Caraf y gaer falchweith or gyfyllchi,
"I love a well-built, circular fortress
Hywel ap Owain Gwynedd
Known as the "Poet-Prince," Hywel ap Owain Gwynedd (born ca. 1120) occupies a key position in the history of Welsh poetry. His father was the powerful Owain Gwynedd, the prince of North Wales who staved off encroachment by English colonists for over a generation. His mother was an Irish concubine of Owain's by the name Pyfog. After the untimely death of his older brother Rhun in 1146, Hywel, as the next eldest son, became his father's heir. Upon Owain Gwynedd's death in 1170, Hywel succeeded to the rule of the principality of North Wales.
Hywel ap Owain's life ended tragically. Not long after his succession of his father, he was the target of a conspiracy led by his stepmother Cristin and his half-brothers Dafydd, Cynan, and Rhodri. Forced to flee to Ireland, where he had maternal kin, Owain soon returned to Wales with a small expeditionary force. He met his brothers in battle on the island of Anglesey but was killed in the fray.
Throughout his lifetime, Hywel ap Owain was known to compose poetry, and he is one of only two medieval Welsh princes whose poetry has been preserved (the other is Owain Cyfeiliog of Powys). His eight surviving pieces are especially significant to the history of Welsh poetry because Hywel was the first recorded Welshman to move beyond the standard poetic genres of elegy and panegyric and compose love poems. And these poems are strangely tender and compelling even to this day. His praise of his beloved is mingled with praise for the more traditional subjects of Welsh verse: fine fortresses, horses, brave warriors, generous lords. Yet the contrast between these subjects -- the lovely girl on the one hand, the splendor of a war-host on the other -- is not at all jarring, instead striking the reader with a sense of the poet's vivid sincerity.
Scholars are unclear how and why love poetry emerged in Wales at this time, the mid-twelfth century. One theory is that Hywel ap Owain Gwynedd was influenced by French models, the poetry of courtly love being all the vogue in the courts of the Plantagenets at this time. Another theory holds that his love poetry is an independent, native development; one might note the parallel emergence of the love poetry of Archilochus and Sappho from Greek heroic poetry in the seventh century BCE. In either case, Hywel's small corpus of surviving verse, understudied and underappreciated, stands as some of the finest medieval Welsh poetry, and Hywel ap Owain Gwynedd proves a worthy predecessor of the great fourteenth-century love-poet, Dafydd ap Gwilym.
- Andrew Breeze, Medieval Welsh Literature (Four Courts Press, 1997)
- J. Lloyd-Jones, The Court Poets of the Welsh Princes (G. Cumberlege, 1948)
- John J. Parry, "The Court Poets of the Welsh Princes," Publications of the Modern Language Association 67 (1952): 511-520.