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Owain Gwynedd

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Davies 1987; Walker 1990

he death of Henry I in 1135 was the signal for more vigorous and more hostile policies by the Welsh, though firm action by Stephen (the king who succeeded Henry) and the marcher lords held the promise of successful defence. Henry II succeeded Stephen in December 1154, determined to restore authority to the kingdom and to repair the damage caused by civil strife and the lack of a strong central administration. By 1157 he was ready to turn his attention to Wales.

Two princes carried Wales through these difficult years, Owain Gwynedd in the north and Rhys ap Gruffydd in south Wales. Both were aware of the complex problems to be faced: to deal with rival Welsh dynasties, to deal with marcher lords, and to live in the shadow of a rich and powerful neighbor. Owain gauged the political realities of the day quickly and, however often he had to yield, he did not lose the initiative.

Owain Gwynedd, Prince of Gwynedd 1137-70, was born circa 1109. In 1137 he succeeded his father Gruffydd ap Cynan (1081-1137) to the kingdom of Gwynedd, which covered most of north Wales. While England was engaged in civil war, Owain used his skill as statesman and soldier to extend his frontiers. In 1157 Henry II led his first campaign against Owain, but it ended in a truce. He was required to do homage to Henry but it was not long before Owain was acting with complete independence. When Madog ap Maredudd died in 1160, he attacked Powys and extended his influence to the east. Six years later, the Council of Woodstock attempted to reduce the Welsh princes from client status to that of dependent vassalage, and the subsequent uprising was led by Owain and Rhys ap Gruffydd of south Wales. Henry's second attempt at subduing Wales failed ignominiously and left Owain free to capture Basingwerk and Rhuddlan castles (1166-67). In 1168 he set foot on negotiations with Louis VII of France to build an alliance between Gwynedd and France against their common enemy. It was a course which required great finesse and firm judgement. In one direction it pointed to a policy which would be used to good effect by later rulers of Gwynedd, the search for recognition and an alliance in Europe. Having openly defied Henry in 1168 by offering to help Louis, Owain maintained his independent position until his death. He left behind him a reputation of wisdom and magnanimity.

The reign of Owain Gwynedd marks the most peaceful period of Welsh independence, when the native princes absorbed many of the current European reforming ideas and adapted the more effective structures of both church and state to their own society. Monastic foundations were encouraged, diocesan boundaries defined, and many stone churches built. Motte-and-bailey earthwork castles identical to those built earlier by the Norman invaders were now erected by the princes as the centers of many of their personal estates. Two of Owain's sons are credited with building the first stone castles in Gwynedd towards the end of the 12th century. The tragedy, recurrent in Welsh history, was that Owain was not followed immediately by a strong ruler. Upon his death in 1170, open warfare broke out between his sons: Dafydd and Rhodri killed their elder half-brother, Hywel, and for the next 20 years Gwynedd was divided between them and their kinsmen. Gwynedd and Wales would not see another strong leader until Llywelyn the Great extended his control over most of Wales in the later part of the century.


Genealogy of Owain Gwynedd and the rulers of Gwynedd

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