At the Heart of a 'Hidden History'- Forgotten Battleground of the Norse and the Normans

Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), March 30, 2012 | Go to article overview

At the Heart of a 'Hidden History'- Forgotten Battleground of the Norse and the Normans


Byline: DR DAVID WYATT

* ost people in Wales are aware of the mighty ring of Edwardian castles in the north of the country built in the wake of Edward I's conquest in the late 13th century.

Edward's "iron ring" of fortifications were designed to be symbols of his power and domination over the previously independent Welsh kingdom of Gwynedd. Yet fewer people are aware of another much earlier attempt to subdue Gwynedd through the construction of a network of castles in the years that followed the Norman Conquest.

Aberlleiniog Castle, which nestles in a beautiful location near the village of Llangoed close to the eastern shores of Anglesey, lies at the very heart of this 'hidden history'.

Situated just a few miles from Beaumaris' huge Edwardian fortification, Aberlleiniog Castle is a simple, yet well-preserved, Norman motte and bailey fortress, built on the orders of Hugh d'Avranches, earl of Chester, one of the first marcher lords appointed by William the Conqueror to the Welsh frontier.

Today, the motte at Aberlleiniog is crowned by a much later structure, probably a civil war fort, which appears to date to the middle of the 17th century. Yet it is arguably the early medieval history of this site which bears witness to one of the most significant yet little known conflicts in medieval Welsh history: the battle of Anglesey Sound in 1098.

This battle reconfigured the geo-political map of North Wales and reversed ambitions of conquest from the east for almost 200 years, allowing an independent and vibrant Welsh dynasty to flourish in Gwynedd.

Anglesey, Wales and the Viking World. We are often presented with an Anglo-centric view of Welsh history with relationships between Wales and England taking centre stage. Yet, it is important to remember that Wales is a westward facing peninsular with a mountainous interior which, to this day, hampers communications between both the north and south and the east and west.

In the early middle-ages, these internal topographical barriers would have been compounded further by widespread forestation and political fragmentation.

Wales, at this time, was made up of a patchwork of competing native kingdoms vying for power and territory. The one unifying topographical feature in Wales was the sea and many of the early medieval Welsh kingdoms had important westward maritime contacts and interactions, both peaceful and violent, with Ireland and the wider Viking world.

The Vikings first came to the Irish Sea region in small sea-borne raiding bands at the end of the eighth century. Over the course of the ninth and 10th centuries they established significant power bases and settled in locations across the Irish Sea region: in the Northern and Western Isles of Scotland, the Isle of Man, Galloway, Cumbria and coastal areas of Ireland.

These Viking settlers soon became embroiled in local politics, they formed alliances, intermarried and many adopted Christianity, yet they retained a distinct identity signalled through their material culture, language and their warrior outlook.

By the middle of the 10th century they had also established vibrant and bustling urban ports such as Dublin, at which mercenaries could be hired and where goods could be exchanged and redistributed across the Viking world.

Unsurprisingly, then, mastery of maritime routes in the region was very important for the Irish Sea Vikings. Perhaps the most important of these routes was the seaway linking Dublin with a significant Viking settlement in the Wirral which, in turn, connected overland to the Viking city of York. This busy Viking route meant that the Island of Anglesey and the coasts of North Wales were of immense strategic significance.

Given the strategic significance of the seaways around Anglesey, and the widespread nature of Viking settlement in the Irish Sea region, then it would be very surprising if there had been no such settlement within Wales. …

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