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Sister of Bran the Blessed, king of Britain/Wales, she is betrothed to Matholwch, the king of Ireland, in an attempt to unify and bring peace between the two countries. However nobody bothered to ask Branwen's brother (Bran's half-brother), Efnysien, what he felt about the arrangement, who promptly goes nuts and humiliates the king of Ireland by mutilating his horses. In order to appease Matholwch, Bran makes a gift of a magical cauldron which can bring the dead back to life, albeit without the ability to talk.

A fragile peace is restored, so Matholwch and Branwen depart for Ireland where they are married and, in due course, have a son and heir, Gwern. Unfortunately the Irish noblemen are still angry over Efnysien's insult to their king and persuade Matholwch to hold Branwen responsible for her brother's actions. She is banished from the royal court to work as a scullery maid in the kitchens, where she receives daily beatings from the butcher. In despair, Branwen befriends a starling and teaches it to carry a message across the sea to Wales to let her brother, Bran, know of her plight.

Learning of her predicament, Bran rallies his armies and sets out across the sea to Ireland. However, he is so huge that no ship can contain him, so he simply wades across. Becoming aware of the advancing army, the Irish sue for peace by building a hall big enough to house the giant Welsh king, but set a trap to kill Bran and his army by hiding warriors inside 'flour bags' hung inside the massive hall. However, Efnysien foils the trap by crushing the heads of the soldiers. To make amends for his actions and the mistreatment of Branwen, Matholwch offers to step down as king and invest their son, Gwern, in his place. Once again a fragile peace is restored, but this is soon shattered when Efnysien throws Gwern into the fire at the feast for his investiture. A bloody battle is joined and although the Welsh fight heroically, the Irish throw their fallen into the magic cauldron, bringing them back to life. Seeing the senseless and massive loss of life, Efnysien is filled with remorse and sacrifices himself, bursting the cauldron asunder. Eventually the battle ends, but the losses are great; virtually none of the Irish, and only seven or the Welsh survive.

Returning to Wales with the seven survivors, Branwen is overcome with grief and dies of a broken heart. She is buried on the banks of the river Alaw near Llanddeusant, Anglesey. Her grave is marked by a cairn, Bedd Branwen, which can be seen to this very day. The single standing stone bears a deep split, which legend says represents her broken heart.