The death of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd

The Mysterious Events at

Orewyn Bridge, 11th December 1282

The Death of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd


The Protagonists:  an uneven balance of forces

English Forces  – Edmund Mortimer, Lord Mortimer of the Marches
Object To defeat the Welsh army and kill or capture Llywelyn ap Gruffudd
Numbers Total:  6,300

Cavalry:  1,300;  Infantry and Archers:  5,000

Deployment Edmund Mortimer

John Giffard

Roger l’Estrange.  Infantry, Archers and Cavalry

Welsh Forces  –    Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, Prince of Wales
Object To inflict defeat on the Marcher Lords or achieve their defection to the cause.
Numbers Total:  c.7,000

Cavalry:  160;  Spearmen:  7,000

Deployment Single formation Spearmen

Llwyelyn ap Gruffudd may not have been present with his army


Background:  The campaign of 1282 against Edward I was going much better than the 1277 one had, when the power of the English forces had been seriously underestimated.  Llywelyn’s allies also remained loyal in the face of the enemy, enabling victory at Menai Strait.

From here Llywelyn moved south into mid-Wales, planning to make alliances and conquests to unite the whole of Wales, as his Grandfather Llywelyn ap Iorwerth had done earlier in the C13th.

Events failed to fulfil this dream and defeat ended all realistic hope of keeping Wales an independent principality.

The Battle

  • Llywelyn’s army moved across country keeping to the higher ground. The more numerous English cavalry were disadvantaged in such country.
  • Llywelyn’s men occupied the hills overlooking the Irfon and also controlled the bridge, preventing any direct attack and avoiding battle on the low ground.
  • Builth Castle was held by the English, from whence a force commanded by Edmund Mortimer, John Giffard and Roger l’Estrange set out. They had fewer infantry but a much larger force of Cavalry.
  • On the fateful day of the 11th December, Llywelyn was absent from his main force. He may have been scouting or meeting with potential allies.
  • Legend maintains that he was lured away from his main force by an act of treachery. This occurs in several accounts of the battle but remains unsubstantiated.
  • In Llywelyn’s absence the English forces advanced on the strong Welsh position. After being shown the ford, they were able to attack the Welsh from the rear and after capturing the ford gained full access across the river.
  • The Welsh forces stood firm, knowing the folly of abandoning their hilltop position, their biggest asset.
  • The Welsh army stood in tightly packed schiltrons but the spearmen were easy prey to the English bowmen. As they became weaker and demoralised the English released their heavy cavalry, some charging from behind the hill.
  • This was most effective after the missile attacks had disrupted the enemy. The tactic had been used many times from the Battle of Hastings onwards. Edward  frequently used this method against the Scots.  It hardly ever failed.
  • In the confusion of the battle, Llywelyn was killed. It is assumed that he attempted to re-engaged with his own forces in order to assume command but was set upon or ambushed by English troops.
  • Stephen de Frankton is thought to have been the slayer. He possibly did not recognise Llywelyn, dressed in a tunic, not armour, because he had been away scouting or negotiating.  He was run through with a lance.
  • He is said to have had 18 attendants with him at his death. Who they were is uncertain –  bodyguards or his company commanders?
  • Llywelyn’s head was sent to Edward in Rhuddlan, as proof of his death and then to be displayed at the Tower of London, as a sign of a traitor.


  • The question of treachery is difficult to prove, especially at this distance in time.
  • How could such an act have been carried out?
  • English control of the area at that time reduced the power and influence of local chieftains.
  • Llywelyn’s brother, David, had a history of betraying Llywelyn. He is mentioned as such in later legend but no contemporary account blamed him.
  • It has been suggested that the Mortimers played a role. There were marital links.  They had been allies through marriage to the de Montforts in the 1260’s; Llywelyn was married to Eleanor de Montford
  • The theory assumes that the act of treachery was to separate Llywelyn from his main force, and then to ambush him.
  • After the death of Llywelyn, he and the Welsh were no longer a threat to Edward. The defeat was crushing, enabling unification of England and Wales.

Llwyelyn ap Gruffydd’s final hours:

Cilmeri and Aberedw

Llywelyn was known as the last Prince of Wales and he was killed near Builth of the 11th December 1282.  The memorial was erected by the local squire in 1902, near the spot where he was said to have died.  The larger monument which we see today was created in 1956.  To either side of the entrance are the inscriptions in Welsh and English reading “Near this spot was killed our Prince Llywelyn 1282”.

  • There are a number of versions of his final hours.
  • He tried to get access to Builth Castle, was betrayed and having got away asked the local blacksmith to reverse the shoes of his horse to fool pursuing troops. Having hidden in a cave above  Aberedw, he retraced his steps and was captured.
  • Thousands of Welsh troops were killed in a battle which started on the present site of Builth golf course. As the engagement flowed back and forth Llywelyn was killed somewhere near Cilmeri or Llanynys, either by contact with an English patrol or after being betrayed, possibly by a priest or monk.
  • He was killed by a special force of English soldiers who knew his identity and beheaded.  His head was taken firstly to Rhuddlan and then London.

Research in Victorian times suggests that his body was recovered and taken for burial at the monastery of Cwm Hir.  Others have suggested a burial in his native North Wales, Llantarnam Abbey or even Bristol.

  • Llywelyn was attempting to reunite Wales after many years of internal dischord. This had been achieved more or less, under Llywelyn ap Iorwerth around 1200.  He married Joan, the daughter of King John, bringing relative stability until his death in 1240.
  • Feuding took place between his two sons, Gruffydd and Dafydd, which undid his good work and part of Gwynedd passed to King Henry in 1247, the rest to Prince Edward in 1254.
  • Gruffydd married Senana in 1244. Their son Llywelyn became Prince of Gwynedd, later declaring himself as Prince of Wales, a position recognised and accepted by Henry III.
  • The accession of Edward brought change. He wanted all of Britain under his control and began a programme of castle building across Wales.  Llywelyn enjoyed some success against Edward but it all came to an end in 1282.

Llywelyn Memorial at Cwmhir Abbey

“Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, Prince of Wales”

Photograph:  Julian Lovell, Abbey-cwm-hir

Ffynnon Llywelyn

  • Beyond the monument a path leads down steps to the well where according tradition Llywelyn’s head was washed.
  • The well is protected by a metal cover which can be lifted to reveal the supply of water beneath. Behind the well is a slate slab inscribed in English and Welsh.
  • “Legend has it that this is the well wherein the head of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd was washed”.
  • A small stream flows from the well in the direction of the Irfon.

Ffynnon Llywelyn, Cilmeri

Photograph:  Julian Lovell, Abbey-cwm-hir 

The Castles at Builth

Caer Beris

Builth has two castle sites. It is thought that the large castle near the present Wye bridge was not the first to be built.

The earlier castle was Caer Beris, overlooking the Irfon.  It was built by Philip de Braose about 1095.  A little later, c.1100, the archbishop of Canterbury instructed him to return to the Bishop of St. David’s all the lands which he had wrongfully occupied, referring to his encroachments in Buellt.  Following this the castle seems to have remained in the de Braose family for almost a century.  Rubble still to be seen at the top of the motte suggests that a stone-built keep had been erected, along with other fortifications.  The motte and bailey are now extensively wooded.

In 1168 the Lord Rhys invaded Brycheiniog and destroyed the castle.  It passed out of the de Braose hands.  The castle never recovered and the cantref was henceforth ruled by Meurig ab Addaf.  Finally, William de Braose (d.1211) granted the province to Gruffydd ap Rhys, to be inherited in turn by his sons in 1201.

Builth Castle

The Sheriff of Gloucester made an abortive attempt to build a castle at Builth in 1208 but was defeated by the nephews of  William de Braose.  The sheriff returned in 1210 to complete the task.

  • 1215: the castle was seized from King John
  • By royal command further fortification was added in1219.
  • 1219: beseiged by Prince Llywelyn of Gwynydd in September 1223, until relieved by royal troops.
  • 1229: the castle was given to Llywelyn Fawr by William de Braose.
  • On the death of Prince Llywelyn the site was retaken by John of Monmouth in the summer of 1240 and rebuilt.
  • It was repeatedly beseiged between 1256 and its fell in 1260 when it was demolished.
  • 17 years later Edward I ordered it to be rebuilt as a great tower on a motte, with a stone wall with six turrets, a drawbridge with two turrets and stone walls enclosing the inner and outer baileys.
  • The cost was considerable amounting to £1.2 million in today’s terms.
  • It was necessary to guard the castle continuously during the reconstruction.
  • In the winter of 1294 the garrison consisted of 3 heavy and 3 light horsemen, 20 crossbowmen and 40 archers.  Well defended, it thus it avoided the fate of Cefnllys to the north.  The Marcher lands were frequently very turbulent.
  • In 1402 it was under the command of Lord Grey of Condor who held it throughout the Glyndwr era.
  • Finally destroyed by fire during Elizabethan times and not rebuilt.

Aberedw Castles and Llywelyn’s Cave

It is not possible to date the motte castle at Aberedw.  It may have been founded by the Baskervilles c.1093 when the Normans first invaded south Wales.  If this was so, the castle may have been lost to the Welsh during the Anarchy of King Stephen’s Reign, 1135-50.  It may also have marked the foundation of a Welsh castle on a virgin site.

The de Braose forces reconquered the cantref of Elfael in 1195.  It is unlikely that they or any of their followers would have built a castle in Aberedw.  The following year they were threatened and had lost possession by 1208.

In 1215 Gwallter Fychan, son of Einion Clud, was in control of the bulk of this region and so it remained until the death of Llywelyn in 1282, after a period of relative peace.  Edmund Mortimer expelled all the descendants of Einion Clud from the district.  In their place he installed Walter Hackelutel, 1284.

Aberedw Motte.  Llywelyn’s Castle?

  • The motte stands at a high point where the ground falls steeply on the south side to the R. Edw and on the west towards the R. Wye.
  • The castle stands in a very strong position. The approach is from the east, where the church stands.
  • There is no trace of a bailey. The motte is surrounded by a ditch except to the south.  A rocky outcrop to the east indicates that there was no bailey to this side, the only side on which consruction was possible.
  • Recent sheep tracks have dug into the side of the mound revealing a core made up of fragments of the shaley local stone.
  • This could also indicate that the motte is made up of the collapsed remnants of a stone tower.
  • Llywelyn may have made use of the Motte after his conquest of Elfael.
  • The Motte may have functioned as a viewing platform for the newly developing Aberedw Castle nearer the River Wye.
  • The Beauchamps, who succeeded to Painscastle, acquired the lordship and the castle. By 1398 in was not deemed worthy of mention.

Aberedw Castle.  Mortimer’s Castle?

  • The second castle built at Aberedw is situated at the top of a steep slope above the R. Edw. It is a rectangular stone castle, 125 x 110 feet.  It had four corner towers surrounded by a ditch and probably a counterscarp bank.

The site was badly damaged by the construction of the Cambrian Railway.

  • Little remains of the castle above ground although there are remains buried by the debris of its own ruins. The trace of a causeway is post-medieval.
  • Access in medieval times would have been gained by a bridge which could have been anywhere around the enclosure.
  • The mounds of rubble within the curtain wall mark the rubble of the curtain thrown back by ancient farmers to allow their stock easy access to the castle.
  • South of the current ‘entrance’ is a protruding wall, facing almost at right angles, which may have marked a window of a lean-to building or even the original gateway to the castle.
  • The castle was four-square, with a tower at each corner. The south-east tower is best preserved, about five feet thick, a minimal defensive thickness and not really adequate to resist attack at that time.
  • The north-west tower may have been slightly larger and served as a keep. Again, the railway construction has caused considerable damage.
  • The mortar is well-decayed and requires conservation.

Aberedw, St. Cewydd Church

Llywelyn ap Gruffydd was possibly in this area on the day of his death.  According to tradition he attended Mass at Aberedw church that morning.  The church at Llanynys, near Cilmeri, also claims a similar tradition.

St. Cewydd’s Church is mostly medieval, with an open rafter roof, medieval screen and a C.19thGothic cast iron altar rail.  There are C.18th. monuments on the interior and exterior walls.

History.  The first church was established here in the C.6th , possibly a site used for pre-Christian worship.  St. Cewydd established a hermit’s cell here, traditionally said to be Llywelyn’s cave overlooking the river Edw.  Cewydd is the patron saint of rain;  there are only two other similar dedications known in Wales.

  • The churchyard is sub-oval and contains three ancient yews, possibly 1500 years old.
  • The exact build date is not known, but there are documentary records of a church here in 1291. The present nave is C.14th. based on the evidence of one of the windows and the north doorway
  • The porch is C.15th , but may have been rebuilt and the chancel, which is largely original, is C.16th.
  • The screen is late medieval. There is a tomb slab dated 1604 and another 1722 on the west wall.
  • The church possesses an ‘Obit Bell’, one of only two known to exist. The bell was rung at the head of the funeral procession from the house of the deceased to the church.
  • The inscription reads “Memento Mari: R-S 1654”.  The date is remarkable as it was during the rule of Oliver Cromwell, when such popish symbols as bells and other ornaments were banned.  The custom of bearing the bell died out in the C.19th.
  • The bell is now on display at St. Fagan’s Museum

The Church of St. David, Llanynys

The church of St. David occupies a remote location beside the River Irfon, a few miles to the west of Builth Wells.  It is likely that the church has been rebuilt several times during its history.  This makes it very dificult to determine which of the surviving parts, if any, were part of the medieval church.  It is possible to date the font as being of that period.  The uneven appearance of the chancel walls suggest an early origin but later plaster and limewash make it difficult to be precise.

  • As with the church at Aberedw, this might be the one in which Llywelyn received communion and absolution on the morning of the battle. Local tradition supports this
  • The location of the church, the shape of the original churchyard and the former dedication to St. Llyr supports the idea of a medieval origin
  • The Saint David’s Episcopal Register records an entry for Llanynys in 1400
  • Surviving records suggest an extensive rebuild in 1687 and again in 1778 and 1894
  • The church once contained what was classified as a fine oak screen, now lost, most likely at the time of the later restorations
  • A clearance and renovation scheme in the 1970’s saved the church but probably detroyed the earthworks around the churchyard, which were of medieval origin
  • Surviving remains of an earlier boundary indicate a curvilinear structure, much smaller than the present churchyard in which the church was centrally located
  • This is typical of an ancient site of Christian worship

Obit Bell, Aberedw Church

Documentary Evidence

Various pieces of written record have survived.  Some were written close to the time of the death of Llywelyn, some many years later.  They contain inconsistencies, in part explained by the partisan nature of the event.

Letter from Roger le Strange to Edward I, 11.12.1282

Informs the king that the troops under Roger’s command fought with Llywelyn ap Gruffudd in the land of Beult on Friday next after the feast of St. Nicholas (Friday 11th December), that Llywelyn is dead, his army defeated, and all the flower of his army dead, as the bearer of the letter will tell.

Letter from John Peckham, Archbishop of Canterbury, to unknown person at Sugwas, Herefordshire.  15.12.1282

Llywelyn the aforesaid Prince of Wales, having rejected all offers and plans for peace, invaded the land of of the Lord King of England as an enemy, laying waste, burning it and pillaging.  He also drew the men of that land over to his side depriving them of the King’s peace.

Nevertheless, it was the Prince who was killed, the first of his own army, in an ignominious death through the family of Lord Edmund Mortimer, and his whole army was either killed or put to flight in parts of Montgomery, on Friday after the feast of St. Lucy, in other words the eleventh of December 1282.

Letter from John Peckham to Maud Langspey, 17.12.1282

Your entreaty agrees well with both piety and good sense.  But you know that Llywelyn cannot be absolved if he had not shown signs of repentance at his death such as to atone and wash away his foolishness.  If it is shown that it was a certainty that he showed repentance at his death, and appeared such to those who were there such as to make the Holy Church absolve him, if proof is brought before us we will do what is right about it.

Letter from John Peckham to Edward I, 17.12.1282

Those who were at the death of Llywelyn found in the most secret part of his body some small things which we have seen.  Amoung these things was a treasonable letter disguised by false names.  We have sent a copy to the Bishop of Bath, the letter itself Edmund Mortimer has, with it Llywelyn’s privy seal.

Lady Maud Langspey prayed us by letter to absolve Llywelyn, that he may be buried on consecrated ground and we sent word to her that we would do nothing if it could not be proved that he showed signs of true repentance before his death.  Edmund Mortimer said to me that he had heard from his servants who were at the death that he asked for a priest before his death but without sure certainty we could do nothing.  Besides this, Lord, know that the very day he was killed that a white monk sang mass to him, and my Lord Roger Mortimer has the vestments.

Besides this, Lord, we request you take pity on the Clerks (Priests), that you will suffer no one to kill them or do them bodily harm.  If harm is done to the Clerks, God will accuse you of it, and your good renown will be blemished.

Letter from John Peckham to the Archdeacon of Brecon, 28.12.1282

….enquire and clarify if the body of Llywelyn has been buried in the church of Cwmhir, and he was bound to clarify the latter before the feast of Epiphany, because he had another mandate on this matter, and ought to have certified to the lord Archbishop before Christmas, and has not done so…

Brut y Tywysogion, c. 1340

Llywelyn ap Gruffydd went to gain possession of Powys and Beult.  He gained possession as far as Llanganten.  And thereupon he sent his men and his steward to receive homage from the men of Brycheiniog, and the prince was left with but a few men with him.  And the Roger Mortimer and Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn, and with them the King’s host, came upon him without warning:  and then Llywelyn and his foremost men were slain on the day of Damasus the Pope, a fortnight to a day before Christmas;  and that day was a Friday.

Walter of Gainsborough, c.1301

When our King’s men, under the command of Lord John Giffard and the Lord Roger Mortimer saw the Welsh at the bridge and the large army on the brow of the hill, they discussed amoung themselves what was to be done.  One whose name was Helias Walwyn replied, “ If we stay here, we can neither advance nor cross.  But there is a  ford not far away, unknown to the Welsh, where we can cross, albeit with difficulty.  So let the strong men follow me and we shall strike from behind the Welsh, who are now at the bridge;  and so there will be a way over the bridge for the remainder of our army and we can advance open against the rest of the enemy.  He did so and crossed the ford unknown to the others.  By striking the Welsh, who were on the bridge, was laid a way open for the rest of our army.

Stephen Francton saw him (Llywelyn), he followed him with a few men, although he did not know who he was and as he was fleeing, only lightly armed, he struck him with a spear and left without delay to return to our army.

When they saw and recognised the face of Llywelyn, they cut off his head and bore it in triumph to the king.  The king then commanded that it be sent to London and placed with a spear on a high turret of the King’s Tower, so that it could be seen by all whom passed by.

The Peterborough Chronicle.

The Friday before the feast of Lucy, in the tenth year of the reign of King Edward, Llywelyn the Prince of Wales came to the land of Gwrtheyrnion.  (Aberedw is in Elfael), situated between an abbey of the Cistercian order and a town called Ynlanmake (Llanfair ym Muellt or Llangamarch?).  In the aforenamed place they met with a garrison from Oswestry and Montgomery led by John Giffard, Roger le Strange, the three sons of Roger Mortimer, Peter Corbet, Reginald fitz Peter, Ralph Basset,  Andrew le Estelye and all the might of the March of Wales.  Llywelyn and all his army were killed in that same place, and his head was cut off and sent to the king in Rhuddlan.  None of the English were killed or wounded there.

The Chronicle of Hagnaby.

After Epiphany Roger Mortimer bade Prince Llywelyn come down to receive homage from himself and his men, and named the place.  For Lord Roger and the other nobles of England had agreed that they should take Llywelyn by guile and kill him.  And so when Llywelyn came with his men on the appointed day, apparently almost unarmed, his enemies rose up and attacked him.  As the battle raged and drew on, very many fell on both sides.  At length the Welsh were thrown into confusion and almost all were killed, so that none were left but Llywelyn and his servant.

The Chronicle of Robert Mannyng of Bourne, 2nd quarter of the 14th Centuary at Bourne in Lincolnshire, where Llywelyn’s daughter Gwenllian was a nun.

Llywelyn kept to the thickets of the wood, was craftily encamped at the edge of a quagmire.  Sir Roger stationed himself close at hand, concealed from view with his bold retainers, and watched for the exact moment when Llywelyn should ride out.  Llywelyn had no idea he was about to be tricked and rode out with a few of his men to relax for a time.  Sir Roger was aware of Llywelyn’s movements. Their banners swept to and fro until Llywelyn was captured.  “Traitor,” said Roger, “What good can fighting do you? Now that I have found you here, my labour seems worthwhile.  Twice you have perjured  yourself and twice broken your faith;  twice you have been overcome, and then sued for peace.  This is the third time you have been offended greatly.  Accursed be anyone who speaks up for you, for you have been asking to be killed.  Never in your life will you do any further harm to the English.  Confess yourself quickly, for you must forfeit your head.”  Sir Robert Body, a knight whose sword cut best of all, dismounted and cut off  Llywelyn’s head.  Now Llywelyn’s perjury is clear, his head is smitten off, you may know that his heirs have forfeited their heritage.

The Irfon Ford at Llanynys.

Photograph:  Julian Lovell, Abbey-cwm-hir



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