Thursday, 10 October 2013

The Last Real Prince of Wales. Arguably.

The story of Henry III aint exactly impressive.  Given that kings in his day were meant to get out there and make their presence felt on the battlefield, Henry was an arty-farty weakling, more interested in kneeling before Holy Relics than leaping on his horse and taking to arms.  Sure enough, there were occasions when he did go out in battle, but he wasn’t much good at it and, by the end of his reign, what his father Bad King John hadn’t lost from the Plantagenet’s empire – I’m talking here about huge chunks of France - Henry had lost instead.

Henry’s son, Edward I, also known as ‘Longshanks’, was however another cup of tea.  The Crusades were past their glory days [at least that’s how people saw it back then] but even before becoming king, young Edward Longshanks had made his mark in them.

As king, he made his mark at home as well, charging round Wales, planting castles with his left hand, defeating the guerilla tactics of those two famous Welsh princes, Llewelyn and his brother, Dafydd, with his right.

Llywelyn the Great, also known as Llywelyn the Last - according to many, even today, he was the last real, 100%, genuine Prince of Wales.  The night before he died in battle, story has it that he slept in a cave on the banks of the Wye. And it so happens that I've been to that cave. It does exist. I found it when I was doing research for  my novel The Red Judge. 

The cave wasn’t easy to locate. No signpost pointed the way.  All I found to guide me was a worn path across a field of wheat. When I got there, however, I found it exactly as I’d heard it described - a low cave in a cliff set back behind a stream, only to be  entered by stooping, its walls and ceiling covered with graffiti.  Some of that graffiti was modern, written in felt-tip. Some, though, was beautifully engraved and dated back centuries.  Sleep well, sweet prince, I read.   We’ll never forget you, someone else wrote, adding their name.  You’ll always be our prince wrote a third - and after that there was a fourth, a fifth and a hundredth more.

So why am I telling you this?  It’s because the story of those two doomed Princes of the Welsh has the last page of its final chapter written here in Shrewsbury. Every day I walk past its final full stop.  Every night, when I go to Waitrose at the top of Pride Hill, I skirt around it, rarely thinking about what once took place.

I’m talking about our High Town Cross.  In case you don’t know the story of what once happened there, here it is. Objecting to Edward I’s heavy-handed replacement of Welsh customs and laws with English ones, which they saw as an attempt to crush the Welsh spirit, Llewelyn and his brother went to war  [I’m doing a lot of condensing here].  No offering of English earldoms could deter them.  They and their Welsh compatriots fought bravely and achieved some notable victories, but in the cold depths of a Welsh winter, Llewelyn was slaughtered in battle near Builth Wells.

The Welsh fought on under Dafydd. However, in April 1283 their final stronghold, the magical Castell y Bere, ten miles west of Dollgellau, was captured. In June of that year Dafydd was betrayed and captured too. He was brought to Shrewsbury and in that year’s Michaelmas parliament stood trial.

Dafydd was a leader of his people, and a royal one to boot. As far as Edward I was concerned, however, Dafydd was a turncoat who in his youth had enjoyed Edward’s hospitality and all the comforts of his court. This war, therefore, wasn’t just political. It was personal.  ‘Namely, in the time of the Lord’s passion, when Judas betrayed Our Lord,’ Edward wrote to the king of Castile, ‘so our traitors, Llewelin ap Griffith and David his brother, who was our familiar and counselor, traitorously rose against us with all their Welsh, invading the lands of our march, killing our lieges, burning villages and towns.’

Edward’s revenge was to have Dafydd slaughtered as a common criminal.  At the top of Pride Hill, seven hundred and twenty years ago, arguably Wales’s last true prince was hung, drawn and quartered.  For those of you who don’t know the details, this involved being hung on a scaffold, having one’s body slashed with a butcher’s blade and one’s intestines ripped out without the nicety of waiting for one to be dead, those intestines being burned and what was left of one's body being hacked into quarters, and in Dafydd’s case each of those quarters being sent to a different city as a reminder of the king’s power.  Finally Dafydd’s head was sent to the Tower of London, where it was set on a spike next to Llewelyn’s head. 

All that Shropshire historians, Blakeway and Owen, have to add to this sorry tale is that on Llewelyn’s body, when he died in battle, along with his signet was found a paper in ‘dark expressions and feigned names, from which it appears that certain noblemen near the Welsh, either Marchians or other, are disaffected to our lord the king.’  Poor old them. Llewelyn’s head was wreathed with ivy, ‘in derision of those claims on the crown to which he was encouraged by the bards’. But no such frills for them. All those men on the list were executed. A massacre, Owen and Blakeway call it. But at least that bit of the story didn’t happen in Shrewsbury.

PS. The head of Llewelyn is apparently reckoned to be buried beneath a pub on a Cardiff council estate.  The final resting place of the rest of his body has remained a mystery ever since. I haven't been able to find out anything about Dafydd's head.



  1. Edith Pargeter - better known as Ellis Peters, author of the Cadfael novels - wrote a four-book novel about these Welsh princes and their fates. The Brothers of Gwynedd Quartet brings the people and places vividly to life. She did a great amount of research, but the novels are a compelling story rather than a dry history. I don't think anyone could forget the tragic events at the High Cross after reading her moving account of the death of Prince Dafydd.

  2. Thanks for that. I haven't read her books on the subject, but I have read [but not finished] The Reckoning by Sharon Penman, and I'd recommend that too.