On Christmas Day 1294 King Edward I was at Conwy Castle in north Wales. He was attended by many members of his nobility and household. It would ordinarily be expected that this would be a happy occasion with the king being able to enjoy residing in one of his grand new castles in Wales, which had cemented his conquest of the country. Yet the circumstances were far from ideal. His presence was due to a major uprising that had broken out against his rule led by Madog ap Llywelyn.
As a result of his victories against the Welsh ruler Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, in 1277 and 1282-3, he had succeeded in conquering all of Wales, a feat achieved by no previous king of England. Llywelyn’s death in battle and the execution of his brother and heir Dafydd in 1283, meant that the ruling house of Gwynedd was all but eliminated. Many members of the native ruling elite were dispossessed of their lands, with English forms of taxation imposed on the Welsh and a series of major castles constructed throughout north Wales to secure the conquest. This led to resentment against English rule, with a rebellion breaking out in south Wales in 1287. Yet it was not until 1294 that a countrywide uprising took place.
War had broken out between England and France, due to a dispute over the duchy of Aquitaine, with Edward placing heavy demands on his subjects for soldiers and money, which was particularly resented in newly conquered Wales. The conspirators were able to draw upon these grievances to gather recruits and to use the assembly of troops for the expedition to France as cover for their own preparations. The main uprising was led by Madog ap Llywelyn who was descended from a minor branch of the ruling house of Gwynedd. His father, Llywelyn ap Maredudd (d. 1263), had been forced out of his lordship of Meirionydd by Llywelyn ap Gruffudd. Despite serving in Edward’s armies in the wars against Llywelyn, Madog was disappointed to have not been granted his ancestral lands after the conquest.
The rebellion began around Michaelmas 1294 (29 September) with multiple risings breaking out throughout Wales. In the north, Madog and his supporters first attacked the island of Anglesey which they succeeded in overrunning. The rebels then moved to the mainland and advanced towards the administrative centre of the region, Caernarfon. Despite the large sums of money that had been lavished on the construction of the castle and town, the fortifications were still unfinished. This meant that they had little difficulty in storming the defences of the settlement, which was burnt. They then rampaged throughout the region and succeeded in capturing the inland castles of Hawarden, Ruthin and Denbigh. Elsewhere, groups of insurgents attacked settlements throughout southern and central Wales.
(Castell y Bere)
The scale and success of the uprising meant that Edward was forced to abandon his expedition to France. Instead he issued orders for multiple armies to assemble in the border region with Wales to crush the rebellion. Efforts were also made to send supplies by sea to the beleaguered garrisons of coastal castles. This enabled the defenders of these fortresses, such as Aberystwyth and Flint, to withstand Welsh attacks. In November the English suffered further setbacks with the forces of the earl of Lincoln routed whilst trying to recover his castle of Denbigh and with Castell y Bere falling into rebel hands. However, by the following month, the king’s officials had succeeded in assembling three large armies numbering some 35,000 men. Edward led the biggest force in person with which he advanced westwards from Chester towards Conwy, which he had arrived at by Christmas.
(Plan of Conwy)
Conwy was one of three castles that had been constructed in north Wales following the war of 1282-3. It was built on the site of two buildings, Aberconwy Abbey, founded by Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, and a hall that had been used by Llywelyn’s ap Gruffudd as his main residence. The monks were unceremoniously turfed out and forced to relocate, with the abbey dismantled for its materials, whereas the hall was incorporated within the perimeter of the new town, which was adjacent to the new castle. The latter took the best part of five years to build (from 1283-7) at the immense cost of £15,000 (a huge sum in the thirteenth century). Given the risk of rebellion from the Welsh, Edward specified that a garrison of at least thirty men should be present at all times, including fifteen crossbowmen. During his stay at Conwy the king would have stayed in the royal chamber in the inner ward of the castle, along with many of his nobles. Soldiers of lesser rank are likely to have been lodged in accommodation in the outer ward or in houses in the town.
Once the Christmas festivities were concluded, Edward then led his forces westwards on a raid, reaching Nefyn in the Lleyn peninsular. However, whilst the army was in the process of returning to Conwy the baggage train was captured by the Welsh. This setback caused major supply problems for the English who were now desperately short on provisions. For a time they were all but under siege in the castle, with the Welsh controlling the surrounding countryside. It was at this time that the English chronicler Walter of Guisborough claims that Edward shared the last remaining cask of wine left at Conwy with his men.
(Tower of London)
Yet soon enough further supplies were obtained by sea and Edward was able to resume the offensive. His infantry led a sortie from the castle and succeeded in defeating a local force of rebels in March. The royal army occupied Anglesey in the following month before later crossing back to the mainland and marching along the west coast to Aberystwyth. Elsewhere, William de Beauchamp with another army had succeeded in defeating a Welsh force led by Madog at the Battle of Maes Moydog on 5 March. The rebel leader escaped from the battlefield but further defeats prompted him to surrender to the English in July. Afterwards he was imprisoned in the Tower of London where he spent the rest of his life. This was to be the last major rebellion against the English in Wales before the fifteenth century.
If you want to read more about this topic then do consider having a look at my book The Castle at War in Medieval England and Wales
1 – Photograph of Conwy Castle taken by Dan Spencer.
2 – Photograph of an early twentieth century sculpture of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd at City Hall, Cardiff. Sourced via Wikipedia and in the Public Domain. Author: Seth Whales
3 – Image of Edward I sourced via Wikipedia and in the Public Domain
4 – Photograph of Caernarfon Castle taken by Dan Spencer.
5 – Photograph of Castell y Bere sourced via Wikipedia, author: Gareth James. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license –
6 – Plan of Conwy Castle sourced via Wikipedia, author: Cadw. Licensed under an Open Government Licence v1.0.
7 – Photograph of Conwy Castle taken by Dan Spencer.
8 – Photograph of the Tower of London sourced via Wikipedia, author: Bernard Gagnon. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.
Dan Spencer, The Castle at War in Medieval England and Wales (Stroud: Amberley Publishing, 2018)
F. Walker, Madog ap Llywelyn (fl. 1277–1295)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2006 [https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/17765, accessed 6 December 2018]
 For the context to these events see, Dan Spencer, The Castle at War in Medieval England and Wales (Stroud: Amberley Publishing, 2018), pp. 132-46.
 Ibid, p. 147.
 Ibid, pp. 147-8; R. F. Walker, Madog ap Llywelyn (fl. 1277–1295)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2006 [https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/17765, accessed 6 December 2018].
 Spencer, The Castle at War in Medieval England and Wales, p. 148.
 Ibid, pp. 148-9.
 Ibid, pp. 144-5.
 Ibid, p. 149.
 Ibid, p. 149.