King of Powys Wenwynwyn (1197-1216)
Born c 1151 Died 1216
Powys Wenwynwyn was but the southern half of the fractured kingdom of Powys that had arisen following the disputed succession that arose after the deaths of both Madog ap Maredudd and his son Llywelyn in 1260. Southern Powys had fallen under the sway of one Owain Cyfeiliog1, and when he died in 1197 he was succeeded by his son Gwenwynwyn, who was to give his name to the kingdom.
In the footsteps of Rhys ap Gruffudd
The year 1197 had also been notable for the death of Rhys ap Gruffudd ruler of Deheubarth. Now Rhys ap Gruffudd had adopted a leading and dominant position in Wales throughout most of the latter half of the twelfth century, particularly in the years following the death of Owain Gwynedd in 1170. Gwenwynwyn rather fancied himself as the natural successor to Rhys' and undertook a series of campaigns designed to achieve this end.
Gwenwynwyn seized control of the cantref of Arwystli and engaged in a number of attacks in western Shropshire as well as seeking to expand his influence in Ceredigion where the sons of Rhys ap Gruffudd where engaged in a civil war.
In 1198 he persuaded most of the leading rulers of Wales, including Llywelyn ap Iorwerth of Gwynedd, to support him in launching an assault on the English stronghold of Painscastle. As the Brut y Tywysogion relates it;
Gwenwynwyn gathered a mighty host to seek to win for the Welsh their original rights and laid seige to Painscastle. And the Saxons gathered all the might of England and fell upon the Welsh and immediately drove them to flight and slew untold numbers of them like sheep.
In the shadow of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth
His assault on Painscastle therefore proved to be an ignominous failure and entirely destroyed his reputation within Wales and any claims he might have made to leadership. In any event Wales now had a better candidate in Llywelyn ap Iorwerth of Gwynedd who was gradually expanding his powerbase and seeking to emulate the widespread dominion of his grandfather Owain Gwynedd.
By 1202 Llywelyn
was eager to attack Gwenwynwyn who he naturally viewed as a rival an obstacle to the growth of Gwynedd
. However Llywelyn
was unable to gain sufficient support for such a design and so decided to make peace instead.
In the next few years Gwenwynwyn made some attempts to expand into Ceredigion but without much lasting success, whereas Llywelyn was making a far better job in expanding his control over the north and by 1208 was beginning to make threatening moves in Gwenwynwyn's direction once more.
In the October of 1208, Gwenwynwyn went to Shrewsbury to meet king John of England but there was presumably some disagreement as Gwenwynwyn was seized and imprisoned. Llywelyn promptly took advantage of the situation to invade Powys Wenwynwyn and gained possession of all of it
No doubt it eventually occured to John that Llywelyn was the greater threat and that Gwenwynwyn might prove to be a useful counterbalance to the power of Gwynedd. When John invaded Wales in 1211 to impose his terms upon Llywelyn and his supporters, he installed Gwenwynwyn in Powys Wenwynwyn once more.
Gwenwynwyn however showed little gratitude to John as in the following year he allied himself with Llywelyn ap Iorwerth and the other rulers of Wales who rose in rebellion against the harsh terms which John had imposed in 1211, and was one of three Welsh princes specifically absolved by Pope Innocent III from their oaths of allegiance to the English king.2
The rebellion against John
During the years 1212 to 1216 the rebellion enjoyed great success under the leadership of Llywelyn (the Welsh even took Shrewsbury) but despite his formal membership of the pact made in 1212 Gwenwynwyn played only a minor role and made no major territorial gains as a result.
Four years later Gwenwynwyn twisted in the wind once more, renounced his pact of 1212 and made terms with John again. Llywelyn tried to persuade Gwenwynwyn to change his mind but when he didn't, he came with an army to take control of Powys Wenwynwyn once more and Gwenwynwyn fled east to the safety of Chester.
Gwenwynwyn died in exile shortly afterwards (as did king John himself) leaving a son named Gruffudd who was too young to inherit and Powys Wenwynwyn firmly in the hands of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth.
Gwenwynwyn does not seem to have had any particular military talents as the failure of his near suicidal attack on Painscastle demonstrated, neither did he have the necessary diplomatic skills to compensate. Despite beginning his reign as one of the more powerful leaders in Wales he was very rapidly eclipsed by Llywelyn ap Iorwerth of Gwynedd.
Once Gwenwynwyn was faced with the power of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth he needed allies to maintain his position, and with Deheubarth disintegrating into civil war and the rest of Wales held by a patchwork of minor Norman and Welsh lords the only available source of support was John of England. It was his misfortune that John turned out to be rather unreliable.
Gwenwynwyn's life serves to illustrate one fact, the lack of unanimity amongst the various rulers of medieval Wales. They were rarely motivated by any kind of nationalistic consciousness but rather by their own simple self interest. For Gwenwynwyn his primary objective was maintaining his own position as ruler of his won little patch, and if that meant allying himself with the hated Saxons from across the border then so be it.
1 Actually Owain ap Gruffudd but known as Owain Cyfeiliog to distinguish him from the other contemporary Owain ap Gruffudd known as Owain Gwynedd.
2 The whole of England and Wales had been placed under interdiction since 1208 due to a dispute between John and the Pope over the election of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Brut y Tywysogion
John Davies A History of Wales (Allen Lane, 1993)
Kari Mundi The Welsh Kings (Tempus, 2000)