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23.03.18 Stephenson, Patronage and Power in the Medieval Welsh March

23.03.18 Stephenson, Patronage and Power in the Medieval Welsh March

David Stephenson’s latest monograph pieces together the story of Hywel ap Meurig (c. 1240-1282) and his heirs, an important Welsh gentry family living in the March of Wales between 1250 and 1422. Most of the lands held by the family were in Herefordshire, though their duties took them far afield. Patronage and Power in the Medieval Welsh March is a very specific look at this particular family and their close associates; however, the importance of the family involves them closely in many of the most important events in the March, as well as England as a whole during the period. In addition, Stephenson centers the Welsh gentry who live in the March, giving them the important role often lacking in studies of medieval British history. Rather than being a detriment to advancement, their Welshness brought the family many advantages as they rose through the English court and administration. They were able to move with ease between Welsh and English milieux, maintaining their family connections and relationships even as they gained English offices and became more Anglicized. Stephenson points out that the gentry families who worked within the system are understudied, in favor of the Welsh rebels, like Owain Glyndŵr (c. 1354-1415).

Although the family’s Welshness and Marcher identity is at the fore, there is also an increase in their involvement in English affairs, reflecting the changes taking place in Marcher society. Stephenson illustrates this by the anglicization of family names, including the loss of the Welsh patronymic. Hywel gave his sons names that could easily take both English and Welsh forms, like William/Gwilym, John/Ieuan, and Philip. Some he intended to be clerics, thereby having the ability to move between not just English and Welsh, but lay and ecclesiastical environments. This is in keeping with the book’s focus on a Marcher point of reference, where having the ability to move between increasingly interlinked societies was vitally important.

The prologue begins in 1258 during the chaotic rule of Henry III (1207-1272) of England. While the king and barons argued, Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffydd of Gwynedd (1223-1282) conquered much of Wales. Over the next few years, he extended his rule into parts of the March, including regions held by some of the great barons engaged in a power struggle with the king. Roger Mortimer of Wigmore (1231-1282), one of the most powerful, was deeply involved in the politics of England and determined to hold his principal Marcher lordship in Maelienydd against Welsh incursion. Mortimer was a staunch ally of Henry III and a sometime enemy of Llewelyn. In 1262, several chroniclers describe Llywelyn raiding and conquering Mortimer’s castle of Cefnllys. Hywel ap Meurig served as Mortimer’s castellan at Cefnllys, and after its capture, Llywelyn took Hywel and his family hostage.

The first of seven chapters discusses Hywel ap Meurig’s ancestry, which can be traced back to the Lord Rhys, prince of South Wales and a powerful Welsh ruler in the twelfth century. Hywel ap Meurig’s name itself makes clear his Welshness (‘ap’ being the Welsh patronymic ‘son of’). Roger Mortimer himself was half-Welsh, so his relationship with Hywel is not surprising. Even before his association with the Mortimers, Hywel served as a royal appointee during negotiations with Llewelyn ap Gruffydd, one of the rising number of Welsh officials in the March during this period. The capture, rather than murder, of Hywel and his family at Cefnllys is proof of their value as hostages.

The ensuing chapters roughly follow each generation of Hywel’s line. Chapter 1 discusses the trend toward Welsh administrators, and Hywel’s important place among them. Hywel’s ancestry helps to explain his position; his father, Meurig ap Philip, was a Welsh magnate who accepted the lordship of the Mortimers after they obtained control of the Radnor lordship in 1230. Even earlier, in 1216, King John (1166-1216) sought help from Hugh Mortimer. Meurig ap Philip and his brother each received a royal summons.

Chapter 2 gives details of Hywel’s long career as an official and diplomat. After his long service with Mortimer and King Henry III, Hywel disappears from the records after 1263, until 1271. Some records list him as serving the de Bohuns of Herefordshire, and it is likely that he was a resident of Hergest, since one of his sons is involved in Hergest Court. In 1271, Hywel is noted in royal documents as a witness to several grants and charters. In addition, he wrote a warning letter to Lady Maud, wife of Roger Mortimer, that Llewelyn was traveling to the region, perhaps maliciously, and that she must warn her husband. From that point, he is shown in steadfast opposition to Llywelyn, and assisted in destabilizing his regime and defeating his army.

The Intermezzo tells of Hywel’s wife and children, some of whom may have died before they were able to make much of a name for themselves. Chapter 3 begins with Philip ap Hywel, who appears as an executor to his father’s will. By 1290, Philip took custody of Dryslwyn castle, and later served as steward to Humphrey de Bohun. Philip also took a large part in defending Morgan ap Maredudd’s attempt to undermine de Bohun’s leadership, enhancing his standing. Philip lived at Hergest, in the lordship of Huntingdon, and later was commissioned to hold Builth castle for five years. Though Philip worked in royal service, even helping prepare the Welsh coast for the possible invasion of Robert the Bruce, he maintained his bond with the Mortimers, for whom he also served as steward. However, Edward II’s dependence on his in-laws, the Despensers, made him impatient with the Marches, and Philip fell out of royal favor along with the Marcher lords he served. Philip turned to the Church, becoming a canon at St. David’s.

Chapter 4 introduces Philip’s brother, Rees ap Hywel, and his offspring. While working for the government, Rees was trying to build a large presence in Wales, and sided against the king. He was later forced to give up his lands and chattel to Richard the Marshal, losing even his wardships. Rees was imprisoned in Dover Castle, then the Tower of London. When Mortimer escaped in 1323 and took over the realm, Rees was released and given a leading role in bringing Edward II back to London. He received his lands back, as well as new lordships and preferments. Rees briefly became the first Welsh Justiciar between the execution of Edmund FitzAlan and arrival of Roger Mortimer of Wigmore in 1326.

Sir Philip de Clanvowe’s career is discussed in chapter 5. Though his name is a mystery, he was a grandson of Hywel, though illegitimate. This name had the effect of distancing him from much of the Welsh people, who still commonly used patronymics. Sir Philip took part in the hunt and capture of the king’s favorite, Piers Gaveston, and may even have struck the killing blow. Sir Philip represented Herefordshire in the parliament, and served as deputy for the Justice of South Wales in 1334, beginning a wide variety of royal tasks in Wales. This shift is the first step in the family’s turn from Wales to England and beyond.

Chapter 6 tells of the end of Hywel ap Meurig’s line. John of Clanvowe was a knight of the chamber, and his story includes some personal and intimate details. For example, in 1385, Sir John Clanvowe was given free rein in the governance of the whole of south Wales, on the king’s behalf, a clear example of his trusted position. Sir John had an especially close relationship with Sir William Neville; both men were rumored to be Lollards. They joined the crusade against the emir of Tunis in 1390, and both died near Constantinople in late 1391, perhaps from plague. The men were buried together, in a joint tomb, with “their helms facing each other as though kissing, and their shields overlapping.” The coats of arms on their shields had been impaled, each shield showing half of each man’s coat of arms, something that usually occurred in married couples. Sir John was also involved in the literary circles of London. He is strongly suggested to have been a friend of Chaucer. In May 1381, Sir John was a witness to Cecily Chaumpaigne’s declaration which absolved Chaucer of all charges of rape against her. Sir John is also considered a likely author of “The Book of Cupid,” previously attributed to Chaucer.

In chapter 7, his reflections, Stephenson discusses some of the central themes to his study, first, the close and lasting attachments between Hywel and his heirs and high-ranking Marcher lords like Mortimer and de Bohun. Second, the centrality of this family story to the whole of Wales and the March in the period, pointing out that the achievements and challenges of this family are indicative of what turned out to be a “transformative” trend in Wales. As they rose in prominence, they adapted to changing times, retaining their Welsh and Marcher ties so long as they were useful. Sir Thomas, last of the Clanvowes, is primarily remembered as a prisoner of Owain Glyndŵr, his fellow captive one of the Mortimers who had been friend and patron to his family for so many years.

Stephenson’s study provides a fascinating and well-documented glimpse into the life of a Welsh gentry family. This kind of case-study is unusual and provides needed backstory to some of the most important events in the history of both England and Wales. Hywel’s early negotiations with Llewelyn ap Gruffydd and high office with Roger Mortimer led his descendants into a wide range of top-level administrative and diplomatic tasks. In Patronage and Power in the Medieval Welsh March, Stephenson shines a light upon the understudied topic of the medieval Welsh gentry, and their importance and involvement in the politics of the March, England, and Wales. He brings several generations of Hywel ap Meurig’s family to life, providing valuable backstory to many of the most important events in medieval Britain. Though relatively short, the book is packed with documentation and detail, well-organized, and beautifully written. It should be read by anyone interested in medieval British history, the March, or the great Marcher lords.