Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Monday, June 12, 2023

Gwenllian of Wales, Captive Princess

 Gwenllian, Captive Princess of Wales (born 12? June 1282)

Born on 12 June 1282 (perhaps), Gwenllian of Wales had a glittering royal heritage.* She was the only child of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, prince of Wales, whose grandfather was Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, "Llewelyn the Great," who fought to consolidate power for decades until he could claim the title of prince of Wales.

Detail from a memorial to 
Gwenllian, princess of Wales,
noting her date of birth

Gwenllian's mother was Eleanor de Montfort (click here and scroll down), who was the daughter of Eleanor of England, countess of Leicester (and of the powerful Simon de Montfort, earl of Leicester). Eleanor de Montfort was the granddaughter of King John of England, making her daughter, Gwenllian, the great great granddaughter of the formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine, queen of England. 

(Through her paternal line, Gwenllian was also related to the English monarchy. Her great grandfather, Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, had married a daughter of King John of England, Joan, whose mother is unknown.)

But, despite Gwenllian’s royal heritage, her life was to be no fairytale. Instead, her life began and ended in blood, death, and deprivation. 

Gwenllian's mother died on 19 June 1282, just having given birth to her only child. By the end of the year, Gwenllian's father was dead as well, killed in battle on 11 December 1282. 

Dafydd ap Gruffydd assumed the title of prince of Wales after his brother's death, and with it he became the guardian of his niece, Gwenllian. But within ten months, he too was dead. On 22 June 1283, he was captured by Edward I of England's forces. The wounded Dafydd ap Gruffydd was transferred to Shrewsbury along with other members of his family--his wife, Elizabeth de Ferrers, their daughter, Gwladys ferch Dafydd, their sons, Davydd's six illegitimate daughters, and his niece, Gwenllian, then just about a year old. 

On 30 September, Dafydd ap Gruffyd was hanged, drawn, and quartered. His sons were sent to Bristol Castle, where they were imprisoned until their deaths (the elder died in 1287, the younger about 1325). Gwladys was sent to Priory of St. Mary's at Sixhills, a convent in Lincolnshire, where she died about 1336. The fate of Davydd ap Gryffyd's illegitimate daughters is unknown, though in his entry in the Dictionary of Welsh National Biography, Thomas Jones Pierce suggests they too may have ended their days in convents: "There are no records of David's marital associations before his alliance with Elizabeth Ferrers; but he had a large number of daughters who appear to have ended their days in various nunneries." Equally unknown is the fate of Davydd's wife, Elizabeth de Ferrers.

As for Gwenllian--after her uncle's capture, she was sent to the Priory of Sempringham in Lincolnshire. According to the English chronicler Robert Mannyng, emphasizing the little girl's tender age, she was delivered to the priory "in her cradle." 

Like Sixhills, where her cousin Gwladys had been sent, this foundation had also been established by Ghilbert of Sempringham. About the selection of these two convents in Lincolnshire, historian J. Beverly Smith notes, "The choice of nunneries is not readily explained, but the houses were far enough from Wales, and Sempringham was a major house with accommodation for as many as 200 nuns." The accommodations were not luxurious: "the convent was at no time wealthy; though the standard of life seems always to have been simple[,] the revenues were small for the number of inmates."

Whatever the reason for his decision, it was a useful place for inconvenient women and girls. In his history of religious houses in Lincolnshire, William Page notes, "Probably by reason of its position as the head house of a purely English order, Sempringham was in high favour with the three Edwards, who sent thither wives and daughters of their chief enemies." 

On 11 November 1283, just months after he had executed Gwenllian's uncle, Edward I dictated a letter to Sempringham, noting that he had spared the child: "pitying . . . her sex and her age," the king had not condemned "the innocent" to "atone for the iniquity and ill-doing of the wicked." Charging the priory with her maintenance, the king "allowed the acquisition of certain lands" to be held in perpetuity as compensation.

"created for Mallt Anderson, 
the founder of the Princess Gwenllian Society"
In 1289, the king arranged for Thomas de Normanville, a Lincolnshire justice, to check on both Gwenllian and her cousin: "he was summoned to a council at Westminster to be held on 13 Oct[ober], and on 2 Sept[ember]. In the following year he was directed to report on the condition of the daughters [sic] of Llywelyn ab Gruffydd." In his mandate, Edward referred to both girls as having "taken the veil." Gwenllian would have been just seven. (Although she would spend her life among the nuns at Sempringham, she does not seem to have taken vows, nor did her cousin Gwladys.)

In 1327, Edward III granted £20 a year for Gwenllian, to be paid to the priory for her maintenance. Gwenllian would have been about forty-five years old. This pension was granted in response to a petition from Gwenllian: "Wentliane [Gwenllian], daughter of Lewelyn [Llywelyn] formerly the Prince of Wales prays the king of his grace to remember and aid her since the king . . . promised her when she was put in the house of Sempringham. . . ."

Gwenllian, princess of Wales, died at the Priory of Sempringham on 7 June 1337, just days before her fifty-fifth birthday. The date is noted by the chronicler Mannyng, who referred to her as Lleywelyn's "dear daughter," and as a "daughter of Wales" who had "remained" in England. According to Mannyng, Gwenllian (whom he calls "Wencilian") was "full courteous" (courtly, in the sense of having the manner, bearing, and conduct of a noblewoman), her death was "much lamented" by all.

As a further note about women held captive in convents: After the defeat of Robert the Bruce at the battle of Methven in 1306, his sister and his elder daughter were both imprisoned in Ghilbertine convents, Christian (Christina) Bruce at Sixhills, where Gwladys was confined, and Marjorie Bruce at Watton, in Yorkshire. The two women were freed in 1314 after Bruce's victory at Bannockburn. 

Among the other aristocratic women sent to Sempringham were Margaret de Clare, countess of Cornwall, who was detained there by Hugh Despenser from 1322 to 1326 during the reign of Edward II; Joan Mortimer, the daughter of Roger Mortimer, sent there in 1324, also during the reign of Edward II; and two of Hugh Despenser's daughters were dispatched to Sempringham--they were still there in 1337. 

For a longer list of royal and aristocratic women who were imprisoned for a variety of political motivations, click here.

*Although many sources indicate that the exact date of Gwenllian's birth in June is unknown, the birthdate of 12 June 1282 is inscribed on the memorial to her at Sempringham. Some who weigh in about the date of Gwenllian's birth argue that she was more likely born on 19 June, the day her mother died. Although the date is thus remains uncertain, I've used the date on her memorial as the occasion for today's post.

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