15.01.32, Stephenson, Political Power in Medieval Gwynedd

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Lizabeth Johnson

The Medieval Review 15.01.32

Stephenson, David. Political Power in Medieval Gwynedd: Governance and the Welsh Princes. Studies in Welsh History. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2014. Pp. liv, 257. ISBN: 9781783160044 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Lizabeth Johnson
University of New Mexico

Political Power in Medieval Gwynedd: Governance and the Welsh Princes, by David Stephenson, is a reprint of his 1984 work The Governance of Gwynedd. Although Stephenson does address some of the more recent scholarship on the subject of political power in medieval Gwynedd in a new introduction, the work remains largely unchanged from its original edition.

For any student of medieval Welsh history, Stephenson's discussion of the inner workings of political power and rulership in thirteenth-century Gwynedd is absolutely vital in understanding the extent and limitations of that political power, particularly in contrast to its more powerful and wealthier English contemporary. In particular, Stephenson focuses on such issues as the structure of the princely government in Gwynedd, the economic policies of that government, the means by which the princes recruited and retained administrative officials, and the means by which the princes maintained control over the lesser lords, both secular and ecclesiastical, and over powerful kin groups.

With regard to the structure of the princely government in the pre-conquest era, Stephenson describes an itinerant court that moved from locality to locality. This aspect of the government enabled the prince to have a more personal relationship with many of his subjects and also gave him the opportunity to build up loyalty among those subjects, both for himself and for his heir, a key feature in this arguably primitive government. Beyond the support of loyal subjects and retainers, the prince relied heavily on the services of his council, composed of high ranking ecclesiastical and secular officials, and a few specialized officials, including the distain (akin to the more familiar seneschal), the offeiriad teulu (the court priest and chancellor), and the rhaglaw (a local official similar to the English bailiff). The various holders of the position of distain can be seen exercising advisory and diplomatic duties, as well as frequently appearing at the head of the list of witnesses for charters issued by the princes. Stephenson also notes that, in the course of the thirteenth century, the duties of the distain had evidently changed from the traditional duties described in the law texts to include judicial and military functions. The offeiriad teulu, like the distain, was an official whose responsibilities are outlined in the law texts as well, but by the thirteenth century these responsibilities had similarly evolved to include many of the duties associated with a chancery, including drafting charters for the prince and keeping an account of legal actions that took place within the prince's court. The rhaglaw--again an official mentioned in the law texts but whose duties developed during the course of the thirteenth century--was the representative of the prince in the local courts. The rhaglaw was responsible for supervising the collection and awarding of fees in court cases and for securing testimonies for court cases. What becomes clear through Stephenson's discussion of the structure of the government in this section is that, in contrast to the thirteenth-century English state, or the post-conquest Welsh state, the princes of Gwynedd carried much of the burden of government upon their own shoulders and ruled largely through personal contact with the administrative units of the commote and cantref and through the services of a handful of specialized officials.

The economic backbone of the government of Gwynedd was limited in contrast to that of its English contemporary. The princes gained much of their finances from demesne lands that were scattered throughout Gwynedd. The limited evidence that survives regarding the exploitation of these lands suggests that the financial render from the lands varied from year to year and that some of the lands declined over time in terms of their render. The other pillar of financial support for the state came from dues and renders, such as food and lodging for the court when it was on cylch (circuit) or gwestfa and dawnbwyd (entertainment and food renders) from the localities, both free and bond. The records suggest that some of these renders were commuted to cash payments over time, but Stephenson notes that this commutation was not consistent throughout Gwynedd and only appears to have occurred in certain areas. Other dues were incidental, rather than annual or semi-annual, and included fees payable upon the change in status of an individual, such as amobr (the marriage fee for women) and ebediw (a death fee similar to the English heriot); fees from markets and trade; the right to claim shipwrecked goods; fees from court proceedings, such as the fee the prince himself received for his decision in disputes over land and fees pursuant upon conviction for certain crimes, including homicide; military and labor services from free and bond subjects; and finally profits from unusual circumstances such as vacancies within church offices, plunder from military conflicts, and ransom for wealthy hostages. Although this list of financial resources may appear impressive, Stephenson reminds the reader that few of these resources were consistent in terms of value from year to year and some depended solely upon there being an active military campaign. Furthermore, Stephenson highlights the complaints that were made against Llywelyn ap Gruffydd late in his reign that suggest that, in order to pay unusual and hefty debts incurred during his various conflicts with the English, this last prince of Gwynedd was regarded by his subjects as having been far too intent on collecting every due, render, and fee owed to him and even of having invented a few new ones. Stephenson remarks that, in many ways, the Edwardian conquest may have represented a return to more customary practices, compared with the final few years of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd's rule.

In terms of recruiting and retaining officials, Stephenson indicates that men who were chosen to serve as officials for the princes of Gwynedd could expect to be rewarded not only by the prestige of office holding, but also by the right to a percentage of the fees collected from particular individuals subject to that official's responsibilities. More importantly, however, those who served the princes of Gwynedd could expect to gain lands for their service and, in certain cases, immunity from the traditional dues and renders owed by free landholders. Stephenson discusses several families who served the princes in official capacities and gained status and immunities thereby, including the descendants of Cynfrig ab Iorwerth, Llywarch ap Bran, and Rhodri ab Owain Gwynedd. Some of these men, particularly Ednyfed Fychan, the son of Cynfrig ab Iorwerth, will be well-known to students of pre-conquest Welsh history, and some of these families gained status and immunities that lasted even into the post-conquest period. Stephenson ends this chapter with a discussion of the characteristics that defined the governing officials of thirteenth-century Gwynedd, reiterating the importance of land grants and immunities but also describing how many of these officials submitted themselves to Edward I in the final days of Gwynedd's independence. Although this may have been done to preserve a native Welsh stake in the new royal government, Stephenson also notes that many of the officials undoubtedly became anglicized through their diplomatic service and some actively colluded with Edward against Llywelyn ap Gruffydd.

In the final section of his work, Stephenson discusses the issue of how the princes maintained control over other lords, both secular and ecclesiastical, with the first chapter in the section dedicated to a discussion of how the princes attempted to control members of their own kin group. Those familiar with pre-conquest Welsh history will know that this was a particularly problematic aspect of Welsh politics because of the practice of partible inheritance and the potential for political power to descend not to one son, but possibly several sons or even nephews and grandsons. Stephenson cites evidence from Welsh law that the relatives of the prince held the same rights and privileges as the prince himself until they took up land, with the land itself henceforth defining their status in society as merely free, rather than princely. This practice, therefore, was one means by which princes could control their kin: by granting them lands that might entail specific privileges, such as immunity from dues and renders, but which would remove them from the pool of potential successors. However, this course of action did not always work, as some of these relatives occasionally sought access to ruling authority despite having been granted free lands and thus having accepted free, rather than princely, status. In some cases where this policy failed, the would-be rulers might be forced into exile in England, which could also have disastrous results as they could be used by the kings of England to destabilize political power in Gwynedd and in Wales as a whole. In other cases, the princes tried to control these members of their kin group by luring them into official positions that would remove them from the pool of potential successors but would grant them status, lands, and immunities that could be passed on to their heirs and would allow them to keep a high, if slightly less elevated, position in Welsh society. The princes of Gwynedd had success using this policy with the descendants of Rhodri ab Owain, one of the youngest sons of Owain Gwynedd, a prominent twelfth-century ruler of Gwynedd. The most apparent examples of attempts by the princes of Gwynedd to control family members who were potential political threats can be seen in the actions taken by Llywelyn ab Iorwerth to ensure the accession of his younger, but only legitimate son, David, and the actions taken by Llywelyn ap Gruffydd to secure his own claim to Gwynedd while eliminating the claims of his three brothers. Stephenson discusses the policies that the two Llywelyns used to control their immediate male kin in detail in this chapter, noting both the successes and the failures in those policies. Stephenson ends the first chapter in this section by stating that it is clear that the obligations between members of ruling families that had accepted lesser status and the princes themselves were becoming much more rigorously defined in the thirteenth century.

In the second and third chapters in this final section, Stephenson discusses how the princes attempted to establish and maintain good relations with ecclesiastical lords in Gwynedd and with powerful kin groups. The benefits of good relations with the church in Gwynedd are easy to see, as the princes could rely on influential support for their policies and access to learned individuals who could perform various tasks, including diplomatic services. However, efficient and stable governance was more difficult to achieve when the princes could not maintain these good relations with ecclesiastical lords. The two most important ecclesiastical figures in thirteenth-century Gwynedd were the bishops of Bangor and St. Asaph. Throughout much of the reign of Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, the holders of these episcopal sees were on good terms with the prince, despite his occasional infringement on the rights of their sees. These good terms did not continue, however, into the reigns of the next two princes. David ap Llywelyn found himself at odds with the bishop of Bangor for most of his reign due to David's imprisonment of his own brother. Similarly, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd was at odds from time to time with both bishops over claims that he had infringed on the liberties of their sees, particularly on the financial liberties. In addition, Llywelyn's actions toward one of his brothers in the mid-1270s led to a breakdown in his relationship with both bishops, a state of affairs that would continue until the end of Llywelyn's reign. With regard to the relationship between the princely government and powerful kin groups, Stephenson describes circumstances in which powerful kin groups could either prove useful to the princes or obstruct the princes. The means by which a powerful kin group could prove useful to the princes can be seen in the fact that several prominent families held high ranking offices throughout the thirteenth century and so helped to expand the princes' power. The history of a few of these families is discussed in greater detail in the chapter on the princes' officials. In contrast, the means by which a powerful kin group might obstruct the expansion of the princes' government included the potential conflict between a kin group and a prince in those circumstances in which a prince attempted to increase his legal authority over individuals, at the expense of the kin group's authority over those same individuals, or in which a prince might seek to remove certain lands from the possession of a kin group. However, Stephenson states that while this potential for conflict existed, it rarely resulted in outright tensions between the princes and various kin groups. Instead, Stephenson argues that the princes were often able to exploit the strength of the kin groups for their own benefit, such as when the princes offered monetary compensation in return for the alienation of lands held by a kin group or when the princes sought the payment of certain fees that were traditionally the responsibility of the kin group.

Finally, returning to the new Introduction to this reprint edition Stephenson acknowledges some of the more recent scholarly work on medieval Wales, including the collection of acts of Welsh rulers edited by Huw Pryce and Charles Insley, the seven volumes of poetry by Welsh court poets produced by scholars working with the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies, the biography of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd by J. Beverley Smith, and various scholarly articles written by Insley and others since 1984. Although Stephenson does respond to some of the arguments made by the authors of these articles, particularly when those arguments suggest an alternative interpretation of the arguments that Stephenson made in the 1984 edition of his work, overall he does not address the recent scholarship on medieval Gwynedd in much detail. Instead, Stephenson seems to view none of this recent scholarship as altering his original research regarding the policies that the thirteenth-century princes of Gwynedd utilized in governing Gwynedd and the limitations that they faced. While it must be said that the majority of the sources that Stephenson relied on in writing the original edition of this work, such as the chronicles, law texts, collections of charters, and various chancery, patent, fine, and close rolls that detail the events and catalog the important actors in thirteenth-century Welsh history, have not been challenged or much altered by recent scholarship, a more detailed discussion of that recent scholarship and a more intensive effort to integrate some of that scholarship into his original work would have been of benefit to the field of medieval Welsh history and would have added further significant nuances to the history of Wales' last century of independence.

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Lizabeth Johnson

University of New Mexico