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Life in Wales

Wales in the Age of the Princes was not a primitive society.

There were three main social groups: the uchelwyr - the upper class, the bonheddwyr - the freemen and the taeogion - the unfree peasants. Each group had its role in society.

The taeogion (villeins) lived in compact villages in the fertile lowlands. Organised by the maer y biswail (the mayor of the dunghill), they supplied the needs of the princely court. They also had to do farm work for the prince each year. Tied to the land, they could not leave their own village. Their arable crops were vital for Wales. Edward I realised this and, in his 1277 invasion, his forces quickly took Anglesey and seized the grain harvest.

The lowlands were linked to the hills economically. Farming communities moved from the hendref, their main settlement in the lowlands, to the hafod with its upland pastures each summer. The upland farmers were generally bonheddwyr (freemen) who lived in kinship groups, each looking after its own gwely (clan land). They performed military service for the prince, but did not do menial tasks like the taeogion. The upland farms were also vital to Wales. They enabled the Welsh to keep their economic and political independence when the Marcher lords occupied the fertile lowlands.

While the traditional view is that the Welsh were not an urban people, over 80 towns were established in the period 1100-1300. Towns did develop more in the Marcher lordships because these areas were richer, but the Welsh princes also encouraged the development of towns, often near their castles. Trade increased in tandem with these new towns and Wales exported primary goods like cattle, skins, fleeces and cheese. Imports included necessities like salt, wheat and iron, but reliance on these imports would be a weakness against an aggressive King of England.

Manuscript illustrations of Animals

Ms Peniarth 28, f.1v. © National Library of Wales

Link to more information about Cefn Graeanog

An artist's impression of a Welsh farmstead, about 1200, based on excavations at Cefn Graeanog.
More information about a Welsh farmstead

Roger Jones, Cadw. Crown Copyright.