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LLEWELYN AND THE BARDS.
The history of Wales, during its earliest period, is little else than the history of perpetual and inglorious bloodshed. Usurpers, ambitious princes, irascible kinsmen, or depredating chieftains, are exhibited as successively destroying each other, and depopulating their country ; while England was advancing in a steady progress, under a settled government and internal tranquillity. If the storms of civil warfare sometimes paused, other evils arose to this unhappy people from the hostility of the Anglo-Normans, whose incursions were often temporary conquests. After a series of usurpations, the right line of the ancient British princes was restored, and transmitted through successive descendants to Llewelyn ap Gryffith, the last sovereign of Wales.
The hostilities of William the Conqueror, and his son Rufus, made a serious impression on the southern provinces of Wales ; and two colonies of Flemings were, in the reigns of Henry the First and Henry the Second, successfully established there. The military subjection of the country diminished during the reign of John, and in the first years of his son, Edward the First; but as this prince advanced to maturity, his martial spirit found in the country an inviting theatre for his exploits. At the age of twenty-four, he had led his father's forces over the Severn, and penetrated to Snowdon ; but the Welsh fell back to their fastnesses, and the conquerors withdrew. When he became king, one of his first projects was to subdue the country and annex it to England.
It is dangerous to praise ambition, but this was one of those few military conquests which benefit humanity. Nothing short of the extinction of its native sovereignties, and its incorporation with England, could terminate those scenes of murder and devastation, which were succeeding each other with no prospect of cessation. Edward's character is responsible for the personal motives in this enterprise ; but its accomplishment was a blessing to both countries. Sufficient causes of quarrel existed between the two kings. Ed. ward began his attack with every form of solemnity. He procured the excommunication of Llewelyn, and the English parliament pronounced judgment against him. The first invasions produced the submission of the Welsh king on conditions sufficiently humiliating. But rigor never conciliates, and the warfare was soon revived by the irritation and pride of the oppressed. On the submission of Llewelyn, his brother David had been treated by Edward with peculiar distinction. This prince has been described as an ingenious, crafty, and plotting man. He soon persuaded Llewelyn to try again the fortune of war, which had twice disgraced him.
Edward advanced into Wales by land, in 1263, and sent his fleet to Anglesey. When he heard of the capture of this island, he exclaimed, “ Llewelyn has lost the finest feather in his tail,” and caused a floating bridge to be constructed, joining it to the main land. Meantime the Welsh king had fortified himself on the lofty heights of Snowdon, over against the island, and at the first attempt of the English to pass the bridge he defeated them, and drove into the sea upwards of three hundred men. The Welsh thus having the command of the bridge, the English remained pent up in the island, when a traitorous Welshman disclosed to them a ford by which they might cross and attack their enemy in the rear. Llewelyn, ignorant of this treachery, descended from the mountains to reconnoitre the position of the English, and, thinking himself in perfect security, took but a single attendant with him. Having inspected the opposite shore, he was reposing himself in a barn, when he heard a war-cry. He asked of his squire, “ Are not my Welshmen at the bridge ? "
The answer assured him that they were. " Then I am safe,” said the king, “ though all England should be on the other side.”
But the clamor soon increased and drew nearer every moment, and presently he was thrown into astonishment at beholding the English banners advancing. The
enemy had struck their unexpected blow at his advanced guard, and their main body was rapidly crossing the river. He now tried to regain his camp, but was suddenly crossed in his way by an English knight, who, ignorant of his rank, but discerning him to be a Welshman, advanced immediately upon him. A
contest was unavoidable, and the king was too courageous to decline it; but he was lightly armed, and the lance of the Englishman was thrown with fatal strength and precision. Llewelyn received it in his side and fell dead. The English knight, unconscious of the importance of his exploit, fell back to join his coun. trymen, who were now in full march on the fortified mountains. The Welsh formed eagerly on their cliffs
, prepared for battle, but awaiting the return and orders of their sovereign. In vain they watched the valleys for his approach, in vain ascended the highest emi. nences to descry him; they saw their dreaded foes already climbing their steeps to close in deadly conflict, and they had no royal leader to animate or guide them. Before they recovered from their disappointment, the English banners began to wave on their heights, and they found themselves attacked on all sides with an impetuosity which soon scattered them in a panic from which they could not be rallied. All who could escape the English sword fled in hopeless confusion, and the unexpected casualties of that eventful day annexed the sovereignty of Wales to the crown of England with a facility that could never have been anticipated.
The curiosity of the knight having been excited by the rumors of the field, he descended into the valley to see whom he had encountered. He found the dead body still on the ground, and, examining its face, it was recognized to be Llewelyn. Eager to reap the full profit of his fortunate encounter, he degraded his chivalry by cutting off the head of the corpse, which he carried to Edward. The king had not the magna
nimity of William the Conqueror, who reprimanded the knight who had wounded the dead body of Harold, but sent the head of Llewelyn to London, adorned in derision with a silver crown, that it might be exhibited to the populace in Cheapside, and fixed upon the Tower.
Edward is said to have secured his conquest by the massacre of the Welsh bards, who might have kept alive the national spirit and nourished the animosity of their countrymen to the English. This is rather a fiction of an irritated people than a historical fact. The destruction of the independent sovereignties of Wales abolished the patronage of the bards, and in the cessation of internal warfare and external ravages they lost their favorite subjects and most familiar imagery. They declined because they were no longer encouraged ; and their disappearance has been mistaken for their forcible extirpation. The bards of Wales were supposed to be endowed with powers equal to inspiration. They were the oral historians of all past transactions, public and private. They related the great events of the state, and, like the skalds of the northern nations, retained the memory of numberless transactions which otherwise would have perished in oblivion. They had another talent which probably endeared them more than all the rest to the Welsh nobility, that of being most accomplished genealogists, and flattering their vanity in singing the deeds of an ancestry derived from the most distant period. No public festivity, great feast, or wedding could be duly solemnized without the presence of the bards and minstrels. A glorious emulation arose among them, and prizes were bestowed on the most worthy.