Is this Welsh princess the first British woman author?

Roger Dobson
Sunday 23 October 2011 02:50

Britain's earliest known woman writer is identified as a 12th century Welsh princess who died fighting the Normans. Princess Gwenllian, daughter of the King of Gwynedd, is said to be the author of the Mabinogion, the 800-year-old collection of Celtic tales of romance and adventure, whose unknown author has always been thought to be a man.

In his book to be published later this month, Dr Andrew Breeze argues that Gwenllian is the author of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, the main tales of the Mabinogion, which tells of princes and princesses and daring deeds in a Celtic world of heroism, chivalry and magic.

Dr Breeze, a Celticist and English literature lecturer, says Gwenllian is one of the greatest writers. "It is sad to think that the remains of the finest of Welsh prose writers lies in an unknown spot in the battlefield where she was killed," he said.

The Four Branches of the Mabinogi (tales of youth) is considered to be the greatest work of Welsh literature and one of the finest surviving pieces of Celtic mythology. The oldest copy is the priceless White Book of Rhydderch, dated at 1300, which is in the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth. A second version, the Red Book of Hergest, dated 1375, is kept at Jesus College, Oxford. It contains seven other tales, some of which refer to King Arthur.

Dr Breeze says that after analysing the original manuscript of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, he has no doubt the author is Gwenllian.

"Until now everyone has always assumed they were written by a man," Dr Breeze says. "There have been suggestions it might have been a monk, but I do not accept that on the textual evidence I have collected. It is difficult to believe that a monk would have the concerns of a woman writer in matters like child-bearing, childlessness, wet-nursing, fostering and the upbringing of children, all of which figure in the Four Branches of the Mabinogi. The author is also very good at describing women who get men out of mess.

"The Four Branches can be seen as that very rare thing, a feminist fairy story in which the roles are reversed and it is resourceful princesses who rescue princes." In his book, Mediaeval Welsh Literature, Dr Breeze details 11 key arguments in favour of the text being written by Gwenllian, a mother of four who died leading an attack on the Normans near Kidwelly in 1136. He dates the authorship to 1128.

Dr Rhiannon Ifans, a specialist in the Mabinogion at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, said: "There is no known author and never has been. I have not seen the arguments and I keep an open mind because there are so many possibilities. This will be the first time a woman has been suggested."

Dr Sioned Davies, senior lecturer in Welsh at the University of Wales, Cardiff, who is translating the Mabinogion, said: "I'd like to think it was a woman, but there is no firm evidence on authorship and a lot of prose of this period is anonymous. He is bringing up some very interesting points and I do not rule it out but I really need to see his arguments first."

Saga of the warrior princess

Princess Gwenllian, daughter of Gruffudd ap Cynan, King of Gwynedd, was born in 1098, when Wales was under attack by the Normans. Gwenllian's brother, Owen Gwynedd, took over from his father and became one of the great Welsh princes. Gwenllian married and lived in the valleys around Dinefwr, then dense with protective forests. Here she raised her four sons, Morgan, Maelgwn, Maredued and Rhys. On New Year's Day 1136 an attack was launched on the Normans and her husband left to join the battle. While he was away, the Norman-backed Lord of Kidwelly attacked, and Gwenllian led the defence, although her youngest son was only four. Gerald Cambrensis, writing later that century, said: "She marched like the Queen of the Amazons and a second Penthesileia leading her army." Gwenllian was killed on the battlefield, Maes Gwenllian, which has never been fully excavated. The naming her as author of The Four Branches of the Mabinogi is likely to renew interest in a woman whom some historians have compared to Boudicca.

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