THE FIRST AND LAST KING
He united Wales but Welsh king Gruffudd ap Llywelyn has been largely forgotten. JAMES MCCARTHY looks at the history surrounding the man who killed his rivals
HE was a ruthless killer who let nobody stand in his way. He was Gruffudd ap Llywelyn and he was the first and last king of Wales.
No one before him had ever united the nation. And no one has managed it since his death on August 5, 1063.
Dr Mike Davies thinks Gruffudd “seems almost to have been written out of history.”
He wrote The Last King of Wales about Gruffudd.
“The book I wrote was to bring him to the forefront and ask ‘Why is he not better known?’,” Dr Davies said.
“He achieved what he set out to do by pretty ruthless means, by going and killing his rivals.”
In 1039 King Iago of Gwynedd was killed, probably by Gruffudd. Already in control of Powys, Gruffudd seized the new territory.
After gaining power he surprised a Mercian army at Rhyd y Groes, near Welshpool. Defeating it, he killed Edwin, brother of the Leofric, Earl of Mercia.
He then attacked Dyfed, which was ruled by Hywel ab Edwin. He won and took Hywel’s wife.
When Hywel tried to reclaim his territory in 1044 Gruffudd killed him.
In 1047 Gruffydd ap Llywelyn was expelled from Deheubarth – which encompassed modern-day Pembrokeshire – and Gruffydd ap Rhydderch of Gwent took over.
But Gruffudd ap Llywelyn killed Gruffydd ap Rhydderch in battle in 1055 and retook Deheubarth.
He marched on Hereford in the same year and around the same time he also seized Morgannwg, which was between the Afon Llwyd and the River Towy, and Gwent. He also took extensive territories along the border.
In 1056 he was victorious over another English army in Glasbury, Powys.
He was now recognised as the King of Wales.
“Because he murdered all his Welsh rivals he was not always looked upon as favourably as he might,” Dr Davies said.
“One of the things that came out in a number of sources was his wealth and the fact that he had a fleet of ships.
“There are stories about his own personal ship which was said to have a prow and stern of gold.
“The Domesday Book does not cover Wales but it does cover the border counties and there is evidence about a manor he owns in what was then Cheshire.”
When he raided Hereford it’s thought he came away with “a lot of plunder”.
“There would have been gold, silver and jewels and probably cash as well,” Dr Davies said.
“I think there was probably a mint there that probably held cash.
“After these events, things go quiet and there is not so much evidence about what he is up to in the later 1060s.”
Dr Davies believed he was “probably” resting on his laurels.
“That might have led to his downfall,” he said.
“When Harold attacked him at Rhuddlan he was not expecting it.
“That was in Christmas 1062. The fact that it is Christmas is interesting because it is the middle of winter and around the time of festivities.”
He would not have been expecting a declaration of war.
“It looks like Gruffudd escaped in the nick of time and he held out in Snowdonia,” Dr Davies said.
Gruffudd was now on borrowed time.
“The circumstances around his death are sketchy,” Dr Davies said.
“It’s possible that Harold had somehow got to some of his men and he might have been murdered by one of his own followers.
“Because he was implicated in the death of Iago there were possibly factions loyal to the dynasty out to get revenge.”
Dr Davies dubbed Gruffudd “a forceful character”.
“But people were not saying he was an evil dictator, even though that is how some people might perceive him today,” he said.
“He was someone who patronised the arts, he had his own court poet.
“He was trying to achieve an independent state of Wales.”
Dr Rhun Emlyn is a medieval historian at Aberystwyth University.
“There were a number of kings and princes during the period who controlled most of Wales but he was the only one who ruled the whole of what we now know as Wales,” he said.
“He did that for about a decade.”
He was “very successful” until Harold – who died with an arrow in his eye at the Battle of Hastings – caught up with him.
“He was betrayed by his own people in the end when he turned out to be less successful than they hoped,” Dr Emlyn said.
“In the centuries before him there were a number of other kings.
“He was part of a pattern of kings trying to unite Wales – people like Hywel Dda, who’s attributed with getting the laws in shape and so on.
“But he was clearly the most successful. No one conquered Gwent or Glamorgan as successfully as he did.”
The late Rhondda-born historian John Davies recognised Gruffudd’s achievements as a warrior in his book A History of Wales, writing: “From about 1057 until his death in 1063, the whole of Wales recognised the kingship of Gruffudd ap Llewelyn.
“For about seven brief years, Wales was one, under one ruler, a feat with neither precedent nor successor.”
He called his method of uniting the nation “brutal”.
Taunted about his readiness to kill opponents, storyteller Walter Map reported he replied: “Talk not of killing. I only blunt the horns of the progeny of Wales lest they should wound their dam.”
Dam is an ancient term for mother. Here it refers to Wales itself.
“His activities aroused the enmity of other branches of the houses of Rhodri,” Dr Davies said.
“They also created concern in England, for Gruffudd ap Llewelyn was the first Welsh ruler since Cadwollon who had the power to interfere in the affairs of England.”
In 1042 Edward the Confessor became King of England but he was not a great leader.
“England’s weakness was Wales’ opportunity,” Dr Davies said.
“Gruffudd coveted the rich lands beyond Offa’s Dyke which had been in possession of the English settlers for 300 years and more.
“In 1039 he defeated the forces of Leofric, earl of Mercia, at Rhydy-Groes near Welshpool.
“In 1055 he allied with Leofric’s son, Aelfgar, who had been exiled from England through the machinations of the sons of Godwin, earl of Wessex.
“The allies burned Hereford and expelled a large proportion of the population of the borderland.
“Thus did the Welsh repossess Whitford and Hope, Bangor Iscoed and Chirk, Presteigne and Radnor.”
Revenge came Godwine’s son.
“Gruffudd was pursued from place to place and he was killed somewhere in Snowdonia on August 5, 1063.”
Sources record he was killed either by his own men or by Cynon ap Iago. His father was Iago ab Idwal, whom Gruffudd put to death in 1039 when he took Gwynedd.
After Gruffudd’s slaying, Harold married his widow Ealdgyth. This meant she was Queen of Wales and Queen of England in succession. Harold did not try to rule Wales. So long as it was not united he was happy. from Harold,