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A Short History of Wales

8: Griffith Ap Conan and Griffith Ap Rees


<< 7: The Normans || 9: Owen Gwynedd and the Lord Rees >>

In the battle of Mynydd Carn, a young chief led the shining shields of the men of Gwynedd. He was Griffith, the son of a prince of the line of Cunedda and of a sea-rover's daughter. He was mighty of limb, fair and straight to see, with the blue eyes and flaxen hair of the ruling Celt. In battle, he was full of fury and passion; in peace, he was just and wise. His people saw at first that he could fight a battle; then they found he could rule a country. And it was he that was to say to the Norman: "Thus far shalt thou come, and no further."

When Bleddyn died in 1075, Griffith came to Gwynedd, and found that his father's lands were under new rulers. Robert of Rhuddlan and Trahaiarn of Arwystli were mighty foes; but Griffith drove both of them back; and, by his prowess and success in battle, broke the spell of conquest which kept Gwynedd in bonds. But his enemies attacked him again from all sides; and, while Hugh the Wolf and Robert of Rhuddlan were laying Gwynedd waste, Trahaiarn and Griffith met at the hard-fought battle of Bron yr Erw. Griffith lost the day, and again became a sea-rover. He sailed to Dyved, and there he met Rees, the King of Deheubarth, who also was of the line of Cunedda, and had been driven from his land by the Normans. The two chiefs joined, and they crushed Trahaiarn at Mynydd Carn. Then they turned against the Normans.

Rees soon fell in battle, and left two children, Nest and Griffith. The beauty of Nest and the genius of Rees ap Griffith fill an important page in the history of their country. Nest became the mother of the conquerors of Ireland; Rees became the greatest of all the kings of South Wales.

The Normans found that the Welsh had taken heart. Of their opponents, they feared three: Griffith ap Conan, Owen of Powys, and Griffith ap Rees. The kings of England, the two sons of the Conqueror—red, brutal William and cool, treacherous Henry—had to come to help their barons.

Griffith ap Conan had a long life of strife and success. In his struggle with Hugh the Wolf, he was once in The Wolf's prison, and more than once he had to flee to the sea. But, backed up by the liberty-loving sons of Snowdon and by his sea-roving kinsmen, he made Gwynedd strong and prosperous. He drove the Normans from Anglesey; he attacked and killed Robert of Rhuddlan; he saw the red King of England himself forced by storm and rain to beat a retreat from Snowdon. He was loved by his people during his youth of adventure and battle, and during his old age of safe counsel and love of peace. His wife Angharad and his son Owen live with him in the memory of his country. When he died, in 1137, it was said that he had saved his people, had ruled them justly, and had given them peace.

In the Severn country the princes of Powys were fighting against the Normans also, especially against the family of Montgomery. The sons of Bleddyn—Cadogan, Iorwerth, and Meredith—were driving the invaders from the valley of the Severn, and from Dyved, defeating their armies in battle, and storming their castles. Sometimes they would make alliances with them, and defy the King of England. But it is difficult to follow each of them. The history of one of them, Owen ap Cadogan, is like a romance. He was brave and handsome, in love with Nest, and a very firebrand in politics. The army of Henry I. was too strong for him, and he had to submit. He then became the friend of the King of England. It was the aim of the princes of Powys to be free, not only from the Norman, but also from Griffith of Gwynedd and Griffith of Deheubarth. They were an able and versatile family; noble and base deeds, revolting crimes and sweet poems, come in the stirring story of their lives.

What Griffith did in the north, and the sons of Bleddyn in the east, Griffith ap Rees did in the south; he showed that the Norman army could be beaten in battle, and that a Norman castle could be taken by assault. After his father's death he spent much of his youth in exile or in hiding: sometimes we find him in Ireland, sometimes in the court of Griffith ap Conan, sometimes with his sister Nest—now the wife of Gerald, the custodian of Pembroke Castle. But he had one aim ever before him—to recover his father's kingdom and to make his people free. Castle after castle rose—at Swansea, Carmarthen, Llandovery, Cenarth, Aberystwyth—to warn him that the hold of the Norman on the land was tightening. He came to the forests of the Towy; his people rallied round him, and his power extended from the Towy to the Teivy, and from the Teivy to the Dovey. His wife, the heroic Gwenllian—who died leading her husband's army against the Normans—was Griffith ap Conan's daughter. The great final battle between Griffith and the Normans was fought at Cardigan in 1136, in which the great prince won a memorable victory over the strongest army the Normans could put in the field. In 1137 he died, and they said of him that he had shown his people what they ought to do, and that he had given them strength to do it.

The work of Griffith ap Conan and Griffith ap Rees was this: they set bounds to the Norman Conquest, and saved Deheubarth and Gwynedd from the stern rule of the alien. But, though the Norman was not allowed to bring his stone castle and cruel law, what good he brought with him was welcomed. The piety of the Norman, his intellectual curiosity, and his spirit of adventure, conquered in Welsh districts where his coat of mail and his castle were not seen.



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