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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.

“Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd, the Warrior Princess of Deheubarth” is available in English, Welsh, German, and Spanish on Amazon, iBooks, and a retailer near you.

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History Profile: King William II (Rufus)

270px-William_II_of_EnglandDate of Birth: circa 1056

Place of Birth: Normandy

Date of death:  2 August 1100

Spouse: none

Issue: none

Successor:  Henry I

Openly homosexual and sceptical of the church in a time where questioning Church doctrine was almost unheard of, King William II was the favourite son of his father, William I (the Conqueror).  In 1087 William inherited the throne of England from his father; his elder brother Robert received Normandy while his younger brother Henry received money. A warrior like his father who stammered when he spoke, William worked to extend his father’s conquest of England into Wales and Scotland.  He forced King Malcolm Canmore of Scotland (of Shakespeare’s “MacBeth” fame for his death at MacBeth’s hands) to swear fealty to him and acknowledge him as overlord.  In Gwynedd Wales he retained King Harold Godwinson’s puppet King Bleddyn ap Cynfyn, using him to displace King Gruffydd ap Cynan and force him into exile in Ireland.  In 1093 in Deheubarth, William II’s knights killed King Rhys ap Tewdur at the Battle of Brycheiniog, forcing his four sons into exile, including Prince Gruffydd ap Rhys (the future husband to King Gruffydd ap Cynan’s daughter, Princess Gwenllian).

William Rufus ordered the construction of some of the most famous and infamous castles in all of Wales including Chepstow Castle (1087, the year of his coronation) in Carmarthanshire and Pembroke Castle (birth place to Prince Gruffydd ap Rhys and Princess Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd’s descendent, King Henry VII) in Pembrokeshire in 1093.

In England William Rufus was a passionate hunter who continued his father’s cruel Forest Laws (of Robin Hood fame) and extended them.  It was his love of hunting that opened the door for his younger brother Henry.  On 2 August 1100 under mysterious circumstances King William was struck in the lung by an arrow.  Walter Tirel is given the blame for firing the deadly arrow; many believe it was done on Prince Henry’s orders as a way of getting rid of a violent, impious, and almost universally hated king.

 

Though most people consider Henry I’s descendent King John the most hated king in medieval history, the prize rightfully belongs to King William Rufus whose wars and violent nature not only made him the bane of most English women and men but set the stage for the challenges still experienced forging a united kingdom out of England, Scotland, Wales, and northern Ireland.

History Profile: King Henry V of England

330px-King_Henry_V_from_NPGDate of Birth: 16 September 1386 at Monmouth Castle, Monmouthshire, Wales.

Date of Death: 31 August 1422 — dysentery contracted while on campaign near Paris, France.

Spouse:  Queen Catherine de Valois (married 6 June 1420)

Issue: King Henry VI of England — House Lancaster

King Henry V of England is one of the most celebrated of English monarchs.  Immortalized by Shakespeare in “Henry V,” the myth created by the play conceals the real person whose short life was characterized by bloody warfare, a ferocious temper, and vindictive violence.

King Henry was thirteen years old when his father, Henry Bolingbroke successfully wrestled the throne of England away from his cousin King Richard II to become King Henry IV.  Very soon after his father’s coronation, Owain Glyndŵr declared himself Prince of Wales and commenced one of the most successful wars of independence against English colonization in Welsh history.

Schlacht_von_Azincourt

The Battle of Agincourt. 26 October 1415.

Not surprisingly, King Henry IV sent Prince Henry to Wales to crush the Glyndŵr revolt, suffering personal injury when a Welsh arrow struck him in the face.  Prince Henry responded with brutal vengeance in a pattern seen throughout his life, especially in his campaigns in France while king.  King Henry V did not believe taking prisoners of war; those who surrendered after a defeat could expect to be executed. Henry believed that any person who challenged his authority, even when forced into military service against him, was a threat to his life and his crown. This included the women and children living in the towns and cities Henry laid siege to.  It was a bloody reign.

Learn more about King Henry V through the eyes of his relationship with his queen consort in “Catherine de Valois.”  Available in digital, paperback, and audio editions.

History Profile: Queen Boudicca

Date of Birth:  circa 30 CE

Place of Birth:  unknown — likely Gaul

Date of death: 60 or 61 CE — suicide

Spouse: King Prasutagus of the Iceni

Issue: none surviving

Queen Boudicca is the national heroine of England for a reason:  she united rival British tribes and won several military victories against the Romans in a time when that was deemed impossible.

Often depicted as a vengeful warrior out for blood on a personal vendetta, the real Queen Boudicca ruled as her husband’s co-sovereign over the small but technologically advanced and religiously devout Iceni nation.  In 60 or 61 CE King Prasutagus died mysteriously.

Though often assumed to be old age by many, the timing of his death relative to the Roman military campaigns on the Welsh island of Ynys Môn coupled with the terms in Prasutagus’ last will and testament suggest otherwise.  Prasutagus was worth more dead than alive to the Romans, especially as the Romans did not recognize Celtic laws and customs which granted women near complete equality to men.  With his family members all female, the Romans were eager to remove Prasutagus and fully conquer the Iceni.  This suggests to me his death was violent and at Roman hands.

When the Romans invaded her lands, Boudicca did what any sovereign or co-sovereign would do:  she mounted a defence.  After losing the first battle with the Romans in her own community at which she and her daughters suffered outrageous torture and injury, Boudicca struck back, determined to prevent the Romans from harming her people again.

It worked better than she could have expected.  Other tribes, especially her southern neighbour the Trinovantes joined with her, forming a rare confederation that eventually spread across several tribes.

Boudicca achieved unity from within the boundaries of her free and very individualistic society, proving that liberty and unity can exist when we put aside what divides us and choose to work together.

 

Read more about Boudicca in “Boudicca, Britain’s Queen of the Iceni” in your choice of English, Welsh, Welsh-English, Chinese, and Spanish.  Audio edition narrated by Richard Mann.