The last King of Wales

Sean Davies marks this date as significant for the Welsh calendar because of events 1,000 years ago

Brothers Sean and Thomas Michael Davies, are co-authors of The Last King of Wales: Gruffudd ap Llywelyn, c.1013-63 (The History Press, August 2012).

The 5 August is a little-heralded date in the Welsh calendar, but it marks the anniversary of the death of the man who can be called the country’s greatest leader. Gruffydd ap Llywelyn was the only person to unite and rule all the lands that comprise modern Wales, imposing a vision of nation and identity that gave his kingdom a short-lived but unique position in the wider British and European world. Gruffydd’s obscurity as a historical figure speaks volumes about our country’s lack of awareness of its past, demonstrating how ill prepared we are to make the most of our cultural heritage.

The great king was born 1,000 years ago. Details of his early years are hazy, although some evocative folk tales survive, bringing to mind the stories that grew around King Alfred and burnt cakes, or Robert Bruce and persistent spiders. There are also tales of a more bloody nature. “I kill no-one, but I blunt the horns of Wales, that they may not hurt their mother,” is one quote attributed to Gruffydd. The first historical reference to him comes in 1039 when he emerged as king of Gwynedd and Powys, succeeding Iago who had been slain in unexplained circumstances. In the same year Gruffydd crushed an Anglo-Saxon army at Rhyd-y-groes near Welshpool, before marching across Plynlimon to begin the conquest of south-west Wales (Deheubarth).

Powys and Gwynedd would not waiver in their support of Gruffydd until his final days. However, there was little enthusiasm for northern rule in Deheubarth. The local king, Hywel ab Edwin, put up a doughty defence and was able to use the region’s close ties with Ireland to bring Viking allies to his aid. In 1044 Hywel led a large Viking fleet into the mouth of the Tywi:

“And Gruffydd ap Llywelyn encountered him; and there was a mighty battle and many of the host of the foreigners and of his own host were slain at the mouth of the River Tywi. And there Hywel was slain and Gruffydd prevailed.”

Gruffydd was already in a position of power that was arguably unprecedented for any Welsh king, but this in itself created problems. Local nobility throughout Wales remained proudly independent and conscious of their own prerogatives and claims to dominion, with Dyfed and Ystrad Tywi particular hotbeds of unrest. They turned to a former ally of the king’s for support, the ruler of south-east Wales, Gruffydd ap Rhydderch. Regional interests and loyalties troubled Gruffudd ap Llywelyn, but he would prove the master of both local and national politics. The king took advantage of Anglo-Saxon disunity to ally with one of the most powerful earls in England, Ælfgar of Mercia. He also exploited splits between Glamorgan and Gwent, moves that would see him bring south-east Wales into a wider kingdom of Wales for the only time in the country’s history.

In 1055 Gruffydd gathered a huge army and marched south to a planned rendezvous with Ælfgar and a Viking fleet, somewhere in the region of Portskewett. The pincer movement was too much for Gruffudd ap Rhydderch to resist, and the southern king was killed by his northern namesake.

The allied force next turned its attention to the English border. The Viking fleet sailed up the Wye with Gruffydd’s army marching alongside. Throughout his reign Gruffydd had followed an expansionist policy on his eastern border, looking to reverse centuries of Anglo-Saxon conquest and restore the Welsh language, law, religion and custom. He crushed an Anglo-Norman defending army outside Hereford, then burnt the town and cathedral. When peace was made between Gruffydd and King Edward the Confessor in 1056, Welsh conquests along the entire length of the border were officially recognised.

Gruffydd had forged a kingdom of ‘greater Wales’ and his rule would mark him out as much more than a successful warlord. His administration was based on a series of courts, known as maerdrefi. Rhuddlan was a major base of his, while we can also connect Gruffydd with sites such as Aberffraw, Caernarfon, Aberystwyth, Carew, Carmarthen, Talgarth, Caerleon and Portskewett. A strong naval presence was vital to his lines of communication, while close connections with the major churches of Wales helped Gruffudd build a professional administration. The king’s wealth impressed even Anglo-Saxon observers, while his reign coincides with a flourishing cultural scene.

So why did it all fall apart?

The security of Gruffydd’s ‘greater Wales’ depended on his alliance with Mercia, but in 1061-2 the deaths of Ælfgar and his eldest son left a leadership vacuum in the earldom. Harold Godwinesson seized on the opportunity to break the 1056 peace deal, launching a military strike and diplomatic offensive against the Welsh king. The nobles of Gwent and Deheubarth quickly went over to Harold, before a bitter campaign forced Gruffydd back to the wilds of Snowdonia. On 5 August, 1063, he was treacherously murdered by his own men – the forebears of the princes of Wales – and his head was delivered to the English.

Harold’s victory ensured that he would succeed to the English throne, an event that led to the end of the Anglo-Saxon age, the arrival of the Normans and the redrawing of the British political landscape. Had he not destroyed Gruffydd’s Wales, the country’s constitutional position would have been akin to that of the emerging kingdom of Scotland. The influence that this would have had on Welsh self confidence and sense of nationhood are incalculable.

While you’re here, we’ve got something to ask you: will you join us?

We’re working every day to bring the right people together and generate the ideas to make Wales a world-leading force.

We’re independent of government and political parties. We provide a much-needed space for open, transparent debate about the ideas that can make Wales better.

To continue to do this, we need people like you to join us.

Join us today and you’ll be supporting vital work that’s making our country better than ever.

Find out more