Book Review: Huw Pryce (ed), The Acts of Welsh Rulers, 1120-1283.

Huw Pryce (ed), The Acts of Welsh Rulers, 1120-1283. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2005. pp xlv, 902. 2 maps. 9 genealogical tables. 11 tables. 10 plates. Bibliography. PPC Edition with corrections published in 2010. UK £65.00 hbk, US $ 110 CDN $115.03 hbk.

Reviewed by Jane Scott.

Huw Pryce has contributed significantly to the study of Welsh history through a series of publications spanning a period of over thirty years. The book under review brings together much of this work into one volume and offers the first comprehensive collection of the acts of Welsh rulers dating from 1120 up to the Edwardian conquest of Wales in 1283. There are 618 documents of which 444 survive as text, mainly in Latin. Each document is accompanied by a full summary given in English. The remaining 174 documents are as Pryce states ‘known only from mentions in other sources’.

Pryce informs the reader that this volume is ‘an attempt to assemble the first comprehensive collects of Acts issued by the native rulers of Wales’. The term ‘ruler’ has been applied loosely to not only the dominant dynasties of Gwynedd, Deheubarth and Powys, but also to the minor regions to show the fragmentary nature and movement of power and authority. Within this section there is a detailed diplomatic analysis of the acts, an explanation of the types of documents, and the internal and external features of each dynastic region and ruler. Nearly thirty pages are allocated to the discussion of Gwynedd and its rulers during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, with less coverage to other dynasties. The later part of Henry I’s reign and Stephen’s are dealt with sparingly. Whether this is due to no recording of significant events or the actual manuscripts or charters not surviving is not overt although it is probably due to document survival rather than deliberate choice of the editor. The introduction gives a very detailed background to the different territorial and princely rulers. It offers good explanations of familial ties and affiliations. It also discusses who gave patronage to the many religious houses, most notably the Cistercian foundations of the mid to later twelfth century. This allows the reader to understand how the different dynasties were broken up on the death of a strong ruler. This leads on to how territorial fragmentation could lead to changes of allegiance, these changed frequently between some of the stronger and more political astute rulers in Wales during this period.

The bulk of the volume is occupied with the acts themselves; some 615 pages deal with 207 charters, 80 letters patent, 108 letters and 35 agreements. The charters make up some 50.5 per cent of documents in the collection, with a percentage 45.9 of extant charters as authentic texts. Compared with petitions in the corpus, at 3.2 per cent and 2.1 per cent as authentic texts. Pryce also states that territorial divisions show a marked degree of variation and suggests this is due to in part due to a ‘reflection of the differing size and political importance of the various territories’. Of the 618 documents 43.7 per cent come from Gwynedd with Powys at 22.0 per cent. The smallest sample of extant documents is coming from Senghennydd with only three of the 618 documents.

Many of the documents concern grants of land to religious foundations and the praying of souls of those departed. They offer the historian information on patronage and what territory each ruler held at a certain point in time. They also give some information regarding which monastic houses were flourishing and what parcels of land and privileges they held. The material connected to Llywelyn ap Gruffudd dominates with the documents in this section being spread over 138 pages, making fascinating reading. The political interplay between the Welsh prince, Henry III, and Edward I suggests a tonal change, the dialogue and meta-dialogue within the proximity of conflict: useful not only for political historians, but cultural history and linguistic analysis.

Document 307 is unusual as it is from a prince to an official, namely the ‘bailiffs of Brecon’. The use of the title ‘prince of Wales’ in the text for Dafydd ap Llywelyn allows the document to be dated within a twenty month period, due to the reversal of support by the papal mandate of Innocent IV post 1245. What this date range shows is how complicated it can be to deal with manuscripts and such documents. Pryce tells us this is one of only two surviving acts of Dafydd from 1244 onwards which narrows our understanding of this timeframe and perhaps requires a degree of caution. Dates can have a degree of fluidity and they can at times remain elusive, which does complicate their use.

Grants of authority and rights such as charters have long been seen as important sources for historians and related fields of study. They offer such a wealth of information that does not seem important or relevant at first glance. Lists of witnesses allow analysis by the historian or researcher with a view to uncover networks of associations and political alliances. These networks can be far reaching and at times offer connections that could have been overlooked or perhaps less visible to those around them.

It is particularly interesting that some of the documents are from and concern grants of land from women. In document 284, Senana, wife of Gruffudd ap Llywelyn Fawr, writes to try and persuade Henry II to release her husband and son in 1241. She sent an offer of payment and to stand as surety to the king. Unfortunately Gruffudd was moved to the Tower of London and died attempting to escape in 1244. Of the 618 documents, only thirty come from nine women, which is less than five per cent of the collection. It would have been useful if Pryce had attempted some analysis or reference to the lack of documents from or pertaining to women. It does appear an area that he has not been particularly articulate about and has been neglected. Jane Cartwright has done some work on religious women in medieval Wales and she suggests that ‘the sources […] are disparate and varied and, as a result, one needs to adopt a multi-disciplinary approach’.

The book does not discuss the tradition of charter writing in Wales in the eleventh to thirteenth centuries. It is not made clear whether any documents were produced prior to 1120 and if so how significant they were. It can only be assumed that there was no substantial production of political or religious documentation before this date or nothing significant has either survived or was relevant. The extant manuscripts therefore offer a somewhat distorted view essentially by their survival, as it is hard to get a full understanding of all categories of documents that original existed. It is entirely possible those were produced for example for local administration and grants to lay beneficiaries may well be under-represented. Pryce has though brought together a collection of documents with an extensive analysis and detailed history of each dynasty. He has successfully provided geographically and chronologically documentation which highlights the diversity of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

 

The collection is particularly useful to those looking at the expansion of English royal power and authority within Wales, and the form these relationships took at different points in time during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The collection would equally be of value to those who have an interest in ecclesiastical establishments and their patrons. The volume offers insight into who was patronising which abbey, priory or monastery. It is perhaps interesting that the Welsh princes favoured Savigniac and Cistercian foundations over the Benedictine establishments, and 59 per cent of all the charters in the book are in support of Welsh Cistercian houses. What Pryce’s book shows is that in less than 100 years after the conquest of Wales by the Normans, the Welsh princes were taking local monasteries under their patronage and giving grants of land and privileges to these religious establishments. Scholars will be indebted to Huw Pryce for the sheer quantity and analysis of the documents held in this edition. Perhaps in the future one avenue worth exploring for the publication of such collections of documents would be a digital database manager. This would enable digital searching of content and allow cross-referencing of individuals and other search patterns, and allow greater access to a valuable resource to all who have an interest in twelfth and thirteenth century Wales.

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