Friday, August 24, 2012

A Fractured Wales

(Offa's Dyke)

As my next historical novel nears completion, I'll be bringing you some history on medieval Wales. This book features Owain Glyndwr, the last Welsh Prince of Wales, and also includes: Harry Hotspur, Richard II, Henry IV and a young Henry V. Owain's life bears many similarities to that of Robert the Bruce, and it has been speculated that he emulated the Bruce and patterned many of his military practices and diplomatic policies on those of the King of Scots. In many ways, however, his story is markedly different.

The working title of the book is Uneasy Lies the Crown, A Novel of Owain Glyndwr, and its expected release date is the end of 2012. For now, here's a little background on the Wales before Owain's time:

A Fractured Wales

During the Dark Ages, both of what are now present-day Wales and England were fractured into numerous, smaller kingdoms.  In the late eighth century, King Offa of Mercia built a dike extending approximately 180 miles from the estuary of the Dee River, down across the Severn, and on south to the mouth of the Wye.  Whether undertaken to thwart raids by the hill-inhabiting Welsh into pasture-rich Mercian lands or as the result of a mutually agreed upon drawing of lines is unclear, but Offa’s Dyke defined the limits of the general Welsh border for centuries on.

East of the Severn, the divided kingdoms were eventually melded into one when Althelstan became the first King of all England in the tenth century.  Well into the thirteenth century, Wales was still divided into four main principalities: Gwynedd in the north, Powys in the central lands, Dyfed in the southwest and Deheubarth in the south.

Perhaps one of the greatest contributors to this ongoing fragmentation of medieval Wales lay in the practice of fostering out the sons of noblemen.  Being raised in separate households, blood-brothers often had little personal knowledge of each other and consequently less likelihood of developing any affection for or loyalty to one another.  Also, in much of medieval Europe the eldest son would inherit his father’s titles and thus the bulk of the lands, a practice called primogeniture.  In Wales, however, inheritances were divided amongst sons – a practice called partible succession or gavelkind – thus weakening centers of power, furthering divisions and setting the stage for bitter sibling rivalries.   

Welsh princes sometimes sought out and accepted the overlordship of English kings in order to gain protection from neighboring chieftains or even their own kin.  In 926, King Athelstan exacted tribute (payment in return for peace) from several Welsh princes, including Hywel Dda of Dyfed who eventually became the ruler of three-fourths of Wales through inheritance.  He aligned himself closely with the English king, visiting the English court frequently, and later standardized the laws of Wales – an act for which to this day he is still remembered.  Upon his death, though, his kingdom was split amongst his three sons and for yet another century Wales remained divided. 

Homage (a formal acknowledgement of allegiance) given to English kings became routine for Welsh lords and costly tributes were doled out regularly, but later the Welsh were often even required to supply troops to the English to support military campaigns elsewhere.  Welsh archers, renowned for their skill with the longbow, and Welsh pikemen were routinely employed in English armies in campaigns in France and Scotland.

In the middle of the eleventh century, the ambitious Gruffydd ap Llywelyn of Powys united north and south Wales for a brief period before Earl Harold of Wessex had him pursued into the wilderness and killed.  Earl Harold later became King Harold of England, until William of Normandy defeated him at Hastings in 1066.  Norman keeps were then constructed throughout Wales and were garrisoned with English soldiers to keep the locals in check.  English lords, many of Norman descent, increasingly controlled the civil administration of Wales. 

Next up - the uniting of Wales.

Until later,