Wales before Henry

William the Conqueror had sought to maintain stability and order on his western border, by establishing firstly three powerful border earldoms at Chester, Shrewsbury and Hereford and secondly supporting Rhys ap Tewdwr ruler of Deheubarth to act as a counterweight to these border magnates. However his successor William Rufus had allowed something of a free for all to develop; essentially 'buying' the support of Norman magnates by allowing them free rein to act as they saw fit in regard to Wales. The Normans had consequently swarmed all over Wales, only to precipitate what was in effect a national uprising in 1094.

But by the year 1098 the uprising had run out of steam, William Rufus had become tired of leading unsuccessful expeditions into Wales and through the auspices of the Earl of Chester a truce was negotiated. The consequence was the defacto recognition of the rights of Gruffudd ap Cynan in Gwynedd and those of Cadwgan ap Bleddyn in Powys placing the north and mid Wales under native rule whilst the south remained within Norman if not specifically royal control.

The revolt of Robert of Belleme

When Henry rather unexpectedly became King of England in the year 1100 he very naturally had other things on his mind and paid little heed to the matter of Wales. But in 1102 Robert of Belleme, the Earl of Shrewsbury rose up in rebellion in support of the rival claims of Henry's brother Robert Curthose to the English throne. This Robert of Belleme was the son of Roger of Montogomery, William I's original appointee to the earldom, a powerful and wealthy landholder who was also able to win the active support of Cadwgan ap Bleddyn king of Powys and was therefore capable of causing much trouble. Henry was however able to count on the support of Cadwgan's brother, the duplicitous Iorwerth ap Bleddyn, with the result that the rebellion was fatally undermined, and Henry I was able to bring Robert to heel, seize his lands and expel him from the kingdom.

The revolt however had two immediate consequences. Firstly it brought home to Henry the important lesson of how much trouble could be caused by independently minded Welsh kings if they chose to ally themselves with dissident elements within England. Secondly Henry came into possession of Robert's lands within the earldom of Shrewsbury and in the Welsh Marches as well as his brother Arnulf's holdings in southern Dyfed based around Pembroke Castle. He thus now had some territories that he felt obliged to defend.

His father's original scheme for relying on the three palatine earldoms of Hereford, Shrewsbury and Chester to secure peace on his western border had rather run its course. The earldom of Hereford had been allowed to remain vacant since the rebellion of Roger of Bretueil in 1075, whilst the death of Earl of Chester, Hugh of Avranches in 1102 had left that earldom in the possession of a minor, and thus under royal wardship. It may well also have occurred to Henry that since two out of three of these palatine earldoms had now been used to mount a challenge to the English crown that they were not a particularly good idea. Shropshire was thus re-incorporated into England as a normal shire county, although with some peculiar characteristics of its own, as it included within its borders many districts that were distinctly Welsh in character.

Henry I's settlement of Wales

Henry I had no intention of resuming the Norman advance in Wales or of conquering Wales as such; securing Normandy was a far greater prize and defending it from the encroachments of the French king a far greater challenge. His purpose was rather to establish some kind of stability within Wales that would leave him free to operate elsewhere. What he was therefore looking for was reliable client rulers that could be trusted to keep the peace. In Gwynedd and Powys Henry was prepared to recognise both Gruffudd and Cadwgan respectively (in return for the usual homage and tribute), but whereas within north Wales there were reliable sources of native authority, the turmoil of the intial stages of the Norman advance into Wales had disrupted the local dynasties and forced Henry to look elsewhere.

Fortunately in the south-east of Wales, the Marcher Lordships of Glamorgan, Gwynllwg and Chepstow were well established and there the Normans were able to consolidate their grip, extending the feudal system in Glamorgan and expanding their control of the uplands. Here Henry also had the advantage that the death of Robert Fitz Hamon in 1105 placed both Gwynllwg and Glamorgan in royal control as Robert's only heir was a minor and daughter named Mabel. When Mabel finally came of age in 1120 when Mabel was married off to Henry's own illegitimate son Robert de Caen thus ensuring that these valuable and important lordships remained in safe hands.

Elsewhere Henry looked to promote men that he could rely on, in particular he promoted the status of the de Clare family; Pembroke was awarded to Gilbert Fitz Richard, whilst Chepstow or Striguil went to his brother Walter, but there were others such as Miles of Gloucester in Brecon, Payn Fitz John who was granted Ewyas Lacy and Brian Fitz Count who received Abergavenny. As the historian R.R. Davies has commented, by "1135 every single leading Norman baron in south Wales owed his position to the generosity of Henry I".

The partition of Dehubarth

The situation was perhaps at its most unsettled within the former kingdom of Deheubarth, where the collapse of native authority after the death of Rhys ap Tewdwr in 1093 had left something of a power vacuum. Here of course the crown now had a particular interest since Henry had possession of Pembroke and so Henry embarked on a particular plan to help secure these territories. As the Brut y Tywysogion recorded for the year 1108;

In this year a folk of strange origin and customs, with nothing known of where they had been concealed in the island for many years before that, were sent by king Henry to Dyfed. And they occupied the whole cantref called Rhos and drove away the inhabitants from the land. And that folk had come from Flanders.

There are some suggestions that these were Flemish refugees displaced by a particular bad flood in 1106 but they might equally well have been former Flemish mercenaries. Although this particular development did not have any immediate effect on the political situation, in time southern Dyfed was to become one of the most secure of the Norman possessions in Wales and even to the present day southern Pembrokeshire is known as 'Little England beyond Wales'.

Ystrad Tywi, essentially the eastern half of Deheubarth, had been granted to one Hywel ap Goronwy, but Hywel was killed in 1106 at the behest of Richard Fitz Baldwin, the sherrif of Devon who was pursuing his family's claim to part of Hywel's new domains. Henry was not best pleased at this upsetting of his plans and Fitz Baldwin was forced to surrender his castles to the crown. The Fitz Baldwin base at Rhydygors Castle was given to Walter of Gloucester who began building the royal Honour of Carmarthen that came to dominate the district of Cantref mawr on the west bank of the Tywi. The eastern side of Ystrad Tywi or Cantref Bychan fell into the hands of Richard Fitz Pons who penetrated through the Usk valley and built a castle at Llandovery in the upper reaches of the Tywi in 1116, whilst the Gower went to Henry de Beaumont and Maurice of London received Cydweli.

In this manner the old kingdom of Deheubarth was partitioned amongst the king's followers. The Welsh response to this development was for the moment fairly muted as Gruffudd ap Rhys ap Tewdwr, the only representative of the old royal house of Deheubarth, was in exile in Ireland. Although Gruffudd reappeared in 1113 and was later joined by some "young hotheads" in 1116 who proceeded to burn the odd castle and indulge in a little looting, he appears to have failed to excite much of a response from the Welsh of the south-west and made no permanent gains. Gruffudd was eventually brought off by a single commote in Ystrad Tywi and he even lost that in 1127 for some unspecified offence, leaving Henry's men free to consolidate their hold on their newly granted territories.

Powys and Henry

Whereas it seemed that Gruffudd ap Cynan of Gwynedd was only to ready to acquiesce and live the quiet life Henry could never quite get the measure of Cadwgan ap Bleddyn of Powys. Cadwgan's kingdom extended beyond the traditional confines of the Powys that had existed in the ninth century and now also included both Ceredigion and Meirionydd as well as the four cantrefs of the Perfeddwlad, and had thus become the leading native power in Wales and from the perspective of the English king therefore still appeared to be the main threat to his authority. Indeed between the years 1109 and 1111 Cadwgan seems to have allowed his son Owain ap Cadwgan to undertake raids against Norman held territory in the south-west particularly in Ystrad Tywi.

It was in reaction to this threat that king Henry decided, sometime around the around 1110, to give Gilbert Fitz Richard permission to take Ceredigion if he could, in a strategic attempt to undermine the power of Powys. Gilbert, who already had possession of Cardigan went and built a castle near Aberystwyth and began attempting to bring in settlers and parcelling the land into knights fees. Cadwgan was killed in 1111 but despite this setback Powys, now under the control of Cadwgan's son Owain remained a thorn in Henry's side and he resorted to the traditional response of Norman kings to trouble in the west, which was to raise an army and march into Wales to enforce the submission of its rulers. Thus in 1114 "Henry, king of England, moved a host against the men of Gwynedd and above all to Powys". The Welsh response to the appearance of Henry's army was fairly typical as well, "Gruffudd ap Cynan made peace, paying a large tribute. And Owain ap Cadwgan did likewise".

The payment of tribute, even if paid as promised (and it often wasn't) was not a sufficient brake on Powys, which remained under Owain's uncle and successor Maredudd ap Bleddyn as the major obstacle to Norman domination of Wales and in 1121 Henry was forced to repeat the exercise when "as soon as the roads were dry" he "moved a mighty host against the men of Powys". This time around Henry seems to have been dissuaded from going too far when one of Maredudd's raiding parties fired an arrow that struck him in the shoulder. Once again the Welsh "made peace paying heavy tribute".

However these military expeditions seem to have been largely ineffective in achieving their main aim of cowing Powys into submission and thus Henry sought to promote internal feuding in Powys by releasing some of the hostages he had been given in the hope that they would cause trouble. At various times Henry sought understandings with Iorwerth ap Bleddyn, brother of Cadwgan and Maredudd, as well as the two sons of Rhirid ap Bleddyn, Madog and Ithel. The results of such interventions were rather mixed; Iorwerth was killed by Madog ap Rhirid in 1111, Madog was blinded in retaliation in 1113 and Ithel ap Rhirid killed in 1125.

From then on Henry's thoughts were increasingly preoccupied with the question of the succession. His only legitimate son William the Aethling had died in The Tragedy of the White Ship on the 25th November 1120 and his second marriage to Adeliza of Louvain had failed to produce any children and thus in 1125 he appointed his only surviving legitimate child, the Empress Matilda as heir. The complications that ensued from this decision together with the difficulties of maintaining his control of Normandy left him little time to deal with the problems arising in Wales. It is known that Henry was, on three separate occasions, at the point of leaving Normandy to attend to matters in Wales when he was prevented from doing so by more urgent matters.

It is however notable that it was not Powys that was able to take advantage of Henry's distraction by events elsewhere, as whilst the king's earlier efforts had failed to subdue that kingdom, they had weakened the ruling dynasty in comparison to its rivals. The years between 1125 and 1135 were therefore notable for a resurgence in the power of neighbouring Gwynedd, which gradually began to assert its control over the four cantrefs of the Perfeddwlad at the expense of Powys and challenge Powysian control of Meirionydd. By the time that Henry I died on the 1st December 1135 it was Gwynedd that was poised to become the leading power within Wales.

Henry's achievements in Wales

R.R. Davies was of the opinion that Henry "towers in the history of the subjugation of Wales and the making of the Welsh March as no other monarch before the reign of Edward I". However Kari Maundi notes that the Brut y Tywysogion shows a king "at once threatening, but oddly powerless" as despite his best efforts he was unable to totally impose his will on Cadwgan ap Bleddyn and his heirs. But his failure in this regard was largely a product of circumstance, as the requirements of defending Normandy left him without the necessary time and resources to achieve any kind of permanent military solution in Wales.

Neverthless Henry's most significant legacy remains "the making of the Welsh March"; that is the division of Wales into two separate spheres of influence. It was during his reign that a clear distinction arose between those parts of the country such as Gwynedd and Powys that remained under native rule becoming Pura Wallia the Wales of the Welsh, and those districts ruled by the Norman warlords, the Marchia Wallia or Marcher Wales, the Wales of the Marcher Lordships. The boundaries between the two would change and fluctuate over the years to come and much of the nation's history over the next two and a half centuries would be dominated by the struggle between these two opposing forces.


  • Brut y Tywysogion
  • R.R. Davies The Age of Conquest (Oxford University Press, 1987, 2000)
  • John Davies A History of Wales (Allen Lane, 1993)
  • Kari Mundi The Welsh Kings (Tempus, 2000)
  • Lynn H. Nelson The Normans in South Wales 1070-1171 (University of Texas Press, 1966)
  • Austin Lane Poole From Domesday Book to Magna Carta (2nd Ed OUP,1992)

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