The Middle Ages in Wales was a time of political and social change, while its tribal language and culture prevailed throughout the era. Here we take a look at how the Welsh lived in the Middle Ages and how the indigenous people of the region made it the proud area of Britain it remains today.
Early Middle Ages
The Welsh people once lived across the length and breadth of Britain as they were descendants of the original Britons who settled here. The separate kingdoms within Wales, namely, Brycheiniog, Powys, Deheubarth, Gwent and Morgannwg unified by the Middle Ages into Gwynedd. The Norman Conquest largely affected England and did not affect Wales for many years as suppression was more important at the time but William the Conqueror did state that Wales would have to be invaded eventually. The Welsh did not capitulate easily and fighting went on for many centuries.
William the Conqueror established earldoms in Chester, Hereford and Shrewsbury with rulers who were noted for their aggression. These three earls played a major role in the insurgencies over the Welsh border with the Earl of Shrewsbury building a castle at Montgomery along with taking over much of the borderlands, the Earl of Hereford overran the Kingdom of Gwent and the Earl of Chester invaded Gwent. Following William the Conquerors death in 1087 the invasion of Wales speeded up enormously Rhys ap Tewdwr who William had recognised as a power was killed and many more areas of the country capitulated to the invaders.
When William II came to the throne Norman attacks on Wales increased with the Welsh resisting and in many areas keeping their land. In the areas where English lords had taken power they built towns one of which was Cardiff. These towns were small by today’s comparison having around two to three hundred inhabitants, while The Normans also built monasteries around this time. In 1255 another Welshman claimed himself king. Llewellyn declared himself King of Gwynedd with Powys, Glamorgan and Deheubarth declaring loyalty to the king.
King Henry III of England signed the Treaty of Montgomery with Llewelyn making him Prince of Wales although Llewelyn did swear allegiance to Henry. Once Edward I claimed the throne he was determined to conquer Wales and did so by 1283 when he imposed English Law on the Welsh. Rebellions ensued, while eventually Edward declared his son Prince of Wales in 1301.
Many castles were built in Wales during the Middle Ages with Beaumaris Castle on Anglesey being the final and largest castle built by Edward I of England. Caernarfon Castle was also rebuilt by Edward I in 1283 and is acknowledged as one of Europe’s greatest Medieval fortresses. This castle was built in response to a rebellion that was fronted by Llywelyn ap Gruffydd the then Prince of Wales. The site of this castle was strategic in that Edward could control traffic that used the Menai Straits. Caernarfon Castle began life as Roman fortress, then a motte and bailey Norman Castle.
The Black Death
Wales was hit by the Black Death or the Plague as it was commonly referred to in 1348. Up to one third of the population of Wales perished from the Plague.
The Dangers of Medieval Life
Living in Wales in medieval times was fraught with danger as it was in most places throughout Britain. Here are some of the things people living in the middle ages would have to watch out for.
Violence in Society
Violence and violent behaviour was all around in the middle ages and it didn’t matter whether you were of noble birth or lowly birth you were just as likely to succumb to it. Fighting in the street and in taverns was common place, while rebellions against the nobles were also a frequent occurrence. Murder, rape and assault were common, while family feuds would often end violently with domestic violence happening more often than not.
People who lived in the middle ages did not expect to live into old age with death during childbirth common for both mother and child. Infant mortality was very high with some forty percent of children dying before the age of six. Smallpox, whooping cough, measles and flu all took their toll. Those of noble birth fared better than peasants but there were some things that status could not prevent. Plague, TB, sweating sickness and warfare crossed the divides, while peasants were more likely to die from malnutrition, starvation and famine. Those who managed to survive childhood sometimes were fortunate enough to live until their sixties but this was more the exception than the rule.
Travelling during the middle ages was fraught with danger. Travelling alone was especially dangerous as you could be attacked or set upon and robbed, while travelling long distances had the added threat of starvation or freezing to death outdoors if no shelter could be found. Travellers often drowned when crossing rivers or sometimes boats would sink in bad weather.
Starvation or famine was another way in which people of the middle ages would meet their demise. Peasants were particularly affected when harvests did not come in and the supply of food became minimal. People would suffer from malnutrition which had a knock on effect as they would then catch diseases more easily. The Great Famine of the early 1400’s claimed many lives with as many as 10% of lives lost.
Those who believed in anything that was not considered the norm would place themselves in danger during the middle ages. Heresy was punishable by death and many people were persecuted as a result including Jews and Muslims as Christianity was considered the one and only true faith. Even within Christianity people could be considered heretics if they questioned the Christian faith.
Medieval Welsh Village
Those who would like to visit a medieval Welsh village have the opportunity as Comeston Medieval Village in Penarth dating from around 1350 is a wonderful tourist attraction. The village comprises of excavated buildings that were lovingly reconstructed accurately back in the 1980’s. Please see the Vale of Glamorgan Council website for more information.