Historical Notes: Prince of Wales's apt sense of history

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The Independent Culture
THE CIRCUMSTANCES in which Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, prince of Wales, met his death in combat near Builth in 1282 still defy historical explanation. Intimations of treachery have remained over the centuries, though suspicion no longer falls upon the men of the neighbourhood where he fell. More suspect are the marcher lords who lured him to the area, or perhaps one of the prince's confidants who encouraged him to set out upon his fateful journey to the march.

The medieval elegies of Gruffudd ab yr Ynad Coch and Bleddyn Fardd portray the fallen prince as a man of great valour and honour. It was then inevitable that, in historical and creative writing of a later age, Llywelyn would be cast in the image of a warrior prince. Yet in the pantheon of the nation's patriots it was Owain Glyndwr, rather than Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, who was to capture popular imagination, the insurrection of the early 15th century all but eclipsing the heroic achievements of an earlier age.

More recent historical writing has looked at the political objectives to which Llywelyn's military initiatives were directed. He brought his fellow princes into military alliance against the power of the English king and marcher lords. But combination in arms was soon transformed into a political unity conceived as a principality of Wales to be held under the overlordship of the king of England.

Anglo-Welsh conflicts fell somewhat short of wars of independence, and Llywelyn's struggle might reasonably be seen as a quest for a 13th-century autonomy. After prolonged delay Henry III acknowledged his power in 1267, conceding him the homage of the other princes of Wales, an allegiance that he had hitherto studiously reserved to himself. Llywelyn, now recognised as "prince of Wales", was allowed to do homage to Henry for the principality of Wales. Parity with Scotland was not a realistic objective even in 13th-century Wales.

Whereas Alexander III remained resolutely determined that he would never do homage for the kingdom of Scotland, Llywelyn strove to persuade the king of England to accept his homage for the principality of Wales. The contrast reflects the marked difference in the political traditions of the two nations. Llywelyn had no difficulty in coming to come to terms with the legendary history of Britain recounted in Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain. He was prepared to envisage himself as the lineal descendant of Camber son of Brutus, implicitly recognising the supremacy of Edward I as the successor to Locrinus. But the Scots would have no truck with any sign of subservience to English domination. Rejecting the Trojan inheritance entirely, they sought their distant origins with Scota, daughter of the Pharaoh. Llywelyn's sense of history reflects a more measured political ambition.

Thirteenth-century political processes have their resonances for late- 20th-century Wales. The prince's authority gave Wales a unity that it had never known before. His pertinacity in his years of achievement was somewhat nullified by a recalcitrance in his subsequent relations with Edward I, enough to bring upon him a grievous humiliation only 10 years after his triumph. Wielding an infinitely superior power, Edward I was determined to restore the historic relationship between England and Wales.

But more was involved than the mutual antagonisms of king and prince. Llywelyn's relations with the marcher lords upon whose lands he had impinged, his dealings with fellow princes whose uncertain fidelity was crucial to his security, and the exacting nature of his rule over the communities whose resources sustained his broader ambitions, all were vital elements in his political discomfiture, and make a subject of rare interest in Welsh political history.

J. Beverley Smith is the author of `Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, Prince of Wales' (University of Wales Press, pounds 30)