It is a tribute to the work of a generation of Welsh historians that popular works of synthesis such as this (and David Moore's The Welsh Wars of Independence in the same series) are now appearing in print. Kari Maund succeeds admirably in providing pattern and pace in the thicket of complexity that was mediaeval Wales. The book provides a useful and highly readable summary of the current state of knowledge on the political and military history of Wales from the end of Roman rule to the defeat of Llewelyn ap Gruffudd. As its title suggests, this is a political and military history with no treatment of social, economic or religious issues. The welcome provision of the academic apparatus of footnotes and bibliography reveal an author familiar with the fruits of the latest research; it also belies the publisher's hype on the back cover that this is 'the untold story of the independent native kings of Wales'. No reader contemplating a journey through the endless dynastic infighting of mediaeval Wales needs to be patronised in that way.
Mediaeval Wales was nothing if not fragmented: geography had conspired to make Wales ever a weak sum of its ferociously distinctive parts. Any account of mediaeval Wales is thus necessarily disjointed as our attention is redirected from Gwynedd to Deheubarth, from Powys to Gwent, with interruptions to take in fleeting visits to Glywysing or Senghenydd, Ceredigion or Buellt. We observe a bewildering number of rulers flourish and fade, like so many hothouse specimens, rarely leaving any lasting legacy. The interesting exceptions that prove the rule form the backbone of the book. Of the Line of Merfyn Frych (the author prefers this name for the dynasty of Rhodri Mawr, also known as the Second Dynasty of Gwynedd), Hywel Dda takes centre stage as the first king in Wales to make a long journey outside his kingdom for reasons other than warfare or exile, making the pilgrimage to Rome in 929. His influence, if not rule, extended over a wide swathe of territory and may have inspired the author of Armes Prydain. By 986 his descendant, Maredudd ab Owain ap Hywel Dda, had succeeded in establishing a similar pre-eminence for Deheubarth after its descent into dynastic infighting following Hywel Dda's death, an oft-repeated story. (For this part of the story the author follows David Thornton in his revision of the work of Wendy Davies.)
In the eleventh century, Gruffudd ap Llywelyn was unique in mediaeval Wales for the extent of his power and influence but, as usual, his kingdom did not survive him. Owain Gwynedd was ‘the first Welsh king to have operated on the European stage’, having negotiated an alliance with Louis VII of France in the mid-twelfth century. His contemporary in the south, Lord Rhys ‘was the last Welsh king to rule in a wholly native manner’ and furthermore succeeded in having his powers and status recognised and formalised by the English state. Back in Gwynedd, in the following century, Llywelyn ap Iorwereth married the daughter of the English King John, confirming his status as prince over north Wales, but this status was not inherited by their son.
Finally, the ebb and flow of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd's remarkable career is followed from the low water mark of the Treaty of Woodstock (1247) to the high tide of the Treaty of Montgomery (1267) to the what seems inevitable reversal of fortune of the Treaty of Aberconwy ten years later. Like Lord Rhys before him his pre-eminence was dependent on the good will of the English king. ‘He had received his lands and title not by right but by grant, and grants can be revoked.’ As indeed they were: the fall of Gwynedd in 1283 effectively marked the end of last native Welsh kingdom, although the author provides a spirited rehabilitation of the achievements of Gruffudd ap Gwenwynwyn in Powys.
It is an exhausting and unedifying tale, thoroughly researched and conscientiously told with over 50 black-and-white illustrations accompanying the text. Welsh school history teachers should note than the date 1066 does not once intrude upon this lively narrative.
It is possible to use this review for promotional purposes, but the following acknowledgement should be included: A review from www.gwales.com, with the permission of the Welsh Books Council.
Gellir defnyddio’r adolygiad hwn at bwrpas hybu, ond gofynnir i chi gynnwys y gydnabyddiaeth ganlynol: Adolygiad oddi ar www.gwales.com, trwy ganiatad Cyngor Llyfrau Cymru.