On 11 December 1282 Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, Prince of Wales, was lured to a meeting near Builth, mid-Wales, and assassinated. Shortly afterwards his leaderless army was ambushed and routed – or ‘discomfited’, to use the contemporary term. When the slaughter was complete, the victorious captain of the forces of Edward I sent the king this note:
“To his very noble Lord Edward, by the grace of God king of England, lord of Ireland and duke of Aquitaine, Roger Lestrange if it pleases you with greetings, honours and reverences. Know sire that the loyal men which you assigned to me from your attendants have given battle to Llywelyn ap Gruffudd in the land of Buellt [Builth] on the next Friday after the feast of Saint Nicholas. Llywelyn ap Gruffudd was killed there and his men discomforted and all the flower of his men killed as the bearer of this letter will tell you. Also give him credence as if you were speaking with me.”
Lestrange’s pithy account conveys the key facts – Llywelyn was dead and his army dispersed – but not the sequence of events. The nature of Llywelyn’s death is revealed in a series of letters from John Peckham, Archbishop of Canterbury, dispatched a few days after the event. These were sent both to King Edward and Robert Burnell, the Lord Chancellor and Bishop of Bath and Wells.
Peckham had a very strange tale to tell. He got his information from Edmund Mortimer, who had met the archbishop at Pembridge, a Mortimer manor on the Welsh March, to report the death of Llywelyn. Peckham claimed that a number of items or ‘small things’ had been found on Llywelyn’s body. These included his small seal and a document ‘made in obscure words and names’, which had been discovered inside the pouch hanging from his belt. In other words, a coded letter.
What was the content of this letter? Peckham had a copy made and offered to send it to Burnell, but sadly no such original or copy has survived. All we know is that it was evidently written in some kind of code, and that Peckham was much disturbed by the document. He described it as a treasonable letter, and warned Burnell that certain magnates posed a threat to the king. These magnates included the Marcher lords, among others, though he does not provide names.
The killing of Llywelyn, and the wider significance of it, is far from straightforward. The Marcher lords in question were the descendants of Norman settlers who first conquered large swathes of the Welsh borderlands in the wake of the conquest of England. They intermarried with neighbouring Welsh princes, and by the thirteenth century the ‘March’ was a semi-autonomous region of its own, separate from England and Welsh Wales (Pura Wallia), with its own laws and customs. Edmund Mortimer, who supplied Peckham with the details of Llywelyn’s death, was head of the Mortimers of Wigmore, one of the great Marcher dynasties.
The driving ambition of the Mortimers stemmed from their illustrious bloodline. They were descendants of King John and Prince Llywelyn ab Iorwerth (Llywelyn the Great) and thus had the blood of English and Welsh royalty in their veins. This gave the family a plausible claim to the crowns of both countries, which they did their utmost to exploit.
King Edward I, also known as Longshanks or the Hammer of the Scots, was not one to ignore such a clear and present danger. It was the Mortimers who had lured Llywelyn (their first cousin, ironically) to his doom via the ‘treasonable letter’. Thus they knocked out the Prince of Wales and a major obstacle to their ambitions. Edward was obliged to celebrate Llywelyn’s demise – he had been his enemy, after all – and the severed head of the prince was duly carried in procession through the streets of London. It was adorned with a crown of ivy, in mockery of a legend that Llywelyn would one day be crowned at Westminster.
Neither Edmund Mortimer or his younger brother, Roger, were rewarded for the deed. In the following years Edward showed remarkable disfavor to Edmund in particular, and carried out a policy of suppression against the Marchers. He refused to knight Edmund, the head of the family, until 1285; this was after his younger brothers had been knighted, a signal humiliation for such a great lord. The king twice confiscated Edmund’s barony of Wigmore, forced him to do military service overseas, and to grant charters of liberties to Welsh tenants. In one bizarre incident, Edward even ordered Edmund to hang an effigy of a dead thief from the gallows at Montgomery. This was because Edmund had executed the live criminal in defiance of royal justice.
In 1297, when Edward’s crushing taxation and demands for military service brought England to the edge of civil war, Edmund Mortimer put himself at the head of the rebels. He held an unofficial ‘parliament’ in the Wyre forest, where he and other Marcher lords met to discuss their grievances against the king. The crisis eventually passed, but for a short time Edmund was poised to do the same to Edward I as he had done to Prince Llywelyn.
This was only the start of the great Mortimer power-grab. Edmund’s son, Roger, 1st Earl of March, would depose Edward II and for a time rule England in conjunction with Edward’s estranged consort, Isabella of France. Mortimer and Isabella were toppled from power by the young Edward III, but the danger to the Plantagenets remained. A later descendant, another Edmund, would team up with the famous Welsh rebel, Owain Glyn Dwr, and attempt to destroy Henry IV. The Mortimers would finally achieve their aim when yet another descendant, Edward of York, defeated the Lancastrians at Towton in 1461 and mounted the throne as Edward IV. Decades of scheming and bloodshed had at last borne fruit.