The Emotional Story of the Family of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd
On November 16th 2017, 40 members and friends of the History of Deganwy Group were treated to an illustrated and meticulously researched insight into medieval Welsh history by Heulwen Bott. Heulwen is a retired teacher, and showed us not just what happened, but also gave us tantalising glimpses into what might have been.
She began by explaining that the Welsh chieftains, with a lineage traceable back to c.AD 450, ruled over the kingdoms of Gwent, Gwynedd, Powys and Deheubarth, with much fighting between them. Hywel Dda and Rhodri the Great came close to uniting Wales, but did not succeed. Around the year 1200, the head of the Royal House of Gwynedd, Llywelyn ap Iorwerth – later known as Llywelyn Fawr (Llywelyn the Great) – also had ambitions to unite Wales. He married Siwan (Joan), illegitimate daughter of King John, in the old Church of St John outside the walls of Chester; he had too many enemies to marry within the city. Siwan bore Llywelyn a son, Dafydd, before her death at Abergwyngregyn, from where her body was taken across the Lafan for burial at Llanfaes. Hundreds of years later, her sarcophagus was rescued – it had been used as a water trough – and is now in the porch of the Church of St Mary and St Nicholas in Beaumaris. Llywelyn died in 1240, and his coffin can be seen in the church in Llanrwst; he was a great and constructive statesman, and left the possibility of Wales becoming an independent principality.
Dafydd succeeded his father, and sent his older half-brother Gruffydd (born from Llywelyn’s relationship with Tangwystl, a fiery red-head) to be imprisoned in the Tower of London. Under the laws of Hywel Dda, Gruffydd had the right to inherit – but he fell to his death in 1244 while attempting to escape from the Tower. He did however leave four sons – and when Dafydd, a great warrior, died childless at the age of 31, they were the next in line.
By 1258, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, grandson of Llywelyn Fawr and Tangwystl (who would surely have been gratified by this turn of events!) was named Prince of Wales. He was promised to Eleanor, the daughter of Simon de Montfort – a match which Eleanor’s cousin, Edward I, tried to prevent by kidnapping and imprisoning her. The marriage was delayed for many years, but the King eventually consented, and even paid for the royal wedding in Worcester Cathedral, which was attended by many royal and aristocratic guests. A stained-glass window in the North cloister commemorates the event.
The marriage however did not lead to peace, and after many battles Llywelyn was offered a large estate in England and £1,000 per year to sell his country. He refused, and a month later, on 11th December 1282, he was killed near Builth Wells, and his head was placed on a spike near the Tower of London for many years. A memorial has been erected at Cilmeri, and murals can be seen in Builth Wells, depicting his murder. Poets have written about this event, from Gruffudd ab yr Ynad Coch in the 13th century up to the present day. The Tourist Information Centre in Conwy has a good exhibition, highlighting some of these.
With the loss of Llywelyn, Welsh morale diminished. He had named his brother Dafydd as his heir, but he was captured less than a year later, condemned at Shrewsbury, dragged through the streets and hung, drawn and quartered. It is presumed that Owain, the eldest brother, was also murdered; meanwhile Rhodri, the fourth of Gruffydd’s sons, had accepted an estate in England, along with a sum of money. Thus the English king stole the title of Prince of Wales, and gave it to his eldest son (later to become Edward II) who was invested at Caernarfon Castle in 1301. This tradition continues to this day.
Llywelyn and Eleanor’s home is thought by many to have been the towered manor house at Garth Celyn, Abergwyngregyn, now called Pen y Bryn and just visible from the A55. Locals have always called the tower Tŵr Llywelyn, and the house contains secret passageways, hidden rooms and tunnels, as well as spectacular medieval features. This atmospheric and historic building which, as Gwynfor Evans said, ‘is a place which holds the nation’s memory’ has just been privately sold. Remains of a medieval hall have also been found nearby, below the mound known as Y Mŵd, and this is another potential site for the last home of the Princes of Gwynedd. Wherever it’s precise location was, Llywelyn’s only child, a daughter named Gwenllian, was born there; sadly Eleanor died shortly after the birth, and Llywelyn’s death left her an orphan at only a few months old.
Edward I was determined to extinguish the royal lineage of Wales; fearing an uprising if Gwenllian was killed, and bearing in mind that her mother had been his cousin, he had her kidnapped and taken to the Gilbertine Abbey at Sempringham in Lincolnshire. She lived there for 54 years, until her death in 1337, never knowing that she was the Princess of Wales, never hearing her own language, and denied the love of her family and friends. Her seven cousins were also captured; five girls were sent to Alvingham, and from there to another Gilbertine Abbey called Six Hills. In the 16th century, yew trees were planted in the shape of a Maltese cross to mark the spot where their bodies were reinterred following the dissolution of the monasteries. Gwenllian’s two male cousins were imprisoned in Bristol Castle – the young Llywelyn died within a few years, and Owain was kept captive all his life: in 1305, 20 years after his capture, the king ordered that he should be kept in ‘a wooden cage bound with iron’ in a strong house within the castle. Even more poignantly, in 1312 Owain wrote to Edward II begging to be allowed to ‘go and play within the wall of the castle’ – he was 36 years old, and had been imprisoned for nearly 30 of them. His request was refused, and it is known that he lived for at least another 8 years, perhaps longer.
There was one remaining branch of the family: Rhodri (Gruffydd ap Llywelyn’s youngest son, who had sold his inheritance rights) had a son Tomos, and a grandson. This grandson, Owain, was sent to France and became a soldier. Legend has it that blood poured from his hand during a battle, and he became known as Owain Lawgoch – Owain of the Red Hand. When he began to plan to claim his Welsh inheritance, word reached royal ears and a spy was dispatched. John Lamb, one of the Duke of Lancaster’s men, befriended Owain and treacherously murdered him in 1378. For this evil deed, he was paid £20. Owain was buried near Mortagne-sur-Gironde in SW France, where a monument erected in his honour can be seen.
So the line of the Princes of Gwynedd ended, and the children of the previous generation disappeared from history, and were almost forgotten – until interest was revived by an article by the journalist and historian Byron Rogers, who was prompted by research in J. Beverley Smith’s Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, Tywysog Cymru.
In 1996, Mallt Anderson founded Cymdeithas y Dywysoges Gwenllian (The Princess Gwenllian Society) which has done much to provide a continuing memory of the ‘lost Princess’. The Society has erected a fine monument at Sempringham, installed a plaque on the summit of Snowdon, and succeeded in renaming Carnedd Uchaf as Carnedd Gwenllian.
Her story, which was nearly lost, has travelled far and wide – culminating in the composition of Gwenllian’s Lament by an American in Illinois, which was then set to music by a man from Singapore working in London, and sung by Siriol Williams from Cardiff – the daughter of the Reverend Cynwil Williams. Heulwen ended the talk by playing this haunting song; a fitting end to such an emotional journey through our history. Next time you pass Abergwyngregyn on the A55, remember Gwenllian and her family.
Web Design North Wales by Indever