The Aquisition of lands
Gruffydd ap Nicholas (1400 - 1461)
When Edward I dispossessed the medieval Rhys family of their kingdom in 1277, their lands remained in the possession of the various Kings of England for almost 200 years. But eventually another Welshman, Henry Tudor (who was born and raised in Pembroke Castle), became Henry the Seventh of England (born 1457, reigned 1485 - 1509) and he returned the lands into Welsh hands. During the intervening two centuries one local Welsh family, that of Gruffydd ap Nicholas and his sons, had become pre-eminent in the Towy valley area and in 1440 he started to lease Dinefwr Castle and its lands from the crown, while accumulating other estates and properties at the same time. Gruffydd and his numerous sons became the most powerful native Welsh family during the mid-15th century, ruling effectively - and occasionally violently - with little control from a King (Henry VI) who, in between bouts of madness, was otherwise occupied with losing his possessions in France and his crown in England. In 1461 the Yorkist Edward, Duke of March became Edward IV of England when he seized the throne from the Lancastrian Henry VI. During this period of dynastic turmoil Gruffydd himself was killed at the Battle of Mortimer's Cross in 1461, and for their support of the defeated Lancastrians his sons forfeited the family's extensive lands from 1461 onwards. (But not before two of them, Thomas and Owain, had held Carreg Cennen Castle against a Yorkist onslaught of 200 men in 1462, only surrendering after a siege. To ensure no such resistance occurred again Carreg Cennen's fortifications were destroyed afterwards. It has never been occupied since.)
Sir Rhys ap Thomas (1449 - 1525)
The family's fortunes may have looked bleak during the Yorkist occupation of the throne from 1461 but one of Gruffydd ap Nicholas's grandsons, Rhys ap Thomas, was waiting patiently in the wings and would soon become the most prominent member of this extraordinary clan, directly ancestral to the modern Dynevors (see Burke's Peerage.) When Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond (who was distantly related to Rhys ap Thomas), seized the English throne from Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, Rhys ap Thomas's fortunes were to change dramatically. Richard's death on a muddy Leicestershire field marked the end of the thirty year dynastic struggle later historians have called the 'Wars of the Roses' and Henry, now King, gave Dinefwr Castle and its lands to Rhys ap Thomas. Rhys had raised an army in support of Henry in 1485 so the restoration of the lands was his reward, as was the knighthood granted by Henry just three days after Bosworth.
A biography of Rhys ap Thomas written about 1625 claimed it was he who actually struck down and killed Richard, though contemporary history is silent on who actually struck the fatal blow. "King Richard, as a just guerdon [reward] for all his facinorouse [vile] actions and horrible murders, being slain in the field. Our Welch tradition says that Rhys ap Thomas slew Richard, manfully fighting with him hand to hand." ('Sir Rhys ap Thomas and his Family', Ralph A. Griffiths, University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 1993, page 229 - 230.)
(Shakespeare in his play Richard III has Henry Tudor himself kill Richard, but historical accuracy was often sacrificed for dramatic effect by Shakespeare.) Walk in the main courtyard of Dinefwr Castle today and you could conceivably claim to be standing literally in the footsteps of the man who dispatched an English King to the next world. And as you look out from the castle you could just as easily imagine Rhys's army passing within view of the ramparts on its way to join Henry in August 1485.
The armies of Henry and Rhys formed a pincer movement that started from south west Wales. Rhys and his men (which included 500 cavalry) began their historic campaign at Carmarthen, marching eastwards along the Tywi Valley through Llandeilo and Llandovery, then turning north at Brecon to meet up with Henry's army near Shrewsbury on 13th August 1485. Henry and his forces, which started off as a mixed Scots, French and English army, had landed from France at Milford Haven on 7th August 1485. From here they marched up the west coast of Wales, gathering Welsh support as they went, before turning east at Machynllech and joining the rest of their supporters, by now augmented by Monmouthshire and north Walean contingents (the Tudor line - also spelled Tudur and Tewdur - originated in Anglesey.) These combined forces, crucially strengthened by various English magnates and their troops (Henry was after all making a bid to depose the King of England), finally engaged with Richard at Bosworth Field on 22nd August 1485.
Rhys's loyalty to Henry once he became King was not something that could have been predicted before that date however: he had initially made a sworn oath of fidelity to Richard III (and in February 1484 had been granted an annuity for life by him) but he must have weighed up each's chances of victory and decided that Henry looked the better bet. He was proved right, and prospered accordingly when Henry's forces romped home on Bosworth Field that fateful August day. The oath he was supposed to have made to Richard was, according to a legend which has found its way down the ages: "Whoever ill-affected to the state, shall dare to land in those parts of Wales where I have any employment under your majesty, must resolve with himself to make his entrance and irruption over my belly." The story is told that after Henry Tudor's return to Britain (at Dale, Pembrokeshire, in 1485) Rhys eased his conscience by hiding under Mullock Bridge, Dale, as Henry marched over, thus absolving himself of his oath to Richard. Of such stuff are legends made and the story, though not necessarily true, seems rather too good not to repeat.
Opportunism, not loyalty, seemed to be the motive that spurred others, not just Rhys, to join Henry. His step-father Thomas, Lord Stanley and his brother Sir William Stanley had raised 8,000 troops between them in the name of Richard, not Henry. But neither Henry nor Richard knew for certain on whose side the Stanley brothers intended to intervene and when William Stanley eventually committed his 3,000 troops for Henry, it was after the main battle had started. Thomas Stanley and his 5,000 men remained aloof throughout the fray, though the knowledge that Richard held his son hostage would easily explain such reticence. (See John Davies, 'A History of Wales', page 218.)
For his support, Henry showered titles and rewards on Rhys ap Thomas for the rest of his life, who was made Governor of all Wales amongst many other lucrative appointments. A biography of Rhys written in the early 17th century by a descendent of his, one Henry Rice, lists Rhys's titles as: "Rice ap Thomas, Knight, Constable and Lieutenant of Breconshire; Chamberlain of Carmarthenshire and Cardiganshire; Seneschall and Chancellor of Haverfordwest, Rouse and Builth; Justiciar of South Wales, and Governor of all Wales; Knight Bannerett, and Knight of the Most Honourable Order of the Garter; a Privy Councellor to Henry VII, and a favorite to Henry VIII." ['Sir Rhys ap Thomas and his Family', Ralph A. Griffiths, University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 1993, page 148.]
Rhys came to Henry's aid many times during his reign, notably in 1487 and 1497 when he commanded armies that put down rebellions against the still-new Tudor rule. Rhys even lived long enough to render service to Henry's son, Henry VIII, who at the age of twenty-two invaded France in 1513 and defeated the French at the 'Battle of the Spurs' in Artois. Rhys, aged about 65, was in attendance on that day twenty-eight years after the battle that inaugurated the age of the Tudors. Rhys ap Thomas (born 1449) died in 1525 and his tomb can still be seen today in St Peter's Church, Carmarthen, after being moved from Carmarthen Priory where he was originally buried. Also buried at this priory were the remains of Henry VII's father, Edmund Tudor, who died in November 1456, just two months before Henry's own birth in January 1457. (Edmund's tomb was removed to St David's Cathedral on the dissolution and destruction of Carmarthen Priory, ironically by his own grandson, Henry VIII.) Edmund Tudor had been created Earl of Richmond by Henry VI and the title therefore passed to his son Henry Tudor at birth. Henry had been brought up by his father's brother, Jasper Tudor, whom Henry VI had created Earl of Pembroke. Henry VI was in fact the half-brother of Jasper and Edmund Tudor, just one of many examples of how closely related were the leading actors in the Wars of the Roses. It didn't stop them slaughtering each other with almost comical frequency, however. About 60 leading families effectively ran England and Wales at this period, all inter-related by blood or marriage, and it's been estimated that one in ten of their adult males were killed during the Wars of the Roses. (See Lady Catherine Howard below for more examples of such close inter-relatedness.)Top
Rhys ap Gruffydd (1508 - 1531)
The next king after Henry VII, the much more famous (or infamous) Henry VIII (born 1491, reigned 1509 - 1547) reverted to type and seized the lands back from Rhys ap Thomas's grandson, Rhys ap Gruffydd, who was accused of plotting with the King of Scots to overthrow Henry and make himself ruler of Wales. The charges were preposterous and fabricated but it was Rhys's misfortune to be guilty of a crime greater even than treason in Henry's eyes, that of owning extensive estates when Henry was in permanent need of money. Rhys's fate was sealed and he was executed in 1531, having no chance of justice at the hands of a man who would soon behead two of his own wives (Anne Boleyn in 1536 and Catherine Howard in 1542).
It has to be said that at the time of his trial for treason, Rhys ap Gruffydd had already been arrested and imprisoned for various acts of riot against the King's new representative in Wales, Lord Ferrers, which had resulted in several of Ferrer's associates being killed. When Rhys ap Thomas had died in 1525 aged 76, the King awarded most of his titles and powers, not to Rhys's heir, his 17 year old grandson Rhys ap Gruffydd (whose father had died in 1521), but to the Englishman Walter Devereux, Lord Ferrers - and had awarded them for life, at that. For the rest of Gruffydd's short life he harboured a deep grudge against Ferrers and the two were at daggers drawn, in one case quite literally when Rhys burst into Ferrers room in Carmarthen Castle in June 1529 with 40 armed men and threatened Ferrers with a knife. Rhys was arrested and imprisoned in Carmarthen Castle and Rhys's wife, Lady Catherine Howard, then went even further, raising several hundred supporters and storming Carmarthen Castle, demanding Rhys's release and threatening to burn down the castle gates! Some months later she even laid siege to Lord Ferrers and killed several of his men. Stand by your man doesn't even begin to describe it. There were other skirmishes and riotous assemblies during which lives were lost (and Rhys even engaged in piracy from Tenby) so that by October 1431 Rhys was in prison in London, and it was during this period that the additional charges of treason were laid against him.
Lady Catherine Howard was the aunt of two of Henry VIII's future wives, Anne Boleyn and another Catherine Howard, both of whom were beheaded by Henry. As Oscar Wilde might have said: "To lose one niece, Lady Catherine, might be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness." Almost immediately after Rhys ap Gruffydd was executed in 1531 Lady Catherine made a wealthy remarriage to the Earl of Bridgewater but her newly found respectability didn't seem to curb her enthusiasm for plunging headfirst into trouble. In 1542 she was convicted of treason herself for covering up the adultery of her niece and namesake Catherine Howard, the 5th wife of Henry VIII, who had just been beheaded for this offence. Lady Catherine's lands were briefly confiscated on her conviction but were returned to her when she was pardoned in 1543. She died in 1553. (The full story can be found in Chapter 4, 'Crisis and Catastrophe', of Ralph A Griffiths excellent book 'Rhys ap Thomas and his Family', University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 1993.)
Despite Rhys ap Gruffydd's high-handed and unruly behaviour (to put it mildly) it does appear that the charges he was actually executed for were trumped up (the others certainly weren't). As Ralph A Griffiths in 'Rhys ap Thomas and his Family' sums up:
Rhys's execution ... was an act of judicial murder based on charges devised to suit the prevailing political and dynastic situation ... and of developments that in retrospect made him one of the earliest martyrs of the English Reformation
'Rhys ap Thomas and his Family', Ralph A Griffiths, University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 1993, pages 110 and 111)
A 19th century historian neatly sums up all these events thus:
The Dynevor estates were given by Henry VII to Sir Rhys Ab Thomas, and descended with his other possessions to his grandson Rhys AB Gruffydd, from whom, through an act of the most cruel injustice, they again reverted to the crown, in the reign of Henry VIII. Rhys's ancestors had been in the habit of occasionally adding AB Urien, or Fitz Urien, to their names, in conformity to the general Welsh practice, in order to show their descent ['AB' and 'Fitz' both mean 'son of'']. This designation, after being disused for some time, was again adopted, probably in a vain frolic, by young Rhys. The circumstance being reported to the king, and being associated with the immense possessions and unbounded popularity of the family, was construed [by Henry the Eighth] into a design to assert the independence of the principality, and to dissever it from the English government. It was also supposed, without the shadow of proof, that this was part of a concerted plan to depose King Henry, and bring to the English throne James V of Scotland. To increase the absurdity of the whole business, the plot was said to be founded on an old prophecy, that James of Scotland with the bloody hand, and the Raven, which was Rhys's crest, should conquer England. On such frivolous grounds was this young chieftain, himself one of the first commoners in the realm, and connected by marriage with the family of Howard, arraigned for high treason, found guilty, and beheaded.
On the accession of Queen Mary, his son, Gruffydd AB Rhys, had his blood restored, and received back part of the estates; and Charles I relinquished to Sir Henry Rice all that were at that time of them in the hands of the crown. The estates thus restored to the family were valued at about three hundred pounds a year; these constitute their present Welsh territories, and are all that remain to them of the princely possessions of their ancestors.
The house of Dynevor has always held considerable influence in the county [ie Carmarthenshire], and has in several instances furnished its parliamentary representatives. George Rice, who died in 1779, married in 1756 Lady Cecil Talbot, only child of William, Earl Talbot. This nobleman was afterwards created Baron Dynevor, with remainder to his daughter, who, on his death in 1782, became Baroness Dynevor. On the death of her mother in 1787, she took the name and arms of De Cardonel, which are still borne by the family. Her ladyship died on the 14th of March 1793, and was succeeded by her eldest son George Talbot Rice, the present Baron Dynevor [in 1815].
Thomas Rees, The Beauties of England and Wales, 1815. Reprinted in A Carmarthenshire Anthology, edited by Lyn Hughes, Christopher Davies, 1985, pages 107 - 108
Restoration, Rehabilitation ... and murder: Gruffydd Rice (1526 - 1592)
The next generations of the Rice family (as they now styled themselves) concentrated all their efforts on recovering the extensive lands that had been forfeit by Rhys ap Gruffydd's 'treason'. The possessions were so widespread that the King had to send teams of officers to Wales to track down land and properties that were scattered all over the three west Wales counties plus Glamorgan and Breconshire. Most of the confiscated lands were then sold or leased off, often to the Rice's own relatives, with the money going straight into the coffers of the crown. (The family's favoured lands in the Llandeilo and Dryslwyn area were granted to the son of Lord Ferrers, the arch-enemy of Gryffudd's father, which must have rankled.) By the time of Henry VIII's death in 1547 three quarters of all the Rice's Carmarthenshire properties had been disposed of and all the Pembrokeshire ones.
Henry VIII's daughter, Queen Mary (reigned 1553 - 1558), restored some of the lands to the next member of the Rhys family, Gruffyd Rice (though she sold or leased much more to other people) and James I (reigned 1603 - 1625 ) returned some more. Gruffydd Rice (1526 - 1592), the son of the beheaded Rhys ap Gruffydd, is listed in Burke's Peerage as the first member of the family to start using the surname Rice, the anglicised version of Rhys . He appears to have worked hard, first in an attempt to clear his father's name of treason - an important matter to the status-conscious gentry - and then to recover some of the lands of his inheritance. No sooner had this been achieved however, than he rather unwisely embarked on the family hobby - murder - and thus undid all his good work. On a visit in 1557 to County Durham (where he had been brought up as a child in the care of the Bishop of Durham after his father's execution), he conspired with a local woman to murder her husband; the motive has not come down to us but this may be one of those occasions when guesswork might be as accurate as any historical record.
Ralph A Griffiths describes the affair: "Gruffydd and his servant fled to Wales and on the 10th October Gruffydd's lands and properties were seized ... Gruffydd was attainted and forfeited the lands and properties which he had been slowly re-assembling over the past decade. It was a major setback in the campaign of rehabilitation and recovery." (Sir Rhys ap Thomas and his Family', page 120.)
Gruffydd was fortunate to be pardoned in 1559 by the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth (reigned 1558 - 1603) but not surprisingly had little luck with the recovery of his lands. Elizabeth did however return some of his mother's lands in south Pembrokeshire and the Llandeilo and Iscennen (modern Llandybie) estates to Gruffydd in 1560, which amounted to about 1,000 acres in total, little more than today's Dinefwr Park. But in 1623 the next member of the Rice dynasty, Gruffydd's son Walter Rice (1562 - 1636) was granted the Tywi Valley estates in full by James I - but only if he conceded his mother's Pembrokeshire lands.Top
Sir Walter Rice (1562 - 1636)
The past rarely comes down to us without an irony or two to brighten up our day: in 1629 the new King Charles I (reigned 1625 - 1649) granted a petition to Walter Rice for the return of all the lands still in the possession of the Crown - but on the same day (13th January 1629) that the Crown disposed of the last of the Rice's lands, making it now somewhat pointless in seeking their return. Kings do have a sense of humour, it would seem. The Rices did increase their land holdings in later centuries, but by inheritances and judicious marriages such as that into the wealthy Hobby family of Neath Abbey about 1700 and the Talbot family in 1756. Sir Walter Rice, who by all accounts was quite a spendthrift and therefore in constant need of money, had been most persistent, if unsuccessful, in his attempts to persuade, first King James I and then Charles I, to return his inheritance, writing petition after petition in pursuit of his claim. According to Ralph A Griffiths:
He even enlisted an acquaintance, Thomas Jones (died 1609) - the celebrated Twm Sion Cati - who compiled pedigrees for a number of self-regarding Welsh families ... His pedigree for Walter Rice was completed on 22nd March 1605. Its purpose was to display Walter's descent from kings and English noblemen: "descended from seven kings, five dukes, fifteen earls and twelve barons and all but nine descents [ie generations] between the first and the farthest of them.
Sir Rhys ap Thomas and his Family', page 127.
Twm Sion Cati is famous in Welsh legend as a sixteenth century Robin Hood figure who hid in a cave near Rhandirmwyn in the upper Tywi Valley, robbing from the rich to give to the poor, and it would appear he was keeping his hand in even after he became respectable. Compilers of family pedigrees don't appear to have changed much in 400 years - they will still prove your descent from the king or queen of your choice, provided you pay enough for it of course. It was Sir Walter's son, Sir Henry Rice (1590 - 1651), who wrote the biography of Sir Rhys ap Thomas and his family, sometime in the 1620s, in an attempt to rehabilitate the family name, though it was not published until 1796.
The End of an Era
When the executioner's axe fell on the neck of Rhys ap Gruffydd on the morning of 4th December 1531, five generations of rule - and often misrule - by this extraordinary Llandeilo family effectively came to an end. The crown then seized all their lands and possessions, leaving later generations of the family with little of their wealth and none of their power ever again. In the Middle Ages the leading families of Wales were virtually a law unto themselves (and sometimes quite literally so). They ruled more or less as they pleased, free from any constraints from English kings and their leading families, who were often occupied by military campaigns in France during the Hundred Years War (1337 - 1453) and later by dynastic struggles at home. If the long arm of the English law ever reached into Wales, the first generations of the Rhys dynasty (whose circle of family and friends made up the magistracy), usually had no problem evading its clutch. The young and headstrong Rhys ap Gruffydd clearly hadn't realized that times had seriously changed by 1531, when the power of the English state had not only been strengthened but also centralised in the hands of the monarch and his powerful leading ministers.
But not everyone mourned the passing of this family who, for more than a century, were the law in Wales. Those who were on the receiving end of their rise to power rarely had a chance to voice their thoughts. That was left to one Ellis Gruffudd, a Flintshire historian who knew Rhys ap Gruffydd, and had been present when Rhys and Lord Ferrers were hauled before a London court for their various affrays in Carmarthen. Ellis Gruffudd has left us a fitting epitaph for the whole dynasty, not just Rhys ap Gruffydd, for whose execution it was gloatingly written:
And indeed many men regarded his death as Divine retribution for the falsehoods of his ancestors, his grandfather, and great-grandfather, and for their oppressions and wrongs. They had many a deep curse from the poor people who were their neighbours, for depriving them of their homes, lands and riches. For I heard the conversations of folk from that part of the country that no common people owned land within twenty miles from the dwelling of Sir Rhys ap Thomas, that if he desired such lands, he would appropriate them without payment or thanks, and the disinherited doubtless cursed him, his children and his grandchildren, which curses in the opinion of many men fell on the family, according to the old proverb which says - the children of Lies are uprooted, and after oppression comes a long death to the oppressors.
Sir Rhys ap Thomas and his Family', pages 72-73.Top