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Orewin Bridge and the Fall of Wales

Copyright by Daniel Mersey

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Right: Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, depicted in a famous medieval manuscript

Llywelyn's campaign in 1282 was going far better than the 1277 one had against Edward - this time, he had a better understanding of English tactics (in 1277 he grossly underestimated the power of England's latest monarch), and his allies had not melted away at the first sign of confrontation this time either. A victory for the Welsh at the Menai Strait had been a morale boost; the English had built a bridge from Bangor to Anglesey, and Luke de Tany had impetuously rushed his troops across it - only to be ambushed and routed by the Welsh defenders. Using this to his advantage, Llywelyn managed to extricate himself from the encircling English army, and headed south, into mid-Wales; his plan was to make alliances and conquests to unite the whole of Wales (as his grandfather Llywelyn ab Iorwerth had earlier in the C13th). As it was, events would lead to a different outcome, destroying all realistic hope of keeping Wales as an independent principality.

Below: the arms of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd

Llywelyn's army moved across the country keeping to high ground - the English heavy cavalry were at a disadvantage on such ground. On December 11th 1282, Llywelyn's men occupied the hills overlooking the river Irfon, not far from Builth. The Welsh also held a bridge over the river, preventing any direct attack on them. Llywelyn's men would not give battle in the low lying valley, but raided the surrounding areas; Builth castle was strongly held by the English, and soon an English force approached the Welsh positions. The Welsh numbered 7,000 infantry and Llywelyn's teulu of 160; the English force, commanded by Edmund Mortimer, John Giffard and Roger l'Estrange consisted of only around 5,000 infantry, but 1,300 heavy cavalry. On the fateful day of 11th December, Llywelyn was absent from his main force - he may have been scouting, or he may have been going to a meeting with some potential allies (legend records that he was lured treacherously away from his main force, but this really is unsubstantiated). In Llywelyn's absence, the English army advanced on the strong Welsh position, and were shown a ford further along the river by a sympathetic Welshman; they were able to advance on the Welsh held bridge from the flank or rear, and captured the crucial position (allowing the whole army free access across the river). During this time, the Welsh on the hill side stood firm - it is suggested that they were leaderless and confused without Llywelyn's presence, although it is more probable that they knew that the hill was their strongest position, and to forsake his advantage would have meant certain defeat.

As the welsh army stood in tightly packed schiltrons (very similar in tactics to medieval Scottish armies), the English advanced their bowmen, who proceeded to shoot the Welsh spearmen down in detail (the Welsh did have some archers themselves, but we do not hear of them being able to affect this outcome). As the Welsh troops became demoralised, disorganised and weaker, the English knights and heavy cavalry charged home (some from behind, as they had worked their way around the hill). The Welsh routed. The charge of heavy cavalry after missile weapons had disrupted the enemy was one of the most effective ways of dealing with close order foot troops in the feudal period - it was used time and time again: at Hastings in 1066, at Falkirk in 1298, and at Homildon Hill in 1402, for example. Edward I and his commanders utilised the tactic mostly against the Scots, but also against the Welsh when they stood firm; the tactic hardly ever failed (even if several battles were a close run thing...).

Right: Climeri - a view of the slab erected in 1956 to commemorate Llywelyn ap Gruffydd's death nearby; he was run through by a Shropshire trooper's lance on 11 December 1282.
(photograph copyright 1997 by Daniel Mersey)

In the confusion of the battle, Llywelyn was killed; it is assumed that upon hearing the noise of the battle, he attempted to head back to his main force to assume command, and was set upon or ambushed by English troops. It has been recorded that his slayer was Stephen de Frankton, an English cenentar from Ellesmere; he apparently did not recognise Llywelyn (who was dressed in a tunic and not armour - he had been either scouting or preparing for a meeting, remember) and ran him through with a lance. A poem records that Llywelyn had 18 attendants with him at this death - whether it means as a bodyguard, or whether this refers to his company commanders on the hill is uncertain. Llywelyn's head was sent to Edward, and then on to be displayed at the Tower of London - the traditional site for traitor's heads to be displayed.

The question of treachery is now difficult to prove or disprove; the pertinent question would of course be to ask by whom the treacherous act could have been carried out. The local chieftains of Builth cannot really be considered; the English control over the area would mean that they were not much of a force to be reckoned with. Llywelyn's brother David had a history of betraying Llywelyn, and is indeed mentioned as the culprit in later legend - however, the fact that no contemporary blamed him must be remembered. Morris (1905) suggests that the de Mortimers may have played a role - they had been allied to de Monfort in the 1260s, as had Llywelyn, and may have been able to lure him away from his army. This all assumes that the act of treachery was to separate Llywelyn from his main force, and then to ambush him - which we cannot be certain of!

However Llywelyn died, and whoever killed him, the crucial point to be remembered was that he was no longer a threat to Edward I. Llywelyn's brother David was titled Prince of Wales by his followers, but was then betrayed, captured and executed in 1283. The Welsh army had suffered a crushing defeat at Orewin Bridge, and Edward was able to carry out ambition to unite England and Wales under one ruler - creating a far stronger kingdom for his successors to inherit.

Gryffydd ap yr Ynad Coch was one of many Welsh poets to write of Llywelyn's death; the following is taken from DS Evans' LITERATURE OF THE KYMRY (1876: 370-371):

'Woe, ye tents of Cadwaladr, that the obstructor of the flood is pierced!
It is my lot to complain of Saxon treachery...
A lord I have lost, well may I mourn,
A lord of a royal palace, slain by a human hand,
A lord righteous and truthful: listen to me.
I soar to complain. Oh that I should have cause!
A lord victorious until the 18 were slain.
A lord who was gentle, whose possession is now the silent earth.
A lord who was like a lion, ruling the elements...
Where shall we flee? to whom complain
Since our dear Llewelyn's slain?...
A head which, when severed, was not avenged by Kymry.'

Daniel Mersey

Further Reading:

Heath, I 1989 ARMIES OF FEUDAL EUROPE 1066-1300 (2nd Ed)
Mersey, DS 1996 'Death of a Prince' WARGAMES ILLUSTRATED 100
Mersey, DS 1997 'Medieval Welsh Warriors and Warfare' THE CASTLES OF WALES

Other articles by Dan Mersey

Further Details About the Death of Llywelyn

The excerpts that follow are kindly provided by John Richards of Glastonbury. Mr. Richards was present at the dedication of the new monument to Llywelyn ap Gruffydd in 1956.

Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies, vol.5, 1931, pp.351-52. The Death of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd.

The third source for events of this day (the day Llywelyn died) is the letter written by Archbishop Peckham from Pembridge in Herefordshire to the king (Edward I) on December 17th (Register, ed. C.T.Martin, ii 489-90). Llywelyn had died excommunicate, but an appeal for his absolution, so that he might be buried in consecrated ground, had been made to the archbishop by Maude Clifford, who was at once (by her second marriage) the wife of the constable of Builth, John Giffard, and, through her mother, first cousin to the dead prince.

"To my Lord, the King. To his very dear Lord Edward, by the grace of God King of England, Lord of Ireland, Duke of Aquitaine, Friar John, by the permission of God, Archbishop of Canterbury, Primate of all England, greeting and great reverence.


Know that those who were at the death of Llywelyn found, in the most secret part of his body, some small things which we have seen. Among other things there was a treasonable letter, disguised by false names. And that you may be warned, we send a copy of the letter to the Bishop of Bath, and the letter itself Edmund de Mortemer has, with Llywelyn's privy seal, and these things you may have at your pleasure.

And we pray you that no one may suffer death or mutilation in consequence of our information, and that what we send you may be secret. Besides this sire, know that Lady Maud Langespye prayed us by letter to absolve Llywelyn, that he might be buried in consecrated ground, and we sent word to her that we would do nothing if it could not be proved that he showed signs of true repentance before his death. And Edmund de Mortemer said to me that he had heard from his servants, who were at the death, that he asked for a priest before his death; but without sure certainty we will do nothing. Besides this, sire, know that the very day he was killed a white monk sang mass to him, and my Lord Roger de Mortemer has the vestments.

Besides this, sire, we request that you take pity on clerks, that you will suffer no one to kill them, nor do them bodily injury. And know, sire, God protect you from evil, if you do not prevent it to your power, you fall into the sentence, for to suffer what one can prevent is the same as consent. And therefore, sire, we pray you that it may please you that the clerks that are in Snowdon may go thence and seek better things with their property in France and elsewhere. For because we believe that Snowdon will be yours, if it happen that in conquering or afterwards harm is done to clerks, God will accuse you of it, and your good renown will be blemished, and we shall be considered a coward.

And of these things, sire, if it please you, send us your pleasure, for we will give thereto what counsel we can, either by going thither or some other way. And know, sire, if you do not fulfill our prayer, you will put us in sadness, which we shall never leave in this mortal life. Sire, God keep you, and all that belongs to you."

This letter was written in Pembridge, Thursday after St. Lucy's day.


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