Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd was born sometime around 1100 AD, the youngest daughter of Gruffydd ap Cynan, the King of Gwynedd, and his wife Angharad. She was born at Aberffraw, which was one of the major seats of the Gwynedd kings in the middle ages.
Somewhere after the age 13, Gruffydd ap Rhys, the King of Deheubarth, came on a diplomatic mission to Gwynedd. Despite the age difference, she and Gruffydd fell in love and eloped! There’s obviously a significant story there about which we know nothing more.
Gwenllian was Gruffydd’s second wife, so she became stepmother to Anarawd and Cadell, both of whom became Kings of Deheubarth after their father’s death in 1137. Gwenllian herself had at least seven children with Gruffydd.
Throughout Gwenllian’s marriage to Gruffydd, the Welsh of Deheubarth were struggling to hold back the Norman conquest of South Wales. With the unrest in England between Stephen and Maud over who was the rightful ruler, in what has become known as The Anarchy, the Welsh saw their opportunity and began to take back the lands the Normans had taken previously.
By 1136,the war was at its height, and Gruffydd rode north to enlist help in the fight from Gwenllian’s father and brothers. Gwenllian remained at home to hold the fort (literally).
As the story goes, the Normans took the opportunity of Gruffydd’s absence to increase their raiding, and Gwenllian had to raise an army to defend her lands. The 12th century chronicler, Gerald of Wales, wrote that Gwenllian rode forth at the head of an army ’like some second Penthesilea, queen of the Amazons’.
Though she had initial success, her army was defeated at Kidwelly Castle, and Gwenllian herself was captured and executed. Some sources say that before her execution she was displayed from the battlements as a warning to the Welsh and then hanged from it. At Kidwelly Castle, they point to a field near the castle where gallows were constructed and she was hanged. Others say she was beheaded. What is not in question is that the Normans killed her.
Doing so was far outside the bounds of usual warfare, and Gwenllian’s death galvanized the Welsh throughout Wales into action. Once Gwenllian’s father, brothers, and husband heard of her death, they agreed to ally with each other–and exact revenge. In the subsequent months, their combined force regained the entire northern portion of Deheubarth, known as Ceredigion, with the single exception of Cardigan Castle.
For centuries, a Welsh battle cry was “Revenge for Gwenllian”. Another lasting legacy was the life of her youngest son, Rhys, who ruled most of Wales from 1153 to his death in 1197.