Abergavenny, intrigue and murder: ‘bad king John’ and the power of the English Crown in Wales

Collections - Posted 31-01-2022

There are many charters in the Library’s collections, but nothing quite like the one we purchased at auction just before Christmas, which will become NLW Deed 1962. On the face of it, it is just another grant of land in the Welsh borders, but it is much more significant than that, both historically and in the context of our collections. It also takes us into the colourful and unsavoury world of medieval politics – a real-life ‘game of thrones’, complete with individuals who have (perhaps unfairly) become synonymous with villainy in the popular imagination.



On 5 December 1209, while king John was spending a couple of days near the Welsh border at his castle at St Briavels in the Forest of Dean, he had a charter issued confirming the gift of a nearby estate called Dunwallesland by the marcher lord William de Braose to a certain Philip, son of Wastellion. In return, Philip gave his homage and agreed to provide one knight to keep guard at Abergavenny castle. The charter was issued on John’s behalf by Robert de Vieuxpont, who is a plausible prototype for the fictional Sheriff of Nottingham in the Robin Hood stories – he had been John’s sheriff of Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and the Royal Forests from 1203 until 1208, and in 1212 he hanged a 6-year old Welsh hostage at Shrewsbury while John had another 28 young Welsh hostages executed at Nottingham. The agreement was witnessed by a number of John’s other advisers and barons, and it was recorded in Latin on a single sheet of vellum by a professional Chancery clerk; experts can identify the individual scribe. The royal seal was attached at the bottom, but has since been lost. John – using his full title ‘by grace of god King of England, Lord of Ireland, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, Count of Anjou‘ – was making a very clear and powerful statement, not only to the recipient of the charter but also to William de Braose and the Welsh population of Gwent.

The name Dunwallesland does not mean much to us now, but it would have meant a lot to the people of Gwent in 1209. It refers to the land of Dyfnwal ap Caradog, the native Welsh ruler of Gwent Uwch Coed in the middle of the twelfth century. His son, Seisyll ap Dyfnwal, killed a member of the De Braose family, and at Christmas 1175 William de Braose took his treacherous and brutal revenge by inviting Seisyll and his eldest son to a feast at Abergavenny castle, massacring them and their followers, hunting down and killing Seisyll’s younger son, annexing the family’s land and destroying their chief residence at Castell Arnallt near Llanofer. Hywel ap Iorwerth of Caerleon retaliated by burning Abergavenny castle in 1182, but Dyfnwal’s family never recovered. In granting ‘Dyfnwal’s land’ to a man who had received it from the very same William de Braose, king John’s charter was explicitly confirming the ruthless dispossession of a Welsh dynasty, and the requirement for the grantee to help defend Abergavenny castle was there for a good practical reason.



The king was also bringing a marcher lord to heel. By the early 1200s, William de Braose was one of John’s favourites, serving him in France and holding land in Abergavenny, Builth, Radnor, Brecon, Gower, Sussex, Devon, Herefordshire and Limerick, but he suffered a spectacular fall from grace after 1207 and his English and Welsh lands were seized by the Crown. This was ostensibly because of financial debts, but William’s downfall was too quick and complete for that to be the only reason. At Mirebeau in 1202 he had captured John’s nephew and greatest surviving rival for the throne, Arthur of Brittany, and it was while in William’s custody at Rouen that Arthur had mysteriously disappeared in the following year. It is likely that William was involved, or at least knew what had happened, and John himself was widely suspected, not least by William’s wife, Maud, who openly accused the king of murdering Arthur. Whatever the truth was, it seems that John turned on William because of this dirty secret. By the time the 1209 charter was issued, William had fled to Ireland; indeed, the charter throws some rare light on this crucial and poorly documented period in his relationship with John. When John made further moves against him in 1210, William allied with Llywelyn ap Iorwerth of Gwynedd and then fled to France disguised as a beggar. John captured Maud and the eldest De Braose son, also called William, and they were reportedly starved to death at Corfe castle amid rumours of cannibalism. Once again, the deaths were shrouded in mystery which did nothing to help the worsening reputation of a man who would be caricatured after his death as ‘bad king John’. One thing was clear, however: John was stamping his royal authority on the De Braose lordships, including those in the marches of Wales, and this charter is direct evidence of that. John emphasised the point by visiting the forfeited Abergavenny castle in person in 1211, a few months before William de Braose died as an exile in France.

This document also provides a very rare insight into the Crown’s relations with one of the few native Welsh dynasties that had managed to survive the Norman conquest of south Wales, because the witness list includes Cadwallon, one of the sons of Ifor ap Meurig (Ifor Bach) of Senghennydd. Furthermore, the charter belongs to a relatively scantily documented period during the papal Interdict on the kingdom of England.

It is also unique. Thirteenth-century manuscripts of Welsh interest are rare, as are extant charters issued by the king of England in that period, especially ones with a native Welsh ruler in the witness list, so items like this are highly prized by modern archivists and collectors. By 1209, however, it was standard practice for copies of English royal charters to be kept and enrolled by the king’s clerks, so we would expect there to be a copy in The National Archives. But these copies are missing for some of John’s reign, including December 1209. We know that copies were probably made because the missing records belong to three exact regnal years, but they have long since disappeared; Thomas Duffus Hardy noted their absence when he calendared the Patent Rolls and Charter Rolls for the nascent Public Record Office in the 1830s. They could have been mislaid at any time during the political and administrative upheavals of the preceding centuries, possibly even in 1216 when king John’s baggage train – containing administrative records as well as his crown jewels – was famously lost in the Wash in Norfolk.



This charter’s greatest significance for the Library and for Welsh historiography, however, lies in the fact that it is unparallelled in our collections as an example of the early legal and political developments that eventually led to the situation today where every level of government and law in Wales derives its authority from the English Crown. Both native Welsh rulers and Anglo-Norman marcher lords relied on native Welsh institutions to try to keep the power of the king of England at arm’s length, but ultimately Edward I’s conquest of the principality of Wales and Henry VIII’s Acts of Union meant that they all failed. The headline dates of 1282 and 1536 were catalysts in a very long process during which the power of the Crown in Wales was imposed incrementally, as much by legal instrument as by force or treachery. That is why this charter is important to the Library. Our collections contain no other original charters from the English Crown to any lay person in Wales until 1284, so this document is an earlier, clearer and more direct record of the English Crown’s direct lordship over secular rulers in Wales before 1282 than anything else in the Library.

The fact that it was issued by king John is also significant. The idea that the king of England could dispose of land and claim lordship and overlordship in Wales was not new, and neither was the fact that this was often recorded in writing, but it was only from 1199 onwards – coinciding with the start of John’s reign – that copies were kept routinely and systematically; it is ironic in this case that those copies are now lost. This process of defining and imposing the power of the Crown directly by written legal instruments was a feature of Norman and Angevin rule, and it accelerated in John’s reign, especially after the loss of Normandy in 1204 forced the king to focus his attention more on England and Wales – indeed the tightening of obligations was another reason why John became unpopular, and the severing of cross-channel connections would also encourage English national sentiment in the long term. These developments were crucial in the formalisation and intensification of the Crown’s relations with native Welsh rulers and the marcher lords – the process that led to 1282 and 1536 – and John’s 1209 Abergavenny charter is a fine example of how they occurred in practice.

This recent acquisition fills a very significant gap in the Library’s collections, and it is also a beautiful artefact that opens up a world of medieval intrigue.

Dr David Moore (Archivist)

William’s grandson, another William de Braose (or Gwilym Brewys), was hanged by Llywelyn ap Iorwerth in 1230 after being caught with the prince’s wife, Joan or Siwan.

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