King of Gwynedd 1039-1063
King of Deheubarth 1044-1047 and 1055-1063
His father was Llywelyn ap Seisyll, who had earlier seized the throne of Gwynedd, and his mother was Angharad, the daughter of Maredudd ab Owain. He therefore had royal connections but had no immediate prospects of power. Not that Gruffudd ap Llywelyn was the sort of man to let that stand in his way.
His rise to power
In 1039 he became king of both Gwynedd and Powys by the simple expedient of killing the incumbent, Iago ap Idwal. His next priority was to deal with the ever present threat from the English. He gathered an army, and at Rhyd y Groes (Crossford) on the river Severn, near Welshpool, he utterly crushed an English army led by Leofric, Earl of Mercia and therby established effective mastery of the border.
Gruffudd then turned his attention to Deheubarth and in 1041 he inflicted a heavy defeat on its ruler Hywel ab Edwin. But despite this defeat Hywel seems to have managed to retain sufficient control to frustrate Gruffudd's objective of the complete conquest of Deheubarth. It was not until 1044 that Gruffudd was able to force matters to a conclusion. At the battle of Aber Tywi he defeated Hywel and his Irish troops, killed Hywel and became master of Deheubarth as well as Gwynedd and Powys.
Revolt in Deheubarth
Unfortunately the people of Deheubarth rather resented the rule of this northern usurper and when one Gruffudd ap Rhydderch (who was nothing more than an adventurer from the south east, and almost as ruthless and forceful individual as his namesake Gruffudd ap Llwewlyn) arrived to try his luck, they flocked to his banner of revolt.
Gruffudd ap Llwewlyn reacted by forming an alliance with Swegen Godwinson (earl of the border region which included Herefordshire and Gloucestershire). In 1046, a combined Welsh and English army invaded Deheubarth, and ravaged the countryside. However, if anything this helped strengthen Gruffudd ap Rhydderch and allowed him to portray himself as the defender of southern liberties.
In 1047, Gruffudd ap Llywelyn was ambushed in Ystrad Tywi, and barely escaped with his life. For the present Gruffudd ap Rhydderch established himself as king of Deheubarth.
Political Changes in England
At the time the politics of England where dominated by a disorderly struggle between the house of Godwin, the king Edward the Confessor and the other various magnates of England. In 1051 the Earl Godwine and his sons fled England and were formally outlawed. Edward the Confessor replaced the oulawed Swegen Godwinson with one of his nephews, a Norman named Ralph. Ralph presently began organising a combined Norman and English to challenge Gruffudd.
Faced with this new threat (and freed from his obligations to Earl Swegen) in 1052 Gruffudd ap Llywelyn rapidly advanced into Herefordshire and caught Ralph's forces by surprise and defeated them. Retiring with his spoils and heightened prestige, Gruffudd ap Llywelyn was at last able to turn his attention west once more, eliminating Gruffudd ap Rhydderch, and reuniting Deheubarth to his realms.
In England however the Earl Godwine returned with an army and managed to get the vedict ot oulawry reversed, and although he was dead within the year, his son Harold (the future king Harold II) continued his family's pusuit of power. By 1055 Harold was sufficently confident to cook up a false charge of treason against Aelfgar Earl of East Anglia (the son indeed of the Leofric that Gruffudd had earlier defeated at Rhyd y Groes.). Aelfgar fled to Wales and sought support from Gruffudd.
Alliance with Aelfgar
In 1055 Gruffudd ap Llywelyn resumed his aggressive policy towards the English. His new ally Aelfgar had gathered a Scandinavian force from Ireland and together they launched a combined attack on the English forces in Herefordshire which Ralph had been busy reorganising. The two armies met few miles outside the city of Hereford, Ralph was routed; Aelfgar and Gruffudd were thus able to storm Hereford, which they naturally then burned and looted in the traditional fashion.
As the Brut y Tywysogion puts it
the Saxons, unable to bear the assault of the Britons, took to flight, and
fell with a very great slaughter. Gruffudd closely pursued them to the
fortress, which he entered, and depopulated and demolished the fortress,
and burned the town; and from thence, with very great booty, he returned
happily and victoriously to his own country.
or indeed as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
The enemy then made a great slaughter there - about four hundred or five hundred men; they on the other side none. They went then to the town, and burned it utterly
Gruffudd then seems to have taken the opportunity presented by this victory to expel a large number of the English
from the borderland and repossess territories such as Radnor and Presteigne that had previously been lost.
Harold responded by appointing a fighting priest named Leofgar as bishop of Hereford to strengthen Ralph. Leofgar organised an army, marched into Wales but only managed to get himself and a great deal of his troops killed. Harold then took charge of matters himself and launched an invasion of Wales but was unable to make much headway. The difficulty of the terrain together with the Welsh tactics of refusing to give battle and resorting to guerilla warfare strained Harold's supply lines. In the face of powerful opposition Harold was forced to come to terms; Aelfgar was reinstated as earl of East Anglia, and Gruffudd was allowed to keep his border conquests.
Gruffudd and Aelfgar cemented their alliance in the traditional manner when Grufydd married Aelfgar's daughter, Ealdgyth. In 1057 Leofric died and Aelfgar became earl of Mercia further strengthening Grufydd's hand. He was now able to further consolidate his position and seize Morgannwg by driving out its ruler Cadwgan ap Meurig. Thus Gruffudd was able to unite the whole of Wales under one rule.
The Death of Aelfgar
Aelfgar died in the year 1062, depriving Gruffudd of a great source of his strength. Harold now felt strong enough to disregard the treaty, and with the support of the southern Welsh (who naturally preferred rule by their own kings rather than some northern upstart), he launched a surprise winter attack on Rhuddlan where Gruffudd had his llys; but Gruffudd slipped away and managed to escape by sea.
So in the summer of 1063 Harold launched a second assault, a much larger scale operation with a fleet supporting the army, that landed one force that attacked central Gwynedd, whilst another force drove along the northern coast. This time, Gruffudd was trapped in the mountains of Snowdonia, and with English forces rampaging all over the north his supporters began to drift away.
Gruffudd was killed and his head sent to Harold as a token of submission. Whether he was killed by his own men or by his native enemies no one is quite sure. The Ulster Chronicles claim that it was Cynan ap Iago, acting in revenge for the death of his father Iago ap Idwal. But other sources state that Cynan died in exile in 1060 and in any case Cynan was not alive to contest the succession to kingdom of Gwynedd.
Harold made little attempt to annex any territory in Wales as the result of his victory; he contented himself with ensuring that Wales reverted to its normal state of disunity with different kings coming to power in Gwynedd, Powys, Deheubarth, Morgannwg and Gwent.
Harold married Gruffudd's widow Ealdgyth and used the prestige gained by his victory over Gruffudd to support his claim for the English throne when Edward the Confessor died soon afterwards.
Gruffudd ap Llywelyn was quite probably the most ruthless son of a bitch that Wales ever produced, whose hands were stained with the blood of his rivals. He is, probably apocraphly recorded as justifying himself with the words,
Talk not of killing. I only blunt the horns of the progeny of Wales lest they should wound their dam.
However he managed, if only for six short years, to unite the whole of the country under one ruler, an achievement no other Welsh ruler had managed before him and a feat which no subsequent ruler ever managed to emulate. In the context of the disorderly politics that constituted medieval Wales this was an outstanding achievement, even if its accomplishment did require a certain amount of brutality.
Gruffudd's activities caused great concern in England, as he was the first Welsh ruler since Cadwallon ap Cadfan who demonstrated the capacity to influence English politics. Like Cadwallon four centuries earlier, he showed that a strong Welsh ruler together with an English ally could be a serious threat to the stability of England.
It was a lesson, that perhaps the Normans were to understand only too well.