Gruffudd ap Llywelyn was Wales’ greatest king. Ambitious and battle-sure, he succeeded in doing what no Welsh king before him was capable of: he ruled all Wales as a united and independent state. He went further by turning the Viking threat to his realm into a powerful weapon and conquering border land that had been in English hands for centuries. Having emerged as a war leader, Gruffudd also proved to be much more: a patron of the arts and church, with the trappings of a king who was respected and feared on the European stage. His eventual murder at the hands of his own men narrowed the country’s political ambitions and left Wales in chaos on the eve of the arrival of the Normans. Those who betrayed Gruffudd were the forebears of the famous princes who would dominate Wales until the Edwardian Conquest, meaning that the former king left no one to tell of his glory. As a result, 1,000 years after his birth, the would-be nation builder is all but forgotten. Here, Sean and Michael Davies reveal the king in all his glory, telling for the first time the story of one of Wales’ greatest figures and exploring the full implications of Gruffudd’s rule. For, without Gruffudd, the fate of King Harold and the outcome of the Battle of Hastings would have been very different …
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The Last King of Wales
Gruffudd AP Llywelyn c. 1013â"1063
By Michael Davies, Sean Davies
The History PressCopyright © 2012 Michael & Sean Davies,
All rights reserved.
THE EARLY YEARS
The earliest years of Gruffudd ap Llywelyn's life are shrouded in obscurity, but an educated guess would date his birth to c. 1013. Gruffudd was still a minor when his father met his untimely demise in 1023, indicating that he was not born earlier than c. 1007. Gruffudd is Llywelyn's only known son, but Gruffudd had a sister and two younger half-brothers, Bleddyn and Rhiwallon. The brothers were the product of Gruffudd's widowed mother Angharad's later marriage to Cynfyn ap Gwerystan, a nobleman from Powys. Bleddyn and Rhiwallon emerged as the two most prominent leaders of Wales after Gruffudd's demise in 1063, suggesting that they were senior nobility who had held high office during their half-brother's years of glory. Both had their lives prematurely cut short in conflict: Rhiwallon in 1069 and Bleddyn in 1075. Although we cannot be certain of their age at the time of their deaths, this would indicate that both were born c. 1024–43 and it would suggest that Angharad's prime childbearing years were in the period c. 1010–35. As a terminal date for Gruffudd's birth, his first notice in the native chronicle is in 1039 when he claimed the kingship of Gwynedd. At this time he already held a position of some power and authority within Wales, suggesting that he was probably in his 20s and born no later than c. 1019.
Hints about Gruffudd's early years are supplied by the twelfth-century writer Walter Map, who was a product of the Anglo-Norman March of Wales. Map was probably a Welshman who lived and worked in Herefordshire, serving King Henry II and Bishop Gilbert Foliot, and he was a man who eventually rose to the position of Archdeacon of Oxford. His work contains collections of folk tales and anecdotes about the Welsh, some of which are based on native sources. Map's stories about Gruffudd would have been brought to Herefordshire from the neighbouring region of Brycheiniog, an area where the Welsh king was particularly active. The fact that such tales were still current in Map's day, having passed through three generations, is indicative of the impact of Gruffudd's reign. It should be noted though, that Map was not trying to write straight history: his humorous writings are full of exaggerations and need to be treated with caution. He describes Gruffudd as a slothful child who underwent a remarkable youthful transformation after being goaded by his sister:
[Gruffudd] when young, in the reign of his father [Llywelyn], was lazy and sluggish, and sat among the ashes of his father's hearth, a good for nothing and feeble creature, who never went out. Often had his sister reproached him, and on the eve of the Circumcision [1 January] she came to him with tears and said: 'Dear brother, it is to the great shame of the king and of this realm that you are become a scorn and a byword to everyone, you who are the only son and heir of the king. And now I beseech you to go out and do something which is very easy and quite without risk. It is a custom in this country that tonight, which is the first night of the year, all the young should go out to raid and steal, or at least to listen, that each may make trial of himself thereby: to raid, like Gestinus who went far afield quietly and without trouble brought back what he seized, and all that year flourished with a series of successes: to steal, like Golenus the bard who brought a straw from a pigsty without raising a single grunt, and that year was able to steal whatever he liked without complaint or noise; and to listen or eavesdrop like Theudus [Theodosius] who stole privily to the house of Meilerius and heard one of those who sat within say: "This morning I saw a little cloud rising out of the sea and it became a great cloud so that it covered the whole sea," and going thence he considered that he – a little one – was the little cloud, risen out of the sea and was to become king: and this the event proved. Now then, dear brother, do you go out at least to listen, which you can do without any risk.' The boy, awakened by this, as if his soul were roused from a heavy sleep, and rising to a mood before unknown to him, became instinct with strength, agile, quick and ready of resolve, and calling to him a number of companions, placed himself by the wall of someone's house in secret, with attentive ears. Many were sitting within, and waiting for the cooking of a bullock cut up in their midst, which their cook was stirring about in a pot on the fire with a flesh-hook, and said the cook: 'I have found one very strange piece among the rest; I am always pushing it down and putting it under the others, and in a moment it turns up above them all.' 'That,' said [Gruffudd], 'is myself, whom many have tried and will try to keep down, but I shall always break out mightily, against all their wills.'
While we can place only limited historical value on the facts of this tale, it is a story worthy of comparison to the legends that built up around Alfred burning the cakes or Robert Bruce observing a persistent spider's attempts to spin a web in a damp cave. The survival of the tale indicates that folklore and mythology were building up around Gruffudd in the century after his death, signs of the impact that his reign had made in Wales and across the border. Such tales thrived even though Gruffudd had not founded a dynasty to nurture and develop propaganda about the deeds of his epic reign.
Blunting the Horns of Wales
Map's writings contain traditions that can be related to the political realities faced by the young Gruffudd. It has been seen that, after Llywelyn ap Seisyll's death, Deheubarth was contested between Rhydderch ab Iestyn and the sons of Edwin, Hywel and Maredudd. Gwynedd, meanwhile, passed to Iago ab Idwal, a member of the northern branch of the Merfyn Frych dynasty, although the chronicle does not date the start of his reign until 1033. This was the year that Rhydderch ab Iestyn was killed, and the Book of Llandaff claims that the latter had been 'ruling over all Wales' with the exception of the island of 'Euonia' (probably Anglesey) that was in the hands of Iago. Llywelyn's family had not disappeared from the scene, and may have been ruling at least a part of the northern kingdom. Llywelyn's brother, Cynan, was the senior representative of the dynasty whose powerbase, it has been suggested, was in Powys. The chronicle records that Cynan was 'slain' in 1027, and this has been associated with an attempt he may have made to win power in Gwynedd. Another explanation is equally possible though: the Tudor historian David Powel claims that the sons of Edwin were responsible for Cynan's downfall. If this is true, his death can be seen as part of the ongoing battle for control of Deheubarth. Rhydderch ab Iestyn's slaying in 1033 was followed a year later by conflict between his sons and the sons of Edwin at the Battle of Hiraethwy, the location and result of which is unknown. In 1035, Maredudd ab Edwin was killed by the otherwise unknown sons of Cynan. They are thought to be the offspring of Cynan ap Seisyll, and their action could be seen as revenge for the killing of their father by Maredudd and Hywel.
The name of Gruffudd ap Llywelyn is notably absent from this record of political violence in the late 1020s and early 1030s, most likely a testament to his youth and, possibly, to Map's picture of a 'lazy and sluggish' child. Map's description of the bobbing meat is followed by this passage:
Gladdened by so plain an omen he left his father, proclaimed war on his neighbours, and became a most crafty and formidable raider of others' goods; every band of scoundrels flocked pell-mell to him, and in no long time he was feared even by his father, after whose death he peaceably possessed all the bounds of Wales – peaceably, that is, but for the tyrannies he inflicted on his subjects. For he resembled Alexander of Macedon and all others in whom covetous lust destroys self-control, liberal, vigilant, quick, bold, courteous, affable, extravagant, pertinacious, untrustworthy, and cruel.
Map's description of the political scene cannot be taken literally. The idea of Gruffudd being militarily active during his father's lifetime does not accord with the chronology of other sources, and we must remember that it was not the writer's intention to deliver an accurate historical record. The passage would make more sense if the 'father' referred to was actually a foster father. It was accepted Welsh royal practice to send noble sons to the court of a fellow king or magnate for their education, a custom that reflected great honour on the foster father. Gerald of Wales, a twelfth-century product of the Anglo-Norman conquest of Pembrokeshire, believed that the institution contributed to incessant Welsh political and dynastic feuding:
[A] serious cause of dissension is the habit of the Welsh princes of entrusting the education of each of their sons to a different nobleman living in their territory. If the prince happens to die, each nobleman plots and plans to enforce the succession of his own foster-child and to make sure that he is preferred to the other brothers. The most frightful disturbances occur in their territories as a result, people being murdered, brothers killing each other and even putting each other's eyes out, for as everyone knows from experience it is very difficult to settle disputes of this sort.
It is possible that Gruffudd was raised in such a fashion after the death of Llywelyn, with Cynfyn ap Gwerystan, Cynan ap Seisyll and even Rhydderch ab Iestyn potential candidates to have been entrusted with the foster-father role.
Map's account of Gruffudd's activities in his early adolescence accords with what we know of the lives of other young and ambitious Welsh nobles. Gruffudd's raiding of his neighbours is described with a chiding air by the clerical writer, but if a leader were to prove his military skill he needed to display ability in this field. Ravaging, evasion and ambush were the key components of medieval warfare, a fact obscured by the overemphasis that has been placed on the role of the so-called 'decisive battle'. The winning and distributing of spoil was the main way for a leader to build and maintain the support of his most important institution: his military household or teulu. The Welsh laws describe the teulu as one of the three 'indispensables' of a king. In the prose tale Culhwch and Olwen – a work that is thought to have been first written down in the eleventh century and that was undoubtedly told in the courts of the day – King Arthur makes a speech declaring: 'We are noble men so long as others come to us, and the more gifts we distribute, the greater will be our reputation and fame and glory.' The Life of St Cadog was also first written down in the eleventh century, although it purports to describe sixth-century events. In one passage the nobles of St Cadog's father Gwynllyw, a notable military leader, complained when his religious son abstained from 'feasting, playing dice and other activities of the household ... What means this religion of our son? We were expecting the increase of our kingdom from him, who by his preaching destroys our household. Let us force him to warfare, because he knows better than us how to rule the people.' The Welsh chronicle describes a typical raiding foray in 1110, when the outlawed Owain ap Cadwgan was running wild with his followers in Ceredigion:
And his [Owain's] comrades went on forays to Dyfed and they plundered the land and seized the people and carried them off with them ... On another occasion they summoned 'hotheads' [W. ynfydion] from Ceredigion to add to the numbers along with them, and by night they came to a township of Dyfed and slew all that they found, and despoiled others and carried others off with them as prisoners to the ships, and thence sold them to their folk. And after burning the houses and killing the animals and carrying others off with them, they returned to Ceredigion.
Map's description of 'scoundrels flocking pell-mell' to join Gruffudd ap Llywelyn in his early years could be echoed by the Welsh chronicle's use of the term 'hotheads' or 'imbeciles'. Ynfydion was a term applied to the followers of both Owain in 1110 and those of Gruffudd ap Rhys in 1116, and it has been suggested that this was because they had disregarded the traditional bonds of society. Both Owain ap Cadwgan and Gruffudd ap Rhys broke 'horizontal' ties of lordship within Wales by attracting men from regions not under their own lordship. Rees Davies saw these 'hotheads' as the equivalent of the class of juvenes on the continent who drove feudal violence: young, restless men who were of the military class but without a patrimony, and who were, therefore, seeking glory, a livelihood and, above all, the chance to win land by joining the household of a lord of promise and ability. A youthful Gruffudd ap Llywelyn would have sought to recruit the best military talent to his household in order to fulfil his boundless ambition. The chroniclers were able to denigrate the 'hotheads' of 1110 and 1116 because of the ultimate failure of their ambitions. The men who chose to follow Gruffudd ap Llywelyn did not suffer such disappointment and hence avoided the censure of later writers.
The early years in the political careers of successful medieval Welsh kings were often dripping in blood, but there are suggestions that even by those standards Gruffudd's formative period was brutal. Walter Map continues thus:
Whatever young man he saw of good and strong promise, by some craft he either murdered him or maimed him to prevent his attaining manly strength, ever mindful of his own safety; and very quickly he became supreme, and this was his saying: 'I kill no-one, but I blunt the horns of Wales, that they may not hurt their mother.' Now Llywarch, nephew of [Gruffudd], a boy of good abilities, tall and handsome, who attained great successes and showed many signs of strength and worth, was one who, the king foreboded, would become great, and he feared for himself, and, vainly, tempted him with assiduous flattery. After long seeking he found him in a spot where the boy had no cause to fear for his safety, and said: 'Tell me, my dear one, why you should fly me, who am the surest of refuges for you and yours? It is an obstacle that you put in your own way and that of all your family, and there is nothing that can atone for the shame you put on yourself, but that kindly intercourse should join you to me who am already one with you in blood: if you have any fear of me, I will give you any sureties you may choose.' 'Then,' said the boy, 'I name as surety Hoel, whom you caused to be smothered in secret when he was upon your errand; Rotheric, whom you left-handedly received with a kiss and embrace and slew with a knife, Theodosius, whom as he walked and talked with you you tripped up with your foot and cast down the sheer rocks; and your nephew Meilin, whom you privily seized by guile and let him die loaded with chains in a dungeon'; and in like manner he reminded him of many more whom he had destroyed.
Again we should not look for absolute historical accuracy in the names or events of this story, although there is another intriguing reference to a man named Llywarch in Gruffudd's immediate entourage. It seems unlikely that Gruffudd's supposed mutilation and destruction of close family members in his rise to power refers to the offspring of his only known brothers, Bleddyn and Rhiwallon. They were younger than the king and are thought to have been supporters of Gruffudd's in his years of glory. The tale may preserve a kernel of truth regarding the manner of Gruffudd's rise to power and his treatment of other family, however. Map uniquely claims that Gruffudd had a sister, but we know no more of her and there is no certain record of any descendants. It is notable that there is no mention of Gruffudd's first cousins, the sons of Cynan ap Seisyll, after their killing of Maredudd ab Edwin in 1035. Gruffudd may have seen such capable and established military men as rivals for control of the family's client nobles and lands, and he may have chosen to 'blunt their horns' in order to facilitate his own rise.
Gruffudd Seizes Power
Gruffudd had been busy sharpening his own horns and – whatever the nature of his climb to prominence – by the late 1030s he was an accepted and established figure on the Welsh political scene. This was made clear in 1039 when he first attracted the attention of the native chronicle:
Iago, king of Gwynedd was slain. And in his place ruled Gruffudd ap Llywelyn ap Seisyll; and he, from his beginning to the end, pursued the Saxons and the other Gentiles and slaughtered and destroyed them, and defeated them in a great number of battles. He fought his first battle at Rhyd-y-groes on the Severn, and there he prevailed. In that year he pillaged Llanbadarn and held rule over Deheubarth and he expelled Hywel ab Edwin from his territory.
Gruffudd is not specifically implicated in the slaying of Iago ab Idwal in the most reliable versions of the Welsh chronicle, but the fact that he was the chief beneficiary means that supposition is inevitable. The key to the question of guilt in the elimination of Iago may lie in the equally puzzling problem faced in trying to identify Gruffudd's own killer in 1063. The strong suggestion is that Iago's son Cynan – who was driven out of Wales to Ireland after his father's death – was heavily involved in this. But, even if we leave this debate aside for the moment, strong circumstantial evidence associated with the events of 1039 intimates that Gruffudd played a part in the destruction of the reigning King of Gwynedd. In his formative years Gruffudd had ruthlessly constructed a local powerbase and recruited the best available military talent, and an aggressive takeover of Gwynedd would seem to be the logical next step. Moreover, the speed of Gruffudd's actions after Iago's death suggests a well-prepared and expertly executed plan designed to regain his father's position as the supreme king in Wales. His actions are not those of a lucky chancer who simply seized on Iago's timely demise.
Excerpted from The Last King of Wales by Michael Davies, Sean Davies. Copyright © 2012 Michael & Sean Davies,. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
1 The Early Years 23
2 The Battle for Deheubarth 36
3 The Years of Glory 48
4 King of Wales 73
5 The Killing of a King 105
6 Gruffudd's Legacy 123