Longsword by David Pilling

Thursday, 26 January 2017

The following is my review of 'The Killing of Prince Llywelyn of Wales' by Paul Martin Remfry. The book is a bit pricey, but the most exhaustive and valuable study yet of the death of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, Prince of Wales, in December 1282.


The first half of the book acts as build-up to the main event. The career of all the main players - Llywelyn, Edward I, John Pecham etc - is discussed, as well as every relevant Marcher and Welsh lord. The correspondence between Llywelyn, Edward and Pecham is given in full, and the religious nature of the final war of 1282 explained. This last is important, as it was one of the defining features of the war and something a modern, largely secular audience might neglect.

I'll cut the cackle and get to Cilmeri. Unless stated otherwise, the opinions expressed below are the author's rather than mine. Every single known medieval source for Llywelyn's death is listed and discussed in turn. Remfry sorts these into Early Primary/Secondary Primary/Secondary/Later. I've never read the sources in their proper date order and context before. The results are illuminating.

 The Early Primary consists of 12 sources, all written soon after Cilmeri, within months at most. Only 2 are Welsh: Aberconwy and the Annales Cambriae. Aberconwy is a likely 14th century copy of an original account dated before June 1283. It says that Llywelyn was 'captured and killed by Edmund Mortimer by a conceived deceit'. The Annales merely says Llywelyn was killed. 6 of the 10 English sources explicitly name Edmund as responsible.

Pecham's letters enforce Edmund's guilt. Edmund is described as in possession of the items found on Llywelyn's body after he was killed. Pecham's first letter to the king practically describes the method of death. Llywelyn had time to talk to his captors before he was killed. He asked for a priest and a white monk sang Mass to him. He was then beheaded in the presence of Edmund's valets, apparently out of their master's earshot; Pecham says they had to inform Edmund of Llywelyn's last requests. Thus Llywelyn was killed much as depicted in the famous drawing (attached). This picture appears in the margin of The Chronicle of Rochester Cathedral Priory, in a section dating 20-40 years after Cilmeri. It seems the manner of Llywelyn's death was no secret. Lured to a meeting, captured, shriven, beheaded. An almost formal execution/murder/assassination (delete according to taste).

Regarding the fate of his army. One of the English Primary sources (Dunstable) says that the prince was killed along with three of his magnates, up to 2000 of his infantry and not many of the cavalry. Dunstable Priory was under feudal obligation to send troops to fight in Wales, especially to the command at Montgomery. Hence the scribes took a great interest in Welsh affairs, military in particular, and this version may well be transcribed from the eyewitness account of a returning soldier.

Of the Secondary Primary, Remfry identifies the Peterborough account as the most valuable. Peterborough Abbey was also required to send money and men for the Welsh wars. This account was written c.1295 and is the first to provide a full list of the Marchers present at Cilmeri. It also provides casualty figures, though the 'Chinese Whispers' process means that by this time the number of Welsh dead had swollen to 3000 and all of the cavalry slain.

Peterborough is also the first to say that no English were killed. This is the basis for the recent theory that Llywelyn's men were all murdered under truce. The real problem here is the lack of a payroll for the English army; a comparison (my opinion) could fairly be made with the Hagnaby account for the Battle of Maes Moydog in 1295, which claims only 6 English were killed. The payroll for this battle does survive and shows that in fact 91 English lost their lives. In any case none of the earliest accounts claim that all of Llywelyn's men were slain.

Guisborough, the most oft-quoted source for Cilmeri, is bracketed among Secondary Primary. Remfry takes an axe to Guisborough, pointing out - quite correctly - the author's unreliability. His account of the history of England from 1066 onward is a tissue of errors, and hence his description of Cilmeri cannot be trusted. It's a fair point, though Remfry is perhaps a little too quick to sweep aside Helias Walwyn and Stephen de Frankton. At the time of writing he wasn't in possession of all the evidence for either, something I hope to discuss with him.

Remfry also has little time for the Hagnaby source favoured by J Beverly-Smith. The date given in the source is wrong (1283) and the idea that the Prince of Wales would be unidentifiable until he called out his name ludicrous. In addition, Hagnaby describes Llywelyn being killed after his army was defeated, while all the other sources put it the other way round.

The author's conclusion agrees with mine. Llywelyn was lured to his death and executed/murdered by the Mortimer brothers at dusk on 10th December 1282. Early on the morning of the 11th his army was ambushed by the forces of Roger Lestrange and worsted - or 'discomfited', to quote Lestrange - though half to two-thirds of Llywelyn's men got away.

Away from Cilmeri, Remfry makes the interesting suggestion that Roger Mortimer the elder (died October 1282) was in cahoots with Llywelyn and secretly passing supplies to Welsh forces. On closer inspection, this idea falls down a bit: the Welsh Rolls show that the problem of English merchants trading with the Welsh was a wide-ranging one, and Edward was frequently obliged to forbid the practice. Mortimer's excellent record of past service to the king would also argue against it.

It may well be that Mortimer had some pretension to the title of Prince of Wales. He had a decent blood claim, though far from the only one. Edward's failure to reward his son Edmund for killing Llywelyn also seems inexplicable. Remfry suggests the king was unhappy over the dishonourable nature of Llywelyn's killing, though this seems unlikely for the man who organised a death-squad at the Battle of Evesham. Remfry's other suggestion, that Edward was alarmed at Mortimer methods and could see himself going the same way as Llywelyn, is more convincing.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Medieval IV: Ring of Steel

So I swapped my writer's hat for the one marked 'critic' and posted a short review of Medieval IV: Ring of Steel by Kevin Ashman. This was an interesting effort to write a series of novels based on the revolt of Madog ap Llywelyn in 1295-5. It wasn't quite my thing, but the author can certainly write and others may like to give it a whirl:

'An easy read, and the author has a flowing prose style and good grasp of how to write battles and adventure fiction. Ashman is clearly a Welsh patriot and at times his patriotism shines through a little too brightly: his hero, Madog ap Llywelyn, is forever giving chest-thumping speeches that might have come straight from the mouth of Gwynfor Evans, John Davies or one of the angrier members of Plaid Cymru. The word 'nationalism' is often touted in the text, a term alien to the late 13th century.
Otherwise the story is reasonably accurate, though overtaken by more recent research. Ashman sticks with the traditional account of the Battle of Maes Moydog, supposedly won by the Earl of Warwick's clever mingling of archers with cavalry. In fact the muster rolls show that his army only contained 13 crossbowmen and archers, and the army itself was not large: no more than 2500 men, mainly from Shropshire. Madog's army was defeated, however, and suffered the loss of 700 men. Most of these were probably killed in the rout.
As someone with a deep interest in Edward I - Longshanks - and his reign, I was slightly disappointed with Ashman's depiction of the king. His Longshanks makes for a fairly bland villain, not much more than a one-dimensional bogeyman for proud (and loud) patriots to hurl insults at. Little is made of Edward's reckless dash from Conwy to Nefyn, an unnecessary and apparently suicidal foray that still baffles historians. The depiction of the Welsh attack on Conwy Castle is overcooked and places Edward in far more danger than was the case. Madog's army had no artillery or siege equipment and the castle was well-supplied by sea. The inclusion of the English raid on the Welsh camp, a little-known incident described in the Hagnaby chronicle, is a nice touch.
Madog himself, leader of the Welsh revolt, is painted in equally broad strokes. The author's desire to bring Welsh historical figures to wider notice is commendable, but Madog is basically Mel Gibson's William Wallace come again, albeit in chainmail instead of a kilt. He makes speeches (in fairness, the real man was said to be an effective speaker), slaughters hapless English soldiers by the score, and is generally wonderful and charismatic and heroic. Perhaps Madog was all these things, but a little nuance wouldn't go amiss. No mention is made (unless I missed it) of the awkward fact that his son, Maredudd, entered the service of Edward's personal Welsh bodyguard - the Wallenses Regis or King's Welshmen - and later rose to be a king's esquire under Edward II.
All in all, a good adventure read and nice introduction to a little-known (outside Wales) period of Welsh history, but a somewhat loose and biased interpretation of events.'