Medieval Battles

BATTLE OF OREWIN BRIDGE (1282)

The outbreak of the Second War of Welsh Independence saw three vast English armies invade the Principality. Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, Prince of Wales led an army towards Builth in order to secure Central Wales but was defeated and killed by an English army under Edmund Mortimer at the Battle of Orewin Bridge (1282).

Historical Background

 

At the Treaty of Montgomery (1267), Henry III of England had recognised Llywelyn ap Gruffudd (the Last) as Prince of Wales formally acknowledging his rule over most of northern and central Wales. However Henry III died in 1272 and was succeeded by his son, Edward I, whose relationship with Llywelyn soon broke down. The First War of Welsh Independence (1276-7) saw the English King seize all territory to the east of the River Conwy although Llywelyn was allowed to keep his (now nominal) title of Prince of Wales.

 

An uneasy peace followed but in Spring 1282 Dafydd ap Gruffudd, brother of the Prince, initiated a rebellion against Edward I commencing with an assault on Hawarden Castle. Rejecting English offers to buy him off, Llywelyn supported his brother sparking a national revolt that became the Second War of Welsh Independence. Edward I now resolved to conquer Wales in its entirety and launched a three pronged invasion. His main army penetrated North Wales from Chester whilst Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester invaded from Carmarthen in the South West. Concurrently a third army, under Edmund Mortimer, advanced into central Wales.

 

Prelude

 

Llywelyn moved towards Builth, a key communication artery through central Wales. His intentions are unclear but it is probable he wished to destroy the Royal castle there and also neutralise the English central army under Edmund Mortimer. This would have the added benefit of forcing the English to divert resources thus relieving the military pressure on Gwynedd. The two forces were in the vicinity of each other by the second week of December 1282 but were separated by the River Irfon with the Marcher Lords seeking to advance to Builth. Accordingly Llywelyn moved his forces into a position to control Orewin Bridge and block their approach.

 

The Battlefield Location

 

The battle was allegedly fought to the south of Cilimery although its precise location is not known. No modern bridge exists there today with the nearest being to the east in the immediate outskirts of Builth. Furthermore the Roman road network in the area, and consequently the medieval routes, are not fully understood although the presence of a Roman fort at Hundred House (on the site of later Colwyn Castle) and at Walton would imply a line of communication that may have continued into the thirteenth century.

 

Notwithstanding these issues, the terrain south of Cilimery fits the descriptions of the battle. A hill can be found to the immediate east of Glanirfon whilst the river narrows nearby making it an ideal site for a bridge. This is further supported by alignment of minor roads on both sides of the water and also by the curvature of the river at this point would have suited the defensive line which the Welsh initially adopted. A ford also exists a little way to the west near Comyn Cottage. In short then the terrain is a perfect fit with the (otherwise contradictory) narratives that have been handed down to us and therefore this account of the battle has been crafted accordingly. As always though, the location will remain disputed until confirmed by archaeology.

 

Numbers

 

The two forces were of comparable size although the English army was a balanced fighting unit consisting of cavalry, infantry and archers. By contrast the Welsh army consisted almost exclusively of spearmen.

The Battle

 

The battle was fought on 11 December 1282.

 

- Stage 1: Welsh Hold Bridge

The Welsh initially deployed directly in front of the bridge to bar the Marcher Lords from crossing. However Mortimer had local expertise within his ranks and was advised of a nearby ford across the river. He sent a portion of his forces, either infantry or archers, to cross by this ford and attack the Welsh on their flank.

 

- Stage 2: Welsh Adjust Line

Faced with the threat on their right flank, the Welsh reformed along a broadly north/south axis. This exposed their left flank to attack by archers on the southern bank of the river.

 

- Stage 3: Welsh Retreat

Now suffering heavy casualties from the combined infantry and arrow attack, the Welsh retreated from the bridge and formed up on an adjacent hilltop leaving the crossing undefended. Mortimer's heavy cavalry was thus able to cross Orewin bridge unopposed.

 

- Stage 4: Cavalry Charge

The cavalry of the Marcher Lords, having formed up, now attacked the Welsh who broke and fled.

 

Death of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd

 

Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, Prince of Wales was killed at some point during the Battle of Orewin Bridge but the details of his death are contradictory. The most famous account has him cut down by a lone knight, Stephen de Frankton, whilst separated from his army. The knight allegedly had no idea who his victim was until he discovered the regalia of the Prince of Wales that had been stored in a most private place on Gruffudd's person. Precisely why he would have been apart from his army in this scenario is uncertain - perhaps he had ridden to negotiate with the Marcher Lords some of whom were pledged to support him.

 

An alternative version has Gruffudd lured into a trap set by Mortimer, perhaps whilst negotiating before the battle started, but was instead chased into a wood where he was hunted down and killed. The truth will probably never been known. The Prince's severed heard was sent to Edward at Rhuddlan Castle and was subsequently displayed in London.

 

Aftermath

 

Welsh casualties at the battle have been mooted to have been in the region of 2,000 killed or wounded. However, despite this high death toll, the loss of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd was the most significant outcome. Dafydd ap Gruffudd took his title as Prince of Wales but this individual, who had fought against his brother in the First War of Welsh Independence, failed to appeal to the Welsh nobility. Faced with Edward I's formidable military machine, Wales was conquered and Dafydd was betrayed by "people of his own tongue". Dafydd was eventually captured then hung, drawn and quartered in Shrewsbury after which his head was sent to London for display alongside his brother. Edmund Mortimer would prosper in King Edward's service but was later killed in a skirmish near Builth in 1304.

Bibliography

 

Colyer, R (1984). Roads and Trackways of Wales. Moorland.

Cyprien, M and Fairbairn, N (1983). A Traveller's Guide to the Battlefields of Britain. Evans Brothers Ltd, London.

Davies, J (2013). The Welsh Wars of Independence. The History Press, Stroud.

Davies, R.R (1978). Lordship and Society in the March of Wales 1282-1400. Oxford.

Davis, P.R (2007). Castles of the Welsh Princes. Y Lolfa Cyf, Talybont.

Dodds, G.L (1996). Battles in Britain 1066-1746. Arms & Armour, London.

Douglas, D.C and Rothwell, H (ed) (1975). English Historical Documents Vol 3 (1189-1327). Routledge, London.

Evans, D.S (1876). Literature of the Kymry. London.

Falkus, M and Gillingham, J (1981). Historical Atlas of Great Britain. Grisewood and Dempsey, London.

Gater, D (2008). The Battles of Wales. Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, Llanrwst

Green, H (1973). Guide to the Battlefields of Britain and Ireland. Constable, London.

Jones, G (1977). Oxford Book of Welsh Verse in English. Oxford.

Kenyon, J (2010). The Medieval Castles of Wales. University of Wales Press, Cardiff.

Kinross, J (1979). The Battlefields of Britain. London.

Lancaster, J.H.D (2016). Orewin Bridge and Builth: Battlefield visit notes and observations. CastlesFortsBattles.co.uk.

Morris, M  (2009). A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and forging of Britain. Windmill Books, London.

Ordnance Survey (2015). Powys. 1:1250 scale. Southampton.

Ordnance Survey, Historic England and RCAHMW (2016). Ancient Britain. 1:625,000 Scale. Ordnance Survey, Southampton.

Ordnance Survey, Historic England and RCAHMW (2016). Roman Britain. 1:625,000 Scale. Ordnance Survey, Southampton.

Price, H (2005). The Acts of Welsh Rulers 1120-1283. Cardiff.

Smurthwaite, D (1993). The Complete Guide to the Battlefields of Britain. Michael Joseph, London.

Stubbs, W (1882). Chronicles of the Reigns of Edward I and Edward II. Rolls, London.

Thorpe, L (1979). Gerald of Wales: The Journey Through Wales and the Description of Wales. London.

Warner, P (1977). Famous Welsh Battles. Fontana, London.

What's There?

A monument has been erected just to the west of Cilmery and can be found adjacent to the A483. Also in vicinity is the well where Llywelyn's head was allegedly washed before being sent on to Edward I. A small lay-by provides sufficient parking for a number of cars. The (earthwork) remains of Builth Castle are open to the public at any reasonable time.

Monument. The monument is found adjacent to the A483.

Well. The well where Llywelyn's severed head was washed before being sent onto Edward I at Rhuddlan Castle.

High Ground. The hill in this picture fits with the narrative of the battle suggesting it may have been where the Welsh made their final stand.

A wider shot showing the rear of the (suspected) battlefield.

Builth Castle. Only earthworks now remain of the once formidable Builth Castle. Its relationship with the battle is uncertain - was Llywelyn riding back to his army from here when he was ambushed? His army was certainly blocking Mortimer's approach to the castle.

Getting There

The monument and well are found directly off the A483 just to the west of Cilmery. The site is not sign-posted but easily found (and visible from the road). There is a lay-by nearby sufficient for a few cars. Builth Castle is accessed via a number of footpaths and there is ample car parking around the town. Exploring the wider battlefield is difficult as much is on private property.

Monument and Well

LD2 3GE

52.152078N 3.461786W

Builth Castle

LD2 3EG

52.149194N 3.398766W

(c) Copyright 2017. Part of the CastlesFortsBattles.co.uk network.  Terms and Conditions.