Item of Interest: A mediaeval ‘whodunnit’ – the death of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd

This month’s Item of Interest post by Clare Brown (Archivist), tells a story of mediaeval murder recounted through manuscripts.

MS 6 f 167v

This small vignette from the St. Alban’s Chronicle (MS 6, f. 167v) purports to show the death of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, last native Prince of Wales, on 11 December 1282.  Although the image shows a formal execution scene with a priest in attendance, the text of the Chronicle relates that Llywelyn was killed in an ambush or scuffle: And when Ƿe prince Lewellin his broǷer Ƿat wist he was sore abashed for he had no power to may[n]teyn werre  And Ƿen he fled & wend wele to haue scapid but Thomas mortymer in a morning wt v. knightes met hym alone & hym clipped round about & toke hym and smote of his hed and it presented to Ƿe king. And Ƿus was Lewellyn hedid & he & his heires disherit for eu[er]more be rightfull Jugement.(f.169).  This short text differs from that found in other manuscripts of the Brut where Llywelyn’s killer is named as Sir Roger de Mortimer assisted by ten knights [The Brut, ed. Friedrich W.D. Brie, Early English Text Society, 1906, reprinted 1960, p.183].  The fate of Llywelyn’s head, which was exhibited crowned with ivy at the Tower of London, has an ironic, though possibly unconscious reference to the ancient Welsh ‘Tale of Branwen’, the second branch of the Mabinogi, in which the head of Brân the Blessed was taken to the White Hill in London to protect the country from invasion.  The St. Alban’s Chronicle is part of the core collection of manuscripts bequeathed to Lambeth Palace Library by Archbishop Bancroft.  It is a deluxe copy of the prose Brut, a popular mediaeval chronicle recounting the history of Britain from the legendary times of Brutus, great grandson of Aeneas.  MS 6 dates from the last quarter of the fifteenth century and was probably written by an English scribe; the text interspersed with illuminations relating to the action of the narrative probably produced in Bruges.   The entire manuscript has been digitised and is available in ‘turn the page’ format on the Library’s online image gallery.

Interestingly, Lambeth Palace Library also holds a key source for the circumstances surrounding Llywelyn’s death, the Register of John Pecham, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1279 to 1292.  Archbishops’ Registers contain copies of important documents that record much of the ecclesiastical administration and political affairs that the Archbishop, as a senior churchman, was involved in. At the very end of Pecham’s Register (ff. 242-249v) is a series of documents relating to a diplomatic journey Pecham made to parts of Wales in 1282 on behalf of Edward I to try to bring about some sort of settlement of his very bitter dispute with Llywelyn and his followers.  The last of those documents is a brief report relating to Llywelyn’s death, headed ‘Report of the death of Llywelyn at the hands of the men of Edmund Mortimer, son of Roger Mortimer, and the death or flight of his army.’.

Reg Peckham f249v_cropped
Reg. Pecham f. 249v. (detail)

As the Register is not compiled chronologically but by recipient or author of a document, or by type of business for instance institutions of clergy or visitations of religious houses, it is not immediately clear that the Register contains more information about Llywelyn’s death.  However, the three volume Rolls Society edition edited by C.T. Martin and published in 1882-1885 shows that it does.

Reg Peckham f100v_cropped
Reg. Pecham f. 100v. (detail)

This image shows a letter from Pecham to Edward I, written in Norman French on 17th December 1282 from Pembridge in Herefordshire, the Thursday after St. Lucy’s Day.  By this time Llywelyn was dead, apparently on the Friday before St. Lucy’s Day.   The text, as translated by C.T. Martin, is as follows: ‘To my lord the King.  To his very dear lord Edward, by the grace of God king of England, lord of Ireland, duke of Aquitaine, friar John, by the permission of God, archbishop of Canterbury, primate of all England, greeting in great reverence.  Sire, know that those who were at the death of Llywelyn found in the most secret part of his body some small things which we have seen.  Among other things was a treasonable letter disguised by false names.  And that you may be warned, we send a copy of the letter to the Bishop of Bath, and the letter itself Edmund Mortimer has, with Llywelyn’s privy seal, and these things you may have at your pleasure.  And this we send to warn you, and not that anyone should be troubled for it.  And we pray you that no one may suffer death or mutilation in consequence of our information, and that which we send you in secret. Beside this, sire, know that lady Maud Longespée prayed us by letter to absolve Llywelyn, that he might be buried in consecrated ground, and we sent word to her that we would do nothing if it could not be proved that he showed signs of true repentance before his death.  And Edmund de Mortimer said to me that he had heard from his servants who were at the death that he asked for the priest before his death, but without sure certainty we will do nothing.  Besides this, sire, know that the very day he was killed, a white monk [a Cistercian] sang Mass to him, and my lord Roger de Mortimer has the vestments…’  The rest of the letter goes on to ask Edward to protect the clergy, especially those in Snowdon.

Reg Peckham f83r_cropped
Reg. Pecham f. 83 (detail)

In Pecham’s letter to Robert Burnell, Bishop of Bath and Wells (f.83) the treasonable letter is described as having been found by E[dmund] de Mortimer ‘in bracali L[ewelini] quondam princips Walliae’ that is, in his breeches.

So who killed Llywelyn ap Gruffudd?  Though the sources do not agree on the actual killer, they indicate that responsibility lay with the Mortimer family and, of them all, Edmund is chiefly implicated by the documents in Pecham’s Register.  The Mortimers were no strangers to Llywelyn but close kin; Roger Mortimer’s mother Gwladys Ddu was a daughter of Prince Llywelyn ap Iorwerth (Llywelyn the Great), so he and Llywelyn were first cousins.  Among their other cousins was Maud Longespée, daughter and heiress of Walter, 3rd Lord Clifford and his wife Margaret, the daughter of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, whose concern that Llywelyn should receive Christian burial prompted her to intercede with Pecham.

Reg Peckham f192r_cropped
Reg. Pecham f. 192 (detail)

Though her letter has not survived, it is clear from Pecham’s response (f.192) that he took her request seriously: Friar John, by the permission of God, archbishop of Canterbury, primate of all England, to the lady of great worth, Maud Longespée, greeting and the blessing of Jesus Christ.  My lady, your prayer agrees with pity and reason.  But know that Llywelyn, who was prince of Wales, cannot be absolved unless he showed signs of repentance at his death to amend and leave his follies. Therefore if this is certain that he was repentant at his death, and ready as far as was in his power to make amends to Holy Church, and this is proved before us, we will do what is right about it, for otherwise, without doing wrong, he cannot be absolved.  Therefore we approve that you and his other friends should labour about this, that some of those who were at his death should come in time before us and show the signs aforesaid, for in any other manner we can do nothing. [C.T. Martin’s translation]. 

Reg Peckham f193r_cropped
Reg. Pecham f. 193 (detail)

However on the next page of the Register is a memorandum that a letter had been sent on 28 December to the Archdeacon of Brecon asking him to certify before the Feast of the Epiphany (6 January) that Llywelyn had been buried in the church of Cwm Hir, a Cistercian Abbey near Llandrindod Wells.  No response is recorded in the Register, but tradition accepts that Cwm Hir was indeed Llywelyn’s burial place and a modern memorial slab has been placed in the ruins.

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