Sunday, 26 July 2015

King Arthur's Crown

Before embarking on his final campaign against the English  in 1282 Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, Prince of Wales and Lord of Aberffraw, deposited his crown and other relics at Cymer Abbey for safekeeping. When Llywelyn was killed later that year the English King Edward I made the Welsh “surrender certain particularly precious relics as tokens of submission, including a piece of the true cross and the legendary crown of Arthur.”

The Last Prince of Wales
Llywelyn ap Gruffudd (c. 1223 – 11 December 1282), also known as Llywelyn the Last, was King of Wales from 1258, until his death in 1282. He was the son of Gruffudd ap Llywelyn Fawr and grandson of Llywelyn the Great, the last sovereign prince and king of Wales before its conquest by Edward I of England.

Llywelyn found Edward a formidable opponent. At over six feet tall Edward, (17 June 1239 – 7 July 1307), was known as “Longshanks” and later in his reign as “the Hammer of the Scots”. He raised the greatest armies of the English Middle Ages, and summoned the largest parliaments; notoriously, he expelled all the Jews from his kingdom. The longest-lived of all England's medieval kings, he fathered no fewer than fifteen children with his first wife, Eleanor of Castile. After her death in 1290 he erected the Eleanor Crosses at locations he stopped over while taking her body to London.

Earlier, the Prince Edward led the forces of his father, King Henry III in the main battles of 13th century Second Barons' War defeating and killing Simon de Montfort in a massacre at the Battle of Evesham. He travelled across Europe to the Holy Land on crusade, taking the cross in 1268, and left for the Holy Land in July of 1270. In may of 1271, Edward helped relieve the city of Acre from siege.

Harlech Castle
During his Welsh campaigns Edward I built a formidable 'Iron Ring' of castles, a days march apart, encircling the country. From the first campaign the English king erected the castles of Flint, Rhuddlan, Builth Wells and Aberystwth. Following Llywelyn's second uprising in 1282 Edward began construction of an Iron Ring of castles in North Wales at Conwy, Harlech, Beaumaris and Caernarfon. These colossal fortresses were painted white and represent the most ambitious construction project in medieval Europe, designed to prevent the recurrence of any further Welsh uprisings, Edward is said to have spent more than 10 times his annual income on building castles.

According to the Flores Historiarum during the construction of the castle the body of the Roman emperor Magnus Maximus was discovered at Caernarfon. On the king's orders it was exhumed then reburied  in the local church, seemingly a repeat performance of the disinterment of Arthur five years earlier in 1278. Maximus was said to be the father of Constantine, who, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth, was the grandfather of Arthur.

Edward's sense of England's destiny seemed to be influenced by the tales of the legendary King Arthur, and his grandson Edward III further developed the idea of the Round Table at Winchester.

The First Welsh Campaign
After agreeing to the the division of Gwynedd in the terms of the Treaty of Woodstock in 1247 Llywelyn was restricted to the lands west of the River Conwy (Uwch Conwy) while east of the river (Is Conwy) as far as Chester, known as "Yr Perfeddwlad" (the middle land), was under English control of King Henry which he gave to his son Edward.

Edward's leadership qualities were soon tested when Llewelyn ap Gruffydd declared himself ruler of North Wales and in 1256 rebelled against English control of his homeland. Edward and his father had put down the rebellion by 1257.

Not surprisingly the population of Gwynedd Is Conwy resented English rule. Prince Edward, now Earl of Chester, visited the area in 1256 but failed to deal with the complaints of the Welsh. Later that year, in November,  Llewelyn, with his brother Dafydd, crossed the Conwy. By early December, Llywelyn controlled all of Gwynedd Is Conwy up to the gates of Chester. In retaliation an English army led by Stephen Bauzan invaded but was decisively defeated by the Welsh at the Battle of Cadfan in June the following year.

By early 1258 Llywelyn was using the title 'Prince of Wales' which the English refused to recognise. Llywelyn now embarked on a campaign of recovery of Welsh lands but in 1263 his brother Dafydd changed allegiance and went over to King Henry. In 1265, Llywelyn captured Hawarden Castle in Flintshire and routed the combined armies of Hamo Lestrange and Maurice fitz Gerald in north Wales. The following year Llywelyn moved on to Brycheiniog where he routed Roger Mortimer's army.

In a position of strength Llywelyn opened negotiations with King Henry and was recognised as Prince of Wales in the Treaty of Montgomery of 1267 which marked the high point of his power. Ten years after his recognition as the Prince of Wales by Henry III, Llywelyn was to suffer a humiliating defeat at the hands of the new king, Edward I. From the outset, Llywelyn seemed almost to go out of his way to court Edward's anger not least by by continuing to ally himself with the family of Simon de Montfort.

King Henry died in 1272 and Edward became King. In 1276 King Edward I declared Llywelyn a rebel and planned to retake Gwynedd Is Conwy. The following year he assembled an enormous army claimed to be over 15,000 men to march against Llywelyn. Edward twice came to Chester to summon Llywelyn to make peace, but each time was refused, on the grounds that the Prince of Wales "feared for his safety". Subsequently, Edward laid siege to Rhuddlan Castle, where Llywelyn was starved into submission.

Rhuddlan Castle
Subdued, but not beaten, Llywelyn began his own program of re-fortification by strengthening his grandfather's castles at Criccieth, Ewloe, and Dolwyddelan. In 1273 he started construction of a new castle at Dolforwyn, high above the Severn valley, posing a challenge to the royal frontier post at Montgomery. Llywelyn's refusal to abandon this project was just one incident in a catalogue of disagreements with the new king.

Edward's patience ran out and in 1276 he decided to settle accounts with the defiant Welsh Prince. Edward himself took to the field at Chester in July 1277, and by August he had some 15,600 troops in his pay. Faced with these odds, Llywelyn had no option but to sue for peace. The ensuing Treaty of Aberconwy represented a comprehensive humiliation for the Prince of Wales; stripped of his overlordship he had won ten years earlier, Gwynedd was again reduced to its traditional heartland to the west of the River Conwy.

From declaration of war on 12 November 1276 to the proclamation of peace on 9 November 1277 it had taken Edward just a short year to bring Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, grandson of Llywelyn the Great, to submission. But if Edward thought the Prince of Wales was beaten he was to be greatly mistaken.

Edward Visits Arthur's Tomb
Within a few months of humbling Llywelyn, at Easter in 1278 Edward took his court to Glastonbury Abbey to visit the tomb of King Arthur. Today, Arthur's existence is considered doubtful at best, but in Edward's time he was considered a historical personage. It was of course Edward's great-grandfather Henry II who had suggested the monks dig for Arthur's grave  at Glastonbury.

Two days after Easter the king ordered the tomb to be opened. At twilight Edward had the remains removed to the Abbey's treasury while a grander tomb was constructed; according to Leland who visited the Abbey in the early 16th century, it was a black marble sarcophagus with a lion at each end and an effigy of Arthur at its foot.

The following morning Edward personally wrapped Arthur's bones in silk, while Eleanor of Castile similarly prepared Guinevere's remains for reburial. Finally Edward and Eleanor affixed their seals as if to authenticate the contents. The skulls of Arthur and Guinevere were not re-interred but remained on permanent display for popular devotion.

The timing of Edward's visit to Glastonbury immediately following the submission of  Llewellyn was significant. During his Welsh campaign Edward had repeatedly heard claims of the return of King Arthur to lead the Welsh to victory. The visit to Glastonbury was Edward's statement for denying Arthur's survival and crushing any remaining Welsh hopes of a revival.

Edward's Second Welsh Campaign
Regardless, without Arthur's return the Welsh revival started a few years later when the war flared up again. On 21 March 1282, Llywelyn's brother, Dafydd ap Gruffyd, attacked Hawarden Castle and sparked off the war of 1282-83. Dafydd, who had allied with Edward, suddenly abandoned his alliance launching this attack on the English, forcing Llewellyn to join him. Initially, the Welsh achieved great success, besieging Flint and Rhuddlan and reaching as far as Chester in the north and the Bristol Channel in the south.

However, by the end of the year Llywelyn was dead, having been killed on 11 December in a chance ambush at Cilmeri at The Battle of Irfon Bridge (Orewin Bridge) near Builth Wells. A memorial stone now marks the spot. Llywelyn's body was interred at Abbey Cwmhir while his head was hacked off and sent to Edward at Rhuddlan before being taken to the Tower of London.

The defeat effectively ended the independence of Wales; Edward had conquered Wales and extinguished its native rulers. The Welsh crown was lost.

Coron Arthur
Following his defeat of the Welsh Prince Edward had been presented with a coronet that had belonged to Llywelyn (Talaith Llywelyn), which was said to be “Arthur's Crown” (Coron Arthur).

Llywelyn had deposited this crown and other precious items, such as the Cross of Neith, with the monks at Cymer Abbey for safekeeping at the start of his final campaign in 1282. As we have seen he was killed later that year. Following Llywelyn's death his brother, Dafydd, claimed the title of Tywysog Cymru, or Prince of Wales, but his reign was extremely brief and he was killed not long after his brother without being able to reclaim the precious items from Cymer Abbey.

At Conwy a group of Welshmen are said to have presented King Edward with 'part of the most holy wood of the cross which is called by the Welsh "Croysseneyht" which Llywelyn son of Griffin, late Prince of Wales, and his ancestors, princes of Wales, owned it'.

The Cross of Neith was later taken regularly by Edward on his travels and spent a considerable sum having its pedestal adorned with gems set in gold in 1293-4. Edward also had a chalice made from Llywelyn's treasure, which he ordered be given to the Vale Royal Abbey at Whitegate in Cheshire,  a religious house he founded in 1270. It has been suggested that the Dolgellau chalice, found in 1890 on the mountainside of Cwn Mynach, near Dolgellau, is the same chalice.

Cymer Abbey
Cymer Abbey is today a ruined Cistercian abbey near the village of Llanelltyd, just north of Dolgellau, Gwynedd, in north-west Wales. The Abbey was used as a base by Llywelyn's troops in 1275 and 1279. In 1283 Edward I occupied the Abbey and a year later gave the Abbey compensation of £80 for damage caused in the recent wars.

When Llywelyn's coronet came into the possession of the English they had it re-gilded and sent to London. Soon after, Edward's oldest son, Alfonso, presented it at the shrine of Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey.

Llywelyn's Coronet, or “Arthur's Crown”, was kept at Westminster along with the English Crown Jewels, until 1303 when they were all re-housed in the Tower of London after they were all temporarily stolen. It is widely thought that Llywelyn's Coronet was destroyed alongside most of the original English crown jewels in 1649 by order of Oliver Cromwell during the English civil war; however, an inventory taken by the new republican administration prior to the destruction of the crown jewels makes no mention of this coronet and there is no record of it in the lists of relics at Westminster made in 1467, 1479 or 1520.

Just as Arthur’s bones at Glastonbury were used by Edward I as evidence of his physical death thus countering the belief that he would one day return to lead the Welsh to victory, the mysterious “Crown of Arthur” can be seen as a symbolic representation of Welsh sovereignty now in the hands of the English. Edward I had removed from Wales the all the articles of Llywelyn's dynasty and symbolically enforced his authority over Wales by reburying Arthur and taking “his crown”.

Yet, as with all of Arthur's relics, the bones at Glastonbury disappeared with the Dissolution, Excalibur was given to Tancred of Sicily by Richard I the Lionheart, Arthur's Crown mysteriously disappeared and is never heard of again.

Was this really King Arthur's Crown? Tellingly, there appears to be a complete lack of an earlier Welsh history for the possession of Arthur's Crown.

Copyright © 2015 Edward Watson

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