Llywelyn The Great - The Myth of Llywelyn Fawr

In the twelfth century Llywelyn ab Iorwerth (1172-1240), a grandson of Owain Gwynedd (d.1170), was a most unimportant prince and no one could have foreseen what a great future lay in store for him in the first decade of the thirteenth century.  It is therefore worth propounding that he was never referred to by contemporaries as Llywelyn Fawr - Llywelyn the Great.  Indeed there appears to be no mention of him under such a name during the Middle Ages.  In consequence it seems that this name is a relatively modern conceit that distorts history.

Research into the subject suggests that Llywelyn's well known epithet is based solely upon the singular evidence that a document of Edward I (1272-1307) is said to have once referred to him as Lewelini Magni - or Llywelyn the Great.  However, it should immediately be noted that the common Latin word magnus has a wide variety of meanings and so could have meant, large, great, big, vast, huge, powerful, tall, long, broad, extensive, spacious, mighty, distinguished, skilled, bold, confident, proud, complete, pure, intense, loud, expensive, notably famous, old or simply, in its most common and most likely form in this context, senior.  Quite obviously to understand the meaning of the words Lewelini Magni it is necessary to examine the surviving evidence concerning the commonly used name, Llywelyn Fawr.

The only place to begin and end looking for evidence is in original sources, in whatever form they have come down to us.  The statement of an historian from the 20th century is not really worth anything, unless it is backed by solid original facts.  A quick glance reveals that there are a myriad of letters from the kings of England and their ministers to Llywelyn and even some from various barons.  None of these use the epithet Llywelyn Fawr and only one allegedly calls him Lewelini Magni.  Leaving this one singular occurrence to examine later, it is first necessary to scrutinise other contemporary sources in the form they have come down to us.  Relatively speaking a vast amount of contemporary poetry was written to Prince Llywelyn and not one of these poets, Cynddelw, Prydydd y Moch, Llywarch ab Llywelyn, Dafydd Benfras, Einion ap Gwgon, Einion ap Gwalchmai, Einion Wan, Gwgon Brydydd, Elidyr Sais or Llywelyn Vard, ever gave the prince the epitaph Fawr or indeed anything similar.  Similarly, when Llywelyn was mentioned in poems to his sons or grandsons by Prydydd y Moch, Dafydd Benfras, Einion Wan, Llygad Gwr, Bleddyn Uart or Prydydd Fychan of Deheubarth, he was never more than Llywelyn ab Iorwerth Drwyndwn and usually just Llywelyn.  Again, in the Annales Cambriae and the Welsh Bruts, Llywelyn was either Llywelyn, Llywelyn ab Iorwerth or Prince Llywelyn.  In brief the original evidence shows absolutely no indication that Llywelyn was ever known as Llywelyn the Great during his own lifetime.

What then can be said of the idea that near-contemporaries dubbed him Llywelyn Fawr due to what he had achieved while he was living?  Matthew Paris (d.1259) actually calls him magni, but again the words indicate that he was not using it to mean great, but senior.  He actually states that there were three sons of the senior Llywelyn and one of them was Dafydd who won a battle in 1258 - David junior trium fratrum scilicet, trium filiorum magni Leolini principis Northwalliae.  Even in this Matthew gets it wrong, as Dafydd ap Gruffydd was the grandson of Llywelyn and in any case younger Dafydd was one of four surviving brothers - Owain Goch, Llywelyn, Rhodri and Dafydd.  The term magni Leolini obviously refers to Llywelyn the elder or the previous Llywelyn to the current Prince of Wales, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, the brother of the Dafydd mentioned fighting in 1258.  If Matthew could confuse this Dafydd with his uncle, Dafydd ap Llywelyn (d.1246), it again serves as a stark warning about the validity of original sources without corroborating evidence.  Previously Matthew had referred to Llywelyn ab Iorwerth as King Llywelyn of Wales before reverting to the normal Prince Llywelyn of North Wales or even Prince Llywelyn of the Welsh.  What is clear is that he never referred to him as Llywelyn the Great.  Neither, apparently did any other chronicler.

In the royal records, up to the end of the principality of Wales in 1283, there is only one singular source that may suggest that Llywelyn used the epithet Fawr and this comes in a royal confirmation of a charter that had been lost by 25 March 1286.  Around that time, 46 years after the death of Llywelyn ab Iorwerth and four years after the death of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, Bishop Einion of Bangor (1267-1307) stated that he had seen and examined a charter by Lewelini Magni before its recent destruction when the interior of Beddgelert priory was burned by mischance.  A few weeks later King Edward I (1272-1307) confirmed this document and other recently lost charters at the request of the prior of Beddgelert and with the aid of Bishop Einion's confirmation:

    by the praiseworthy testimony of the aforesaid bishop through his inspection of the preceding charters faithfully consulted in full.

The result was two charters made in the spring of 1286 soon after the fire had swept through the interior of the priory church and destroyed its outbuildings.  Einion's charter was made at Maesyllan in the week of the feast of the Annunciation which occurred on 25 March 1286 and reads:

To all those faithful in Christ, these letters whether seen or heard, Einion by divine sanction the humble servant bishop of Bangor, [sends] everlasting salvation in the lord.  Know that we have seen various charters by divers princes [made] to the prior and convent of St Mary of the valley by Snowdon.  
Namely a charter of Llywelyn Senior (Lewelini Magni) concerning all the land of Cynddelw (Cynderick) of Pennant (Rennaut).
Also a charter of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd concerning all the lands of the sons of Ithel of Pennant (Penard).
Also a charter of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd concerning all the land of the men of Traian (Trehan) at Kenybeind and Llecheidior (Lecheitaur).
Also a charter of the Lord Owain concerning all the vill called Tre'r beirdd in commote Menai.
Also a charter of the Lord Llywelyn ap Gruffydd concerning all that land at the place of Beddgelert (Beckellers).
Also the charter of the Lord David concerning all the land which Iorwerth ab Yerfynt held, also Feraul in Pennant.
And in addition to the said lands we have seen papal letters of confirmation, bulls, neither cancelled nor rescinded, nor in any part damaged.  This may be known to all, that the said house of St Mary is the senior religious house in all Wales except for the island of the saints at Bardsey, and the best hospice for the common needy and those English and Welsh travelling from England and West Wales to North Wales and from Ireland and North Wales going into England.  But, in immoderate damage and the common frailty of all things, the said house, by chance had the interior destroyed by fire, although it suffered destruction at the time of greatest hospitality, however through the blessed king, the catholic, the liberal, by the will of God, the Lord Edward has restored it to the full; and because it is blessed to come to the help of the afflicted and oppressed.  We, through the compassion of God, and through the intercession of his same mother, and trusting in the judgement of all his saints, to all of the benefactors to the said house, whencesoever they come to help, who by goods, by God collected, pious alms or favours, they might have collected, we relax for 40 days any repented misdeeds brought against them; as long as they are truly found guilty and confessed.

Some six weeks later King Edward himself had a charter made which confirmed what had happened.  However, it is noticeable that the charters and associated lands confirmed to Beddgelert were not quite the same.  It would seem that the prior and his canon who met the king had remembered slightly more than the bishop.  This would account for the discrepancies, but probably the full truth of the matter will never be known.  Leastways on 10 May 1286 at Canterbury the king set out his charter.

It happened that our father, Prior Madog of the house in the Vale of St Mary and Brother Hugh his co-canon of the same house, came to us humbly with devoted prayers, that with all its buildings the priory itself, and also its charters and other instruments of divers lands and tenements acquired by the same priory, with the same buildings by misfortune were recently burned, the safety of any lands and tenements aforesaid to themselves and their successors, the servants of God in the same place, we might undertake to do for charity.  And because the venerable father, Bishop Einion of Bangor, sent to us his letters patent, through which he has testified to have seen himself charters of various princes made to the priory and convent in the aforesaid place;
that is the charter of Llywelyn Senior (Lewelini magni) of all the land of Cynddelw (Kindeluluyt) of Pennant (Fennant);
the charter of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd of all the lands of the sons of Ithel of Pennant (Pennard);
the charter of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd of all the land of the men of Traian (Treban) at Kenybemd and Llecheidior (Letheyeaur);
the charter of the Lord Owain of all the vill which is called Tre'r beirdd in Commote Menai;
the charter of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd of all their land and the place of Beddgelert;
the charter of the Lord Dafydd of all the land of Oerddwr at Pennant (Adver apud Epennant);
the charter of the Lord Dafydd of all the land of Legwaret, Llanfair is Gaer of Pennardd (Vayre Gneyr de Penaut)
And the charter of the Lord Dafydd of the land which was held by Iorwerth ab Yrefeyrat and Steyral at Llanfihangel y Pennant (Epennant).
We by the immense damage, which the aforesaid prior and convent sustained from the burning of the aforesaid pious companionates, and also by the praiseworthy testimony of the aforesaid bishop of his inspection of the preceding charters faithfully consulted in full, the preceding gifts on account of the safety of our soul and of the souls of our ancestors and heirs accept the preceding donations of lands to the aforesaid priory made previously, and the same for us and our heirs, as far as it is in us, the aforesaid priory and convent, exactly as the gifts have reasonably been used by them and the successors of them to this time, we concede and confirm forever.  This is witnessed by the venerable Bishop Robert of Bath and Wells our chancellor, Earl Gilbert Clare of Gloucester, Earl Edmund of Cornwall our cousin, Edmund Mortimer, William Braose, Robert Fitz John, William Leybourne and others.

It is quite clear from this that Llywelyn ap Gruffydd (d.1282) was the main charter giver to Beddgelert priory, although his two brothers, particularly Dafydd (d.1283), also played a substantial part.  However many of the lands ‘granted' seem to be more like repeat confirmations as internecine struggles changed the political landscape of North Wales.  Regardless of this, these lost charters lead to another question.  Did Prince Llywelyn ab Iorwerth found the Augustinian house of Beddgelert as has been suggested?  The entire evidence for this comes from these two records of one charter and rests upon the doubtful identification of Lewelini Magni with Llywelyn ab Iorwerth.  Even if this is the case, then the translation would not be Llywelyn the Great, but the senior Llywelyn to contrast him with the second Llywelyn who is described as Lewelini filii Griffini.  Although this suggestion is logical it is not proof.  Proof is very difficult to obtain, and can only come by examining what lands the senior Llywelyn granted.  Thankfully this is largely possible, not least due to the survival of later surveys, namely those of 1291 and 1535.  These allow many of the lands of Beddgelert priory to be reasonably identified.  These are listed below in the appendix.  From this we can see that Llywelyn Senior granted the Pennant valley to Beddgelert.  As this, like Beddgelert, was in Eifionydd and not Arfon, it would seem possible that this was granted by Llywelyn Fawr ap Maredudd, the cousin and enemy of Prince Llywelyn ab Iorwerth and his sons.  If Beddgelert priory, the major religious institution of Eifionydd was refounded by the family of Cynan ab Owain Gwynedd (d.1174), it would make much more sense of Llywelyn ab Iorwerth trying to quash the priory, if indeed Llywelyn is the prince mentioned in a contemporary text as trying to do so.  According to Giraldus Cambrensis (1146-1223), Aberconwy abbey intended to annex Beddgelert priory and to this end:

[Aberconwy Abbey] pursued the whole [priory of Beddgelert] itself by pressuring the work of every sort and employing worry, and the strength of the prince of the province himself [they gained] by bribes and great gifts for his bias, to induce him into agreement, to the point where the said poor house might be wholly demolished, or those clerks transformed into being their ordinary monks, and that the house and church should be destroyed and converted into a grange of theirs, they would not delay violently ruining it; [so] the said clerks sent a letter to the Roman court and they obtained letters of protection from the lord pope by great labours and costs..., finally with difficulty from the said persecutions and tyrannical oppressions they were able to defend themselves.

This story was probably written in the 1210s after Giraldus retired from Wales to Lincoln, but as he is the only source for this affair it should be remembered that Giraldus was not above twisting reality to suit his own prejudices and he seems not to have liked Cistercians in general.  Whatever the truth of the matter - for no papal letters have yet been found about the affair - Giraldus was sure that Aberconwy was a rich and powerful Cistercian house and that it was desirous of new lands at the expense of the old order.

If the above story is true, Giraldus must have referred to events some years after 1186 when Aberconwy was founded.  His reluctance to name the prince involved in the attempt to subvert Beddgelert may suggest that Llywelyn ab Iorwerth was the prince meant - Llywelyn had been one of Giraldus' greatest supporters in his fight against the archbishop of Canterbury and King John.  If this is the case, the story must date to after March 1200 when Llywelyn acquired Gwynedd.  If before that date then either Gruffydd ap Cynan (d.1200) or Rhodri ab Owain (d.1195) must be the prince referred to.  If it was Llywelyn ab Iorwerth moving against the priory it makes the grant of Llanfihangel y Pennant by him rather odd, unless this was granted after 1202 in recompense for his hostility to the religious house.  However, if Maredudd ap Cynan (d.1212), Llywelyn ab Iorwerth's enemy who he had vanquished in 1201-02, was the main grantor or even the refounder of Beddgelert the story would make sense of Llywelyn attempting to quash an enemy founded house and a possible centre of opposition to his rule in the district.  It would also make sense for Maredudd ap Cynan's son, Llywelyn Fawr ap Maredudd, to make a confirmatory grant of Llanfihangel y Pennant after his reinstatement in Meirionydd and Eifionydd in 1241.  Presumably the original charters of his founding ancestors had never existed or had been destroyed during the annexation of Eifionydd by Llywelyn ab Iorwerth in 1201.

The conclusion of this brief summary of the grants to Beddgelert priory is therefore that the likelihood is that the Lewelini Magni of the Beddgelert charters is in fact Llywelyn Fawr ap Maredudd, the lord of Eifionydd, and that Beddgelert priory had little to do with Prince Llywelyn ab Iorwerth after he assumed rule of the district in 1201.  Hence it is the grandchildren of Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, Owain, Llywelyn and Dafydd, after the all but destruction of the princes of Eifionydd/Meirionydd, who donated the bulk of the surviving (until 1286) charters to Beddgelert priory.

The evidence quoted above therefore shows not a single shred of evidence that Prince Llywelyn ab Iorwerth was ever known as Llywelyn Fawr either during his lifetime or for a century afterwards.  Instead there is evidence that his first cousin once removed may have been known as Llywelyn Fawr, but never as the term is used today, viz. Llywelyn the Great.  This prince appears in various genealogies as Llywelyn Fawr ap Maredudd.  Quite obviously Fawr is used to differentiate him from his younger brother, Llywelyn Fychan ap Maredudd.  In 1215 this Llywelyn, as Llywelyn ap Maredudd ap Cynan, accompanied Prince Llywelyn ab Iorwerth in his attack upon Deheubarth.  In 1241 the king stated that he would return to ‘the sons of Maredudd ap Cynan all their rights in Meirionydd'.  Presumably these sons were Llywelyn Fawr and Llywelyn Vychan.  Certainly, on 10 January 1245, King Henry III complained that amongst the barons of North Wales who had sworn fealty to him and were now in rebellion under Prince Dafydd ap Llywelyn were Lewelino filio Mereduc and Lewelino fratri ejus.  It was probably a year later when Llywelyn had made his peace with King Henry that he wrote to him as Lewelin senior filius Mored filii Kanani de mennoyth.  This could easily be translated as Llywelyn Fawr ap Maredudd ap Cynan of Meirionydd.  It is not difficult to see from this that there was apparently only one prince of Wales ever known as Llywelyn Fawr and that was the elder Llywelyn ap Maredudd of Meirionydd.

It therefore seems quite clear that the charter of Lewelini Magni to Beddgelert priory seen by the bishop of Bangor before 1286 was made by the prince of Meirionydd and not by Prince Llywelyn ab Iorwerth.  From this it can consequently be seen that Llywelyn the Great of Wales is yet another anachronism that distorts true history.  Perhaps one day an historian will search out the evidence of when this anachronistic name was applied to one of modern day Wales' greatest heros.

The full article with footnotes is available here.


Copyright©2017 Paul Martin Remfry

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