There is a popular song of Dafydd Iwan "Yma O Hyd" (still here) that praises the continuity of the Welsh as a people since the time of Macsen Wledig in the fifth century Macsen is the Welsh name for Magnus Maximus, who may have been the Dux Britanniarum (the Roman leader of Britain) and whose military campaigns on the continent gave him control of the greater part of the Western Empire until he was defeated by Theodosius. After Magnus had taken the bigger part of the Roman British garrison to Europe with him, Britain lay undefended against the Irish invasions to the west and the Germanic tribes to the east. Within a hundred years after 410, when the Emperor Honorius had no troops to spare for the British garrisons, the island was completely estranged from Roman control, and it was during these years that the Welsh nation came into being.
After the withdrawal of the Roman legions, Britain found itself being gradually divided into three areas that later became Germanic England, Brythonic Wales and Gaelic Scotland. These areas had become firmly established by the time that Bede wrote his "Ecclesiastical History of the English People," about 730. In that work he gives an account of the beginnings of the English kingdoms.
For the history of the Welsh kingdoms we have to wait until about 960 when a collection, known as the "Annales Cambriae," was compiled, somewhere in Wales, that included pedigrees of Welsh royal families. In the meantime, the completion of Offa's Dyke during the last years of the eighth century ensured that a physical boundary would permanently exist between the Celtic people to its west and the Germanic people who, by the time of Bede, had conquered most of the land to its east.
Brythonic kingdoms survived only in Strathclyde, Cornwall and Wales. Alas, for the continuity of an independent nation, history gives us only five rulers who could claim to be kings of Wales. A sense of unity out of the ever-quarrelling, petty Welsh kingdoms and princely fiefs was brought about only by Rhodri Mawr (Rhodri the Great), Hywel Dda (Hywel the Good), Gruffudd ap Llywelyn (1039-63), Llywelyn ap Iorwerth (Llwyelyn the Great) (1194-1240) and Llywelyn ap Gruffudd (1248-82).
1. Rhodri Mawr
Just as Egbert, King of the West Saxons and later of Kent, is the first ruler to be styled King of the Angles or English people in 829-30, so Rhodri Mawr, (Rhodri the Great, 820-78) is remembered as the first to claim the title of king of the Welsh. He was the first to unite most of Wales under his rule, 844-78. Professor Davies points out that the title "great" was bestowed upon only two other rulers in the same century: Charlemagne (Charles the Great) and Alfred the Great. All three contributed greatly to the growth of statehood among their respective nations. Rhodri, son of Merfyn Frych, became King of Gwynedd in 844, following the death of his father; of Powys following the death of his uncle in 855; and of Seisyllwg (including Ceredigion and Ystrad Tywi) following the death of his brother-in-law in 872. He was most successful in keeping out the Danes and the English from settling his territories.
By uniting the three principal kingdoms of Wales under his rule, Rhodri showed that an independent Wales could exist that need not be subservient to the rule of English monarchs. Gwynfor Evans cites Nora Chadwick, calling Rhodri "the greatest of all the kings of Wales." His success was mainly due to his creation of a consciousness in the Welsh-speaking people of Britain that they could act together as one. Gwynfor Evans also laments the fact that this great king had no biographer to properly record his achievements, unlike Alfred of Wessex, who had a biographer Asser, a Welshman from St. David's. Rhodri was killed in 878 fighting against the English of Mercia.
2. Hywel ap Cadell ap Rhodri
Hywel ap Cadell ap Rhodri, is known in history as Hywel Dda (Hywel the Good: 890-950). A grandson of Rhodri Mawr, he came into possession of Dyfed around 904 and Brycheiniog some years later. The combined kingdoms became known as Deheubarth, a unit seen by Dr. Davies as of central importance in the history of Wales during the next four centuries. In 942, Deheubarth was united with Gwynedd and Powys, giving Hwyel control over most of Wales with the exception of Glamorgan. He wisely kept peace with the English through a policy of conciliation, earning a reputation more as a diplomat than warrior. The king gained his reputation for his consolidation of the Law of Wales, one of "the most splendid creations of the culture of the Welsh" (Davies. p.88).
In the Cyfraith Hywel, his accomplishment was to systemize the ancient legal customs of Wales: it is notable for its elements of mercy, common sense and a great respect for women and children that has been lacking from many legal systems of other countries right up to the present day. In "Brut y Tywysogyon," the unusually gifted ruler was described as "the chief and most praiseworthy of all the Britons." No other Welsh king gained the title of Dda (The good).
3. Gruffudd ap Llywelyn
Gruffudd ap Llywelyn, (1007-63) was King of all Wales only from 1055-63, yet he was the only Welsh ruler to unite the ancient kingdoms of the whole of Wales. Gwynfor Evans points out that though for five centuries the people of Wales had shared a common language, culture, history, religion and for the most part a common law, it was only under Gruffudd ap Llywelyn that it had a single sovereign, and thus a measure of political unity. Gruffudd was a grandson of Maredudd ab Owain, King of Deheubarth and the son of Llywelyn ap Seisyllt, ruler of Gwynedd. By force of arms, he seized Gwynedd and Powys, and overthrew Deheubarth, Gwent and Morgannwg. Walter Map, in "De Nugis Curalium" (c.1180), recorded the kings' account of his military campaigns against his fellow Welsh: "Speak not of killing. I do but blunt the horns of the offspring of Wales, lest they should wound their dam."
Gruffudd was even successful in reclaiming lands east of Offa's Dyke from the English settlers. He established his court at Rhuddlan, in the heart of an area settled by Mercians, and his conquests of areas of Northeast Wales formerly part of the earldom of Chester meant that they would remain Welsh as parts of the later counties of Flintshire and Denbighshire. His very successes, however, led to the invasion of Wales by Harold, Earl of Wessex. During the fighting, Gruffudd was assassinated by a fellow Welshman. Wales was never again wholly united under a single sovereign though Llywelyn ap Iorweth's successes over a century later surpassed those of his predecessor.
4. Llywelyn ap Iorwerth
Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, (Llywelyn Fawr or Llywelyn the Great: 1173-1240) can justly be called the greatest of the medieval Welsh kings. By 1202, he had taken advantage of the quarrels of his uncles and had become ruler of the kingdom of Gwynedd. Further successes in Deheubarth, after the death of the Lord Rhys, and in Powys made him the most powerful of all the Welsh rulers, though it was Gruffudd ap Llwyelyn who is remembered as the only native monarch to rule over all of Wales. In 1205 he married King John of England's daughter, Joan, and helped his father-in-law in a campaign against King William of Scotland. By 1210 the situation had changed dramatically. John invaded Gwynedd, Llywelyn being forced to retreat to the mountainous areas to the West.
When John found himself embroiled in struggles with his Barons and the Pope, Llywelyn was able to reassert his authority in North Wales. In 1216, he presided over a Welsh Parliament at which he was acknowledged as overlord of all other native Welsh rulers, a position confirmed at the Peace of Worcester in 1218, by Henry III. The achievements of Llywelyn were many. Before he died in 1240 as a monk at Aberconwy monastery, he had inspired a revision of the Laws of Hywel Dda. His reorganization of the administrative machinery of Wales, his maintenance of cordial relations with the Pope and the English Church, and the bringing of an era of peace and prosperity to the territories under his control were all testaments to his remarkable diplomatic and military skills. It is no wonder that his achievements on behalf of his people were widely celebrated by Welsh poets.
5.Llywelyn ap Gruffudd
Llywelyn ap Gruffudd (Y Lliw Olaf: Llywelyn the Last 1246-82). Welsh custom meant that Llewelyn's kingdom would be divided among all four male heirs. Though Llywelyn the Great had tried desperately to ensure that his Kingdoms would pass in entirety to his son Dafydd, it was not to be. Within one month of his adession, Dafydd was forced to surrender much of his father's gains to the new English King, Henry III. His premature death left Gwynedd to be divided between the sons of his brother Gruffudd, including Owain and Llywelyn. The infamous Treaty of Woodstock had restricted their lands to Gwynedd, west of the River Conwy held as vassals of King Henry, but Lywelyn was not satisfied. He attempted to regain the lost territories and prestige of his uncle, Llywelyn the Great. Starting by depriving his brothers of authority, he began his campaign by attacking English castles and overrunning many.
Recognized by other Welsh rulers, Llywelyn assumed the title of Prince of Wales in 1258, a date commemorated by all in Wales who detest the idea of the first-born son of the English monarch assuming that role as a gift (in 1301, an odious and thoroughly bogus title was bestowed by Edward I to his eleventh child, son of Elinor and born at Caernarfon Castle, Gwynedd in 1284). Troubles with Henry III's barons led him to accede to many of Llywelyn's demands and in 1267, at the Treaty of Montgomery, the Welshman (and his heirs) was confirmed as Prince of Wales. The accession of Edward I, however, as king of a united England, meant the end of the ambitions of Llywelyn.
Yet again, an English invasion of Wales meant that its rulers were stripped of most of their possessions and The Treaty of Aberconwy restricted Llywelyn from all his territories east of the Conwy. At Cilmeri, near Builth in mid-Wales in December, 1282, Llywelyn was killed by English soldiers. The head of the last of the native-born Welsh princes was sent to London to be mounted as that of a traitor. Yet another ballad by Dafydd Iwan poignantly expresses sorrow at the death of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd.
Du oedd y Dydd gerllaw Cilmeri
Pan oedd gwlith yr nos heb godi
Du yw'r awr pan dros y borfa
Yn orbennydd ein lliw ola.
The royal house of Gwynedd was no more, and with its decease came the virtual end of the ruling families of the Kingdom of Wales
Black was the day around Cilmeri
When the night mists failed
Black the hour when cross the marsh
Came the killer of our last ruler.
The Welsh Rulers of Britain