A little known woman outside Wales, Marged uch Ifan was born in 1695 in Llanberis, Caernarfon. In a completely male dominated world, Margaret was reputed to be a ‘crack shot’, and the best at hunting and fishing in her time. She was also a champion wrestler, a blacksmith, a boat builder, a maker of harps and an excellent fiddle player.
Gráinne, who the English call Grace O’Malley, is a particularly interesting and formidable character. Born to Eoghan O Mháille a sea chieftain in Mayo, she married Donal of Connacht when she was fifteen and had three children. In 1558, when Elizabeth I came to the throne, Gráinne was twenty-eight, only four years younger than the British queen.
Elizabeth began to interfere in the politics in Ireland, which led to an attack on Donal’s fortress. During the battle, her husband was killed but Gráinne successfully defended the castle.
When she returned to Mayo with her family and men, Gráinne beat off any male succession to her father’s fleet, and began ‘protecting' the coastal waters. After a while, this turned into piracy, attacking and looting any English vessels she found in the coastal waters, from Connacht to Munster. Gráinne became a well-established pirate captain, commanding at least two-hundred fighting men in three fast ships.
In 1566, Gráinne married Risteard-an-Iarainn Bourke, nicknamed 'Iron Richard'.
‘a plundering, warlike, unquiet and rebellious man’.
The Four Masters
Their 'handfasting' was formalised under Brehon law, which allowed them a two year trial marriage. Their relationship, though turbulent, survived and Gráinne found herself giving birth to their son on board one of her ships. Shortly after the delivery, Algerian corsairs attacked the ship, and Gráinne was forced to leave the infant to join her men on deck, brandishing her cutlass.
‘What?’ she roared at the first mate. ‘Can you not do without me for one day?’
Her son was named Tibbot na Long (Tibbot of the Ships) to reflect the circumstances of his arrival in the world.
Piracy brought Gráinne to the attention of the English. Several attempts were made to subdue her, but they failed time and again. Gráinne’s ships were advanced versions of Hebridean birlinns, strong but manoeuvrable, with both oars and sails. She was caught and imprisoned a couple of times, but always resurfaced to fight again. What really gave Gráinne the upper hand though, was her knowledge of the local waters.
When Risteard died in 1583, Gráinne claimed his rights under Brehon Law and became leader in his place. Elizabeth’s interest in Ireland increased, as did Gráinne’s illegal activities. She undertook contracts to ferry mercenaries to fight in Ireland against the colonists. Gráinne made herself very unpopular with the new governor of Connacht, Sir Richard Bingham, who took her son Tibbot as a hostage. Bingham was her fiercest adversary, and he tirelessly harassed and attacked Gráinne at every opportunity.
In 1593, she was sixty-three, and had tired of the fight with Bingham. In a brilliant but dangerous gamble, Gráinne decided to bypass him and meet directly with Queen Elizabeth. It seems that the Queen was curious about her and a meeting was arranged. It was held in Latin, which both women spoke, though Elizabeth may have tried out a few words in Irish. Legend has it that the Queen had to hold her hand up for Gráinne to kiss, the latter being a much bigger woman, and that Gráinne considered it a meeting of equals.
Gráinne’s gamble paid off and Elizabeth reined in Bingham, who was recalled to England eighteen months later. The Queen also gave Gráinne a letter allowing her to ‘hang the Queen’s enemies’ - a transparent permission to return to piracy.
Elizabeth and Gráinne both died in 1603 and Gráinne was buried on Clare Island, surrounded by the sea she loved. Gráinne’s legend lives on, and she has become immortalised as an iconic Irish figure in songs, poetry and art.
While Celtic society was male dominated, it is clear that Celtic women had a more equal role than Roman, Greek or Saxon women.
Cúchulainn was a man, and in many ways he was the man in the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology. His life was prophesied to be short but great. He was famed for his battle frenzy – warp spasm – which allowed him supernatural strength but turned him into an unthinking killing machine. It prevented Cúchulainn from distinguishing friend from foe.
He was beautiful and brave, cunning and temperamental. Cúchulainn spent a great deal of time fighting, and another good portion of it philandering. Cúchulainn loved women, and they all seemed to love him back. From great warrior women to doormats, Cúchulainn bedded them all, though ironically his greatest love seems to have been for another man – Ferdiad, whom he is forced to kill in single combat.
Cúchulainn falls in love with Emer at the first sight of her breasts.
'I see a sweet country. I could lay my weapon there.'
Though the hero has first to beat her warrior sister in combat before he can settle down and marry Emer. Unfortunately for Emer, Cúchulainn goes on to discover many other loves while she waits patiently at home in Dun Dealgan. There were, Eithne Inguba and Niamh, wife of Conall Cearnach, and Buan and Bláthnat, who both forfeit their lives for him.
Fand was wife to Manannán mac Lir, god of the sea. When Cúchulainn fell in love with her, Emer’s jealously was sparked into life. Deciding that she needed to kill her rival, Emer tracked the lovers down, and argued with Fand over Cúchulainn. However, when she discovered that Fand genuinely loved Cúchulainn, Emer played the martyr, agreeing to give him up. At the same time, Fand was struck both by the depth of Emer's love for her husband and the extent of his infidelity. Fand decided to go back to her own husband, and Manannán cast a spell, preventing Cúchulainn and Fand from ever meeting in the future. Cúchulainn and Emer were given a drink of forgetfulness and that particular affair was dealt with.
There were other women in Cúchulainn's life, the most important of which was Scáthach, a professional warrior. Dun Scáthach was the school of martial arts, situated on the Isle of Skye, where Cúchulainn and many other Irish heroes were sent to be trained in combat.
Scáthach was a fearsome soldier herself, training only those who were deemed worthy. Cúchulainn was the greatest of her students and Scáthach gave him his ultimate weapon, a spear, 'Gae Bolga' or the 'Belly Ripper'. Cúchulainn also learnt his infamous battle leap and the 'torannchles' or 'thunder feat’ from his teacher, among other extreme martial arts. It is not clear how much they liked each other, but Scáthach and Cúchulainn had a sexual relationship. This coincided with the end of his apprenticeship and he probably had to beat her in combat first.
'Cúchulainn even wrested from Scáthach the friendship of her thighs.'
The Ulster Cycle
Cúchulainn also had an affair with Scáthach's daughter Uathach, and Aoife, Scáthach's equally aggressive sister. Aoife had the reputation of being the champion of warriors, among men and women alike. Aoife and her sister often went to battle against each other. Eventually Aoife fought Cúchulainn, who was fighting on Scáthach's side, in single combat. As great a fighter as he was, Cúchulainn was unable to beat her without cheating. After discovering that Aoife's horses and chariot were her greatest loves, he called out that they were in danger and took the advantage while she was distracted.
"Aoife looked around and Cúchulainn leaped at her and seized her by the two breasts. He took her on his back like a sack, and brought her back to his own army. He threw her heavily to the ground and held a naked sword over her.
'A life for a life Cúchulainn!' Aoife said.
'Grant me three desires,' he said.
'What you can ask in one breath you may have,' she said.
'My three desires,' he said, 'are, hostages for Scáthach, and never attack her again; your company tonight at your own fort; and bear me a son.'
'I grant you all you ask,' she said.
Cúchulainn slept the night with Aoife.”
The Ulster Cycle
Aoife became pregnant with a male child, and just before leaving, Cúchulainn gave her a gold ring for the boy who he named Connla. He added that the boy should come to Ireland when his finger has grown enough to fit the ring, but also that;
'The boy was to reveal his name to no man, that he must make way for no man nor refuse any man in combat.'
The tale ends in tragedy when Cúchulainn kills his only son in single combat.
Many other warrior women appear quite briefly in the Irish tales. Creidne escapes an incestuous relationship with her father, after bearing him three sons. She becomes a fearless warrior in the 'Fianna', a group of elite warriors/mercenaries – led by Fionn mac Cumhaill. Fionn had a warrior daughter called Credha, who was instructed and excelled in all forms of martial arts. Erni was Queen Medb's right-hand woman, her own personal bodyguard, who fought alongside her and kept guard over her treasure. Among lesser-known warriors there were Mughain Mór of Munster (also became Queen of Ulster) and, Estine and Breifne.
The Mabinogion and the Irish Cycles have provided a real diversity of heroines and villains. All varieties of women are there; vicious warrior queens: clever, ambitious survivors; beautiful romantic fools; tragic, cursed victims and evil, degenerate hags. Far from being idealised or stereotyped, these women seem to have been described rather than created. Some of the characters in the Irish and Welsh texts are almost interchangeable, and it begs the question whether there was a single original source for many of these stories.
‘The women of the Celts are nearly as tall as the men and they rival them in courage also.’ Diodorus Siculus.
‘A whole troop of foreigners would not be able to withstand a single Celt if he called his wife to his assistance. The wife is even more formidable. She is usually very strong with blue eyes; in her rage, neck veins swell, she gnashes her teeth, and brandishes her snow-white robust arms. She begins to strike blows mingled with kicks, as if they were so many missiles sent from the string of a catapult. The voices of these women are formidable and threatening, even when they are not angry but being friendly.’ Ammianus Marcellinus
These commentaries by Roman historians were not supposed to be complimentary. Greek and Roman women of the time were powerless under the law and subjugated within society. It was abhorrent to these men, that women from other cultures had comparative freedom and self-determination.
Most of the history of these islands is a catalogue of the deeds of men, but the Celtic world has provided plenty of women to commemorate. They are not all warriors, and many of them are fictional, but all the women registered here are important enough in some way, to be remembered alongside their male counterparts.
Rhiannon appears on a magical white horse to the Welsh hero, Pwyll, whilst he is hunting with his men. Though Pwyll orders a succession of his men to ride after her, Rhiannon cannot be caught, as her horse keeps ahead of them no matter how fast they gallop. It is only when Pwyll himself gives chase that she consents to be caught.
Rhiannon tells Pwyll that they are destined to marry, but that she is also promised to another man. After a year of scheming, and with the help of a magical bag, Rhiannon and Pwyll trick her other suitor Gwawl, and marry. It is not a ‘happy-ever-after’ though, because Rhiannon is wrongly accused of the death of their newborn baby. Pwyll does not kill or divorce Rhiannon but observes the laws of penance. Rhiannon is demoted to the status of a slave and forced to carry out the most menial of tasks, carrying guests on her back to and from the palace. Her penance lasted seven years, until their son Pryderi was returned and her innocence proved.
Math was lord over Gwynedd (North Wales) and could not live unless his feet were held in the lap of a virgin. When his virgin, Goewin is raped, another virgin, Aranrhod is found to replace her.
Aranrhod seems to be partly elemental – a wild, wilful daughter of Dôn. Gwydion, Aranrhod’s brother, an amoral druid and shape-shifter, asks her to step over his magical wand to prove her virginity. As she does so, Aranrhod gives birth to male twins. One, Dylan, crawls into the sea and becomes the god of the waves; the other is stolen and brought up by Gwydion.
There is an inference that the second twin is actually Gwydion’s son by his sister. The druid rears the strikingly blond child who, like all the heroes in mythology, grows incredibly quickly and becomes a handsome, fierce brave warrior. When Aranrhod is confronted with the child, she denounces him three times. The first time, she says that if he does not possess a name, he is not a real person, but Gwydion tricks her into naming him Lleu, the blond one. Next time they meet, she curses him never to bear arms, but is tricked a second time. Aranrhod’s third curse is that Lleu will never have a wife. Gwydion then creates a woman for Lleu out of flowers – Blodeuwedd.
Blodeuwedd is designed and then created to be the perfect woman; compliant, beautiful and loyal, but she rebels, taking a lover - Gronw Pebr. Blodeuwedd devises a cunning plan to kill Lleu, but he discovers the plot and Gwydion turns her into an owl – the enemy of all other birds.
She is better known as Guinevere, King Arthur's wife. Their story has been told and retold so many times through the years, but it is clear that the origins of the Arthurian tales are rooted in Celtic myth. Some texts claim that Arthur was in fact married to three Gwenhwyfars, making her more reminiscent of a triune goddess than a person. The queen is famed for her love affair with Lancelot, one of the King’s most trusted knights, and it is often concluded that she was the reason for Arthur's and Britain's ultimate downfall. There are numerous references to Arthur taking other lovers, but these do not seem to be judged in the same light.
Even when trying to redress the gender balance in Celtic myth and legend, it is impossible to ignore the massive presence that King Arthur has in both these areas. Such is the nature of Arthur that all the Celtic nations have claimed him for themselves, and recent speculation casts him in the role of charismatic professional soldier rather than a king.
‘A brilliant military leader employed in an official capacity by an alliance of British kings to carry out their warfare against all coming enemies - "Dux Bellorum" translates literally as Duke of Battles.’ Nennius, Historia Brittonum
When Arthur appears in the Mabinogion, he appears as a mythological god-like figure, and though Geoffrey of Monmouth and Thomas Malory mythologise him, he is portrayed as a real man who lived, loved, fought and died.
Branwen was the daughter of Llyr, god of the sea. Her brother Bran (Bendigeidfran) was king of ‘The Isle of the Mighty’ - Britain, and arranged for her to marry the Irish king, Matholwch. Their marriage seemed fine until her half-brother Efnisien, a psychopath, insulted her husband. Bran gave him a magic cauldron in recompense, but Matholwch remained angry about the insult, and took it out on Branwen by demoting her from wife to slave. Branwen reared a starling and taught it to carry a message to her brother, who declared war on the Irish. A terrible battle ensued, during which Efnisien threw Branwen’s young son onto the fire. The Irish used the magic cauldron to bring corpses back from the dead to fight again and Efnisien sacrificed himself by jumping into the vessel and splitting it open. After the battle, the only people left alive are five pregnant Irish women and seven Britons. Branwen died of a broken heart, cursing the stupidity of the men who wrecked both countries in her name. She was buried by the bank of the river Alaw on Ynys Môn.
The story of Olwen and Culhwch is one of the best written and well known in the Mabinogion and is very much a story about Arthur and his knights in reality. It has all the ingredients of a good yarn - a prophecy; Olwen's father, a giant called Ysbaddaden is cursed to die if ever his daughter marries; a quest, Culhwch is given impossible tasks to prove his worthiness. It actually ends in a 'happy-ever-after' which is rare in Celtic myth - though we learn nothing of Olwen's character. All we know about the woman is her unparalleled beauty, which can be seen as the epitome of the Celtic ideal.
'And she came, with a robe of flame-red silk about her, and around the maiden's neck was a collar of red gold, and precious pearls thereon and rubies. Yellower was her hair than the flower of the broom, whiter was her flesh than the foam of the wave; and whiter her palms and her fingers than the shoots of the marsh trefoil from amidst the fine gravel of a welling spring. Neither the eye of the mewed hawk, nor the eye of the three-miced falcon, nor any eye in the whole world was fairer than hers. Her breast was whiter than the breast of the white swan; and her cheeks were redder than the reddest foxgloves. All who beheld her would be filled with love for her. Four white trefoils sprang up behind her wherever she walked; and for that reason she was called Olwen, Whitetrack.'
In Irish mythology, the Mórrígan is the primary goddess of death and war and bloodshed. Her name means ‘Great Queen’. She is an all-pervasive entity in Irish mythology, symbolising the twin roles of sexuality and destruction - the urge for life and the necessity of death to keep the wheel turning. The Mórrígan often demanded sex from heroes in return for supernatural favours and if spurned, was capable of terrible vengeance. When Cúchulainn rejected her advances, she attacked him as an eel, a wolf and then a cow. She was also present at his death, in her most frequent form – the crow. The Mórrígan is often mentioned as a triune goddess: Macha, Badb and Nemain. Sometimes these aspects appear as goddesses in their own right.
Macha was pregnant by Cruinniuc, King of Ulster, who was a boastful man. One day, he claimed that Macha could run faster than the king’s horses. When the High King ordered her to prove it, Macha pleaded with him and his assembly to allow her to give birth before the race.
‘Help me, for a mother bore each one of you!’
The High King refused, Macha ran the race and won - giving birth as she crossed the line. As Macha produced her twin children, she cursed the men of Ulster. Her curse inflicted them with the pangs of childbirth for five days and four nights every year. The exceptions to this were all females, boys and Cúchulainn, which is why he was the only able warrior when Medb began her raid.
When Nemain appeared at battles, she spread panic among troops. Her cry of horror and fear was capable of knocking warriors dead at the sound.
Often appearing in the form of the crow or an old hag, she is the harbinger of death on the battlefield. Badb has a great deal in common with her Welsh equivalent, Agroná, who often appeared as an old woman offering to wash the arms of soldiers who were destined to die in battle.
Medb, means ‘she who makes men drunk’. The word ‘medd’ in modern Welsh means mead, and ‘meddwi’ means ‘to intoxicate’. There are several women called Medb in Irish mythology, one of them being a goddess of war. However, we meet this Medb, Queen of Connacht, in the story of the Táin Bó Cúailnge – The Cattle raid on Cooley. This story is one of the most famous and entertaining from the Ulster Cycle.
Medb comes across as an arrogant, greedy, show-off. She is the daughter of a High King, Eochaid Féidlech and married to another king, Ailill of Connacht.
We first encounter the couple when they are in bed in their palace at Cruachain, and their banter changes into boasting and sniping.
‘I myself, Medb, am the highest and haughtiest of them (siblings). I outdid them in grace and giving and battle and warlike combat.’
The scene ends with an argument about Ailill’s prize bull. In a fit of jealousy, Medb essentially leads the people of Connacht into a war with Ulster in her efforts to obtain an equally good bull from the king there - the Brown Bull of Cúailnge. Medb is devious and dangerously determined. As an accomplished charioteer, she leads the troops into battle herself. The queen also acquits herself well as a military commander and strategist, and even fights and wounds the hero Cethern in single combat.
Medb does not appear to be a particularly nurturing mother. She and Ailill have seven sons, who all seem to be called Maine, and one daughter, Findbhair. It is not clear how many of the Maines are lost during the campaign but neither parent seems particularly upset. Medb not only sleeps with various champions in order to gain their allegiances but also offers her daughter as sexual bait to the same end. Medb continually dominates and bullies Findbhair, who is her mother’s opposite - tender, loving, loyal and wise. Their relationship eventually destroys Findbhair who drowns herself. Medb’s own ending has a few alternatives but they all seem to happen at the water’s edge, a place of wisdom to the Celts. In one version, she is killed by a cast spear: in others, she dies from a single slingshot.
After life as a warrior, Nessa settles down and marries Fachtna, King of Ulaidh. She has a son Conchobar mac Nessa, who took her name, rather than his father's. When Fachtna died, Nessa married his brother Fergus, but only on the proviso that her son rule as king for one year. While on the throne, and under the instruction of his mother, Conchobar became an outstanding King, wooing the people to such an extent that he was able to refuse the claim of Fergus to the throne after the first year.
Feldem was Nessa's granddaughter and she also became a famous warrior, with an appetite for marrying a string of heroes.
'None could match her at sword, nor javelin when the battle fever came upon her.'
The Ulster Cycle
In the Cycle of the Kings, we meet Art, hero and son of Conn of the Hundred Battles. He falls in love with a woman called Delbchaem whose parents, Coinchend and Morgan, lived on a strange island full of monsters, possibly Iona. A prophecy foretold that Coinchend would die if her daughter ever married. Coinchend had slain many of her daughter's suitors, leaving their heads on poles as both warning and reminder, and was reported to have had 'the strength of a hundred men in battle’. Needless to say, Art killed Coinchend and placed her head on a pike before finally taking Delbchaem to bed.
Mis was not a warrior herself, but the daughter of Daire Doidgheal who fought against Fionn and the Fianna. On finding her father's body after the battle, Mis becomes hysterical, and refusing to believe that he is dead, she tries to heal him by sucking the blood from his wounds. Her failure drives her mad and she runs away into the mountains, killing everyone who dares to approach. Her body is also affected, possibly by the blood sucking, turning her into a beast.
'Fur and hair grew on her, so long that it trailed on the ground.'
Believing that she was now a threat to his kingdom, the King offered a reward to any warrior who could catch her. None of the famous warriors fancied the job and a gentle-souled musician took up the gauntlet. Dubh Ruis was a harpist, and he journeyed to the mountains with his instrument. Lying down on the rock, he began to play. Mis heard the sound, and it brought back vague memories of her former life. She crept closer and Dubh Ruis showed her some gold and silver, which jogged her memory even further. When she gets close enough, Dubh Ruis offers Mis his body and they have intercourse.
Sex with Dubh Ruis seems to calm Mis down enough for her to talk. Dubh builds a shack for them in the mountains and during his two-month stay, he washes the dirt from her body and brings her mind back from where it has been. They fall in love with each other and gradually this love controls the 'wildness in her soul.'
Dubh Ruis takes Mis back to his home and marries her, but as usual, the story is a tragedy and he is killed by some of the warriors who refused the king's challenge.
In a way, Olwen and Étaín are the same woman, the same ideal. Her alternate name, Echraidhe - horse rider, also links Étaín to Rhiannon. We find her in 'The wooing of Étaín' from the Irish mythological cycle and it is a rambling tale of life, death, incest and rebirth.
Étaín is reborn several times as various creatures and women - her beauty causing men to wither away or become insane with love for her. Étaín, as Olwen is not fleshed out as a person, she is merely an ideal for men to fight over.
'Every lovely form must be tested by Étaín, every beauty by the standard of Étaín.'
Gráinne is the complete opposite of Etain, a wild, passionate and treacherous woman who runs amok with the idea of chivalry between men. Gráinne was the daughter of the High King of Ireland and was betrothed to the once powerful but now elderly Fionn mac Cumhaill. On the eve of her wedding night she tries to seduce Fionn's son, Oisin and when he rejects her advances, she eventually tricks an honorable warrior in Fionn's army, Diarmud, to elope with her.
Gráinne is horrible to Diarmud, but nevertheless he falls in love with her. Eventually, after being pursued for a long time by Fionn, Diarmud and Gráinne come back. All seems well until Diarmud is killed while out hunting with Fionn. Gráinne blames Fionn for the death and at first declares her hatred of him until it turns rather quickly into lust. In Gráinne, we see a woman who men desire but cannot trust, and she is rebuked for her fickleness in a way that Cúchulainn, who has a similar attitude to the opposite sex, does not.
Deirdre's story is similar but more tragic. At birth, her extreme beauty was prophesied to bring death and ruin to the land of Ireland. Knowing this, her father tried to kill Deirdre as a baby, but was stopped by King Conchobar, who kept her until she was old enough to marry.
However, before Conchobar could marry her, Deirdre fell in love and eloped with Naoise, a handsome young warrior, hunter and singer. Conchobar is furious, and the inevitable pursuit begins, and he eventually tracks them down to Scotland, where they have started a family and are blissfully happy.
After much political intrigue, the family is persuaded that it is safe to return to Ireland. It is not true, and Naoise and his brothers are killed. Conchobar then takes Deirdre as a wife, and though she is physically married to the king, she is cold with hatred for him. After a year of suffering this, Conchobar gives Deirdre to the only man she hates even more - Eogan, the man who threw the spear that killed Naoise. On the journey to begin her new life with Eogan, Deirdre throws herself from the chariot, smashing headlong into some rocks.
a mark - marc
a burden - baich
a loss - colled
Gwenllïan was the daughter of Gruffudd ap Cynan, Prince of Gwynedd, and was born in Aberffraw, Ynys Môn. She was married to Gruffydd ap Rhys, a Welsh rebel against the Anglo Normans, and brother to Nest of Dyfed. They lived in the realm of Deheubarth, in south west Wales, and were prominent in the constant rebellion against the Normans.
In 1135, Gruffydd had travelled north to discuss tactics with Gwenllïan's father, and in his absence the Normans attacked. Gwenllïan rallied and led the remaining troops against the enemy, forcing them back to their castle at Kidwelly. Once there, the Normans organised themselves, and were more than ready when Gwenllïan made a second attack. She was killed fighting a rear-guard action, and there is both a field and a spring named after her on the spot where she died. Gwenllïan's name became a rallying cry in battle for the Welsh - just as Boudicca had been for the Iceni.
When Llywelyn Fawr (Llywelyn ab Iorwerth) finally acceded to Norman power in 1204, he was allowed to have nominal rights over the Welsh kingdom on certain conditions. These included an arranged marriage to King John’s daughter, Joan. She was a very bright and forceful woman, and once they were married, she learnt Welsh and became known as Siwan. Despite the arranged nature of the marriage, Llywelyn gradually fell in love with her, but also came to rely on her remarkable negotiating skills, which she employed as Princess of Wales.
In 1230, Siwan had a brief affair with William de Braose. Llywelyn, heartbroken and furious, executed William and imprisoned his wife for a while, but their love for each other meant that the couple were back together again within a year. They lived in his court in Abergwyngregyn, and when she died she was buried at Llan-faes Priory on Ynys Môn (Anglesey). Her stone sarcophagus can be seen in Beaumaris church.
Wales has been always been the land of poets, and the baton has been passed through the centuries from Taliesin and Aneirin to the present day. There remains a very large body of work left us by male poets, and hardly anything remains of women’s poetry – with one major exception.
Gwerful Mechain was writing her poetry at a time when her male counterparts were engaged in creating the most cleverly constructed but sexually explicit of works. Adhering to the ancient bardic traditions of ‘cynghanedd’ and ‘cywydd’, the poetry was a challenge to write. It had couplets of seven-syllable lines with end-rhymes that were alternately stressed and unstressed. Erotic literature is only a small portion of Gwerful’s work, but she used it, within the strict metre rule, to great effect, challenging and shocking her male contemporaries. Her erotic poetry portrays the aggressive and sexual woman, and both these attributes went against the grain in a time when women were seen as passive in all regards.
“There is a certain art form in Wales that doesn’t exist in any other culture. It is a special kind of literary form that is classed as poetry, but it is also one that lies very close to music. It is known in the Welsh as ‘Cynghanedd’ or 'cerdd dafod' or 'canu caeth'. The last of these terms – canu caeth - literally translated means the ‘captive’ or ‘confined’ song, and it is so called because of the set of complex rules that underpins it. This is the art form that is the very essence of the poetic tradition of Wales. And before one can express oneself in ‘cynghanedd’, one has to learn the theory and obey its code.”
Singing in Chains – Mererid Hopwood
Poetry writing and recitation is alive and well in Wales, and is as much a part of the Culture as music. The National Eisteddfods are an incredible platform for the nurturing and performing of great talent in all the arts, but poetry and music are still the soul of the event.
The best evidence that women of great significance were treated as lavishly as the men after death, was the discovery of this burial site, near Burgundy in France. Thought to date from 500 BC, the grave itself contained the metallic remains of a chariot, beautiful La Tène styled jewellery, and an elaborately decorated bronze container – the Krater.
It is difficult to know whether this Macha belongs in the myth or the history section, but according to 'historical tradition', Macha of the 'red mane' was the only woman mentioned in the list of the High Kings of Ireland. Her father, Aedh Ruadh, shared the kingdom with his cousins in a sort of ‘rota’ system, but when he died, Macha claimed the crown. The cousins would not allow a woman on the throne, so she fought with them, killing one and taking another hostage, who she eventually married. They ruled together for seven years and she carried on alone after his death.
Boudicca means ‘victorious’, and Cassius Dio gives us a description of Boudicca of the queen.
‘She is very tall in stature and most terrifying in appearance, in the glance of her eye most fierce and her voice harsh; a great mass of the tawniest hair fell to her hips; around her neck was a large golden neck-ring; and she wore a tunic of divers colours over which she wore a thick mantle, fastened with a brooch.'
Boudicca was married to Prasutagus of the Iceni tribe, in present day East Anglia, and they had two daughters. Prasutagus died in AD 60, leaving his wealth and throne to his daughters, but the Romans claimed both, thinking that they had already subdued and assimilated these tribes. At that time, the Briton and druid stronghold of Mona, Anglesey was being attacked by Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, and the Roman army was stretched.
The procurator of Roman Britain, Catus Decianus marched into the Iceni kingdom after ravaging the neighbouring Trinovante tribe. He began to seize land and people for slavery. Boudicca, as acting sovereign, protested. She was dragged from her home, stripped and publicly flogged, while both her teenage daughters were raped in front of her. Other important members of the tribe were taken and/or beaten as a warning to the Celts to behave.
Not only does Boudicca emerge as absolute leader of the Iceni people, but as their war leader as well. Pulling in military assistance from the Trinovantes, Coritani and Catuvellauni tribes, Boudicca embarked on a rebellion against the Romans. The first target of the united forces was the erstwhile capital of the Trinovantes, which the Romans named Camulodunum (Colchester) and had turned into the new Roman capital. Boudicca's warriors managed to ambush and annihilate almost an entire legion of Roman troops, under Cerialis, who were hurrying to the defence of the new capital. Boudicca’s army then stormed Camulodunum, and made for London. With Catus Decianus fleeing to Gaul, it fell to Gaius Suetonius Paulinus to reach London before Boudicca, and leave with whoever wanted to accompany him. He did not have sufficient troops to fight her there, and headed north leaving London to Boudicca.
The Celts slaughtered every Roman and tradesman alike in London, indulging in, according to Tacitus,
‘merciless cruelty with no attempt at slave taking and utterly destroying the settlement.’
Other accounts are more salacious. Cassius Dio notes:
‘The noblest Roman women were impaled on spikes and had their breasts cut off and sewn to their mouths, to the accompaniment of sacrifices, banquets, and wanton behaviour in sacred places, particularly the groves of Andrasta.’
Boudicca’s army treated Verulamium (St Albans) in the same way and headed north after Paulinus, who led the only sizeable Roman army left in Britain. Boudicca thought that if she could defeat this army, Britain would be free of the Romans. As with all the history from this era, we only have a Roman viewpoint. We are told that Gaius Suetonius Paulinus took the high ground with trees behind him, infantry in the middle and cavalry on either side. Boudicca had a loose formation of chariots, and it is from her own chariot, beside her two daughters, that we hear (from Tacitus) her famous speech.
‘This is not the first time that the Britons have been led to battle by a woman. You must either win on this battlefield or die. This is my resolve and I am a woman; you men may live and be slaves.'
The Britons made the error of attacking up hill and Suetonius launched a wedge of infantry at them, sending them into retreat. They collided with their own chariots and the Romans slaughtered all they could find. Paulinus gained reinforcements from Rome to properly subdue the Britons, and set about tracking down and punishing anyone found guilty of disloyalty to Rome. The rebellion was over, but there was uncertainty about Boudicca’s death. Some accounts tell of her drinking poison, but others talk of an illness and subsequent death. Dio comments that she was given a lavish burial by the Celts.
An earlier Celtic queen under Roman rule was Cartimandua - 'Sleek Pony' - of the Brigantes tribe (northern England). Cartimandua was powerful and rich and had decided to become a ‘client ruler’ rather than risk everything by opposing the Romans. However, in AD 48 there was a rebellion in a part of her kingdom and the rebels were disrupting the Roman invasion of Wales under Caratacus, putting Cartimandua in a very difficult position.
Ostorius Scapula finally beat Caratacus’s army, but he escaped and sought political asylum with Cartimandua. Ignoring the Celtic law of hospitality, Cartimandua handed Caratacus and his family over to the Romans, where they were held as prisoners in Rome until their death.
Cartimandua married Venutius but their relationship deteriorated after only a few years, when Venutius tried to incite a rebellion against his wife. Cartimandua, ever mindful of her power, asked the Romans under Caesius Nasica to quash the rebellion.
Cartimandua offered no aid to Boudicca in her rebellion of 61 AD and was eventually ousted from power by Venutius when she divorced him in favour of his armour bearer. The Romans rescued Cartimandua and her new husband Vellocatus from the Brigantes, but she disappears from history at that point.
Some historians have suggested she may have fled to Ireland with some of her followers, as there was also a tribe called the Brigantes around Wicklow.
Elen Luyddog was the daughter of the British chief of Segontium (Caernarfon) during the Romano-Celtic years of the fourth century AD. Elen fell in love with and married Magnus Maximus, the Celto-Iberian general of the Roman army in Britain. Rome was weakening at this point and the Romans were no longer interested in the British outpost.
Magnus was a great leader and extremely popular with his men. He invaded and annexed Gaul and Iberia and they named him Emperor of the West. An early Christian, he was approved of by the church and converted Elen to Christianity. Despite having many children, Elen was an extremely active figure in the intellectual life of the court and became a fervent Christian.
When her husband decided to cross the Alps in 387 AD, he created a much more serious threat to Emperor Theodosius, and great territory struggles ensued. In battle, Maximus bore the standard of a red dragon on a purple background, the possible origin of the Welsh flag. Maximus was betrayed, captured and executed in 388 AD, and Elen left Gaul for Britain. Here, she continued her work for both church and Britain, establishing churches and building roads. These works were carried out by her husband’s remaining men who had stayed loyal to her, the roads called Sarn Elen or Sarn Helen in her honour. One 160-mile long footpath in west Wales, between Caerhun in the north and Carmarthen in the south, is still called Sarn Elen.
Many of Elen’s children went on to greatness. Three sons became rulers of various tribes in Wales; another son ruled the Isle of Man and her daughter Sevira married Vortigern - High King of Britain and betrayer of the Celts to the Saxons.
Nest was another great beauty and manipulator of men:
‘Men killed for her, went to war for her and were outlawed for desiring her.’
12th Century Welsh Chronicles
She was the daughter of the King of Dyfed in South Wales, who had died in battle against the Normans in 1090. Nest’s brother Gruffydd ap Rhys had been taken to Ireland for his safety, but Nest was sent as a hostage to Henry I (son of William the Conqueror), with whom she had an affair. After bearing him a son, Henry FitzHenry, Nest returned to Dyfed and found that the Normans had tamed it.
To protect herself and her interests, Nest married Gerald of Windsor. He was a Norman who ruled Pembroke Castle on behalf of Henry, and they had five children. One night, however, she was brutally raped and kidnapped by her own cousin Owain, who had fallen madly in love with her. Owain hatched a mad plan that resulted in him sacking the castle and escaping with Nest and three of her children to his home in Powys.
After some political damage limitation, Cadwgan, Owain’s father, restored the hostages to Gerald. However he was forced to banish his son to Ireland, never to return to Wales. Owain did return though, and fought with the Welsh against the Normans.
When Gerald died, Nest married Stephen, the Constable of Cardigan castle, bearing yet another son. Nest’s strength, cunning and fertility made her the mother of three important British and Irish Celtic families: The FitzHenrys, the FitzGeralds, and the FitzStephens.