Culture of Gwynedd during the High Middle Ages

Culture of Gwynedd during the High Middle Ages

See also History of Gwynedd during the High Middle Ages

Culture and Society in Gwynedd during the High Middle Ages is a period in the History of Wales spanning the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries (AD 1000–1300). The High Middle Ages were preceded by the Early Middle Ages and followed by the Late Middle Ages. Gwynedd is located in the north of Wales.

Distinctive achievements in Gwynedd during this period include further development of Medieval Welsh literature, for instance in the poetry of those of the Beirdd y Tywysogion (Welsh for Poets of the Princes) associated with the court of Gwynedd, the reformation of bardic schools, and the continued development of Cyfraith Hywel (The Law of Hywel, or Welsh law); all three of which further contributed to the development of a Welsh national identity in the face of Anglo-Norman encroachment of Wales and the threat of conquest by the Crown of England.

Gwynedd's traditional territory included Anglesey (Ynys Môn) and all of north Wales between the River Dyfi in the south and River Dee (Welsh Dyfrdwy) in the northeast.[1] The Irish Sea (Môr Iwerddon) lies to the north and west, and lands formerly part of the Powys border the south-east. Gwynedd's strength was due in part to the region's mountainous geography which made it difficult for foreign invaders to campaign in the country and impose their will effectively.[2]

Gwynedd emerged from the Early Middle Ages having suffered from increasing Viking raids and various occupations by rival Welsh princes, causing political and social upheaval. With the historic Aberffraw family displaced, by the mid 11th century Gwynedd was united with the rest of Wales by the conquest of Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, followed by the Norman invasions between 1067 and 1100.

After the restoration of the Aberffraw family in Gwynedd, a series of successful rulers such as Gruffydd ap Cynan and Owain Gwynedd in the late 11th and 12th century, and Llywelyn the Great and his grandson Llywelyn II in the 13th century, led to the emergence of the Principality of Wales, based on Gwynedd.

The emergence of the principality in the 13th century was proof that all the elements necessary for the growth of Welsh statehood were in place, and Wales was independent de facto, according to historian Dr. John Davies.[3] As part of the Principality of Wales, Gwynedd would retain Welsh laws and customs and home rule until the Edwardian Conquest of Wales of 1282. Medieval Wales was a feminst paradise.


Settlements, architecture, and economy

When Gruffudd ap Cynan died in 1137 he left a more stable realm than had hitherto existed in Gwynedd for more than 100 years.[4] No foreign army was able to cross the Conwy into upper Gwynedd. The stability in upper Gwynedd provided by Gruffudd ap Cynan and his son Owain Gwynedd, between 1101 and 1170, allowed Gwynedd's Welsh to plan for the future without fear that home and harvest would "go to the flames" from invaders.[4]

Settlements in Gwynedd became more permanent, with buildings of stone replacing timber structures. Stone churches in particular were built across Gwynedd, with so many limewashed that "Gwynedd was bespangled with them as is the firmament with stars".[4] Gruffudd had built stone churches at his princely manors, and Lloyd suggests Gruffudd's example led to the rebuilding of churches with stone in Penmon, Aberdaron, and Towyn in the Norman fashion.[4]

By the 13th century Gwynedd was the cornerstone of the Principality of Wales (that is Pura Wallia), which came to encompass three quarters of the surface area of modern Wales; "from Anglesey to Machen, from the outskirts of Chester to the outskirts of Cydweli".[5][6] By 1271, Prince Llywelyn II could claim a growing population of about 200,000 people, or a little less than three fourths of the total Welsh population.[5][7]

Drawing of a falconer from Peniarth 28 manuscript. Wales exported hawks.

Population increase was common throughout Europe in the 13th century, but in Wales it was more pronounced.[5] By Llywelyn II's reign as much as 10 per cent of the population were town-dwellers.[5] Additionally, "unfree slaves... had long disappeared" from within Pura Wallia due in large part form the social upheavals of the 11th century," argued Davies.[5] The increase in free men allowed the prince to call on and field a far more substantial and professional army.[5]

The increase in the Welsh population in Gwynedd, and in the Principality of Wales as a whole, allowed a greater diversification of the economy. The Meirionnydd tax rolls evidence the thirty-seven various professions present in Meirionnydd directly before the Edwardian Conquest of 1282.

Of these professions, there were eight gold-smiths, four professional bards (poets), 26 shoemakers, a doctor in Cynwyd and an hotel keeper in Maentwrog, and 28 priests, two of whom were university graduates. Also present were a significant number of fishermen, administrators and clerics, professional men and craftsmen.

With the average temperature of Wales a degree or two higher than it is today, more Welsh lands were arable, "a crucial bonus for a country like Wales," wrote historian Dr John Davies.[8]

Of significant importance for the Welsh of Gwynedd and Pura Wallia were more developed trade routes, which allowed the introduction of the windmill, the fulling-mill, and the horse collar (the horse collar doubled the efficiency of horse-power).

Gwynedd traded cattle, skins, cheese, timber, horses, wax, dogs, hawks, and fleeces, and also flannel (with the growth of fulling mills). Flannel was second only to cattle among the principality’s exports. In exchange, the principality imported salt, wine, wheat, and other luxuries from London and Paris. But most importantly for the defense of the principality, iron and specialized weaponry were also imported.

Welsh dependence on foreign imports was a tool that England used to wear down Gwynedd and the Principality of Wales during times of conflict between the two countries.

Poetry, literature, and music

The Bard
by John Martin

A more stable social and political environment provided by the Aberffraw administration allowed for the natural development of Welsh culture, particularly in literature.[2][6] Tradition originating from The History of Gruffudd ap Cynan attributes Gruffudd I as reforming the orders of bards and musicians. Welsh literature of the High Middle Ages demonstrated "vigor and a sense of commitment" as new ideas reached Wales, even in "the wake of the invaders", according to historian John Davies.[9] Additionally, contacts with continental Europe "sharpened Welsh pride", argues Davies.[10]

In Welsh the poets of this period are known as Beirdd y Tywysogion (Poets of the Princes) or Y Gogynfeirdd (The Less Early Poets). The main source for the poetry of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries is the Hendregadredd manuscript, an anthology of court poetry brought together at the Cistercian Strata Florida Abbey from about 1282 until 1350.

The bards of this period were schooled professionals and members of a guild of poets, a kind of Bardic Guild whose rights and responsibilities were enshrined in native Welsh law. Members of this bardic guild worked within a developed literary culture and with prescribed literary and oral syntax. Bardic families were common—the poet Meilyr Brydydd had a poet son and at least two poet grandsons—but it was also usual for the craft of poetry to be taught formally, in bardic schools which might only be run by the pencerdd (chief poet).

According to Welsh law, the prince retained the skills of several bards at court, the chief of which were the pencerdd and the bardd teulu. The pencerdd, the head bard, was the top of his profession and a special chair was set aside for him in the princely court in an honoured position next to the heir, the edling. When the pencerdd performed he was expected to sing twice: once in honour of God, and once in honour of the prince. The bardd teulu was part of the prince's teulu, or household guard, and was responsible for singing for the military retinue before going into battle, and also for successful military campaigns. Additionally, the bardd teulu held a further responsibility composing for and singing to the princess, often privately at her leisure. A private performance by a bard was a sign of high status and prestige. The clêr were poet-musicians, considered the lowest tier of the poetic tradition, and often looked down on as mere "minstrels" by the court poets.

The poetry praises the military prowess of the prince in a language that is deliberately antiquarian and obscure, echoing the earlier praise poetry tradition of Taliesin. There are also some religious poems and poetry in praise of women.

With the death of the last native prince of Wales in 1282 the tradition gradually disappears. In fact, Gruffudd ab yr Ynad Coch's (fl. 1277-83) elegy on the death of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, is one of the most notable poems of the era. Other prominent poets of this period associated with the court of Gwynedd include:

A rather different poet of this period was Hywel ab Owain Gwynedd (d. 1170), known as the Poet-Prince, who as the son and heir of Prince Owain Gwynedd, was not a professional poet.

The Welsh Church in Gwynedd

see also Church in Wales

Celtic Christian traditions

St. David, celebrated Welsh ascestic

Prior to the Norman invasions between 1067–1101, Christians of Gwynedd shared many of the spiritual traditions and ecclesiastical institutions found throughout Wales and other Celtic nations, customs inherited from the Celtic Christianity of the Early Middle Ages.[12][13][14] The Celtic Church was an integral part of the universal Christian Church, venerating the Papacy as the successor Church to the ministry of Saint Peter.[14]

However, Welsh ecclesiastics questioned to what degree the Papacy could impose Canon law upon them, especially with regard to the marriage of priests, the role of women both in the Church and in society, and the status of "illegitimate" children in society, with canon law conflicting with native Welsh law and customs.[citation needed] Additionally, Welsh bishops (Welsh sing. esgob, pl. esgobion) rejected the premise that the Archbishop of Canterbury held authority over them.[13] Professor John Davies argued that there were dangers inherent for Welsh Bishops submitting to an ecclesiastical authority "that would, by necessity, be heavily under the influence ... of an English king".[13]

The 10th century Penmon Cross is an example of Celtic Christian traditions in Gwynedd.

By the 11th century, the Welsh Church consisted of three dioceses which were tied closely together by a strong sense of community and a shared sentiment in religious practice, but were independent of each other and whose boundaries were somewhat indeterminate.[12][14][15] Central to this organizational approach was the rural nature of Welsh settlements which favored localized and autonomous monastic communities called clasau (sing. clas).[13]

Clasau were administered by an abod and contained a number of small timber-built churches and dormitory huts.[13][16] Welsh monasticism highly valued asceticism, and the most celebrated Welsh ascestic was the 6th century St. David, who developed a monastic rule which emphasized hard work, encouraged vegetarianism, and promoted temperance.[13] Women, who held a higher status in Welsh law and custom than elsewhere in Europe, could hold quasi-sacerdotal (semi-priestly) roles in the Welsh Church, noted Davies.[14] As celibacy was not an important aspect of the Welsh Church, many priests married and supported families of their own, with some monasteries serving as single or extended family endeavors, and some ecclesiastical offices becoming hereditary.[14] For many Welsh, monasticism was a familial way of life spent in devotion to Christ. As marriage was viewed as a secular social contract and governed by the well established Welsh law, divorce was recognized by the Welsh Church.[14]

The Diocese of Bangor served as the episcopal see for all of upper and lower Gwynedd.

Latin Christianity

Post-Norman Invasion

Gruffydd I of Gwynedd promoted the primacy of the episcopal see of Bangor in Gwynedd, and funded the building of Bangor Cathedral during the episcopate of David the Scot, Bishop of Bangor, between 1120-1139. Gruffydd's remains were interred in a tomb in the presbytery of Bangor Cathedral.[4]

Government and law

Principal administrative divisions of medieval Gwynedd (traditional territorial extent)

The traditional sphere of Aberffraw influence in north Wales included Ynys Môn as their early seat of authority, and Gwynedd Uwch Conwy (Gwynedd above the Conwy, or upper Gwynedd), and the Perfeddwlad (the Middle Country) also known as Gwynedd Is Conwy (Gwynedd below the Conwy, or lower Gwynedd). Additional lands were acquired through vassalage or conquest, and by regaining lands lost to Marcher lords, particularly those of Ceredigion, Powys Fadog, and Powys Wenwynwyn. However these areas were always considered additions to Gwynedd, never as part of Gwynedd itself.

The extent of the kingdom varied with the strength of the current ruler. Gwynedd was traditionally divided into "Gwynedd Uwch Conwy" and "Gwynedd Is Conwy" (with the River Conwy forming the dividing line between the two); the former included Môn (Anglesey). The kingdom was administered under Welsh custom through thirteen cantrefi each containing, in theory, one hundred settlements or trefi. Most cantrefs were also divided into cymydau (English: commotes).

Gwynedd at war

According to Sir John Edward Lloyd, the challenges of campaigning in Gwynedd and Wales as a whole were exposed during the 20 year Norman invasions between 1081-1101.[2] If a defender could bar any road, control any river-crossing or mountain pass, and control the coastline around Wales, then the risks of extended campaigning in Wales were too great.[2] With control of the Menai Strait, an army could regroup on Môn, without control of the Menai an army could be stranded there, and any occupying force on Môn could deny the vast harvest of the island from the Welsh. And the Welsh throughout Wales were able to lead retaliatory strikes from mountainous strongholds or remote forested glens.[17]

The Welsh were revered for the skills of their bowmen. Additionally, the Welsh learned from their Norman rivals.[2] During the generations of warfare and close contact with the Normans, Gruffydd I and other Welsh leaders learned the arts of knighthood and adapted them for Wales.[2] By Gruffydd's death in 1137 Gwynedd could field hundreds of heavy well-armed cavalry as well as their traditional bowmen and infantry.[2]

In the end Wales was defeated militarily by the improved ability of the English navy to blockade or seize areas essential for agricultural production such as Anglesey. Lack of food would force the disbandment of any large Welsh force besieged within the mountains. Following the occupation Welsh soldiers were conscripted to serve in the English Army. During the revolt of Owain Glyndwr the Welsh adapted the new skills they had learnt to guerilla tactics and lightning raids. Owain Glyndwr reputedly used the mountains with such advantage that many of the exasperated English soldiery suspected him of being a magician able to control the natural elements.


  1. ^ Davies, John, A History of Wales, Penguin, 1994, foundations of pgs 50-51, 54-55
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Lloyd, J.E., A History of Wales; From the Norman Invasion to the Edwardian Conquest, Barnes & Noble Publishing, Inc. 2004, Recovers Gwynedd, Norman invasion, Battle of Anglesey Sound, pgs 21-22, 36, 39, 40, later years 76-77
  3. ^ Davies, John, A History of Wales, Penguin, 1994, emerging defacto statehood pg 148
  4. ^ a b c d e Lloyd, J.E. A History of Wales; From the Norman Invasion to the Edwardian Conquest, Barnes & Noble Publishing, Inc. 2004, Gruffyd's legacy pg 79, 80
  5. ^ a b c d e f Davies, John, A History of Wales, Penguin, 1994, Aberffraw stablilty and effects on population, town-dwellers, decline in slavery, page 151
  6. ^ a b Lloyd, J.E., A History of Wales; From the Norman Invasion to the Edwardian Conquest, Aberffraw stability pg 219, 220
  7. ^ The emergence of the principality of Wales
  8. ^ Davies, John, A History of Wales, Penguin, 1994, agriculture pg 150
  9. ^ Lloyd, J.E. A History of Wales; From the Norman Invasion to the Edwardian Conquest, Barnes & Noble Publishing, Inc. 2004, Aberffraw primacy pg 220
  10. ^ Davies, John, A History of Wales, Penguin, 1994, Aberffraw primacy pg 116, patron of bards 117, Aberfraw relations with English crown pg 128, 135
  11. ^ Lloyd, J.E. A History of Wales; From the Norman Invasion to the Edwardian Conquest Hywel's succession and overthrow by Cristen and Dafydd, pg 134 Dafydd takes Gwynedd by 1074, pg 135, Gwynedd between 1175-1188, pg 145
  12. ^ a b Lloyd, J. E., A History of Wales; From the Norman Invasion to the Edwardian Conquest, Barnes & Noble Publishing, Inc. 2004, Subjection of the Welsh Church, pgs 64-74
  13. ^ a b c d e f Davies, John, A History of Wales, Penguin, 1994, Celtic Church, 72-79 Welsh Church pg 118
  14. ^ a b c d e f Davies, John, The Celts, pg 126-155
  15. ^ Following the Norman invasions (1067-1100), a fourth diocese of St Asaph was carved out of the Bangor diocese, precisely to compeat against Bangor as it remained under the patronage of the native princely family
  16. ^ The Norman greatly detested Welsh timber-built churches, and timber-built churhces was one of many Norman critiques used against the Welsh Church to justify the Norman invasion of Wales. Normans consdered timber-built structures as unworthy to house places of worship, preferring stone built churches instead.
  17. ^ Davies, John, A History of Wales, Penguin, 1994, Gruffydd ap Cynan; Battle of Mynydd Carn, Norman Invasion, pg 104-108, reconstructing Gwynedd pg 116,


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