Did the Welsh Revolt of Gwenllian in 1136 contribute to the Evolution of the Arthurian Legend?


And does the restless spirit of brave Gwenllian, Wales' best-loved warrior princess, stalk the grounds of Kidwelly Castle and the bloody battlefield upon which she was killed in 1136?

[Below: Deffroad Cymru (The Awakening of Wales) by Christopher Williams (1911). It depicts the "Female Braveheart" and "Welsh Maid Marian", Gwenllian ferch Gruffudd, Welsh woman warrior, patriot and rebel, who was beheaded by the invading Anglo-Normans at Kidwelly Castle in 1136 for treason during the period of chaos and civil war known as The Anarchy.]

Deffroad Cymru (The Awakening of Wales) by Christopher Williams (1911). It depicts the "Female Braveheart" and "Welsh Maid Marian", Gwenllian ferch Gruffudd, Welsh woman warrior, patriot and rebel, who was beheaded by the invading Anglo-Normans at Kidwelly Castle in 1136 for treason during the period of chaos and civil war known as The Anarchy.

The youngest child of Gruffudd ap Cynan, King of Gwynedd, and his wife Angharad, Gwenllian was born in 1097 on Ynys Mon, at the family seat at Aberffraw. She had four older sisters (Mared, Rhiannell, Susanna and Annest) and three older brothers (Cadwallon, Owain and Cadwaladr).


Gwenllian was very beautiful, and by all accounts, intelligent and highly-educated. When Gruffydd ap Rhys, Prince of Deheubarth, came to Gwynedd in 1113 for a meeting with her father, she became romantically involved with Gruffudd and eloped together, and she joined her husband at his family seat of Dinefwr in Deheubarth.


At the time, Deheubarth was struggling against the Anglo-Norman invasion in South Wales. From their strongholds in the mountains and the forests, Gwenllian and Gruffydd ap Rhys led retalitory strikes against Norman-held positions in Deheubarth. Gwenllian and Gruffudd harassed Norman, English and Flemish colonists in Deheubarth, taking their goods and money, and re-distributing them among the Welsh. In short, they were the Welsh version of "Robin Hood and Maid Marian", though Gwenllian was more of a revered "Female Braveheart".


In 1135, King Henry I died. The following year, when King Stephen de Blois blocked his cousin, the Empress Matilda, from succeeding her father to the English throne, the chaotic period of civil war known as The Anarchy began in England. The revolt began in south Wales. Hywel ap Maredudd, Lord of Brycheiniog,  gathered his men and marched to The Gower. He defeated the Norman and English forces led by Maurice of London at the Battle of Llwchwr, and drove Maurice back to Kidwelly Castle, then owned by Bishop Roger of Salisbury.


Inspired by the success of Hywel of Brycheiniog, Gruffydd ap Rhys saw a heaven-sent opportunity to boot the Norman lords out of Wales forever. He hastened to Gwynedd to meet with Gruffudd ap Cynan, his father-in-law, in order to enlist his aid in the revolt.


While Gwenllian's husband was in Gwynedd, seeking an alliance with her father against the Normans, Maurice of London, smarting after his recent humiliation, led lightning retaliatory raids against the Welsh in Deheubarth. He called for fresh reinforcements. In February 1136, spies sent word to Gwenllian that ships carrying those Norman reinforcements were sailing up the Glamorgan coast.


There was no time to lose. Gwenllian was compelled to raise an army for their defense. She armed herself for battle, and rode out to master her troops. Unfortunately, she only had a few hundred poorly-equipped serving-men, in contrast to the better-armed Anglo-Normans, who vastly outnumbered the Welsh. It was decided that the Welsh should weaken the Normans with hit-and-run lightning raids, which Gwenllian was good at organising, and wait for her husband's return before launching a major offensive. So Gwenllian divided her troops, sending half of them ahead with a fellow Welsh chieftain, to cut off the Normans landing by ship on the coastline. The rest, she decided, would stay safely hidden in a valley in the woods to the north of Kidwelly Castle, and cut off Maurice of London's vital supply line.


But that turned out to be a disastrous military decision. Gwenllian was betrayed by one of her own fellowmen. Instead of attacking the Normans making their way towards Kidwelly from the coastline, the Welsh chieftain allegedly met the Normans and told them where Gwenllian's forces were hidden. It is not known if he had been coerced into revealing her whereabouts. His name was Gruffudd ap Llewellyn, newly appointed Lieutenant by Maurice de Londres. Perhaps Gwenllian trusted him because she thought he was feeding her reliable information. At any rate, he led the Normans straight to where Gwenllian's troops were entrenched in their camp within the woods below the hill, north of the castle.


The Normans, possibly led by Geoffrey, Constable of the Bishop, and the Welsh traitor Gruffudd ap Llewellyn, rushed down the slope and encircled the Welsh camp, launching a surprise attack. Gwenllian, caught off guard, tried to rally her troops in the confusion. She led them onto the broad field outside Kidwelly Castle. But if she thought things could hardly get any worse, they did. Maurice of London led his forces out of the castle and pushed the Welshmen backwards, herding them towards the Norman troops coming out of the woods. There was nowhere for the Welsh troops to go. Trapped and exhausted, they fought on as valiantly as they could.


In the violent battle, Gwenllian's army was completely routed. Wounded in the thick of the fighting, she watched her elder son, Maelgwn, being slaughtered as he tried to come to her rescue. Captured by the Normans, she was brought before Maurice, bloodied and unbowed, her wrists bound tightly behind her back.


As a woman, Princess Gwenllian should have been treated with mercy by her Norman captors, but the cruel Lord Maurice did not observe the usual chivalric conventions. Lusting for vengeance against Gwenllian's husband, Maurice ordered her immediate execution. Women traitors were normally burned at the stake, but Maurice allowed her one final concession. As a mark of respect for her bravery and noble status, she would be beheaded instead. Gwenllian was held face-down onto a wooden log, and her grieving son Morgan was held back by his captors as he watched the blade of the headsman's broadsword descend onto the back of his mother's neck. Her bleeding decapitated head was held aloft to the cheers of the Norman troops, as the headsman declared her a traitor.


The bodies of the slain Welshmen were flung into a deep pit and buried upon the battlefield itself. It became known as Maes Gwenllian (Field of Gwenllian). It is not known if Gwenllian and Maelgwn were buried together in the same mass grave, or if the heads of Gwenllian and Maelgwn were buried with their bodies.


A miraculous spring supposedly welled up on the spot where her decapitated head struck the ground.


Although she was defeated, her patriotic revolt inspired a new uprising. The Welsh of Gwent, led by Iowerth ab Owain (grandson of Caradog ap Gruffydd), ambushed and slew Richard Fitz Gilbert, the Norman lord of Ceredigion.

In vengeance, Gwenllian's brothers Owain and Cadwaladr invaded Norman territory in Ceredigion, taking Llanfihangel, Aberystwyth, and Llanbadarn. Gwenllian's husband, Gruffudd ap Rhys, joined forces with her brothers, the sons of Gruffudd ap Cynan, launching fresh offensives. They both died in 1137. Gruffudd ap Rhys is said to have died of a broken heart.


For centuries after her death, the lusty rallying cry for Welshmen on the battlefield was: "Revenge for Gwenllian!"


Gwenllian's youngest son went on to become a notable leader of Deheubarth, the Lord Rhys ap Gruffudd. Rhys was only an infant in his crib when his famous mother bore arms and was slain on the battlefield. But Rhys grew into a fierce warrior and formidable opponent of the Normans. In 1159, Rhys captured Kidwelly Castle from the Normans, avenging his mother's death. He rebuilt the fortress in 1190 and held it until his death in 1197.


But the headless ghost of the beautiful warrior princess Gwenllian is said to walk the town of Kidwelly and the battlefield of Kidwelly Castle, where she was slain in 1136. It is said that she could be looking for her missing head, which may have been displayed on a pike upon the old castle walls (the original structure no longer exists). But it is just as likely that she is a devoted mother searching for her infant son, the Lord Rhys, from whom she was so cruelly separated in life.


In 1997, the historian Dr. Andrew Breeze suggested that the influential Princess Gwenllian herself may have written the main stories narrated within the Welsh Medieval classic masterpiece, The Four Branches of The Mabinogion, which could have spawned some of the Arthurian tales. The theory remains controversial, yet highly tantalising.


John Gillingham (2000) suggested that the "second wife" of Gruffudd ap Rhys --- who allegedly betrayed her husband and caused his death in battle in 1137 (source: John of Worcester) --- may have contributed to Geoffrey of Monmouth's story of Guinevere betraying Arthur.

Of course, this rests on his suggestion that the name Guendoloena was somehow linguistically related to Guinevere, and that "Guendoloena" was the name used by Gerald of Wales for Gwenllian. With regards to the name Guendoloena, S. Kingshill and J. Westwood (2009), suggested that the character of Arthur's queen and Myrddin's wife may have originated as one and the same figure. They argue briefly that the depiction of Myrddin riding a stag at the head of a herd of wild beasts to kill Guendoloena's new bridegroom may have been originally a folkloric account of Arthur leading a warband to rescue his abducted wife. Breton WINLOWEN ("White Linen"; Welsh: GWENLLIAN) is linguistically closest to the Continental "Winlogee", which appears on the Modena Archivolt as the name of Arthur's queen.


I'll leave you now with the mesmerising verses from a traditional Welsh lullaby known as the Caniad Hun Gwenllian, which has been attributed to Meilyr Brydydd (fl.1100-1137), penncerdd (chief bard) at the court of Gruffudd ap Cynan, king of Gwynedd, as collected in the Robert ap Huw MS (B.M. Addl. MS 14905), and reproduced by Iolo Morgannwg in the Myvyrian Archaeology of Wales. 


Caniad Hun Gwenllian


Gwenllian fach, fy nghalon dlos,


Rwyt ti yn huno yn ddifraw

Gan ddal dy a fal bach melyngoch yn dy law.

Mae'th ruddiau annwyl fel gwridog ros,

Mae'th fron yn ddedwydd ddydd a nos,

Ym myd y gofid O! gwyn fyd

T'wysoges i fanc yn ei chrud

Yn dal ei hafal bach, ei holl o ofal byd.

Mae gennyt frodyr yn y gad,


Mae'th dad â'i gleddyf wrth ei glun,

A thithau'n cysgu'n drwm, gan wenu trwy dy hun.

Mae trwst y Norman yn crynu'r wlad;

Beth wyr yr engyl am dy dad, engyl am dy dad?

O! am orffwyso'n ddedwydd iach,

Mae breninesau uchel ach

A rônt eu gorseddfainc am gwsg t'wysoges fach.


Sleep, Gwenllian 


Sleep, Gwenllian, my heart's delight 

Sleep on through shivering spear and brand, 

An apple rosy red within thy baby hand; 

Thy pillowed cheeks a pair of roses bright, 

Thy heart as happy day and night! 

Mid all our woe, O vision rare! 

Sweet little princess cradled there, 

Thy apple in thy hand thy all of earthly care. 

Thy brethren battle with the foe, 

Thy sire's red strokes around him sweep, 

Whilst thou, his bonny babe, art smiling through thy sleep 

All Gwalia shudders at the Norman blow! 

What are the angels whispering low 

Of thy father now 

Bright babe, asleep upon my knee, 

How many a Queen of high degree 

Would cast away her crown to slumber thus like thee! 

Below: Memorial to Gwenllian at Kidwelly Castle.

Left: Kidwelly Castle, with Maes Gwenllian.

Right: Stylised portrait of Gwenllian.