Known as the “female Braveheart” and the “Welsh Maid Marion”, Gwenllian ferch Gryffydd is a certifiable bad ass. She was born on Ynys Mon, the youngest child of Gruffudd ap Cynan, King of Gwynedd, and his wife Angharad. Gwenllian grew into a strikingly beautiful young woman, and was also very intelligent and highly educated. The eleventh century was a turbulent time. Conflict between the Welsh princes spilled over into the Welsh Marches, or border lands between Wales and England. Also, there were incursions from the newly crowned Norman kings of England. When Gwenllian was 16, a delegation of princes from the south came to parley with her father. The beautiful princess caught the eye of all the princes, but only one caught her eye, Gruffydd ap Rhys, Prince of Deheubarth. One thing led to another, and the strong willed princess eloped with the man of her choice. Gwenllian then joined her new husband at his family seat of Dinefwr in Deheubarth. Over the course of their marriage, they had eight children.
Deheubarth was in the south and was struggling against incursions from England and one of the most contested kingdoms. Being trained in the arts of war, Gwenllian led men with her husband in the field even while pregnant or taking care of their small children. Gwenllian and Gruffydd attacked Norman, English and Flemish settlements in Deheubarth in a guerilla style campaign and took both goods and money. These were redistributed to their own Welsh followers, giving them a Robin Hood and Maid Marion reputation. In fact, there are theories that Gwenllian was the inspiration for Maid Marion as well as Guinevere in the Arthurian legend and Eówyn in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The scholar Dr Andrew Breeze has also argued that Gwenllian was the author of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, upon which the Arthurian legends draw inspiration from.
The political situation in England was deteriorating after Henry I died in 1135, and a full scale war broke out between his daughter Matilda and her cousin Stephen of Blois over the throne. The Welsh princes took the opportunity to evict the Norman invaders from their kingdom and regain territory lost to the Marcher Lords. The Great Revolt began in 1137 as Hywel ap Maredudd, Lord of Brycheiniog (Brecknockshire) marched to Gower and defeated the Norman and English settlers at the Battle of Llwchwr. The defeated settlers lead by Maurice of London retreated back to Kidwelly Castle, then owned by Bishop Roger of Salisbury.
Gruffydd hastened North to enlist Gwenllian’s father in the rebellion in hopes they could rid Wales of the Normans forever. While he was gone, the smarting Maurice decided to lead his remaining forces south to attack Deheubarth. Gwenllian mustered an army for her country’s defense and rode out bravely, but she was outnumbered. She tried to arrange one of the guerilla style raids she and her husband were known for, but was betrayed by one of her countrymen. Gruffudd ap Llewellyn ratted out Gwenllian to the Normans and lead a surprise attack against her. Her forces were caught between the traitor’s army on one side and the Norman army on the other. She watched in helpless horror as her eldest son, Maelgwn, was cut down trying to defend his mother.
Gwenllian was captured and as both nobility and a woman, she should have been treated well by her captors. However, Maurice was not one for the laws of chivalry. She was brought before him with her hands tied behind her back, but the proud princess was not about to bow her head before the Norman scum. Maurice wanted quick revenge on Gruffydd and Gwenllian so he ordered her execution. Woman were normally burned at the stake, but since she fought bravely Maurice allowed Gwenllian to be beheaded. What a guy. She was pushed face first onto a log and her head lopped off while her grieving son Morgan watched being restrained. They raised it overhead and pronounced her a traitor. It is not known whether Morgan, Maelgwn and Gwenllian were buried together, but the Welsh dead were thrown into a mass grave. The battlefield was named Maes Gwenllian, or the field of Gwenllian, and it is said a spring welled up on the spot she was beheaded. The Normans had no time for such nonsense and probably thought that was that. They did not know the spark they had put to the tender.
News of Gwenllian’s death ran through Wales like wildfire. Iowerth ab Owain led the welsh of Gwent in a patriotic revolt and ambushed and slew Richard Fitz Gilbert de Clare, the Norman lord who controlled Ceredigion. Gwenllian’s brother’s rose up and took three cities in Ceredigion. Her husband and father joined forces and began a fresh offensive against the Normans. Both died in 1137, and it is said Gruffydd died of a broken heart. How could he get over the loss of such a woman?
They say the headless ghost of Gwenllian haunts the town of Kidwelly and the battlefield searching for her infant son, Lord Rhys, whom she was parted from too soon. That or her head, which was displayed on a pike on the old castle walls. The son her ghost is said to be searching for, Rhys, became an influential prince of Deheubarth. He captured Kidwelly Castle and held it for many years against the Normans. For generations after her death, the rallying cry for Welsmen going into battle was Ddail Achos Gwenllian! or Revenge for Gwenllian. I think she would have liked that.
Sources available on request