Owain ap Gruffudd ap Cynan
Known as Owain Gwynedd, also sometimes known as Owain Fawr or 'Owain the Great'
King of Gwynedd 1137-1170
born circa 1109, died 1170


Owain ap Gruffudd was the eldest son of Gruffudd ap Cynan who became known as Owain 'Gwynedd' simply to distinguish him from his contemporary Owain ap Gruffudd ap Maredeudd of Powys who was known as Owain Cyfeiliog. He was undoubtedly the architect of Venodation expansion during the latter years of his father's reign between 1118 to 1137, and for most of his reign followed the same policy of patient expansion.

Expansion continued

When he succeeded his father in 1137 he was fortunate that the death of the Anglo-Norman king Henry I in 1135 led to one of those periods of weakness in English government, which was the signal for more vigorous and more hostile policies by the Welsh.

He began his reign by attacking Ceredigion with the assistance of his brother Cadwaladr and his son Hywel. In 1146 he seized Mold in the north, whilst in the south his son Hywel, allied with the grandsons of Rhys ap Twedwr took the castles at Dinefwr and Llanstephan and overran Carmarthen. The following year they moved against the Flemish colonists of Dyfed and captured Wiston castle.

In 1149, came the Norman reaction; Ranulf, the earl of Chester allied himself with Madog ap Maredudd of Powys and marched into Wales against Owain. Owain however managed to ambush his opponents in a wood at Consyllt or Colehill and sent them scurrying back home.

Internal disputes

In 1143 his brother Cadwaladr, who held territories in Ceredigion and Meirionydd had a disagreement with Anarawd ap Gruffudd over some land boundaries, took matters into his own hands and killed poor Anarawd. Owain was rather annoyed at this rash action as he'd been hoping to marry of his daughter to Anarawd and cement an alliance; he sent two of his son in pursuit of Cadwaladr who fled to exile in Ireland and promptly returned in the traditional fashion with some mercanaries. Owain however managed to negotiate a peaceful solution and Cadwaladr returned to his former position.

But a few years later in 1147 two of Owain's sons, Cynan and Hywel decided to take over Cadwaladr's lands in Meirionydd, (they probably viewed Cadwaladr as a threat to their own inheritance) and in 1150 they seized Cadwaladr's son Cadfan and his lands in Ceredigion. Two years later Owain had a further nephew Cunedda ap Cadwallon mutiliated and finally drove Cadwaladr out of Gwynedd altogther.

The re-establishment of Deheubarth

All this family infighting rather weakened Gwynedd's hold over the south and in 1151 the grandsons of Rhys ap Tewdwr made the most of the opportunity, turned against their sponsors and made Ceredigion their own; they established themselves at Dinefwr and moved into Gower. These three sons of Gruffudd ap Rhys; Maredudd, Cadell and Rhys were seeking to re-establish the kingdom of Deheubarth, in much the same way that Owain had done with Gwynedd.

Whereas earlier they had sought assistance from Owain in their struggles against the Flemish colonists in the south of Dyfed they now felt sufficiently confident to strike out on their own. Owain was initially distracted by both the conflict with his brother and the lure of territorial gains in the north east from Powys, but by 1156 he was ready to move south against the surviving brother Rhys. But rather than do battle the two rulers seem to have reached an understanding.

It is to Owain's credit that he realised that there was a greater threat looming on the horizon. After twenty years England had a king that would once more seek to impose his will on Wales.

Against Henry II

In 1154 the accession of Henry II to the throne radically changed the picture. Destined to be one of England's most powerful monarchs, Henry II took a keen interest in subduing the resurgent Welsh kings and Owain Gwynedd in particular.

In Powys, Madog ap Maredudd rapidly reached an accomodation with the new king and was ready to assist Henry II when he moved his army into Wales in 1157. Faced with a large invading Norman force, Owain decided to sue for peace and agreed to return Tegeingl to the earl of Chester and surrender Rhuddlan. Owain was even prepared to lend support to Henry II in his attempts to deal with Rhys ap Gruffudd in the south.

But with the death of Madog ap Maredudd in 1160 and his son Llywelyn shortly afterwards, Powys split into two, and Owain was able to take advantage and seize Arwystli. Without the support of Madog ap Maredudd in seeking to restrain Owain, Henry II had to seek other methods of achieving the same aim. An attempt was made at the Council of Woodstock to persuade Owain and the other Welsh kings to formal accept a downgrading their status from clients to vassals of the English king.

This was too much for Owain, who together with Rhys ap Gruffydd rose in rebellion. So widespread was the revolt that Henry II took great pains to raise a large force to supress it, hiring and requisitioning troops from throughout his scattered domains. He gathered his forces at Shrewsbury, marched to Oswestry, intending to make his way along the Ceiriog valley and across the Berwyn mountains to relieve the besieged fortresses of Rhuddlan and Basingwerk. Against Henry II was arranged (for once) a united Welsh army comprising forces from Gwynedd, Powys and Deheubarth. The Welsh strategy was straightforward; heavily outnumbered, they avoided a pitched battle and subjected the Anglo-Norman forces to a series of ambushes and raids. The resulting battle of Crogen proved to be an ignominous defeat for Henry. He made it to the top of the Berwyn mountains all right, but the at the cost of significant losses in both men and material. Those that were left were wet, short of food, sick from dysentry and deserting by the dozen.

So Henry went home. By the time he got back to Shrewsbury he was in a rage. He ordered twenty two hostages brought before him, including two of Owain Gwynedd's sons and one of Rhys ap Gruffydd and personally supervised the blinding and mutilation of each one of them. In the south Rhys ap Gruffydd retaliated by killing every Norman he could get his hands on. Owain's response was a little more measured, he simply recaptured Tegeingl and destroyed Rhuddlan castle, and when Henry's second attempt at subduing Wales failed the following year, he captured Basingwerk castle as well.

The end

Owain was now at the peak of his power and influence; in 1168 he opened negotiations with Louis VII of France hoping to gain French recognition and support for his struggles to maintain the independence of Gwynedd. These discussions were still ongoing when Owain died rather unexpectedly in 1170. Despite being technically excommunicated (the Norman controlled church condemning him as a traitor to the crown) Owain Gwynedd was buried with full honours at Bangor Cathedral (the local clergy presumably taking more notice of who was actually in charge thereabouts).

He was the principal architect of the revival of Gwynedd after the Norman occupation of the years 1075-1093 where he followed his father, Gruffudd's patient footsteps. He succeeded in dominating the whole of the Perfeddwlad and extended the boundaries of Gwynedd almost to the walls of Chester itself. He defeated one of the most powerful monarchs in Europe, making the best of whatever opportunities presented themselves. His one failure was that he did not secure his succession; his eldest son Hywel was killed soon afterwards by his two younger brothers Dafydd and Rhodri who together with another son Maelgwyn divided up Gwynedd between them, a situation that persisted for another generation until another gentleman by the name of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth came along to follow Owain's blueprint and rebuild Gwynedd once more.

Although Owain Gwynedd styled himself as rex or king, in the later years of his reign he also adopted the title princeps Wallensium, that is 'the prince of the Welsh'. This clearly indicated a claim to leadership of the entire nation and marked a major shift in perception by the rulers of Gwynedd. They began to see themselves not simply as leaders of a particular kingdom within Wales, who might or might not succeed in dominating Wales by military conquest, but as the natural leaders of the Welsh and the focus for resistance against the growing pressure from their neighbour England.

The Brut y Tywysogion recorded his death with the words

Owain ap Gruffudd ap Cynan, prince of Gwynedd, the man who was of great goodness and very great nobility and wisdom, the bulwark of all Wales, after innumerable victories, and unconquered from his youth, and without ever having refused anyone that for which he asked, died after taking penance and communion and confession and making a good end.

A note on Owain's descendants.

Owain seems to have had two 'official' wives, Gwladus and C Cristin, but seems to have had relationships with at least another seven women and accordingly is believed to have fathered fifeen children, (It is a wonder perhaps, that he had any time to do anything else.) although opinions seem to differ about which mother begat which child. At least ten seem to have been sons which must have been a contributory factor in the comparative anarchy that followed his death.


  • The Welsh Kings by Kari Mundi (Tempus 2000)
  • A History of Wales by John Davies (Allen Lane 1993)
  • www.bbc.co.uk/history/timelines/wales/owain.shtml
  • http://www.red-dragon-wales.com/welshprinces

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