One of the most tragic stories of the history of these islands is the fate that befell a Welsh prince who was imprisoned as a child and was never given an opportunity to grow up. It is a story that reflects the cruelties and realities of 13th century politics.
One of the last Princes of Wales born in Wales was Llywelyn ap Gruffudd who rose in rebellion again king Edward I and was killed in a skirmish in 1282. His brother Dafydd continued to fight against Edward I but was captured; according to the chronicler he was betrayed by his own men. He was executed at Shrewsbury in October 1283. Some argue that Dafydd was the first nobleman to be hung, drawn and quartered for treason.
Dafydd’s body was dragged unceremoniously behind a horse’s tail through Shrewsbury. His body was then quartered to be sent to the four corners of England, where various cities squabbled as to who would receive which limb. Dafydd’s head was placed beside Llywelyn’s decaying head in London. Geoffrey of Shrewsbury was paid 20 shillings for his services in prolonging Dafydd’s torture and completing the execution.
After his death what was the fate of Dafydd’s children? Amongst their fates are some of the saddest and most tragic stories in Welsh history.
Edward had shown an interest in the sons and daughters of Dafydd before the war spread throughout Wales in 1282. Earlier in the year, during discussions with Llywelyn and Dafydd, he offered to provide for their sons. The proposal was rejected by the brothers. With the death of Dafydd in 1283, Edward took control of Dafydd’s two legitimate sons, Llywelyn and Owain. Dafydd also had a daughter Gwladys with his wife Elisabeth Ferrers, daughter of the Earl of Derby. It is possible that Dafydd was the father of many other illegitimate women whose names we do not know. In June 1283, Gwladys was arrested with her father, mother and brother Owain. Llywelyn was later captured.
After Dafydd’s execution; King Edward I sent the prince’s widow, Elizabeth for a time to a convent and it is said that the church of St Michael’s in Caerwys contains Elizabeth’s slate-covered tomb. Edward could claim that he displayed compassion to Dafydd’s daughters as he had sent his own daughter, Mary, to Amesbury Priory. However, the women are unlikely to have had any real say in taking Holy Orders. Gwenllïan, Llewellyn’s daughter was only months old when she was sent to Sempringham Priory in Lincolnshire.
Dafydd’s daughter Gwladys was sent to Sixhills convent also in Lincolnshire where she died in 1336 in her 50s. Edward secured an allowance of £20 a year for her maintenance. There are pieces of masonry at Sixhills allegedly showing the gravesite of Gwladys. The convent at Sixhills was also where Robert the Bruce’s sister, Lady Christine Seton was sent in 1306. Convents were used for political purposes to keep important women ‘prisoners’ but it also gave the appearance of showing compassionate care. Because of their status, Edward also ensured that they would not be royal heirs in waiting to threaten the stability of the king’s reign.
The saddest of all was the fate of the sons of Dafydd. The Patent Lists of the period record that it was the responsibility of Henry de Lincoln, Earl of Lincoln, in July 1283 to deliver Llywelyn ap Dafydd to Richard de Bois, and then take the prince to the king’s command. It was the duty of Reginald de Gray to carry out the same duties with Owain. Bristol Castle was eventually the home of the two Welshmen. Llywelyn and Owain were to be imprisoned there for the rest of their lives.
Llywelyn was about sixteen and Owain was only seven. The records of the accounts of the Bristol Castle Constables of this period survive. An allowance of sixpence a day was provided for the maintenance of the two Welsh princes. In addition, an annual grant for clothing, linen, shoes and other necessities was to be provided. At first, five attendants were paid to guard them and then later only three squires. When Owain was alone after his brother’s death, two squires guarded him.
Military victims of Edward I’s wars in Wales, including hostages, often received allowances or ‘wages’ and these are recorded in the accounts of the castle Constables. Of these sums, prisoners paid for their food by private arrangement with the Constable or his deputy. It is highly likely that officers would abuse this arrangement. Towards the end of his captivity, Owain was paid a ‘wage’ of 2d a day.
Llywelyn died, on 12 March 1287, he was still a young man and was buried at very little cost, at the Dominican church in Bristol’s Broadmead, now known as Quakers Friars. There is a Brasserie on the site today.
Owain’s fate was the most tragic. He was kept prisoner in the castle until his death in 1325 when he was well into his fifties. Two documents shed light on the unbearable cruelty inflicted upon him. In 1305 it is recorded: ‘The King wills that Owain son of Dafydd ap Gruffudd, who is in the Constable’s custody in the castle, should be kept more securely than he has been previously, and orders the Constable to have a strong house in the castle repaired as soon as possible, and to create an iron-bound wooden cage in that house, where Owain might be enclosed at night.’
Edward obviously felt that Owain’s captivity was far too lax or perhaps the king was afraid of a plot that may liberate him. Edward’s harsh treatment of Owain was not confined to his Welsh enemies. In March 1306, Edward imprisoned Robert’s the Bruce’s sister Mary and also the Countess of Buchan in cages. However, the cages had primitive toilets inside them but there is no mention of this provision for Owain. It was originally intended to place Robert de Bruce’s own daughter in a cage but Edward backtracked from this- possibly because she was only twelve.
Another informative document suggests that Owain’s imprisonment had had a serious impact on his mental wellbeing. In 1312 Owain wrote a petition to the king asking for better treatment. Owain’s lonely existence is heartbreaking to contemplate. It is highly likely that the long imprisonment had impaired his cognitive development. In it Owain states: ‘Owain, by order of the King, is kept in Bristol Castle in a strong and closed prison, and has been since the age of seven, for his father’s trespass. He prays to the King to allow him, so that he may go and play within the Castle wall, if he cannot have a better grace of the King: and because the Castle Constable does not keep him adequately in food and clothes.’
It’s astonishing that Owain was about thirty-six years old asking for permission to play in the castle. It suggests that there was no desire to communicate or develop Owain in any way. Owain refers to the cruelty of the constable who did not adequately feed or clothe him. It is troubling to consider the hardships of Owain’s imprisonment and we can only imagine his treatment with an unsympathetic Constable. His request to go out and play suggests he still thought like a child. Owain died in 1325 after having left Wales forty-two years earlier. He did not return to Wales and possibly had no idea why he was kept imprisoned for so long.
Seabourne, G. (2011) Imprisoning Medieval Women: The Non-Judicial Confinement and Abduction of Women in England, c. 1170 – 1509. Farnham, UK: Ashgate Publishing.
Sharp, M. (ed.) (1982) Accounts of the Constables of Bristol Castle. Bristol, UK: Bristol Record Society. Available at: https://www.bristol.ac.uk/Depts/History/bristolrecordsociety/publications/brs34.pdf.
Smith, J. B. (2014) Llywelyn ap Gruffudd: Prince of Wales. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.