Friday, November 13, 2015

Gwenllian, the Warrior Princess

by Jean Gill

Historical research throws up interesting questions and connections. This was one of mine: could Eleanor of Aquitaine have any link to Gwenllian, a Welsh princess?

Gwenllian, the Warrior Princess

While England was torn between rival claims to the throne during the 1100s, the three kingdoms of Wales formed alliances and fought; with each other, and with the Anglo-Norman marcher lords whose new stone castles dominated the Welsh landscape.

In c.1113 Gruffudd ap Cynon, the ruler of Gwynedd (the kingdom of North Wales) played host to the vibrant ruler of Deheubarth (the kingdom of South Wales), Gruffydd ap Rhys. The Lord of Deheubardd sought support from the north against the Anglo-Norman residents of ‘his’ land, support which would repay the debt owed from the past, when south had supported north. When his guest had gone home, the Lord of Gwynedd went to London. There, he bargained with Henri 1 of England to bring about the downfall of Deheubardd and gain security for Gwynedd.

He was away from home when his youngest, and very beautiful daughter, Gwenllian, sneaked out from the family seat of Ynys Môn on the Isle of Anglesey towards the beach. With full approval of her brother Owain, and of her mother, Gwenllian took to the seas. The boat sent from South Wales by Nest, Lady of Pembroke, sister to the Lord of Deheubarth, took Gwenllian to join her lover, that same Gruffydd ap Rhys who had recently been a guest.

Presumably the courtship took place under the very nose of the Lord of Gwynedd, and whether it was a passionate love affair or not, it also matched the political aims of the Lord of Deheubarth perfectly. He was keen to unite the Welsh against the Anglo-Norman oppressors. Owain Gwynedd and his mother agreed with Gruffydd and saw the love affair as an opportunity to join north and south against Anglo-Norman threats, in direct opposition to Gruffudd ap Cynon’s policy of appeasing the English.

What the Lord of Gwynedd said to his son and wife when he returned from England to find that Gwenllian was now married to the Prince of Deheubardd is not recorded but the alliance changed Welsh politics. The word ‘alliance’ still means ‘wedding ring’ in modern French and medieval marriages were as important as battles in shaping events. But Gwenllian was no mere trade object. Her soubriquet of ‘warrior princess’ was earned by living rough and fighting alongside her husband.

When Henri I died in 1135 and England was unstable, combined Welsh forces from north and south rose up against the Anglo-Norman castles in a more organised way. At one point in these skirmishes and sieges, Gruffydd won Kidwelly Castle, and Gwenllian lived there for a few months, pregnant, and enjoying the life of a lady. However, Deheubardd was not strong enough to hold Kidwelly. Soon Gwenllian was once more living with her people in the wooded hills, the traditional Welsh tactic to protect women and children in times of war. The nomadic way of life allowed lightning strikes and withdrawals, so the marcher lords were never secure. One consequence of this period was to convince Maurice de Londres, Lord of Kidwelly Castle, that Gruffydd and Gwenllian were a serious threat to Kidwelly.

In 1136 Gruffydd was in North Wales, seeking help from his father-in-law and Gwenllian was Lord of Deheubardd in Gruffydd’s absence. She received word that a Norman army was on its way from England to meet up with Maurice de Londres, intending to wipe out Gruffydd, Gwenllian and their troublesome family.

The warrior princess decided to surprise the army from England and cut them off before they reached Kidwelly, at Mynydd y Garreg. Her decision is described with hindsight by historians as ‘brave but misguided’, ‘foolish’ but was it? With her children’s lives at stake as well as the future of Deheubarth and its people? She could not have anticipated that a Welshman, Gruffudd ap Llewellyn, would betray her so that the Normans knew the exact spot she would attack and were prepared.

The battle was bloody. Giraldus Cambrensis describes the Welsh qualities as fighters; "… on many occasions they have not hesitated to fight without any protection at all against men clad in iron, unarmed against those bearing weapons, on foot against mounted cavalry. They are so agile and so fierce that they often win battles against such odds." Gwenllian’s decision seems to fit her countrymen’s attitude, and if she was ‘misguided’ then so were most of the male Welsh leaders of the time – yet historians do not describe them so.

Courageous? Certainly. Although the surprise element was reversed, and Gwenllian’s forces outnumbered, they fought on. Then Maurice de Londres arrived with his army.

Caught in the pincer-stroke, Gwenllian had no option but to surrender, probably expecting the honourable treatment due to nobility. She had her two youngest sons with her in the battle, hoping to keep them safe. Maurice de Londres gave his orders. Morgan was killed on the spot but Maelwgyn was taken prisoner. His fate after that is unknown. Gwenllian was beheaded by sword, there on the Mynydd y Garreg battlefield, on a spot grazed by peaceful cows these days.

Her legacy is more than the name on a memorial at Kidwelly Castle, or at the local hotel. Some historians believe she created the Mabinogion, that collection of tales which includes one branch of ‘the matter of Britain’, the Arthurian legends. It is highly probable that these legends reached Eleanor’s court in Aquitaine, that magnet for troubadours and bards. Bledri is one such Welsh bard who could well have taken Gwenllian’s Welsh tales of Arthur to the château in Poitiers so Eleanor could have listened to stories composed by Gwenllian. Such speculation ventures into the territory of a historical novelist. From the gaps and possibilities come our own stories.

What is without question is another legacy. Gwenllian’s second son Rhys made Deheubarth into a power that even Henry II of England was forced to treat with respect. The stormy relationship between the two men and kingdoms shaped Wales in the second half of the 12th century.

Prince Rhys (as he liked to be called) was also a singer himself and attracted the best of bards… or even troubadours… to his court. He is said to have inaugurated a song tourney that was the prototype of the modern Eisteddfod. But that is definitely another story.

Cofiwch Gwenllian! Remember Gwenllian!

The storyboard on display in Kidwelly shows the warrior princess in the chainmail hauberk and coif typical of an Anglo-Norman knight, carrying a sword. Most Welsh soldiers would be without armour and bearing spears, javelins or bows (the southern speciality) but the elite guard protecting the Welsh royal families would have dressed like their enemies, as would those nobles themselves, so Gwenllian's appearance in armour is plausible.

Photos: Lesley Walters


Jean Gill is the author of The Troubadours Quartet:1150 in Provence, Global Ebooks Award-Winner for Best Historical Fiction.

She is a Welsh writer and photographer living in the south of France with a big white dog, a scruffy black dog, a Nikon D750 and a man. For many years, she taught English in Wales and was the first woman to be a secondary headteacher in Carmarthenshire. She is also mother or stepmother to five children so life was hectic.

Her eighteen published books are varied, including prize-winning poetry and novels, military history, translated books on dog training (from French), and a cookery book on goat cheese.

Book 1 of the Troubadours series, Song at Dawn is free; details are on the Giveaways page.

Website winner of the 2015 Silver IPPY AWard for Best Author website

I first researched Gwenllian for my Young Adult novel Crystal Balls in which a teenager's dreams are haunted by the warrior princess.

In celebration of the new Troubadours book, Book 1 ‘Song at Dawn’ is free at the moment and there’s also a free ebook copy of my collection ‘One Sixth of a Gill’, which was shortlisted for the Wishing Shelf Award’, for every new subscriber to my newsletter. Just sign up here for news and offers on my books.



IPPY Silver Award for Best Author Website



The Troubadours Page

Further Reading

The Journey through Wales and The Description of Wales - Gerald of Wales

Brut Y Tywysogion, or, The Chronicle of the Princes - Caradoc of Lancarvan

The Lord Rhys, Prince of Deheubarth - Roger Turvey


  1. I've gone through life hoping to meet a warrior princess to call my own. No joy so far :-(

    1. Maybe the weapons are different but the warrior princesses do exist. Gwenllian was special, I think. She has stayed in my mind for years and I don't think I've finished writing about the Kingdom of Deheubarth in my novels.

  2. I read Kari Maund's book about Nest a few years ago and I have Turvey's book on the Welsh princes. Am currently in the middle of a biography of Gwenllian. Need I say that I enjoyed this piece tremendously? Diolch yn fawr, yr oedd yn ddidderol iawn :)
    Am adding your Deheubarth novels to my TBR list!

  3. Thanks, Annie! 'Crystal Balls' features Gwenllian but the three Troubadours books published so far are set in Provence/ the Holy Land. The fourth and last one just might reach Wales but that's a secret possibility ;)

    Nest is such an interesting character! I've noted Kari Maund's book for my future reading. Who wrote your biography of Gwenllian? I had one when I did the initial research but when I moved to France it went missing - I suspect it's in my rambling house somewhere!

  4. What a fascinating story. I read Mabinogion years ago and I love the idea that they were / may have been composed by a warrior princess. I also love the idea that they may have ended up at the court of Eleanor of Acquitaine.

  5. I love the thought too, Sarah, and it seems highly possible. Maybe Lord Rhys learned from his mother to love bards and their songs.The Welsh oral tradition makes everything difficult to pin down but the way I see it, the historian's nightmare is the novelist's dream.

  6. Lovely to read this piece about our beloved Gwenllian. I was able to live that 'novelist's dream' when I wrote my novel 'Memories of the Curlew', which mirrored the military struggle with her personal conflicts, in a life which was lived with courage, passion and honour. I felt her story deserved to be better known, as I'm sure you do. It is not easy to make the necessary choices as a novelist, when dealing with a real historical character, and one does one's best within all the information available. Thank you so much everyone for remembering her.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.