Saturday, July 20, 2013

Llywelyn the Great, Part III - Bain Line


Llywelyn ab Iorwerth
In Shakespeare’s play Henry V, the king goes wandering amongst his men incognito the night before the battle.  He engages them in conversation about whether there is a difference between a king and other men and says, “I think the king is but a man, as I am: the violet smells to him as it doth to me.”

And this is something we often forget.  The king is “but a man,” and Llywelyn was no different.  So what can we know about Llywelyn the man?

Entry to Corbet Castle
First, I think, we must consider his boyhood.  His father was killed in political violence when Llywelyn was just a toddler, and his mother fled with him into exile, probably into England.  Sharon Kay Penman's novel Here Be Dragons, which is about Wales in the time of Llywelyn Fawr, opens in Shropshire, which borders north Wales, where the boy Llywelyn is growing up in Corbet Castle, his mother having eventually married into the Corbet family. There has been some debate as to where Marared fled with her son, but there is documentation that suggests Penman is correct. Specifically, in a grant of land to the monastery at Wigmore, Llywelyn makes references to a Walter Corbet, who appears to have been a monk at Wigmore, and a William Corbet, whom Llywelyn styles avunculi mei, (my uncle). If this William were the brother-in-law of Marared, then he would indeed have been an uncle (albeit a step-uncle) of Llywelyn's. Since two-year-old Llywelyn was, for all practical matters, at war with his father's brothers when Marared took him into exile, the Corbets may have been a family whom he did actually view with affection. 

Estuary of the River Conwy
In 1184, when Llywelyn was twelve, his supporters in Wales began to rise up against his uncle, Daffyd ab Owain, and Llywelyn appears to have returned from exile.  It took ten years, but in 1194, Llywelyn, assisted by his cousins, Gruffudd ap Cynan and Maredudd ap Cynan [in Welsh dd is pronounced as th], defeated his uncle at the Battle of Aberconwy.  Llywelyn and Gruffudd were strong figures in Wales until 1201 when Gruffudd died, and with Daffyd ab Owain safely imprisoned, Llywelyn was the undisputed prince of Gwynedd for four decades.

So, from a king’s point of view, things might be looking quite good.  But, as Richard, Duke of Gloucester, is given to say in Shakespeare’s play Richard III, once “the bruiséd arms” are hung up on the wall, the warriors begin to “caper nimbly in a lady’s chamber to the lascivious pleasing of a lute.”  And thus it was with Llywelyn.

Sarcophagus of Joan, Lady of Wales
In 1204 or 1205, Llywelyn contracted a marriage with an illegitimate daughter of King John of England, hoping, no doubt, for a strong alliance with England in the bargain.  Named Joan, this daughter of John’s came, over time, to be called “the Lady of Wales.” 

Now, here is where things get complicated.  It is hard to know what any king’s feelings were for a wife he took for political reasons—or she, for him—but Llywelyn’s manhood suffered a blow in the year 1230.

  In 1229, Llywelyn had released from imprisonment William de Braose, an Anglo-Norman lord of the Welsh Marches (i.e., a subject of the king of England).  De Braose had been captured in border fighting the previous year and had ransomed himself by promising a marriage alliance between his son and Llywelyn’s daughter Isabella, a match that came with a nice chunk of property for Llywelyn.  And so the plans got underway.

Dolwyddelan Castle Keep,
a Castle of Llywelyn Fawr
Now, in 1230, Lord William was forty-three years old and Joan, the Lady of Wales, already forty-nine, so perhaps Llywelyn did not suspect any shenanigans to occur between the two of them.  But in this he would have been wrong.  Had they become attracted to each during the time when De Braose was held captive by Joan’s husband, or was it a more sudden rush by a man who had not seen freedom for awhile?  Whatever the case, it became known that the two had committed adultery. 

One story has it that the king returned from a hunting trip and found them in the bedchamber together.  Another says that, upon learning of the affair, he sent men to De Braose’s own home to arrest him and return him to Wales.  Outraged at the betrayal, Llywelyn had De Braose publicly hanged on May 2 at a place called “Crokeen,” says the Dictionary of National Biography.

Arms of William de Braose
Inverted to Signify His Hanging
In 1231, Joan was forgiven and released from house arrest.  As a king, Llywelyn came out a winner: the marriage of his daughter to the heir of De Braose brought land to him, and the man who had made of him a cuckold had been hanged.  But what about Llywelyn as a man?  Was he upset about Joan’s betrayal of him as a person, or just the act of treason—for the adultery of a queen was tantamount to treason against the king, as we all know from the Arthurian legend (which did, after all, originate in Wales).  The fact that he released and forgave her suggests there was a fondness between them, but the record is silent from the time of Joan’s release until her death in 1237.

Still, one cannot be too sentimental about the whole business because Llywelyn—as with most medieval princes and kings—was guilty of his own indiscretions.  Before his marriage to Joan, Llywelyn had a mistress named Tangwystl, daughter of Llywarch, who apparently died giving birth to Llywelyn’s first son, Gruffudd, in 1198. 

King John of England
This son is the source of another tale which shows the conflict between personhood and kingship in the life of Llywelyn.  In his ongoing problems with his father-in-law, King John of England, in August 1211, John got the upper hand, and Llywelyn sent his wife, Joan, to broker a deal with her father.  According to the terms she worked out, Llywelyn lost his lands east of the River Conwy but was allowed to keep his other lands, which would revert to England if no male heir was born to Joan.  Further, in addition to being forced to pay tribute to the English king in the form of cattle and horses, Llywelyn had to surrender his first-born son, Gruffydd, as a hostage.

Wicked Stepmother
Now here we must stop and look at the manipulation that was being done here at Gruffydd’s expense.  First of all, the boy was only thirteen at the time, and here he was, being sent off indefinitely as a prisoner of a foreign king as part of a deal negotiated by his stepmother!  Convenient enough for her, as her sons, when they were born, would not have to compete with Llywelyn’s illegitimate son for the right to become the next prince of Gwynedd, which, under Welsh law, would not have been a problem.  Was Llywelyn by, when Gruffydd mounted a horse or was placed inside an English carriage and hauled back to London a prisoner?  It is not certain at what point in time he was released by the English and returned to Wales, but by 1221 he was styled lord of the cantref of Meirionnydd (now Merionethshire) and the commote of Ardudwy—and in fairly constant conflict with his father, Llywelyn.  Who could blame him?

One more consideration, before moving on, is the fact that Llywelyn had sent Joan to deal with King John in the first place, which suggests something about his personality.  There is nothing in the writings of Gerald of Wales that would indicate a weakness on Llywelyn’s part, and he is known to have been a skilled leader of men.  One doesn’t become known as Llywelyn the Great by hiding behind a woman’s skirts, so I think we can exclude cowardice as a cause. 

Gerald of Wales
Perhaps King John had a soft spot in his heart for his illegitimate daughter.  Certainly he had made a pretty good marriage for her and, like most kings, probably hoped to have a grandson through whom his dynasty could gain some power and influence.  If so, then Joan might have seemed an excellent candidate to come to terms with John, and, looking at the situation through twenty-first century eyes, perhaps we can say that Llywelyn was ahead of his time in understanding the acumen of which a woman could be capable (and Joan was, after all, her father's daughter with perhaps his penchant for high-handedness.)

Llywelyn on Death Bed
with Sons Gruffydd (l.)
and Daffyd (r.)
Sadly, the conflict between the son of Tangwystl and the eventual sons of Joan continued for decades until 1241, when Joan’s son Daffyd sent him once again to be held in the Tower of London, where he died in 1244 (three years after his father’s death) in an escape attempt.

But Tangwystl was not the only mistress Llywelyn had, nor was Gruffydd the only illegitimate child.  One never knows how many “natural” children are on one’s family tree until digging in to genealogical research, but my family owes a debt of gratitude to the fact that Llywelyn acknowledged his illegitimate children and made solid arrangements for them. 

In 1230, the same year that Joan fell from favor and was imprisoned, Llywelyn took another mistress, whose name is lost in the mists of time.  However, as a result of that relationship was born a little girl named Elen, to whom I will refer as Elen the Younger to distinguish her from Llywelyn’s legitimate daughter, Elen the Elder, who was already twenty-four when the younger Elen was born.

Llywelyn’s provision for Elen the Younger was a marriage he arranged for her with a Scottish noble, Máel Colium (Malcolm), 2nd earl of Fife, in the year 1249.  Malcolm, however, died in 1266, and three years later Elen remarried with Donald I, 10th earl of Mar, who held Kildrummy Castle, where the marriage took place.  With Donald, Elen had six children, the fifth of whom was their daughter Isabella Matilda, Lady of Mar, our ancestor, and the first wife of the famous Robert the Bruce, king of Scotland (1274-1329).

Kildrummy Castle, Seat of the Earls of Mar
Isabella Mar and
Walter Stewart
When life gives you lemons, they say, make lemonade.  Perhaps that’s an applicable motto for the illegitimate daughter of Llywelyn.  Conceived while Llywelyn was on the outs with his wife, married into Scotland (a foreign land), and widowed at the age of twenty-six, Elen the Younger held on, becoming the mother of Marjorie Bruce, whose marriage to Walter Stewart, 6th high steward of Scotland, made her the matriarch of the Stewart dynasty.  Not bad for a little girl with few chances in the far-off corner of Wales.

And so it was that Llywelyn the Great, prince of Gwynedd, negotiated the curves of his personal and political lives in a way that helps us to see the follies and fortunes of our ancestor, the man Llywelyn ab Iorwerth.

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