Edward Longshanks & the Conquest of Wales

With swiftness and brutality, Edward I of England, known as “Longshanks,” finished the English conquest of Wales which had been started centuries earlier.

Jan 6, 2024By Greg Beyer, Assistant Editor; African History
edward longshanks conquest wales

 

Edward I, more commonly referred to as Edward Longshanks, is one of the most memorable kings in England’s long history.

 

He was a powerfully frightening man with a legendary and violent temper. He was also extremely pragmatic in matters of conflict and was a leading force in projecting England’s power around her neighbors and further abroad.

 

Of particular note during his reign was the conquest and subjugation of Wales, which was done with ruthless efficiency, and left a legacy of castle-building that enthralls historians and tourists today.

 

The Background to Edward Longshanks’ Conquest of Wales

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The rugged countryside makes Wales difficult to conquer and even more difficult to control, via Visit Wales

 

Edward I was not the first English king to invade Welsh territory. His Norman predecessors had a long history of trying to conquer neighboring realms. Like Edward, they were expansionist and highly motivated. In 1066, under the leadership of William the Conqueror, they defeated the Anglo-Saxons at the Battle of Hastings. The following years involved the assertion of Norman power and the subjugation of their rebellious new subjects. But they didn’t stop with England. In 1067, William the Conqueror looked west to Wales, which he saw as included in his birthright.

 

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The conquest, however, was very slow and was not undertaken with the same fervor the Normans had with regard to the conquest of England. Wales was (and still is) a mountainous region that offers good natural defense against invaders, and it became clear that the Norman conquest would have to be slow and methodical and done through a process of piecemeal smaller conquests. It wasn’t until 1081, however, that a significant invasion force was put together.

 

The conquest continued through the death of King William in 1087, by his son William II, until 1094, when most of Wales was under English control. In the following years, the English gained themselves a terrible reputation among the Welsh, who despised their new rulers for being “gratuitously cruel.”

 

After escaping Norman imprisonment in 1094, King Gruffudd ap Cynan of the Kingdom of Gwynedd in the northwest of Wales spurred on the Welsh resistance to Norman rule, and the Welsh regained much of their land from the foreign invaders.

 

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A (rather imaginative) statue representing Llywelyn ap Gruffudd in Wales, created by Gideon and Toby Peterson, via Art UK

 

The English, however, managed to stave off a complete Welsh reconquest by installing English lords in the east and south of Wales in areas that became known as the Welsh Marches. The Marcher Lords acted virtually independently from the crown and were able to focus on their own small dominions to great effect, projecting power with the castles they built and keeping control in the immediate surroundings out of the hands of the Welsh rebels.

 

A notable event during this time, however, was the Battle of Crug Mawr. As a result of the death of Henry I, many parts of Wales revolted against the Normans and managed to inflict several defeats upon the invaders, which resulted in a significant setback for the Norman plans for the full conquest of Wales. Crug Mawr represented one of the first battles in which longbows were used, and they had a devastating effect on the Normans, who would learn from the Welsh, as England would later become famous for its use of longbowmen, especially in the wars against France.

 

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Statue of King Edward I, via Discover Middle Ages

 

The struggle for Wales continued for decades, and after a series of invasions, it was Henry II who finally managed to gain significant success. Although defeated in 1157 and almost killed at the Battle of Ewloe, he returned to Wales a few years later and forced the two most powerful princes of Wales to pay homage to the English crown.

 

For the rest of the twelfth century and into the thirteenth century, the relationship between England and Wales would ebb and flow between stability and minor conflict, while petty power struggles within Wales kept the nation fractured. The most prominent and powerful Welsh kingdom was that of Gwynedd, and in 1267, a treaty with Henry III recognized Llywelyn ap Gruffudd as the most powerful ruler in Wales, as he controlled the biggest parts of the nation, either directly or indirectly.

 

Edward I Takes the Throne

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Map of Wales after the Treaty of Mongtomery in 1267. Image supplied by the author.

 

While on Crusade in the Holy Land in 1272, Edward heard of his father’s death. He was deeply saddened by the news but did not hurry home. He was still suffering from the effects of a poisoned dagger that struck his arm during an attempted assassination. Edward killed the assassin, but the injury left him suffering for weeks.

 

Nevertheless, Edward traveled back to England, albeit at a leisurely pace. Once there, he would stamp his authority with the powerful and ruthless vigor for which he was known. He had already proven himself as a warrior and a leader during the military campaigns in the Holy Land and was extremely well respected.

 

Edward finally landed in Dover on August 2, 1274. Two weeks later, the coronation took place, but after the crown had been placed on his head, Edward took it off and swore that he would wear it again only when he had reconquered all the lands that had been lost during his father’s reign. It became very clear at this point that during Edward’s reign, there would be serious issues between England and her neighbors.

 

For Wales, there would be no shortage of casus belli. Prince Llywelyn’s younger brother Dafydd, along with Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn of Powys, failed in an attempt to assassinate Llywellyn and fled east, defecting to the English. This happened during a time of heightened conflict between Welsh militants and the Marcher Lords and culminated in the final straw breaking the proverbial camel’s back when Llywelyn refused to pay homage to Edward.

 

Edward exacerbated the situation by imprisoning Eleanor de Montfort, to whom Llywelyn was to be wed. Llywelyn refused to pay homage until she was released, and Edward refused to release her until she paid homage.

 

War

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The remains of Flint Castle in northeastern Wales, which began construction in 1277, via Castle Finders

 

In January 1277, Edward launched a three-pronged invasion of Wales. In the north, the English attacked from the direction of Chester and were aided by the help of Llywelyn’s brother, Dafydd. In the center, the English were aided by Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn, who resented Llywelyn and had been involved in the attempted assassination of the Welsh prince. In the south, the English forces were bolstered by troops supplied by the Marcher Lords, who stood with their king.

 

As the English advanced, many Welsh lords, unhappy with Llywelyn’s rule, switched sides. By July, Edward had amassed an army of 15,000 soldiers, of which 9,000 were Welsh. To solidify his rule, Edward ordered the construction of castles across the conquered territory. With Gwynedd in an already precarious situation, Edward sent 2,000 men to take Anglesey, the island off the northwest coast of Gwynedd. This action was a success, and Llywelyn, surrounded on three sides, realized the nature of his situation and promptly surrendered.

 

After signing the Treaty of Aberconwy, Llywelyn’s possessions were reduced to just the area of Gwynedd, while the English controlled the rest of Wales. In the years that followed, the English mistreated the Welsh, and many Welsh lords grew to resent the new overlords.

 

More War

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Monument to Llywelyn ap Gruffudd at the site of the Battle of Orewin Bridge in Cilmery, Powys, via Stay in Wales

 

Upset with the reward he had received for helping the English in 1277, Llywelyn’s brother Dafydd decided to turn on Edward, and he launched a rebellion in March 1282. Initial successes saw him seizing several English castles and attracting the support of other powerful Welsh lords, including his brother, Llywelyn, and the prince of Northern Powys.

 

In July, Edward sent an army of 4,000 soldiers and 600 knights, not just to quell the rebellion but to conquer Wales once and for all. By December, the English had retaken virtually all of Wales, and Llywelyn tried to make a last-ditch attempt to stop their advance. With an army of about 7,000 men, he took the fight to the enemy, but unable to withstand the might of the English heavy cavalry, the Welsh defense crumbled. An estimated 2,000 to 3,000 Welshmen died on the day of the Battle of Orewin Bridge, and of their number was Llywelyn ap Gruffudd. His head was removed from his body and sent back to London, where it was displayed above the gates of the Tower of London.

 

Dafydd continued the fight for a few months, but he was eventually captured in June 1883, and his head was treated to the same fate as his brother’s.

 

Edward Longshanks: Wales Conquered

conwy castle west barbican
The west barbican of Conwy Castle, via Wikimedia Commons

 

In 1884, King Edward held victory celebrations in Wales and toured his new dominion. In 1301, he named his son Prince of Wales, thus starting the tradition of the reigning monarch giving their eldest son this title through to the present day.

 

Welsh laws were replaced with English ones, and a new system of counties was introduced in order to administer Wales. Huge, imposing castles were built to signify English power, and today Wales remains the country with the highest density of castles per land area.

 

The English occupation was difficult for the Welsh to adjust to, especially as they were now supplanted by English lords as well as commoners who moved in and reaped the Welsh land.

 

Before the 13th century came to an end, there would be more Welsh revolts, but the English had firmly established themselves and were able to quell these uprisings.

 

A side-effect of this conquest was that it was costly. Edward’s insistence on castle-building threatened to bankrupt the country, and the exchequer had to raise taxes across England to help the economy recover. In 1290, this financial recovery was helped by the Edict of Expulsion, in which the Jews were expelled from England, and all their property was seized by the Crown.

 

A major benefit of the conquest was that England could subsequently recruit Welsh archers. Known for their legendary prowess, these troops would go on to have a devastating effect on the Scots during Edward’s war against his northern neighbor.

 

edward i longshank
Edward Longshanks, by Renold Elstrack, 1618, via the British Museum

 

Edward Longshanks was a shrewd and ruthless ruler. His conquest of Wales was an exercise in efficient military and political actions that cemented King Edward’s reputation as an effective and pragmatic ruler. For the Welsh, their nation would be irrevocably linked with England for the rest of its history, for good or for bad.

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By Greg BeyerAssistant Editor; African HistoryGreg is an editor specializing in African History and prolific author of over 100 articles, with a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.