December 11, 1282: Who killed Llywelyn, the last Prince of Wales?

House of Aberffraw (Sodacan)

Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, the last true Prince of Wales, was killed on December 11, 1282 near Builth, Powys. This provides the first turning point in my book Spirit Sight.

As a novelist, it seemed simple enough to write — until I discovered several different versions of Llywelyn’s death.

Llywelyn was the only Welsh ruler to be recognized by the English crown as the Prince of Wales, and the only prince to fully unite the country.

According to some sources, he was killed during the Battle of Orewin (or Irfon) Bridge near Builth Wells. He was thought to be mustering forces to resume the war against Edward 1, King of England. During a ceasefire in the fall, while the Archbishop of Canterbury visited Llywelyn at Garth Celyn, the English broke the peace and tried to attack across the Menai Strait. They were defeated by the Welsh. Llywelyn may have tried to take advantage of this setback, by gathering as many as 7000 troops to attack the English.

However, an English knight named Stephen de Frankton (or Francton) attacked and killed him with a spear. But Llywelyn wasn’t wearing his armour, and no one recognized him as the Prince of Wales. Without him, the Welsh army was quickly massacred.

There are problems with this version of the story. Why — if he was going to battle — wasn’t Llywelyn wearing armour? Also, most versions say Llywelyn had separated himself from his warriors, which seems unlikely during an attack. And if the Welsh army was massacred, where did several thousand bodies go — and who fought off the English for the next year, before Edward won the war?

In his book, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd: Prince of Wales, J. Beverly Smith says Llywelyn may have left Garth Celyn because of a message he received from Edmund Mortimer, the new Baron of Wigmore Castle. Llywelyn rode to meet him with only a small force of warriors. Mortimer and several others ambushed and murdered Llywelyn in Cilmeri field near Builth. Smith says Stephen de Frankton may have killed him, or a knight named Roger Body may have beheaded him, but it’s most likely that Edmund Mortimer played “a particularly important role” (p. 566) in Llywelyn’s death.

Without conclusive evidence, the mystery remains: who really killed Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, and how did it happen? For my young adult fantasy Spirit Sight, I had to make some decisions about how it happened.

For more about the various versions of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd’s death, check out these sources:

J. Beverly Smith. Llywelyn ap Gruffudd: Prince of Wales. University of Wales Press, 2014.

FelinFach: “Cilmeri and the Last Prince of Wales” (Dec 7, 2020)
https://www.felinfach.com/blogs/blog/cilmeri-holy-ground

Encyclopedia Britannica online: Llywelyn-ap-Gruffudd
https://www.britannica.com/biography/Llywelyn-ap-Gruffudd

Sarah Woodbury: “December 11, 1282”
https://www.sarahwoodbury.com/december-11-1282/

BBC: “The Last Stand of Llywelyn the Last”
https://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/wales/entries/285c1c27-6bed-3c14-8953-55c4ef6e405d

Image attribution: Traditional arms of the House of Aberffraw, rulers of the Kingdom of Gwynedd, attributed to Llywelyn the Great (d. 1240). Recorded in the Chronica Majora (c. 1250). Sodacan – Creative Commons –https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Llywelyn_ap_Gruffudd#/media/File:Arms_of_Llywelyn.svg

What version of the story would you choose?

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