Llysoedd and Maedrefi
Llanfechain: Llys Farm lies in the centre foreground with the single-ditched enclosure thought to be the court site in the centre and overlapping an earlier double-ditched enclosure. CPAT 84-c-0188
The archaeology of the early medieval (i.e. pre-Conquest) era in east Wales is dominated by the great linear earthworks and by church foundations, but a third set of elements also exists though it is much more rarely touched on, namely the princely courts (termed llysoedd, sing. llys) together with the bond settlements (maerdrefi, sing. maerdref) that served them. Offa’s and Wat’s Dykes fall outside the remit of the series of Scheduling Enhancement Projects (SEPs) and their smaller counterparts, the short dykes, were examined by CPAT between 2001 and 2005. Early medieval ecclesiastical sites were subject to SEP studies in 2001-4 and again in 2010. But the courts and their settlements have never been assessed in east Wales, and references to such sites tend to come in historical studies rather than archaeological ones. Furthermore they are the only elements of the pre-Conquest secular landscape that are likely to be recognisable. Where early medieval dwellings or occupation have been recognised – and this has occurred very rarely – it is pure happenstance.
The only part of Wales where there has been a significant regional study of the llysoedd and maerdrefi is Gwynedd (D. Longley undated (1991) internal report; D Longley in Landscape and Settlement in Medieval Wales (1997)). In other areas including the east of the country attention has tended to focus on individual sites, a point that emerges strongly in the early medieval research framework document of 2011.
Historians maintain that in those centuries when the prince did not have a fixed, permanent base, each commote would have had a llys and an associated maerdref. And during the early medieval period the llys in a commote might have been moved from one locale to another. In those areas where Anglo-Norman penetration occurred at an early date, the llys will have disappeared in or soon after the late 11th century, sometimes to be succeeded by an incoming lord’s castle, but the llys will have continued in use in those areas that remained under Welsh control as the Gwynedd work has clearly demonstrated.
Some of the region’s medieval towns and villages originated as a llys (e.g. Denbigh, Bronllys) or a maerdref (e.g. Chirk). Many others were just abandoned. The Historic Environment Record is not a reliable indicator of their existence: there are only two llysoedd recorded and no maerdrefi, though this is two more than the National Monument Record through Coflein has for the region. The most useful pointer to them may be a surviving place-name of which there are more than fifty in east and north-east Wales. In some instances such place-names occur in proximity to a known earthwork (e.g. Treflys near Llangammarch Wells) or cropmark site (e..g Llys, Llanfechain) to make an association plausible.