Gruffudd ap Llywelyn

Gruffudd ap Llywelyn was probably the most successful and ruthless of all the rulers of Medieval Wales, who seized control of the kingdom of Gwynedd in 1039 by killing its king Iago ap Idwal, managed to take control of Deheubarth by 1056 and dispossessed Cadwgan ap Meurig of Morgannwg in 1057. He thus united all of Wales under one rule for the first and only time in its history.

He also twice defeated the English in battle, raided and burnt Hereford to the ground, retook many districts such as, Bangor Is-coed, Presteigne and Radnor that had previously been 'lost' to England and even appeared before the gates of Chester with an army to frighten the citizens therein. All these various activities naturally caused a certain amount of concern on the other side of the border for Gruffudd ap Llywelyn was the first Welsh ruler since Cadwallon ap Cadfan in the seventh century, to seriously intrude upon the English consciousness.

A major factor in Gruffudd's success was his ability to exploit the political divisions that existed within England at that time; specifically between Harold Godwinson and almost everybody else. Gruffudd was able to forge a series of alliances with English magnates, most notably with Aelfgar the eaolderman or earl of Mercia.

Unfortunately when Aelfgar died in 1062, Gruffudd was forced to face the wrath of Harold Godwinson alone and Harold found no shortage of assistance within Wales, due to the many enemies that Gruffudd had made during his rise to power. Within a year Gruffudd was dead and all Wales was effectively in Harold's grasp.

The Pax Anglicana

At the time Harold Godwinson had no interest in the conquest of Wales as such, his objective had simply been to get rid of Gruffudd and establish a settlement that maintained the peace and didn't get in the way of his other ambitions. Other than possibly in Gwent, he harboured no territorial ambitions and appeared content to allow the Welsh to continue to rule themselves, leaving him time to attend to far more important issues. Issues such as dealing with his erratic brother Tostig and pursuing his long-term goal of securing the succession for himself.

Harold's had no great plan for Wales and his settlement was based on the simple principle of trying to restore the status quo that had existed before Gruffudd ap Llywelyn.

Therefore in both Deheubarth and Morgannwg (the south-west and south-east of Wales respectively) the old dynasties were allowed to return. In Morgannwg this allowed the previously displaced Cadwgan ap Meurig to return from exile, whilst in Deheubarth, Maredudd ab Owain the younger brother of the Hywel ab Owain killed earlier by Gruffudd re-established his line in Deheubarth.

In Gwynedd it was slightly different as there appeared to be no representative of the old line of Iago ap Idwal available, but no matter as two brothers by the name of Bleddyn and Rhiwallon ap Cynfyn stepped forward and Harold was content to give them the job despite the prominent role they had played in Gruffudd's warband.

In this way the political geography of Wales was established, with these new kings of Wales swearing the usual oaths of fealty to good king Edward back in Westminster. Harold could return to normal business in England confident that his Pax Anglicana had now restored order to Wales and guaranteed the peace of the western border.

But whereas the sons oF Cynfyn night have been suitably humble in 1063 with Harold's army on their doorstep, once he was gone and pre-occupied with other affairs, it was a different matter. There seemed little to prevent Bleddyn ap Cynfyn from supporting the Northumbrian rebellion of Edwin and Morcar in 1065 or indeed from later striking an alliance with Eadric the Wild in 1067 and raiding Herefordshire.

As soon as Harold Godwinson had turned his back on Wales his Pax Anglicana rapidly disintegrated; the result was not peace and order but eighteen years of bloody conflict.

The end of Gwent and the coming of the Normans

The first sign of trouble was in the south were one Caradog ap Gruffudd managed to take advantage of the disruption caused by Gruffudd's death and impose himself upon the cantref of Gwynllwg, detaching it from the control of Morgannwg and its king Cadwgan ap Meurig. Caradog ap Gruffudd was thereafter to wage a campaign of intimidation against Cadwgan ap Meurig as he tried to bring the rest of Morgannwg under his control.

By seizing control of Gwynllwg, a cantref or territory which lay between the rivers Rhymney and Usk, Caradog physically separated Gwent which lay to the east of Gwynllwg between the rivers Usk and Wye from Morgannwg to the west. This clearly raises the question of who was actually running Gwent at the time.

It is known that Harold Godwinson built a hunting lodge in Gwent for the very simple reason that Caradog ap Gruffudd raided and destroyed said hunting lodge in the year 1065. It is therefore plausible to suggest that Harold had taken charge of Gwent and that Caradog was challenging this control.

Of course the year 1066 involved a significant change of management in England so that in a sense it hardly mattered by then, but irrespective of the status of Gwent before the Norman Conquest, it seems clear that Caradog's seizure of Gwynllwg facilitated the Norman penetration of Gwent in the years 1067 to 1075.

It is Orderic Vitalis who recorded that in 1070 the earl of Hereford, William Fitz Osbern fought and defeated three Welsh kings named "Risen et Caducan et Mariadoth", which is generally regarded as a reference to the brothers Rhys and Maredudd ab Owain of Deheubarth and Cadwgan ap Meurig of Morgannwg. And indeed it would make sense that these kings of the south would make some effort to resist Norman expansionism in the south.

This attempt to stop the Normans failed but when precisely the Normans can be said to have conquered Gwent is unclear. William Fitz Osbern was certainly responsible for constructing a chain of castles across the border at Wigmore, Clifford Ewyas Harold, Monmouth and Strigoil (as Chepstow was then known) before his death in 1071. But just how much of Gwent was actually under his control is uncertain and there is an argument that it was his son and successor Roger of Breteuil that completed the job before his ill-fated rebellion of 1075.

But other than this little venture into Gwent the Normans appeared to have paid little attention to Wales itself; they were more pre-occupied in subduing the resistance they faced in England and were mere spectators as the carnage began.

The Carnage Begins

In the north of Wales, Maredudd and Ithel, the sons of Gruffudd ap Llywelyn came forward to challenge the brothers Bleddyn and Rhiwallon; but at the battle of Mechain in 1069 both Maredudd and Ithel were killed. This brought the line of Gruffudd ap Llywelyn to an abrupt end, and guaranteed there would be no more trouble from that quarter, but at the price of the death of Rhiwallon ap Cynfyn, leaving Bleddyn in sole charge of Gwynedd.

Inevitably the defeat of 1070 and the loss of Gwent made it all the harder for Cadwgan ap Meurig to resist the inroads of Caradog ap Gruffudd. In the year 1072 Maredudd ab Owain came east with an army to support Cadwgan and bring Caradog ap Gruffudd to heel. But Caradog with the help of Norman troops was the victor and Maredudd was killed in the battle.

Although Maredudd ab Owain's brother Rhys ab Owain succeeded him in Deheubarth he could not prevent Caradog ap Gruffudd from continuing his campaign against Morgannwg and by 1074 Caradog had seized control of the kingdom and driven Cadwgan ap Meurig away. (Or indeed possibly killed him as nothing more is heard from him.)

Whilst all this were going on the Welsh 'Chronicle of the Princes', the Brut y Tywysogion records that the "French ravaged Ceredigion and Dyfed" in 1073 and returned in 1074 to ravage Ceredigion once more. There are no references in any English or Norman records to these attacks, hence they were in no way 'official' assaults and were most likely to have been of the nature of piratical raids; instigated at the behest of, if not under the direct control of Caradog ap Gruffudd and designed to further his ambition of conquering Deheubarth.

Bleddyn ap Cynfyn, now feeling relatively secure after beating off the challenge of Gruffudd's sons in 1069, saw an opportunity to expand his influence further south where Caradog ap Gruffudd had been doing such sterling work in undermining the authority of the kings of Deheubarth. It seems very likely that Bleddyn's reach already extended to Ceredigion by this time, and that his target was now Ystrad Tywi, but in the year 1075 he came unstuck when he was ambushed and killed by Rhys ab Owain.

The carnage continues

"And after him Trahaearn ap Caradog ruled over Gwynedd; and Rhys ab Owain and Rhydderch ap Caradog held the South"

Which is how the Brut y Tywysogion describes the situation in Wales for the year 1075 directly after the death of Bleddyn ap Cynfyn. The Rhydderch ap Caradog referred to was in fact a cousin of Caradog ap Gruffudd and appears to have been a rival candidate for power in the south-east. The Brut goes on to speak of, "the battle of Camddwr between the sons of Cadwgan, Goronwy and Llywelyn, and Caradog ap Gruffudd, and Rhys ab Owain and Rhydderch ap Caradog", which suggests that Rhydderch ap Caradog was acting in alliance with Rhys ab Owain. (The sons of Cadwgan mentioned here are the sons of a Cadwgan ab Elsytan from Buellt and clients it seems of Caradog ap Gruffudd and nothing to do with Cadwgan ap Meuring ex-ruler of Morgannwg.) Not that it mattered much, the following year Rhydderch was killed by another cousin named as Meirchion ap Rhys ap Rhydderch; "through treachery" according to the Brut.

In Gwynedd, as the Brut noted, the kingdom had passed into the control of Bleddyn's cousin, named Trahaern ap Caradog from Arwystli in mid Wales but not, as we shall see, without challenge.

One Gruffudd son of Cynan and grandson of Iago who had ruled Gwynedd until 1039 when he was killed and dispossessed by the aforementioned Gruffudd ap Llywelyn, was now of age to consider recovering his patrimony. Following the death of Bleddyn in 1075, he set sail from Ireland, took control of Anglesey fought and defeated Trahaern at the Battle of Bron-yr-erw.

Despite this initial success, Gruffudd ap Cynan failed to make headway in Gwynedd; Trahaern retook Anglesey and re-established his control of the kingdom. It seems that Gruffudd's Norse mercenaries deserted him and his local supporters within Gwynedd were persuaded to change sides.

Rhys ab Owain, now deprived of the support of Rhydderch ap Caradog continued to be hard pressed and in 1077 was again fighting off the attentions of "the sons of Cadwgan" at the battle of Gweunytwl, who were very probably acting at the behest of Caradog ap Gruffudd.

To make matters worse Trahaern of Gwynedd now felt reasonably secure after beating off the challenge of Gruffudd ap Cynan and was eager to follow in the footsteps of cousin Bleddyn and extend his influence in the south of the country. Indeed there was a natural mutuality of interest between Trahaern ap Caradog in Gwynedd and Caradog ap Gruffudd in Morgannwg; they both represented 'new' dynasties who both saw an opportunity to expand at the expense of Deheubarth.

In the year 1078 they seem to have acted in concert; Trahaern ap Caradog was victorious at battle of Pwllgwdig where "Rhys ab Owain fled like a wounded frightened stag before the hounds". By the end of the year Caradog ap Gruffudd delivered the coup-de grace and killed both Rhys and his brother Hywel.

By such means it was said that Trahaern ap Caradog avenged the death of his cousin Bleddyn, but despite the victory and the death of Rhys ab Owain neither Trahaern nor Caradog were able to take control of Deheubarth. Instead it was another Rhys, Rhys ap Tewdwr who emerged with a tenuous grip on the south-west in the following year.

The appearance of Rhys ap Tewdwr changed nothing from Trahaern and Caradog's point of view; it simply meant they had to try again.With the forces of both the north and the south-east of Wales arranged against him Rhys ap Tewdwr was in need of some support. He found it in Gruffudd ap Cynan, who despite earlier setbacks, remained determined to recover his grandfather's kingdom and was eager to have another crack at Trahaern.

In the year 1081 Trahaern and Caradog gathered their forces for an invasion of Deheubarth whilst Rhys and Gruffudd prepared their defences.

Mynydd Carn

Everything came to a head at the Battle of Mynydd Carn.

The outcome at least was clear cut; an overwhelming victory for Rhys and Gruffudd. Both Trahaern ap Caradog and Caradog ap Gruffudd were killed and Gruffudd ap Cynan could return in triumph to Gwynedd, Iestyn ap Gwrgan an otherwise obscure cousin of poor Cadwgan ap Meurig gained power in Morgannwg whilst Rhys ap Tewdwr was confirmed in his control of Deheubarth.

At least Mynydd Carn brought the killing to an end; the preceeding eighteen years had seen the violent deaths of at least nine kings or would-be kings, as well as the deaths of thousands of unnamed and otherwise unknown soldiers in the various battles and skirmishes, not to mention the thousands of non-combatants that would have been the inevitable casualties of the customary 'ravagings' of the countryside.

Thus a measure of order emerged after the chaos and confusion of eighteen years of warfare. But the aftermath of Mynydd Carn was also marked by king William's 'pilgrimage' to St Davids and the time when Hugh the Fat took Gruffudd ap Cynan prisoner and sent his cousin Robert of Rhuddlan rampaging across the north.

The Normans were about to take a greater interest in Wales.


Lynn H. Nelson The Normans in South Wales 1070-1171 (University of Texas Press, 1966)
John Davies A History of Wales (Allen Lane, 1993)
Kari Mundi The Welsh Kings (Tempus, 2000)
Brut y Tywysogion
Historia Gruffud vab Kenan