Chop and Burn – How the Normans conquered Wales through deforestation

Caerphilly Castle

In 1066, (as every school kid in the UK used to know), William the Conqueror invaded the British Isles from Normandy and defeated the English King Harold at the Battle of Hastings.

William’s French knights, lords and barons moved swiftly through England claiming land and titles wherever they went. However, as anyone who has put themselves at the mercy of the M4 motorway or the Great Western Railway will attest, getting to Wales from England can prove a much tougher proposition. In 1081 a large Norman army invaded Wales but they didn’t much like what they found.

Today, I was walking through the hills and woods of South Glamorgan – from Bassaleg to Caerphilly – retracing what I thought might have been one of the routes chosen by the Norman lords as they marched on the Welsh kingdom of Morgannwyg & Glywysing.

My friend Jeff had tagged along for today’s walk which wandered through the woodlands around Draethen and Machen before climbing up onto the ridgeway that separates Cardiff from the historic castle town of Caerphilly (where I was born).

In the Welsh, the Normans encountered a populace who been used to living in the fluidity of constant domestic regime change, and who could even put up with the odd Anglo-Saxon incursion. The Normans, however, displayed a “gratuitous cruelty” (in the words of historian John Davies) that the Welsh refused to tolerate and so they started a 20 year campaign of woodland-based guerrilla warfare.

As the early Norman travel writer Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) recounted on a trip through Wales nearly a century later in 1188, the local people “neither inhabit towns, villages nor castles, but lead a solitary life in the woods on the borders of which they…content themselves with small huts made of the boughs of trees twisted together, constructed with little labour or expense, and sufficient to endure throughout the year.”

It was from these positions of strength and local knowledge that the Welsh launched a series of attacks and ambushes upon Norman armies in the decades following the first invasion – defeating a much stronger and better organised fighting force before melting back into the shelter of the forests.

These attacks cemented in the minds of the Normans the threat posed to their rule by Wales’ woodlands. Their attempts to fully pacific and control Wales took nearly 200 years to complete and for much of that time the Normans embraced a military strategy not seen in Wales since Roman times – they systematically felled forests to eliminate the threat of ambush.

In 1277, during one particularly brutal act, the Norman (and now English) King Edward I advanced into North Wales from his border stronghold of Chester with a dual army – one made up of soldiers and another of woodsmen (including sawyers, wood-cutters, carpenters and charcoal-burners) – who cut an invasion roadway some 250 yards wide, with another 200 foot of clearance on either side, through the dense forests for over 30 miles until they reached the town of Conwy. Another thrust of military deforestation took place not far from where we were walking now. In 1287, a force of woodmen 600 strong was employed to cut a path from Glamorgan to Brecknock via the Taff valley.

The threat posed by roads to the forests and the communities that depend on them continues to this day though today’s raiders are often economic not military. Huge areas of tropical rainforest in Africa, Asia and South America have been opened up to agribusiness and oil and mining companies through the construction of exploration roads. Once built, outsiders flood into the forest regions in search of land or work, clearing more of the forest and bringing with them diseases that local indigenous people can’t fight while transporting back to the cities new viruses like Covid 19.

Welsh resistance came to an end in 1283 when Edward defeated the Llewellyn the Last, King of Gwynedd. The Normans shored up their victory by building imposing, almost impenetrable castles to protect themselves from wave after wave of Welsh rebellions throughout the country – many feeding on the grievances of local people whose lands were being seized and woods chopped down. One of the biggest and most intimidating of all was Caerphilly Castle and that’s what we were looking down on now from the top of the ridgeway.