The battle of Crug Mawr was a decisive victory for the Welsh over the Anglo-Saxons. It was also the last time that an English army attempted to invade Wales.
In the battle of Crug Mawr, the Welsh Longbow won the day. Read more in detail here: wales.
A Welsh force arrived at Cardigan Castle in 1136, intending to drive the Marcher Lords out at arrow point.
Norman troops anticipated the approach of a 9,000-man Welsh army in the fall of 1136, high on a hill in the Welsh countryside 2 miles northeast of Cardigan, who had previously captured numerous towns and sacked the only other Norman fortress in the western kingdom of Ceredigion. Despite this, Norman leaders were confident in their ability to smash the oncoming Welsh with minimal effort in the impending fight.
The Normans possessed strong cavalry, well-equipped infantry, and the most vicious Flemish mercenaries money could buy, despite their numbers being similar. They also controlled the high ground, allowing them to attack in every direction. The Normans, on the other hand, underestimated the abilities of Welsh leader Owain ap Gruffudd, his soldiers’ perseverance, and, most all, their deadly proficiency with the longbow.
The Normans conquered Anglo-Saxon England in 1066. Over the following several years, William the Conqueror crushed the rebels, granted their estates to his faithful subjects, and established fortresses across England. Then he turned his attention to the Celtic kingdoms of Scotland, Ireland, and Wales.
The Normans, like the Anglo-Saxons before them, thought of the Celts as uneducated barbarians undeserving of respect. However, by 1136, the Normans had barely established a foothold in the Celtic realm of Wales. Despite the fact that Norman lords had either taken over or constructed castles in the wild western frontier, they found it difficult to really “control.” After repeated Roman, Anglo-Saxon, and Norman invasions, the Welsh were never completely subjugated, either by political methods or by physical force. Two main obstacles thwarted Norman aspirations in the region: geography and the structure of Celtic civilization.
The Welsh terrain is dominated by undulating hills and, during the time, huge, densely forested woods. “It is not easy to reach because of its steep mountains, deep valleys, and vast woods, not to mention its rivers and marshes,” wrote Gerald of Wales, archdeacon of Brecon in South Wales, in the 12th century. The Normans’ heavy cavalry depended on such terrain, which made for an unsuitable battlefield.
The Welsh, like other Celtic civilizations, lacked a central government. They were a patchwork of tiny, shifting kingdoms governed by a slew of lords, princes, and monarchs whose allegiance was erratic. Loyalty may shift at any time, resulting in constant infighting.
Wales, like most of medieval Britain, had plenty of land but little money. Farmers and shepherds dominated the agricultural culture, supplementing what they could produce with hunting and foraging. They were equally adept with the bow and the sling as a result of their lifestyle. It also paved the way for the Welsh fighting technique. Welsh fighters harassed bigger armies from a stone’s throw or an arrow’s flight, facing the enemy on rocky terrain frequently surrounded by marshes.
After conquering Anglo-Saxon England in 1066, William the Conqueror set his sights on the Celtic kingdoms of Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. / Photographs by Bridgeman
William had given barons estates in Norman-controlled area along the Welsh border as a reward for their loyalty. These ambitious lords gradually encroached on neighboring Celtic kingdoms, mostly in South Wales. The trespassers, who constructed castles and market towns, promoted English settlement, and married into princely Welsh houses, were delayed but not stopped by Welsh ambushes and attacks. The barons were dubbed “Marcher Lords.” Though the title “Marchers” comes from the root word “march,” which means “borderland,” the Marchers may as well have been called for their habit of marching into regions they desired, sometimes without the permission of the English monarch.
Princes from three Welsh kingdoms—Gwynedd in the northwest, Deheubarth in the southwest, and Ceredigion in the middle—resisted the Norman territorial grab. The Norman nobles decided to divide and conquer in order to deal with the obstreperous Celtic kingdoms.
One of William’s main advisors, Roger de Montgomery, built an earthwork castle and town of Cardigan on the tidal stretch of the River Teifi on the boundary of Ceredigion and Deheubarth in 1093. The Welsh destroyed the fort and reclaimed control the next year, when Roger died. Ceredigion was given to Marcher Lord Gilbert de Clare by Henry I, William’s fourth son and second successor, in 1110. Gilbert based himself at Cardigan and constructed a wood predecessor to the current castle. The Normans and the fiercely independent inhabitants of Ceredigion maintained an uneasy peace for the next two decades, held in check by the Norman garrison stationed at the castle.
The Welsh border was altered by Henry’s death in 1135 and the succession crisis that followed. Most Norman lords fled from Wales as the danger of civil conflict loomed over England. Gilbert de Clare’s oldest son, Richard, was among those who joined the flight, retiring to family estates in the English borderland while adoring Henry’s future successor, Stephen.
The Welsh took full advantage of the situation. In January 1136, Hywel ap Maredudd, a Welsh ruler from Brycheiniog’s central realm, assembled an army and attacked Norman strongholds on Deheubarth’s Gower Peninsula, defeating them at the Battle of Llwchwr (northeast of present-day Swansea). Richard de Clare, hearing of the Welsh uprising, marched west with a little army, intending to put a stop to it. On April 15, 1136, at Llanthony Priory in the Brecon Beacons range of South Wales, the Welsh learned of his intentions and ambushed and killed the presumptive heir.
Following the death of the Marcher, the Welsh of Gwynedd banded together with their Ceredigion brothers to remove the Normans. Prince Gruffudd ap Cynan of Gwynedd, who was well-known at the time, was in his 80s and losing his sight, so his sons Owain and Cadwaladr ap Gruffudd took up the banner and led the Welsh army south from Gwynedd. They stormed the castle at Aberystwyth and seized Landbadarn and Llanfihangel along the way, leaving Cardigan as the final Norman stronghold in Ceredigion.
At Crug Mawr, the scene was set for a battle of wills.
Wales’ Owain ap Gruffudd
Despite the fact that both sides had about the same number of fighting men, their composition was vastly different. The Norman army consisted of 1,000 Flemish mercenaries, 7,000 Norman infantrymen from local levies, and 2,000 horse, most of which was heavy cavalry, led by Welsh Marcher Lords Robert fitz Martin, Robert fitz Stephen, and Maurice FitzGerald of Deheubarth. Gwynedd, Deheubarth, and the eastern kingdom of Powys were represented by an united Welsh force of 6,000 infantry (mostly spearmen), 2,000 longbowmen, and 1,000 light cavalry. Owain and Cadwaladr ap Gruffudd of Gwynedd, Prince Gruffudd ap Rhys of Deheubarth, and a slew of subcommanders, each in charge of his region’s soldiers, led them.
An onlooker may believe, as did the Norman commanders, that the Normans would have the upper hand under typical medieval combat circumstances. Their troops were more trained, equipped, and had heavy cavalry at their disposal. These armored riders and horses, known as medieval tanks, were intended to break up infantry formations and create terror and mayhem. Norman pride in their tactical superiority—along with preconceived notions of Welsh inferiority—lead them to severely misjudge their adversary.
The Welsh made up for their lack of experience and equipment with fury, determination, and a strong tactical understanding of their own turf. They understood the environment and how to use it to their advantage, having herded sheep across the steep terrain and hunted the woods for generations. Though their mounts lacked the bulk and armor of their opponents’ heavy cavalry, they were much more maneuverable in battle. The longbow was another ace in the Welsh’s sleeve.
While all Welshmen had used the longbow to hunt animals and protect their flocks from predators, the archers of South Wales had mastered its use as a weapon of war. Iolo Goch, a 14th-century Welsh poet, said, “The inhabitants of Gwent, in particular, are more proficient with the bow and arrow than those who arrived from other regions of Wales.”
The longbow was not invented by the Welsh, even though they mastered its usage. Its fundamental design has been around for millennia, with the oldest version dated from 3300 B.C. in continental Europe. The longbow is highly precise at close range in the hands of skilled archers, and as an artillery weapon, it can rain down armor-piercing bullets from a range of up to 250 yards.
Iolo pointed out that the bows they employ are not made of horn, sapwood, or yew. “The Welsh cut their bows out of the forest’s tiny elm trees.”
Longbows were fashioned from common and wych elm, according to the website WarbowWales.com. They were “ugly, unfinished-looking guns, but surprisingly rigid, big and powerful, and equally capable of long or short shooting,” according to Gerald.
Welsh archers were excellent at striking targets on the move since they mainly used their longbows for hunting. Hunting deer, on the other hand, is a long cry from confronting armed soldiers on foot or on horseback, many of whom will be wearing chain mail or even full armor. Welsh archers utilized a square-sectioned arrowhead known as a bodkin to penetrate even the toughest armor. Archers used “butts,” or clay mounds, put out at approximately 220 paces, to practice long-distance shooting.
Longbowmen, whether Welsh or later English, were always outfitted in a similar manner. He wore little to no armor and carried additional shafts, a short sword, and a tiny round shield for self-defense in addition to the 6-foot bow shown here at full draw. / Peter Dennis, from “Longbowman vs Crossbowman,” by David Campbell, Osprey Publishing
While the Normans were undoubtedly aware of the longbow’s efficacy, Crug Mawr’s surviving chronicles make no mention of bowmen among their troops. Perhaps they lumped their archers in with the rest of the army, but it’s also conceivable that their absence was a show of Norman contempt for the Welsh.
On the day of the fight, the Normans at Cardigan were evidently aware of the Welsh army approaching from the north. The Normans marched 2 miles from the castle to Crug Mawr (Welsh meaning “Great Hill”), high land commanding the Aberystwyth-Aberystwyth route.
The Normans formed three lines, with the most experienced Flemish soldiers in front, Norman infantry in reserve, and cavalry in the rear. Commanders sought to persuade the ostensibly disorganized Welsh to assault uphill. Those who managed to escape the Flemish assault were to be ridden down by Norman cavalry, a tried-and-true strategy in continental warfare. Wales, however, was not the Continent, as the Normans quickly discovered.
The Welsh proceeded along the road to Cardigan at a steady, but cautious, pace, led by Owain ap Gruffudd. When Owain saw the Norman troops on Crug Mawr, he knew exactly what they were doing. He ordered the Welsh subcommanders to bring the majority of their infantry to the center, with the cavalry guarding their flanks, after calling a stop. The troops who remained were kept in reserve. Owain positioned his archers in front of the enemy, then continued his march.
Refusing to accept the bait and assault uphill, Owain stopped his line around 200 yards from Crug Mawr and ordered his archers to fire a barrage of arrows at the armored Flemish mercenaries on the front lines. The bodkin-tipped Welsh shafts inflicted heavy losses on the Normans with each volley. The mainly unarmored Norman reserve troops, sent forward to cover the gaps, suffered even more losses.
Norman commanders ordered their strong cavalry forward to breach the opposing line in order to calm the situation. The Welsh bowmen retaliated by simply focusing their concentration and aiming at the new danger. After all, a horse is just a bigger target, and a cavalryman without a mount is merely infantry, thus a wall of arrows smashed into both riders and horses. Men and their horses were mowed down by shot after volley. The impetus of the Norman heavy cavalry assault had all but died by the time the remains of the Norman heavy cavalry reached the Welsh lines.
The bowmen withdrew behind the infantry, which put up a spear barrier as the Norman cavalry advanced. The armored Norman knights and horses were unable to burst through since they had lost all speed and the edge. The Welsh cavalry rushed in from both sides as the assault stagnated, trapping the Normans in a modified pincer maneuver. The Norman cavalry had little option but to break engagement and withdraw as they were harassed on all sides and stopped by the Welsh infantry. Rather of withdrawing to their own lines and reorganizing to make a stand against the Welsh—or at the very least, conduct an orderly withdrawal—the cavalrymen fled along the Cardigan road, leaving their infantrymen completely exposed.
During the 1136 rebellion, the Welsh sacked Norman-held Aberystwyth Castle. / Alamy
The remaining Normans and Flemings quickly followed their heavy cavalry’s example after seeing their heavy cavalry break and flee. It wasn’t an orderly withdrawal for them. They may have been able to limit their losses if it had been. The frenzied foot troops, on the other hand, were easy prey for the Welsh light cavalrymen, who pursued them south into Cardigan and the River Teifi.
The Teifi Bridge eventually crumbled under the weight of so many armored soldiers and horses. Many more were trapped on the near side and killed by the Welsh. While some soldiers managed to divest themselves of their armor and weapons and make it over, many more were slaughtered by the Welsh. The river was filled with the corpses of men and animals, according to accounts. If Normans and Flemings were unable to return within the castle walls, they took refuge in the nearby hamlet, which was quickly burnt down by the Welsh.
Those Normans who made it back inside Cardigan Castle were spared, since their pursuers lacked the necessary troops and siege engines to capture the castle. The fight, however, was a resounding success for the Welsh. As many as 3,000 of the estimated 10,000 Norman soldiers who went to the field that day were slain. The others would survive to fight another day, but the English would not take control of the Celtic rebels on Britain’s western border until the time of Edward I (1272–1307). MH
Dana Benner contributes to Military History on a regular basis. For further information, he suggests Marc Morris’ book A Great and Terrible King, as well as Daniel Mersey’s essay “Medieval Welsh Warriors and Warfare” (available online at CastleWales.com) and Jon Guttman’s article “Longbow: A Medieval Take on Long-range Artillery” (available online at Historynet.com).
Military History magazine published this piece in their July 2023 edition. Subscribe here for more articles, and follow us on Facebook:
The Battle of Crug Mawr was a battle fought in 634 AD between the Welsh and the Irish. The longbow won the battle for the Welsh, who were led by Rhodri Mawr. Reference: carn coch.
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