The Oak Door of Aberffraw
In spring 1283 the armies of Edward I stormed into Gwynedd. This was the final drama in a very long war: for 200 years, the princes of Gwynedd had attempted to forge a united Wales in the teeth of resistance from the English crown. They almost succeeded until Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffudd came up against Edward I, nicknamed ‘Longshanks’. In the early part of his career, Llywelyn exploited a civil war in England to gain control of much of Wales. He crowned his success in 1267 at the Treaty of Montgomery, whereby Edward’s father, Henry III, acknowledged Llywelyn as Prince of Wales.
There was a sting in the tail. In exchange for recognition, Llywelyn had to agree to swear homage to the English crown. This was a formal ritual whereby Llywelyn knelt before Henry, placed his hands between the king’s and swore to be his ‘man’ in perpetuity.
After Henry’s death in 1272, Llywelyn was required to swear the oath to the new king, Edward. Despite being summoned on five separate occasions, the prince refused to do so. The result was a tense stand-off, which in the summer of 1276 degenerated into open warfare. After a year-long campaign, in which Edward made efficient use of superior resources, Llywelyn offered his surrender at Aberconwy in November 1277. He was then obliged to accompany the king to London to swear the delayed homage.
Edward was content to let Llywelyn keep his title, though his power was much reduced. An uneasy peace followed, in which the people of Wales were badly treated by the English administration. At last, on Palm Sunday 1282, Llywelyn’s younger brother Prince Dafydd attacked the royal castles of Flint and Rhuddlan. The revolt quickly spread across Wales, until Edward had a full-scale insurrection to deal with.
The war that followed was much more desperately fought than the previous conflict. Llywelyn enjoyed support from the other Welsh rulers, and his supporters defeated English forces at Llandeilo Fawr and Moel-y-Don on the Menai strait. Yet Edward was determined to have victory. In late 1282 Llywelyn was killed in an ambush in mid-Wales, and command of the Welsh forces passed to Dafydd.
English reinforcements poured into North Wales. One of the last actions was fought at the dramatic mountain stronghold of Castell y Bere inside Meirionydd. Here, in April 1283, Dafydd’s men were besieged by a royal army drawn from west Wales and the Marches. After a short resistance, the defenders accepted a bribe of £80 in silver to surrender the castle. In a fine example of administrative penny-pinching, they only received £56 of the promised amount.
Among the defenders was Gruffydd ap Yr Ynad Coch, a Welsh bard who composed a magnificent elegy for the slaughtered prince, Llywelyn. Gruffudd may well have produced his masterpiece while trapped inside the walls of Bere, surrounded by hostile forces. A translated section of the poem reads:
‘Heart cold in the breast with terror, grieving
For a king, oak door, of Aberffraw,
I grieve for a prince, hawk free of reproach,
I grieve for the ill that befell him,
I grieve for the loss, I grieve for the lot,
I grieve to hear how he was wounded…
Mine, rage at the Saxon who robbed me,
Mine, before death, the need to lament,
Mine, with good reason, to rave against God,
Who has left me without him…
A lord I have lost, long will I fear,
A lord, high court’s, was killed by a hand,
A lord constant and true, listen to me!
How loudly I keen, wretchedly keening!
A lord thriving until eighteen died,
A lord of gifts, low he is laid…
A lord who prospered, until he left Emrys
No Saxon would venture to strike him…
From a heavy sword-stroke his downfall.
From long sword blades came his suppression;
From my ruler’s wound comes my distress…’
Gruffydd was writing for effect, of course, and he may have been afflicted by a sense of guilt. During the previous conflict between Edward and Llywelyn, in 1277, the bard had taken a payment of £20 to join the English army! Even so, the tone of anguish in the poem is genuine, and reflects a sense of utter defeat among many of the Welsh. The climax of Gruffydd’s lament for Llywelyn achieves a tone of almost cosmic despair:
‘The heart’s gone cold, under a brush of fear;
Lust shrivels like dried brushwood.
See you not the way of the wind and rain?
See you not oak trees buffet together?
See you not the sea stinging the land?
See you not truth in travail?
See you not the sun hurtling through the sky?
And that the stars are fallen?
Do you not believe in God, demented mortals?
Do you not see the whole world’s danger?
Why, oh my God, does the sea not cover the land?
Why are we left to linger?’
Gruffydd’s fate, after the fall of Bere, is unknown, but the castle lingered a while yet. Immediately after its surrender, King Edward’s generals handed it over to the custody of Gwilym de la Pole. Gwilym was one of the sons of Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn, lord of southern Powys in mid-Wales and a staunch supporter of the English crown. The family of Gwenwynwyn, called the House of Mathrafal, had been in conflict with the princes of Gwynedd for centuries. Thus, not all Welshmen viewed the final downfall of Gwynedd as a tragedy.
After 1283, Bere became the centre of one of the new towns King Edward founded in Wales. Compared to the great royal strongholds of Caernarvon and Conway, Bere was only a minor settlement. Surviving tax rolls show a mixed population of less than 20 Welsh and English living in the village adjacent to the castle in the early 1290s. They included a priest, William, a skinner named Adaf, and an intriguing fellow called ‘Pigis’.
Sadly, this tiny population may have come to a terrible end. When another revolt erupted in Wales in 1294, led by Madog ap Llywelyn, Bere was one of the first places attacked by Welsh insurgents. Despite Edward’s frantic efforts to organise a relief force, the castle and town were overcome. The fate of the inhabitants is unknown, but we may fear the worst; little mercy was shown to civilian populations in this era. After the revolt, Bere was abandoned. The dramatic remains of the castle can still be viewed today, roofless and exposed to the elements.
David Pilling is a writer and historian, and author of The Longsword series. His latest books are Edward I and Wales: 1254-1307, The Wars of Edward I: The Leopard and The Rebellion Against Henry III: The Disinherited Montfortians, 1265-1274.
Aberffraw Aberffraw Aberffraw