Thursday, 6 March 2014

Gwenllian, Princess of Wales

I came across some Welsh history yesterday which not many people know. It was certainly new to me. I found it in a book by Charlie Connelly called And Did Those Feet, in which he recounts his walks retracing the steps of history. Here is his account, to which I have added pictures from the web:

Sempringham Church (homepages.which.net/~rex/bourne)
Sempringham Church(homepages.which.net/~rex/bourne)


I was making good progress towards Bourne and on a pleasant sunny afternoon passed another big church in the middle of nowhere, this time at the convergence of some tracks rather than roads. A man was mowing the churchyard and gave me a friendly wave, and a few hundred yards further along the track I found the most extraordinary thing. There, in the middle of rural Lincolnshire, I found a little piece of Wales. Just off the track, in front of a line of trees was a flat-fronted standing stone, about four feet high. A small border in front of it was crammed with flowers and shrubs, some planted, some laid there by visitors. As I approached I could see there was an oval plaque on it and, to my surprise, most of it was in Welsh. 'GWENLLIAN' it said across the centre, with 'Merch Llywelyn Ein Llew Olaf' in smaller letters above and the dates 12.6.1282 and 7.6.1337. Beneath the name was a English translation, 'Daughter of Llywelyn, Last Prince of Wales.' In smaller letters around the edge, in English and Welsh, the inscription read, 'Born at Garthcelyn Aber Gwynedd, at 18 months old she was abducted by Edward I and held captive here at Sempringham Abbey for the rest of her life.' Another small plaque nearby said, 'In Everlasting Memory – daffodils planted in 1996 by Boston Welsh Society,' with another bearing the legend 'Merched Y Wawr', which, I would later learn, is the rough equivalent of a Welsh Women's Institute.

gwen (castlewales com)
Gwenllian's Monument (castlewales.com)
Charlie then met a couple visiting the site from Cardiff, and the wife told him the story:

Llywelyn's Arms (castlewales.com)
 Llywelyn's Arms
(castlewales.com)

"Llywelyn ap Gruffydd had fought hard to become Prince of Wales,' she began. 'He'd had to defeat his own brothers in battle in 1255 and then set about trying to remove the English. Henry III had invaded Gwynedd in 1247, built castles and forced the local lords to kowtow to him. After the battle Llywelyn appointed himself sole ruler of Gwynedd and proclaimed himself Prince in 1258. Henry was fairly amenable to this at first and praised Llywelyn for his restraint, and eventually – in 1267, I think it was – Henry acknowledged him as Prince of Wales. Henry was then succeeded as King of England by Edward I, who wasn't quite as tolerant of Llywelyn's status. But when Llywelyn married Henry's niece Eleanor at Worcester in 1275, Edward gave the bride away and laid on the wedding feast.

King Edward I (Wikimedia)
King Edward I (Wikimedia)
 "However, it still rankled that Llywelyn had refused to attend his coronation and on five occasions between 1274 and 1279 he had refused to pay homage to the English King when asked. Edward eventually invaded and Llywelyn led a fierce Welsh resistance. Eventually, though, in the winter of 1282 Llywelyn's army suffered a defeat in battle near Builth Wells. Llywelyn was leaving the battle with a handful of followers when they were ambushed and he was killed. When the English realised just who they'd got they cut off Llywelyn's head and sent it toEdward, who had it displayed on a spike at the Tower of London, where it stayed for fifteen years. He's known today as Llywelyn the Last as he was the last Welsh Prince of an independent Wales...

"Well, five months before he died Llywelyn had fathered a daughter, Gwenllian. Eleanor had died in childbirth, so when Llywelyn was killed the baby was orphaned. When she was eighteen months old she was spirited away and brought here, to Sempringham Abbey, as far from Wales and her heritage as possible. The English didn't want her knowing about her background and didn't want the Welsh to have a figurehead to rally behind, so they sent her here to the nuns, where she lived until she was fifty-six. Imagine that: living your whole life not knowing who you are.

"This is such an important place for the Welsh now. She could have been the continuation of our royal bloodline. It's such a terrible thing to do to someone, to take away their birthright, their whole life, yet few people outside Wales know about it. The history books say that the Gwynedd dynasty, the last independent Welsh royal family, ended with Llywelyn but actually it ended right here, and it's so unfair." 

[And Did Those Feet by Charlie Connelly (2009) pp.116-119]

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