The mist is tears dappling my cheeks. The winter’s cold seeps through clothes to clutch the soul. Such blood. Such heartache. The wind blows a mournful gust, the howl of a hundred widows, for the blood of those who struggled to preserve their people, their livelihoods, their customs and laws, from the rapacious land grabs of Norman thugs and thieves.
Whether William the Conquerer had any rightful claim to the throne of England has been vigorously debated since 1066, but such concerns troubled the new Norman aristocracy not at all as they charged through the southern Welsh principalities that had never been part of England.
First came the castles: Aberystwyth, Cardigan, Carmarthen, Pembroke, Kidwelly; then the colonists: Norman, Flemish and English; merchants, importers, craftsmen, soldiers, families and their priests, and all the people necessary for maintaining a fortress, living prosperous if often nervous lives in high-walled confinements, distant and isolated in a resentful country, in peril more than a bow’s shot from the castle ramparts.
To the north, impenetrable Gwynnedd remained free. To its prince was born Gwenllian, his youngest, in Aberffraw in 1100, and said to be beautiful with hair like flames: intelligent, educated and feisty, having been taught to wield a sword with vicious potency.
Thirteen was a normal age to be married to the lord of Deheubarth, Gruffudd ap Rhys. He took her to his seat at Dinefwr, where they had two sons, Morgan and Maelgwyn, and another two as an afterthought: Maredudd and Rhys. It was a nervous life, constantly threatened by the Norman pillagers, frequently fleeing to the mountains, and supplementing their people’s meagre livings with raids on military columns, retrieving the Normans’ booty and, it’s said, restoring it to the Welsh.
The death of Henry I saw an opportunity for the Welsh to grab back a measure of independence. As England dissolved into the anarchy of Stephen and Matilda’s struggle for supremacy, the prince of Brycheinion rebelled against the man who had imposed himself as lord of the region, Maurice de Londres. Battle at Llwchwr, near Swansea, sent the remnants of Maurice’s retainers fleeing for their lives into the security of Kidwelly Castle.
It was the chance for Gruffudd and Gwenllian to strike, to storm the castle, finish the job, and cast their oppressors out of Deheubarth altogether, but without the power to do it, Gruffudd galloped north to enlist the assistance of Gwenllian’s father. Gwenllian supervised Deheubarth in his absence.
Marooned within Kidwelly, Maurice was not without friends, however. During Gruffudd’s absence, word reached Gwenllian that Maurice had received reinforcements, with which he was plundering the villages of the Welsh in his vicinity.
Gwenllian, sworn to protect her people, could not do nothng and retain her authority. Worse, were Maurice to learn of Gruffudd’s absence, he would be foolish not to attack.
It was 1136. Gwenllian’s eldest sons were grown, but her youngest were six and four. She made them safe, and with her eldest, summoned the menfolk to her; two hundred labourers, armed with billhooks, axes, home-made shields; perhaps, even a few rusty swords. With one local chieftain, Gruffudd ap Llewelyn, she split her force outside Kidwelly, her half to seal the road that brought supplies to the castle, the other to guard the shore.
Why did Gruffudd ap Llewelyn resent Gwenllian? Perhaps he didn’t, but anticipated a life of luxury thanks to Norman blood money. He revealed to Maurice the princess’s position. Maurice sallied forth, surprising her at Maes Gwenllian — “Gwenllian’s Field.” The fight was bitter and short. Gwenllian’s horse surrounded, she saw her son, Morgan, hacked to death trying to protect his mother. Trampling his corpse into the mud, the Normans dragged her to the ground and hauled her before Maurice.
It would have been normal for Maurice to spare her life for “ransom.” Perhaps Gwenllian could not raise a king’s ransom. Or maybe, she was special to Maurice. Women, descendants of Eve who introduced all sin and suffering into the world, were — as every Medieval man knew — the cause of all earth’s sorrow. He cut her head off. Where her blood spilled into the ground, it’s said, burst forth a spring of pure water.
If Maurice de Londres hoped that would end of the struggle, that the beaten Welsh would slink away and resign themselves to subjection, he was disappointed. Outrage at Gwenllian’s unchivalrous execution seeped through the Welsh countryside like blood through plaster. When Gwenllian’s husband and father, united in grief, hurled their forces against Ceredigion and Cardigan, Iowerth ap Owain in Gwent rose up against the de Clares. For decades, the battles raged as Gwenllian’s little boy, Rhys, grew up to become one of the greatest names in Welsh history: The Lord Rhys.
But that’s another story.