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The Kingdom of Gwynedd: 800 Years Strong

© Cadw

Quick Quiz: Which of the following statements is true?

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 the English.

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 of Windsor.

Hah! They're all true.

Kingdom of GwyneddHard 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 Brittany.

medievalarchersdiagonal(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 Breton.) 

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 culture
  • fought amongst themselves
  • battled invaders from across the waters
  • and sometimes even conquered other lands

 The "dragon of the island"

DanDavies as MaelgwnTake 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 wife.

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 Rules!

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 DdaHywel Reigns Justly (Eventually)

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 Charm

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 Walians.  Gruffydd ap Cynan

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.

archersGruffudd 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.

CoatOwainGwyneddIn 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 LlywellynFawrand homage, in exchange for acknowledgment of his dominion and a measure of independence. In 1205, Llywelyn even married John's daughter, Joan.

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 Wales.       

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 Great."

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 memory. 

-- by Susanne Intriligator