The Battle of Llandeilo Fawr

Was this battle an English or Welsh victory? The casualties suggest the latter.
Carreg Cennen Castle
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16 June is the anniversary of the Battle of Llandeilo Fawr in 1282. Piecing together the various accounts of this battle was quite fun: there is no lack of chronicle and administrative evidence, though as usual we are left with gaps and speculation.

In April 1282 Edward I met with his nobles at Devizes to plan the expedition into Wales. His first choice for command of the army of West Wales was Robert Tibetot. However, Earl Gilbert de Clare pulled rank and refused to serve under Tibetot; the high and mighty Clare was an earl, after all, and would not demean himself by serving under a mere knight.

Clare plodded into the west at the head of about 8000 Welsh infantry and 200 paid and unpaid cavalry. The only Englishmen present were a tiny band of miners from the Forest of Dean. These men must have been bewildered by all the Welsh and Norman-French being spoken around them.

From Rhuddlan, the king had to send repeat orders for Clare to deliver the castle of Builth to John Giffard. Once this was finally done, Clare occupied the bare walls of Carreg Cennen and Llandovery, recently burnt out by the Welsh.

Clare then advanced to Llandeusant in the Black Mountains, about four miles east of Llandeilo. He was there on the day of battle, 16 June, so there is no reason to think the Welsh launched a direct assault on Clare himself.

The earl was in an obliging mood. He decided to split his army and sent off a raiding party led by William Valence junior, heir to the lordships of Pembroke and Wexford. The usually reliable Annals of Chester state that Valence’s men were ambushed ‘in a certain narrow pass’ or wooded valley in the region of Llandeilo.

All the detail is supplied in English accounts, which puts an ironic twist on the common trope that victors write the history books. Yes they do, but not in the way you think. Of these five accounts, one (Trivet) states that Clare won the battle. Four (Trivet, Oseney, Wykes, Rishanger) emphasise heavy casualties suffered by both sides. Two (Oseney, Wykes) state that William Valence and Richard Argentine were killed. The most convincing (Wykes), describes a part of Clare’s army marching back from a plundering expedition when they were suddenly attacked.

All accounts agree on the death of Valence junior, who was buried at Greyfriars church in Carmarthen. There has been very little discussion of the Welsh army. We are left to speculate that Clare was attacked by supporters of Prince Llywelyn, but that is not certain. The identity of ‘the Welsh’ in this instance appears to be of remarkably little interest to anybody.

Whoever won the battle of Llandeilo Fawr, they took no advantage of it. On 6 July Clare was stripped of command by the king, and replaced by William Valence senior. Between 3-7 July Valence gathered a new force at Cardigan and led them in person to ravage the lands of Gruffudd and Cynan ap Maredudd. These were Llywelyn’s chief supporters in the west, so it may be they were in charge of the victorious army at Llandeilo. If so, nobody saw fit to credit them.

David Pilling is a historian and novelist, and author of the Longsword series. The King’s Rebels is Part V, and features the rebellions against Edward I.