Gruffudd ap Llewelyn Fawr, or, Why You Shouldn’t Rappel Down the Tower of London on a Bed Sheet!

History / Sunday, February 4th, 2018

“Oh what a tangled web we weave…”  The history of Wales might have been so different had Llewelyn Fawr — Llewelyn the Great — just kept his pants on.  For those who mock marital fidelity, here’s a morality tale (well, sort of!).  As Prince Charles once remarked, “Do you really expect me to be the first Prince of Wales in history never to have had a mistress?”

Llewellyn Fawr

Llewellyn Fawr married Joan, the daughter of King John (illegitimate, so clearly, chasing Robin Hood about the forests of Nottinghamshire wasn’t all work, work, work).  They had a son, Dafydd, but not before a variety of dalliances behind hay stacks with the local Gwynedd maidenry had produced an elder son, Gruffudd.  This was the root cause of all the problems that followed: not only was Gruffudd the elder son, but he was wholly Welsh and attracted a faction that resented Dafydd’s half-Norman heritage.

Marriage not withstanding, relations between Gwynedd and England were strained at best, and soon broke into open warfare.  In the subsequent treaty, John recognised Llewellyn’s title over Gwynedd, but demanded he pay homage to him regularly.  And just in case Llewellyn forgot, John would hold Llewellyn’s child hostage; not Dafydd, John’s grandson, but Gruffudd, still just a toddler, whose mother is thought to have died in childbirth.  Taken away and raised in comfortable conditions in England, he might have grown up to lead a reasonably pleasant life as an Englishman had it not been for the Magna Carta, which required John to release him and send him back to Wales.

King John

Llewellyn seems to have been pleased to have had his son back.  He gave Gruffudd estates in Merionedd and Ardudwy, but soon regretted it.  Gruffudd, having been what today we would call a foster child, and perhaps experiencing a wide range of behavioural problems as a result, was not just envious of his younger step-brother, but an incompetent administrator too.  In 1221, he endured the humiliation of having his titles stripped from him for maladministration.  We don’t know why, but he must have been pretty hopeless.

Given a second chance two years later to command an army against the Earl of Pembroke, he was defeated.  In 1228, Llewellyn despaired of Gruffudd altogether and had him imprisoned for the next six years.  He also cut Gruffudd out of his will, an extreme and shocking step by Welsh custom, which expected a man to divide his legacy equally between all his sons, regardless of their legitimacy.  Llewellyn also firmly decreed that Dafydd, not Gruffudd, was to succeed him as Prince of Gwynedd.

Gruffudd was released eventually and granted an estate in Caereinion.  Had he been capable of reconciling himself to his situation, he might have enjoyed a prosperous life, but the most exasperating feature of Welsh medieval history is the almost-universal tendency of sons to fall out over their father’s legacy.  When Llewelyn was paralyzed by a stroke, and died three years later in 1240, the ever-restless Gruffudd found himself yet again imprisoned, in Criccieth castle.

Llewelyn Fawr on his death bed with mournful sons Gruffudd and Dafydd, shortly before they went for each other’s throat.

In England, the notorious King John had been succeeded by Henry III, who had acknowledged Dafydd’s title to Gwynedd, but was of the opinion that Gwynedd should be restricted to the western bank of the River Conwy, and resented the lands that Llewellyn had conquered beyond the east bank.  On a pretext of supporting Gruffudd, Henry invaded.  His plan was to ensure Dafydd did not attempt to seize further land by forcing Gruffudd to provide a hostage that he could execute in the event of Dafydd going to war.  Dafydd, with little choice, saw a silver lining in the opportunity to rid himself of a pain in the neck, and offered Gruffudd.

Probably not much of a guarantee of good behaviour, but it ensured that Henry controlled a rival to the principality.  Any time Dafydd stepped out of line, Henry could invade again, offering to replace half-Norman Dafydd with all-Welsh Gruffudd, and half the population of Gwynedd would probably rise up in support.

Henry III

It was not an uncomfortable life in the Tower of London.  It must be remembered that the Tower was a palace as well as a fortress and a jail.  Gruffudd’s wife despaired of her precarious life in Wales, and begged Henry to be allowed to join Gruffudd.  Henry offered her whole family asylum in England, and promised to ransom Gruffudd for six hundred marks.  Ransoming prisoners was perfectly normal practice in the middle ages, and Gruffudd’s wife, unable to afford such a large price, offered a down payment, and her sons as surety.  When they arrived, however, Henry not only confined them in the Tower, but refused to release Gruffudd.

Effectively under house arrest, the ever-restless Gruffudd chafed at his confines and dreamed of returning to Gwynedd to lead a rebellion against Dafydd.  One dark night in 1244, he knotted sheets together, checked and satisfied himself that the knots were tight, and scrambled through a window high in the Tower’s walls.  As he scrambled down the stonework, the sheets took his weight, the knots tightening.  Gruffudd rappelled slowly down the vertical face, the knots tightening further, but then began to slip.  Ever so slightly at first, then suddenly, the rope snapped.  With a shriek of terror, Gruffudd smacked into the ground like a rag doll, killed instantly as the sheets tumbled softly around him.

The White Tower, Tower of London. It was down these walls that Gruffudd ap Llewelyn fell to his death

How much his wife grieved, we don’t know.  It probably had never been more than a political marriage, ordered by Llewellyn to ensure some trouble-maker’s loyalty, and Gruffudd had been effectively abandoning her in his escape attempt.  She never returned to Wales.  Deprived of his puppet, however, Henry III was not done meddling in Gwynedd’s affairs.  The following year, he invaded again, but was defeated and forced to retreat into Deganwy castle, where Dafydd starved him into surrender.  Shamed into a reluctant treaty, Henry limped back to England, never to trouble Dafydd again.

Guffudd ap Llewelyn falls to his death

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