The killing of Gruffydd ap Llywelyn and the early evolution of Arthurian Romance

Sigmund Freud, founder of the Vienna School of psychoanalysis, initially became interested in the problem of the Primal Horde while considering the origin of the exogamous incest taboo. Following Charles Darwin’s observations of primate behaviour in the field, Freud hypothesised a generational dynamic within early hominid social groupings, in which younger males are driven away by the dominant ‘alpha’ once they begin to show sexual interest in the female members of the group.i Micro-societies of this kind follow a characteristic cycle (analogies can be made with primates and other higher mammals), which sees the eventual demise of the alpha male brought about by a spontaneous uprising from the younger, marginalised males. A brief period of anarchy then ensues, in which these males mate freely with the females of the group and fight amongst themselves, before a new dominant male eventually emerges and, driving off his rivals, re-establishes around him a harem society of females and sexually inactive males.

Human societies have, to a greater or lesser degree, all evolved beyond this crude ‘cyclopean family’ model of social organisation, and in doing so have established kin-based institutions which allowed for the peaceful co-existence of sexually-active males, while preserving certain taboos that regulate relationships and avoid incestuous couplings.ii A widespread cultural institution of this kind commonly found in primitive hunter-gatherer societies is the totem clan – in which each individual is assigned a particular totem animal (based either on their maternal or paternal descent), with sexual relations strictly forbidden between members of that clan and its adjacent co-relatives. Closely associated with this institution was a system of food taboos. While details varied from one context to another, one highly characteristic feature within a classical totem culture was the taboo on the flesh of the totem animal itself. This food taboo is customarily broken at a certain significant points in the calendar. On these days and these days alone the flesh of the totem animal will be eaten by the totem clan – an occasion which is usually undertaken with great ceremony, with the whole clan assembled for this communal totem feast.

It was the Victorian scholar William Robertson Smith (d.1894) who first made the connection between these totem feasts and the sacrificial cults of archaic Near Eastern religions, but it was Freud himself who linked both of these with the dynamics of the primal horde. This theory suggests that the deposed alpha male was cannibalised, either literally or symbolically, by the primal horde – an event which is then commemorated by the annual totem feast:

The primal father had doubtless been feared and envied by each one of the company of brothers; and in the act of devouring him they accomplished their identification with him, each one acquiring a portion of his strength. The totem meal, which is perhaps mankind’s earliest festival, would thus be a repetition and a commemoration of this memorable and criminal deediii

Thus, suggests Freud, “society is now based on complicity in a common crime [and] religion on the sense of guilt”. By partaking in the totem feast, members of the clan were acknowledging (consciously or otherwise) complicity in this ancient crime, i.e. the removal of the tyrannical father, which had led to the formation of their ‘society of brothers’ – the origin of which, Freud proposes, are to be found in the Darwinian primal horde. We might note in passing the remarkable resemblance of the Christian mystery to this basic scenario: the pervasive concern with sin and redemption, and a central transformative ritual involving a symbolic consumption of the blood and body of Christ.

The Killing of Gruffydd ap Llywelyn

To understand the relevance of all of this to Medieval Welsh literature, we need to consider some key dynastic events which took in Wales in the middle decades of the eleventh century. Of particular interest is the life and death of a certain Gruffydd ap Llywelyn (born c.1007) who dominated native Welsh politics from his rise to power in Powys and Gwynedd in 1039, to his death on a Snowdonian hillside in 1063. Gruffydd’s father Llywelyn ap Seissel, had been a powerful figure of somewhat obscure ancestry, while his mother had been the daughter of Maredudd ab Owain, the grandson of the great Hywel Dda. He was thus born into the royal house of Gwynedd, but his place within this dynastic court community would never be as secure as that of his more fully royal-blooded cousins. On the death of his father in 1023, he was forced into exile following the ascent of a rival dynastic branch, represented by Iago ap Idwal. The next few years were spent with his mother and sisters, living out a precarious exile in the courts of Powys.

One might wonder if these troubled circumstances had a decisive influence on the personality of the young Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, who would eventually rise to a position of dominance within his adopted homeland. In 1039, following the death of Iago ap Idwawl, Gruffydd extended his influence from Powys into his native land of Gwynedd. With both of these northern kingdoms under his control, Gruffydd turned his attention to the south – seeking to rebuild or even extend the sphere of control that had been enjoyed by his ninth century ancestor Rhodri Mawr. By 1055, after extensive military campaigning, Gruffydd had assumed control of the southern hegemony of Deheubarth, and the ancient sub-Roman kingdoms of Gwent and Glywysing in the South East. In this way, Gruffydd ap Llywelyn was to become the first and last individual to reign as an independent king over the entirety of Wales – a feat unequalled before or since.

Gruffydd is perhaps best known as the inveterate enemy of Harold Godwinsson (later King Harold of England) in the immediate pre-conquest years. His achievements were certainly not inconsiderable, but like many successful kings of his age, his ruthlessness was absolute, as was his willingness to eliminate any potential rival within the Welsh royal tribe – blood-relationships notwithstanding. Walter Map, the thirteenth-century chronicler of the Welsh Marches, reports Gruffydd explaining to an onlooker that rather than killing he was ‘merely blunting the horns of the progeny of Wales, lest they wound their mother’.iv Beneath this mock-pastoral analogy, the old king was spelling out the brutal imperatives underlying his mode of survival within the gore-stained world of medieval Welsh dynastic politics.

Gruffydd’s strategy of extreme ruthlessness was sometimes combined with crude gestures of attempted diplomacy. This can be seen, for example, in his marriage of 1042 (probably by force) to the wife of a man he had recently killed – Hywel ab Edwin – who evidently had considerable support among the people of the South. While this dual strategy of violence and dynastic machination might not have achieved the long-term goal of a unified nation under a single crown, Gruffydd was nonetheless able to lead a successful Welsh army across the border into England, a feat that had not been accomplished since the glorious victories of Cadwallon four centuries earlier. He was also active on the western front, parading his Viking-style fleet across the Irish Sea and causing considerable disquiet in London and Dublin alike.

Like many of history’s great agents of change, Gruffydd ap Llywelyn was a complex man. There are signs that his desire for control went beyond simple political expedience and may have been the expression of some form of psychopathic illness. His behaviour in another anecdote, again relayed by Walter Map, hints at what can only be described as a far-reaching case of delusional jealousy. Here Gruffydd is described as hearing rumours that a young man in his kingdom had enjoyed erotic dreams about the king’s beautiful young wife. Bizarrely, the old king then became ‘as enraged as if the thing had been real’. The young man was seized and Gruffydd would have had him tortured to death had the hapless dreamer’s kinsmen not abruptly intervened. The judgement of a local wise man prevented further escalation. The young man’s kinsmen were instructed to bring a thousand oxen to the bank of a river, with the affronted king looking on. The reflections of the oxen in the water were deemed sufficient compensation for the king ‘inasmuch as a dream is a reflection of the truth’.v

Whether or not this incident ever occurred in quite this way, it is further evidence of Gruffydd’s tyrannical reputation, which endured long after his death. The memory of Gruffydd ap Llywelyn was to cast a long shadow over the collective psyche of the Welsh Royal Tribe, whom he had terrorised into a unified submission over the course of his twenty-five year reign. The key point, perhaps, is that with his combination of morbid jealousy and murderous aggression towards his younger male kinsmen, Gruffydd was acting out the atavistic behaviour-pattern of the primate alpha-male. It was perhaps only a matter of time before a latter-day ‘primal horde’ would gather against him.

That moment came in the summer of 1063, as the Welsh king was engaged in a disastrous guerrilla war against the Earl of Wessex, Harold Godwinsson, the future king of England. As the beleaguered Welsh war host took refuge in the mountains of Snowdonia, it seems that the old king was at some point surrounded and killed – apparently by members of his own household. The man who struck the fatal blow is sometimes named as Cynan ap Iago, the son of one of Gruffydd’s oldest dynastic enemies. It is not known whether anyone came to Gruffydd’s defence. All the evidence we have would suggest that this act of regicide was committed with the tacit approval of a much wider circle, including some of the most powerful people in England, Wales and Ireland at the

Once Gruffydd had been killed, it would seem his head was cut off and delivered to Harold Godwinsson, who in turn conveyed it to the English king, Edward the Confessor. This is an important point, the significance of which will soon become apparent.

The immediate beneficiaries of this regicide were Gruffydd’s own half-brothers, Rhiwallon and Bleddyn ap Cynfyn, whom Edward the Confessor immediately acknowledged as the joint kings of Wales – with their heartlands in Powys and Deheubarth respectively. Indeed, the descendants of many of those complicit in the events of 1063 were still very much in power a full century after the original event. The House of Aberffraw had been founded by Gruffydd ap Cynan, son of the man apparently named in Irish sources as the murderer of old Welsh King himself. The Houses of Mathrafal were the descended from Bleddyn ap Cynfyn: one of the major beneficiaries of this regicide, if not one of its primary instigators. Lord Rhys of the House of Dinefwr would have been able to number both Cynan ap Iago and Rhiwallon ap Cynfyn among his ancestral forebears. The fact that nearly all the senior members of Welsh Royal tribe in the mid twelfth century were so directly connected to this regicide recreates, interestingly enough, a close resemblance to the situation described by Freud in his theory of totem societies and the Primal Horde.

Beneficial though this assassination had proved to be to these dynastic successors, it had not come entirely free of charge. In destroying Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, the Welsh royal tribe had also killed their most effective leader in living memory – and possibly their best hope of resistance against foreign domination. It is unsurprising, perhaps, that Gruffydd ap Llywelyn would remain a significant figure in the collective memory of medieval Wales for some generations after his death. The removal of such a powerful leader must have occasioned a variety of emotions, not least of which was a form of patricidal guilt.

This visceral remorse can only have been compounded by the extraordinary events that took place almost immediately after the death of Gruffydd ap Llywelyn. The most dramatic downfall was that of Harold Godwinsson, the Anglo-Saxon warlord who was perhaps the most instrumental agent of the old king’s demise. Of all the conspirators, it was Harold whose ascent following the events of 1063 had been the most vertiginous: a rise that was followed by a spectacular fall. By 1065, he had married Gruffydd’s widow – the Mercian princess Ealdglyth, grand-daughter of the legendry Lady Godiva. This had enhanced his political influence, propelling his ascension onto the English throne following the death of Edward the Confessor in 1066. The subsequent events of that year are only too well known. A rival claimant for the English throne was William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, subsequently known as William the Conqueror. Harold, alongside with his household warriors and the flower of the Anglo-Saxon nobility met a violent death at what was later known as the Battle of Hastings in the autumn of the same year and the Norman Duke effected a comprehensive seizure of the English polity.

And neither did the Welsh ruling elite manage to wholly avoid what must have seemed like divine retribution for their complicity in the events of 1063. While Bleddyn ap Cynfyn would rule with some effectiveness until his violent death in 1075, no native king would ever succeed in uniting the entirety of Wales again until the Age of the Llywelyns. Power devolved to the feuding branches of the Welsh Royal Tribe, and the price for this fragmentation was significant territorial loss. The Norman invasion of Wales, a seemingly unstoppable force in the later decades of the eleventh century, permanently altered the political geography of the region and effectively removed the notion of Welsh kings as autonomous rulers independent of the English crown.

The notion of disaster and loss following an outbreak of moral decline had been embedded in British Celtic consciousness since the tirades of the Dark Age cleric Gildas, a generation or two after the Anglo-Saxon uprising (and shortly before the plagues of the mid-sixth century). In this context, it is far from surprising that some sense of collective guilt regarding fateful regicide is apparent in Welsh and Welsh-influenced literatures deep into the twelfth- and thirteenth centuries.

Allusions to the Regicide in the literature of Wales

A curious omerta hangs over the circumstances of Gruffydd ap Llywelyn’s death as described in contemporary Welsh sources. His death notice in Brut y Tywsogion merely tells us that Gruffydd was ‘slain and left in the waste’ – no mention is made of the fact that it was at the hands of his kinsmen and dynastic rivals that the old king met his death (for the details of Gruffydd’s life and death we rely to a large extent on the intimations of English, Irish and Anglo-Norman sources). The Historia of Gryffydd ap Cynan (written c.1175), one of the few other native documents to reference the king directly, displays an ambivalence towards the memory Gruffydd that is probably significant: on the one hand he is represented as a tyrant and usurper, and yet his personal articles (in this case, his mantle) seem to have been fetishised and regarded as tokens of sovereignty. The reason for the ambivalence is clear enough when we consider again the widespread complicity in the killing of Gruffydd on the part of the senior members of the Welsh royal tribe. This internecine crime was the guilty family secret par excellence.

But, as Sigmund Freud (something of an expert on guilty family secrets) once suggested, the repressed always returns. In the narrative literature of twelfth- and thirteenth century Wales, we find more than one oblique allusion to the dynastic killing, the memory of which seems to have been picked at obsessively for several generations. An interesting case in point is the episode towards the end of the Second Branch, which the author refers to Ysbydawt Pen Urddaul ‘The Feast of the Wonderous Head’. Here, the old king Bendigeidfrân is seen returning wounded with his warband from a disastrous war in Ireland. Bizarrely, he invites his followers to cut off his head, promising it will live on “and be as good company as it ever was before”. This is done, and in a peculiar atmosphere of suspended time and heightened emotion, the party begin a feast which continues for eighty years, during which all sorrows are forgotten. Only when a forbidden door is opened "the memories of all the bad things that had ever happened to them, and most of all the loss of their king" come flooding back. The feast is abandoned and the party make their way to the White Hill – the site of the future Tower of London – where the head is buried in what became known as The Fortunate Concealment.

In our discussion of the Second Branch, we have noted the typological similarities between Bendigeidfrân and Gruffydd ap Llewelyn – highlighting the fact that his household included two prominent half-brothers from his mother side (c.f. Bleddyn and Rhiwallon ap Cynfelyn); and the fact that Bendigeidfrân’s father (like that of Gruffydd) was something of an outsider within the dynastic context of the House of Beli Mawr (typologically equivalent to the House of Rhodri Mawr in the Welsh Middle Ages). As was the case with Gruffydd, Bendigeidfrân and his father represented an interruption of a tradition of father-to-son inheritance through the senior branch of this dynastic kindred – with the more ‘legitimate’ claim of Caswallon ap Beli reasserting itself towards the end of the Branch.

What is particularly interesting here is that so many of the elements of the totem feast seem to be present in the legend of the Ysbydawt Pen Urddaul. The regicide is re-imagined as a form of self-sacrifice – a not-uncommon mythogenic reflex (parallels might again be noted with the Christian mystery). Feasting, another key element, is present in abundance: but rather than being eaten, the fetishised remains of the murdered king are preserved for magical/apotrophaic purposes. A zoomorphic/totemistic element is even suggested by the name of the king (Bendigeidfrân < bendigeid + brân ‘Blessed Raven’). The element of taboo (and its violation) is present in the motif of the door that must not be opened – which seems in this context to hold back (crucially) the memory of the death of the king, as well as all the other ‘bad things that had happened’. In other words, a process of denial or collective amnesia is required. When viewed against the backdrop of the dynastic events of the late-eleventh century, it becomes hard to imagine that court audiences in the early twelfth century Wales could have listened to a story of this kind with at least a frisson of recognition.

We find the same key elements of collective guilt and complicity, repression and fetishisation in another Welsh tale which has its origins in the same period. Historia Peredur fab Efrawg, a rambling account of the adventures of a hot-headed Arthurian hero begins with a section that relates closely to the plot-line of the romance of Li Conte del Graal, written by Chrétien de Troyes c.1185. The episode in question takes place during a period of peripatetic adventuring, after a sojourn by the hero at the castle of his uncle. From the latter he received education in the arts of war and courtly behaviour, including the rather strange advice to ask no questions, even if he sees ‘something strange’. With this fateful advice ringing in his ears, Peredur continues with his journey. Soon after this he arrives at a second castle, also owned by a man who also turns out to be his uncle, brother of his previous host. He is received warmly, and after they have eaten Peredur’s education continues – with the hero performing various feats of martial vigour. After this they sit down in conversation and the scene that follows represents one of the most notorious set-pieces of Arthurian Romance:

Suddenly he could see two lads entering the hall, and from the hall they proceeded to a chamber, carrying a spear of huge proportions, with three streams of blood from its socket to the floor. When everyone saw the lads coming in this way, they all began weeping and wailing so that it was not easy for anyone to endure it. Yet the man did not interrupt his conversation with Peredur. The man did not explain to Peredur what that was, nor did Peredur ask about it. After a short silence, suddenly two maidens entered with a larger salver between, and a man’s head on the salver, and much blood around the head. And then they all shrieked and wailed so that it was not easy for anyone to stay in the same building. At last they stopped, and remained sitting as long as it pleased them, and drank.vii

The most obvious interpretation of this episode is that it represents a dramatised enactment of collective guilt and denial. First we are shown the instrument of murder, which continues to drip with the blood of the victim. We are then presented with the severed head of the victim (in Chrétien’s tale, this is substituted for the grail). Throughout all of this, there is collective lamentation, but (crucially) no attempt at any acknowledgement or explanation. The man, Peredur’s uncle, does not interrupt his conversation throughout the whole episode – in other words, he acts as if nothing has taken place. The hero, we might remember, had been specifically instructed to ask no questions by the man’s brother, the other uncle.

This is clearly related to the Castle of Wonders scene in the Conte del Graal, but with a severed head in place of the famous Grail. The general assumption has tended to be that the Welsh version was influenced by Chrétien’s tale, and not the other way round. However, a strong case can also be made for the prior influence of pre-existing Brythonic, probably Welsh, tradition. Not much is known about this hypothetical source, whether it was oral or written, or whether it reached Chrétien directly or through Anglo-Norman or Breton intermediaries. But the least problematic explanation would see the ur-Grail story taking shape in a Welsh milieu in the mid-twelfth century, partly under the influence of an earlier version of the Ysbydawt Pen Urddaul legend alluded to above, and being transmitted to courts of France via Anglo-Norman intermediaries in the mould of Marie de France or Geoffrey of Monmouth. Crucially, we can pinpoint the origin of the distinctively ‘edgy’ atmosphere of this episode to the unresolved guilt surrounding the death of Gruffydd ap Llywelyn within the native Welsh court community. The original account of the Castle of Wonders would have belonged to that form of discourse described by Gerald of Wales, when he described native Welshmen as delighting in ‘libellous allusions’ and ‘sly references,’ viii but the Arthurian setting would have perhaps been influenced by the recent popularity Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work. All of this points to an Anglo-Norman connection, where figures such as Walter Map or Marie de France or the obscure proto-Romancer Magister Bleddri would have been on hand to re-interpret Welsh material for a French-speaking, courtly audience.

All of this seems highly significant, at least to the present writer, when we come to consider the origins of the Arthurian Romance in a more general sense: the distinctive qualities of which rely on this sense of ambiguity, loaded allusions to the unspoken, and a preoccupation with the themes of regicide and the other transgressive instincts associated with what we have referred to as the sovereignty complex. These elements did not form an overt presence in the first wave of ‘international’ Arthurian literature as represented by Geoffrey’s Historia; but by the time Chrétien wrote his Romances they were an integral characteristic of the genre. There is, I would argue, a persuasive case for seeing this development as evidence of further Celtic influence. Not only can we observe rather similar narrative dynamics in more definitively native Welsh literature such as the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, but we can also observe how a particular interest in the mechanisms of transgression, guilt and repression can be related to specific events in the arena of Welsh dynastic politics. The oblique handling of this highly-charged material seems to have fascinated court audiences throughout the Middle Ages, who were to use the Arthurian Romance as a vehicle for exploring the tensions inherent in the Christian feudal psyche.

The content of this page has been drawn from various parts of my study of the The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, sections of which are available online. Relevant here are the following extracts:

For more on the cult of the Severed Head, see the page on Pen Annwn and the section of the book on The Living Head

i Freud, Totem and Taboo (1950) pp.125-126
ii The origins of the incest taboo is a complex historical-anthropological question. J. J. Atkinson (1903) following the observations of Darwin on the Primal Horde, hypothesised that it might have originated with the sexual monopoly of the alpha male, which effectively debarred sexual couplings within the kin grouping for all other males. This taboo seems to have been passed over into the totem clans, and into their successor institutions – including the modern nuclear family.
iiiop. cit. p.142
ivDe Nugis ed. & trans. M.R. James p.191
vibid p.187
viK. Maund, ‘Cynan ab Iago and the killing if Gruffudd ap Llywelyn’, Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 10 (1985). Maund notes that although Cynan ap Iago features among the list probable suspects, the precise identity of the killer remains an open question.
viiThe Mabinogion, trans. Sionedd Davies p. 73 viiiThe Description of Wales trans. Lewis Thorpe BK I Ch.14