Wales in the Age of the Princes - An Introduction

"The Britons who were left alive took refuge in these parts when the Saxons first occupied the island. They have never been completely subdued since, either by the English or the Normans."

Gerald of Wales, The Description of Wales, 1194

 

A court harpist - image based on illustration in a medieval manuscript

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When Gerald wrote his book on Wales, it was divided into three major kingdoms: Gwynedd, Powys and Deheubarth and many smaller lordships. Boundaries were rarely fixed for long. Marriages united kingdoms, while rival heirs split them apart. Only great leaders like Hywel Dda and Gruffudd ap Llywelyn were able to unite Wales, and then only briefly.

Link to Historic and Important places in Wales 1100 - 1300
Historic and Important places in Wales 1100 - 1300
Large version of map

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Unity was difficult to achieve. The rulers of Powys could not ignore their eastern neighbours. While Gwynedd, with its access to the sea and its mountains, could always be a haven of independence. Geography encouraged local loyalties and no one kingdom was able to permanently dominate the others.

Yet Wales had much to unite it, such as the language and Welsh law. There were common national characteristics too, as Gerald of Wales noticed:

". light and agile, fierce rather than strong and totally dedicated to the practice of arms and passionately devoted to their freedom, their sole preoccupation is the defence of their fatherland."

Soldiers fighting

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The Welsh would need these qualities in the years 1100-1300.

Gerald of Wales (1146 - 1223)

Born at Manorbier Castle in Pembrokeshire, Gerald was a well-connected cleric with family links to the Welsh royal families and the Norman Marcher lords. He was a great writer and commentator on Wales.

As a Welsh Norman, he disliked the English and wrote:

"They are the most worthless race under heaven. In their own country they are the slaves of the Normans, and in Wales they serve only as cowherds and cleaners of sewers."

Mediaeval manuscript illustration showing a monk.

Ms R 17.1, f.283v. Copyright The Masters and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge.

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