At the heart of a 'hidden history'- forgotten battleground of the Norse and the Normans.
* ost people in Wales are aware of the mighty ring of Edwardian castles in the north of the country built in the wake of Edward I's conquest in the late 13th century.
Edward's "iron ring" of fortifications were designed to be symbols of his power and domination over the previously independent Welsh kingdom of Gwynedd. Yet fewer people are aware of another much earlier attempt to subdue Gwynedd through the construction of a network of castles in the years that followed the Norman Conquest.
Aberlleiniog Castle, which nestles in a beautiful location near the village of Llangoed close to the eastern shores of Anglesey, lies at the very heart of this 'hidden history'.
Situated just a few miles from Beaumaris' huge Edwardian fortification, Aberlleiniog Castle is a simple, yet well-preserved, Norman motte and bailey fortress, built on the orders of Hugh d'Avranches, earl of Chester, one of the first marcher lords appointed by William the Conqueror to the Welsh frontier.
Today, the motte at Aberlleiniog is crowned by a much later structure, probably a civil war fort, which appears to date to the middle of the 17th century. Yet it is arguably the early medieval history of this site which bears witness to one of the most significant yet little known conflicts in medieval Welsh history: the battle of Anglesey Sound in 1098.
This battle reconfigured the geo-political map of North Wales and reversed ambitions of conquest from the east for almost 200 years, allowing an independent and vibrant Welsh dynasty to flourish in Gwynedd.
Anglesey, Wales and the Viking World. We are often presented with an Anglo-centric view of Welsh history with relationships between Wales and England taking centre stage. Yet, it is important to remember that Wales is a westward facing peninsular with a mountainous interior which, to this day, hampers communications between both the north and south and the east and west.
In the early middle-ages, these internal topographical barriers would have been compounded further by widespread forestation and political fragmentation.
Wales, at this time, was made up of a patchwork of competing native kingdoms vying for power and territory. The one unifying topographical feature in Wales was the sea and many of the early medieval Welsh kingdoms had important westward maritime contacts and interactions, both peaceful and violent, with Ireland and the wider Viking world.
The Vikings first came to the Irish Sea region in small sea-borne raiding bands at the end of the eighth century. Over the course of the ninth and 10th centuries they established significant power bases and settled in locations across the Irish Sea region: in the Northern and Western Isles of Scotland, the Isle of Man, Galloway, Cumbria and coastal areas of Ireland.
These Viking settlers soon became embroiled in local politics, they formed alliances, intermarried and many adopted Christianity, yet they retained a distinct identity signalled through their material culture, language and their warrior outlook.
By the middle of the 10th century they had also established vibrant and bustling urban ports such as Dublin, at which mercenaries could be hired and where goods could be exchanged and redistributed across the Viking world.
Unsurprisingly, then, mastery of maritime routes in the region was very important for the Irish Sea Vikings. Perhaps the most important of these routes was the seaway linking Dublin with a significant Viking settlement in the Wirral which, in turn, connected overland to the Viking city of York. This busy Viking route meant that the Island of Anglesey and the coasts of North Wales were of immense strategic significance.
Given the strategic significance of the seaways around Anglesey, and the widespread nature of Viking settlement in the Irish Sea region, then it would be very surprising if there had been no such settlement within Wales. Evidence from native Welsh sources does suggest that Viking forces over wintered in parts of Wales. There is also a general tradition of Viking settlement in the region in the later Old Norse saga literature.
Furthermore, the prevalence of Scandinavian place name elements for coastal features in Wales is also suggestive of close contact and possible Viking settlement. Names with ey endings denote an islet or island in the Old Norse language, for example Bardsey and even Anglesey which literally means the Island of the English! Coastal names with such Viking elements occur right around Wales and certainly reflect the maritime dominance of the Vikings in the Irish Sea Region.
However, it must be noted that many of these coastal features retained their Welsh names such as Ynys Mon so it is problematic to argue that they are necessarily indicative of settlement.
In addition to the historical and place name evidence there is also significant archaeological evidence for Viking activity, especially along the coasts of North Wales and Anglesey. Hoards of buried booty at sites like Orme's head, Viking burials at Benllech and Viking art styles on the stone cross at Penmon are suggestive of both cultural interaction and Viking settlement.
In the past 20 years, a significant defended Viking trading settlement has also been uncovered at Llanbedrgoch near Red Wharf Bay close to Aberlleiniog castle. This settlement contained high status Viking artefacts such as merchant's weights, ringed pins, buckles, a whet stone for sharpening swords, Viking style long houses and even non-Christian burials.
The site's location and 10th century date appear to have significant implications.
Indeed, why would a native Welsh ruler of Gwynedd, whose traditional court was at Aberffraw, just 16 miles away, allow such a high status defended Viking site to exist so close to their seat of power? Does Llanbedrgoch indicate a possible Viking takeover of Anglesey? Gruffudd ap Cynan - Viking or Welshman? The intimate contacts between Aberlleiniog, Anglesey and the Viking World are further highlighted by the career of one of Gwynedd's most significant medieval kings, Gruffudd ap Cynan (1055-1137). Gruffudd established a powerful independent Welsh dynasty which dominated Gwynedd's political scene over the course of the 12th century.
Yet, despite these credentials Gruffudd was in fact only half Welsh. When his grandfather, Iago ab Idwal (king of Gwynedd 1023-1039), was slain in a dynastic dispute, his father, Cynan, fled to Viking Dublin. Dublin was a popular haven for political refugees from Wales in the 11th century. The ruling Scandinavian dynasty there, the Silkenbeards, were also very interested in maintaining strategic control over the sea routes and raiding interests in North Wales.
Unsurprisingly then, an alliance was soon established between Cynan, the disaffected heir to the throne of Gwynedd, and Rhanillt, a daughter of the prominent Viking Silkenbeard dynasty. Gruffudd ap Cynan was a product of this inter-ethnic union and was raised in the Irish Viking settlement of Swords. During his childhood his Viking kin would have been well aware of his potential as a member of one of the leading families of Dublin with a claim to the throne of Gwynedd.
It is unsurprising then, that when Gruffudd eventually returned to claim his patrimony in Wales in 1075, that Anglesey was his first target.
Gruffudd ap Cynan is unique in that he is the only 11th century Welsh king to be the subject of a medieval biography, The History of Gruffudd ap Cynan (HGC).
The historical details within this text are not wholly reliable but it does contain much that can be corroborated by other contemporary sources. It gives us an especially interesting window on Gruffudd's early career. The HGC suggests that as Gruffudd strove to regain the throne of Gwynedd he consistently targeted Anglesey and employed military backing from his Viking supporters in Ireland. Indeed, the HGC suggests that his own personal bodyguard consisted of Viking warriors who, at times, proved unruly and unpopular with his native Welsh subjects.
The HGC also suggests that Gruffudd deliberately targeted the recently established Norman castles in Gwynedd. For example, it tells us that in 1075 Gruffudd secured a tenuous control over Anglesey and then attacked the Norman stronghold at Degannwy where he fought with the Norman baron Robert of Rhuddlan and "other fierce knights of the French". Gruffudd's strategy in this respect does not appear to have endeared him to the newly-settled Normans and in the 1080s he was captured and imprisoned at Chester for more than a decade.
He managed to escape and in 1094 appears to have resumed his campaign. The HGC reveals that at around this time Gruffudd besieged the Norman Castles at Nefyn, on the Llyn, and Aberlleniog, on Anglesey again with the support of a Viking fleet, this time from the Isle of Man.
The Normans in North Wales It is perhaps important to say a little about the 11th century Norman activities in Wales at this juncture. Following his victory at Hastings, William the Conqueror established a series of buffer territories or marcher earldoms on the borders of Wales and placed them under the control of tough and trusted Norman leaders.
He gave these leaders wide-ranging powers which appear to have included a licence to launch individual campaigns against the Welsh kingdoms.
Attack being the best form of defence, William's marcher earls proceeded to carve out lordships and built castles at key locations to secure their new territories.
These early Norman fortifications in Gwynedd were of a type that may have originally been designed in the low-lying coastal areas of northern France which were also vulnerable to coastal attacks from the Vikings.
They consisted of a motte or enditched mound which supported a wooden strongpoint overshadowing an enclosed courtyard or bailey. Aberlleiniog is a classic example of such a castle. In North Wales, a castle building initiative of this kind was undertaken by Hugh d'Avranches, earl of Chester, and his warlike vassal Robert of Rhuddlan. During the final quarter of the 11th century Hugh and Robert extended their military expansion deep into Gwynedd's heartlands; establishing a line of castles at strategic locations along the North Welsh coast which stretched from Flintshire in the east to the Llyn peninsular in the West.
Aberlleiniog was clearly a crucial link in this chain of coastal castles which all had commanding outlooks to the sea and appeared to have been positioned primarily for defence against sea-borne attacks. As such, they posed a direct threat to Viking coastal shipping and raiding enterprises.
Soon after Gruffudd's attack on Aberlleiniog, Hugh d'Avranches and another powerful Norman marcher earl, Hugh of Shrewsbury, invaded Gwynedd with a very substantial army. This military surge was presumably intended to quell Gruffudd's insurgency and re-establish Norman rule.
In the face of overwhelming Norman forces, Gruffudd retreated to Anglesey and from there across the sea to exile in Ireland. This might very well have been the end of his story and could have heralded the beginning of a Norman rule over Gwynedd which would have negated the later Edwardian Conquest of the 13th century. However, the powerful and longstanding Viking geo-political interests in the region were to put paid to both Norman objectives and to Aberlleiniog Castle.
Aberlleiniog and the Battle for Anglesey Sound of 1098 The Welsh, Normans and Dublin Vikings were not the only political players in the Irish Sea region at this time.
Indeed, interest in control over the lucrative trading and raiding networks of Irish Sea region placed North Wales in an international Viking context; attracting the attention of the powerful Norwegian monarch. Magnus Barelegs succeeded to the throne of Norway upon the death of his father, Olaf, in 1093.
Olaf's had been a relatively prosperous reign during which Norway had experienced a period of increasing wealth. Much of this wealth was derived from trade with the Irish Sea region and its important markets, including Dublin. Upon his accession to the Norwegian throne Magnus appears to have set his sights on the establishment of a maritime empire which controlled these lucrative sea routes.
In 1098 he sailed westwards with a large fleet and took control of the strategically crucial Orkneys. He then moved on the Inner and Outer Hebrides before sailing south taking control of the Isle of Man and the coastal region of Galloway. Studying this progress it seems clear that Anglesey fitted perfectly into his plans for maritime domination of the Irish Sea region.
As already noted, the Norman earls of Chester and Shrewsbury had invaded Gwynedd in 1098 forcing Gruffudd ap Cynan to flee to Ireland at precisely the same time that Magnus' great fleet was prowling the Irish Sea.
The Norman army then ravaged Anglesey and set up camp at Aberlleinog castle close to the shores of Anglesey Sound. The HGC notes at this point that Magnus Barelegs' fleet launched a surprise attack on the Norman forces. In the ensuing battle Magnus himself was said to have killed Earl Hugh of Shrewsbury with an arrow. Following this lightning attack, Magnus' fleet then withdrew leaving the Norman army still on Anglesey. However, they very swiftly retreated all the way back to Chester and made no further attempts to subdue North Wales.
Many historians have viewed the battle for Anglesey Sound as an unplanned and coincidental encounter motivated by the Vikings' swashbuckling spirit. Yet, it seems likely that Magnus Barelegs was mindful of the threat which Norman control over North Wales was posing to Viking raiding and trading activities. The native Welsh Chronicler of the Princes was very clear concerning Magnus' intentions towards Anglesey stating that he hoped "to take possession of the countries of the Welsh" and had attacked the Normans because of their "frequent designs...to devastate the whole country". So the Welsh Chronicler was under no illusion that Magnus knew what the Normans were up to on Anglesey and launched a premeditated lighting attack to halt their advance. Magnus seems to have understood that the Normans had grossly over-stretched their lines of communication in Gwynedd. A fact borne out by events as Hugh d'Avranches withdrew his forces, not just from Anglesey, but from most of Gwynedd. The battle at Aberlleiniog had therefore highlighted the vulnerability of the Normans' position in North Wales. Their coastal bases were exposed to Viking maritime raids as well as native Welsh attacks from the interior. The Battle of Anglesey Sound marked a significant turning point in the Norman strategy towards Gwynedd whereby attempts at military conquest were abandoned in favour of diplomatic relations.
Following the Battle of Anglesey Sound Magnus appears to have allowed Gruffudd ap Cynan to return as a client ruler. The Welsh Chronicler tells us that Magnus appeared on Anglesey again in 1102 cutting down timber for his fortresses on Man.
That he was able to do so unhindered suggests that Gruffudd ap Cynan at least felt indebted to him. In reality, Gruffudd probably had little option but to comply - the King of Norway, not England, seems have been the real power with whom the Welsh had to contend with in the early 12th century.
As for Aberlleiniog Castle? Well it seems to have been abandoned and quickly fallen into disrepair as did the memory of the significant battle of 1098 which remains uncelebrated.
Yet, arguably, Aberlleiniog bore witness to one of the most pivotal moments in medieval Welsh history. Had the Normans managed to establish themselves in the North then an independent and vibrant native Welsh kingdom of Gwynedd could never have flourished. Welsh history, language and culture would undoubtedly have been very different without the Vikings of the Irish Sea.
TOMORROW Ysbyty Ifan and the tomb of Rhys ap Maredudd ONLINE Visit WalesOnline to vote for the most important place to Wales...
WHO ARE YOU DAVID WYATT? I'm a lecturer in Early Medieval History in the School of History, Archaeology and Religion at Cardiff University.
I also co-ordinate the School's outreach and community engagement activities.
I came to Cardiff University to study history and archaeology as a mature student during the mid-1990s and I'm still here!
I also run a foundation pathway, Exploring the Past, that enables mature students like myself to return to study.
My research looks at the history of slavery in the societies of medieval Britain and I published a book on the topic in 2009 called Slaves and Warriors. WHERE'S YOUR FAVOURITE PLACE IN WALES? It would have to be the city of Cardiff where higher education changed my life, where most of my best friends live and where I met my beautiful wife Rachel.
* Aberlleiniog Castle bears witness to one of the most significant yet little known conflicts in medieval Welsh history: the battle of Anglesey Sound in 1098
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|Publication:||Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)|
|Date:||Mar 30, 2012|
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