As part of Women's History Month, I am pleased to welcome Patricia Lennan. She joins us with the history of a Welsh princess whose story has been partially lost. Patricia sheds some light on Gwenllian the lost princess of Wales.
Gwenllian the Lost Princess of Wales
Guest Post by Patricia Lennan
The year 1277 was a tumultuous time in Welsh history. Having fought many campaigns to secure the independence of his beloved country, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, known as the last true native Prince of Wales, was forced to acknowledge the English king as his sovereign. Llywelyn signed the Treaty of Aberconwy with King Edward I, stripping him of all but a small portion of his lands. Soon after this, however, he did gain the hand of Edward’s cousin, Eleanor de Montfort, daughter of Simon de Montfort, to whom he had been betrothed for many years. Edward had previously prevented them from marrying. According to many historians the marriage was a love match, quite unusual for nobles of that era.
A few years of peace followed, but on Palm Sunday 1282, Llywelyn's brother, Dafydd ap Gruffydd, stirred up a revolt which quickly spread to other parts of Wales, a revolt which Llywelyn reluctantly felt obliged to join. Into all this turmoil little Gwenllian was born on 12 June at Abergwyngregin, one of the prince’s courts. Sadly, Eleanor died in childbirth leaving their only child motherless. Gwenllian was never to remember much of her father either, if anything at all. He was killed that December, it is believed, by the king’s men.
Eleanor and Llywelyn only had four years together, but Gwenllian had no time with them at all. Surprisingly, the king saved her life, but tragically he had her abducted at just nine or ten months old. Gwenllian was taken to a Gilbertine convent in Sempringham, Lincolnshire. Here she remained locked up until, it is believed, she died in 1337. Some historians believe that she knew nothing about who she really was or where she came from. Others have different theories.
Very little has been recorded about Gwenllian's life. As to whether she became a nun or not, opinions vary. But according to The Chronicle of the Princes, an early Welsh manuscript, she was made a nun ‘against her wishes’.
Her life was certainly very different in the priory, surrounded by the flat fenlands of eastern England, to how it should have been in the courts and the hollows and hills of the magical countryside of North Wales. The nuns were forbidden to communicate with the outside world, unlike the canons who shared part of the priory and were at liberty to come and go.
Some peasant women at that time may have indeed envied the nuns to some extent, as at least the nuns were reasonably fed and had warm clothing. They also received an education, which was quite a progressive idea in Norman England. However, worship and intercession were the main business of a nun’s life in Sempringham Priory. These were incorporated in an endless cycle of prayer and work.
Wales has a reputation for being a land of myths and legends, harbouring magic in secret places, the rivers and valleys echoing with ancient tales. Gwenllian had been hidden away from the world, not just in the convent, but for hundreds of years. I wanted to tell her tale and let her voice echo across the centuries.