The Last of the Welsh Lords: Llywelyn Ap Gruffydd


Father, fighter, and final, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd was born around 1223 AD and was the last Welsh ruler of Wales. The second son of Gruffydd ap Llywelyn Fawr (himself the illegitimate son of Llywelyn the Great), Llywelyn ap Gruffydd is remembered primarily for his role (albeit unintentional) as the loss of the moniker “Prince of Wales” from his family lineage. Further, his death marked the conquest of Wales by England, thus encompassing the region into (what is now called) the United Kingdom.

Division of Gwynedd ( CC BY-SA 3.0 ) In 1247 following the succession of the brothers Owain (whose lands are shown in dark green) and Llywelyn (light green) ap Gruffudd. The Commote of Cymydmaen (gold) was granted to Dafydd ap Gruffudd by Owain when he reached majority in 1252 (Source: J. Beverley Smith) 

Llywelyn as the Ruler of Gwynedd

The way in which Llywelyn became ruler of Gwynedd in 1258 is as convoluted as the loss of his title due to the dissonance between his father and his uncles. Although Gruffydd was the eldest son of Llywelyn the Great, his illegitimate status made him unable to take control of Gwynedd. Further, Gruffydd’s father and younger brother Dafydd ap Llywelyn imprisoned Gruffydd and Gruffydd’s eldest son Owain in Criccieth Castle to ensure neither could attempt to claim control upon Llywelyn the Great’s death.

During this imprisonment, Gruffydd was passed from Dafydd’s castle to the Tower of London under Henry III of England, and subsequently died during an escape attempt in 1244. The lands of Gwynedd eventually passed to Llywelyn ap Gruffydd around 1258 following Uncle Dafydd’s death and the former’s subsequent “removal” of his older brother, Owain, and younger brother, also called Dafydd, from positions of power.

Llywelyn ap Gruffudd at Cardiff City Hall.

Llywelyn ap Gruffudd at Cardiff City Hall. ( Public Domain )

Throughout his reign, Edward I of England was Llywelyn’s constant enemy. Though he married Edward’s cousin, it was not without animosity. Edward had declared Llywelyn a rebel in 1276, one year after marrying Eleanor de Montfort, daughter of Earl Simon and the granddaughter of John of England and Isabella of Angoulême, by proxy.

However, on her journey from France to meet her new husband, Edward I himself ensured Eleanor’s capture by pirates to punish Llywelyn, and she remained jailed in Windsor Castle until 1277/1278. It is believed that Eleanor’s father Earl Simon had arranged for Llywelyn to marry Eleanor before Simon’s death, but an official ceremony did not take place until three years later, with the consent of Edward I and after Llywelyn conceded to Edward’s demands. Among those demands were acknowledging Edward I as the proper English king.

Portrait in Westminster Abbey, thought to be of Edward I.

Portrait in Westminster Abbey, thought to be of Edward I. ( Public Domain )

The Battle of Orewin Bridge

Tragically, though not uncommon in the 13th century, Eleanor died giving birth to her daughter in 1282, just seven years after marrying Llywelyn. Only six months later, Llywelyn also perished, murdered by the English in the Battle of Orewin Bridge. The Battle of Orewin Bridge was preempted by a war against Edward I in 1277 in which Llywelyn lost and was forced to hand over significant parts of Wales to Edward, thereby condensing his own region to a small portion of Wales.

The Battle of Orewin Bridge occurred on a hill near the Irfon River. Llywelyn was not present at the initial start of the war, but arrived after a local had tricked the Welsh into removing their defenses from the bridge. Llywelyn was slain far from the center of the battle, perhaps by a soldier named Stephen de Frankton.

The Llywelyn Monument at Cilmeri which marks the battle of Orewin Bridge.

The Llywelyn Monument at Cilmeri which marks the battle of Orewin Bridge. ( Public Domain )

Admittedly, details of the battle are scarce, and the way in which Llywelyn died may be mere conjecture. A later 15th century poem claims that Llywelyn was returning from a nightly tryst before being called into battle—one can only imagine what actually happened just prior to Llywelyn’s death. It is believed he was decapitated after he fell, his head placed on a lance to show the final English defeat of the Welsh forces. Again, this was not an uncommon practice.

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