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The Struggles for Independence

In the 13th century the princes of Gwynedd sought independence from the kings of England, while the Welsh lords resisted the dominance of the princes of Gwynedd. Success in this struggle depended more than anything else on the strength or weakness of the English throne. The kings of England had a definite plan for Wales: to cut its princes down to size.

The century started badly when in 1201 Llywelyn the Great, prince of Gwynedd, had to agree that King John was his overlord. Despite this setback, Llywelyn was able to gradually strengthen his position while John was preoccupied fighting his barons and signing the Magna Carta. Despite the unholy alliances between the Marcher barons and the Welsh lords, by his death in 1240, Llywelyn had made Gwynedd the dominant power in Wales.

Henry III forced Prince Dafydd to hand over his brother, Grufudd, as a guarantee for good behaviour. Gruffudd died in 1244 while attempting to escape the Tower of London.

Image from Mediaeval manuscript Roy.14 C VII, f.136. © British Library

Illustration from Matthew Paris's Chronica Majora, showing Llywelyn the Great on his deathbed with his sons, Dafydd and Gruffudd.

© The Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

Llywelyn ap Gruffudd's career as prince of Gwynedd (1246-82) is the story of his attempted escape from being treated as just another baron by the English king. Initially he was successful, expanding his rule and proclaiming himself prince of Wales in 1258. He then exploited the civil war in England to get his new status recognised. In 1267 Henry III agreed that "the king, together with the consent of the Lord Edward, grants to Llywelyn and his successors, the title Prince of Wales, and also the homage and fealty of all the Welsh barons of Wales."

Link to large version of the Map of Wales after the Treaty of Montgomery in 1267

This map shows Wales after the Treaty of Montgomery in 1267. Llywelyn's power peaked that year.
Large version of map

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The Principality of Wales
  Gwynedd, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd's principality
  Territories conquered by Llywelyn ap Gruffudd
  Territories of Llywelyn's vassals
Marcher Wales
  Lordships of the Marcher barons
  Lordships of the King of England

Llywelyn's victory was shortlived. Welsh lords and Marcher barons disliked Llywelyn's new status, but the man most determined to overturn the 1267 treaty was Edward I, the new King of England. Unlike his father, he had no distractions at home and he had the resources to mount an invasion.

Edward I, nicknamed Longshanks, used the law to dominate his barons. They would not humiliate him as they had his father, Henry III. Edward I was keen on securing his rights and dealing with 'overmighty subjects.'

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Llywelyn, antagonised by Edward I's determined enforcement of his rights in Wales, refused to swear allegiance. The king grabbed at this excuse. In 1276 he declared Llywelyn a rebel and mounted a brilliantly organised invasion of Llywelyn's Wales. Within a year the Welsh prince had surrendered.