Game of Welsh Thrones


‘When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die’
-Cersei Lannister, and everyone ever who has read A Song of Ice and Fire

Recently, while reading a lot of things about dynastic inheritance law in medieval Wales and mentally bemoaning how I’m still not caught up on Game of Thrones (I am up to 8 now, as of last night, but may not go on to 9 because I read the books and know what happens) I came to the conclusion that even the Lannisters would have a fight on their hands against the medieval Welsh princes. Owain Gwynedd would be ON that Iron Throne.


Picture this, but with a Welsh flag flying from it.

Medieval Wales was not yet Wales. It was the kingdoms of Gwynedd, Powys, and Deheubarth, each of which was ruled by what is commonly called a petty king. Quite often, the death of one of these petty kings would result in a bloody civil war, while all his potential heirs fought it out to see who would be the next ruler.

This might cause one to wonder, ‘why didn’t they just have a system of succession so everyone would know who the next king was supposed to be?’ The answer is that they did–but rules like that are frankly easier to make than to enforce. All over early medieval Europe, there was a general tradition in place that a ruling king would choose his heir, who would then be maintained by the Crown, while the other, non-heir relatives would get other things like land and castles. In France, the Capetian kings usually abdicated in favour of their sons before actually dying, to ensure a smooth succession. England tried this, when Henry II tried to share the throne of England with his son Henry the Young King, but the latter found this arrangement stifling and spent his time stirring up trouble.

Wales had a system of partible inheritance, in which all of a man’s sons inherited more-or-less equal shares of his estate, and this is usually the reason people give for all those civil wars up to the fall of Wales itself. Actually, though, this only applied to ‘ordinary estate’, that is, the actual property and not the crown itself. What hadn’t really taken hold yet is primogeniture, where the firstborn son is automatically the heir apparent, or the precedence of legitimate over illegitimate children–in Wales and Ireland, where there were multiple levels of marriage, children were only bastards if not acknowledged by their father. (In Game of Thrones terms, that means the rightful heir to the Iron Throne wouldn’t be Joffrey or Stannis–assuming anybody would acknowledge Joffrey wasn’t Robert’s, at least, it would be Edric Storm. But really it could be whoever the reigning king decided it was.)

So the Welsh princes chose a son to rule after them, and a lot of the time, the other sons disagreed with that decision. In more than one case, once the king died (I’m using ‘king’ interchangeably here with ‘prince’ because both are used by chroniclers), the heir found himself suffering a severe and fatal case of sword-through-important-body-part.

In the late eleventh century, Gruffudd ap Cynan was the king of Gwynedd. He was actually king of Gwynedd four times, because people kept revolting and invading and generally harshing his reign, but by the end of his life he’s managed to consolidate a huge part of north Wales, considered one of the greatest rulers ever, and managed what is a truly remarkable feat for a medieval warrior king by dying as an old man in his bed.

Of Gruffudd’s three sons, the eldest, Cadwallon, predeceased him, dead in battle against the nasty Normans. The second, Owain, inherited the throne of Gwynedd while the youngest, Cadwaladr, was awarded a nice chunk of land in Merionydd. (He also had two daughters, Susanna and Gwenllian, who led an army of her own. One of his sons was not, however, Prince Madoc, who allegedly colonised America, because he did not actually exist.)

Having seen that grandsons were as likely as sons to cause uprisings, Owain took a look around him. His late elder brother had left behind a son, Cunedda, whom, if Cadwallon had survived to inherit the throne, would have eventually been king. Owain took the precautionary measure of having Cunedda blinded and castrated, just in case.

Owain noticed that there was a civil war going on in England at the time, between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda, and took advantage of this to expand his borders a little bit. Meanwhile Cadwaladr, like many a younger brother before and after him, was not at all satisfied with his land, and decided to have one of Owain’s good friends and key allies, Anarawd ap Gruffydd, assassinated.

Owain responded by stripping him of all his lands, and Cadwaladr decided to make friends with the English crown. (England, at this point, mostly just encouraged whatever trouble could be stirred up in Wales to keep them fighting amongst themselves.) He worked for England as an interpreter, unti King Henry II, who really had his hands full already what with his sons rebellion and a near-constant war in France, agreed to go to war with him and try to get Merionydd back.


Owain disagreed with the whole ‘letting Henry into Wales’ thing.

Henry II was widely considered the most formidable general in Europe, as his enemies in France had found out repeatedly. He and Cadwaladr ran a scorched-earth campaign in eastern Gwynedd, burning churches and villages to the ground and making all the locals hate them. They were so busy causing destruction that they managed to get trapped in a narrow valley at Ewloe, where Owain’s army routed them completely and Henry himself was very nearly captured. Eventually, he caused enough trouble that Owain came to terms with him anyway, and one of the settlements was returning Cadwaladr’s lands. He did, but there was never any question of sharing the actual kingdom. That was Owain’s.

Eventually, Henry invaded again. He took a different route this time, and was met with Owain leading an alliance of all the Welsh princes, united in common cause and ready to drive his army back. It never actually came to that, because the battle was quite literally rained out.


Like this, but with horses and armies and stuff.

In the middle of all this, Owain’s wife Gwladus died. He married his first cousin, Cristin, which was technically a violation of Church laws of consanguinuity (even though various levels of cousin-marriage were also pretty common). Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, excommunicated Owain, and called his sons with Cristin, Dafydd and Rhodri, bastards born of incest. This may have been technically true under canon law, but it wasn’t a significant enough charge under Welsh law to keep the local priests from burying Owain in consecrated ground in Bangor Cathedral after he died.

So after a disputed succession, mutilation, incest, betrayal, and battle, Owain Gwynedd still came out victorious. Predictably, his death caused another succession crisis (despite his having designated an heir…this is a pattern, really) and another war, but that’s a story for another day.


Yeah, he did okay, in the end.

1 Comment

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One response to “Game of Welsh Thrones

  1. Dave

    Helpful, thanks.

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