Meet Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd, the National Heroine of Wales
“Cymraes ydw i. I have no need for English fashions,” in one simple line from chapter two of “Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd, the Warrior Princess of Deheubarth” Princess Gwenllian summarizes her entire life and legacy, a legacy that has touched billions of lives.
But who was she and if she was really so influential, why have few people outside of Wales ever heard of her?
Born in 1097, Princess Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd was the daughter of King Gruffydd ap Cynan of the Welsh kingdom of Gwynedd. Gwynedd’s rugged mountains empowered its rulers to remain independent longer than any other Welsh kingdoms in the country. Today the county of Gwynedd remains one of the largest and includes Snowdonia National Park. But historically Gwynedd the kingdom was much larger than its modern namesake. In medieval times Gwynedd’s capital was Aberffraw Castle on the island of Ynys Môn (English: Anglesey). Readers of “Boudicca, Britain’s Queen of the Iceni” should recognize the name Ynys Môn because the island was the center of British druidry and therefore bore the brunt of Roman aggression towards Brythonic and ancient Celtic culture and religion. Ynys Môn has a long tradition of being a historical hot spot (and one worthy of your next visit to the United Kingdom).
So it should be no surprise that Ynys Môn would be home to Wales’ most pivotal leaders.
Turn of the 12th century Wales was turbulent. After his victory near Hastings in October 1066, William the Conqueror (now William I of England) set his sights on conquering the entire island of Britain. Many of the Scottish nobles were bribed into vassalage. But the north of England and the Welsh kingdoms were different. If William I and his new Angevin dynasty wanted to control these lands, he would have to take them by force!
William I began this task immediately. In 1067 construction began on the first Norman castle, Chepstow in modern day Monmouthshire in southeast Wales. Located approximately 32 miles north of Cardiff, Chepstow’s location in the kingdom of Gwent made it the perfect fortress for attacking the southern kingdoms of Gwent, Morgannwg, and Deheubarth which in Gwenllian’s time had expanded to include most of south central Wales, including the kingdom of Ceredigion.
Standing in the way of this Norman Conquest of Wales were King Gruffydd ap Cynan of Gwynedd and King Rhys ap Tewdwr of Deheubarth. Though often forced to retreat into exile in Ireland, both men blocked the outright and permanent conquest of their realms, passing on their fight to their sons and daughters.
It was in this environment that Princess Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd was born. Like her famous brothers, she was raised in a kingdom constantly under attack. Everyone — including the king’s daughter — needed to be battle ready or risk losing life and home to William Rufus’ and King Henry I’s notoriously brutal soldiers.
Gwenllian’s life changed forever in 1113 when King Rhys ap Tewdwr’s two surviving sons sought sanctuary at Aberffraw after recently escaping exile, torture, and imprisonment at Norman hands. For Prince Gruffydd ap Rhys and Princess Gwenllian it was true love almost from the beginning of his time there. In 1115 they married and Gwenllian moved to Gruffydd’s Dinefwr castle as its co-sovereign, beginning a twenty year war of resistance against the much stronger Normans thanks to their successful use of the Welsh longbow fired from the cover of forest, the same tactics used by the fictional Robin Hood and Maid Marion against similar Norman knights. Unlike Robin Hood and Marion, Gwenllian and Gruffydd’s stakes in these battles were far greater: if they failed, tens of thousands of Welsh would be enslaved by the Anglo-Normans. Their kingdom was at stake and it was their job to defend it — at any price.
Gwenllian paid that price in February 1136 when Maurice de Londres captured her following a desperate winter battle. Instead of ransoming her as the code of chilvary demanded, Maurice chopped off her head, making Gwenllian the first sovereign ever executed by the English. It was an atrocity that could no be ignored.
To this day “revenge for Gwenllian” remains a Welsh battle cry of outrage, an execution that remains well remembered. The Welsh have not forgotten Gwenllian and never will. To truly understand the history and culture of the British people it is vital that you discover her story as well.