To what extent did Welsh rulers adopt Norman ways of life during the twelfth century?

Following the Battle of Hastings in 1066, William the Conqueror succeeded in seizing England under his control, and further campaigns secured his territory over East Anglia and northern England. The Normans had arrived, and it was only a matter of time before their influences came into contact with Wales.

The consequence of Norman invasion and settlement meant a shift in nationhood and identity, and this was sometimes complicated as is the example of Gerald of Wales. Born and raised in Wales, Gerald was the grandson of Nest, and was a kinsman of both Rhys ap Gruffudd, Welsh king of Deheubarth, and David Fitzgerald, Norman Bishop of St David’s (Marsen, 2017). So, not only did Gerald take pride in his Welsh descent, he was also a member of the Norman marcher elite. His identity, therefore, was both Welsh and Norman, and he complained that he was “too much of a Norman for the Welsh, and too much of a Welshman for the Normans” (Davies, 1993, p. 131).

Owain Gwynedd (r. 1137-1170) was particularly resistant to Norman ways of life during his rule. Instead, he favoured building relationships and allies with other Welsh rulers as is evident in 1165 when five Welsh armies united behind Owain in defence of Henry II’s attack on Wales into Gwynedd (Brough, 2011, p. 1). He had also turned to Louis VII of France to seek an alliance against Henry. In a letter dated c. 1163-1165, Owain states that he “has long desired to come to the king’s notice and have his friendship” (Pryce, 2010, p. 351). Although this letter does not mention the hostility between Henry and Owain, the fact that Owain is writing to Louis at all is a strong suggestion of his intention to defy Henry and the Norman influences which are filtering through Wales. The significance of the timing of this letter is important. Henry’s authority had been weakened from 1163 onwards as a result of an argument with Archbishop Becket, which gave the Welsh rulers the opportune moment to regain territories and power. In writing to Louis, it shows the horizons of Welsh rulers were widening (Davies, 1993, p.126), and that Welsh rulers were using politics to their own advantage.

By 1188, the year Gerald of Wales discusses in Chapter 1 of his book ‘The Itinerary through Wales’, Rhys ap Gruffudd (1132 – 1197), nephew of Owain Gwynedd, had had a tumultuous relationship with the Marcher Lords and with King Henry II. He had submitted to Henry in 1158, renewed this in 1163, but waged war on him again in 1165. By 1170, the Norman campaign in Ireland left Henry weak, and Owain Gwynedd’s death in the same year means Rhys’s Deheubarth was the strongest power in Wales. This led to Henry acknowledging Rhys and his conquests, and confirming him as the Royal Justiciar in South Wales; the first time such a title was bestowed to a Welsh ruler by an English monarch. In Gerald’s chapter, the archbishop proceeds to Radnor to meet Rhys ap Gruffudd. Here, Gerald uses the phrase “prince of South Wales”. The word ‘prince’ is important; it confirms Rhys’s royal patronage and appeasement with Henry, and they provide virtually the only evidence of the way Welsh rulers viewed themselves and of the outside world’s interpretation of them (Davies, 1993, p. 128).  Rhys had authority over not only the native rulers in Wales, but also over the marcher lords (Brough, 2011, p. 2). This was incredibly useful to Rhys. The marcher lords had continuously relied on the support of the king in order to claim power; something Rhys now had the monopoly over. He could secure lands from the marcher lords with relative ease, and restore peace in his territory which lasted for over two decades. A shrewd move, by appeasing the King he ultimately benefitted himself and the native people of Wales.

Gerald of Wales
Gerald of Wales

The chief aim of the Normans when dealing with the Welsh Church was to gain control of the dioceses (Davies, 1993, p. 118). In Chapter 1 of Gerald’s ‘The Itinerary through Wales’, he describes in detail the meetings between the archbishop of Canterbury and Welsh rulers. The archbishop is described as “a venerable man, distinguished for his learning and sanctity” (Cambrensis, 1200, p. 11), which clearly determines where Gerald’s sympathies lie in respect of the Church. Gerald was a churchman who “sought to free the Welsh Church from its subordination to the Norman-held archbishopric of Canterbury” (Marsden, 2017). The chapter describes the archbishop’s journey from England to Wales “for the service of the holy cross”; the main aim being to convince Welsh bishops to swear an oath of allegiance to the archbishop of Canterbury, The first bishop to swear this allegiance was Urban, bishop of Glamorgan, in 1107. Rather than a willing acceptance of the Latin Church, it is more likely they were doing this to keep their property out of the hands of the “rapacious Norman knights” (Davies, 1993, p. 119), which mirrors the objectives of Rhys.

During this period, the years of peace have led some to argue that Rhys took on Norman traditions readily, and the evidence does support this. Rhys patronized Cistersian houses (Brough, 2011, p. 2), and Gerald’s chapter demonstrates his apparent willingness to accept Latin monasticism;

“Rhys himself was so fully determined upon the holy peregrination […] that for nearly fifteen days he was employed with great solicitude in making the necessary preparations for so distant a journey” (Cambrensis, 1200, p.13).

Despite this, Rhys was still a traditional Welsh king. Marriage alliances created kin-based connections which had been the keystone in Welsh society for centuries. Gerald makes reference to Rhys’s marriage to Gwenllian, daughter of “Madoc, prince of Powys” (Cambrensis, 1200, p. 13), who, incidentally, was his uncle Owain’s rival. His patronage of monasteries was coupled with sponsorship and support of Welsh poetry, and he had numerous children by different women; something that was abhorrent to the Norman way of life but presumably normal practice amongst the Welsh rulers (Brough, 2011, p. 2).  It appears that Rhys adopted some Norman ways of life, but not others, adding weight to the argument that Rhys was shrewd in using Norman influences to meet his own political gains.

By looking at these sources, one a letter to King Louis VII of France from a Welsh ruler, the other an account of a Welsh ruler accepting elements of Norman ways of life, it is clear that politics and personal gain were of more importance to the rulers than integrating into the traditions of the new settlers. Yes, there is clear evidence that Welsh rulers did adopt Norman ways of life, by patronising religious houses and integrating with the marcher lords, however they were never too far away from their traditional Welsh ways of living, and of course opportunities to regain territory and power from the king. Whether the same is to be said of the lay folk of Wales is another matter, but Welsh rulers certainly had specific tactics in mind when it came to the Norman settlers and king.



Bartlett, R. (2006 [1982]) Gerald of Wales: A Voice of the Middle Ages, 2nd edn, Stroud, Tempus Publishing

Brough, G. and Marsden, R. 2011. Rhys ap Gruffudd (1132–1197). The Encyclopedia of War; Available:  [Accessed 30 November 2017].

Brough, G. and Marsden, R. 2011. Gwynedd, Owain (r.1137–1170).The Encyclopedia of War; Available: [Accessed 30 November 2017].

Internet Archive. 2017. The itinerary through Wales: and the description of Wales: Giraldus, Cambrensis, 1146?-1223? : Internet Archive. [ONLINE] Available: [Accessed 30 November 2017].

Marsden R. (2017), ‘Conflict and coexistence in medieval Wales’, A329 Module Materials Week 3 (online), Open University, accessed 30 November 2017.

Davies, J., 1993. A History of Wales. Penguin Books.

Pryce, H. 2011, The Acts of Welsh Rulers, 1120-1283, p. 351. University of Wales Press


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