|Llywelyn ab Iorwerth
And this is something we often forget. The king is “but a man,” and Llywelyn was no different. So what can we know about Llywelyn the man?
|Entry to Corbet Castle
|Estuary of the River Conwy
So, from a king’s point of view, things might be looking quite good. But, as Richard, Duke of Gloucester, is given to say in Shakespeare’s play Richard III, once “the bruiséd arms” are hung up on the wall, the warriors begin to “caper nimbly in a lady’s chamber to the lascivious pleasing of a lute.” And thus it was with Llywelyn.
|Sarcophagus of Joan, Lady of Wales
Now, here is where things get complicated. It is hard to know what any king’s feelings were for a wife he took for political reasons—or she, for him—but Llywelyn’s manhood suffered a blow in the year 1230.
In 1229, Llywelyn had released from imprisonment William de Braose, an Anglo-Norman lord of the Welsh Marches (i.e., a subject of the king of England). De Braose had been captured in border fighting the previous year and had ransomed himself by promising a marriage alliance between his son and Llywelyn’s daughter Isabella, a match that came with a nice chunk of property for Llywelyn. And so the plans got underway.
Now, in 1230, Lord William was
forty-three years old and Joan, the Lady of Wales, already forty-nine, so
perhaps Llywelyn did not suspect any shenanigans to occur between the two of
them. But in this he would have been
wrong. Had they become attracted to each
during the time when De Braose was held captive by Joan’s husband, or was it a
more sudden rush by a man who had not seen freedom for awhile? Whatever the case, it became known that the
two had committed adultery.
|Dolwyddelan Castle Keep,
a Castle of Llywelyn Fawr
One story has it that the king returned from a hunting trip and found them in the bedchamber together. Another says that, upon learning of the affair, he sent men to De Braose’s own home to arrest him and return him to Wales. Outraged at the betrayal, Llywelyn had De Braose publicly hanged on May 2 at a place called “Crokeen,” says the Dictionary of National Biography.
In 1231, Joan was forgiven and released
from house arrest. As a king, Llywelyn
came out a winner: the marriage of his daughter to the heir of De Braose
brought land to him, and the man who had made of him a cuckold had been
hanged. But what about Llywelyn as a
man? Was he upset about Joan’s betrayal
of him as a person, or just the act of treason—for the adultery of a queen was
tantamount to treason against the king, as we all know from the Arthurian
legend (which did, after all, originate in Wales). The fact that he released and forgave her suggests
there was a fondness between them, but the record is silent from the time of
Joan’s release until her death in 1237.
|Arms of William de Braose
Inverted to Signify His Hanging
Still, one cannot be too sentimental about the whole business because Llywelyn—as with most medieval princes and kings—was guilty of his own indiscretions. Before his marriage to Joan, Llywelyn had a mistress named Tangwystl, daughter of Llywarch, who apparently died giving birth to Llywelyn’s first son, Gruffudd, in 1198.
|King John of England
One more consideration, before moving on, is the fact that Llywelyn had sent Joan to deal with King John in the first place, which suggests something about his personality. There is nothing in the writings of Gerald of Wales that would indicate a weakness on Llywelyn’s part, and he is known to have been a skilled leader of men. One doesn’t become known as Llywelyn the Great by hiding behind a woman’s skirts, so I think we can exclude cowardice as a cause.
|Gerald of Wales
Llywelyn on Death Bed
with Sons Gruffydd (l.)
and Daffyd (r.)
But Tangwystl was not the only mistress Llywelyn had, nor was Gruffydd the only illegitimate child. One never knows how many “natural” children are on one’s family tree until digging in to genealogical research, but my family owes a debt of gratitude to the fact that Llywelyn acknowledged his illegitimate children and made solid arrangements for them.
In 1230, the same year that Joan fell
from favor and was imprisoned, Llywelyn took another mistress, whose name is
lost in the mists of time. However, as a
result of that relationship was born a little girl named Elen, to whom I will
refer as Elen the Younger to distinguish her from Llywelyn’s legitimate
daughter, Elen the Elder, who was already twenty-four when the younger Elen was
Llywelyn’s provision for Elen the Younger was a marriage he arranged for her with a Scottish noble, Máel Colium (Malcolm), 2nd earl of Fife, in the year 1249. Malcolm, however, died in 1266, and three years later Elen remarried with Donald I, 10th earl of Mar, who held Kildrummy Castle, where the marriage took place. With Donald, Elen had six children, the fifth of whom was their daughter Isabella Matilda, Lady of Mar, our ancestor, and the first wife of the famous Robert the Bruce, king of Scotland (1274-1329).
When life gives you lemons, they say,
make lemonade. Perhaps that’s an
applicable motto for the illegitimate daughter of Llywelyn. Conceived while Llywelyn was on the outs with
his wife, married into Scotland (a foreign land), and widowed at the age of
twenty-six, Elen the Younger held on, becoming the mother of Marjorie Bruce,
whose marriage to Walter Stewart, 6th high steward of Scotland, made
her the matriarch of the Stewart dynasty.
Not bad for a little girl with few chances in the far-off corner of
|Kildrummy Castle, Seat of the Earls of Mar
|Isabella Mar and
And so it was that Llywelyn the Great, prince of Gwynedd, negotiated the curves of his personal and political lives in a way that helps us to see the follies and fortunes of our ancestor, the man Llywelyn ab Iorwerth.