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Gruffydd ap Cynan, King of Gwynedd

Gruffydd ap Cynan, King of Gwynedd[1, 2, 3]

Male Abt 1055 - 1137  (~ 82 years)

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  • Name Gruffydd ap Cynan 
    Suffix King of Gwynedd 
    Born Abt 1055  Dublin, County Dublin, Ireland Find all individuals with events at this location 
    Gender Male 
    Died 1137  Bangor, Gwynedd, Wales Find all individuals with events at this location 
    Buried Bangor, Gwynedd, Wales Find all individuals with events at this location 
    • GRUFFYDD ab CYNAN (1055?-1137), king of Gwynedd or North Wales, was, through his father Cynan, son of Iago, a descendant of Rhodri Mawr and of the ancient royal line of Gwynedd. When a series of vigorous usurpers had occupied the North Welsh throne, Cynan took refuge among the Norsemen of Dublin, and, if we may trust the Welsh biographer of Gruffydd, married 'Raguell, daughter of Auloed, king of the city of Dublin and of a fifth part of Ireland, and of Man and many other islands.' It is plain, however, that after the battle of Cluantarbh no Danish king ruled over much of Ireland outside the Danish cities. Auloed, says Gruffydd's biographer, to whose rather doubtful testimony our knowledge of Gruffydd's early life is due, was the son of King Sihtric and a descendant of Harald Haarfagr. His wife was a daughter of King Brian. So that Gruffydd sprang from the noblest royal lines of Wales, Norway, and Ireland. He was born about 1055 at Dublin, and was nursed at a place called by the Welsh the 'Cymmwd of Columcille,' three miles from his parents' house. After Cynan's death his mother inspired him with the desire to emulate his father's exploits and save Gwynedd from the usurpers. With the help of his friends and kinsfolk, he collected a fleet of Irish Danes and appeared off Abermenai.

      Gruffydd's name now first appears in the chronicles. In 1075 (Brut y Tywysogion, s.a. 1073) he attacked Anglesey, and was welcomed by the men of Lleyn and Arvon (Life). With the help of the Norman marcher, Robert of Rhuddlan, he defeated and slew Cynwric, and drove into flight Trahaiarn, son of Caradog. Trahaiarn, however, soon defeated his troops at the battle of Bron yr Erw and drove him back to Ireland. Another attempt was equally a failure, and Gruffydd remained several years longer in Ireland.

      About 1081 (Ann. Cambr.; Bruty Tywysogion, s. a. 1079; Gwentian Brut, s. a. 1080), Gruffydd ab Cynan again came to Wales with his Norse allies, and was joined by Rhys ab Tewdwr [q. v.], who two or three years before had made himself king of Deheubarth. At the battle of Mynydd Carno, Gruffydd and Rhys defeated aud slew Trahaiarn (Ann. Cambr.; Gwentian Brut). His death gave Gruffydd a foothold in Gwynedd, where he now ruled for some years in peace. Gruffydd's biographer, who denies Rhys any share in the victory, adds that war between the two allies at once broke out, in which Gruffydd terribly ravaged Rhys's territory.

      The older Welsh chronicles make no further mention of Gruffydd until 1099. His biographer tells, however, how he was betrayed by his 'barwn,' Meiryawn Goch (i.e. the Red), into the hands of Earl Hugh of Chester, who kept him in close confinement in Chester Castle for either twelve or sixteen years. During this period Hugh built four castles in Gwynedd which gave him command of all the country. These details can hardly be correct, but the fact of Gruffydd's imprisonment, if not by the earl, by the earl's chief follower, is confirmed by the epitaph which Ordericus Vitalis composed on Robert of Rhuddlan (Historia Ecclesiastica, iii. 288, ed. Le Prévost, 'cepit Grithfridum regem '). This must, however, have been before 1087, in which year Ordericus throws a new light on Gruffydd's movements. Again in alliance with Rhys, son of Tewdwr, and again supported by a fleet of Irish Norsemen, Gruffydd took advantage of the Norman revolt against Rufus and retaliated on Robert of Rhuddlan for his frequent devastations of Snowdon by a predatory expedition. He was compelled to retire when Robert hurried from the siege of Rochester to defend his dominions. By July Robert had reached his border stronghold of Dwyganwy. On 3 July Gruffydd entered the Conway with three ships and plundered the neighbourhood. He had the good fortune to slay Robert, who had rashly rushed down from the castle with but one companion to protect his lands. But Gruffydd was not strong enough to resist his followers. He cut off Robert's head with his own sword and retreated hastily by sea (Ord. Vit. iii. 280-9). The Normans still dominated Anglesey by Earl Hugh's castle of Aberlleiniog. He was not without rivals or partners in the rule of Gwynedd. In 1094, when the North Welsh rose in revolt, it is Cadwgan ab Bleddyn [q. v.], rather than Gruffydd, who takes the foremost place among the Cymry (Brut y Tywysogion, sub an. 1092; Anglo-Saxon Chron. sub an. 1097). Only the doubtful authority of the 'Gwentian Brut' connects Gruffydd by name with this movement, and he seems to have lived the life of a wandering viking, constantly taking refuge in Ireland or Man (Life}. A curious tale of his viking days comes from the life of St. Gwenlliw (Lives of the Cambro-British Saints, p. 151, Welsh MSS. Soc.) But the rising, whoever led it, was successful, and the destruction of the castle in Anglesey secured for the Welsh the special patrimony of Gruffydd (Flor. Wig. sub an. 1094). In 1095 William Rufus himself led an expedition into Snowdon with little result (Ann. Cambr. sub an. 1095, and Anglo-Saxon Chron. sub an. both agree in this). His expeditions in 1097 were equally unsuccessful. If Gruffydd had attacked him, boasts his biographer, none of his army would have remained alive. Yet in 1098 the two Earls Hugh of Chester and Shrewsbury again appeared in Mona and built or rebuilt the castle of Aberlleiniog. 'The Britons agreed in council to save Mona and invited to their defence a fleet that was at sea from Ireland.' But the pirates were bribed by the French, and Gruffydd and Cadwgan were compelled to retreat to Ireland. In 1099, however, a new revolt followed close after King Magnus's invasion of Anglesey and the death of Hugh of Shrewsbury, which brought the two Welsh kings back again. At last terms were arranged with the English and Gruffydd was left in possession of Mona, which he now governed quietly for several years. While his ally Cadwgan became vassal of Robert of Belleme for Ceredigion, Gruffydd seems to have held Anglesey as an independent prince (Freeman, William Rufus, ii. 424). He had, according to his biographer, visited the court of Henry I, and obtained from him the possession of Lleyn, Eivionydd, Ardudwy, and Arllechwedd. As he got these districts by the mediation of Hervey, the Breton bishop of Bangor, it must have been before 1109, the date of Hervey's translation to Ely. In 1114 a new war between Gruffydd and the Earl of Chester led to an invasion of Gwynedd by Henry I in person. After Owain ab Cadwgan had been tricked into making peace, Gruffydd also sought peace and was pardoned in return for a large tribute (Brut y Tywysogion, sub an. 1111; Ann. Cambr. sub an. 1114). In 1115 Gruffydd ab Rhys (d. 1136) [q. v.] of South Wales took refuge with Gruffydd ab Cynan. According to the 'Brut y Tywysogion,' Henry I sent for the northern Gruffydd and persuaded him to give up his fugitive namesake. When Gruffydd ab Rhys took sanctuary at Aberdaron, Gruffydd ab Cynan was only prevented by the remonstrances of the clergy from violating the sanctuary. Gruffydd ab Cynan remained for several years at peace with Henry. In 1120 he ended the long vacancy of the see of Bangor by procuring the election of Bishop David (d. 1139?) [q. v.], and wrote a letter to Archbishop Ralph which procured the consecration of his nominee (Eadmer, Hist. Nov. p. 259, gives the letter). In 1121 he supported Henry when that king invaded Powys, and entirely deserted the sons and grandsons of Cadwgan (Brut y Tywysogion, sub an. 1118). During his old age he put his sons over the remoter cantreds of his dominions, and they ravaged Powys and Ceredigion in many a bloody foray. Towards the end of his life Gruffydd became again on good terms with Gruffydd ab Rhys.

      The latter part of Gruffydd's reign is celebrated as a period of peace and prosperity by his biographer. Between 1130 and 1135 were 'four successive years without any story to be found' (ib.), so quiet were the times. Gruffydd was especially praised 'for collecting together into Gwynedd those who had been before scattered into various countries by the Normans.' He thus made Mon and Gwynedd the centres of the national life.

      His fame rose above that of the other petty Welsh rulers, and Ordericus (Hist.Eccl. iv. 493) couples him as 'princeps Brittonum' with Henry I himself the 'princepsAnglorum.' He prepared the way for the great resistance to Norman aggression which, under his son Owain, preserved the independence of Gwynedd. He was a good friend to the clergy, and built so many churches that, says his biographer, 'Gwynedd became splendid with white churches like the firmament with stars.' In his will he left donations to many Welsh, Irish, and English churches. Gruffydd's reign marks an epoch in the growth of Welsh literature. He gave the same impulse to the poets of the north that Rhys ab Tewdwr's return from Brittany and the curiosity of the Norman conquerors gave to the prose writers of South Wales. Meiler, the oldest of the Welsh bards, who had lamented in his youth the fall of Trahaiarn at the hands of Gruffydd, wrote in his extreme old age an elegy on Gruffydd himself, which is almost the first Welsh poem of literary value whose date can be precisely fixed. A long series of bards, of whom Gwalchmai, Meiler's son, was one of the most distinguished, now flourished in North Wales. The loss of Gruffydd's pencerdd (chief bard) at the fight at Aberlleiniog (Life, p. 118) was worthy of special mention by his biographer.
      Dr. Powel in his 'History of Cambria,' 1584, says that Gruffydd 'reformed the disordered behaviour of the Welsh minstrels by a very good statute which is extant to this day.' In 1592 Dr. John David Rhys published these laws in his 'Cambro-Brytannicĉ Linguĉ Institutiones.' They were said to have been promulgated at a great gathering of bards and minstrels at Caerwys, though the Earl of Chester rather than Gruffydd must always have borne rule in the region that is now Flintshire. There is no reference to such an assembly in the best manuscript of the biography of Gruffydd, but in a manuscript of inferior authenticity, 'The Book of Richard Davies of Bangor,' is a passage describing the Caerwys meeting, and telling how the chief prize at the Eisteddfod was gained by a 'Scot' (Irishman), who was presented by Gruffydd with a golden pipe (Myvyrian Archĉology, ii. 604, note, translated in Stephens, Literature of the Kymry, p. 57). Gruffydd's Irish education is thought to have led him to introduce bagpipes into Wales, somewhat to the disparagement of the harp. His musical laws are also said to have been largely derived from Irish sources. It has been debated with much animation among Welsh antiquaries, whether these Irish innovations in any way impaired the originality of the national music (T. Price (Carnhuanawc) Hanes Cymru; but cf. the more moderate comments of Stephens, Literature of the Kymry, p. 58). The 'Gwentian Brut'; (p. 112) says that Gruffydd was present at a great South Welsh gathering of minstrels held by Gruffydd ab Rhys in 1135.

      In his old age Gruffydd is said to have become blind. He died in 1137 (Annales Cambria), having assumed the monastic habit and having received extreme unction from Bishop David of Bangor. He was eighty-two years old. He was buried in a splendid tomb at Bangor on the left of the high altar (Life).

      Gruffydd is described by his biographer as of low stature, with yellow hair, a round face, fine colour, large eyes and very beautiful eyebrows. He had a fine beard, a fair skin, and strong limbs. He was able to speak several languages. His wife was Angharad, daughter of Owain, son of Edwin (Brut y Tywysogion, p. 153). Her beauties are minutely described by the biographer. By her Gruffydd had three sons: Cadwallon (who in 1124 slew his mother's three brothers, and in 1132 was slain by his cousins), Cadwaladr [q. v.], and Owain, afterwards famous as Owain Gwynedd [q. v.] He also had by her many daughters (ib.; the Life says five, and gives their names), one of whom, Gwenllian, was the wife, first of Cadwgan ab Bleddyn, and then of Gruffydd ab Rhys. Gruffydd was also the father of several illegitimate children.

      [The Brut y Tywysogion (Rolls Ser.) is very full for this period, but as it deals mainly with South Wales its notices of Gruffydd are comparatively scanty; the Annales Cambriĉ (Rolls Ser.) is shorter but sometimes more precise; the 'Grwentian' Brut y Tywysogion, published by the Cambrian Archĉological Association, adds some details that can hardly be accepted; the English chroniclers, especially Ordericus Vitalis, Historia Ecclesiastica, vols. iii. and iv. ed. Le Prévost (Soc. de l'Histoire de France), add a little; the chief source, however, is the detailed biography 'Historia Hen Gruffud vab Kenan vab Yago,' commonly called Hanes Gruffydd ab Cynan, published in the Myvyrian Archĉology of Wales, ii. 583-605, and, apparently more precisely, in the Archĉologia Cambrensis, 3rd ser. Nos. xlv. and xlvi. 1866, by the Rev. Robert Williams; appended to the latter edition is a Latin translation by Bishop Robinson of Bangor (1566-1585), preserved in the library at Peniarth, and there published for the first time; the biography is worked up in elaborate literary form, with classical parallels and quotations, and, though wanting in chronology and almost too minute not to excite some suspicion, its outline corresponds fairly with that derived from the other sources; the Myvyrian Archĉology of Wales, i, 189-191 (ed. 1801) for Meiler's elegy; Stephens's Literature of the Kymry, 2nd edit.; Freeman's William Rufus works up in detail Gruffydd's relations with England; Powel's History of Cambria; Walter's Das alte Wales (Bonn, 1859); J. D. Rhys, Cambro-Brytannicĉ Cymrĉcĉve Linguĉ Institutiones (1592) for the Musical Laws, translated in the Transactions of the Cymmrodorion Soc. i. 283-293.]
      T. F. T.
    Person ID I11093  Dickinson
    Last Modified 11 May 2015 

    Father Cynan ap Iago,   d. 1060 
    Mother Ranghild of Dublin 
    Family ID F4512  Group Sheet  |  Family Chart

    Family Angharad of Deheubarth,   d. 1161 
    +1. Owain ap Gruffydd, King of Gwynedd,   b. Abt 1080, Wales Find all individuals with events at this location,   d. Nov 1169, Wales Find all individuals with events at this location  (Age ~ 89 years)  [Birth]
    +2. Susann of Gwynedd  [Birth]
    Last Modified 11 May 2015 
    Family ID F3121  Group Sheet  |  Family Chart

  • Photos
    Arms of Gryffydd ap Cynan
    Arms of Gryffydd ap Cynan

  • Sources 
    1. [S336472] A History of Wales from the Earliest Times to the Edwardian Conquest, Sir John Edward Lloyd, (London: Longmans, Green, and Company, 1911), 379ff.

    2. [S336473] Welsh Biography Online, (The National Library of Wales),

    3. [S336463] Medieval Lands: A prosopography of medieval European noble and royal families, Charles Cawley, (Online: The Foundation for Medieval Genealogy at, 20XX),

    4. [S336351] Dictionary of National Biography, 63 volumes, Sir Sidney Lee, ed., (New York: McMillan and Company, 1885-1900), Public Domain., vol. 23, 301-04.