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How poets revived the story of the last Welsh princess of Wales

The title “Prince of Wales” has been passed down through generations of England’s – and later the United Kingdom’s – royals since the 13th century. It is granted to the heir apparent, though it is not a requirement that the next in line to the throne holds it.

But these princes are not the “true” royals of Wales, the title was taken in 1301 from the last monarchs of Wales following the battle for Welsh independence, and recreated for Edward of Caernarfon, the future Edward II. This was the first time that the eldest son of the King of England was invested as “Prince of Wales”.

The wives of the princes of Wales have since been known as “Princess of Wales”. The first was Joan of Kent, who took the title upon her marriage to Edward of Woodstock, the Black Prince – second in the English line of princes of Wales – on October 10 1361. Though Diana, Princess of Wales is now perhaps the most well known of all those to have held the royal title, to find the last true princess of Wales, that is, the last person to be born to the reigning monarchs of Wales, one needs to go back to the 13th Century, and uncover the story of Gwenllian.

Princess of Wales

Gwenllian was not a typical princess – nor was she treated like one. Born in 1282, she was the only child of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd and Eleanor de Montfort, the last sovereign royals of Wales. Gwenllian’s mother died shortly after childbirth, amid the fight for Welsh independence which also took the life of her father the same year.

Baby Gwenllian was put under the protection of her uncle, Dafydd ap Gruffudd, but he was captured and later executed when she was just one year old. The young princess was then passed into the guardianship of the English crown. The first months of Gwenllian’s life were to be her only time residing in the country of her birth.

When she was a toddler, King Edward I paid Sempringham, a convent in Lincolnshire, the grand sum of £20 a year to keep Gwenllian hidden from view and, most importantly, childless. The king understood that if she produced an heir, then the title of the Prince of Wales would be in dispute.

Edward’s choice of Sempringham was a careful one: it was not just a convent, it was of the Gilbertine Order, a secular sect that kept itself isolated from the world.

Sempringham memorial. Acabashi/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Gwenllian became a shadow only to be resurrected during great need – when the convent needed money, for example. King Edward I would remind the Pope who Sempringham was a guardian of – although the more appropriate word would have been prisoner.

Gwenllian lived until the age of 54. Little is known of her personality and even her appearance. She didn’t even know her true name: priory records have her listed as “Wencilian” while she used the signature “Wentliane” – both English corruptions of the correct pronunciation. She is a lost figure of Wales, buried in the wilderness of England, far from home.

Lost history

Edward I’s plans for Gwenllian did not succeed entirely, however. Though little mention is to be found now in the history of either Wales or Britain, the memory of the lost Welsh princess has managed to survive, partly thanks to an unusual group of allies: poets.

Very little was written about Gwenllian during her imprisonment, after all the poets of medieval Wales were mostly concerned with preserving the memory of the king, and not that of a mere woman. But glimmers of her story lived on thanks to wandering bards.

Welsh poets have continued to preserve her memory into the modern age. In 1997, Gwenllian’s story was revived when the princess was chosen as the theme for that year’s National Eisteddfod – the largest music and poetry festival in Europe. Her influence has only blossomed since, reinvigorating Wales’s imagination – and so ensuring that the last true princess of Wales lives on.

Within us is Gwenllian,
she is the poem and the notes of the song,
and she will still be commemorated.

From “In Sempringham” by Mererid Hopwood

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