In Memory of Princess Gwenllian, by Llinos Thomas

Princess Gwenllian
Princess Gwenllian

I know you may be reading that title and thinking, “Princess WHO?”, but that’s why I am here to enlighten you.

Princess Gwenllian was born in June 1282, probably between 10-14 June.  She was the daughter of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, the final prince of Wales to rule Wales as an independent kingdom.  However, these simple facts do not reveal the true tragedy that began at Gwenllian’s birth.  Her mother Eleanor died giving birth to her.  Within a few months, her father had been killed.  And Gwenllian herself was denied her very identity.

This was a turbulent time during Welsh history; Edward I had been waging war against the Welsh, by building castles around Wales and targeting Llywelyn and his family.  With Llywelyn’s death, Wales would never again have its own ruler; and no English monarch would claim Welsh roots until Henry VII.

Gwenllian’s uncle assumed guardianship of her, but when he was himself captured and executed by the English, Gwenllian and her cousins were taken to a nunnery in Lincolnshire and denied freedom for the rest of their lives.  Gwenllian never learnt Welsh, or how to pronounce her name; she never understood that she was Wales’s heir.

Edward I wanted her locked up so that she could not claim her birthright as a Welsh princess or queen.  He did not want her to make an advantageous marriage, and to bear sons who could claim the throne.

gwen rock

History completely obscures Gwenllian, except for these few short facts.  We know so little about her life as a nun or what she knew about her own family history.  Interestingly, through her mother Gwenllian was the great granddaughter of King John of England; but this connection could not save her.

As a Welsh schoolgirl, we learnt about the events of 1282 and they have stuck with me ever since.   As someone with an interest in the history of women, Gwenllian to me is the first instance of a royal woman badly treated and maligned.  When I think of women like Empress Matilda, and Elizabeth I, they faced huge chalenges but at least they got the opportunity to fight for their rights as royal women and queens.  Gwenllian may have lived a peaceful life, unlike her father, but she paid the price of being denied her truth.  I hope she found comfort in God and the life of a nun.

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