October 1055 saw Earl Ralph’s magnificent defeat by the allied forces of Alfgar of Mercia and Gruffudd, self-proclaimed King of Cymru (Wales). The Battle took place 2 miles out of Hereford and during the aftermath of the English’ defeat, Hereford was razed to the ground. Ralph, otherwise known as Ralph de Mantes, and after this unmitigated disaster, Ralph the Timid, was Edward the Confessor’s nephew by his sister Goda. He may have fancied himself as the king’s heir, seeing as in 1055, the king and queen had failed to produce one and there were none likely to appear on the horizon, soon. Gruffudd had been causing trouble along the Welsh border for decades and was to provide Ralph with an opportunity to show what he was made of, so, having been granted the Earldom of Herefordshire, he set up a Norman-style defence along the marcher lands. This involved motte and bailey wooden castles, palisaded around a tower on a mound within a courtyard.
Having fought his way to supremacy in the north of Wales, Gruffudd ap Llywellyn decided to consolidate his power by embarking on a mission to exterminate his opponents in the south of Wales. This came at a very good time for the Mercian lord, for having been outlawed for unknown treason(1), Alfgar was in need of a powerful ally that would aid him in his restoration to power in England. And Gruffudd, having found the south of his kingdom the hardest battle to win, was obviously happy to have an ally against his arch enemy, Gruffudd ap Rhydderch of Deheubarth.
Ralph may have upset Alfgar in some way, perhaps had something to do with his exile (though I might add that this is just conjecture). Or it may have been that Ralph just happened to be in the place Alfgar wanted to use as a springboard back into England. Whatever the case, Ralph’s Norman-style English cavalry forces were destroyed, with Ralph earning the insulting nomenclature of ‘Timid’ for running away with his Norman retainers and leaving his men to be slaughtered.
The ensuing result was that Harold Godwinson was to lead the negotiations with Bishop Ealdred, conceding the diocese of Archenfield, Ergyng in Welsh, to Gruffudd. Alfgar was permitted to return from exile, picking up his former earldom of East Anglia and all that he had owned before, which seems very lenient to me, but Harold Godwinson always was very keen to quell problems with diplomacy, rather than to give battle. He was not too young to know the perils of a divided kingdom and was born not long after the troubled years of Æthelred the Unready, and would know that a divided kingdom is a vacuum for invaders.
Earl Ralph must have been taken ill or so disturbed by his embarrassing defeat, that he does not seem to have shown much of himself for the next two years, and although he seems to have kept the title of earl, the responsibility fell naturally to Harold Godwinson.
So, with all the other responsibilities that he must have had, Harold needed to appoint a strong man to protect and oversee this important town. Also, Hereford was an ecclesiastic see, and so who better than his doughty mass priest, Leofgar, who had once been a warrior before taking up the cloth, for the position of Bishop of Hereford. Part of the treaty that had been made in Billingsley after the Battle of Hereford, was that the diocese must relinquish control of Archenfield to the bishopric of Glamorgan (2). Harold wanted a man who was strong, as well as pious, who was able to look after the new church’s interests, reminding the Welsh that they had burned the old one down and that they needed to pay recompense for the deaths of the canons who had tried to defend the church during the attack. Purely conjecture on my part, but perhaps they were supposed to have help rebuild it and return all the treasures they had stolen from it, and Leofgar, enraged that nothing had been forthcoming, decided to take on the Welsh individually, without consulting his masters.
Leofgar was in his position as bishop for 3 months before he decided to ride out with an army from the town, and attack Gruffudd in a place called Glasbyrig. It is not known what prompted this impulsive act, but as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle suggests, he swapped his chrism and cross for his sword and spear not long after his conscecration and was killed by Gruffudd’s army along with all the priests he had taken and Ælfnoth, the shire-reeve as well as many other good men. No doubt, among the ‘many good men’ would have been survivors of the terrible battle the year before, eager for revenge. But it came to nought, for Gruffudd was victorious and Leofgar and his men were slaughtered.
Glasbury-on-Wye, where the battle is said to have taken place, lies between Brecon and Hereford, on a bend in the river of Wye. Behind it, stood the majestic back drop of the mountain range known as the y Mynyddoedd Duon, or the Black Mountains in English, and the Brecon Beacons. Considering that Gruffudd had only just come to power in the South of Wales after his defeat of that other King Gruffudd in Deheubarth, it might have been pertinent to him to have kept a presence there, to consolidate his hold and ensure that the terms of the treaty with the English were kept to.
The fact that Leofgar’s defeat was so decisive shows the Welsh king’s power in establishing a disciplined army that could easily travel by land or river and disappear in to the mountains quickly if needed. The local Herefordshire levies were certainly no challenge to them as their defeat shows.
This was a turning point in the Welsh king’s reign, for the peace deal included lands beyond the river Dee that had been long disputed over, and Edward acknowledging Gruffudd as ‘King of the Britons’, albeit a subregulus or an under-king. That a nation significantly larger in size as England was to Wales, should be so pressured into ceding a considerable amount of land to the Welsh shows the power Gruffudd possessed in resisting English rule. Despite his reduction in status to the English king, he was never compelled to attend the English court at any time.
As a consequence of Leofgar’s actions, England had conceded ‘all the lands beyond the river called Dee’ except for a narrow strip along the estuary to the Welsh to add to their gains of 1055 in the Ergyng. According to Davies, these were lands that had been in English control since the days of Offa. There is a story as told by Walter Map, but cannot be verified historically, that the two kings, Edward and Gruffudd had a stand off on opposite sides of the banks of the Severn, one on the Welsh side and one in Gloucestershire. Gruffudd had agreed to bend the knee to Edward, who was his overlord in name only, but had refused to cross the river to meet with Edward, and Edward was refusing to cross to meet with Gruffudd. After all, why should he? It was preposterous that he, Edward, whose lineage went back to the days of Cerdic who conquered England from Gruffudd’s ancestors, the Britons, should have to play the subservient to that Welsh upstart who thought himself as entitled a king as he. With each king protesting that their lineage was better than the other, arguments for whom should cross first went back and forth for much of a day until eventually, Edward conceded and allowed himself to be politely rowed across the river where Gruffudd is said to have avowed himself on bended knee to recognise Edward as his overlord. In some ways, there was an aggreable outcome for both not to lose all of their integrity; Edward received Gruffudd on bended knee, however Edward was the one who had to cross. Whether this is how it happened is not confirmed by any contemporary source, but makes for a good story.
Gruffudd may not have bent his knee completely; like one who makes an oath with fingers crossed, he may have kept at least one of his knees slightly off the ground, because it would not be long before he was back at it again, causing trouble and getting mixed up with that rebellious English Lord, Alfgar once more.
1 Most likely the cause was that he had upset the king and his courtiers for not being elected to the Earldom of Northumberland, which was given to Tostig Godwinson.
2 Davies, in his his book, Gruffudd ap Llewllyn, The Last King of Wales, suggests that the evidence for this is in the Book of Llandaff, which points to the Bishop of Glamorgan having been concecrated in 1056 by Archbishop Cynesige in the presence of King Edward. The document also attests to Bishop Herewald’s activities in the area which indicates that the English had ceded the diocese at the time of the peace treaty.
Davies S & Davies W (2012) The Last King of Wales: Gruffudd ap Llywelyn c. 1013-1063 The History Press
Petts, D. The Early Medieval Church in Wales (Stroud 2009) p.170