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Gruffydd ap Llywelyn

King of Wales

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Walker 1990

Gruffydd ap Llywelyn was undoubtedly the outstanding Welsh ruler of the 11th century and the most distinguished prince to emerge since the days of Hywel Dda. He reigned from 1039 to 1063, but was an unexpected contender for power. By 1039 he was probably established in Powys, and in that year Iago ap Idwal of Gwynedd was murdered by his own men, perhaps with Gruffydd as an accomplice, and emerged as the claimant for the northern kingdom. He was totally ruthless, his hands stained with the blood of rivals and opponents, but in retrospect his reign was seen as a period of outstanding achievement. For fifteen years he fought a hard struggle to make himself ruler of the southern kingdom of Wales, but he was thwarted by two determined kings, and not until 1055 could he claim to dominate the whole of Wales. His first target was Deheubarth, and in 1039 he drove Hywel ap Edwin in flight from the kingdom.

When Gruffydd took over south Wales he assumed an aggressive policy towards the English. In 1055, Aelfgar, son of the earl of Mercia, was the victim of a political attack, and an attempt was made to have him exiled. He found Gruffydd ap Llywelyn a valuable ally, and supported by a Scandinavian force, he was reinstated. A successful combined attack on the English forces at Herefordshire, contributed much to Aelfgar's' success. That defeat caused Harold, earl of Wessex (later King Harold I), to intervene directly, mustering a large army and arranging a settlement. Harold at that stage did not produce any permanent defence for the frontier, but instead used a number of different tactics over the next few years. A new bishop of Hereford was appointed, Loefgar, one of Harold's priests, a chaplain with a strong taste for military matters. He attempted a surprise attack in Wales which went disastrously wrong, and which Gruffydd ap Llywelyn repulsed, leaving the English army with heavy losses.

To re-establish peace on the frontier was no easy task, and defence was entrusted for the time being to Aldred, bishop of Worcester, a more diplomatic and more pugnacious churchman. in 1058 the personal conflict between earl Harold and Aelfgar, who by then had succeeded as earl of Mercia, was renewed, and the pattern of 1055 was repeated, but Aelfgar could not be removed from the scene. Slowly events moved to a crisis point. Harold assumed responsibility for the earldom of Hereford and for the problems of border defence, and by the winter of 1062-63 he was ready to strike. A swift attack launched in mid-winter was made on Rhuddlan where Gruffydd had an llys, a substantial residence. Surprised by the land force, he managed to escape by sea. In the summer of 1063 a second attack was made, with a fleet supporting the army. This time, Gruffydd could not escape by sea, and he had to move into central Wales, and there he was killed by his enemies. He had paid a heavy price for his alliance with the Mercian dynasty, an alliance which always promised more for Earl Aelfgar than it could promise for the Welsh prince.

The defeat and death of Gruffydd ap Llywelyn were a disaster for Gwynedd and for Wales, and it might be expected that ten or fifteen years would pass before the damage had been contained, and before the next leading figure among the Welsh princes could be identified. The fact that the Normans (above) would land in England, and that an entirely new factor would be introduced into Welsh history, could not be foreseen; nor could the unhappy fact that the death and eclipse of Gruffydd ap Llywelyn in 1063 had left Wales weak and fragmented only a few years before this new and very dangerous enemy appeared on the scene.

 

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Copyright 2009 by Jeffrey L. Thomas