Llywelyn the Great was prehaps the greatest Welsh statesman of the Middle Ages, he successful maneuvered himself through the echelons of power and influence in Wales via both military and political means to become the de-facto ruler of most of the country.
In 1194 Llywelyn overthrew his uncle Dayfdd at the Battle of Aberconwy, giving him control of East Gwynedd. After the death of Llwelyn’s other uncle, Rhodri, in 1195, Llwelyn was able to gain control over the rest of the Kingdom of Gwynedd. By this time though Wales was in a poor state, with no single leader capable of uniting the warring Welsh kingdoms, they remain divided and weak. In 1198, Gwenwynwyn ap Owain (prince of Powys Wenwynwyn) attempted to rally the Welsh and take the Norman held Painscastle, however this attempt failed and sensing an opportunity Llywelyn stepped into the ring to establish himself as the single leader of the Welsh.
In 1199 Llywelyn took Mold Castle from the Normans and by 1201 Llywelyn had taken control of most of North Wales following the arrest of his cousin Maredudd. In 1205 Llywelyn further consolidated his hold by marrying the Joan, bastard daughter of King John. At this point relations between the two rulers was strong with both seemingly working in the other’s interest, in one inset King John had Gwenwywyn (who was Llwelyn’s main rival in Wales) arrested; almost immediately after Llywelyn annexed Gwenwynwyn’s former kingdom.
However good relations with John were not to last after the English king became fearful that Llywelyn was forming an alliance with William de Braose, a powerful lord who had fallen out of favour with John. In response two Norman armies sacked Llywelyn’s lands and Gwenwynwyn was restored to his kingdom. Though Joan managed to persuade her father not to dispose and kill Llywelyn, he was forced to pay an enormous and humiliating tribute to King John.
The defeat was a huge setback for Llywelyn, but his recovery would be quick. The Welsh lords were becoming dissatisfied with John’s overlordship of Wales and Llywelyn soon made an alliance with them, including his old foe Gwenwynwyn, and by 1213 Llywelyn had managed to recover all the lands he had previously lost. At this point dissatisfaction with John’s rule had spread across to England and in 1215 John was forced to sign the Magna Carta. Llywelyn, who while in alliance with the rebel barons had captured the English town of Shrewsbury , received several favourable terms in the Magna Carta such as the release of all Welsh hostages.
At this point Llywelyn was the de-facto leader of the independent princes of a Wales. In 1216 two of Llywelyn’s allies, Gwenwynwyn and Reginald de Broase swapped sides, but Llywelyn led an army against them both and forced each of them out of their lands. By now Llywelyn’s kingdom stretched from Anglesey to Swansea, a kingdom larger than any other in the history of Wales.
Llywelyn’s position was further solidified by the Treaty of Worchester of 1218, signed by the new young king of England, Henry III. In the treaty Henry recognized all of Llywelyn’s conquests and from then on, comfortable with his gains, Llywelyn was careful to maintain steady relations with the English, instead choosing to build up a series of marriage alliances with the English lords. However occasional cross border conflicts erupted between the two sides, with Llwelyn briefly invading England in both 1223 and 1234.
By the time of Llwelyn’s death in 1240, he had dominated the political scene in Wales for more than 40 years. During the reign of no other Welsh noble had the goal of a united and independent Wales seemed so near, as it was under Llwelyn. Not since the near mythical ruler Rodri Mawr had a Welsh ruler been so deserving of the title ‘great’.
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