HISTORY / Remember 1093 and all that?: David Keys reports on the forgotten anniversary of the Norman conquest of Wales

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THE YEAR of the Battle of Hastings - 1066 - is unquestionably the most famous date in English history. William the Conqueror and the possibly fictitious story of how King Harold perished from an arrow in his eye, have been drummed into the heads of countless schoolchildren. And back in 1966 half the nation celebrated the 900th anniversary.

Yet this year a similarly significant anniversary (for at least part of the United Kingdom) is passing without even a murmur. Exactly 900 years ago, the year 1093 saw the start, in earnest, of the Norman conquest of Wales. It was a year of utter disaster for the Welsh. A series of young Norman freebooters marched into the south of the country and seized around 35 per cent of Wales. Already in the previous decade the northern third of the country had come under indirect Norman control.

1093 was one of the most significant watershed dates in Welsh history. It marked the beginning of the anglicization of key parts of south Wales and the end of its independent kingship.

A contemporary Welsh chronicler lamented that 1093 had witnessed 'the fall of the kingdom of the Britons'. Indeed the Welsh saw themselves as the heirs of the Ancient Britons, the word Welsh being an Anglo-Saxon term meaning 'foreigners' or even 'slaves'

1093 would have been viewed by many Welsh as merely a recommencement of 'English' aggression against them - the Britons who had once (in pre-Anglo-Saxon times) controlled England as well as Wales. The sequence of events started at Easter when the ruler of south Wales - King Rhyf ap Tewdwr, King of Deheubarth (modern Dyfed) - was killed near Brecon in a battle against a coalition of Norman and local Welsh enemies. His death created a huge power vacuum into which thousands of competing Norman knights and English and other settlers poured.

What was until recent years Brecknockshire came immediately under the control of Bernard of Neufmarche, a Norman baron who had married into a French family which had been settled in Herefordshire since before 1066. News of the Welsh king's death spread fast and King William II's probable gay lover - Robert Fitz Hammond - took over the whole of lowland Glamorgan at the instigation of the English king, who had already awarded him the lands traditionally held by successive queens of England.

Then Arneulf of Montgomery marched across Wales, seized Pembrokeshire and took the title of Count. His rule was brief, for in 1101 he joined an abortive family rebellion against Henry I and as a result Pembrokeshire became Crown property and was settled by Flemish people imported for the purpose.

Arneulf also took temporary control of South Carmarthenshire. Cardiganshire was also seized - by some of Arneulf's brothers - and although retaken by the Welsh in 1095, was reconquered by the Anglo-Normans 20 years later. In the east of Wales another young Norman nobleman, Philip de Briouze, had taken over much of what was, until recently, Radnorshire by 1095 and had erected a huge castle at Builth.

Although the Norman conquest of South Wales was brazen enough, the situation in Wales as a whole was very complicated. In the 1080s in North Wales, Norman barons had gained indirect control through a series of puppet Welsh kings. Then in 1096 a minor Welsh prince Gruffudd ap Cynan, who had been kept prisoner by the Normans, was put on public display in the market place at Chester but was rescued while the Normans got drunk at a feast.

Gruffudd drove the Norman barons out of much of North Wales - but then opted to become the agent of King Henry I in North Wales, ruling it on the Anglo-Norman king's behalf. Indeed on Henry's instruction he even tried to arrest the main Welsh resistance leader - the son of Rhys ap Pewdwr.

To confuse matters still further, Rhys' son ran his resistance movement from the home of the Norman Lord of Pembroke. The battle lines were equally blurred in South Wales where Hywel ap Gronw - another agent of Henry I - was betrayed by the Welsh to the Norman barons in 1107. The confused situation stemmed from the fact that successive Norman kings, each Welsh ruler and each Norman baron in Wales, had different political agendas.

In South Wales the events of 1093 had dire repercussions. Many Welsh freemen who stayed in the conquered areas would have lost status and wealth - and some may well have lost their freedom and become serfs. Most South Welsh nobles lost their power and many must have fled to the mountainous areas, some of which were not under the control of the Normans.

The Welsh Church also suffered in the long term. Some married hereditary Welsh Catholic priests lost their lands to imported celibate Norman monks. Ultimately some 20 per cent of South Welsh land was given to Anglo-Norman religious houses. Upland Glamorgan and north-east Wales fell to the English between 1150 - 1280 while north-west Wales finally succumbed in 1286. The battle for Wales had taken almost 200 years.

Yet the real launch date of the conquest of Wales - 1093 - has been largely forgotten and totally ignored. The contrast between this Welsh amnesia over 1093 and English enthusiasm over 1066 can perhaps best be explained by examing the two national identities. Wales still sees itself as a Celtic land - the land of the Britons - dominated by its English neighbour ever since the medieval conquest. Their rulers were (and are) the Norman kings of England and their successors - not the kings of Wales.

Conversely England came to identify (and indeed still identifies) with its Norman originating monarchy. Under Norman leadership, England started on its path towards imperialist expansion (first within the British Isles and France - and then later in other parts of the world).

1093 can be seen not only as the beginning of the conquest of Wales - but also, in some ways, as the launch date of the process of English expansion which was ultimately to see all of Britain and then half the world under London's control.

Perhaps that is why 1066 and 1093 are today respectively remembered to such different degrees in England and Wales.

(Photograph omitted)