• A London Student

Llywelyn the Great

Updated: Nov 15, 2020

This was an area that I only properly became aware about a few years ago, but has fascinated me ever since...This is part one of a history of one of the Great Welsh Princes who fought for Welsh freedom, his land and his people.


I suppose a good place to start would be with Owain Gwynedd to set the scene... Owain was a highly successful prince of Gwynedd in the 12th century, who had a number of sons by a number of women. These included Iorwerth, (who was Llywelyn's father and the eldest legitimate son of Owain Gwynedd) Dafydd and Rhodri (who had seized power on Owain's death, splitting Gwynedd between them). Llywelyn's mother was Marared, a daughter of a Prince of Powys. Through his father, Llywelyn had a legitimate claim to the throne of Gwynedd, and, whist still a teenager, took up the fight for the throne against his uncles. With the help of his other uncles and cousins, he eventually won a battle at the mouth of the river Conwy in 1194, and claimed a portion of Gwenedd. The next year, Rhodri died and Llywelyn ruled Gwynedd east of the river Conwy. By 1200, Llywelyn was the undisputed ruler of Gwynedd and was high in the favour of King John, even to the point where John suggested the marriage of Llywelyn to his natural daughter Joan in about 1205.

By this point, the biggest rival to Llywelyn was Gwenwynwyn of Powys, his neighbour to the south, however, in 1208, Llywelyn's position was strengthened as Gwenwynwyn had his lands confiscated by John, as part of humiliating terms imposed on him. The fall of Gwenwynwyn was an opportunity not to be missed and Llywelyn seized it. He invaded Powys in the end of 1208, angering John. At first this anger was pretty restrained (well anyone who has knowledge of King John will be aware that it was very restrained for him). He sent Llywelyn a letter on Christmas day, politely telling Llywelyn that his recent conquests had in no way decreased John's fatherly affection for him. However this did not last; and just a month later, John had gathered a large army and was poised to strike. Llywelyn did the only sane thing in this circumstance; submitting to the King's will. While the exact terms are unknown, Llywelyn kept all his lands and recent conquests (which is quite surprising, given that it is 'Bad King John' who we are talking about, and all of the disrupt in Wales had collapsed his plans to try to reclaim some of the lost Angevin Empire, making him even more angry).

In the coming years, it is clear that Llywelyn was careful not to anger his ruthless father-in-law, prudently consolidating his conquests and even accompanying John on a campaign against the Scots king in 1209. This did not last. As Llywelyn rose in power and name, John became aware of how big a threat was to the English crown, and how dangerous he really was. It started with John restoring Gwenwynwyn to his lordship in Powys, and sending royal soldiers to help Rhys Gryg restore castes taken from him by Llywelyn, and ended in war. John amounted a large army near Chester, and advanced along the North coast, into the Perfeddwlad, with no resistance; Llywelyn had taken his people into Snowdonia. John marched right up to Deganwy (a castle that had been destroyed by Llywelyn in 1210, to stop it falling into advancing forces and had been rebuilt by the Earl of Chester in wood). With no foe to fight or hamlets to pillage, John's army soon fell into disarray, as food prices soared, and beat a hasty retreat. John was now embarrassed and angry, which is worse than just angry as Llywelyn found out in July.

After the disastrous May campaign, John started to gather, you guessed it, an even bigger army. He struck deeply into Wales, forcing Llywelyn to yield in 1211, with (unsurprisingly) harsh terms, that only allowed Llywelyn to keep his head as a result of Joan's intervention (for more information on Joan, see my post on Joan, Lady of Wales). A women's role in these times was predominately to be a peacemaker (and to get an heir) which Joan played to perfection, salvaging what she could of Llywelyn's land and getting the best terms possible given the scale of Llywelyn's defeat. In the grand scheme of things, Llywelyn got off lightly (except that his life's work was taken from him) as John's intent was to destroy Gwynedd. This was something that all the other Welsh Princes (who were very jealous of Llywelyn's achievements) were very excited to see. The terms were more specifically were that Llywelyn had to send thirty high-born hostages to England (including his natural son Gruffudd), pay a large price in cattle (potentially starving his people in years to come) and give up the Perfeddwlad (so all land to the east of the river Conwy.)

By 1212, the Welsh had had enough of John's meddling and elected Llywelyn to be the leader of a new revolt. Llywelyn being Llywelyn did this very successfully, burning one of Johns castles and quickly recapturing the Perfeddwlad. He did this with the backing of the Pope and it was probably the Pope who also urged the French King Philip Augustus to make contact with Llywelyn (something that Llywelyn was reported to have shown a lot of pride in that a French King had turned to a Welsh Prince through a mutual hatred). In his anger at the new rebellion, John hung the twenty-eight Welsh hostages at Nottingham castle, many of them teenagers, all except Gruffudd (and probably one other). After this order, John received two letters informing him of a plot for his murder, one from the Scots King, and the other from Llywelyn's wife Joan.

As the English Barons gradually grew more and more fed up with John's rule, they to went to Llywelyn as a powerful ally, and he was only too happy to help out. In 1215, Llywelyn took the town of Shrewsbury, which was one of the factors that persuaded John to sign Magna Carta. Along with the general benefits of Magna Carta there was a personal one for Llywelyn; the surviving hostages were released, and Llywelyn's son Gruffudd could return home. As civil war continued to tear England apart in 1215-18, Llywelyn's position grew steadily stronger as he took back castles originally held by the English crown. Llywelyn also had another project underway at this time, and became an overlord to many of the other Welsh princes including Gwenwynwyn (who then broke his oath so Llywelyn claimed his land in Powys Wenwynwyn (he now had the right as he was the fudeul overlord)) and the rulers of Deheubarth and Powys Fadog. He then held assembly at Aberdyfi where lesser lords also performed homage.


This was supposed to be a history of 13th Century Gwynedd, however, it quickly became apparent that I had written too much on Llywelyn... Now it appears that I will have to split my history of Llywelyn into two parts as well!

I will continue to try to find a map of Wales at this time that I can add to this post, showing the position of the Welsh counties, and the River Conwy, however, as of this week, I have been unable to track one down...

A further note is that I really should have included Llywelyn's children in this post about him but got far too caught up in his military campaigns so here they are briefly:

Gruffudd ap Llywleyn

Gwladys ferch Llywelyn

Marared ferch Llywelyn

Dafydd ap Llywylyn

Elen ferch Llwelyn

Angharad ferch Llywelyn

Tegwared ap Llywelyn

Susanna ferch Llywelyn

Gwenllian ferch Llywelyn

These were by his wife Joan, Tangwystl Goch or possibly a woman called Crysten, although for many of the daughters, it is unknown or there is no conclusive evidence.

In 1218, the English were once again getting fed up with Llywelyn, and once again tried to reign him in with the treaty of Worcester. The terms were as follows:

  • The English Crown recognises Llywelyn's pre-eminence in Wales

  • Llywelyn was not allowed to keep the homage of the Lords of Powys and Deheubarth

  • Llywelyn could keep the castles of Carmarthen and Cardigan until Henry came of age

  • Llywelyn could hold Powys Wenwynwyn until Gruffudd ap Gwyenwynwyn came of age (Gwenwynwyn had also died in 1216)

(The image on the right is Llywelyn's property before the treaty of Worcester. The areas in grey are where Llywelyn received homage from, so in 1218, his territory was just the yellow. The Green is territory of the English crown or Marcher Lords

So overall, the terms were not disastrous for Llywelyn, well not at least for the next five years. So five years later, in 1223, in a classic example of Henry III's rule, Henry's regent's changed their minds and once again tried to restrict Llywelyn to Gwynedd. William, Earl of Pembroke seized castles at Carmarthen and Cardigan, while Hubert de Burgh slowly started to take control of other English castles in Llywelyn's possession. He also rebuilt castles, over the coming years, trying to establish an English foothold in Wales. This came to head in 1224, when Henry III and Hubert besieged Bedford Castle. The Garrison surrendered after eight weeks, and most of them were then hung as a result. The image below is of that monstrosity.

Llywelyn was not alone in these wars however, having plenty of powerful allies, particularly through the marches, through the marriages of his daughters, including Reginald de Braose (married to Gwladys Ddu), John de Braose (married to Marared) and John the Scot (married to Elen). However, back to the main subject... This fighting continued in the 1220's until 1228. Hubert had been gradually encroaching into Llywelyn's lands in Powys, and when war seemed inevitable, King Henry sent Hubert an army to help in the fighting. However, they were still beaten by Llywelyn in Kerry. At this point the King's army retreated.

In this time, Llywelyn also built a range of new castles, that were more sophisticated, and made out of stone, like Criccieth, Deganwy, Dolbadarn, Dolwyddelan and Castell y Bere. (Castell y Bere is pictured on the right).

Now we have a personal section of Llywelyn's reign, to do with his marriage... In 1228, William de Braose was taken prisoner, but then allied himself with Llywelyn instead, and married his daughter Isabella to Dafydd, Llywelyn's heir. However, in 1230, William was found in Llywelyn's bedchamber with Joan. As a result, on May 2nd, William was hung and Joan put under House-arrest. Joan was miraculously forgiven the next year and restored to favour, something that was extraordinarily rare at this time, and probably caused more of a scandal than Joan's infidelity in the first place!

Hubert de Burgh was high in the King's favour in 1231, and won himself some Welsh Marcher Lordships (on top of everything that he already had). In blatant retaliation, Llywelyn built up an army and drove deeply into the south, into regions that hadn't seen Welsh rule or armies for a century. The army got to Glamorgan and went through it onto Neath, before returning to the north in a haze of glory (Henry had tried to stop him by telling Anglo-Irish knights that they could have any land they claimed in Wales (or to the effect of) but it didn't work). On a map, this is basically a triangle, going south, then west along the South Coast of Wales, then back north to Gwynedd. Llywelyn allied himself with Richard Marshal (younger brother of William who was mentioned earlier) who was getting increasingly fed up with the actions of Henry and Peter de Rivaux. The Peter and Llywleyn seized Shewsbury, and when peace was arranged in 1234, Llywelyn did very well. He was restored to what he had gained in John's reign (the Welsh always gained when there were weak/useless rulers on the throne!)

This peace was called the Peace of Middle and the terms were as follows:

  • Llywelyn continued to rule Powys Gwenwynwyn

  • He was the liege lord and accepted allegiance from Powys Fadog and Deheubarth

  • He obtained possession of Builth, Gwrtheyrnion and Maelienydd

  • And after this treaty, he started to call himself Prince of Aberffraw and Lord of Snowdonia, putting him in an unique position of leadership and distinguishing himself from the other princes and rulers

Throughout this time, Llywelyn also had another foe to face in the form of his eldest son Gruffudd, an illegitimate son, born before Llywelyn had married Joan to a woman called Tangwystl. Llywelyn didn't want to split his kingdom on his death as was Welsh law as he knew that it would wreak havoc and destroy all that he had created. Therefore, he named his younger son, Dafydd, as his heir. As you can imagine, this created a void between Gruffudd and Llywelyn, that would never be healed, and meant that Llywleyn had to spend his later years securing his succession (which (spoiler alert!) still didn't work).

In 1237, Joan died, filling Llywelyn with grief, and the same year, he probably suffered from a paralytic stroke later. By now, more and more duties were being passed onto Dafydd, as Llywelyn got even older (as you can probably imagine). There was also another blow that year when John the Scot, Llywelyn's steadfast ally, and husband of his daughter Elen died, probably of Typhus. In theory, Llywelyn had left his Kingdom in a good state for his son Dafydd; he was allied with most of the Marcher Lords, Dafydd was the nephew of the English king, and he wasn't at war with England. However, theory doesn't always come into practice, as Dafydd soon found out. Llywelyn died in 1240, having taken the habit at Aberconwy and his coffin (pictured below) can now be seen at Llanrwst parish church.

A fitting burial and life for a great ruler and prince.

Sources include:

A History of Wales by John Davies

Images courtesy of Wikipedia

Thank you for reading!