Gwenllian, Welsh heroine

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From Llewellyn the Last to Owain Glyndwr, Welsh history is littered with examples of male heroes. Welsh heroines, on the other hand, are much harder to come by.

Supreme among those we do know about has to be Gwenllian, the wife of Gruffydd ap Rhys and a strong and determined warrior in her own right.

Gwenllian's father was Gruffydd ap Cynon, a ruler who had dominated the northern part of Wales for the first 30 years of the 12th century. Before his death in 1137 he had seen Gwenllian married to his ally, Gruffydd ap Rhys, the ruler of a small part of Deheubarth.

The wars against the Normans/English were endemic at this time and in 1136 Gruffydd ap Rhys rode north to seek his father-in-law's help in the campaign. That left Gwenllian alone in the south.

There should not have been a problem but, at that moment, Norman troops landed to reinforce the beleaguered garrison of Maurice de Londres at Kidwelly Castle. Gruffydd, far away in north Wales, had made no plans or arrangements to counter such an event and Gwenllian promptly decided that she had to take action.

Always headstrong or impetuous, she gathered together an army from the remainder of her husband's forces, donned armour and, accompanied by Morgan and Maelgwn, two of her four sons, rode out to intercept the English before they could join Maurice at Kidwelly Castle.

Gwenllian's small force headed towards Kidwelly, trying hard to remain unseen. Carefully, they passed the walls of Kidwelly Castle and drew up for battle on a meadow later to be called Maes Gwenllian, in the shadow of Mynydd y Garreg. They remained there for two days, waiting for news of the relieving Norman force.

Gwenllian's scouts eventually returned with the news that the Norman reinforcements were marching towards Kidwelly, unaware of her presence. Immediately Gwenllian detached a large part of her force and sent them to intercept the Normans. And then it all went horribly wrong.

The reinforcing Normans were led by a Welshman, Gruffydd ap Llewellyn. He skilfully evaded the intercepting force, doubled around behind Gwenllian and climbed to the top of Mynydd y Garreg.

At a given signal, these troops came pouring down the hillside – and, at the same moment, Maurice de Londres led his troops out of Kidwelly to attack Gwenllian on her other flank.

The odds were overwhelming but Gwenllian, at the head of her soldiers, charged the enemy. It was always an uneven contest and Gwenllian's men were slaughtered where they stood. Maelgwn was cut down trying to protect his mother. Most of the Welsh army were killed while Gwenllian and many others were taken prisoner.

It was not the time for mercy and the fact that Gwenllian was a woman mattered very little to the bloody victors of the battle. She was immediately executed on the orders of Maurice de Londres and then decapitated.

Gwenllian's brief campaign might have ended in disaster but the story of her courage has become legendary. She remains one of the few Welsh heroines whose name has survived the ravages of history.

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