By Laura Klotz
When you hear the title “Princess of Wales,” odds are strong that you think of the late Diana, mother of William and Harry. You might think of someone like Joan of Kent, wife of Edward the Black Prince. Maybe you even think of “Bloody” Mary Tudor, who was never given that exact title, but was identified by contemporaries as “the Lady Mary, Prince of Wales” because of her unique status as Henry VIII’s daughter.
But you probably don’t think about the only Welsh woman ever to be born with the right to that title…
For a long time, the different parts of Wales were ruled by the assorted houses, each headed by a prince. The last person to rule Wales as an entire independent entity was Llewelyn ap Gruffudd, who was recognized as Prince of Wales by Edward I. Although “Longshanks” claimed Wales as a principality of England, he allowed Llewelyn to hold that title as a sort of vassal. He also sanctioned Llewelyn’s marriage to Eleanor de Montfort, daughter of Simon de Montfort and granddaughter of King John, following a lengthy betrothal which seems to have been a match at least in part of affection. Unlike nearly every other Welsh prince, Llewelyn is not known to have ever taken a mistress or fathered any illegitimate children – just one legitimate daughter.
Gwenllian was born in the royal residence of Pen-y-Bryn, Abergwyngregyn, in Gwynedd; the house still stands, and is still identified by locals as “Llewelyn’s tower.” Her exact birth date is uncertain, but it was sometime in June 1282, so she observed her 739th birthday this month. Sadly, her mother died either during childbirth or shortly afterward.
Because Llewelyn was so genuinely attached to his wife, his grief at Eleanor’s death was extensive. It’s believed that his half-brother Dafydd took advantage of his condition, and persuaded Llewelyn to take up arms against the English for one more attempt at Welsh independence. Nobody knows exactly what happened to Llewelyn, thanks to some conflicting accounts, but one thing all the accounts have in common is that Llewelyn was somehow lured away from the bulk of his forces. There is a theory that Dafydd was the one who caused this, in a bid to gain the throne of Wales for himself. Whatever the case, Llewelyn was killed by the forces of Edward I on 11 December 1282, leaving Gwenllian merch Llewelyn as the rightful Tywysoges Cymru.
Dafydd claimed guardianship of his niece, but it didn’t last. He and his family, though hidden in a bog in northern Wales, were discovered and he was severely injured during the capture. Later he became the first person in recorded history to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. Gwenllian and her cousins, meanwhile, were brought to England, where they remained for the rest of their lives. Dafydd’s sons were imprisoned; the girls were all given to various convents and raised to be nuns, far from where Welsh rebels could find them and either start another rebellion (and make them the figureheads) or marry them (to produce sons with Welsh royal blood).
Gwenllian was given to the Gilbertine Priory at Sempringham. The records of her are a little fuzzy moving forward. It’s known that she was barely a year old when she was taken, so while she may have learned a bit of her native language, she never remembered it. It’s actually speculated that she never even knew how to say or spell her own name – she was listed in the priory’s records as “Wencilian,” and she herself wrote it as “Wentliane.” (The proper Welsh pronunciation is “when-STHEE-an.”)
Gwenllian wasn’t completely forgotten, although Edward I did his best to bury her in the history of Wales. His grandson, Edward III, allocated a sum of twenty pounds per annum to the priory for her upkeep. She died there on 7 June 1337, but we don’t even know where she was buried – when the convent was dissolved during the reign of Henry VIII, an outbreak of the plague prevented the nuns from retrieving her body.
Edward I did acknowledge Gwenllian’s status at least once. When writing to the Pope to secure additional funds for the Sempringham Priory, he reminded the Pontiff that “herein is kept the Princess of Wales, whom we have to maintain.” However, he appropriated her father’s title for his own use and bestowed it on his infant son, the future Edward II, and (with a handful of exceptions) it’s been given to the British heir apparent ever since. Gwenllian’s title of Princess of Wales has meanwhile been nothing more than a courtesy title for the heir’s wife, and an inconsistently applied one at that; if we count Camilla Parker-Bowles (who prefers to be called “Duchess of Cornwall” out of respect for Diana), there have been only ten Princesses of Wales in the last seven centuries.
But despite the best efforts of Edward I, Wales continues to remember the woman who was born to the rank and had it stolen from her before she was old enough to understand. Memorials to Gwenllian have been established at St. Andrew’s Church in Lincolnshire, near where the priory stood, and also at the summit of Mount Snowdon in Wales. She’s been immortalized in poetry and song. And in 2009, the Princess Gwenllian Society successfully campaigned to have a mountain in the Carneddau range of Snowdonia renamed as Carnedd Gwenllian (Gwenllian’s Cairn); other mountains in the same range are named for her father and uncle.
She might have lived out her days in the flatlands of England, but the mountains of Wales have called their princess home.
- Davies, John. A History of Wales. Penguin Books, 2007.
- The Princess Gwenllian Society – http://www.princessgwenllian.co.uk/tpgstf.htm Available in both English and Welsh, the site details much of Gwenllian’s known history and the continuing efforts to keep her memory alive.
- Castles of Wales – http://www.castlewales.com/pen.html
They have profiles of Gwenllian and her father, and many photographs of her birthplace at Pen-y-Bryn.
About the Author:
Laura Klotz (pictured in a phone booth in Betws-y-Coed, Wales) is an amateur historian whose primary focus is local apocrypha in Pennsylvania, where her family has lived for more than 200 years. Through her blog, MarkerQuest, she explores and shares the state’s history as presented on markers erected by the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission, with their permission. In her spare time she makes great soup, plays a lot of video games, and travels as much as her health will allow. A published author and dilettante photographer, she delights in answering questions nobody actually asked her. She lives in Pennsylvania’s beautiful Lehigh Valley with her husband, sister, and three spoiled cats.