In the mid-12th Century, a Welsh princess named Gwenllian led an army that included her two teenage sons Morgan and Maelgwyn, in the defence of her country from Anglo-Norman invaders. This was an unlikely scenario that no one might have envisioned for Gwenllian when she came into the world forty years earlier. Born on the island of Anglesey, just off the northwest coast of Wales, she was the youngest daughter of the half-Irish, half-Welsh prince of Gwynedd, Gruffydd ap Cynan. She was also a younger sister to Owain Gwynedd, who would become one of the most successful Welsh rulers.
Despite her status, Gwenllian did not live a fairy tale existence. The Welsh had undergone a long, bitter history of English invaders encroaching on the western territories, but with the rise of the Anglo-Normans, new motte-and-bailey castles began dotting the Welsh Marches. The so-called March lords exercised the authority granted by successive kings to seize large tracts of land and persecute the Welsh. Before Gwenllian was born, her father spent more than a decade as an English prisoner until his escape. Reunited with his family, they retreated to the family seat at Aberffraw on Angelsey. Although admired for her striking beauty and fair-haired like her father, Gwenllian spent her youth as a tomboy, learning how to fight as her three elder brothers did. Constant attacks from the Marcher lords must have required her family to be vigilant. They kept moving between bases in the northern kingdom of Gwynedd, including Anglesey, and to Ireland during Gwenllian’s formative years.
The nature of politics in Wales meant that the rulers of various principalities often found themselves divided; it would be several generations before the Welsh consented to leadership by one figurehead. In a rare instance of comradeship Gruffydd once formed an alliance with Prince Rhys of Deheubarth. Years later when Gwenllian was a teenager, Rhys’ son, Gruffydd (yes, another one) sought a union with the north against their common adversaries. Gwenllian and the young prince of Deheubarth fell in love, eloped and had several children together. Increased fighting with the invaders mired their happiness and threatened to undo the relationship between Gwenllian’s husband and father. Constantly on the run, Gwenllian settled into a meager existence, in which she and her husband raided settlements near the Marcher lord’s castles.
Early in 1136, Gwenllian’s husband rode north to encourage his father in-law to join in the uprisings against their foes. Later, Gwenllian received word that one of the Marcher lords, Maurice of London, was pillaging the homes of her countrymen. She raised her forces and advanced to a position just north of Kidwelly Castle, part of Maurice of London’s domain. Welsh scouts reported that the enemy was far away, but they were proved wrong when mounted knights charged across the field. Gwenllian fought them, only to see one of her sons killed and the other wounded. In her desperation to protect him, she was captured. Maurice of London ordered her beheaded shortly afterward.
Although Gwenllian’s valiant stand ended in defeat, the Welsh did not forget her bravery. Within months, her husband and her brother Owain allied in brutal attacks against the invaders; Gwenllian’s remaining sons soon joined them. For centuries afterward, the Welsh adopted the battle cry, “Revenge for Gwenllian” to honor her sacrifice. The field where the battle took place became known as Maes Gwenllian.