King of Gwynedd (1099-1137)
born c1055 died 1137
He was a man of moderate stature, with yellow hair, a lively brain and round face, of good colour, and large fine eyes, fair eyebrows and fine beard, with round neck, white skin, strong limbs, long fingers, straight legs, comely feet. He was clever and eloquent in several languages. He was also noble, and merciful towards his people, cruel towards his enemies, and most ferocious in battle. From the Historia Gruffud vab Kenan
Gruffudd was the grandson of Iago ap Idwal who had been king of Gwynedd in the year 1039, before being deposed and killed by Gruffudd ap Llywelyn. His father Cynan 1 then fled into exile in Ireland where he married a daughter of the Norse king of Dublin. Gruffudd ap Cynan was consequently born in Ireland and therefore at least part Viking.
After the death of Gruffudd ap Llywelyn in 1063 the throne of Gwynedd passed to his half brother Bleddyn ap Cynfyn and then into the hands of a cousin Trahaern ap Caradog. Despite this, Gruffudd ap Cynan still saw himself as the legitimate heir to Gwynedd, and in 1075 he made his move to recover his inheritance. He raided Anglesey and then landed on the mainland with a force of Irish mercenaries. He was initially successfull and defeated Trahaern at the battle of Gwaed Erw in Meirionydd, and proceeded to burn Rhuddlan castle, held by the Norman colonial, Robert of Rhuddlan.2
However his Irish mercenaries fell out with the natives, and Trahaern ap Caradog returned with an army from Powys. Gruffudd was defeated in the battle of Bron-yr-Erw and expelled from Wales.
Gruffudd may have failed in his first attempt at gaining Gwynedd but he was not about to give up and soon a new opportunity presented itself.
In the south Rhys ap Tewdwr ruled Deheubarth whilst one Caradog ap Gruffudd had established himself as ruler of much of the south-east and had designs upon Deheubarth as well. Trahaern threw his weight behind Caradog (no doubt hoping for a share of the spoils), which left Rhys in dire need of an ally. He found one in Gruffudd ap Cynan, who in 1081 landed along with his Hiberno-Norse mercenaries in support of Rhys ap Tewdwr and together they faced the combined onslaught of Trahaern and Caradog.
The resulting battle of Mynydd Carn was decisive and had important consequences for Wales. Rhys and Gruffudd won the day and both Trahaern and Caradog were killed.
This left Gruffudd free to move north and claim the vacant throne of Gwynedd. Unfortunately, he hardly had time to enjoy his new found power before he was captured by Robert of Rhuddlan and delivered into the hands of Hugh the Fat, earl of Chester who promptly had him imprisoned.
The first revolt against the Normans
In 1094 most of Wales rose in revolt against the Normans. The exact nature of Gruffudd's role in this affair has been a matter of debate. The tendency has been to ascribe to Gruffudd a pivotal role in the revolt, but the current view is to view the leader of the revolt as Cadwgan ap Bleddyn of Powys as it is most likely that Gruffudd was still languishing in prison at the time.
The most likely scenario is that Gruffudd managed to effect his escape in 1098, (There is even some suggestion that Gruffudd may have been allowed to escape with the intention of destablising the leadership of the revolt.) and joined foreces with Cadwgan. They were soon forced to retreat as the combined forces of the Norman earls of Chester and Shrewsbury invaded Wales.
Cadwgan and Gruffudd were forced back into Anglesey where Gruffudd again called on Viking forces from Dublin to assist him, but they proved untrusworthy, and accepted bribes to convey the Norman forces across the Menai Straits. Both Cadwgan and Gruffudd were forced to flee to Ireland leaving the Normans in possession of Anglesey. But fortunately another Viking fleet, under the command of Magnus Baraleg (the Barefoot) king of Norway which happened to be passing by, intervened. Hugh of Shrewsbury was killed in the subsequent battle and the Norman army retreated back to England.
The surviving Earl of Chester decided he'd had enough and sought terms; with the resulting treaty Gruffudd was confirmed as king of Gwynedd.
Finally king of Gwynedd
Despite finally securing the throne of Gwynedd Grufudd's position was essentially insecure, it was a much reduced kingdom, and his territories were most likely limited to those of Anglesey. His anonymous biographer 3 claimed that he "ruled with deliberation and peace,and with customary neighbourliness with the kings nearest him" . His daughter was married off to Cadwgan of Powys, whilst he himself married Angharad, daughter of Owain ab Edwin of Tegeingl.
Essentially he kept his head down and avoided conflict with the more powerful rulers of Powys and in particular the Norman king Henry I and concentrated on slowly expanding his influence on the mainland.
The revival of Gwynedd
The unexpected early demise of Owain ap Cadwgan 4king of Powys in 1116 signalled a waning of the power of Powys.
At the time the cantrefi of Rhos and Rhufoniog were held by Hywel ab Ithel a client of Powys, who was now faced with an attack from the sons of Owain ab Edwin, namely Goronwy, Rhirid and Meilir who held the cantref of Dyffryn Clwyd 5.
Hywel appealed for support from Maradeudd ap Bleddyn and in the resulting battle fought somewhere in Dyffryn Clwyd the forces of Powys were victorious, but Hywel ab IthelHywel later died of his wounds. Gruffudd ap Cynan took advantage of the dislocation to bring Rhos and Rhufoniog back under the control of Gwynedd.
Gwynedd now began to regain something like its old shape, but of course Gruffudd was by now an old man of seventy or so. Fortunately he had three vigorous and aggressive sons to rely on to pursue his dynastic ambitions on his behalf.
In 1124 his sons Cadwallon and Owain Gwynedd were gaining control of Meirionydd(previously under the sway of Powys) and in 1125 they killed the three aformentioned sons of Owain ap Edwin and seized Dyffryn Clwyd. Although Cadwallon was killed in 1132, Owain Gwynedd and a younger brother Cadwaladr continued the policy of expansion and in 1135 taking advantage of the death of Henry I and the dispute over the succession to the English crown and invaded Ceredigion, attacking and destroying Norman settlements and castles. By the time Gruffudd died in 1137 they had taken almost all of the Norman strongholds in Ceredigion and firmly established the rule of Gwynedd.
If there was a prize for persistence amongst the kings of medieval Wales Gruffudd ap Cynan would be the undoubted winner. Nothing, not exile, not imprisonment, not defeat in battle could deflect Gruffudd from his aim of becoming king.
From particularly inaspicious beginnings he firstly, managed to establish himself as the ruler of Gwynedd and secondly, re-esatablished Gwynedd as the most powerful kingdom in Wales. It was his descendents that were destined to rule Gwynedd for the next century and a half and play out the final struggle of the Welsh kings for independence.
The Brut y Tywysogion recorded his death as follows,
Gruffudd ap Cynan, prince of Gwynedd and head and king and defender and pacifier of all Wales, ended his temporal life in Christ after receiving extreme unction and communion and confession and repentance for his sins, and becoming a monk and making a good end in his perfect old age.
1 His father Cynan ab Idwal was, according to some sources, responsible for killing Gruffudd ap Llywelyn in 1063; in any event it was likely that Cynan himself died shortly afterwards, leaving his son languishing in exile.
2 This was despite having previously gained Robert's support for is seizure of power. Gruffudd may ahve made have later cause to regret this action.
3 Gruffudd has distinction of the only Welsh king to be the subject of a a relatively contemporary biography, written some twenty years after his death. Although it is actually more political manifesto asserting the abolute right of Gruffudd to rule Gwynedd and his primacy amongst the kings of Wales. It was originally written in Latin but only the Welsh version has survived.
4 Owain ap Cadwgan had inherited his father's kingdom in 1111, but died in 1116 at the hands of the Normans. His uncle Maradeudd ap Bleddyn succeeded him.
5 The three brothers seem to have held Dyffryn Clwyd as a semi-independent kingdom. They were related to Grufudd as their sister Angharad was his wife.
- The Welsh Kings by Kari Mundi (Tempus 2000)
- A History of Wales by John Davies (Allen Lane 1993)