Welsh history is a veritable feast of strong and industrious women who are warm and accomplished. We want to celebrate some of them on the blog, whether they’re the imaginings of bards or actual women who have made their mark in Wales’ story. Read on, and feel empowered!
Lady of the Lake
Many of you will have heard of the Lady of the Lake who gave the sword Excalibur to King Arthur, but did you know she inhabited a lake in Wales? Llyn y Fan Fach is picturesque, glacial lake on the western edge of Brecon Beacons National Park. Our beautiful Lady of the Lake lived in its depths.
After much flirting, she married a local farm lad but insisted on a pre-nuptial agreement. The clause stated that if he struck her three times, she would go straight back to her lake and take all the farm animals with her. We like a woman who knows her worth!
They lived happily on a farm not far from Myddfai for many years, and she bore him three sons. The farmer broke the conditions of their marriage pact, harming his lovely wife, and so she dived back into the lake (taking all the cattle with her). Years later she appeared to the eldest son, Rhiwallon, and give him a bag of medical recipes and instructions. She told him that he and his family had a calling to heal the sick, and so were born the Physicians of Myddfai, famed since medieval times as gifted healers.
In common with many Welsh heroines, the Lady of the Lake’s marriage ended in tears, but acting with dignity, she ensured that she returned to impart some motherly advice and helped her children build a legacy.
The story of Mary Jones and her Bible used to be told to all Welsh schoolchildren as it documents a wonderful journey full of determination and grit.
In 1800, 15-year-old Mary Jones from Llanfihangel-y-Pennant (at the foot of Cader Idris) walked twenty-five miles barefoot across treacherous, mountainous terrain. Why, you ask? She wanted to buy a Bible from the Reverend Thomas Charles.
Devoutly religious, Mary had to complete a four-mile round trip to read the nearest Bible, which was housed on a farm. She was desperate to have a Bible of her own, and decided to save up until she could have on – this apparently took six years! The only person who had copies of the Bible was Thomas Charles of Bala, the local reverend, and so, according to legend, Mary Jones set out to walk to claim this precious boon.
Upon arriving in Bala, she discovered that Thomas Charles had either sold or promised all of the copies he had. and she was heartbroken. However, so moved was he by her dedication to her faith that he arranged accommodation for her until fresh supplies arrived.
The legend differs here, with some stories claiming that he gave her his own Bible. Others suggest that he gave her three Bibles in return for the money for one. Either way, it’s said that Mary, elated, walked back home singing hymns and clutching her prize.
The Mabinogion isn’t particularly forgiving for women, but Rhiannon is a really likeable character who frequently demonstrates strength and grace. Happy for the most part, she is married to Pwyll, a prince of Dyfed. She’s the heroine of choice for lots of animal lovers – we first meet her on a gleaming white horse – and has three magical birds whose song can ‘wake the dead and lull the living to sleep’.
Rhiannon bore Pwyll a son. The child disappears on the night after his birth, even though six women are appointed to keep watch on the new mother and her child. The women smear the blood of puppies onto Rhiannon’s face and hands to implicate her. Rhiannon is accused of killing the child, and is forced to sit outside the castle in Narberth as punishment. She endures this terrible treatment as Pwyll searches for their son, and she’s forced to tell her story to passers-by, and offer to carry visitors and pilgrims on her back into the court.
Teyrnon Twryf Liant found the baby on his doorstep after chasing a monster away from his home. When the child’s resemblence to Pwyll becomes apparent, he is returned to his parents. Rhiannon is vindicated. Rhiannon exemplifies the deeply human with the divine, and her endurance of the tragic yet redemptive narrative arc as the Horse Goddess carries a great impact.
My coal is equal to any mans, failure to grant entry will lead to my business lining another’s pockets.
Most of the industries that women work in today were completely male-dominated in the 1800s. Positions of power were almost exclusively held by men, but here is a woman who showed her ability to make an impact in her field.
Lucy Thomas was known as ‘the mother of the coal industry’, because she took over the running of her husband’s business upon his death in 1833. He had discovered a rich coal seam in Merthyr and Lucy was left with an estate of just under £1,000. It was seen as just-about-acceptable for a widow to continue her husband’s business.
Under Lucy’s care, the mine became one of the most successful in Wales. She couldn’t read or write, but she had a great head for business. By the time of her death in 1847, she’d increased the worth of the business to over £11,000.
Gwenllian ferch Grufydd
We know you’ve heard of Joan of Arc and Boudicea – what about Gwenllian? Described by many as “the female Braveheart”, Gwenllian was fearless. She was also described as a striking beauty, but that’s one of the least interesting things about her. She was highly-educated, shrewd, witty and with a great head for strategy.
Conflict between the Welsh princes spilled over into the Welsh Marches during the 1100s, and trained in the arts of war, Gwenllian led men with her husband Gruffydd ap Rhys. She battled even whilst heavily pregnant or taking care of their small children!
Gwenllian and Gruffydd attacked Norman, English and Flemish settlements in Deheubarth in guerilla campaigns, redistributing the money and goods they claimed to their own Welsh subjects.
When Maurice of London launched an attack, Gwenllian mustered an army for her country’s defense and rode out bravely, but she was outnumbered. This is the only known example of a medieval period woman leading a Welsh army into battle.
Sadly, Gwenllian was betrayed by one of her countrymen. She was captured and as both nobility and a woman, she should have been treated well by her captors. Maurice was not one for the laws of chivalry, but since she fought bravely, he allowed Gwenllian to be beheaded.
For generations after her death, the rallying cry for Welsmen going into battle was “Ddail Achos Gwenllian!” or “Revenge for Gwenllian!”
There are countless women both fictional and gloriously real that have shaped our wonderful country and given us stories to pass from generation to generation that we can all learn from. These have been some of our favourite stories – what are yours?
Images courtesy: Lady of the Lake by H.J. Ford, illustrator. Gwenllian memorial by Acabashi / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)