The lost history of Wales

John Winterson Richards asks why so few people in Wales know about important moments in our history.

Sunday’s commemoration of the 850th anniversary of the Battle of Crogen – the Welsh equivalent of Scotland’s Bannockburn – passed unnoticed by the Welsh media and the vast majority of the people of Wales.

While it is true that Crogen was not as decisive as Bannockburn, the Welsh in 1165 faced a far more formidable foe than the Scots in 1314. Our ancestors fought not the feeble Edward II but the mighty Henry II at the very height of his powers, who brought the full resources of his Angevin Empire to conquer Wales once and for all. The threat was so serious that it actually united the men of North, South, and Mid Wales – for once – under the leadership of Owain Gwynedd and Rhys ap Gruffydd, the Lord Rhys.

Together, they held the pass at Crogen against a full Royal army, like Leonidas at Thermopylae – but with much happier results, for Henry was forced into a humiliating retreat.

It is perhaps not surprising that this Welsh victory tends to get left out of English history books, but why do so few Welsh people know about it?

Similarly, there appear to be no plans to commemorate the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Castell Mor Graig next year, despite its importance in the history of South Wales and its part in a tale of a different sort of heroism.

Although the maps in history books show Glamorgan as conquered by the Normans at an early stage, so that the attention of historians switches to Gwynedd, the truth is more complex. It seems that Welsh landowners retained some control over the uplands, subject to paying protection money to Anglo-Norman overlords, who built castles like Caerphilly so that they could be used as secure bases for raids against any Welsh who were late with their payments.

The most distinguished of these Welsh landowners, Llywelyn Bren, took advantage of the power vacuum caused by the death of the English Lord of Glamorgan at Bannockburn by laying siege to Caerphilly Castle in 1315. Note that this was over thirty years after the conquest of Gwynedd, the traditional end of Welsh independence.

He met with such initial success that a large army was gathered from all the Marcher Lordships to relieve Caerphilly before his insurrection spread. To block them, he took a strong position on the ridge north of Cardiff. His headquarters were probably in or near Castell Mor Graig, the ruins of which are today next to the Traveller’s Rest pub, where the A469 crests the ridge.

Alas, the obvious strategic and tactical advantages of this position were negated when a Marcher force made a wide flanking move around the ridge via Rudry. Llywelyn was forced to retreat and abandon the siege of Caerphilly. After that, it was only a matter of time before he had to surrender.

In doing so, he asked nothing for himself but begged that his men be spared. This impressed even the King’s enforcer, Roger Mortimer – a hard man even by the standards of Marcher Lords, which is really saying something – and he and others urged the King to pardon Llywelyn. Seeing that this was likely happen, the odious Hugh Despenser, who had now taken over the Lordship of Glamorgan, had Llewelyn hanged, drawn, and quartered, illegally, at Cardiff.

Roger Mortimer had a long memory. A few years later, Despenser fell into his hands and was hanged, drawn, and quartered in his turn.

Welsh history is full of such stories – many of which would be rejected by Game of Thrones producers as too sensational to be credible but which are nonetheless true. The plethora of kingdoms and Marcher Lordships into which Wales was divided means we have as many stories per square mile as we have castles.

So why does hardly anyone know them?

While English armies made a point of targeting Welsh Abbeys, the repositories of our written history, enough has survived to give us an outline of how rich and vibrant our national story could be, but most people seem to think Welsh history is dull and uninteresting, if they think of it at all.

Part of the problem is that Wales has yet to find its Sir Walter Scott, who basically invented modern Scotland’s perception of its history and founded a school of Scottish historical fiction that includes Robert Louis Stevenson, John Buchan, Dorothy Dunnett, and Nigel Tranter.

Nor has Wales found its Braveheart in popular culture. Gwenllian, anyone?

Yet perhaps the real problem is that our Establishment does not want proper red-blooded Welsh history in the schools or in the media. Labour, having let Welsh nationalism out of the bottle in 1997, want no more of it, while the nationalists themselves prefer promoting an image of the independent Welsh as oppressed losers rather than the proud warrior-kings they were. The success of the more virile Scottish brand of nationalism suggests that they are missing the point entirely.

John Winterson Richards is the author of The Xenophobe’s Guide to the Welsh and co-author of The Context of Christ: the History and Politics of Judea and Rome, 100 BC – 33 AD.

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