King Henry II and Wales – a timely message for the Welsh Referendum on Thursday 3rd March, 2011

I think that Saint David’s Day is the obvious day to inform my growing band of loyal Angevins on the merits of Henry II’s enlightened policy towards Wales. Wales was perhaps only a small territorial component of Henry’s mighty Angevin Empire; yet its political importance was relatively great.

The main problem in Wales facing Henry II on his accession as King of England in 1154 was how to respond to the threat to royal authority posed by the increasingly powerful Welsh leader, Rhys ap Gruffudd (alternatively known to as the Lord Rhys). Born around 1135, Rhys ap Gruffudd had taken advantage of the decline in royal authority under King Stephen to further his own position in South Wales. By 1155, at the age of only 25, Rhys ap Gruffudd was in control of Ceredigion, Ystrad Tywi and Dyfed . Such an extension of Rhys’ power in Wales also threatened Henry’s own Marcher Lords on the Anglo-Welsh border; and therefore, by extension, even Henry II’s own authority, at the very time that Henry had to re-assert royal authority after the reversals of Stephen’s reign.

To begin with, showing his relative inexperience, Henry II responded to the threat posed by Rhys by adopting a military solution, thereby hoping to make Rhys submit to royal authority by force. Henry’s military solution was a complete flop. On four separate military campaigns, stretching over eight years, between 1157 and 1165, Henry II failed to dislodge Rhys from his powerbase in South Wales. On his first attempt, in 1157, Henry II even summoned part of his feudal host to defeat Rhys (despite normally relying on mercenaries). In that year, Henry came up with a novel variation on feudal organisation, by allowing every two knights to equip a third. This ‘Three for the Price of Two’ military policy shows that Henry II had nothing to learn from modern supermarket selling techniques. Henry II’s final military campaign against Rhys ap Gruffudd, in 1165, finally had to be abandoned because of heavy rain; a result one feels could only happen in the UK (because of the ‘Fifa’ rules then governing international matches, the fixture could not be replayed).

Henry II therefore realised that he would have to change his policy towards Welsh devolution, and he had the good sense (and political courage) to realise that a complete change of policy was necessary. He therefore offered Rhys a generous settlement in 1171. Henry II and Rhys met at Pembroke (significantly on Rhys’ territory), and Henry II made the great concession of recognising Rhys as being in control of Ceredigion, Ystrad Tywi and Emlyn. In effect, Henry II had recognised Rhys as ruler over all of Deheubarth, Gwent and even Glamorgan. This was devolution of the most complete kind, because not only were the Welsh running their own affairs within the broad ambit of the Angevin Empire, but Henry II had even upheld Rhys’ authority over Henry’s own Marcher Lords. Rhys ap Gruffudd was now truly Yr Arglwdd Rhys (‘The Lord Rhys’).

What was the result for Henry’s enlightened policy towards Welsh devolution? Far from weakening the Angevin Empire, Welsh devolution actually strengthened it. In the ‘Great Rebellion’ of 1173/74, when Henry II faced the most severe threat to the stability of the Angevin Empire, both from his own sons, and the untrustworthy French (perhaps still smarting from sporting defeats?), Rhys and his Welsh armies rallied to Henry’s side. Welsh support was a factor in helping Henry overcome this grave threat to his authority, thereby ensuring the survival of the Angevin Empire. It was therefore no accident that Rhys and Henry II confirmed Welsh ‘Devolution’ at Gloucester, on 29th July 1175. Unfortunately, this sensible policy of mutual conciliation broke down later on; but that was largely the fault of Henry’s successor, King Richard I – but that is another story.

So perhaps there is a morale here for those voters casting their vote in Thursday’s Referendum, namely, devolution for Wales will strengthen the United Kingdom, not weaken it.

A quiz Question from the Doc

In the period that followed Henry II’s death,  the Welsh were often divided amongst themselves – is that so surprising?  It so happens that today, 1st March 2011, is precisely the 767th anniversary of the death of another Welsh leader, Gruffudd ap Llwelyn, who died on 1st March 1244. Gruffudd died in a spectacular way on 1st March 1244. There is a purse of 10 marks (not euros) to the first correct answer to the cause of his death!


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Filed under Angevins, British Kings and Queens, Devolution, Henry II, History, Medieval History, Wales

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