War and Rebellion in Wales and the Marches


1039 - 1689


Before the Normans arrived, Ewyas was part of Wales, although that did not mean that it was peaceful. On the contrary, Wales was divided into kingdoms, including Gwynedd, Powys, Ceredigion, Deheubarth, Glamorgan, Gwent and Brecheiniog, which were in constant dispute and often at open war with each other. The murder of their rulers was frequent and bloody, and it is unlikely that Ewyas escaped the conflicts, though few specific local records survive. This internal fighting was normally kept in check by the presence of the English across the sometimes tenuous border as a common enemy waiting to take advantage, but between 1039 and 1056 Grufudd ap Llewelyn seized on the weakness of Edward the Confessor, King of England, not only to kill his Welsh rivals and unite Wales under his rule, but also to capture Hereford and large parts of the borderland, most likely including Ewyas.

Keeping his expanded kingdom was another matter, and retaliation eventually came. An English army under Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex counterattacked in 1063, defeating and killing Grufudd, whereupon the remaining Welsh princes promptly fell to fighting each other again. This cycle of Welsh infighting, the emergence of a strong leader and suppression by the English became the pattern of warfare in Wales and the Borders for the next several centuries.
Harold Godwinson in the meantime became King of England in 1066, married Grufudd's widow, and declared himself King of Wales as well. Whatever his intentions, they died with him at the battle of Hastings in that same year, and William the Conqueror quickly appointed Norman 'Marcher Lords' to control the western borders and seize Welsh lands.  These lords were granted autonomy by the monarch through the ‘Law of the Marches’, creating a buffer zone between England and Wales in which a few favoured nobles in effect exercised unfettered sovereign powers including the right to build their own castles. This inevitably led to friction both amongst themselves and with the King from time to time, but the balance of power between England, Wales and the Marches that was established broadly persisted until the time of Henry VIII.
The Marcher Lords quickly took advantage of their freedom and pushed westwards, securing their military gains with castles in strategic places. William FitzOsbern, Earl of Hereford, overran Gwent c.1070, Hugh de Avranches took much of Gwynedd and Roger Montgomery, Earl of Shrewsbury, captured Powys by 1086. Brecheiniog fell to the Normans c.1088, and the conquest of the whole of Wales was complete by about 1090.

This victory was to some extent illusory, however. The Normans were able to control the lowlands with their castles, but the rebellious Welsh had simply retreated into the mountains, as was their custom, from where they continued to harass their enemies. In 1096 they regained much of Powys and Ceredigion and repulsed a Norman counterattack in 1098, although large parts of the land remained in the hands of the Marcher Lords. Then from about 1100 King Henry I began to extend direct royal influence in Wales, granting lands to knights in feudal service and encouraging English settlers. This caused friction with the Marcher Lords [who saw royal interference as a challenge to their own power] in addition to fuelling the continuing resistance from the Welsh, and the area remained troubled. In 1102 the Marcher Earl of Shrewsbury rebelled unsuccessfully against King Henry, and his lands were seized by the crown; Henry also took Pembroke castle and built another at Carmarthen in an effort to consolidate his own power base in Wales.

When Henry I died in 1135, civil war erupted in England as his daughter Matilda and cousin Stephen battled for the throne for the next 19 years. Owain, Welsh king of Gwynedd, seized the opportunity to push the Normans back out of large parts of Wales, including Ewyas Lacy castle [Longtown] which is said to have surrendered to a Welsh army in 1146. However, in 1157 Henry II, now firmly established as king of England after the death of Stephen in 1154, turned his attention back to the borders and marched an English army into Wales once again. Fighting continued inconclusively until the death of Owain Gwynedd c.1170.
  Other types of battles were being fought during this time, too. The Normans sought to use religion to help subdue the Welsh through monastic settlements under Norman influence. One of the earliest was the Augustinian priory at Llanthony in the Vale of Ewyas, founded c.1108. By 1150 there were 17 Benedictine priories and cells in Wales and the Marches, and other Norman sponsored orders were also active there, such as the Grandmontines at Craswall Priory in Ewyas Lacy. The Welsh sought to counter this influence by inviting in the Cistercian order [the ‘White Monks’], who owed no allegiance to the Normans, as at Abbey Dore near Ewyas Lacy. They supported the Welsh rulers in exchange for grants of land, which the Cistercians used mainly to raise sheep thereby becoming wealthy and important players in the Welsh wool trade. Another significant initiative taken by the Norman barons around this time was the formation of Borough townships throughout Wales and the Marches, such as Longtown, founded c.1216. These were aimed at promoting colonisation and trade, thus encouraging peaceful economic development at the same time as providing the barons with significant new sources of income for themselves.
After the death of Owain Gwynedd an uneasy calm seems to have fallen over Wales and the borders for a while. Henry II died in 1189, and was succeeded by Richard I, whose energies were directed towards the Crusades rather than the Welsh. In Richard's absence, some Welsh leaders negotiated alliances with Prince John of England, and at the same time a new king of Gwynedd, Llewelyn ap Iorwerth began to move against the other Welsh kingdoms. By 1211 John [now king of England] had become sufficiently concerned about Llewelyn's activities to invade Wales, and force Llewelyn off his throne. This triggered another full scale Welsh rebellion against King John and the Marcher Lords; Llewelyn ap Iorwerth secured the political support of Pope Innocent III, and Shrewsbury fell to the Welsh in 1215. By this time king John was also facing the loss of his lands in Normandy and a revolt of his English Barons [leading to the Magna Carta], and after John's death in 1217 his successor, Henry III, sought respite by acknowledging Llewelyn ap Iorwerth as the ruler of Wales in the treaty of Worcester in 1218.

The area nevertheless remained unstable, and the English attacked Wales again in 1228, but were repulsed. In retaliation the Welsh laid waste to Glamorgan in 1231, and it is interesting to note that Ewyas Lacy castle was garrisoned from 1231 to 1233, although it is not recorded whether there was fighting there. The stalemate remained until Llewelyn ap Iorwerth's death in 1240, although in the meantime he had married off nearly all his children into the Norman Marcher families, which served to make alliances and relationships along the border even more complex.

The borders once again became troubled by a series of attacks led by Llewelyn ap Grufudd [Llewelyn the Last] who became king of Gwynedd c.1247 and followed his predecessors in seeking to push the Normans out of Wales and unite the country under his leadership. He took Brecon and Abergavenny castles from the Marcher Lords, and in 1265 made a formal alliance with Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, who in 1264 had unseated Henry III from the throne of England and was de facto King, although attempting to rule through an elected parliament. Within a few months of sealing this treaty de Montfort was killed in the battle of Evesham and Henry regained his throne, but in the treaty of Montgomery in 1267 Henry was nevertheless forced to acknowledge Llewelyn ap Grufudd as the Prince of all of Wales. As ever, though, the peace did not last long.

When Edward I came to the English throne in 1272 he refused to accept the treaty with Llewelyn and determined to bring matters to a head and crush the Welsh once and for all. In 1274 the Marcher Lords seized back Glamorgan, and Edward followed up this success by invading Wales with a strong army in 1277. By 1282 Llewelyn the Last had been killed and Edward I had effectively conquered the whole of Wales. He then proceeded to enforce his rule with a ruthless reign of terror and punitive taxation. He also embarked on a castle building program that cemented English military control of Wales for over a century, although the cost of it nearly left Edward bankrupt, and one of the finest examples, Beaumaris castle, was never completed for lack of funds. In the Statute of Rhuddlan in 1284 Edward incorporated Wales into England by introducing English common law, creating new counties and appointing Royal officials such as coroners, sheriffs and bailiffs to collect taxes and administer justice.
Further Welsh uprisings took place in 1294/5, in 1314/17 [Ewyas Lacy castle was garrisoned in 1317] and in 1320, but each was successfully put down by the Marcher Lords, and an uneasy peace broadly prevailed until in 1400 Owain Glyndwr, the last great native Prince of Wales, made one final attempt to throw off the English yoke.

Owain Glyndwr, born c.1349, was on the face of it an unlikely revolutionary despite his bloodline as a descendant of the Welsh kings of Powys and Deheubarth; he was a lawyer and a landed gentleman who had served both Edward III and Richard II as a soldier. However when Henry IV came to the throne in 1399, he imposed a harsh rule on Wales and a comparatively minor legal dispute over Owain's land quickly escalated out of control. Owain Glyndwr was declared an outlaw and retreated to the hills as his forebears had done. What nobody, probably including Owain, had expected was that Wales would rise in his support against King Henry.

The revolt quickly gathered pace, with Glamorgan and Gwent falling to Glyndwr. In 1402 he defeated and captured Edmund Mortimer, one of the strong Marcher Lords, at the battle of Pilleth and many of the Norman towns in the borders were taken and burnt. A garrison was again put in place at Ewyas Lacy castle in 1402 as part of the defences against the Welsh invaders and remained there until 1408, but there is no record that the castle was attacked. By 1403 Glyndwr had once again united Wales and effectively evicted the Normans, and he set about establishing the country as a sovereign independent state, signing treaties of alliance with France and Spain. The rebellion reached its zenith in 1404, when Owain Glyndwr summoned the first Welsh Parliament who crowned him Prince of Wales.

Henry IV had other ideas however, and soon led an English army once again into Wales. By 1408/9 Henry had recaptured the key Welsh castles built by Edward I and regained control of the country, finally putting an end to Welsh ambitions of independent nationhood. Owain Glyndwr  was never captured; he simply disappeared and it is said that he died in Monnington Straddle in the Golden Valley, Herefordshire in about 1416. It is also said that he will reappear to lead the Welsh in battle again in their hour of need.

After the defeat of Owain Glyndwr the Marcher Lords were generally able to keep the Welsh under control and over the years the situation gradually stabilised, although sporadic local uprisings seem to have continued; as late as 1505 the manorial accounts for Ewyas Lacy report many defaults of rent because lands and tenements had been destroyed and burned by rebels against the king. The Marcher lordships were eventually abolished under the Laws in Wales Acts of 1535 - 1542, which formally annexed Wales and established the Council of Wales and the Marches which governed from Ludlow Castle until it was in turn abolished in 1689.

War and rebellion briefly returned to Wales and the borders during the English Civil War and the establishment of the Commonwealth between 1642 and 1660. Most of Wales initially declared for the Royalists and there was significant fighting in the north and the south, especially around the major castles which were pressed back into military service. Hereford, too, declared for the king, but changed hands four times between 1642 and 1645 before finally being occupied by Parliament and governed by a Parliamentary Committee until the restoration in 1660. There is no evidence, however, of any military action locally in Ewyas Lacy, apart from a story that Parliamentary soldiers once used Clodock Church as a stable for their horses. Even in earlier times the main areas of conflict in the vicinity of the Black Mountains had been largely outside Ewyas Lacy along the major river corridors of the Wye, the lower Monnow and the Usk. By the time of the civil war, with the borders no longer an issue and the animosity between the Welsh and the English largely consigned to history, the area was probably too remote and sparsely populated to be of much military interest to either side in the conflict, a situation that persisted thereafter up to modern times.

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