In the first third of the 12th century, Britain was thrown into civil war when the daughter and nephew of the late king Henry I fought for the throne. This period is known as the ‘Anarchy’ as it saw a widespread breakdown of order. Local nobles used the opportunity to settle scores with their neighbours and gain power for themselves.
The Welsh Marches (borderlands) had been a volatile region since William the Conqueror invaded South Wales and established a series of castles to secure his gains. During the Anarchy, border skirmishes quickly led to a general uprising of Welsh nobles against the Norman lords. One of the Welsh leaders, Gruffyd app Rhys, the ruler of Deheubarth, decided to attack the Normans in force and drive them out of his province.
Gruffyd was married to Gwenllian, daughter of another Gruffydd. According to chronicles, Gwenllian, born in 1097, was a very warlike woman. Defying her father, who wanted to make peace with the Normans, she joined her husband in a campaign of guerilla warfare. From their hiding places in the woods, small bands would raid Norman patrols and settlements. When her husband left to get reinforcements, she led her troops in person against the enemy. However, the Normans fought back and she was forced to raise an army and meet them near Kidwelly castle in 1136. The ensuing battle saw the Welsh defeated and routed. Gwenllian was captured and beheaded. Yet her memory was not lost and generations of Welsh soldiers would issue the cry ‘Revenge for Gwenllian’ when going into battle.
Gwenllian is one of numerous early medieval warrior women. Historian Megan McLaughlin showed that up to the eleventh century, chroniclers noted the activities of female combatants with little comment. Especially noble women were expected to be able to defend themselves and their possessions from attack. As warriors were tied to a lord by bonds of personal loyalty, they wouldn’t find it inappropriate to obey the commands of his spouse, especially if the lord himself was absent. The ‘domestic’ organisation of warfare also meant that girls could have participated in the martial training of the boys.
Unfortunately, the chronicles don’t give us many details about those women and we have to contend ourselves with the basic facts. Still, the case of Gwenllian offers plenty of opportunity for wargamers. The guerilla warfare she conducted is well suited to scenario-based skirmishes and small scale actions. SAGA of course immediately springs to mind, where she would make a formidable Warlord for a Welsh warband. David Mersey’s Lion Rampant would also be very apt for those kinds of games.
But which figure to use as Gwenllian? Early medieval Welsh are often depicted as very lightly armoured and equipped. However, as the daughter and spouse of a local ruler, she would doubtlessly have access to the best gear, meaning chainmail and helmet as well as a sword.
In 28mm, Bronze Age Miniatures offer a Viking Female which could be pressed into service without any troubles. Thunderbolt Mountain Miniatures have a Human Female Warrior, which, although marketed as a fantasy miniature, would also work quite well. The same goes for Ylvfriodr of Ulfrstadt from Red Box Games.
In 15mm, Peter Pig offers female Vikings that could be used. Those are very nice figures with sensible dress and proportions, their only drawback being that they only come with spears or axe and not with a sword in the hand. On a pinch, one could also use one of the ‘Champions’ from the Warrior Women of Erin range by Trey Corbies figures, even if they are too lightly armoured.
Lloyd, John E.: A History of Wales. From the Earliest Times to the Edwardian Conquest, London: Longmans, Green & Co 1948, vol. II.
McLaughlin, Megan: “The Woman Warrior: Gender, Warfare and Society in Medieval Europe,” Women’s Studies 17 (1990), 193-209 (available online).
Warner, Philip: Famous Welsh Battles, Glasgow: Fontana 1977.