Llywelyn Bren was most definitely a rebel with a cause. The son of Gryffydd ap Rhys he was the lord of Senghennydd and Meisgyn – both of which came under the overlordship of Glamorgan. Although from a family known for their rebellious nature against the English (his father had been an ally of Llywelyn ap Gryffydd), Bren had worked closely with the Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester and was one of his favoured officials. When de Clare was killed at Bannockburn in 1314, his estates were taken into crown hands and given over to custodians while the disputed inheritance between the earl’s ‘pregnant’ wife Maud and his sisters could be solved.
The custodians’ treatment of Bren and his family varied greatly. Bartholomew de Badlesmere, like de Clare was friendly enough towards Bren, but Payn de Turbeville of Coety acted more like the landlord from hell. In 1315 he removed Bren and his family from power and filled the vacancies with his own friends. His oppressive regime, especially in a time of famine, was guaranteed to spark discontent among the Welsh.
As lord of Senghennydd, Bren felt, rightly, that he had to make a stand for his people and threatened de Turbeville that he would do to him what the English lord had done to them (the Welsh). In return, de Turbeville accused him of treason against the crown. At the advice of his friends, Bren then went to the king of England in person to present his case, hoping that Edward would see his grievances and put things to rights again. However Edward, already burdened with other issues – including another quarrel in northern Wales, ignored his pleas and, rather callously, summoned him to appear before parliament in Lincoln early in January 1316 – to answer to the charge of treason. Fearing that his life was now in danger, Bren returned home instead and started to prepare to defend himself and his lands from the king’s wrath.
The rebellion started on the 28th January, the day after Bren had been summoned to be at Lincoln. The first target was Caerphilly Castle, where the constable was holding a court just outside the safety of its walls. Bren managed to capture the constable, kill some of his men and burn the town to the ground, but the castle itself remained – as ever – impregnable. He and his men then swept across Glamorgan, devastating the land and destroying any symbol of English domination.
Edward, perhaps fearing that this localised disturbance might spark off more widespread Welsh uprisings, put Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford in charge of raising a force capable of squashing the revolt as quickly as possible. Hereford gathered to him his Marcher neighbours, including Roger de Mortimer of Chirk and Roger de Mortimer of Wigmore, Thomas of Lancaster’s younger brother, Henry, and William Montagu. He was also joined by Edward’s new favourites Hugh Audley and Roger Damory – the husbands of Elizabeth and Margaret de Clare (Glamorgan was part of the de Clare lands). Strangely, the one man you’d expect to see liberating Glamorgan from the Welsh – Hugh Despenser the younger, was not present. Through his wife Eleanor, the other and eldest of the three de Clare heiresses, he stood to become lord of Glamorgan, therefore it is strange that he wasn’t part of de Bohun’s task force.
There are several possible reasons for this: throughout 1315/16 Hugh had been rather a naughty boy – taking Tonbridge Castle (although without much of a fight, it must be said) and attacking John de Ros before the king at the Lincoln parliament – for which he was imprisoned and fined. It is therefore possible that Hugh was either still in prison for this attack or else under other restrictions. It is also entirely feasible that de Bohun didn’t want such a young hothead with him on campaign. Or maybe Hugh just did not have the resources in terms of finance or retinue to take part.
The force arrayed before Bren was so formidable that he knew any further resistance was futile and fled into the hills. From there he offered to surrender as long as he was allowed to keep his life and lands. De Bohun, although sympathetic to a point, declared that any surrender had to be unconditional. Bren was now faced with a dilemma: should be fight on and risk a humiliating and bloody defeat or else surrender, as the earl of Hereford had demanded? In the end he chose the latter, allegedly saying that as he had been the cause of the fight in the first place, it was only right that he, and he alone should face the consequences: “For it is better that one man should die than that the whole race should be exiled or perish by the sword.” On 18th March, he and two of his sons came down from their base in the hills and subsequently surrendered themselves to de Bohun and Roger de Mortimer of Wigmore.
The two English lords had been impressed by Llywelyn’s bravery and chivalry. It is rumoured that on the way back to London, they got to know Bren well and became quite friendly with him. In fact they even pleaded his case before the king themselves, advising that his life should be spared. Evidently Edward listened and Bren was not executed but instead imprisoned in the Tower, along with his wife and five sons. Their lands were, of course, seized into crown hands but at least while he was still alive, Bren could always hope for some future pardon and reinstatement.
Things in Wales returned to the bad old days: de Turbeville returned for a short time and took a part in seizing Bren’s assets in Senghennydd – not just lands and cattle but also a large library of books – it seems that Bren had been quite a cultured man. In turn, de Turbeville was replaced by John Giffard who was much more sympathetic to Welsh interests (or at least in not stirring another rebellion). With things settling down in Glamorgan, many of the erstwhile rebels were pardoned and given their lands back – the future was starting to look a lot brighter for Bren and his family.
However, in November 1317, the story took another twist. The partition of the de Clare lands was eventually finalised and Hugh Despenser the younger became lord of Glamorgan. Sometime after July 1318, he took Bren from the Tower and transported him to Cardiff castle – allegedly without the king’s consent. There, in the late summer of that year, he had him hanged, drawn and quartered as a traitor. Although he had ostensibly acted against Edward’s wishes, Hugh did not seem to suffer any come back for his actions, indicating that either Edward didn’t care (Bren was rather a small fish in a big pond of other issues), that he may have sanctioned the move (but the records don’t exist) or that he was already too enamoured of Despenser to punish him for his misdeeds. Certainly there are no accounts in the close, patent or parliamentary rolls that mention any retaliation against Hugh for his presumption.
But what could have made Hugh act in such a rash, unjust and unwise manner? The first thing that springs to mind is Hugh’s greed for land. So many of the rebels had been pardoned already that it may have looked likely that Bren, would also be allowed back into the king’s peace and given his lands back. Although Hugh would have been his landlord, he would not have had so much profit from the lands as if he had owned them directly. Also, Bren had now proved himself to be a trouble-maker and perhaps Hugh did not want a known rebel around stirring up trouble every time he was perceived as being a bit harsh. With Bren executed as a traitor, Despenser could seize his estates, disinherit his family and at the same time make an example of Bren so that others would not be tempted to step out of line.
Of course, Mortimer and de Bohun were furious with his actions (although at the time Mortimer was in Ireland and couldn’t really do anything about it) and Despenser’s treatment of their former prisoner was to rear its head again later, when both of the Despensers were indicted in 1321. This is rather hypocritical talk though – especially from Mortimer who was known to be despised by his own Welsh tenants for his oppressive and harsh lordship. If Bren had rebelled in his lands, would he have been lenient? Probably not. Even so, Hugh’s actions had provided future ammunition for his enemies and had won him few friends among the Welsh – something which was to have unforeseen consequences in 1326 when he needed their support.
Vita Edwardi Secundi
Thomas of Lancaster 1307-1322 – J.R. Maddicott
The Reign of Edward II: New Perspectives – ed. by Gwilym Dodd & Anthony Musson