Many of us will have heard of Llewelyn the Last, seated to the right of Edward I in this picture. But who was the first Prince of Wales? (Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
As highlighted by the recent 950th anniversary of the Norman conquest of England, in 1066 there was much more going on in Britain than a simple clash between King Harold’s Anglo-Saxons and Duke William’s Normans. As a Welsh historian, it is hard not to conclude that many of the crucial pieces of the jigsaw remain left out of the picture of that epochal year. The third quarter of the 11th century was arguably one of the most formative and dramatic in the entire history of Wales, with events west of the rivers Severn and Dee impacting enormously on those in England and beyond. When the Normans arrived on the Welsh border they would be met by a leader who, I would argue, can be called the first prince of Wales – Bleddyn ap Cynfyn. Yet despite being one of Wales’s greatest leaders, Bleddyn has until now been all but forgotten.
The years before Bleddyn’s accession in 1063 had seen Wales rise to an unprecedented position of power and unity, all achieved under the direction of one man: Bleddyn’s half-brother, Gruffudd ap Llywelyn – the first, last and only king of all the lands of modern-day Wales. His story also remains little known, even in his own country; the BBC’s 2012 Story of Wales TV series managed to leap straight from 950 to 1066, entirely missing the reign of the country’s greatest ruler.
A united Wales
Gruffudd united all the territories that comprise modern Wales, conquered land across the border that had been in English hands for centuries, forged alliances with key Anglo-Saxon dynasties and even turned the Viking threat to his realm into a powerful weapon. In 1055, Gruffudd led a great army and fleet against the English border, crushing its defenders, burning Hereford and forcing Edward the Confessor to recognise his status as an sub-king within the British Isles. Having emerged as a war leader, Gruffudd would also prove to be a patron of the arts and the church. He had all the trappings of a king, including impressive wealth, courts throughout the country, professional ministers, a powerful household and a strong naval presence. At the height of his powers, he was described by a native source as “King Gruffudd, sole and pre-eminent ruler of the British.” His status was also recognised in England, Ireland and on the continent.
The key to Gruffudd’s success on such a broad stage was his unshakeable alliance with Earl Ælfgar of Mercia, which had been made in reaction to the growing power and influence of the Godwine dynasty. Godwine (d1053) had risen to prominence as the earl of Wessex, a position of influence that would allow his sons to dominate the English political scene. The strength of Wales, Mercia and their Hiberno-Scandinavian allies was set against that of Harold, the son of Godwine, and his brother Tostig, the earl of Northumbria. If such a balance of power was maintained, it seems certain that Harold’s path to the English throne would have been blocked, with the compromise candidate Edgar Ætheling ‒ the last male member of the ancient Anglo-Saxon royal line ‒ the likely successor. But Earl Ælfgar’s eldest son and intended heir, Burgheard, died in 1061, and the earl himself passed away the following year. The defence offered by a strong and friendly Mercia was therefore removed from Wales’ eastern border, and the resultant weakness gave Harold the window of opportunity he needed.
Two great brothers of a cloud-born land
Gruffudd’s power did not sit well with many of the conquered localities of Wales – lands formerly ruled by men who still considered themselves kings. With the help of such men, Harold rolled back Gruffudd’s achievements in the south, while his brother Tostig advanced along the north Wales coast. The brothers engaged the Welsh king in a bloody campaign in the wildest depths of north Wales and were lauded as: “two great brothers of a cloud-born land, the kingdom’s sacred oaks, two Hercules”. Gerald of Wales later recounted how: “[Harold] advanced into Wales on foot, at the head of his lightly clad infantry, lived on the country, and marched up and down and round and about the whole of Wales with such energy that he ‘left not one that pisseth against a wall’”.
Gruffudd was deserted by his allies then betrayed by his closest household troops, his head cut off and delivered to Harold. Among those who had deserted Gruffudd were his half-brothers, Bleddyn and Rhiwallon. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded that in 1063: “King Edward entrusted the country to the two brothers of Gruffudd, Bleddyn and Rhiwallon, and they swore oaths and gave hostages to the king and the earl [Harold], promising that they would be faithful to him in everything, and be everywhere ready on water and on land, and likewise would pay such dues from that country as had been given before to any other king”.
The contrast with the peace treaty that Gruffudd had forced on Edward could not have been more marked, and was accompanied by major land losses for Wales in the east. But the brothers had control of much of north and mid-Wales. They retained ambitions to overlordship of the south and would soon look to recreate Gruffudd’s vital alliance with Mercia – reestablishing the kingdom of Wales was always their ambition.
The chance to throw off the shackles of Godwine dominance came in 1065, the Welsh leaders being part of a wider, co-ordinated movement throughout northern and western England against Harold and Tostig. The Welsh raided into Herefordshire and provided large numbers of troops to join the Mercian and Northumbrian opposition to the Godwines, which was led by Ælfgar’s young sons, Edwin and Morcar.
It was this alliance that forced Harold to abandon his brother Tostig and send him into exile, instead agreeing a political marriage with Gruffudd’s widow, Ealdgyth, the sister of Edwin and Morcar. Edward the Confessor suffered a stroke that sent him to an early grave and was succeeded by Harold, whose compromise deal with the house of Mercia had cleared his path to the throne.
The coronation of King Harold II (c1020-66) whose rule saw invasions by his brother, Tostig, Harald Hardrada and William the Conqueror in 1066. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Bleddyn and the divided realm
Even so, it was a divided realm – a situation that led to the 1066 invasions of Tostig, Harald Hardrada and William the Conqueror. Any support the house of Mercia gave to Harold was, at best, half-hearted; Edwin and Morcar seemed to want to play a long game. They played no part at Hastings and, after Harold’s death, the pregnant Ealdgyth was kept in safety at Chester while Edwin hoped to marry the Conqueror’s daughter.
William, though, had other plans for the house of Mercia. Professor Stephen Baxter (University of Oxford) has highlighted how in the succeeding years Edwin and Morcar: “lacked influence and credibility at court; lost territory and property to rival earls; were unable to exercise meaningful power within their earldoms; and failed to hold their family’s network of patronage and lordship together”. The men of earls Edwin and Morcar, famously led by Eadric ‘the Wild’, met the Normans with fierce resistance, which was supported by Bleddyn and Rhiwallon from the outset.
The Welsh were at Eadric’s side in major operations against the Normans in Herefordshire, Shropshire and Cheshire. At the same time, they faced trouble in Wales from their nephews, the sons of Gruffudd, who may have won Norman support. At the battle of Mechain in 1069, Bleddyn was able to kill the sons of Gruffudd, but lost his brother in the same clash. Around the same time, William’s harrying of the north and his march on Chester finally shattered the Anglo-Saxon resistance in northern and western England, meaning the end of the house of Mercia. When Edwin was killed by his own men shortly afterwards, he was said to be still desperately reaching out to his Welsh allies for support.
Eadric submitted to the Normans at this time and it was likely that he was joined by his ally, Bleddyn. The Welsh leader needed a new accord to secure his eastern border and planned to achieve this by switching from hostility to the Normans to accommodation with them. As part of the peace deal, Bleddyn married his niece – Gruffudd and Ealdgyth’s daughter, Nest – to his former enemy Osbern fitz Richard. He also accepted the new Norman castle at Montgomery (Hen Domen), while his son-in-law and ally from south-east Wales – Caradog ap Gruffudd – secured friendly relations with the Normans of Herefordshire.
If such actions meant compromise on Bleddyn’s eastern border, it left him in a dominant position in Wales, and he used Norman military help to pursue his ambitions at the expense of the dynasty of Deheubarth (south-west Wales). It was perhaps to secure recognition of this dominance that in 1075, Bleddyn headed into the heartlands of the Deheubarth dynasty in the Tywi valley. According to one version of the Welsh chronicle: “And then Bleddyn ap Cynfyn was slain by Rhys ab Owain through the treachery of the evil-spirited rulers and chief men of Ystrad Tywi – the man who, after Gruffudd, his brother, eminently held the whole kingdom of the Britons”.
A kingdom in confusion In the succeeding years, Wales was riven apart by a series of horrific civil wars that bewildered and confused both contemporary observers and future historians. This destroyed any remaining vestige of a kingdom of Wales and, in the power vacuum that was created, the Normans moved in. The tone taken by English and continental sources in dealing with Welsh nobles became increasingly patronising – a reflection of growing imperial outlooks and of a very real reduction in the power of Welsh leaders.
The surviving Welsh dynasties slowly regrouped in the 12th century, notably in Gwynedd. Men such as Owain Gwynedd (c1100–70), and his 13th-century descendants, Llywelyn ap Iorwerth and Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, would revive the ambition to rule all of Wales. By their day, though, most of the richest lowlands in the south-east and south-west of the country had been irretrievably lost, while eastern border conquests on the scale that Gruffudd ap Llywelyn had made were never a realistic possibility.
Llywelyn Ap Gruffydd was one who challenged to rule all of Wales, though he was defeated by English King Edward I in 1282, to whom he refused to pay homage. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
In these straitened circumstances, and with outside observers ridiculing the status of Welsh kings, ambitious native nobles adopted the novel title of ‘prince’ (tywysog in Welsh, princeps in Latin) in order to set them above their fellow ‘kings’. The princes saw all the native lords of Wales as their tenants, but inherent in their plan was the direct feudal lordship of the king of England over the prince of Wales, leaving it clear that the “kingship of the Britons” was to be sought in London, not in the west of the country. The fact that the 13th-century principality of Gwynedd was a part of the kingdom of England and its leader one of the king’s magnates was acknowledged by all.
Bleddyn was unlikely to ever have settled for such a formal acknowledgement of subservience to the English king; he challenged the 1063 settlement that was imposed on him at the earliest opportunity and sought the much more loosely defined position of sub-king within Britain that had been won by Gruffudd. But the political realities that would frame the creation of the principality of Wales had been forged in the reign of Bleddyn, and the extent of his rule looks much more like that of the rulers who would follow him than like that of the king of Wales who preceded him.
In contrast to Gruffudd, Bleddyn was never able to impose his direct rule on south-east Wales and did not rule north-east Wales. The loss of some of Wales’ richest territories on the eastern borders impacted on the ability of Welsh leaders to maintain an effective naval presence, and this in turn further restricted their chances of imposing a wider dominion on the country. A lack of naval power hamstrung Bleddyn’s attempts to exert overlordship in Deheubarth and encouraged interference from across the Irish Sea – an outside threat that had been negated in Gruffudd’s later years. While Bleddyn ruled Ceredigion for some, if not all, of his reign, his power in other parts of Deheubarth (such as Ystrad Tywi) was at best theoretical, at worst non-existent.
Native and external commentators were aware that a change had taken place. Sources outside the country were either reluctant to call Bleddyn king, or failed to mention him at all. Within Wales, some versions of the native chronicle accorded Bleddyn the important title of “King of the Britons”, but stressed that he was inferior to Gruffudd. The ultimate irony for the man who would have been king is that he can be described as the country’s first prince.
Dr Sean Davies is author of The First Prince of Wales? Bleddyn ap Cynfyn, 1063–75 (University of Wales Press, 2016).
A timeline of Bleddyn ap Cynfyn
1062 Death of Earl Ælfgar of Mercia, the ally of King Gruffudd ap Llywelyn of Wales
1063 Harold and Tostig, the sons of Godwine, conquer Wales Gruffudd ap Llywelyn, the only king to ever rule all of Wales, is killed Bleddyn and his brother Rhiwallon succeed to rule in Wales, with Harold’s consent
1065 Mercia, Northumbria and the Welsh rulers rise against the Godwine domination Tostig is exiled, but a compromise deal is agreed with Harold
1066 Edward the Confessor dies, Harold succeeds to the throne Tostig and Harald Hardrada invade in the north Battles of Fulford and Stamford Bridge Duke William invades in the south leading to the battle of Hastings and the death of Harold Surviving Anglo-Saxon nobles submit to William
1067‒70 Resistance to Norman rule throughout England Bleddyn and Rhiwallon support Eadric the Wild and the Mercian rebels 1069 Bleddyn wins the battle of Mechain but loses his brother Rhiwallon in the fight
1070 Widespread submission of Anglo-Saxon rebels to Norman rule Bleddyn agrees peace deals with Normans on Wales’ eastern border
1070‒75 Bleddyn uses his alliances to pursue his ambitions against rivals in south-west Wales 1075 Bleddyn ‘treacherously’ killed by Rhys ab Owain in the Tywi valley
1075‒81 Wales torn apart in the civil wars that followed the slaying of Bleddyn, allowing major Norman advances in the country