The Welsh Warrior Princess: Gwenllian Ferch Gruffydd
Updated: Apr 8
Not far from the place where Merlin was born, a beautiful princess rallies a small force of ragtag Welshmen to her side. Determined to defend her people from the Normans, who have oppressed and displaced the Welsh, she leads the small force to Kidwelley Castle to confront the invaders.
It sounds like the back cover blurb of a novel but it’s not. It’s history. Princess Gwenllian Ferch Gruffyd is the only medieval period woman known to have led forces into battle in Wales. Unfortunately, the story didn’t end well for her, and now her headless ghost is said to haunt the grounds surrounding Kidwelley Castle. Here is her story.
The great-great-great-granddaughter of Brian Boru, High King of Ireland, Gwenllian was born in 1100 into a Welsh noble family in Gwenydd. The eighth and youngest child of Gruffudd ap Cynan, Prince of Gwynedd and his wife, Angharad Ferch Owain, the princess is said to have been not only remarkably beautiful but also highly intelligent and well-educated. From a medieval marriage market viewpoint, she would be a great catch for any nobleman.
When Gwenllian was thirteen years old, Gruffydd ap Rhys, the Prince of Deheubarth, came to her family’s castle to meet with her father in 1113. He was taken with her and, by all accounts, the attraction was mutual. They eloped. Why did they run away to get married? Did her father disapprove of Prince Gruffydd? Did he have a better—or more politically advantageous—match in mind for his daughter? None of the sources explain. But the young couple ended up with his family in Deheubarth and eventually had four children.
Despite their apparent love match, the couple couldn’t simply settle down to married bliss. Wales was in turmoil, under invasion from foreigners. Chief among these were the Normans who pushed the native Welsh off their lands and built fortified castles from which to dominate and oppress. Gwenllian and Prince Gruffyd were not exempted. They and their family were forced from Deheubarth and had to take refuge in the mountains. True to their Celtic spirit, though, they fought back and launched a series of retaliatory raids on the Normans. Gwenllian, sword in hand, actively participated in these attacks alongside her husband. The couple distributed the booty collected from these raids to the Welsh poor, as the legendary Robin Hood is reputed to have done.
The Welsh continued to suffer under the increasing domination of the Normans but, in the 1130s events in England gave them hope that they could reclaim their homeland. Henry II of England died in 1135. He had named his daughter, Mathilde, as his successor but her cousin, Stephen of Blois, challenged her for the throne. Civil war broke out in England, leading to a decentralization of power. The Welsh decided to take advantage of this. Rather than hit and run harassment raids, the Welsh began revolting in earnest.
The Battle of Llwchwr, fought on New Year’s Day, 1135, marked their first big success. Hywel ap Mareduddd, Lord of Brycheiniog, mustered a force of Welshmen and rode to confront Maurice de Londres, Lord of Kidwelly at Gower. Maredudd’s defeated the Normans, forcing de Londres to retreat to his castle.
Encouraged by this, Gruffydd ap Rhys rode to meet with Gruffudd ap Cynan, Prince of Gwenydd and Gwenllian’s father, to ask for help in driving de Londres and the other Normans out of Deheubarth. While Gruffydd was on this mission, Lord Kidwelly launched retaliatory attacks on the people of Deheubarth. Wanting to protect her people and concerned by reports that Norman ships had been spotted riding up the coast, Gwenllian organized a force to counterattack. Unfortunately, the army was small and not well-armed, but they were determined to defend their land and defeat the invaders.
Gwenllian divided her forces into two groups. She assigned Gruffydd ap Llewellyn to lead one group to attack the Norman ships while she took the other group to woods near Kidwelley Castle. Gwenllian planned to keep her group hidden while they worked to cut off de Londre’s supply chain with lightning attacks. But she was betrayed. Gruffydd ap Llewellyn revealed her location to the Normans and Gwenllian was forced onto attacking the Normans directly.
The Princess led her forces, whose number included her two eldest sons, into an assault on Kidwelley Castle. Deprived of the element of surprise and greatly outnumbered, the Welsh didn’t stand much of a chance. During the battle, Gwenllian fell from her horse and was captured. Her eldest son, Morgan, was killed trying to protect her from the Normans. Maelgwyn, the other son who’d accompanied her into battle, was captured. The Normans executed Gwenllian and her son by decapitation.
Even though her forces lost the battle at Kidwelley Castle, Gwenllian’s death wasn’t in vain. News of her valiant efforts and her execution galvanized the Welsh and is said to have sparked the Great Revolt of 1136. Battles broke out throughout Wales and the Welsh began to gain back some of their own lands. Eventually, in 1190 to be exact, Gwenllian’s youngest son, Rhys ap Gruffydd, attacked and gained possession of Kidwelley Castle.
For centuries after her death, Gwenllian’s name was used as a rallying cry for the Welsh: Ddail achos Gwenllian meaning “Avenge Gwenllian’s cause” or simply Dial i Gwenllian (Revenge for Gwenllian).
Kidwelley Castle and its grounds are said to be haunted by the ghost of a headless woman. This spirit is believed to be Gwenllian, the warrior princess.
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Slan go foil!