You may (or may not!) have noticed I’ve been a bit quiet on here over the last few months. And that is because I’ve been busy having a baby! In the middle of a pandemic..! Her middle name is Gwenllian, inspired by a very cool Welsh person from around 900 years ago.
History’s Gwenllian was originally from Aberffraw, Anglesey and was the sister of the King of Gwynedd, Owain Gwynedd. Gwenllian married Gruffydd ap Rhys (‘ap’ meaning ‘son of’), Lord of Deheubarth in south Wales.
They all lived at the time that England and Wales were being invaded by the Normans – the chaps who came over and won the Battle of Hastings in 1066. By the time Gwenllian, her brother and her husband were around, in the 1100’s, the Normans were encroaching over the border into Wales, stealing lands. This was the time of Stephen and Matilda (daughter of Henry I) – two people who both believed they were heir to the throne, sparking off a civil war in England. I’m paraphrasing – it is a fascinating story and deserves a lot more detail!
Norman lords who had lands along the border (‘The Marches’) had been slowly stealing land from the Welsh lords, and Gwenllian’s husband Gruffydd took this opportunity of civil unrest to visit his wife’s family in north Wales to gather support to take back his lost lands.
However, the Normans took this opportunity to attack. With the Welsh Lord away in north Wales, Gwenllian couldn’t wait for his return, and so took up her own sword and raised an army to lead and fight the battle herself.
Unlike the story books, but very much like history, this tale does not have a happy ending. Gwenllian was eventually captured by the Normans and beheaded. Two of her sons were also killed. But, her legacy lived on…
Her actions inspired other Welsh lords to fight back against the greedy Normans, including by her brothers further north, and regain their lands. For centuries to come, the Welsh would cry ‘Revenge for Gwenllian’ when charging into battle. And those of you with a knowledge of slightly later Welsh history will have heard of her son Rhys of Deheubarth, ‘The Lord Rhys’, one of the most successful Welsh lords in history. He built some of our wonderful castles including Cardigan (the earliest known stone built castle by a Welsh person), Dinefwr and Carreg Cennen, and founded Talley Abbey. In 1176, he also began a tradition of holding a festival to celebrate Welsh poetry and song – what we now know as the Eisteddfod, a national event still going strong today.
I’m hoping that our little Gwenllian will have a much longer and happier life(!) but having been born during the first lockdown, in the middle of a global pandemic, and my entire maternity leave not being quite what we expected to say the least, I can say that she is already a little hero.
Of course, the battle this country, as well as the whole world, is facing right now is rather different. An invisible invader which I hope we will all conquer soon. And, rather than going out to war, we do this by staying home.
And because of all she has experienced (or not) so far, I’d like to think that her eponym, the warrior princess, would be proud of her namesake, and all of the other lockdown babies born in the last year. And soon, I hope, we will all be back at the festivals and Eisteddfodau with friends and family, just as Gwenllian would have wanted.
Gwenllian is also featured in the book I published with Cadw last year. More information can be found here: http://idigarchaeology.co.uk/welsh-women/