Owain Gwynedd & Rhys ap Gruffudd
The term "The Anarchy" has been given to the tumultuous period following the death of Henry I in 1135. Henry's heir was his daughter Matilda, but many English barons refused to support her claims and threw their weight behind her cousin, Stephen.
The battle for the crown between Stephen and Matilda (Maud) raged on for 19 years. Maud's most powerful supporter was her half-brother, Robert of Gloucester, a Marcher Lord himself.
The Marcher Lords took full advantage of the turmoil of the Anarchy to bolster their own strength and further their independence from the English crown. Yet the very lack of royal authority that gave them the chance to build their own power was also the biggest threat to that power.
The Welsh also took advantage of the turmoil to regain some of the lands lost to the Normans. One of the strongest figures in this latest Welsh resurgence was Owain ap Gruffudd (Owain Gwynedd).
The son of Gruffudd ap Rhys, Owain and his brothers pushed the Normans out of much of Deheubarth and Dyfed. By 1153 they added Ceredigion to their reconquest.
For the remaining 17 years of his life, Owain ap Gruffudd ruled Gwynedd and even managed to extend his control east into Chester and to annex parts of Powys. This last would bring him into conflict with the strength of the new English king, Henry II.
When Henry II took the English throne in 1154, he inherited a nation torn by war and constant turmoil. But Henry was not cut from the same cloth as his predecessors; he was a strong leader at just the right time for England - and just the wrong time for Wales.
When the king of Powys, Madog ap Maredudd, began losing territory to Owain Gwynedd, he turned to the new English king for help. Madog was willing to acknowledge Henry's overlordship in exchange for military support in his struggle with Owain.
For this act, Madog and Powys were later declared traitors to the cause of Welsh nationalism, but at the time there really was no such animal; Wales was still a collection of small kingdoms with regional interests, and Madog was doing his best to protect those interests with English help.
In 1157 Henry marched into Wales to do battle with Owain. He received Owain's (temporary) submission and pushed on to Deheubarth, where he contained Rhys ap Gruffudd, but could not defeat him. For the next six years, Rhys remained a constant thorn in Henry's side.
But Rhys was not the last of Henry's problems; his battle with Thomas a Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, distracted his attention from the situation in Wales. The Welsh for once managed to unite under the leadership of Owain Gwynedd and regained the territory they had earlier lost to Henry. Owain even managed to destroy the royal castle at Rhuddlan. Henry sent troops into Wales against Owain, but his army was soundly beaten in the Berwyn Mountains.
While Owain was holding Henry's attention in the north, his old enemy Rhys was equally active in the south. Rhys captured Ceredigion, and pressured the Normans in Dyfed. He distracted the Norman lords by encouraging them to invade Ireland, which they did with enthusiasm.
Henry II was not likely to meekly accept his barons gaining territory and power; he simply claimed their conquests as his own. But the apparent success of Rhys ap Gruffudd in focussing Norman attention on Ireland proved to be a two-edged sword; once the Normans eventually established a base of power in Dublin, they were able to threaten Wales from two sides! In the short term, however, Rhys looked like a master strategist.
Rhys ap Gruffudd's Rise
Henry II realised that he needed a counterweight to the power of his own lords in Wales and now in Ireland. So he moved to turn an enemy into an ally. Henry appointed Rhys ap Gruffudd as his justice in south Wales, recognized Rhys' right to the territories he controlled and made the southern Welsh lords Rhys' vassals. With the death of Owain Gwynedd in 1170, Rhys ap Gruffudd now bestrode the Welsh world.
At this point in Welsh history a peculiar change took place. Over the course of a generation, it seems that the Welsh kings, of which there were many, were replaced by Welsh princes, of which there only two worth noting, in Gwynedd and Deheubarth. Even the rulers of once-powerful Powys had to be content with the second-rate title of "lord".