Discover Welsh legends… history

North Wales is steeped in history, legends, myths and mythology. You’ll see this reflected in plaques and signage across the region, and in the grand castles and stately homes scattered across the landscape.

In the first of our series looking at some of the ‘Legends of Wales’, we’ve highlighted a handful of important, impressive and prominent historical figures from North Wales.

The Kingdom of Gwynedd

Following the rule of the Romans, the Kingdom of Gwynedd rose to prominence in Britain around the 5th century. Covering the north-west of Wales, the kingdom’s leaders were often proclaimed ‘King of the Britons’, demonstrating the area’s historical prestige; it became the most powerful region of Wales.

  • Gwynedd my land,
  • Golden on every hand to the myriad reaping.
  • For her bounty of mead I love her, winter content,
  • Where turbulent wastes of the sea but touch and are spent;
  • I love her people, quiet and peace, rich store of her treasure
  • Changed at her prince’s pleasure to splendid war.
  • Warrior poet, Hywel ab Owain Gwynedd.

Kingdom of Gwynedd, c.1247.

Owain Gwynedd

The quintessential powerful medieval ruler, Owain Gwynedd (born circa 1100) took control of Gwynedd in 1132, following the death of his brother Cadwallon. Under his rule, Gwynedd extended its borders into the Marcher lands (English counties running along the Welsh border). Owain also launched a brutal invasion of Powys.

Henry II invaded Gwynedd in 1157, forcing Owain to agree terms; however Owain later defeated Henry in battle alongside the other Welsh princes. Henry II never challenged Owain again. Owain died in 1170, an all-powerful ruler over the kingdom.

Owain Gwynedd is buried in Bangor Cathedral.

Llywelyn the Great

Llywelyn the Great, also known as Llywelyn ab Iorwerth (born circa 1173) was a King of Gwynedd who rose to rule all of Wales for almost half a century. Llywelyn was the grandson of Owain Gwynedd.

Llywelyn’s 1201 treaty with King John is the earliest surviving example of a Welsh-English accord. Friendly relations didn’t last long, however, and after a series of battles Llywelyn was appointed the leader of the Princes of Wales. Many historians agree that Llywelyn’s political power was never again matched by a ruler of Wales.

Image courtesy of Rhion Pritchard, 2006.

A statue of Llewelyn the Great stands in Conwy town square.

Owain Glyndŵr

  • The best of Welshmen, valiant man,
  • Lord of the land, of Pywer Llew’s line,
  • A slim, strong man, to him the court belongs,
  • That best of places, worthy to be praised.
  • Bard, Iolo Goch

Undoubtedly one of the most famous figures in Welsh history, Owain Glyndŵr was born circa 1349. His influence and legacy even extends to classic literature – he is described in Shakespeare’s Henry IV as “not in the roll of common men”.

The descendent of Welsh princes, Glyndŵr launched a revolt against Henry IV in 1400 – this became known as the Glyndŵr Rising. This was the last major uprising or violent insurgence in favour of Welsh independence, and its legacy meant Glyndŵr is still renowned as a bastion of Welsh nationalism, as well as the last Welsh Prince of Wales.

© Copyright Jeremy Bolwell and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

‘All or nothing’ – statue of Owain Glyndwr, Corwen.

William Morgan

  • The English tongue is not understood by the greatest number of Her Majesty’s obedient subjects inhabiting Wales.
  • Act of Parliament, 1563.

Born circa 1545 near Betws-y-Coed, William Morgan studied at Cambridge University before becoming a Church of England clergyman. He later became the Bishop of Llandaff and St Asaph, though he’s best-known for his translation of the entire Bible into Welsh. The
translation was a watershed moment for the Welsh language and religion in Wales.

Image courtesy of Hefin Owen, via Flickr, 2013.

Hedd Wyn

Ellis Humphrey Evans was born in 1887 in Trawsfynydd, Meirionydd. He was always a talented poet and competed in several Eisteddfodau. He received his Bardic name Hedd Wyn (meaning Blessed Peace) in 1910, and won Chairs (a prestigious honour in Welsh literature) at the Eisteddfodau in Bala, Pwllheli and Llanuwchllyn.

Though he was a pacifist, Ellis heroically enlisted in the army to spare his younger brother. Many of his most famous poems were inspired by the war. Ellis was tragically killed within the first few hours of the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917. He remains one of Wales’s greatest writers and artists, and his National Eisteddfod-winning poem Yr Arwr is still widely celebrated.

  • An extract from Rhyfel (War)
    • Mae’r hen delynau genid gynt
    • Ynghrog ar gangau’r helyg draw,
    • A gwaedd y bechgyn lond y gwynt,
    • A’u gwaed yn gymysg efo’r glaw.
    • ———
    • The harps that once could help our pain
    • Hang silent, to the willows pinned.
    • The cry of battle fills the wind
    • And blood of lads – it falls like rain.

Yr Ysgwrn, near Blaenau Ffestiniog

Betsi Cadwaladr

  • An unconventional Welsh woman who was ahead of her time.
  • Author, Ffion Hague.

One of 16 children, Betsi Cadwaladr was born near Bala in 1789. Cadwaladr, later changing her name to Davis, spent much of her early life working as a maid, which led her to travel, including to France at the time of the Battle of Waterloo. Here she was greatly affected by the injured soldiers on the battlefield.

Upon returning to Britain she trained as a nurse in London and joined the military nursing service at the age of 65. Against the will of upper-class ‘celebrity’ nurse, Florence Nightingale (who held a rather dim view of the Welsh), Betsi went to work in the Crimea. Though the two clashed repeatedly, Nightingale and others acknowledged Betsi’s essential and life-saving work on the front lines. She is often remembered for her determination and willingness to fight against bureaucracy to get her job done. Betsi is remembered as a pioneer of nursing, and a North Wales Local Health Board is today named after her.

Donna Mead [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

At the dedication of the Headstone at Betsi Cadwaladr’s grave in Abney Park Cemetery. Funds for the headstone were raised by nurses working Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board.

T.E. Lawrence

Born in Tremadog in 1888, Thomas Edward Lawrence was a renowned archaeologist, army officer and diplomat. He worked in Syria for the British Museum in the early 1910s, and later volunteered for the army and was posted initially in Egypt.

In 1916 he was dispatched to Arabia, where he worked alongside Faisal, a leader of the Arab Revolt. Following the war, Lawrence worked for the Foreign Office and eventually retreated from public life, later publishing Seven Pillars of Wisdom, his account of his experiences in Arabia. The famous film Lawrence of Arabia is based on Lawrence’s life.

  • The world looks with some awe upon a man who appears unconcernedly indifferent to home, money, comfort, rank, or even power and fame. The world feels not without a certain apprehension, that here is some one outside its jurisdiction; someone before whom its allurements may be spread in vain; some one strangely enfranchised, untamed, untrammelled by convention, moving independent of the ordinary currents of human action.
  • Winston Churchill.
Image courtesy of Levan Ramishvili, via Flickr 2017.

Winston Churchill (second from left) and T E Lawrence (fourth from left) in Cairo, 1921.

Keep an eye on our blog and discover more Legends of North Wales next month!!