The era we are dealing 1216(ish)-1400(even more ish) marked something of a decline in Welsh fortunes, whereas both the Scots and Irish were getting more difficult for The English Throne; the former with the help of laments and the latter with legends, stories etc The Welsh due an inherent traditional excess of intrigues were unable to turn this round of defeats, errors and squabbles into glorious tragedies and English betrayals. To understand this, it is necessary to briefly look back at the long association The Welsh had with these Isles.
Brief Scamper Through The Past
Going back a couple of thousand years or so everyone who came to these Isles were Celts, after they had supressed, massacred or bred with the original natives they separated into various tribes in various parts. Initially those the Romans first met were The Britons who they conquered after a few massacres and gradually assimilated into the Empire. When the Romans left and various Saxons arrived there was an adjustment and the Britons became either Welsh, Cornish or since they were quite far away Strathclyde, Britons Of. The latter were invaded, slaughtered, massacred etc by someone who were obviously not The Scots as they were far too noble and fiercely independent etc to wipe out another nation. The Cornish suffered from Alfred The Grate who had become so enthusiastic at slaughtering Vikings that he quite forgot himself. In the previous volume we learnt how The Welsh had been the only folk to scare off the Vikings and thus had had the time to set up their own kingdoms and fight amongst themselves and any Anglo-Saxons on the borders. When the 1066 Normans arrived to stay there was something of a change in dynamics.
Welsh Social Structure of The Nobility and the Nation.
On the face of it, it might have seemed quite a sensible and fondly paternal idea that when a king died his land would be divided amongst his sons. However, this system had an inherent flaw in that if a king had, say five sons and each of those sons had four sons that within two generations there would be twenty very small kingdoms and eventually this would have led to a state of there being even more kingdoms than in Ireland. By good fortune for Wales the bonds of fraternal love were very much the same as on other parts of Europe, ie non-existent. So, when a king died surviving sons were quick to go to war with each, marry off sisters who had not been married already and in general try to get their hands on Dad’s throne. This was an accepted way of doing things and previously no great harm had been done done, except by brother upon brother. On the borders with England, for the losing brother there were always the options of (A) He could go and raid English lands (B) He could seek sanctuary in English lands, plot or just show the English the best bits of his brother’s lands to raid. This instability very much concerned the English nobility who were still Normans and thus felt they were obliged to invade all over the Welsh/English border lands, so much so they became known as The Marching Lords.
One of the little known facts about Wales, unless you are Welsh is that for a very small nation it has an amazing capacity for dividing itself up, this is probably a left-over from the parcelling out of lands to kings’ sons (see above). The most important divide is between NORTH Wales and SOUTH Wales, who over the centuries have not only managed to speak different types of welsh but also enlgish.
At this stage of history there was basically Gwynedd in THE NORTH, there had been Powys in THE MIDDLE, but thanks to Gwynedd was in bits and in THE SOUTH had been, or still might be Deheubarth. The latter had caused much curiosity to the Norman kings William I (ie Conqueror) and William II (ie The Rufus) but they had left it alone. This had not applied to their fellow Normans who said the Welsh were troublesome and invaded in a small way. In doing so they got so confused by Welsh Politics they ended up becoming Cambro-Normans, who eventually wandered off to Ireland.
By the 13th Century Wales had organised itself along a north south divide with a big bit in the middle with very few people. This caused a rift in which the Welsh in The SOUTH pretended to know who the King was in England in order to fight barons he didn’t like, each other and anyone from THE NORTH who came close enough. The Welsh in The NORTH said they were quite independent and reserved the right to fight everybody, including each other.
This all changed with Edward I of England invaded everyone he could think of and after Llewellyn ap Gruffurdd, easily the most important welsh king of the time was slain the welsh nobility were obliged to just be princes. This caused a lot of dismay and disillusionment as noted by one Tomas ap Rhodri who was the descent of Llewellyn. He who could have claimed to be a prince, but lived in England and didn’t. His son Owain Lawgoch however was quite legendary and romantic by being a tall warrior, fighting alongside the French against the now officially English. He returned to Wales to claim to be THE Prince of Wales but was assassinated in July 1378 by a sneaky English spy. Whereas this might have made realpolitik sense from an English perspective, it was not the noble or chivalrous way of doing things, which would have correctly entailed a battle and chopping Owain into little bits. This act is therefore considered as ‘Bad Form’, never mind the fact that welsh kings had been doing that sort of thing in the previous centuries.
During this era, some fool had taught the Welsh how to use bows and arrows and they became such adept archers they hired themselves out as mercenaries, all over the place and were thus able to shoot English nobles without being called rebels. This reached an apogee under Richard II who didn’t trust anyone and so Welsh Archers had a splendid time.
Church in Wales
This had been mostly Celtic and produced a large number of saints (David, Patrick etc) until the Normans arrived. Afterwards Welsh Clergy squabbled with English Clergy over being independent but wisely didn’t try and bother various welsh nobles. Eventually however they had to submit to Canterbury. As everything was in Latin but everyone spoke Welsh no one paid that much attention to the change, and a lot of monasteries were built which was a correct cultural response (see below)
Going back to the Early Middle Ages 500 (or thereabouts) while everyone else on The Isles was slaughtering each other, except for hired bards who were making the whole business out to be heroic, the Welsh being culturally advanced were inventing literature. This started with some very old poets who invented a Guild or Order of Bards. Under this system anyone who thought they could write and then in verse had to spend nine years proving it. After this they were allowed to become hired by courts or contributing to the easily most important book The Mabinogion.
This enabled Welsh to survive the Anglo-Saxons. By the 12th Century this art had become so advanced and lyrical that every court of nobly, prince king etc needed to have a poet. When Edward I ruined the political system welsh poets did go in for a period of Celtic style lamentations but then settled down to writing for any nobles who could pay, and cleverly converting some Normans into Welsh. Dafydd ap Gwilym in fact was so gifted and lyrical at his work it was known throughout Europe, whereas no one in, say Germany sung Scottish Laments, told Irish Sagas, or cared what a bunch of folk on their way to Canterbury did or said.
Because of this organised and spirited approach, Welsh Literature of those times has outshone and outlasted everything but a few selected works, and it required Shakespeare to put English on the scene.
Thus as Wales had been the first really civilised Celtic nation it was only correct that by the end of the 14th Century she should have been the first to go into a sad, but very romantically memorable decline.