On 30 October 1282 Roger Lestrange was appointed captain of the army of Montgomery in place of the deceased Roger Mortimer Senior of Wigmore. He soon moved to his new command in Shropshire, leaving Builth Wells castle, which he had previously been guarding for the king, in the hands of John Giffard. To aid Lestrange in his new capacity Peter Corbet (Caus), Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn (Powys), John Lestrange (Knockin), Robert Mortimer (Richard's Castle) and Reginald Fitz Peter (Blaenllyfni) were ordered to be intendant upon him. As soon as Lestrange reached Montgomery he 'endeavoured to remedy that which seemed to him to be going amiss'. In answer to a command from the king he replied that he would not imperil his Shropshire forces with a march over the mountains of Berwyn and Rug to engage the enemy. Instead he would use his men in blockade, as much supplies were still entering Wales to reach Llywelyn without anyone's knowledge. He therefore requested that Earl Warenne kept a good watch for contraband at Bromfield. He also asked that Roger Mortimer Junior should do the same at Chirk as should also the bailiffs of Buellt and Brecon and Lady Matilda Mortimer at Radnor and her son Edmund in Maelienydd. Obviously Lestrange was under no misapprehension as to who was supplying Llywelyn, though he appears not to have known why. On the very same night as this letter was written Roger had word that Prince Llywelyn had come down into the lands of Gruffydd [probably ap Gwenwynwyn was meant. Gruffydd's lands stretched to Arwystli through which Llywelyn probably marched]. Consequently he was rallying his forces [at Montgomery is implied from later events] to march against him. The final campaign of Prince Llywelyn had begun.
While Lestrange had sorted out what was amiss at Montgomery, Sheriff Roger Springhose of Salop reported to the king that it was impossible to collect any revenue from Mortimer's Welsh vassals, as the March had yet to be pacified. This and other reports of the hostility of the natives of Mortimer's domain may well have encouraged Prince Llywelyn. Meanwhile Luke Tany and Roger Clifford Junior had secured the conquest of Anglesey for the king, yet on 6 November they had disobeyed orders and crossed to the mainland. Near Bangor their force of 7 bannerets, 40 odd knights and associated horsemen, making as many as 120 lances, and supported by 300 men-at-arms, was overwhelmed and Clifford, Tany, William Audley, Peter de la Mare and many of his knights and serjeants were killed at Moel y Don. Royal records suggest also that there were as many as 2,000 foot involved in the expedition, though most of these may have remained in Anglesey. This defeat gave the Welsh new hope and Llywelyn decided to move south from Garth Celyn and carry the war into the Middle March as he had done so often before. At this point the sources begin to diverge, but with the careful use of royal records and judicious dissection of the sources a credible account of his last days can be given.
Llywelyn camped the night of 10 December near Abbey Cwmhir with 160 cavalry and 7,000 foot after marching to the abbey from Inlanmake through the land of Gwrtheyrnion. It would seem likely that many in this district proved willing to do him homage and their willingness was compounded allegedly at the deceitful request of Roger Mortimer Senior's sons. While Llywelyn was at his business all the potentates of the March, Roger Lestrange with the garrisons from Montgomery and Oswestry, John Giffard of Clifford and constable of Builth Wells castle, the sons of Roger Mortimer Senior who included Roger Mortimer Junior of Chirk and his brothers Edmund of Wigmore, William of Tinboeth and Geoffrey, together with Robert Mortimer of Richard's Castle, Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn of Powys and his two sons, Peter Corbet of Caus, Reginald Fitz Peter of Blaenllyfni, Ralph Basset of Drayton, Simon Basset of Sapcote and Lord Andrew Astley moved against him. According to one chronicle Llywelyn came first to the district of Montgomery and, judging by Lestrange's letter mentioned above, this is true. The source goes on to state that Lestrange, irritated at not having destroyed Llywelyn's force when it was in his district, well prepared, set off after it, "rushed into him [Llywelyn], and cut off his head". As will be seen below this seems to be a very condensed, but accurate summary of events.
After leaving Abbey Cwmhir on the morning of Friday 11 December, Llywelyn set out for the south gaining possession of Buellt up to Llanganten just west of Builth Wells castle. Then, according to the Welsh Chronicle, Llywelyn "sent his men and his steward to receive the homage of the men of Brycheiniog, and the prince was left with but a few men with him". In June 1282 after the battle of Llandeilo, Reginald Fitz Peter of Blaenllyfni and other Marchers appear to have been of the opinion that their Welshries of Brecon would not remain loyal after a disastrous defeat. In this they appear to have been correct. The day, however, did not remain with Llywelyn. In the afternoon of 11 December he appears to have split off from his main force with a little band of 17 or 18 men to keep a rendezvous, but with whom is not recorded. Subsequently most chronicles are in agreement that the prince was intercepted with his few noble companions and the point of interception has long been held in folklore to have occurred at Aberedw, just down the Wye from Builth Wells. The Welsh annals state clearly that he was killed 'in battle' not far from Llanfair in Buellt, now Builth Wells. The annals of Chester, agreeing with the elegy by Gruffydd ab yr Ynad Coch on Llywelyn's death, state simply that 'Llywelyn and a few followers were killed in the land of Buellt'.
It seems most likely that the Marchers under Roger Lestrange and Roger Mortimer of Chirk, both of whom had probably advanced from Montgomery, fell upon this little band and slaughtered them in an almost secret affair at dusk on Friday 11 December, around vespers according to the Peterborough chronicle. William Rishanger stated that Llywelyn came into the land of Builth with but a few knights from his army. Then John Giffard and Edmund Mortimer came to the little band 'with nothing arousing the suspicion of the prince, himself or his allies'. At this point the small retinue were attacked and killed, meeting their death 'like lambs'! According to the Welsh Chronicles "Roger Mortimer (of Chirk and Pencelli) and Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn, and with them the king's host [the Montgomery army], came upon them without warning; and then Llywelyn and his foremost men were slain on Friday 11 December". Thomas Wykes had obviously heard similar stories and he wrote of Edmund Mortimer and his brother enticing Llywelyn down to his lands from the mountains of Snowdon. Then, when Llywelyn and a small band were 'roaming about', they fell upon them unexpectedly through the agency of 'a clerk or notary acting as a spy' killing Llywelyn and his accomplices with their swords. Soon afterwards Roger Mortimer of Chirk had severe problems with the archbishop of Canterbury, part of which seem linked with his actions at Buellt where he may have killed a priest, a member of Llywelyn's small party. The archbishop in his letter speaks of Edmund Mortimer's valets, who were present at the event, hearing Llywelyn call for a priest before he was killed. He also tells of Roger Mortimer having the garments of a priest taken at the prince's killing. From this it would seem that all Llywelyn's party were killed, whether they were laymen or not.
The annals of Waverley, which again were remarkably well informed about Welsh affairs, state tacitly that Llywelyn was captured by Edmund Mortimer and many Marchers and then put to death by beheading before many Welshmen were killed by an assault or attack. From this and other chronicles we can deduce that the main Marcher army, after killing Llywelyn, moved against the now leaderless Welsh army and at 'a pre-arranged time', probably dawn the next day, fell upon them and inflicted a heavy slaughter. According to Roger Lestrange, a man who had previously counted armies for his king, when the action was over 3,000 Welshmen and all the Welsh cavalry lay dead in the field and his own troops had suffered not one casualty! Only one chronicle states that the Marchers suffered no casualties during the destruction of Llywelyn's army and he only gives one line for the entire affair and gives Edmund Mortimer as English leader on the day of Llywelyn's death by decapitation. The Dunstable chronicle, which was compiled near Luton in Bedfordshire, states that over 2,000 Welshmen and all the cavalry were killed along with three of Llywelyn's magnates. The names of those who died in Llywelyn's last campaign are now mainly lost, but the Peterborough Chronicle records that Almafan, lord of Lampadevar, Rhys ap Gruffydd the seneschal of the prince, and Llywelyn Fychan of Bromfield were amongst the slain on that fateful day. This in turn corroborates the Dunstable account. These accounts are indeed corroborated by such an unimpeachable source as the archbishop of Canterbury. Sometime between 12 and 15 December Archbishop John Pecham, who was at Pembridge only some 25 miles east of Builth, wrote a letter in which he told of Llywelyn invading the lands of the king and drawing the local inhabitants over to his cause. Undoubtedly this was the Middle March. "Nevertheless it was the prince who was killed, the first of his own army, in an ignominious death through the family of Lord Edmund Mortimer, son of Lord Roger Mortimer; and his whole army was either killed or put to flight in the parts of Montgomery on 11 December". The parts of Montgomery obviously indicates that Builth was part of the Montgomery command as has been suggested by the appointment of Roger Mortimer as its first captain.
Who actually killed Llywelyn is uncertain, but some chronicles assigned the deed to Stephen Frankton, the 'centurion' of Ellesmere, though he seems to have gained little from the business. Others, like the verses of Robert Mannyng of Bourne, name Sir Robert Brody as the knight responsible for Llywelyn's beheading. "Sir Robert Body a knight his suerd best bote, Doun sone he he light and Leulyn hede of smote". Sir Robert certainly profited in the king's and Roger Lestrange's favour and moreover was most likely a man of the Montgomery garrison, hailing from the town of Stockton in the honour of Montgomery. Body later served with Lestrange in the April 1283 siege of Castell y Bere. Later in 1284 he was granted four virgates in the manor of Ellesmere by Roger Lestrange and in 1291 accompanied his lord overseas to meet the pope. The Dunstable chronicle seems to have been remarkably well informed about the debacle, as well as other points of Welsh history. According to this chronicle Llywelyn came down from Snowdon into the lands lately held by Roger Mortimer to take the homage of the men there at the deceitful request of Roger's sons. After arriving at Abbey Cwmhir the royal garrisons of Montgomery and Oswestry with all the barons of the March moved against him and simply killed him. In the margin of another contemporary manuscript now preserved in the British Library as Cotton Nero Ms. D II, fo.182, is a fine drawing of a man in mail armour kneeling with his hands clasped and awaiting a soldier behind him to strike off his head. So died Llywelyn, the one and only publicly recognised native Prince of Wales.
From here the story is once again relatively clear. The Bermondsey annals state simply that Llywelyn was beheaded and then Roger Mortimer of Chirk set out for Rhuddlan with his grisly trophy of the prince's head. This he presented to a thankful King Edward who dispatched it at once to be displayed on the Tower of London to the great mirth of the townsfolk. Roger Lestrange, the commander of the Montgomery army, accorded us the only known description of the action and even his words are clouded in disbelief. He tersely stated "that the troops under Roger's command fought with Llywelyn ap Gruffydd in the land of Buellt on Friday 11 December, that Llywelyn is dead, his army defeated, and all the flower of his army dead, as the bearer of this letter will tell".
On 17 December the archbishop of Canterbury wrote three letters. In the first he informed Lady Matilda Longspey of Clifford (right), the grand-daughter of Prince Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, in response to her entreaty, that her cousin, the deceased Prince Llywelyn of Wales, cannot be absolved of his excommunication if he did not show any repentance of his deeds. Consequently he asked Matilda and her friends to bring 'any of those who were present at the death' to come forward to the archbishop 'and put their case'. In the second he wrote to the king informing him 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 the other things there was a treasonable letter disguised by false names... the letter itself Edmund Mortimer has, with Llywelyn's privy seal, and these things you may have at your pleasure... Lady Maud Longspey has begged us to absolve Llywelyn, that he might be buried in consecrated ground" though nothing would be done unless it could be proved that he had "showed signs of true repentance before his death. And Edmund Mortimer 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, my lord, know that the very day he was killed, a white monk (probably a Cistercian from Cwmhir) sang mass to him, and my Lord Roger Mortimer has the vestments." In the third he told Bishop Robert of Bath and Wells about the affair with the proviso that he desired to protect the king against the plots of his enemies. Consequently he sent to the bishop, "enclosed in this letter, a certain schedule, expressed in obscure words and fictitious names, a copy of which Edmund Mortimer has, and was found in the breeches of Llywelyn, formerly prince of Wales, together with his small seal, which the archbishop is causing to be kept safely for the king. From this schedule the bishop can sufficiently guess that certain magnates, neighbours of the Welsh, either Marchers or others, are not too loyal to the king, therefore let the king be warned unless he come to some danger". The meaning of this seems all too clear, even if there is confusion as to who, if anyone, holds the original treasonable document. The Marchers, probably led by the sons of Roger Mortimer, had done their work all too well!
Of the deeds themselves carried out that December night even contemporaries were confused. The king issued no public statement as to the death of his enemy and it is unlikely that those who had lured Llywelyn to his untimely fate would have shouted about their part in the deed. Several chronicles carry abridged and confused accounts of the day. Most mention treachery and only one carries any details of a battle, and that it has been shown was merely a replay of the battle of Stirling Bridge where William Wallace the Welshman won the day! The actual details of what occurred in Buellt are now obscured by the passage of time and the ignorance of contemporaries, but if anything the reasons and manner of Llywelyn's death seem clearer now than they were then. Perhaps it is fitting to finish with the statement of the contemporary Hailes abbey chronicle, "it is said that had Llywelyn lived for just two days more all those of the Welsh tongue would have turned to his cause".
A fuller account of the last battle of Llywelyn will be appearing in the forthcoming publication Welsh Battles, 1055-1295
A discussion of the army of Montgomery, from which much of the above comes appears in Montgomery Castle, a royal fortress of King Henry III (ISBN 1-899376-49-6), is now available as an A4 sized book of 174 pages. The revised book includes the full history of the Medieval castle, church and town, a detailed description of the remains, new photographs of the fortress after the recent CADW renovations, plans, maps and an index. It can be bought for £34.95 through the PayPal basket below.
Copyright©1994-2004 Paul Martin Remfry