired and dispirited nation that watched the English make themselves permanent homes on their lands, bringing with them English customs and laws. The Welsh dragon, it would seem, had been well and truly collared.

But being tired and dispirited does not necessarily mean being permanently down. The Welsh were a proud nation, more than aware of their ancient roots in lands over which now flew the English lions. And when the English kept on pushing and pushing and pushing, the Welsh had had enough.
Basta! They yelled (except that they didn’t seeing as that’s Spanish) and one man stepped forward to lead his countrymen. I give you Madog ap Llywelyn, the flower of one of the cadet branches of the House of Aberffraw,

Now Madog was not raised in Wales. No, he grew up in England, recipient of King Edward’s largesse as his father Llywelyn ap Maredudd had fallen out with Llywelyn ap Gruffud, a.k.a. Llywelyn the Last ( the Prince of Wales who was betrayed by his brother Dafydd, reconciled with him, was dragged into rebellion by said Dafydd and died in 1282. Some would say Dafydd deserved that awful death in 1283, if nothing else because of how he’d treated his brother…)

Llywelyn ap Maredudd fought against his prince in 1256 (and I do apologise for all these Llywelyns. It’s like medieval Castile all over, except that there they’re all called Alfonso)  after which he fled to England. There he was welcomed by Edward—who, apparently, had an open door policy when it came to people fleeing the Welsh prince, along the lines of “your enemy is my friend”—and spent several years in exile before reconciling with his prince and returning home to the green, green valleys of Wales in 1262.  A year later, and he was dead, this time dying in a skirmish while fighting for his Welsh prince.

Madog may have been born in England. When his father returned to Wales, one would think it likely that Madog went with him, but at the time he was a little boy and things in Wales were uncertain, and so maybe Madog stayed behind, safe in England. Whether he was raised fully in England or not, we do know that in 1277 Madog was the recipient of a very generous monetary gift from Edward I—money he immediately used to sue Llywelyn ap Gruffud, demanding that his hereditary lands be returned to him. This, dear peeps, makes me suspect that Edward gave Madog the money solely for the purpose of suing Llywelyn. Anything Edward could do to make life difficult for Llywelyn he did—and at the time he was making life very hard for the Welsh prince as Edward I had kidnapped Llywelyn’s bride, Eleanor de Montfort and was holding her hostage. Adding some Madog into the soup likely made things even more interesting according to Edward. I dare say Llywelyn disagreed.

Madog did not get his lands back in 1277. But in 1282, Llywelyn was killed in the uprising instigated by his devious brother Dafydd, and some months later, Wales was crushed under Edward’s mail chausses. One of the beneficiaries of all this was Madog, who was given lands by Edward in return for his fealty.

Our young lord was more English than Welsh—a good thing, according to Edward. But over time, Madog’s loyalties began to waver. After all, he was Welsh by blood and while at first he applauded the English king’s decisions, soon enough he began to have second thoughts. Edward’s men manned Edward’s castles, and most of those men were English nobles who gave a rat’s arse for the Welsh and their rights. Welsh laws were no longer valid. The Welsh language was sneered at. A nation already suffering after years of war was further oppressed by Edward’s have taxes—he needed money to build all those castles.

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A whisper began spreading among the Welsh. The whisper grew into a murmur, into a subdued roar. This was their land, goddamn it, and it was time they took it back! But to do so, they needed a leader, and out of the shadows stepped…taa-daa…Madog ap Llywelyn, who counted Owain of Wales as his ancestor and was cousin like five times removed with LLywelyn and Dafydd. Other than Rhodri ap Gruffud (LLywelyn’s and Dafydd’s brother, now living the life of a royal pensioner in England with his family) Madog was the most senior male member of the House of Aberffraw available. So when he proclaimed himself Prince of Wales and raised his banner, Welshmen came flocking to join him.

It was a well-planned rebellion. Long before that loud proclamation, Madog and his companions had begun planning their campaign. They would only get one chance—they knew that—so there was no room for mistakes. They decided to start the uprising in September of 1294 as the English king was planning to go campaigning in France (relations between Edward I and Philip III were, at the time, strained) With Edward and his host busy elsewhere, the plan was to seize the Welsh castles and go on to liberate the entire country.

Preparations were meticulous. Men and horses had to be moved surreptitiously, Madog and his companions had to go about their everyday business as they had nothing more pressing on their mind than what robes to wear. September came. The Welsh rose in rebellion. Unfortunately, Edward and his army were not in France—that unreliable English weather had made it impossible to cross the Channel. Things did not look good…

Elizabeth siege_of_acreInitially, though, the Welsh carried the day. Caernarfon Castle, Cstell-y-Bere, as well as the castles of Hawarden, Ruthin and Denbigh were all overrun. Criccieth Castle and Harlech Castle were besieged. The English forces who attempted to reclaim Denbigh were routed. Raymond de Grey managed to hold on to the castles of Flint and Rhuddlan, but overall, things weren’t looking good for the English. And then Edward himself entered the arena, determined to show the Welsh ingrate a lesson but was obliged to ride hell for leather for the security of Conwy Castle after the Welsh had ambushed him. The king’s baggage train fell into Welsh hands and soon enough the victorious Welsh burned the town of Conwy to the ground and dug in for a long siege.

Edward Gal_nations_edward_iUltimately, the Welsh were outnumbered. With their king in danger, the English rallied and Edward’s navy set off to relieve the siege. The Earl of Warwick assembled a huge army and marched towards Wales. Slowly, the noose around the Welsh rebels tautened. In March of 1295, in the battle of Maes Moydog, the Welsh army faced the Earl of Warwick’s host. At first, it seemed the Welsh would be crushed, but they rallied, using schiltrons to face off the English cavalry. Fully aware that losing meant death—and a long, extended death at that—the Welsh fought with everything they had. But when the English archers entered the fray, darkening the skies with their arrows, the Welsh were forced to flee, many of the drowning as they attempted to cross the swollen waters of the river Banwy. Madog himself barely escaped alive and did what many of his predecessors had done in equally dire situations: he fled into the wilds of Snowdonia.

In July of 1295, Madog was captured. I bet he was quite convinced he was destined to meet a similar end to that of Dafydd, but for some reason, Edward decided not to hang, draw and quarter Madog. Instead, he was imprisoned for life in the Tower and is known to have been alive as late as 1312. His two sons survived him, but what became of them I do not know. I suspect that if wise, they kept a very, very low profile…

Wales paid a heavy price for the rebellion. Edward enforced harsher laws, heavier taxes on his mist recent and least willing subjects. But despite this, the dream of independence was kept alive. It would burst forth briefly when Llywelyn Bren led a minor rebellion in 1316, it would flare anew some decades later and then it would burst into spectacular flames with Owain Glyndwr in the last years of the 14th century. And as to the House of Aberffraw, in 1461 a direct descendant of Llewelyn the Great would ascend the English throne, albeit on the distaff side.

Madog ap Llywelyn was but a shooting star on the firmament of history. But for a while, Madog had the mighty Edward running scared. For some months, it seemed as if the Welsh underdog would succeed. I think his father and his distant cousins would have been proud of him. After all, at least he tried!

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