Map I: The Principality of Deheubarth c1116. After Rees: An Historical Atlas of Wales.
In 1093, the principality of Deheubarth in South Wales fell to the Normans. Its Prince, Rhys ap Tewdwr, lay dead on the battlefield and his family had fled to Ireland. The conquerors quickly began to change Deheubarth. They built motte-and-bailey castles to dominate the country and brought in French and English settlers to farm the land. In the monasteries, French monks replaced Welsh in positions of authority. The Welsh, whose whole history was one of resistance to invasion, were not a race to accept foreign domination meekly. Soon Deheubarth was ripe for revolt.
In 1114, Gruffydd ap Rhys, Rhys ap Tewdwr’s son and heir, returned from Ireland to seek support for an attempt to regain his father’s realm. After evading attempts by his father-in-law Gruffydd ap Cynan, Prince of Gwynedd, to hand him over to the Normans, Gruffydd returned to Deheubarth to make a bid for power.
In the spring of 1116 he destroyed Narberth castle and attacked and burned parts of Llandovery and Swansea. He then raided and burned Carmarthen, held for the Normans by Owain ap Caradog. Satisfied with his show of strength in the south, Gruffydd withdrew into Cantref Mawr. After a brief respite, he descended into Ceredigion and sacked the Norman colony of Blaen Porth Hodnant, though he failed to take the castle. From Blaen Porth Hodnant, he marched to Ystrad Peithyll, where he overwhelmed the castle of Razo, steward of Gilbert de Clare. Razo was not, however, in residence. He was at another of Gilbert’s castles at Ystrad Antarron, just south of modern Aberystwyth. If the castle had a name of its own, it is not recorded. Modern historians have called it Old Aberystwyth, Tanybwlch (after the nearest hamlet) or, incorrectly, Aberrheidol. It was this castle that Gruffydd ap Rhys made his next target.
The Contending Forces
i. The Normans
A Norman army of 1116 was little different from that which fought at Hastings 50 years before. Its core was the mounted knight. Arrogant, boorish and uncultured, the average knight was far removed from the later creations of chivalry. He was, however, a most effective fighter. His charge with couched lance was widely regarded at the time as unstoppable. Encased in mail from head to knee, and carrying his long ‘kite’ shield, he was also virtually invulnerable.
The knights would have been supported by infantry. In a castle garrison, the majority would have been archers, though some might be spearmen. The archers would have been French or English, and have been armed with the shortbow. In the force under Razo’s command at Ystrad Antarron there would also have been some armed French and English settlers, who had fled from the surrounding countryside.
The size of the Norman forces at Ystrad Antarron is nowhere recorded. They could not, however, have been large. A small castle, even in a war zone, is unlikely to have had more than 20 knights and 40 archers in its garrison. Allowing for reinforcements received by Razo just prior to the battle and for the assorted refugees, his force is unlikely to have been more than 50 knights and 80 foot, and may have been only half that.
ii. The Welsh
The Welsh military system was of a form common in the Dark Ages. A Welsh army was essentially a conglomeration of nobles and their warbands, which could be supplemented by mass mobilisation of free peasants and the bond tenants of the nobles.
The Welsh were adept at guerilla warfare. They were masters of the raid, the ambush and the surprise attack. Their forces were therefore lighter equipped than the Normans. The cavalry of the warbands wore less armour than a Norman knight and fought with spears and javelins rather than the lance. The infantry were also lightly armed with spears, javelins and knives, though some used the longbow. In the open field, the Welsh were vulnerable to the Norman cavalry. Although they were fierce in attack, they were too prone, if things went badly, to run for cover.
The size of Gruffydd’s army, like that of the Normans, is unknown. Although Welsh chronicles on occasion speak of Welsh forces numbering several thousand, most are numbered in hundreds. Certainly, at the beginning of his campaign, Gruffydd’s force consisted only of ‘young hotheads’. More sensible men were no doubt waiting to see how successful Gruffydd was before committing themselves. After the attack on Carmarthen, many decided to join him and the rising became general. By the time he reached Ystrad Antarron, therefore, Gruffydd‘s force was probably quite large by Welsh standards, numbering several hundreds, though in all likelihood still under a thousand. Despite the fact that several nobles joined him after Carmarthen. Gruffydd was probably always short of cavalry, and the majority of his men would have been peasant spearmen.
Map II: Sketch map of the Battle of Ystrad Antarron. The site of the bridge is conjectured (it is the site of the modern bridge). The Ystwyth estuary was more extensive then than now. The Welsh main body probably was on the slopes of the valley about 200m to the south-east.
The events of the battle of Ystrad Antarron are known in some detail. They are recorded in a contemporary Welsh chronicle, The Brut y Tywsogyon (Chronicle of Princes) written at the monastery of Llandabarn Fawr, about a mile from the battlefield, in what is now Aberystwyth. Although there are some problems with the account, it is largely straightforward.
After their attack on Ystrad Peithyll, Gruffydd’s forces crossed the Rheidol and encamped at Glasgrug. They were confident, but hungry and ill-disciplined. Foragers were sent out and, in the course of their foraging, stole cattle from the Llandabarn Fawr herd, earning censure from the chronicler. The following morning, Gruffydd’s army broke camp in some disorder and, without waiting to be properly marshalled, straggled off down the Rheidol valley towards Ystrad Antarron. Crossing the saddle of land separating the Rheidol from the Ystwyth, they marched into Ystrad Antarron from the north-east. They then halted, apparently considering how to tackle the castle. Razo the Steward had not been idle in the face of the Welsh threat. The night before the attack, he had gone to ask for reinforcements from his lord. Gilbert de Clare, who was in residence at Ystrad Menrig castle. Gilbert committed his forces to Razo, an act which suggests he had confidence in his steward’s military ability. Razo returned by night with his reinforcements and they were safely to Ystrad Antarron by daybreak, unseen by the Welsh.
Throughout the day the Welsh sat in the valley opposite the castle. They made no attempt to cross the river by the bridge, which was at this time unguarded, probably fearing being caught by a downhill charge by the Norman knights. This state of affairs continued until mid-afternoon, when Razo decided to take the initiative. Whether he had always intended to fight in the open or whether he was forced to through fear of a night attack (a favourite Welsh tactic) we don’t know. With what the Welsh chronicler thought was typical Norman guile, Razo planned to draw the Welsh across the river. Sending his archers down to the bridge, he deployed the rest of his force behind the ridge to the south of the castle, out of sight of the enemy.
When the Norman archers arrived at the bridge, they began immediately to shoot into the Welsh ranks. This quickly had the required effect, for a group of Gruffydd’s men, whether under orders or by their own initiative, rushed forward to engage the archers. The chronicler makes it clear that the Welsh attacked the archers, rather than returned their fire, suggesting that these Welsh were, in the main, spearmen. A fierce struggle now developed on the bridge. This had not been going on long when a knight appeared and made a single-handed charge into the Welsh on the bridge. His horse fell, breaking its neck, and the knight was thrown into the midst of his enemies. The Welsh attempted to spear him, but he was too well protected by his armour and one of the archers was able to drag him to safety.
This curious incident is described in detail by the chronicler, but who the knight was or why he made this heroic gesture, we are not told. Perhaps it was simply an act of vainglorious heroism but in the tight of what happened immediately after, it seems more likely that he was a messenger or officer sent by Razo to recall the archers. For, says the chronicler, “When he got up he fled. And when his comrades saw him flee, they too fled.” This was only part of the cunning plan that Razo had devised. After provoking the Welsh into action, the archers were to flee, drawing their opponents across the river in pursuit where they could be caught by the Norman main body charging down the hill. The Welsh fell for the plan hook, line and sinker. The men who had been engaged at the bridge rushed in pursuit of the archers who were running away up the hill, presumably not toward the castle, but round the south end of the ridge. The Welsh pursued obligingly across the hill “almost to the counterscarp” according to the chronicler. The reason, of course, why they did not reach the counterscarp was that the Norman main body now topped the ridge and charged down upon them. They could offer little resistance. The Welsh main body, seeing the fate of their comrades, decided that discretion was the better part of valour and fled. The majority of Welshmen caught on the wrong side of the Yswyth were slaughtered and the Normans turned their attention to the rest of Gruffydd‘s rapidly disintegrating army. The revolt was at an end.
The battle of Ystrad Antarron marked the end of Gruffydd ap Rhys’ revolt. It was not, however, the end of his career. Evading capture, he disappeared for a few years, perhaps once more to Ireland. By 1123 he was back in Wales. Having made his peace with Henry I, he settled in Cantref Mawr. There he remained, except for a brief period of exile in 1127, until 1135. In that year Henry I died, plunging England into the succession crisis which was to become known as The Anarchy.
In 1136, a major revolt broke out in Wales. Gruffydd and his family seized their opportunity. Gruffydd moved to Gwynedd to join his brothers-in-law Owain and Cadwallader, leaving his wife, Gwenllian, to command his forces in Cantref Mawr. These she led in an unsuccessful attack on Kidwelly, dying in a battle which became known as Maes Gwenllian. Gruffydd and his brothers-in-law meanwhile invaded Ceredigion, destroying several castles including Ystrad Antarron. Marching south, they defeated the Normans in a major battle at Crug Mawr, near Cardigan, on the 10th October 1136. Gruffydd had at last triumphed, though the fruits of his success were to be enjoyed by others, for within a year he was dead, probably by natural causes.
Tactical Insights and Wargaming
Few battles and skirmishes of the Anglo-Norman period are described in sufficient detail to understand the tactics employed. The account of the battle of Ystrad Antarron is therefore a valuable addition to the better known actions described by Sir Charles Oman and John Beeler. In particular, it reflects well on the level of tactical ability of an ordinary Norman commander. Razo had planned his tactics well in advance. He achieved surprise by keeping his true numbers secret, reinforcing the garrison at night and then concentrating the majority of his force on the reverse slope of a hill. Using a small force as bait, he drew an elusive enemy into a trap which gave them no chance to escape. Though the use of concealed troops and the feigned flight were not new tactics (cf Tinchebrai 1106, Hastings 1066), their use here is a far cry from the headlong charge usually associated with Norman knights.
Wargaming the battle is best done using skirmish rules. In fact, the great discrepancies in the forces and the relative discipline and effectiveness of the Normans suggest that the use of modified colonial rules may be appropriate. A large variety of Norman figures suitable for the period are available from various manufacturers. The Welsh are a little more difficult. Apart from a variety of archers, the only appropriate Welsh figures in 25mm are made by Corvus Miniatures. Corvus produce a spearman, a javelinman and two cavalrymen. This lack of early Welsh figures is particularly disappointing in view of their important role in English armies of the 12th and 13th centuries. So, if there are any figure manufacturers out there, a few more Welsh figures (especially command figures) would be much appreciated.
A Few Notes on Names
I have, throughout this article, tried to use Welsh spellings of personal names. This is largely for aesthetic reasons, the names having a certain splendour which is destroyed by Anglicization. I have not been as consistent with place names, having chosen the modern spelling for better known places. I am afraid, not being Welsh, I can offer no accurate advice on pronunciation, but I would offer the following guidelines for names.
Gruffydd = Griffith
Owain = Owen
Rhys = Rees
Tewdwr = Tudor
There are also a few words used so frequently as to merit translation.
aber = mouth of a river
ap = son of
ystrad = vale
Thomas Jones (tr): Brut Y Tywsogyon (Red Book of Hengest Version), 1955.
John E Lloyd: The Story of Ceredigion (400-1277), 1937.
John Beeler: Warfare in Feudal Europe (800-1200), 1971.
Wendy Davis: Wales in the Early Middle Ages, 1982.
Lewis Thorpe (tr): Gerald of Wales: the Journey Through Wales; the Description of Wales, 1978.