ix. Conclusions

IN THE PRECEDING PAGES we have often used the term, "the Welsh frontier." In many respects, this is a misnomer; South Wales represented not one, but many frontiers; and in each of its aspects it profoundly affected the attitudes and activities of those who came in contact with it.

For the central administration of England, the Welsh frontier revolved about the pressing, but apparently insoluble, problem of border defense. From time immemorial, marchers have been both necessary and dangerous to the development of centralized states. In the third century after Christ, generals in Pannonia made an emperor of Rome; in the twentieth century, generals in Algeria made a president of France. The situation was not much different in twelfth-century Britain. The rich heartland of England required security from Welsh attacks, and the central administration of England was unable to provide this except by the creation of a marcher class, a permanent, resident, and relatively independent border guard. The kings of England were aware of the dangers which this expedient created-if their central administration could not directly control the Welsh border, neither could it directly control the powerful noble who had been established in the area. The crown's only recourse was to attempt to develop devices for maintaining an indirect control.

The Norman kings of England succeeded in developing only two such devices. The first method was to establish personal bonds of loyalty and solidarity of interest between the marcher lords and the crown The second method was the establishment and maintenance

Conclusions 177

of a balance of power between the marchers and the native Welsh. Both were attempts to avoid and defer, rather than to solve, the problem, and both were failures. The former method failed because it was based upon personal relationships which were disrupted with every change of personnel either at court or on the marches: hence the marcher revolts in 1075, 1088, 1100, and other years. The native Welsh played upon this Norman weakness, rising in rebellion at the death of every monarch and finding their opponents momentarily paralyzed by the mutual distrust of the new king and the old frontier nobility. The latter method failed because maintenance of a balance of power depended upon the action of a strong central authority. Under a weak or preoccupied king the delicate balance always broke down. Under William Rufus, the balance was upset in favor of the Normans; under Stephen, in favor of the Welsh. In both cases, however, the marchers gained power and influence in England itself. Each crisis that passed found the independence of the marcher lords increased, and the power of the crown in the marcher lordships correspondingly diminished. Royal frontier policy based on these two methods of indirect control proved to be incapable of controlling either the Welsh or the marchers, and yet the twelfth-century kings of England could apparently devise no better one. Royal policy regarding the Welsh frontier during this period was nothing more than a series of variations wrung from these two essential themes.

For the native Welsh, both chieftains and free tribesman, the frontier represented the ultimate challenge; one in which the very bases of the traditional Welsh way of life were threatened with extinction. The Norman frontier in Wales was a gateway through which new influences were belligerently forcing their way.

The political aspects of this intrusion are the more readily seen. Entering into Wales, the Norman marcher lords moved with a vengeance into the traditional Welsh political system of internecine strife and dynastic struggles. The tywysogion were now confronted with opponents of such efficiency and organization as to make resistance almost hopeless. Welsh political organization came very close to complete collapse under the first shock of this attack. The tactical inability of the Normans to meet the Welsh in mountain warfare, however, coupled with ineffectual Norman frontier policies, gained the natives a brief respite. During this period, the Welsh absorbed enough elements of Norman organization to allow then to establish

178 The Normans in South Wales

some relatively large and stable political units, notable among them being the kingdoms of Gwynedd and Deheubarth. These were to form effective bases for resisting further Norman advances into Wales until the close of the thirteenth century.

A more silent battle was fought at the same time between the cultures of the Anglo-Normans and the Welsh. The invaders brought with them new patterns of speech, dress, agriculture, architecture, worship, and all of the other things that go to make up a way of life. These new standards competed with Welsh traditions for supremacy. Many, such as the lords of Avon, chose the ways of the invaders and were, in time, absorbed into Anglo-Norman society. For the great majority of the Welsh, however, the competition simply provided a stimulus to expand, develop, and refine their native institutions. During this period, Welsh culture was solidified into a way of life which has maintained its essential integrity down to the present day.

It can be clearly seen that the frontier experience of the Welsh provided them with a powerful stimulus to political and cultural unity. Norman pressure led the Welsh to emphasize those common elements which distinguished them from their enemies. The greater the Norman political and cultural pressure, the greater was the impetus to Welsh unity. We have seen the disorganized and fratricidal character of Welsh society before the advent of the Normans. After a century of frontier experience, however, a Welshman was able to tell Henry II,

This nation, O king, may now, as in former times, be harassed, and in a great measure weakened and destroyed by your and other powers, and it will often prevail by its laudable exertions; but it can never be totally subdued through the wrath of man, unless the wrath of God shall concur. Nor do I think, that any other nation than this of Wales, or any other language, whatever may hereafter come to pass, shall, in the day of severe examination before the Supreme Judge, answer for this corner of the earth.1

There is a spirit of nationalism in these words which was new in Welsh history. It is a spirit which was born on the frontier.

Our primary concern, however, has been with neither the Welsh nor the crown, but with those people who settled the frontier and eventually formed the bases for the development of Cambro-Norman

1Giraldus Cambrensis, Opera, eds. J. S. Brewer et al., Part VI (Itinerarium Kambriae), p. 227.

Conclusions 179

society. What aspect did the frontier present to them? This is not an easy question to answer; as we have often emphasized, the frontier was not a location, but a process, and the character of this process changed with the passage of time.

The Welsh frontier of the year 1070 lay along Offa's Dyke, the traditional western limit of Anglo-Saxon settlement. By this year, however, it was a political concept rather than an actuality, for the lands lying immediately behind the frontier lay ravaged and depopulated. Fifteen years of Welsh incursions coupled with the disorders attending the Norman Conquest of England, had succeeded in driving the limits of English settlement and effective political control a good distance eastward. Villages lay everywhere deserted, and oaks were springing up in what were once well-tilled fields. There lay no barrier between the unpacified Welsh chieftains and the rich heartland of England.

William the Conqueror determined that the security of England required a strong western border defense and the re-establishment of the traditional western political frontier. For such a policy to be effective, it was necessary that the English lands lying immediately along the frontier be repopulated and redeveloped, and so settlers were imported. These immigrants were not moving into a new land to seek a new way of life, but rather were being imported into an old land to perform the specific function of border guard.

Despite this fact, the Welsh frontier offered its settlers great opportunities. In order to counterbalance the insecurity and the onerous duties attending such frontier life, the crown and other developers of the region found it necessary to offer extensive grants of liberty to immigrants. By 1081, William I had succeeded in establishing a rapport with the Welsh chieftains, and the period of extreme insecurity along the Welsh border came to an end. By the time of Domesday redevelopment was progressing rapidly, and the region gave every sign of increasing prosperity. Admittedly, the Welsh frontier of the reign of William the Conqueror was an artificially induced process this did not affect the result. The hallmark of the Welsh frontier of Domesday lay in the relative freedom of its inhabitants and the potential riches it offered settlers.

The nature of the frontier process was drastically altered in the closing decade of the eleventh century, when, under William Rufus the royal policy of maintaining a balance of power to insure peace

180 The Normans in South Wales

along the border was allowed to collapse. The frontiers of Norman political control and of Norman settlement now moved into regions formerly occupied by the independent Welsh buffer states. The frontier of political control moved far more rapidly than the line of actual Norman settlement, but the events of the Welsh rebellion showed clearly enough that this was a dangerous policy. Under the pressure of violent Welsh resistance, the limit of Norman political power was made to coincide more closely with the frontier of actual settlement. Under Henry I, the frontier was again stabilized, and a measure of peace brought to those areas now occupied by the Normans.

The frontier now lay in what was essentially a new land, beyond the traditional limits of English society. No longer were the settlers attempting to reinforce the traditional claims of the English kings, or guaranteeing the heartland of England some degree of security from Welsh attack. The settlers were moving out on their own, creating new social units-manors, lordships, abbeys, bourgs-where none had existed before, and they were creating them in a region which lay beyond the power of the traditional institutions of social control. The settlers of the Welsh frontier of the early twelfth century were uniquely free to work out their own way of life, and to determine their own destinies.

The results of this short period of freedom of action are disappointing; the general effect was not progressive, but highly reactionary. The social order generated by the Welsh frontier represented a reversion to a pure and archaic feudal prototype. Perhaps nowhere in Europe could a more classic example of feudalism be found than in the marcher lordships of Brecknock and Glamorgan established during this period. We see no growth of a yeoman farmer class; the settlers instead imported manorialism in its purest form. The bourgs which were established simply followed the model of Breteuil, a prototype already a half-century old. A more perfect example of social and cultural continuity could scarcely be found; the most highly Normanized society to be found anywhere, including Normandy, was on the marches of Wales.

Perhaps the influence of the frontier would in time have produced a more egalitarian way of life. The settlers were not allowed this time. With the anarchy of Stephen, the balance of power was once more upset, and this time in favor of the resurgent and dynamic Welsh. The Welsh frontier once more assumed the character of a garrison society and became a beleaguered and insecure outpost.

Conclusions 181

Social experimentation and individual freedom were luxuries which these people could not afford. Their feudalized way of life offered them a responsive and effective organization with which to meet the daily threat of Welsh attack and was thus retained.

Under Henry II, peace was once again restored to the border, although it was more or less upon Welsh terms. The possibility of marcher political expansion had come to an end, but so too had the ever-present Welsh menace. As the arable lowland zone of Wales was slowly filled up and brought under cultivation, the Welsh frontier presented yet another aspect to settlers. It now lay somewhere around the 600-foot contour line, at the hither edge of the Welsh uplands. These areas now challenged the settlers to cross the line and take up the task of developing untilled moors and slopes. Crossing of this frontier demanded the development of new social techniques. The earlier Welsh frontiers had been conquered by the traditional feudal-manorial social organization but this was no longer sufficient for the Welsh uplands could support neither manor nor mounted knight. It could, on the other hand, have supported a substantial population of Cambro-Norman yeoman farmers and pastoralists, organized in a frontier militia.

The Welsh frontier of the mid-twelfth century challenged the settlers to abandon their traditional corporate institutions, and to develop a system based upon the individualism which might allow them to cross the frontier and begin the exploitation of the uplands. They failed to respond to this challenge, instead they clung to an institutionalized way of life which effectively restricted them to those lowland areas of Wales which could support such an organization. With their failure, the Welsh frontier drew to an end.

In view of its complexity, it is difficult to define the frontier process in South Wales in terms of any single characteristic. It is, on the other hand, possible to discern the operation of certain basic forces which helped to determine the course which this process would take. The forces derived from the very nature of the land where the process took place and from the basic tools with which the settlers dealt with their environment. This entire account of the Norman frontier in South Wales has been more or less simply a study in human ecology, but such a study is of some value in testing some traditional concepts regarding the nature of the frontier process

182 The Normans in South Wales

at the "hither edge of free land."2 The Welsh frontier illustrated the inadequacy of this simple definition when the limits of Cambro-Norman society came to a rest firmly and finally at the 600-foot contour line. The world did not end at this line; a few feet further up the slope lay great tracts of free land, waiting for the cultivation of clover, barley, alfalfa, oats, broccoli, beets, and a host of other crops. Land sufficient for a thousand farms and a hundred ranches lay within easy reach of the Cambro-Normans, and yet the Welsh frontier came to a halt and to an end at this "hither edge of free land." The question is, why?

The answer is simple. Although the Welsh slopes and uplands were suitable for the cultivation of a number of crops, they were not suitable for the cultivation of wheat, and wheat was the basis of Anglo-Norman society. The Anglo-Norman manor could not sustain itself without a yearly crop of wheat, and hence the Cambro-Norman manors of South Wales were restricted to those limited areas which could support the growth of wheat.3 This was an important factor, because Anglo- or Cambro-Norman society was simply a complex superstructure reared upon the basis of manorial agriculture. Only in very special circumstances could either castle or bourg flourish in the absence of nearby manors to sustain them. At the same time, Cambro-Norman agronomy was not such as to allow them to improve the capacity of the land to any great extent. Fertilization and crop rotation were quite rudimentary, while drainage and deep-ploughing were virtually unknown. Land which could not support both extensive and intensive wheat cultivation, and do so without artificial improvement, was not, in terms of twelfth-century English society, "free land." It was, as Giraldus Cambrensis suggested, "a desert," and unsuited for human habitation.

But what of the effects of the frontier? Turner's answer was that "the most important effect of the frontier has been in the promotion of democracy . . . the frontier is productive of individualism. Complex society is precipitated by the wilderness into a kind of primitive organization based on the family."4 This was certainly not true of the Welsh frontier. The early settlers were lured to the border by the promise of liberty, but it is important to note that the forms this

2F. J. Turner, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," The Turner Thesis, ed. G. R. Taylor, p. 14.

3W. Rees, An Historical Atlas of Wales from Early to Modern Times, plate 47.

4Turner, "The Significance of the Frontier," p. 14.

Conclusions 183

liberty took were dictated by the peculiar characteristics of the "complex society" of medieval England. Unattached men-at-arms were guaranteed a limitation of fines, burghers were given the liberal laws of Breteuil, hospites were allowed assarts, bovarii were granted the legal forms of freedom, and, finally, the lords themselves obtained extensive immunities. The liberty of the Welsh frontier was not a freedom from social control, but freedom Within an accepted social framework. Society did not break down in the wilderness of the Welsh frontier, although it did undergo certain modifications.

Nowhere, however, do we see the development of "a kind of primitive organization based on the family." On the contrary, the palmiest days of the conquest of South Wales instead saw the accelerated growth of the manor, feudal lordship, bourg, and priory as the primary social institutions of the frontier. Except for the accidental resemblance between feudalism and local sovereignty, the Welsh frontier nowhere exhibited the slightest tendency to promote individualism or to develop a social structure based upon the family unit. In this aspect, the Welsh frontier was quite unlike the American.

The reasons behind this divergence are not difficult to discover. Turner erred when he characterized the frontier emphasis upon the family unit simply as a reversion to a primitive social and economic organization. The basic institution of twelfth-century England had been the cooperative village manor. Even as early as the thirteenth century, however, this agrarian organization had begun to break down in a process which was accelerated by the Black Death of the fourteenth century and the emergence of capitalistic agriculture beginning in the fifteenth century. By the seventeenth century, the manor had been replaced by the family as the basic unit of agricultural exploitation in England. The other, corporate, institutions which characterized English society of this period were of a secondary nature, and were ultimately based upon the activities of the yeoman and tenant farmers. Thus the emphasis upon the family unit along the American frontier represented no reversion, but precisely the sort of agrarian structure we should expect to see seventeenth-century Englishmen establish on virgin ground.

The social organization of a people is one of the most powerful tools with which they seek to control and exploit their environment, and there is a tendency for them to accentuate and emphasize the development of successful institutions. The basic unit for the exploitation of land among the English of the seventeenth century was the

184 The Normans in South Wales

family, and its success along the American frontier led to an accentuation of its importance, and an attending growth of individualism. The basic unit of the Anglo-Normans of the twelfth century, on the other hand, was the manor, and its success in South Wales led to the development of a heightened form of feudalism. Thus the difference between the two frontiers. The effect of the frontier changes was in neither case drastic, nor did it produce basic changes in the social order; it simply accentuated and emphasized tendencies which were already present. The new societies were but caricatures of the old.


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