Sunday, June 9, 2013

Llywelyn the Great - Part II - Bain Line


St. David's, Pembrokeshire, Wales 
The life of Llywelyn Fawr connects not only to the kings and earls of his time, but also to the affairs of the Church, which was an ever present influence in medieval life. 
In the previous century, as part of the power struggle between Henry IV, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, and Pope Gregory VII, the pope had declared that it was absolutely necessary for every person on earth to submit to him in order to enter heaven upon death.  Naturally, kings and emperors were not so sure this was the way they wanted things to play out.  But in the thirteenth century, Pope Innocent III was happy to use this tenet to meddle in the affairs of nations. 

This meant that he would take an interest even in the life of Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, far away on the Atlantic Coast in Wales.  Here is one example.  Before marrying Joan, the daughter of King John, Llywelyn had been planning on marrying a woman who had been pre-contracted to Llwelyn's uncle Rhodri ab Owain (one of the villains in Llywelyn's story).  Though Rhodri seems to have died before the marriage took place, a pre-contract was as binding as a marriage in this time period, and Llywelyn would have needed a dispensation from the pope to marry her.  However, this never came to pass because, in 1211, he was fighting with King John again, and when they came to terms, part of their peace agreement was that Llywelyn would marry Joan, an illegitimate daughter of the king. 

 Pope Innocent III
However, marriage was not the only cause that brought Llywellyn into contact with the pope.  If King John is famous (or infamous) for anything, it is for his famous feud with Pope Innocent.  The feud came to a head in 1207, and Pope Innocent let loose his most powerful weapons: he excommunicated John and, the following year, put all of John’s kingdom under an interdict, including Wales.  Putting a whole country under interdict was enormously powerful because it meant that no one in the kingdom could get married, have the last rites of the church at the time of death, or—so the authorities claimed—go to heaven.  Therefore, the subjects of an excommunicated king would rise up against him, which was, of course, exactly the hoped-for result. 

For this reason, Llywelyn had an ally in the pope in all his subsequent battles with King John.  From Llywelyn's point of view, the best part of it was that the pope released him from his loyalty to John as his overlord, which must have left John shaking his fist at the sky somewhere deep in the valleys of Wales.
Gerald of Wales
 Another example of how a medieval king interacted with Church business is Llywellyn’s support for Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales), who was hoping to become bishop of St. David's.  This effort became embroiled in politics since Giraldus was wrangling to make the see of St. David's equal to that of Canterbury, the seat of England’s archibishop.  King John, as one would expect, was standing behind Canterbury.  In the end, Gerald was accused of stirring up the Welsh rulers (especially Llywelyn) and was effectively run out of the British Isles. 

Sarcophagus of Joan, Lady of Wales
But politics aside, Llywelyn had a sincere side to his faith.  He granted a charter to the Augustinian friars at Beddgelert, and, in his old age, founded a Franciscan convent at Llanvaes in Anglesey.  It was at Llanvaes that he buried his wife, Joan, when she died in 1237.  (Her stone coffin, left, now lies in the Church of St. Mary and St. Nicholas in Beaumaris, Anglesey.) 

Aberconwy Abbey, Burial Place
of Llywelyn the Great

His most noted donation to the Church, however, was his establishment of a Cistercian abbey at Aberconwy in 1199.  Over the years, his generosity meant that the Abbey of Aberconwy would hold 40,000 acres, more than any other abbey in Wales.

Penmon Priory, Anglesey, Wales
In addition to being a founder of these bodies, Llywellyn was a great patron of other Welsh religious houses among which were Basingwerk Abbey, Flintshire; Cymer Abbey, Gwynedd; Penmon Priory, Anglesey, and Puffin Island, Gwynedd. 

Near the end of his life, Llywelyn became partially paralyzed and retired to live as a religious at Aberconwy Abbey, where, in 1240, he died and was buried.
Coffin of Llywelyn Fawr
now in Llanrwst parish church

End of Part II

“Aberconwy Abbey,” Wikipedia. 9 Apr 2013.  Web.  1 Jun 2013.

“Llywelyn ab Iorwerth.”  The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Web. 1 Jun 2013.

“Llywelyn ab Iorwerth; Llywelyn Fawr , Prince of Gwynedd (the Great).”  Monastic Wales.  Universitat de Lleida.  n. d.  Web.  1 June 2013.

Ross, David. “Llewelyn ab Iorwerth (Llewelyn the Great).”  Britain Express.  n. d. Web.  1 Jun 2013.


Aberconwy Abbey.  “Aberconwy Abbey.” Wikipedia. 9 Apr 2013.  Web.  1 Jun 2013.

Coffin of Llewelyn ab Iorwerth. 22 May 2010.  Web.  9 Jun 2013.

Interior of Penmon Priory.  Photograph by J. Demetrescu. 2009.  Web.  1 Jun 2013.

Pope Innocent III.  Pope Innocent III.”  Wikipedia.  9 Jun 2013.  Web.  9 Jun 2013.

Sarcophagus of Joan, Lady of Wales.  Joan, Lady of Wales.”  Wikipedia.  19 Apr 2013.  Web.  1 Jun 2013.,_Lady_of_Wales

Statue of Gerald of Wales by Henry Poole. Photograph by Robert Freidus.  Victorian Web.    8 April 2012.  Web.  3 June 2013.


©Eileen Cunningham, 2013





1 comment:

  1. Hi. I found this blog post via Google Alerts, because I'm writing local history books about medieval times, and my latest, Broken Reed: The Lords of Gower and King John, covers Llywelyn, particularly his relationship to the de Breos (or Braose) family. The information and sources are great. My first book is set 100 years later. Shame there's no About page - I don't know who you are! Visit me at


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