This weekend has been something of a contradiction – going forward into the future and travelling back in time. My local town has been celebrating the 750th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Montgomery; a pivotal point in the relations between Cymru/Wales and England. It heralded the start of a very short period of time when Wales – and its ruling Prince of Wales – was recognised by the English throne as an independent and self-governing country.
The Treaty of Montgomery of 1267 was contracted between Henry III of England and Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, Prince of Gwynedd, Prince of Aberffraw, Lord of Snowdon. It recognised the latter’s right to rule and to be Prince of Wales. Wales in the 13th C consisted of various kingdoms and cantrefi – the Welsh mediaeval subdivision of principalities into areas – “cant” meaning 100 and tref the Welsh word for town or settlement. Cantrefi were further subdivided into cwymydau. Each cantref had its own court of the ruling landowners, a Welsh assembly called the uchelwyr – the nobility. The governing Welsh princes of each cantref did not necessarily get on well with their neighbouring kinsmen and Wales’s strength as a nation was sapped by internecine strife.
Llywelyn’s grandfather, Llywelyn Fawr (Llywelyn the Great), saw this – much like Alfred the Great of Anglo-Saxon England several centuries earlier in his attempts to unify those areas that he could and make treaty with those that were beyond unification. Llywelyn Fawr knew that Wales had a greater chance of peace and prosperity beside Norman England if they had but one Prince to lead them. He was married to the daughter of King John of England and the history of Wales and England was inextricably linked by marriage, land and treaty. The border area of the powerful Marcher Lords was a melting pot of disunity and grumblings that flared and threatened to spill over into both Wales and England in various skirmishes and crumbling agreements between monarchs and nobility.
Llywelyn ap Gruffudd had made several overtures of treaty towards Henry III which were turned down. Nevertheless in 1267 after a month-long period of talks in Shrewsbury, agreement was reached in the Treaty of Montgomery and was signed at the ford at the Afon Hafren/River Severn just outside of the town. This is considered the high point of Llywelyn’s reign. The terms of the Treaty were somewhat punitive in cost however; as well as homage to the English king, the amount Llywelyn was required to pay both upfront and annually was eye-watering. Henry’s son and successor Edward I had little patience for Llywelyn’s inability to pay his debts or the tardiness of his paying homage to the new king and before a decade was out, the Treaty was dead – as was Llywelyn the Last himself by the last weeks of 1282, slain in battle near Builth Wells in Mid-Wales.
Writing this blog post on the damp, windy first day of October, the achingly beautiful elegy by Gruffudd ab yr Ynad Coch for his fallen king seems even more poignant.
- Do you not see the path of the wind and the rain?
- Do you not see the oak trees in turmoil?
- Cold my heart in a fearful breast
- For the king, the oaken door of Aberffraw.
The failed Treaties – the glorious but pricey Treaty of Montgomery and the later, even more stringent confines of the Treaty of Aberconwy – signify the approaching end of an independent Wales. But the loss of the visionary Princes of Gwynedd stretching from Owain Mawr (Owain the Great) to his great-great grandson Llywelyn, Ein Llyw Olaf (Llywelyn, Our Last Leader) also spelled the end of the grip of the North Wales kingdom’s power over the rest of Wales. The bard’s prescient fearfulness heralded true and Wales was inexorably folded in time to the iron will of Edward I.
I’ve been mindful of the Treaty for some time – not just because I am a marcher born Celtic/Anglo-Saxon hybrid myself and not only because this significant point in history was enacted in my adopted home town (and also bargained for in my birth town!) but also because the anniversary falls on my birthday. Being someone who feels more connection to the past, as I trundle forward into another year myself, I like to look back into history too.
Montgomery Castle – the building of which commenced 43 years before the Treaty – has long been one of my favourite places. I first visited around the age of 6 years on one of our many day trips to the area. It was the choice for many of our family celebrations, birthdays and visitors – we’d head to the Castle Kitchen for tasty vegetarian wholefood meals (and in my case, a large hunk of Hot Chocolate Fudge Cake if my memory and predilections serve me correctly!) and we’d burn off the feasting after with a short sharp climb up to the castle where my brothers and I would clamber around the ruins, I’d pick daisies or gather autumnal leaves depending on the season. It’s also where I encountered my first sheep up close in the form of a lamb that had separated from its mother and was bawling inconsolably and I got my clothes all sheepy-smelling by cradling it in my arms trying to reunite it with its mummy.
Later when we moved here when I was 18, I’d hike up to the castle after working shifts at the local hotel and a few years later, in my lunch hour when I was working as a vet nurse at the veterinary practice that nestles at the foot of the castle cliff. I have photographs of me standing against the castle walls hugging my new puppy Guinness on a stormy November afternoon – my 21st birthday gift to myself. I’ve spent many memorable hours here, both with friends and family and also alone lost in thought. It’s a place that comforts me; the encircling walls hold you still and the huge views out over the town and stretching out across Wales and Shropshire give a sense of freedom and clarity.
I’m fascinated by the thought of walking the same ground as so many figures from previous centuries; mindful of standing literally in the footsteps of key players who shaped not only the history of this country but also by definition, of the history of huge parts of the English-speaking world. It intrigues me that our local history – here on the Welsh Marches – is also the shared history of some other countries settled by British natives from previous centuries.
The town had arranged several events including a re-enactment of the Treaty signing at the ford with local school children taking part (and local councillor and occasional Mayor, Mike Mills acting a very stylish Henry III for the day!), a mediaeval banquet in the evening and, on Saturday, an encampment at the castle with re-enactment groups displaying some of what life was like in the 13th century. I didn’t attend the Friday celebrations but it looked like huge fun and you can view some of the festivities on the Visit Montgomery FaceBook page!
I did however nip up to the castle to see the re-enactment displays yesterday and it was so interesting. Although the weather threatened – and eventually delivered – typical Welsh drizzle, the spirits were cheerfully high as soldiers charged into carefully choreographed battle,
gingerly swinging their weapons with a surprising equality in the body count…
and a certain amount of confusion over whose side one was meant to be fighting for…
So just like nowadays then!
The military endeavours were wildly applauded by visitors and young recruits alike from both the 13th century and the 21st…
I was impressed by the detail in the costumes and artefacts. There is a crossover between the world of textiles/ crafts and re-enactment; those historians who make their own authentic costumes and craftspeople who find an increasing interest in the history of their own skills. Their knowledge and passion was impressive and I’ll definitely make the effort to go to other re-enactments.
It’s great how it can visually bring history to life, especially for school-children and reinforce that history is our story too just as one day we ourselves will become the past. I think it also brings into focus the cyclical rather than linear nature of history – that not everything we have achieved in the common era is necessarily progress and that progress itself can ebb as well as advance.
Although the celebrations centred around the male-dominated Treaty and masculine players in history, it’s perhaps no surprise that I was more intrigued by the few female characters on display. Of the several interesting people I talked with, I think this lady fascinated me the most.
At first, drawn by the smoke of her brazier I assumed she was cooking.
When I approached her I spotted several vials and a bowl of dried elderberries and realised that she was in fact making medicines.
Our brief conversation was speedily catholic in its compass as she answered my questions – I could have talked with her for hours so interesting was her knowledge of science, archaeology and history and I wish I could remember half of what she told me. Nevertheless it piqued my interest and gave me new things to look into and for that I’m very grateful.
I was particularly interested in the surgical instruments hanging in a roll beside her. Designed by the surgeon Al-Zahrawi of Córdoba in the 10th century, it’s fascinating that whilst surgical instruments have been refined over time, that they are still recognisable in their crude original form from a thousand years before. Whilst the instruments I’m used to seeing our veterinary surgeons use might be more delicate – and certainly more hygienic – there were some intriguingly familiar shapes there of forceps, probes, retractors, elevators and curettes.
And, neatly linking one of my other main interests, this other lady also obligingly stopped for a moment and posed for me. As countless women have found throughout time and place, the constant need to clothe everyone meant the need also to spin, spin, spin, wherever you might go.