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Yr Hen Iaith part thirty eight: The heart’s desires vs. a father’s expectations

15 Apr 2024 8 minute read
Alis Ferch Gruffudd. Illustration by Efa Lois for Prosiect Drudwen

We continue the history of Welsh literature as Jerry Hunter guides fellow academic Richard Wyn Jones through the centuries in a series of lively podcasts.  This article complements episode 38.

Jerry Hunter

The Poetry of Alis ferch Gruffudd

As was stressed in episode twenty-seven of this series, one of the most exciting developments in Welsh scholarship during the past quarter century has been the attention given to poetry composed by women which had been previously ignored or censored.

In this episode we focus on a dynamic female poet from the sixteenth century, Alis ferch Gruffudd ab Ieaun ap Llywelyn Fychan, or Alis Wen as she is sometimes called.

Hers is one of the most arresting, original and personable voices which we can hear in the vast body of Welsh poetry surviving from the sixteenth century.

Alis was born at an unknown date early in the sixteenth century. Her mother was Sioned, daughter of Richard Mostyn (also known as Rhisiart ap Hywel), an extremely influential uchelwr with considerable property in north-east Wales who was intensely engaged in the maintenance of traditional Welsh literary culture.

In addition to being an active bardic patron, Richard Mostyn was one of those responsible for presiding over the 1523 Caerwys Eisteddfod. Alis’s father Gruffudd ab Ieuan was also connected with this landmark eisteddfod.

A family such as the Mostyns were very selective in arranging marriages for their children, and it comes as no surprise to learn that Gruffudd was an influential uchelwr in his own right.

He was also a poet, and example of bardd yn canu ar ei fwyd ei hun, ‘a poet singing on his own food’, an amateur poet who composed for enjoyment, not profit.

It is very likely that Gruffudd taught his daughter Alis to use cynghanedd and compose at least one of the traditional strict metres in which that complex internal line ornamentation is required, the englyn unodol union.

There are references suggesting that her two sisters learned the art as well, but none of their compositions have survived.

One short poem by Alis is described in a manuscript heading thus:

Englynion merch ifanc pan ofynnodd ei thad iddi pa sawl ŵr a fynnai hi gael, ‘englynion by a young woman when her father asked her what kind of man she’d like to get’. The first englyn gives the woman’s reply:

Hardd, medrus, campus, pes caid, – a dewr
             I daro o bai raid;
  Mab o oedran cadarnblaid
  A gŵr o gorff gorau a gaid.

‘Handsome, capable, dexterous, if such a one could be had – and brave
For striking if need be;
A boy of sturdy make
And a man with the best body to be had.’

Voice of protest

It makes perfect sense from our perspective in the twenty-first century that a young woman might want a good-looking young man with a good body for a husband.

However, the two simple facts that Alis voiced this desire in poetry and that this poetry has survived is striking; we have very few direct records of the opinions of Welsh women from the period and most surviving texts discussing women place them soundly in the confined female roles dictated by the patriarchy.

Alis’s voice comes to us as a protest ringing down through the centuries, one memorable for a wording which combines witty artistry with a bold forthrightness.

The second englyn in this poem contrasts her desire with her father’s wishes:

Fy nhad a ddywede im hyn  – mai gorau   
im garu dyn gwrthun,
A’r galon sydd yn gofyn
Gwas glân hardd, ysgafn ei hun.

‘My father would say this to me – that it’s better
for me to love a repugnant man,
But the heart itself asks for
A handsome comely, gentle lad.’

We know that Alis married Dafydd Llwyd ap Rhys of Y Faenol, but as we don’t know her exact age, it’s hard to ascertain to what extent she was indeed forced to marry a ‘repugnant’ old man by her father.

However, the norm was that a young woman in an uchelwr family did not select her own husband on the basis of love and desire, and it is that social reality which makes her poetic protestations all the more powerful.


When Alis’s mother died, her father sought to remarry and, as was common for men in his position, he sought a younger wife who could bear him more children.

Another of her poems recorded in manuscript also asks us to imagine a dialogue about marriage which took place between the father and daughter.

The manuscript heading is again important:  I’w thad yn ŵr gweddw ac yntau yn amcanu priodi merch ifanc pan ofynnodd iddi, ‘Beth a ddowedi am hon yr wy’ yn amcanu ei phriodi?’ (‘To her father when he was a widower and he was intending to marry a young woman, when he asked her [Alis], “What have you to say about the one I am intending to marry?”’).

Not mincing her words, Alis tells her father (in the poem’s reconstructed conversation) that a young ‘lass’ (llances) such as his intended bride ‘would want to get something different’ (a fynne gael amgen), adding pointedly: ‘You for your part, my father, have become old!’ (Chwithe, ‘nhad, aethoch yn hen!).

Alis then drives the point home in another englyn which describes her father as a [c]leiriach, ‘a decrepit old man’, telling him that he is ‘now without the ability’ (bellach heb allu) to do anything other than struggle across the floor and get into bed (Ond o’r barth i’r gwely).

Also calling him ‘a weak man’ (gwannwr), she says with words which are acerbically funny and remarkably bold that her father won’t be able to have sexual relations with his young wife anyway.

A longer series of englynion by Alis might in fact have been a joint composition with her two sisters. At the very least, it asks us to hear a plurality of female voices, the three sisters singing together and addressing three young men.

While all we have are the words on manuscript pages, these words inspire us to imagine a performative context and see Alis and her two sisters standing in the hall of their family’s plas, perhaps singing to the accompaniment of a harp and entertaining a small audience of family and guests, including the three young men.


The first line of the opening englyn describes these possible suitors using heroic descriptions common in traditional praise poetry: Tri gwalch, tri alarch, tri eryr – tri llew  (‘three hawks, three swans, three eagles, three lions’).

They are also described as ‘merry ones’ (llawen) and as ‘stags’ ([c]eirw), who are examples to ‘their countrymen’ (eu gwladwyr).

An extended metaphor is then woven, describing these young men’s pursuit of the three sisters in terms of three hunters chasing tair ewig, three female deer:

Mae afon, a bron, a brig – y coedydd
Yn cadw tair ewig;
 A heddiw ni ŵyr bonheddig
 Na’u cael, na phrofi mo’u cig.

‘River, hill and the roof of trees
Protects three does;
And today the gentlemen do not know
How to get them or how to taste their flesh.’


Deer hunting was a sport enjoyed by the upper echelons of society, and the deer, once tracked down and killed, were of course eaten.

Given the real subject at hand here, the statement that the young men don’t know how to get these young women and thus won’t ‘taste their flesh’ is imaginatively provocative.

Real deer scatter when hunted, and the hunter decides which fleeing animal to pursue. This poem has the three sisters expressing solidarity in resounding terms:

Nid un a fynnen ni fod, /  Tair ohonyn’ sydd hynod (‘We do not want to be singled out / The three of us are special’). Finally, the metaphor which has been driving much of this poem is exploded artfully in way which makes an emphatic point:

Nid â chŵn y mae i chwi – eu hela,
Nid hwylus mo rheiny.
Gore it cyngor bwyntmannu
Mewn coed, heb ollwng un ci!

‘It is not with dogs that you hunt them,
They are not useful [for that].
The best advice for you is to arrange a date
In the woods, without loosing one dog.’

Macho behaviour

The young men are advised to put aside their macho behaviour and stop trying to pursue women as if they were hunting animals!

Invoking the lovers’ tryst in the woods so often described in Welsh love poetry from the fourteenth century onwards, Alis (and her sisters) tell the young men that, rather than trying to get a woman with muscle they should simply talk to her and arrange a date.

Further Reading:

Gwen Saunders Jones, Alis ferch Gruffudd a’r Traddodiad Barddol Benywaidd (2015).

Cathryn Charnell-White (ed.), Beirdd Ceridwen: Blodeugerdd Barddas o Ganu Menywod hyd tua 1800 (2005).

Katie Gramich a Catherine Brennan (eds.), Welsh Women’s Poetry 1460-2001: An Anthology (2003).

Catch up with all the previous episodes in this series here

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