The Battle of Tal y Moelfre To Owain Gwynedd – 1157
I exalt the generous descendant of Rhodri, Ward of the Marches, his quality kingly, Right master of Britain, doom-bouyant Owain, His princes nor grovel, nor hoard their wealth.
Three legions came, ships of the deep sea, Three prime stout fleets, avid to spoil him: One was of Ireland, another was war-manned With the Norsemen of Lochlyn, lank steeds of the flood;
A third over the seas sailed here from Normandy, And, for their pains, vast trouble it cost them – The dragon of Môn, how fierce he bore battle, Desperate riot, their trial of war!
And before him ran a miserable confusion, Ruin and battle and a grievous end - On struggle, blood and struggle; on terror, dire terror; And a thousand war-shouts about Tal y Moelfre.
On spear flashed spear, shaft upon shafts, On panic woe and panic, drowned with the drowning, And Menai without ebb from the tide of their bleeding, And colour of warriors’ blood in the brine.
And the blue chain-mail, and the ache of disaster, And the wounded heaped from the lard’s red spear, And the musters of England, and combat against them, And their destruction in wild disarray.
And the raising to fame of that bitter sword In seven score languages, long in his praise.
[Taken from Tony Conran, Welsh Verse (Bridgend: Seren, 1992), pp. 142-143.]
Wales has a long bardic tradition, dependent on patronage and employment by princes of the Welsh court. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, professional poets thrived throughout the different kingdoms and territories of Wales. Gwalchmai ap Meilyr was part of what is known as the ‘Poets of the Princes.’ This collective group of over thirty poets wrote between c.1100 and c.1300. Gwalchmai ap Meilyr wrote about different themes but mainly about love, war and nature. In the composition Gorhoffedd or ‘boast’ he extols his prowess and hatred of England, and tells us ‘Gwalchmai am I called, enemy to the English; at the call of Anglesey’s lord I took part in battle.’
Another poet was the warrior and prince Hywel ab Owain who wrote of the battle at Tal y Moelfre in 1157, and tells of his enjoyment of armed conflict. He boasts about himself in the poem as the ‘beardless champion of Menai’. Both poets had a flair for the dramatic and emphatically described scenes of war with graphic embellishments. To the audience it would have highlighted the brutality of battle, however the primary aim of the poems was to show victory of the Welsh over the English, and to praise the princes as wise, brave and beyond human at times.
Gwalchmai ap Meilyr also wrote an account of the ‘Battle of Tal y Moelfre: To Owain Gwynedd.’ In it he described a battle that took place off the coast of Anglesey in 1157 in which Henry II’s men had ‘invaded the island and […] pillaged the church of Mary’. The Brut y Tywysogyon referred to ‘a battle took place between them [Henry II’s men] and the men of Anglesey: and in that battle the French fled, per their usual custom.’ The poem opened with a reference to ‘Rhodri’ a great king of old. The poet was using to stress similarities between the two princes to emphasise their prestige and actions in battle.
Metaphors are used extensively throughout the poem and part of the poetic conventions of the time, yet they were used to emphasis a warrior’s fierceness by describing them as mythical or dangerous creatures. Owain Gwynedd was described as ‘The Dragon of Môn’ and the poem told of ‘how fierce he bore battle.’ It was important to create an image of a prince who had mythical powers, and who was brave under adversity. Gwalchmai ap Meilyr’s eulogy to Owain Gwynedd stated that he ‘exalt[s] the generous descendant of Aeneas’. The panegyric way of writing and performing poetry was a way to link the prince of Gwynedd to Trojan legend, Gwalchmai ap Meilyr also referred to Owain Gwynedd using biblical imagery stating that he was ‘the bold lion’.
Many of the poets from this period repeatedly talked of a warrior’s role, and the vivid nature of battles. There was a desire to use past ruthlessness in armed conflict to glorify the princes of Wales. The poet Cynddelw in c.1170 praised Owain Gwynedd’s return from battle in c.1137 with such enthusiasm. ‘The green flood of Teifi ran thick with the torrent of men’s blood; the blood-stained water-fowl cried aloud for gore, and swam with difficulty on waves of blood’. Similarly, in the Tal y Moelfre, Gwalchmai ap Meilyr stated that ‘before him ran a miserable confusion, Ruin and battle and a grievous end – On struggle, blood and struggle; on terror, dire terror; And a thousand war-shouts about Tal y Moelfre’. These poets described the bloody nature of war, the noise and commotion to exalt their leaders, though in justifying the bloody nature of battle they perhaps removed the focus away from defeat and negotiation.
One notable problem with extant manuscripts and work from this period is that many of the poems are incomplete. One poem of Gwalchmai ap Myeilyr suffers from missing lines, his elegy to Owain Gwynedd. In the poem dedicated ‘To Owain Gwynedd’ written whilst he prince was still alive, Gwalchmai ap Meilyr stated that ‘Owain loved me as a lad beside him- Too much love, usually turns into hate’. The poet appeared to be hinting at a breakdown in the relationship between the prince and poet. Further in the same poem he added that ‘Before I angered him, would I’d been slain! And though the blame’s mine, however much as fault, Make peace with your poet, his song’s sincere!’. Gwalchmai ap Meilyr suggests that there had been a misunderstanding and this had led to a falling out. Yet, he appeared contrite, however, perhaps the desire to gain favour again altered the focus of the work he produced and influenced the context.
The English wrote differently about the battle of Tal y Moelfre The Gesta Stephani referred to Wales as ‘breeding a bestial type of man’. This kind of comment was typical of Anglo-Norman writers who viewed the Welsh as ‘rude and untamed: [and] they live[d] like beasts’. William of Newburgh stated that ‘The king […] proceeding incautiously through a wooded and marshy district, and was much endangered by falling into an ambush’, and added that they ’deemed it proper to attack the Welsh by sea,’. However, he appeared to contradict the Welsh accounts of success and makes no mention of the English defeat by Owain Gwynedd.
Jocelin Brakelond’s chronicle discussed an event that occurred as part of Henry II’s campaign in Wales in 1157, and suggested a link to an associated battle during the same campaign. Henry de Essex ‘had treacherously cast down the standard of the lord king, and proclaimed his death in a loud voice,’ and that all was lost in the fight with Owain Gwynedd at Coleshill. He goes on to tell how Henry II ‘caught in an ambush by the Welsh,’ would have perished if not for ‘Roger, earl of Clare [who] raised up the standard […] and revived the strength and courage of the whole army’. The Battle of Coleshill was used by the English chroniclers to highlight how the Welsh were overpowered, though they omitted to recall the Battle of Tal y Moelfre or Henry II’s near defeat.
The work of R. R Davies suggests a different perspective and he argued more for ‘patterns of domination’. Davies suggested that the Welsh were subdued and waiting for their chance to regain what had been lost. Owain Gwynedd brought Henry II to near defeat and was a worthy adversary, yet, he understood that he had been defeated and needed to negotiate peace terms. A war in Wales was something English kings could not fully commit to at this point, as their interests across the channel kept them far away from Wales.
Material focused on Henry II has taken a broader view of the 1157 expedition. It ‘Nearly flounder[ed] in disaster’ but succeeding in thwarting the Welsh and ‘the reassertion of the king of England’s overriding authority in north Wales’. Henry II became king in 1154 and needed to re-establish control over a Wales. Princeships, marcher lords and the English government all vied for supremacy and power. The Welsh used poetry to cling to long held ideals of independence, and identity. A poem was also portable and a quickly said piece that could motive troops and stir a crowd.
The poem of Gwalchmai ap Meilyr tells us not only about Welsh perceptions of the English, but how they used events to unite against the English. However, each native prince had his own agenda, his own grievances and was quite willing to use those around him to gain an advantage. The poem was written by a Welsh writer, writing of a Welsh victory. It selectively fails to connect the battle of Tal Y Moelfre to the battle at Coleshill. Nonetheless, the poems importance within the wider historical debate is significant, as many different themes can be explored.
For more articles by Jane Scott click here.