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Owain Gwynedd [Owain ap Gruffudd]locked

(d. 1170)
  • Huw Pryce

Owain Gwynedd [Owain ap Gruffudd] (d. 1170), king of Gwynedd, was the second son of Gruffudd ap Cynan, king of Gwynedd (d. 1137), and his wife, Angharad.

Early conquests

Before his father's death in 1137 Owain had already gained considerable military experience, contributing to the expansion of Gwynedd in the 1120s and 1130s. He is first mentioned together with his elder brother, Cadwallon, as leading an expedition against Meirionydd in 1124. In 1136 Owain, together with his younger brother, Cadwaladr [see below], led two campaigns against the Normans in Ceredigion, on the second of which they were joined by Gruffudd ap Rhys (d. 1137) of Deheubarth. Since Cadwallon had been killed in 1132 in the commote of Nanheudwy, leading an attack on Powys, Owain was the eldest surviving son of Gruffudd ap Cynan on the latter's death in 1137 and succeeded to the kingdom of Gwynedd, which he ruled until his own death in 1170. In 1138 he completed the conquest of Ceredigion, which was divided between his eldest son, Hywel ab Owain, and Cadwaladr. Owain sought to continue the alliance between his dynasty and that of Deheubarth, cemented earlier by the marriage of his sister, Gwenllian, to Gruffudd ap Rhys, by arranging the betrothal of his daughter to Anarawd, Gruffudd's son and successor. However, Anarawd was murdered by Cadwaladr's men in 1143, prompting Owain to dispossess his brother of his lands, although the brothers were reconciled the following year after Cadwaladr obtained military assistance from Ireland. By 1149 Owain had resumed the policy of expansion to the north-east that had been a hallmark of the later years of his father's reign, for in that year he occupied the commote of Iâl, building a castle at Tomen y Rhodwydd. His control of Iâl, together with Tegeingl and Ystrad Alun, was reinforced the following year by his defeat, at Coleshill, of Madog ap Maredudd, king of Powys, and forces supplied by Ranulf (II), earl of Chester. Two events in 1152 underlined Owain's determination to maintain the territorial integrity of the kingdom of Gwynedd and to protect the interests of his branch of the royal dynasty: his brother Cadwaladr was driven from Anglesey, his last remaining lands in the kingdom, while Owain's nephew, Cunedda, son of the king's deceased elder brother, Cadwallon, was blinded and castrated.

Prince of Wales

Owain's ambitions were checked, however, by Henry II's first campaign against Gwynedd in the summer of 1157. Although Henry suffered military reverses, particularly in the seaborne attack on Anglesey, his show of force was sufficient to persuade Owain to submit and give homage to the king, surrender his conquests in Tegeingl (where Henry built castles at Rhuddlan and Basingwerk), and restore Cadwaladr to his lands. Later in the year Owain also lost control of Iâl, following the destruction of his castle at Tomen y Rhodwydd by Madog ap Maredudd's brother, Iorwerth Goch. These setbacks proved to be only temporary, however, for the opportunity for further expansion presented itself on the death of Madog ap Maredudd in 1160. Owain seems immediately to have occupied the Powys commotes of Edeirnion and Cyfeiliog and in 1162 he led a punitive raid against Hywel ab Ieuaf, ruler of Arwystli. True, Owain continued to be circumspect in his dealings with Henry II. Thus after Einion Clud, ruler of Elfael, had been handed over to the king of Gwynedd following his capture by his brother, Cadwallon ap Madog of Maelienydd, in 1160, Owain gave his prisoner into the custody of Henry, and on 1 July 1163 he gave homage to the English king at Woodstock following the latter's second Welsh campaign. However, by 1165 Owain was at the head of a Welsh alliance including the rulers of Powys and Rhys ap Gruffudd, ruler of Deheubarth, which successfully defied Henry, whose third campaign in Wales in that year was a disaster, coming to grief in August in the rain and mud of the Berwyn Mountains. Indeed from 1165 Owain was the undisputed leader of native Wales, a supremacy placarded in his adoption of the new titles, prince of Wales ( (Waliarum princeps)) or prince of the Welsh ( (princeps Wallensium)), which replaced the title king of Wales ( (rex Walliae) or (Walliarum rex)) used from possibly as early as 1140. He sought to strengthen his position by offering fealty to Louis VII, king of France, whom he urged to make war on Henry II following the latter's ill-fated Welsh campaign of 1165. In Wales, Owain resumed his expansion in the north-east, capturing Basingwerk Castle in 1166 and securing the whole of Tegeingl the following year after taking, together with Rhys ap Gruffudd, the castles of Rhuddlan (after a siege of three months) and Prestatyn. The fragility of the unity achieved by the Welsh leaders in 1165 was illustrated by another campaign in 1167 in which Owain and Cadwaladr joined Rhys in attacking the Powysian ruler Owain Cyfeiliog and capturing his castle of Tafolwern. Yet the prince of Gwynedd clearly realized that Henry II remained the greatest potential threat to his territorial gains, for Owain was doubtless one of the ‘kings of Wales’ who sent messengers to Louis VII in 1168 to forge a military alliance against Henry, thereby continuing the diplomatic contacts with the Capetian king established earlier in the 1160s.

Church policy

Owain's power in the last five years of his reign is also demonstrated by his successful defiance of Archbishop Thomas Becket and Pope Alexander III with regard to the vacant bishopric of Bangor and his own marriage. Owain was later praised by Gerald of Wales for his respect for churches, and it is very likely that he patronized rebuilding work at Penmon and possibly at other churches in Gwynedd. But he also demanded, and to a great extent obtained, the loyalty of the churchmen in his kingdom. However, at his consecration at Worcester in January 1140 Meurig, or Maurice, bishop of Bangor, had given fealty to King Stephen, despite having been prohibited from so doing by Simeon, archdeacon of Bangor; this probably explains why Owain protested to Bernard, bishop of St David's, that Meurig had been unlawfully intruded into the see. Yet although he was exiled for some years at the beginning of his episcopate, and again for a period in the 1150s (prompting an appeal on his behalf by Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury to the pope), Meurig remained bishop until his death on 12 August 1161. Owain was determined that any successor should not do fealty to the king of England, and exploited Becket's exile from November 1164 by requesting permission, probably in the autumn of 1165, for his own candidate to be consecrated by another bishop and also by asserting that obedience would be given to Canterbury as a favour rather than as of right. Becket refused to countenance these proposals but the candidate, Arthur of Bardsey, may nevertheless have been sent to Ireland for consecration. Although Becket enlisted papal support in his efforts to ensure the election of a bishop acceptable to him, the bishopric remained vacant (unless held by Arthur of Bardsey, who was recognized by neither archbishop nor pope) until 1177. Attempts to resolve the dispute through the mediation of Louis VII came to nothing. Indeed, by c.1169 archbishop and pope had intensified their opposition to Owain by attacking his marriage to Cristin, or Christina, ferch Gronw ab Owain ab Edwin—which had already attracted criticism from Archbishop Theobald in the mid-1150s—on the grounds that she was the prince's cousin and thus related within the prohibited degrees of consanguinity. However, here too Owain defied his ecclesiastical opponents by refusing to separate from his wife and, although as a result of this he was excommunicated by Becket, the king of Gwynedd was nevertheless given an honourable burial in Bangor Cathedral. Gerald of Wales reports how he and Archbishop Baldwin ordered the body to be exhumed and buried in unconsecrated ground on their visit to Bangor while preaching the crusade in Wales in 1188, but it is extremely doubtful whether their instructions were heeded.

It seems that Owain had married Cristin by c.1140, for her son Dafydd was old enough to fight Henry II in 1157. Owain and Cristin had three sons and a daughter, but Owain had numerous other children with possibly as many as eight other partners, to judge by a late fifteenth-century genealogical tract. These included Iorwerth Drwyndwn, to whose mother, Gwladus ferch Llywarch ap Trahaearn, Owain appears to have been married before his marriage to Cristin, for Gerald of Wales believed Iorwerth to be Owain's only legitimate son. However, it is very likely that many of Owain's other children were the result of extramarital unions, including his eldest son, Hywel, said in the genealogical source referred to above to have been the son of an Irish woman, Ffynod (or Pyfog). Two other sons died in their father's lifetime, namely Rhun in 1146 and Llywelyn in 1165.


Owain himself died in November 1170, probably on the 23rd, and was described (retrospectively) by the author of the Welsh chronicle Brut y tywysogyon as 'a man of great renown and of infinite prudence and nobility, the bulwark and strength of Wales, unconquered from his youth' (Brut: Hergest, 151). Although Gerald of Wales condemned Owain for his incestuous marriage, he praised him for his justice, wisdom, and moderation as a ruler; Gerald also refers, as do some charters issued in favour of Haughmond Abbey, to the prince as Owain Magnus—'the Great' or, perhaps, 'the Elder'. (The appellation, like Owain Gwynedd, may have served to distinguish Owain from his younger contemporary and namesake, Owain ap Gruffudd ap Maredudd of Powys, known as Owain Cyfeiliog.) The most fulsome praises of Owain Gwynedd occur in the poems to him by the court poets Gwalchmai ap Meilyr—for whom the prince was 'the fairest of the kings of Britain and the most royal' (Gruffydd, 1/8, ll.59–60)—and Cynddelw Brydydd Mawr: both of these emphasized that Owain possessed in abundance the military virtues deemed essential to any successful Welsh ruler of this period, and proclaimed that he was an eminently worthy successor to earlier kings of Gwynedd such as Maelgwn and Rhodri Mawr. There can be no doubt that Owain considerably strengthened his kingdom, not only preserving its territorial integrity but expanding it to embrace all of north Wales from the Dee to the Dyfi, thereby paving the way for the achievements of his grandson, Llywelyn ab Iorwerth. Although details are sparse, he may well also have undertaken important territorial reorganization and commenced the policy of endowing favoured freemen with estates in order to secure their support. However, while he seems to have contained the ambitions of his sons during his lifetime, he failed to ensure a smooth unitary succession: shortly after his death his eldest son, Hywel ab Owain Gwynedd, who may have been his chosen heir, was killed by his half-brothers Dafydd and Rhodri at the battle of Pentraeth in Anglesey. There followed almost three decades of struggle for the control of Gwynedd among Owain's sons and grandsons, a struggle finally resolved with the ascendancy of Llywelyn ab Iorwerth.

The prince's brother

Cadwaladr ap Gruffudd ap (d. 1172), king in Wales, Owain's younger brother, is first mentioned in 1136. On Owain's accession in 1137 he was granted, or confirmed in possession of, Anglesey and Meirionydd, and the following year he received the northern half of Ceredigion after its conquest from the Normans. Until 1157 his relations with Owain were strained: on the one hand, he may well have nursed ambitions of supplanting his brother as king of Gwynedd, while, on the other, Owain's sons Hywel and Cynan sought to occupy their uncle's lands. In 1140 Cadwaladr joined with his brother in complaining to Bishop Bernard of St David's about the election of Meurig to the see of Bangor, but by the beginning of the following year Cadwaladr had allied himself, quite possibly to strengthen his hand against Owain, with Ranulf (II), earl of Chester (d. 1153), leading a contingent of Welsh troops alongside the latter at the battle of Lincoln against King Stephen on 2 February 1141. Cadwaladr greatly angered Owain in 1143 on account of his apparent complicity in the murder of Anarawd ap Gruffudd ap Rhys, to whom Owain had planned to give his daughter in marriage, and as a result he was driven out of northern Ceredigion by Hywel ab Owain and also, apparently, from Anglesey, until restored after threatening Owain with a military force hired in Ireland. However, Cadwaladr's position in Gwynedd remained precarious. In 1147 he was driven out of Meirionydd by his nephews, Hywel and Cynan; in 1149 he transferred his portion of Ceredigion to his son, Cadfan, and in the following year Cadfan was seized, together with his land and castle of Llanrhystud, by Hywel ab Owain; and in 1152 he was expelled from his only remaining territory of Anglesey. Meanwhile the alliance with Ranulf continued, as is shown by charters of the late 1140s and early 1150s in which Cadwaladr witnesses as king of Wales ( (rege Waliarum)) and king of north Wales ( (rege Nortwaliarum)). These styles suggest that Ranulf encouraged his ally's regal ambitions in Gwynedd so as to make trouble for Owain, whose expansion into Tegeingl and Ystrad Alun by 1150 posed a threat to the earl's authority. By 1153 Cadwaladr had married Aliz de Clare, quite possibly to be identified with Adeliza, widow of Richard de Clare (d. 1136), the former Norman lord of Ceredigion, and thus Ranulf's sister; the marriage may have been intended to strengthen Cadwaladr's claims to Ceredigion, control of which passed to the sons of Gruffudd ap Rhys of Deheubarth by 1153. This was not his first marriage, however, for his son Cadfan was already an adult by 1149; indeed, the late medieval genealogical tract referred to above states that Cadwaladr had children with four women in all. The support given by Cadwaladr to the Angevin cause in Stephen's reign stood him in good stead after his expulsion from Gwynedd in 1152, for by 1155 or 1156 he had been granted the estate of Ness in Shropshire by Henry II, who ensured that he was restored to his lands in north Wales following the campaign of 1157 (in which Cadwaladr fought on Henry's side). These Angevin connections probably explain why Cadwaladr patronized the Augustinian abbey of Haughmond in Shropshire, to which, as early as the 1140s, he granted the church of Nefyn in Llŷn, for Haughmond (situated only 10 miles away from Ness) received benefactions from Ranulf of Chester and other Angevin supporters. After 1157 Cadwaladr remained loyal to Owain Gwynedd for the rest of the latter's reign. Together with his nephews Hywel and Cynan he took part in Reginald fitz Henry's expedition against Rhys ap Gruffudd in 1159, he participated in the campaign against Henry II in 1165, and he fought alongside his brother in the campaigns which led to the occupation of Tegeingl in 1167. Famed, according to Gerald of Wales, for his outstanding generosity, Cadwaladr outlived Owain by about fifteen months, and was buried beside his brother in Bangor Cathedral in 1172.


  • J. B. Smith, ‘Owain Gwynedd’, Transactions of the Caernarvonshire Historical Society, 32 (1971), 8–17
  • H. Pryce, ‘Owain Gwynedd and Louis VII: the Franco-Welsh diplomacy of the first prince of Wales’, Welsh History Review / Cylchgrawn Hanes Cymru, 19 (1998–9), 1–28
  • R. R. Davies, Conquest, coexistence, and change: Wales, 1063–1415, History of Wales, 2 (1987)
  • H. Pryce, ‘The church of Trefeglwys and the end of the “Celtic” charter tradition in twelfth-century Wales’, Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies, 25 (1993), 15–54
  • T. Jones, ed. and trans., Brut y tywysogyon, or, The chronicle of the princes: Red Book of Hergest (1955)
  • T. Jones, ed. and trans., Brut y tywysogyon, or, The chronicle of the princes: Peniarth MS 20 (1952)
  • R. G. Gruffydd, ed., Cyfres beirdd y tywysogion, 7 vols. (1991–6), vols. 1, 2, 4 [the Poets of the Princes series]
  • A. W. Haddan and W. Stubbs, eds., Councils and ecclesiastical documents relating to Great Britain and Ireland, 1 (1869)
  • Giraldus Cambrensis, ‘De invectionibus’, ed. W. S. Davies, Y Cymmrodor, 30 (1920)
  • The letters of John of Salisbury, ed. and trans. H. E. Butler and W. J. Millor, rev. C. N. L. Brooke, 2 vols., OMT (1979–86) [Latin original with parallel Eng. text]
  • The correspondence of Thomas Becket, ed. and trans. A. J. Duggan, 2 vols., OMT (2000)
Oxford Medieval Texts
Giraldi Cambrensis, ed. J. S. Brewer, J. F. Dimock, & G. F. Warner, 8 vols., RS, 21 (1861–91)