Prelude - The Norman attitude to Wales

When William the Bastard landed at Pevensey on the 28th September 1066 his prime objective was to secure the crown of England which of course, he duly did, and as king of England he naturally inherited all the problems of the English king, amongst which was the question of Wales.

At the time the Normans acquired England the border between Wales and England was somewhat vague; there was not a defined border as such 1, more of a border region that stretched between cities such as Chester, Shrewsbury, Hereford and Gloucester and the Welsh hills beyond. It was difficult to say who was actually in control of this border region at the best of times, harder still after the recent depredations of Gruffudd ap Llywelyn as well as the more recent activities of Eadric the Wild and the Normans own retaliatory 'ravagings' that held left much of the countryside depopulated and under exploited.

William's main objective in the west was therefore to hold the frontier and to prevent, if at all possible, any co-operation between English opponents of his regime and the native Welsh kings. This was a very real threat as Bleddyn ap Cynfyn of Gwynedd had shown his willingness to ally himself with both Eadric the Wild and later the Northumbrian rebellion of 1069. Fortunately for William the very instability of the political situation in Wales, precluded the rulers of Wales from interfering too much in English affairs. (Bleddyn was himself the victim of the constant infighting within Wales later in 1075.)

Therefore in order to stabilise the border William I therefore created three palatine earldoms to act "as semi-independent military buffer states" 2 between the turbulence of Wales and William's new conquest of England. Their task would be to build castles and encourage settlers to establish themselves in the ravaged border regions.

The first of these palatine earldoms was the earldom of Hereford, granted to William Fitz Osborne the second was that of Shrewsbury held by Roger of Montgomery and the last that of Chester given to Hugh the Fat from Avranches 3. All three of these gentlemen were amongst William's most trusted supporters and therefore could be relied upon to use their powers in the royal interest.

There was nothing in these arrangements that signified any intention on William's part to actually take control of Wales, and indeed the crown may no attempt to extend its authority in Wales. The Norman assault on Wales was not therefore a concerted invasion directed by the central authority of the king but rather the product of individual Norman magnates reacting to the opportunities that presented themselves, against a background of a Wales consumed by its own internal struggles.

Act 1 - the conquest of Gwent

It was William Fitz Osbern, created earl of Hereford in 1067 who led the push into the kingdom of Gwent that lay directly to the west of his Herefordshire establishing castles at both Monmouth and Chepstow. In this he was greatly assisted by the fact that the south-eastern kingdom of Morgannwg was, at the time, the subject of a dynastic struggle between one Caradog ap Gruffudd, who had inserted himself into the cantref of Gwynllwg in 1063 and the incumbent king Cadwgan ap Meurig.

Fitz Osbern's expansion into Gwent in the years 1067 to 1071 was largely driven by defensive considerations and motivated by the desire to push the frontier further away from his Herefordshire lands. How far Norman control of Gwent extended beyond the reach of their castles at this time is impossible to say. Certainly the Liber Landavensis was to refer to Roger, the son and successor of Fitz Osbern at Hereford as the "the lord of Gwent", signifying that the kingdom was largely in Norman hands at least by the year 1075.

Although it was Fitz Osbern who made the most dramatic and significant move, all along the frontier there were minor adjustments as Norman landholders made their presence felt. We see them pushing their authority into adjacent Welsh commotes at least to the extent that they received some form of tribute as recorded in the Domesday Book, and we can also see examples of Welsh lords holding territory within what is now considered England, such as the 'Madoc' recorded as holding the territory of Brontgwyn near the town of Oswestry.

Act 2 - The conquest of Gwynedd

The Hugh the Fat, the earl of Chester cannot have been oblivious to the conflict in Wales during the years leading up to Mynydd Carn in 1081 and it is likely that from the time he became earl of Chester in 1071 that he took advantage of the situation to extend his reach over at least the eastern portions of the Perfeddwlad 4. Here he was assisted by his cousin Robert, commonly known as Robert of Rhuddlan after the castle that he built at Rhuddlan on the site of the palace of Gruffudd ap Llywelyn.

The Historia Gruffud vab Kenan states that Robert was established at Rhuddlan in 1075 when Gruffudd ap Cynan first sought his assistance in taking control of Gwynedd away from Trahaern ap Caradog and when he later attacked Robert in the same year. As most sources seem to date the building of the Norman castle at Rhuddlan to the year 1073, this account may well be correct.

One of the immediate consequences of the battle of Myndd Carn was that Gruffudd ap Cynan was able to finally get rid of Trahaern ap Caradog and claim Gwynedd as his own, but through the treachery of Meirion Goch, Hugh the Fat was able to seize hold of Gruffudd ap Cynan and imprison him at Chester. With Gruffudd ap Cynan safely out of the way Hugh the Fat and his sidekick Robert were able to claim Gwynedd as their own.

As the Historia Gruffud vab Kenan relates the Normans came "a multitude of forces, and built castles and strongholds after the manner of the French" and states that castles were built in Anglesey, Bangor and Meirionydd and at the site of the old Roman fort of Segontium in Arfon.

The Domesday Book of 1086 was subsequently to record the obligation of Robert of Rhuddlan to pay £40 a year to the king in respect of north Wales. But although the Domesday Book contains much detail regarding the lands east of the Conwy river in the Perfeddwlad, it is silent regarding much of north-west Wales. 5

It is evident though that Robert and Hugh were persistent in their efforts to try and subjugate Gwynedd, witness the complaint of the Historia Gruffud vab Kenan regarding their activities that "they did so much damage as had ever been done since the beginning of the world".

Act 3 - The pacification of Deheubarth

As noted above, king William's idea had originally been to keep Wales safely locked behind the three border earldoms of Chester, Shrewsbury and Hereford. There was however an inherent danger in the principle of allowing some of his followers the degree of licence and power accorded to these border earldoms. It was all very well when they were held by men who felt that their interest and the king's coincided, but it was all to easy for such men to use such power for their own ends.

When William Fitz Osborne died in 1071 and his son Roger of Bretueil took over it soon became apparent that Roger's ambitions extended beyond being a mere earl. The resulting revolt by Roger in 1075 discomforted rather than threatened William but only because the plot was betrayed. It was perhaps understandable that William declined to fill the vacancy at Hereford created by Roger's banishment and allowed the power of the earldom to be devolved to a number of lesser Norman barons.

When therefore, in the aftermath of the battle of Myndd Carn, William I came to Wales ostensibly to visit the shrine at St Davids and met with Rhys ap Tewdwr he had a different idea in mind.

Victory at Mynydd Carn had confirmed Rhys as ruler of Deheubarth and propelled him to a position of pre-eminence amongst the native rulers of the south. But Rhys was far from being totally secure; his claim to Deheubarth was based on his actual possession of the kingdom rather than any right of succession. (The 'true' heir to Deheubarth, Gruffudd ap Maredudd ab Owain was hiding away in exile in his Herefordshire estates. 6)

For his part William I was now looking for a counterbalance to his most powerful followers, someone who would at worst keep them occupied. And do it seems that the two rulers reached some kind of accommodation; Rhys agreed that he would keep the Welsh in check and William would, as a quid quo pro, place restraints upon his Norman followers.

Just as the Domesday Book shows Robert of Rhuddlan paying £40 a year for north Wales it also shows one 'Risert', (undoubtedly our Rhys ap Tewdwr) paying an identical amount for the south. And so it was hoped that peace and order could now be established across the whole of Wales. 7

Interlude - a change of regime in England

The arrangements reached by Rhys ap Tewdwr and William I were all well and good but in the year 1087 William died as a result of injuries sustained in battle in Normandy. After his death the crown of England passed into the hands of William Rufus rather than his eldest son Robert Curthose but many of the most prominent leaders of the Norman nobility in England favoured Robert Curthose as king. Prominent amongst these were William I's half-brothers, Odo of Bayeux and Robert of Mortain and one of their key supporters was Roger of Montgomery the earl of Shrewsbury.

William Rufus was however able to marshal sufficient military resources to defeat his opponents within England and persuaded Roger of Montgomery and the other border barons to change their minds and throw their weight behind the new regime. The price of this acquiescence appears to have been an understanding that William Rufus would turn a blind eye is some of his more ambitious subjects chose to try their hand in Wales.

Whatever the exact nature of the agreement that was reached between Rhys ap Tewdwr and William I, it is obvious that William Rufus felt there was nothing that prevented individual Norman knights from now challenging some of Rhys's client rulers.

Act 4 - The conquest of Brycheiniog and Morgannwg

Freed from their previous constraints, from the year 1088 onwards the Herefordshire Normans in particular began to move against Wales. Since the earldom of Hereford had been left vacant ever since Roger of Bretueil's fall from grace in 1075; there was no central authority to launch any 'grand invasion' and it all came down to the initiative of individual Norman barons.

One of these was Bernard of Neufmarche, who held a number of estates at the head of the Wye Valley and was the first to move, his target was Brycheiniog and before the end of 1088 he moved into the adjacent commote of Bronllys. To the north of Brycheiniog William de Braose moved into what became the lordship of Radnor and to the south it was Hameline de Balun whose target was Abergavenny. The boldest move of all came from Robert Fitz Hamon, who from his base in Gloucestershire launched a sea-borne invasion of the kingdom of Morgannwg and began challenging its king Iestyn ap Gwrgan. 8

And these assaults were not the only challenges that Rhys ap Tewdwr was facing.

In 1088, the sons of Bleddyn ap Cynfyn 9 from Powys attacked Deheubarth, but their assault failed, as indeed did the offensive of 1091, led this time by Gruffudd ap Maredudd. The progeny of Bleddyn ap Cynfyn may well have been acting on their won behalf but Gruffudd ap Maredudd clearly acted with the encouragement and active support of the Herefordshire Normans.

Although neither of these attempts to dislodge Rhys ap Tewdwr succeeded they naturally weakened his authority and the encroachments of the Normans into mid Wales became bolder. In the year 1093 Bernard of Neufmarche had penetrated into the heart of Brycheiniog and was on the verge of building himself a nice new castle to serve as the caput of his conquest. Rhys ap Tewdwr was forced to come west to help Bleddyn ap Maenarch defend his kingdom, and as the Brut y Tywysogion was to lament; "Rhys ap Tewdwr, king of the South, was slain by Frenchmen who were inhabiting Brycheiniog - and with him fell the kingdom of the Britons".

Act 5 - The conquest of Deheubarth and Cynllibiwg

As soon as Rhys ap Tewdwr was out of the way the floodgates opened.

The Shropshire Normans had been reasonably quiet over the past five years; other than establishing the castle of Montgomery to the west of Offa's Dyke in 1086 Roger of Montgomery had made no moves against Wales. It is possible that Roger as the later career of his son (Robert of Belleme) implies, had established a relationship with the sons of Bleddyn ap Cynfyn in Powys which had no wish to disturb and was constrained from moving against the rulers of Cynllibiwg to the south-west by their direct client relationship with William Rufus.

But whatever the reasons for the lack of activity before 1093, within a few months of Rhys' death, Roger of Montgomery launched an assault that smashed its way into central Wales, through the border cantrefs of Ceri and Cedwain and into Arwystli at the headwaters of the Severn. From Arwystli Roger fell upon Ceredigion and at the mouth of the river Teifi in the south of that kingdom he built a castle that took on the name of Cardigan. From Ceredigion his force swung south to the opposite coast taking the cantref of Penfro right in the heart of Deheubarth and there built another castle christened Pembroke.

In the mid March Ralph Mortimer of Wigmore moved into Cynllibiwg took control of the cantrefs Maelienydd and Elfael dispossessing its king Llywelyn ap Cadwgan. Philip Braose leapfrogged across from Radnor to Buellt to the east of Brycheiniog, whilst both Bernard of Neufmarche and Richard Fitz Hamon were permitted the luxury of completing their conquests in their own time.

The Final Act - Wales under Norman rule

As the year 1093 drew to a close it might have seemed as if all Wales had finally fallen under the Norman yoke; the arm of the earl of Chester stretched all the way across the north coast to Anglesey, the earl of Shrewsbury had grabbed a broad swathe of territory across the whole of central Wales, the territories and kingdoms of the south east, Brycheiniog, Morgannwg, Buellt et al in the process of being carved up.

Things were not however as bleak as they seemed as there were still considerable areas of Wales outside Norman control; the upland regions of Gwynedd for example, in fact the upland regions of most of Wales remained under native control. Most importantly as it turned out, was the central region of Powys, which after centuries of domination by Gwynedd, had now become detached and where the sons of Bleddyn ap Cynfyn, active at least since the 1080's, were re-building the kingdom.

The Normans were therefore not in complete control, and even in those areas that they thought were theirs. The Welsh had the advantage of seeing the Normans in action for a quarter of a century; they had therefore worked out how to fight them.

In the year 1094 the Normans were to experience their first serious defeats on British soil.


1 In fact the border remained largely undefined until the Acts of Union much later in the sixteenth century.

2 Lynn Nelson see below

3 Actually Gherbod the Fleming was the first earl of Chester until 1071 but does not seem to have made much of an impression.

4 The Domesday Book refers to the cantref of Tegeingl called Englefield by the English as states that "Earl Edwin held it." ( The Edwin son of Aelfgar who was Earl of Mercia; i.e. the English already had a prior claim to much of the Perfeddwlad.

5 See for the long list of the north Welsh entries in Domesday.

6 Son of Maredudd ab Owain ab Edwin who had been Rhys ap Tewdwr's predecessor as ruler of Deheubarth.

7 There is unfortunately, no documentary evidence of any agreement between Rhys ap Tewdwr and William I but it appears unquestionable that there was such an agreement.

8 For a more detailed summary see The Norman Conquest of Morgannwg.

9 The sons of Bleddyn ap Cynfyn were Madog, Rhirid, Cadwgan, Iorwerth and Maredudd. Madog and Rhirid were killed in 1088 during their little escapade against Rhys ap Tewdwr.


Lynn H. Nelson The Normans in South Wales 1070-1171 (University of Texas Press, 1966)
John Davies A History of Wales (Allen Lane, 1993)
Kari Mundi The Welsh Kings (Tempus, 2000)
Brut y Tywysogion
Historia Gruffud vab Kenan

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