The Kingdom of Gwynedd: 800 Years Strong
Quick Quiz: Which of the following statements
1. Old Welsh was once the language of most of Great Britain.
2. The Welsh people are descended from the original inhabitants
of the British Isles. They've been here far longer than the
Anglo-Saxons, who emigrated from Germany and later became known as
3. Anglesey was once the centre of a independent Welsh country.
From the Anglesey village of Aberffraw, a fierce dynasty rose that
ruled over North Wales (and at times Mid- and South Wales) for over
800 years - three times longer than the United States has existed
and eight times the age of Queen Elizabeth II's dynasty, the House
Hah! They're all true.
Hard to believe? Well, if medieval Welsh history
wasn't taught in your school, for some reason or other, now's the
time to find out more.
Let me tell you a (true) story . . .
The First Britons Spoke Welsh?
When the Romans withdrew from Britain in 380AD, they left behind
a collection of tribal groups; these original Britons often fought
among themselves but they also shared an ancient culture via a
common language, now called Brythonic.
Over the next two centuries, a wave of Anglo-Saxon invaders came
over from mainland Europe and spread up the island from the
Southeast. They pushed the native Britons to the North and West,
and so this group had to split up and re-settle, in Cumbria all the
way up to modern Scotland, and in Wales, Cornwall, and
(The Cumbric version of the language died out in
the 13th century, but Brythonic survived and evolved
into today's related languages of Welsh, Cornish, and
Cunedda Restores Order, Founds a Dynasty
It wasn't just the Europeans who were invading Britain then; the
Irish were moving in as well. Around the year 450, according to
legend, the grandson of a Roman official living in today's
Scotland, a Cumbric man called Cunedda, travelled down to North
Wales, to expel recent Irish settlers and to defend their native
Brythonic cousins from further attacks from Ireland, the Island of
Man, and the Anglo-Saxons.
From their home court at Aberffraw, Cunedda and his sons
succeeded, and they became, not coincidentally, the first
rulers of the Kingdom of Gwynedd.
On and off - but mostly on - for the next 800 years, men who
traced their lineage directly from Cunedda ruled over what is now
North Wales, from the Llyn Penninsula across Anglesey and down
through Snowdonia, to the Conwy River and sometimes all the way
East to the River Dee. These kings:
- collected rents
- resolved disputes
- created a legal system
- founded churches and monasteries
- supported poets, artists, and the development of Welsh
- fought amongst themselves
- battled invaders from across the waters
- and sometimes even conquered other lands
The "dragon of the island"
Take for example, Maelgwn,
Cunedda's great-grandson, who ruled the Kingdom of Gwynedd in the
6th century AD. According to Gildas, a monk of the time,
Maelgwn was an important regional king but also a scoundrel: he
captured the throne from his uncle, married and divorced
several times, and killed his nephew just so he could marry his
On the plus side, however, Maelgwn funded the building of
churches throughout Wales, and one legend says that he even hosted
the first Eisteddfod. Maelgwn built his royal court at Deganwy, but
Gildas called him the "dragon of the island," because of his place
in the mighty Aberffraw dynasty.
Cadwallon the Conqueror
Then there's Cadwallon ap Cadfan, king of Gwynedd 625 to 634,
who suffered a surprise attack at Penmon on Anglesey, by Edwin,
king of Northumbria. Cadwallon didn't take it lying down. No, he
gathered an army and marched on Northumbria, killing Edwin and his
son. He then ruled over the region for a year "like a rapacious and
bloody tyrant," according to the historian Bede.
Rhodri Mawr ("Rhodri the Great") ruled Gwynedd from 844 to 877.
He earned the special title through war (fending off several Viking
invasions) and peace (gaining new territories through marriage and
inheritance). At his death, his kingdom stretched over two-thirds
of modern Wales, all the way to the Gower Penninsula.
But, unfortunately for long-term stability, the medieval Welsh
didn't follow the English rule of primogeniture, where the
first-born son gets the whole lot. So on Rhodri's death, his
expanded kingdom was split up between his three sons. Fair, yes,
but not quite the path to world domination.
Hywel Reigns Justly
Rhodri's grandson Hywel Dda ("Hywel the Good") started out as
Prince of Deheubarth (in modern-day South Wales), but he expanded
his reign when his northern cousins died in battle against the
English king Athelstan.
Hywel, who submitted to the English crown, sent the northern
heirs into exile and grabbed their lands for himself. By 942, Hywel
ruled almost all of modern-day Wales.
So what was so "good" about Hywel? Well, he used his power and
wealth to unify Wales through a new, world-class system of laws.
More than other medieval codes, the Welsh laws emphasised fairness,
compassion, and the rights of women.
Gruffudd ap Cynan: The Fourth Time's a
A hundred years after Hywel Dda exiled his ancestors, Gruffudd
ap Cynan returned to press his claim to the throne of Gwynedd. It
took him four separate invasion attempts, but he finally succeeded.
Gruffudd's story demonstrates just how high the odds were stacked
against the Gwynedd Kings: in his time he faced threats from
family foes, Normans, the English, the Scots, Vikings and South
First time around, Gruffudd landed on Anglesey with an army
drawn from both Irish (his mother was the Viking princess of
Dublin) and Norman (his ally Robert of Rhuddlan gave him troops)
sources. He defeated Trahaearn ap Caradog, the reigning King of
Gwynedd, took the crown, and headed East, to reclaim more land. In
the process, he turned on his friend Robert, sacked his castle and
burned it to the ground. But Trahaearn soon counter-attacked and
chased Gruffudd back to Ireland.
On his second attempt, Gruffudd was tricked into meeting three
Norman lords, who captured him and sent him to prison in Chester
for several years. He eventually escaped and re-took Gwynedd by
force, but he lost it again, this time to the Normans.
Gruffudd was less "fourth-time lucky" than fourth-time
cunning. He arranged for King Magnus of Norway (a relative
via his mother) to sail his fleet into the Menai Strait and attack
the Normans at Aberlleiniog. It is said that Magnus himself
shot the arrow that killed Norman Earl Hugh of Shrewsbury.
returned from Ireland one more time, to rule Gwynedd until his
death 39 years later, in 1137. During that time, called a "Golden
Age" for Gwynedd, Gruffudd repelled two English invasions, battled
the Normans, built many new stone churches and re-built Bangor
Cathedral, where he was buried.
Owain Gwynedd: 17 sons, excommunication, and (oh, yes)
war with England
After turning against his brother, Owain Gwynedd took sole
control of his father Gruffudd's kingdom and battled to expand it
Eastward. He captured Mold and Rhuddlan, pushed through Powys and
took some of Ceredigion. When Henry II invaded Gwynedd in 1157,
Owain trapped him in a valley near Ewloe, and Henry barely escaped
capture. Eventually, though, Owain had to come to terms with Henry,
recognise English suzerainty, and surrender some of his Eastern
trophies, such as Rhuddlan.
1165, Henry II invaded again, but Owain went out to meet him,
leading an alliance of all the Welsh princes. In torrential Welsh
rain, Henry was forced to retreat. He never tried that again!
When Owain died in 1170, he left a bit of a mess. First, where
to bury him? Because had married a first cousin, the Archbishop of
Canterbury had excommunicated Owain. But the local Bishop of Bangor
flouted the rules and buried the king in the cathedral anyway.
Second, who should succeed him? By Welsh law, all of a king's
sons (even illegitimate ones) were entitled to an equal share. But
Owain, by his two wives and four (or more) mistresses, had 17 (or
more) sons! Civil war ensued.
Llywelyn Fawr: tumult and triumph
Owain's grandson Llywelyn grew up in turmoil, watching his
uncles battle one another for supremacy. He learned early to
balance diplomacy with deceit, to alternate power plays with
peacemaking. By 1200, Llewelyn was the sole ruler of Gwynedd; by
1216, he dominated all Wales.
At first Llywelyn sided with England's King John. Their 1201
treaty is the oldest surviving written agreement between an English
king and a Welsh ruler; in it, Llywelyn swears fealty and
homage, in exchange for acknowledgment of his dominion and a
measure of independence. In 1205, Llywelyn even married John's
But by 1210, relations had deteriorated. In 1211, John invaded
twice, reaching into Snowdonia and burning Bangor to the ground.
Llywelyn sent Joan to negotiate; he kept his throne but lost lands
and a large tribute.
In the following year, however, Llywelyn built many shrewd
alliances: with other Welsh princes, some rebellious English
barons, and even the kings of Scotland and France. He even captured
Shrewsbury in 1215 and helped to force King John to sign the Magna
Carta, winning more lands and freedoms for
For the remainder of his reign, Llywelyn Fawr ("the Great")
tended these alliances, alternately fighting with -- and marrying
his daughters off to -- the Marcher Lords.
"Among the chieftains who battled against the Anglo-Norman
power," writes the historian J.E. Lloyd, "[Llywelyn's] place will
always be high, if not indeed the highest of all, for no man ever
made better or more judicious use of the native force of the Welsh
people for adequate national ends; his patriotic statemanship will
always entitle him to wear the proud style of Llywelyn the
A mere 40 years after his death, however, an English king would
invade Gwynedd once again, this time for the long term. Edward I
would crush the 800-year-long Aberffraw dynasty, destroy its
buildings, melt its crown jewels, and strive even to erase it from
-- by Susanne Intriligator