Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd-or “Gwenllian, daughter of Gruffydd” today is remembered as the much loved Warrior Princess of Wales, and part of two exclusive historical clubs: one of two women to lead the Welsh into battle (you’ll see the second appear later in this series), and one of two Gwenllian’s whose life had significant effect on the history of the Welsh. She is often confused with the second Gwenllian; “Gwenllian of Wales” or “Gwenllian ferch Llywelyn” who lived two centuries later. The second Gwenllian was known for being imprisoned her entire life, a whole 54 years from birth in an effort to prevent her from giving birth to any potential heirs to the Welsh throne. The first Gwenllian-our Gwenllian for the purposes of this article-preferred dying in the field of battle to living in prison.
Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd was born to Gruffydd ap Cynan, the Prince of Gwynedd, the youngest of eight children. As Gwenllian grew, she became known for her striking beauty, and one day when she was 16 years old a man amongst a visiting delegation of princes caught her eye, the young prince of Deheubarth, Gruffydd ap Rhys. The young couple cut their courtship short, eloping immediately as she joined her new husband in Deheubarth, where his family and people struggled against attacks from Norman, English, and Flemish colonists. Their lifestyle together in Deheubarth was that of a royal couple on the run, constantly at battle. Gwenllian rode with her husband, leading troops on raids and attacks. While fending off invading attacks, Gwenllian and her husband earned a reputation as something of a Welsh version of Robin Hood, robbing Normans of their valuables and distributing the wealth to the citizens of Deheubarth. Needless to say, the couple was much loved by their subjects, and some historians even attribute the story of Robin Hood and Maid Marion to the real life story of Gwen and Gruffydd.
In 1135 Wales imploded with the death of King Henry I, careening into a civil war that pitted several powerful leaders against each other, all with the goal of expanding their territory. Prince Gruffydd saw an opportunity to drive the Normans out of Wales permanently, and traveled to Gwynedd, seeking an alliance with Gwenllian’s father in an effort to do just that. While the prince was gone however, Maurice of London sent several strikes at Deheubarth, and sensing weakness sent for Norman reinforcements. Word reached Gwenllian in time to gear up troops in the kingdom’s defense, and that is exactly what she did.
Gwen and her army met the Normans near Kidwelly Castle. In a move some felt was arrogant, Gwen brought two of her sons into battle with her, and valiantly lead not only her army but also her family to defeat. One of her sons would die, the other was captured, while Gwen herself was captured and beheaded. Her death would not be in vain however, as for centuries afterwards Welsh warriors were heard yelling “Revenge for Gwenllian” when in battle. Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd lead an extraordinary life, and will forever be remembered as Gwen, the Welsh Warrior Princess.