The medieval era
Power games and princesses
Medieval Wales was an interesting, if risky place to be. Princes and princesses, many barely out of their teens, fought battles and plotted against each other, trading their kith and kin for power.
Archaeologist Spencer Smith, who broke new ground in his studies of key Welsh sites including Owain Glyn Dŵr’s home at Sycharth, mid Wales was a key member of the Tywysogion production team.
Here, Spencer takes a look at the unsung heroines of the Middle Ages, the mothers, daughters, sisters, lovers and wives, whose influence was far greater than we perhaps imagined.
The history and archaeology of Medieval Wales, with some exceptions, has been studied by, and written about, by middle aged-men. In a world where the removal of eyes and testicles was common practice for dealing with a political rival, what place did young women have in this society? How can we find out about their lives, when sometimes such simple details as their surnames go unrecorded?
In many cases the ‘power behind the throne’, these women came from different countries and backgrounds. Some, such as Emma Audley, wife of Madog ap Gruffydd, a prince of Powys in the thirteenth century, were English. Others like Margaret Hanmer, Owain Glyn Dwr’s wife, came from mixed backgrounds, with English and Welsh parents - Margaret was also known by her Welsh name of Marred ferch Dafydd. Others came from further afield. Joan, the wife of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth (‘the Great’), was a daughter of King John of England and his French mistress and spoke French as her first language. It’s quite possible the language of her marital home, the court of Llywelyn, which travelled to castles such as Dolwyddelan and Castell y Bere, would have been French too.
What has become apparent is the role these women played in Welsh society. They could be wife, mother, mistress, or in the case of Gwenllian, wife of Gruffydd ap Rhys and mother of the Lord Rhys, warriors. In 1135, while her husband was in north Wales garnering support for an uprising against the Norman overlords of Deheubarth, Gwenllian herself led an army against Kidwelly Castle. This act of bravery cost her her life – she was killed by a soldier called Maurice de Londres, and the place where she fell has been known ever since as Maes Gwenllian.