Following the death of Rhys ap Tewdwr in the year 1093, the Normans made rapid gains in Wales; Bernard of Neufmarché took Brycheiniog, Robert Fitz-Hamon took most of Morgannwg, Roger of Montgomery, the earl of Shrewsbury, was soon in possession of Rhys' former kingdom of Deheubarth. To cap it all, Hugh of Avranches 1 marched in and took control of the northern coast of Wales and the island of Anglesey. Therefore by 1094, it seemed as if the whole of Wales (with the notable exception of Powys), had now followed England and fallen under Norman control. But,
In this year the Britons being unable to bear the tyranny and injustice of the French, threw off the rule of the French, and they destroyed their castles in Gwynedd and inflicted slaughter upon them 2
The Welsh Action
Taking advantage of the absence of William Rufus in Normandy and the recent death of Roger of Montgomery, Cadwgan ap Bleddyn, ruler of a revived Powys, fermented a revolt in Gwynedd. The Norman forces, which we can assume must have been caught by surprise, were soon in retreat. They returned in force eager to re-establish their control.
And the French brought a host to Gwynedd and Cadwgan ap Bleddyn drove them to flight with great slaughter at Coedysbys.
With the victory at Coedysbys
the revolt soon spread south to Deheubarth
castle after castle fell and only the strongholds of Pembroke
And at the close of the year the castles of Ceredigion and Dyfed were all taken except two
The Norman Reaction
In 1095 William Rufus returned from Normandy and led an army into north Wales whilst another Norman force struck south into Ysrad Tywi
but Cadwgan avoided any kind of direct confrontation and the rebellion continued unabated.
William, king of England, moved a host against the Britons but he returned home empty-handed and having gained naught
The next year a Norman
army which was busy trying to subdue the south-east was ambushed and defeated at Gelli Tarfawg
and the sons of Idnerth ap Cadwgan
defeated another Norman
army at Aberllech
, whilst Cadwgan himself attacked and despoiled Pembroke
In 1097 William Rufus
led a second unsuccessful invasion and again the Welsh
forces avoided battle.
William moved a great host without number against the Britons. And the Britons, placing their trust in the Lord of Heaven, avoided the assault of the French. And the French returned home dejected and empty-handed
The Turning Point
In 1098 came the turning point of the rebellion; two Norman earls, Hugh of Chester and Hugh of Shrewsbury, acting with the assistance of Owain ab Edwin a Welsh nobelman from Tegeingl, led an army into Wales and drove Cadwgan, now accompanied by Gruffudd ap Cynan3, all the way across north Wales to Anglesey. There Gruffudd called on his old allies, the Vikings from Dublin to help defend Anglesey. The Norman earls however, simply bribed the Viking fleet to switch sides and provide them with the necessary naval capability to invade Anglesey. Both Gruffudd and Cadwgan fled to Ireland.
By coincidence Magnus Bareleg, the King of Norway, was in the vicinity with a fleet of his own attempting to bring the Isle of Man under his control. He somehow became involved in the fighting and Hugh of Shrewsbury was struck in the face by an arrow and killed. The Norman forces withdrew from Anglesey as Owain ab Edwin changed sides and led the men of Gwynedd in revolt. Gruffudd and Cadwgan returned from exile in Ireland and drove the Normans out of the north, but the failure of Cadwgan and his allies to take Pembroke Castle left its castellan Gerald of Windsor free to operate in the south and prevented the Welsh from completly dislodging the Normans from Wales.
How it ended
By 1099 it was clear that as things stood that neither side had quite the combination of resources and strategy to completly subdue the other. So both Gruffudd and Cadwgan made peace with William Rufus. Gruffudd ap Cynan was confirmed as king of Gwynedd whilst Cadwgan ap Bleddyn gained Powys and Ceredigion. Most of the south however remained under Norman control.
What it all meant
The widespread revolt against Norman rule in Wales in the years 1094 to 1099 the first severe setback the Norman kings experienced in Britain. Whereas the conquest of England must have seemed a fairly strightforward affair (one battle and a little harrying of the north and it was all over); Wales was to prove slightly more of a challenge. 4
Although were unsuccessful in their attempts to completely dislodge the Normans the Welsh were able to regain control of the north and central areas of the country. This provided the opportunity for Gruffudd ap Cynan to rebuild the fortunes of Gwynedd, and for Cadwgan ap Bleddyn to do likewise in Powys. A revived Gwynedd in particular, was to become the centre for continuing resistance to Norman rule for a further two centuries.
The failure of both of William Rufus' invasions of 1095 and 1097 seems to have convinced the Normans (for the time being anyway) that direct confrontation was not the way forward. Subsequent Norman rulers favoured piecemeal conquest secured by the building of castles. Indeed castles were built on such a scale that there is hardly a settlement in Wales of any significance that does not boast at least a pile of rocks in some half forgotten corner that was once a proud example of Norman military engineering.
1 The earl of Chester and also known as Hugh the Fat
2 What is of course notable is that the Brut still refers to the native Welsh as 'Britons' and the Normans, quite understandably as 'French'
3 Despite what is sometimes said, Grufudd ap Cynan was most likely in prison until 1098 and took no part in the revolt before that date.
4 Perhaps someone should have pointed out to them that the Welsh had been in a state of almost constant resistance to the Anglo-Saxon-English for half a millenium or more and so had plenty of practice.
- Brut y Tywysogion from which all quotations are derived
- The Welsh Kings by Kari Mundi (Tempus 2000)
- The Normans in South Wales 1070-1171 by Lynn H. Nelson (University of Texas Press, 1966)
- A History of Wales by John Davies (Allen Lane 1993)