29 January, 2021

The Execution of Llywelyn Bren, c. 1318

I wrote a blog post in January 2010 about the revolt of Llywelyn Bren in Glamorgan and his attack on Caerphilly Castle in early 1316, and in this post, I'm going to focus on Llywelyn's execution in c. 1318 and what we know about it. Hugh Despenser the Younger, lord of Glamorgan from 1317 to 1326, has always been held responsible for subjecting Llywelyn to a grotesque death by drawing, hanging, beheading and quartering, and it's entirely possible that he was indeed responsible, but the evidence is somewhat meagre. Oh, and a rather off-topic point here, but the inventory of Llywelyn Bren's goods seized in 1316 reveals what a cultured man he was: he owned a manuscript of the Roman de la Rose in French as well as three books in Welsh and four other unidentified books. You can see the inventory on British History Online, here.

On 26 March 1316 after the revolt was put down, Edward II ordered Llywelyn, his wife Lleucu, five of his six or seven sons and six other Welshmen to be sent "under safe custody at the king’s expense" to the Tower. On 10 May 1316, they were granted either three pence a day for their maintenance (Llywelyn and Lleucu) or two pence (all the others), and their names were recorded as "Lewelin Pren and Leukina his wife...Griffin ap Lewelyn, James ap Lewelyn, David ap Lewelyn, Meurik ap Lewelyn, Roger ap Lewelyn". The six others were named as "Howel ap Ivor, Ievan ap Ivor, Lewelin ap Maddok, Madoc Vaghan, Grenou ap Rees, Res Meskyn". By 17 June 1317, only Llywelyn and two of his sons - their names now spelt Lewelin Pren, Griffin and Yevan, i.e. Gruffudd and Ieuan - are mentioned as prisoners in the Tower, the others presumably having been released. All three men were allowed three pence a day. [1] The claim made by one chronicler and some modern writers that Llywelyn and his family and supporters were held at Brecon by the earl of Hereford for a few months and only transferred to the Tower of London on or about 27 July 1316 is inaccurate. Edward II's order of 10 May 1316 to pay them 2d or 3d a day states "for the time that they have been in the Tower, and to continue to pay the same" (Close Rolls, p. 283). 

Edward II's eldest niece Eleanor de Clare and her husband Hugh Despenser the Younger were belatedly given the lordship of Glamorgan, including Eleanor's birthplace of Caerphilly Castle, in November 1317, as part of Eleanor's inheritance from her late brother Gilbert de Clare, earl of Gloucester (d. June 1314). Hugh's antics and the king's excessive favouritism towards him pushed Hugh's fellow Marcher lords into rebellion in 1321. At the parliament held in August 1321, they forced him and his father Hugh Despenser the Elder into exile, and issued a long list of charges against them. One of them was:

"...the said Sir Hugh the son and Sir Hugh the father, who had accroached royal power as is said above, took the said Thlewelyn [Llywelyn Bren] and sent him to Kaerdyf [Cardiff] after Sir Hugh the son was seised of his purparty there, and, seizing jurisdiction by their conspiracy where in this case they could have no jurisdiction according to reason, feloniously caused him there to be drawn, hanged, beheaded and quartered for a thing done in the king's time, and so, seized royal power and jurisdiction which belonged to the Crown, in disherison of the Crown, and to the dishonour of our lord the king, and of the said lords of Hereford and Mortimer*." [2] 

* Humphrey de Bohun, earl of Hereford, and Roger Mortimer, lord of Wigmore, who had "promised him [Llywelyn] good grace" after they captured him. A letter dated at Brecon on 22 March 1316 was sent to Edward II by le counte de Hereford e les Mortemers, i.e. Roger's uncle Roger Mortimer, lord of Chirk, added his name as well. It's printed in English translation in Calendar of Ancient Correspondence Concerning Wales, ed. J. Goronwy Edwards, p. 75. The three men asked Edward not to "make any harsh decision concerning" Llywelyn until he had talked to them.

Pic below: the August 1321 accusation that Hugh the Younger and Elder had Llywelyn Bren unlawfully killed in Cardiff (the charges against the Despensers take up a full three pages of Statutes of the Realm, vol. 1).

Notice that it was both Hugh Despensers, father and son, who were accused in 1321 of killing Llywelyn Bren unlawfully, not Hugh the Younger alone. The rebellious Marcher lords gave no date for Llywelyn's execution, or murder, so what else can we learn about it from chronicles? The Vita Edwardi Secundi gives a long and detailed account of the 1316 campaign against Llywelyn Bren, but does not say a single word about his execution. This is rather interesting, as the author of the Vita appears to have been closely associated with the earl of Hereford, who considered himself an aggrieved party in the matter. A chronicle written in St Albans briefly mentions an uprising in Wales during its account of events in 1315 [sic], but I can't see that it mentions Llywelyn Bren at all, let alone his death. [3] The Bridlington chronicle Gesta Edwardi de Carnarvon written a few years later does say that the two Hugh Despensers had Llywelyn killed, but is obviously only repeating the charges issued against them in the parliament of August 1321, in exactly the same order, the only difference being that they're translated from Anglo-Norman into Latin. So I doubt we can consider this an independent source. [4] There was a version of the chronicle Flores Historiarum written at Tintern Abbey, which is only about thirty-five miles from Cardiff, where Hugh and Hugh were alleged to have put Llywelyn to death. An important patron of Tintern Abbey in the late 1310s and early 1320s was Sir Roger Damory, Hugh the Younger's brother-in-law and great rival, and one of the rebellious Marcher lords who forced the Despensers into exile in August 1321. So if Hugh Despenser the Younger really did have Llywelyn killed in Cardiff, one would certainly expect the Tintern Flores, of all chronicles, to mention it. Here's what it says, under the year 1318 (no specific date is given for the execution):

"This year Leulin Bren was condemned at Cardiff, as he deserved; and afterwards he was drawn by horses as a traitor, then hanged, his entrails burned and scattered, his limbs cut off and sent through the whole of Glamorgan, to strike terror into other traitors." [5]

Pic below is the account of Llywelyn's execution in the Tintern Flores; no mention of the Despensers.

The extremely long list of charges read out to Hugh Despenser the Younger at his trial in Hereford on 24 November 1326 do not mention Llywelyn Bren at all, let alone that Hugh had him killed without authority (see my translation here). Given that Roger Mortimer is often assumed to have been furious at Hugh's execution of a man to whom he had promised clemency, given that several of Llywelyn's sons had aided in the capture of Hugh the Younger a few days earlier, given that everything but the kitchen sink was thrown at Hugh during his trial, and given that Roger Mortimer was certainly one of the people in charge of arranging the trial and devising the accusations, this seems odd. In February and again in May 1327 early in Edward III's reign, Hugh was accused of having fraudulently caused Llewelyn Bren's sons to be disinherited and disseised of their rightful lands, but no mention was made of his having Llywelyn unlawfully executed. [6] Beginning in late 1326, a veritable flood of petitions poured into Chancery as the many dozens of victims of the two Despensers' land grabs, extortion, blackmail, false imprisonment and so on sought restitution. None of them mentioned their involvement in Llywelyn's execution. 

Assuming Llywelyn Bren was executed sometime in 1318, that was the year that Hugh the Younger was made royal chamberlain, and was a few months after he and Eleanor finally took possession of the lordship of Glamorgan in November 1317. The precise date of Hugh's appointment as chamberlain is uncertain, but he was confirmed in the position during a parliament held in York in October and November 1318 and was named as Edward II's chamberlain in a royal household ordinance of 6 December that year. It took him a few months to work his way into the king's affections - Edward had never shown the slightest liking for or trust in his nephew-in-law previously - and I can't find any evidence of Edward indulging Hugh or treating him with unusual favour before April 1319. So in 1318, although Hugh was now wealthy and influential, he was not yet a royal favourite, able to do whatever he wanted. In late 1317 and early 1318 when Hugh attempted to take over the neighbouring lordship of Gwynllŵg, which had been given to Eleanor de Clare's sister Margaret and her second husband Hugh Audley, Edward II was having none of it and ordered him to restore Gwynllŵg to the Audleys.

On c. 22 September 1319 while taking part in the siege of Berwick-on-Tweed, Hugh the Younger, lord of Glamorgan, sent one of his many demanding, hectoring, threatening letters to his long-suffering sheriff of Glamorgan, Sir John Inge. (Sample sentence, slightly paraphrased: "I am worried about having some reason that might make me want to hurt you.") In a move that was sadly all too typical of him, Hugh asked Inge to see if he could get more money out of Lleucu and her sons, whom he called "the wife of Llywelyn Bren and her children" (la femme Lewelyn Bren et ses enfauntz), and he wanted £100 more than they already given him. [7] Hugh didn't call Lleucu "late the wife of Llywelyn" or "who was the wife of Llywelyn" as one might generally expect if he was dead, though the fact that Llywelyn himself wasn't mentioned probably indicates that he was indeed dead. Unless he was still imprisoned in the Tower, perhaps. 

Llywelyn Bren was certainly dead by February 1322, when, during the Marcher lords' rebellion, Edward II ordered the arrest of Lleucu and her and Llywelyn's sons; their names were recorded as "Leuken, late the wife of Lewelin Bren, Griffith ap Lewelyn, Jack ap Lewelyn, Henry ap Lewelyn, Meuric ap Lewelyn, William ap Lewelyn, Roger ap Lewelyn and Lewelin le Yong, sons of the said Lewelyn Bren". [8] On 2 December 1326 after Edward II's capture, Queen Isabella and her son Edward of Windsor allowed the unnamed "sons of Llywelin Bren" to hold their rightful lands, "Griffin son of Lewelin Bren" is mentioned in April 1327, and "Griffin, John, Meurik, Roger, William and Llewelin, sons and heirs of Llewelin de Bren" were all still alive in May 1327. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, "Lleucu received an allowance from the earl of Hereford at Brecon until 12 April 1349". [9]

If it wasn't Hugh Despenser the Younger (and his father) who had Llywelyn Bren executed, it must have been Edward II, but there's no record of his ordering it. There's nothing in the chancery rolls or anywhere else that I've ever been able to find regarding Llywelyn's execution. The whole issue raises the vexed question of the king's interference in the Welsh March, where "the king's writ does not run", and surely if Edward had ordered Llywelyn's execution, someone would have remarked on it as his overstepping the bounds of his authority. Perhaps the Marcher lords in 1321 didn't quite dare to blame the king himself for Llywelyn's death, so blamed the Despensers instead, and used it as another reason to demand the two men's exile. Something similar happened at Hugh the Younger's trial in 1326, when he was held accountable for many of Edward II's failings because the time had not yet quite come to blame the king himself for them, at least in public. I'm not too familiar with the laws of the March. Did Hugh, as a Marcher lord, have the authority to execute Llywelyn Bren in his (Hugh's) own lordship or not? And did Humphrey de Bohun and Roger Mortimer really have any authority to promise Llywelyn that he wouldn't be executed, even outside the March? Their letter to Edward II of March 1316 basically says "please don't do anything harsh to Llywelyn until you've talked to us", which seems fair enough, but five and a half years later they claimed they had "promised him good grace", i.e. clemency. Were they really in any position to make that promise? According to the Vita, when Llywelyn came face to face with Edward before his revolt, "the king spurned him, swearing and maintaining that he should surely die if the crime charged against him was proved" (the crime being sedition against Payn Turberville as keeper of Glamorgan in 1315/16). So it doesn't seem that Edward was in a forgiving merciful mood where Llywelyn Bren was concerned. Glamorgan was in Edward II's own hands between the death of the earl of Gloucester in June 1314 and Eleanor de Clare and Hugh Despenser taking possession of it in November 1317, so did the laws of the March still prevail in early 1316, the time of Llywelyn's revolt? Hereford and the Mortimers' plea to Edward in March 1316 not to harm Llywelyn until he'd spoken to them shows that they believed Llywelyn's fate to be in Edward's hands. Assuming the Flores is correct to place Llywelyn's execution in 1318 - and chronicles can't always be trusted on dates, as evidenced by the St Albans chronicler's assertion that Llywelyn's revolt took place in 1315 - it was certainly held by Despenser as a Marcher lordship then.

As far as I'm aware and have been able to discover - and if any readers know otherwise, please do let me know - the only evidence for Hugh Despenser the Younger (and his father) being responsible for Llywelyn Bren's horrible death is the Marcher lords' accusation at the parliament of August 1321, buried in the middle of a large number of other charges, and its repetition a few years later by the Bridlington chronicler. The only source I know of that gives 1318 as the year of Llywelyn's execution is the Tintern Abbey Flores Historiarum, which doesn't mention the Despensers' involvement, though there's no doubt that Hugh Despenser the Younger owned Cardiff from November 1317 until his death in November 1326, so if Llywelyn was executed there in c. 1318, he must at least have permitted and been aware of it. Quite a lot of websites and books state that Llywelyn was killed in Cardiff in 1318 on Despenser's orders, and some claim that Sir William Fleming, keeper of Glamorgan in 1317 before Hugh took possession of it - and himself a rebel Marcher lord executed in Cardiff in 1322 - was the man responsible for trying Llywelyn. I don't know, though, what sources have been used other than the ones I've used in this post. 

Maybe there are medieval Welsh sources that I can't read, though modern writers often just cite other modern writers for the story rather than primary sources. Or they simply cite the 1321 charge, printed in Statutes of the Realm and the Close Rolls. Well, yes, we know for certain that the accusation was made in August 1321, but is it true, and what confirms it? Is it possible that 700 years later, we're still just repeating an inaccurate or exaggerated accusation hurled at the two Hugh Despensers by their enemies in the interests of having both men exiled from their homeland? But if it was Edward II who had Bren subjected to the traitor's death, why was this not recorded anywhere either? I find the whole thing most puzzling, and I really don't know who gave the order for the execution, or what to make of the whole situation. It's certainly completely possible that Hugh Despenser did have Llywelyn grotesquely executed; I've read lots of the man's letters, and I don't think it would be at all out of character. As well as his threats to execute people if they didn't give him what he wanted, his ordering his adherents to 'harm' anyone who got in his way, and his willingness to ride roughshod over the law, his letters reveal a certain contempt for the Welsh people. All of this makes it seem perfectly possible and indeed likely that he had Llywelyn Bren removed from the Tower and executed, but the lack of supporting evidence puzzles me. As I said above, if anyone reading this is aware of sources I've missed, please do let me know.


1) Calendar of Close Rolls 1313-1318, pp. 274-5, 283, 285, 419. There are more references to the imprisonment in Edward II's wardrobe account.
2) Statutes of the Realm, vol. 1, p. 183; CCR 1318-23, p. 493.
3) Vita Edwardi Secundi Monachi Cuiusdam Malmesberiensis, ed. N. Denholm-Young, pp. 66-8; Johannis de Trokelowe, et Henrici de Blaneforde, Monachorum S. Albani ecnon quorundam anonymorum Chronica et Annales, ed. H.T. Riley, p. 92.
4) Gesta Edwardi de Carnarvon Auctore Canonico Bridlingtoniensi, in ed. W. Stubbs, Chronicles of the Reigns of Edward I and Edward II, vol. 2, pp. 66-9.
5) Flores Historiarum, vol. 3, ed. H.R. Luard, p. 343.
6) Calendar of Patent Rolls 1327-30, pp. 39-40; CCR 1327-30, p. 121.
7) Cartae at Alia Munimenta quae ad Dominium de Glamorgancia Pertinent, vol. 3, p. 1065.
8) CPR 1321-4, p. 77.
9) CCR 1323-7, p. 622; CPR 1327-30, pp. 39-40, 66; CCR 1327-30, p. 121; Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 'Llywelyn Bren'.


Julie Frusher said...

An absolutely fascinating and well-sourced analysis of the Bren situation. There are many things here I have not seen or even considered before. It may be that Edward wanted Bren executed but was not willing (at that point) to be seen to be interfering in Marcher affairs. Therefore Hugh acted as his 'agent' but would have been seen by others to have been acting on his own. And if it is true that Mortimer and Hereford had promised Bren that he would not be harmed, was that also not a case of appropriating royal power? Once again, Kate, your investigation into accusations against the Despensers is second to none. I just wish we had the answers to the questions you pose, but I doubt we will ever really know the truth (as in so many things). Thank you for this!

Kathryn Warner said...

So glad you enjoyed the post, Jules! I really enjoyed researching and writing it :-) I first thought about the Bren execution when writing the Hugh bio some years ago, and the lack of supporting evidence for Hugh's involvement puzzled me then too. It's one of the many things about Edward II's reign that has been repeated so many times that it's seen as a 100% certain fact, then when you start to examine it closely, the certainty melts away. And Humphrey and Roger accusing the Despensers of accroaching on royal power, when they themselves seem to have done so too by promising Llywelyn clemency, comes across as a tad hypocritical.

Anonymous said...

There is an article by J. Beverley Smith in Glamorgan County History Vol 3. on the rebellion of Llywelyn Bren & David Stephenson discusses the rebellion in his recent book Medieval Wales (2019). There is a small book on Llywelyn by Craig Owen Jones (2006). They may have more information.

The Welsh Brut only has that the war of Llywelyn Bren took place and that he was seized the next year.

As for the Law of the March - yes it included the right to hang felons in one's own lordship. See Mortimer Matters magazine for July 2020 (on website). Had their own courts, could try for all crimes except treason. So yes, on balance without further evidence, it probably was Despenser acting as lord of Glamorgan.

Kathryn Warner said...

Hi, thanks for that! I was aware of the Beverley Smith and Owen Jones pieces, but not of the Stephenson book. I'm a member of the MHS so will look at the MM piece too.

Suzie said...

Thank you for this piece. It's really interesting. Llewelyn Bren pops up in local stories and has a "house" named after him in a local school. This has also been really useful information as I shall be writing about Llewelyn for one of my tours - Caerphilly Audio Tours so I am looking for as much as I can find, particularly background information to bring the stories to life. I am not a historian but love finding out new things. Thanks again.

Kathryn Warner said...

Hi Suzie, thank you for letting me know! Your Audio Tours of Caerphilly sound fascinating, and I really hope I can take part in one sometime!