The Dynevors

Middle Ages & Dinefwr Castle

The early history of the Rhys/Rice/Dynevor dynasty (ie pre-12th century) is mostly based on conjecture and legend, there being no written records to confirm whatever the imagination has embroidered on time's blank spaces. The legendary part of the ancestry claims a 6th century origin in Uryan Rheged, Lord of Kidwelly, Carunllou, and Iskennen in South Wales. He supposedly married Margaret La Faye, daughter of Gerlois, Duke of Cornwall, and is even credited with building the castle of Carreg Cennen in Carmarthenshire. He had originally been a prince of the North Britons, which included modern-day Cumbria, Strathcyde and Edinburgh, but was expelled by the Saxons in the 6th century and fled to Wales. And if that's not enough, Uryan Rheged's great-great-grandfather is claimed to have been Coel Codevog, King of the Britons. Coel, who lived in the 3rd century A.D., seems to be the original of the nursery song, 'Old King Cole.' (See The Annotated Mother Goose, William S. and Cecil Baring-Gould, Clarkson N. Potter, 1962.) Well maybe; or then again, maybe not.

Burke's Peerage and Baronetage, that bible for the aristocratically inclined, is more circumspect however, and has this to say about the claims for such an early ancestry:

The Rices (later Rhyses) have in their time claimed descent from URIEN RHEGED, ruler of an area called Rheged on the English-Scottish borders in the late 6th century. But the known chronology does not fit. Indeed the descent may be from a much later Urien.

The Lord Rhys

Whoever was the Dynevors’ ancestor, the name 'Uryan' has been retained as part of their family name to this day (the 10th and current Baron Dynevor is Hugo Griffith Uryan Rhys). Burke's Peerage goes on to list the earliest known ancestor of the family as being one Einon ap Llywarch, born circa 1150. But early Dinefwr will always be associated with the twelfth century Rhys ap Gruffydd (c. 1129 - 1197) who was most definitely a historical figure. Rhys was one of the few Welsh Princes to regain territory lost to the Normans. Deheubarth (roughly modern Dyfed) was overrun by the Normans in 1093, remaining in their possession until 1155. Although Rhys and his brothers regained land from the English in Carmarthenshire, Cardiganshire and Glamorgan, they still had to rule under the overlordship of King Henry II (reigned 1154 - 1189), so that in 1158 Rhys ap Gruffydd submitted to Henry and was forced by him to drop the title of Brenin (King), being known as Yr Arglwydd Rhys (The Lord Rhys), though from surviving documents Rhys styled himself Princeps, ie Prince. While Henry lived, Rhys was a trusted agent and ally, dispelling much nationalist assumption of later centuries that Welsh Princes were unwilling subjects of the Anglo-Normans. (Lord Rhys's great-grandson, Rhys ap Maredudd - died 1291 - even fought alongside Edward I against the Welsh, being given Dryslwyn Castle as his reward.) For his part, the Lord Rhys was content to make the most of his relationship with the king, even going to war against fellow Welsh princes with the Crown's support, but he continued to think and act as an independent Welsh prince. By the time of his death in 1197 he had been an active participant in war and politics, and the dominant ruling prince in Wales, for more than forty years.

He governed his principality from two centres, the formidable hilltop fortress of Dinefwr high above the river Towy in Llandeilo and Cardigan Castle, rebuilt by him in stone and mortar in 1171, demonstrating that the Welsh could imitate the Normans when occasion demanded. Interestingly, Cardigan was the first recorded Welsh masonry castle; that is, the first stone castle built by the native princes of Wales and it remained the property of the Lord Rhys until his death in 1197. It was at Cardigan Castle that Lord Rhys organised what is recognised as the first ever national Eisteddfod in 1176. (While the winner of the chair for music was a minstrel from Rhys's own household, the poets of Gwynedd won the bardic chair, revealing the cultural and linguistic, if not political, unity of Wales at that time.) It was the Lord Rhys who possibly built the first castle at Carreg Cennen near Llandeilo, though historians are not in complete agreement on this. The impressive stone structure that now stands 300 feet above the river Cennen, watching over five counties, was erected by Edward I around 1300 AD.

According to another of the legends attached to Dinefwr Castle it was built by Rhodri Mawr, King of Wales in the 9th century. By 950 AD, it was thought that Dinefwr was the principal court from which Hywel Dda ("The Good") ruled a large part of Wales including the southwest area known as Deheubarth, roughly the area of the recent Dyfed County Council (Carmarthenshire, Pembrokeshire and Cardiganshire) Hywel's great achievement was to create the country's first uniform legal system, which stood until Henry VIII's Acts of Union between 1536 and 1543 replaced them with English codes of law.

This legend was until recently also the received historical opinion, but has now been rejected by modern historians in favour of the following one expressed in the wonderful 'Castles of Wales' website (better than NASA, honest):

The Welsh lawbooks of the medieval period, the earliest of which is a text of the 13th century, accorded to Dinefwr a special status as the principal court of the Kingdom of Deheubarth ... The phraseology of the lawyers' statements may give Dinefwr an aura of antiquity, but written sources do not suggest that the castle has any history earlier than the 12th century. The earliest reference to the castle at Dinefwr in historical sources belongs to the period of Rhys ap Gruffydd, the Lord Rhys. One of the greatest Welsh leaders of the 12th century, Rhys ap Gruffydd was able to withstand the power of the Anglo-Norman lords of the March, supported on occasion by the intervention of King Henry II (reigned 1154-89) of England, and recreate the kingdom. He was then able to take advantage of the king's more conciliatory policy in the period after 1171 to maintain stable authority for many years. Deheubarth flourished over a period of relative peace and general harmony, with Welsh culture and religious life, as well as legal and administrative affairs, all benefiting from Rhys's patronage and self-assured governance.

But not for long. After the death of this great ruler, conflict over the succession arose between his sons, and thereafter the important castle figures repeatedly in the turbulent years of dynastic struggles between the Welsh princes, and the wars between the Welsh and the English in the late 12th and early 13th centuries. In 1213, for instance, Lord Rhys's youngest son, Rhys Gryg (Rhys the hoarse - what a wonderful image that conjures), was besieged in the castle by two of Lord Rhys's grandsons. This wasn't unusual for the times though - Lord Rhys himself had once been attacked and imprisoned by two of his own sons, Maelgwn and Hywel, in 1194. We are also told, that Rhys Gryg was forced to dismantle Dinefwr Castle by Llywelyn the Great, prince of Gwynedd, who became pre-eminent in the area in the early 13th century. But all this chaotic squabbling was to cease, dramatically and suddenly, after the death of Henry III in 1272. His son Edward I now came to the English throne and within five years had destroyed the power of the Welsh princes. In 1276 an English army under Pain de Chaworth was assembled at Carmarthen, and Welsh resistance crumbled. Rhys Wedrod placed Dinefwr in the king's hands in 1277, and from this time the castle remained largely in possession of the English crown.

But that is not to say its history ceased with this calamity; far from it, as Cambria Archaeology informs us:

Extensive repairs and additions were made to the castle by the English Crown in the 1280s. During latter years of Welsh rule a small settlement - 'Trefscoleygyon' or 'vill of the clerks' - developed outside the castle. By 1294 the town of Dinefwr had 26 burgages, a weekly market and annual fair. The end of the 13th century saw Dinefwr become a twin-town. This consisted of an 'old' town on the hill containing 11 Welsh burgesses [ie modern Llandeilo town], and a 'new' town - soon to be called 'Newton' - containing 35 burgesses of mostly English descent. Newton was located some distance away on the site of the later mansion, Newton House. In 1310 the castle, towns and demesne of Dinefwr were granted to Edmund Hakelut and later to his son. The Hakelut family held their position, apart from a short break, until 1360. Repairs to the castle were carried out under the Hakeluts. A survey of 1360 indicates that Newton was a successful settlement with 46 burgesses. A charter was granted to the towns in 1363, but this seems to have marked a high point in the towns' fortunes.

The castle and towns were besieged in 1403 during the Glyndwr rebellion. Following the revolt the towns and castle were granted to Hugh Standish. The Standish family had little interest in south Wales, and both the castle and towns went into decline. In 1433 responsibility for the towns and castle was separated, and the towns and demesne were granted to John Perrot. His cousin married Gruffydd ap Nicholas, and so began the long association with the Gruffydd family. By the time that Gruffydd ap Nicholas's grandson, Rhys ap Gruffydd, was attainted of treason in 1531 his family had built a mansion among the ruins of the former town of Newton, although 'Newton' was still marked on Saxton's map of Carmarthenshire of 1578. The age of the towns and castle had come to an end.

Note: a 'burgage' was a tenure of land in a town on a yearly rent.

Dinefwr Castle was finally abandoned in the 15th century in favour of the more convenient site of the first Newton House lower down. (It was in this century that castles ceased to have significant military value - the earlier invention of gunpowder and cannons had seen to that.) As if to emphasize this, a purely decorative summer house was added about 1660 to the top of the circular medieval keep, the remains of which still survive. The age of the style guru had finally arrived.

Paining od Dinefwr Castle
Dinefwr Castle from the south in 1660 by an unknown artist. The decorative summer house can be seen on top of the circular keep and the building which pre-dated the modern Newton House is in the distance, middle right. Llandeilo Bridge (in reality a mile upstream) can be seen bottom right. (Nat. Lib. of Wales, Welsh Folk Museum)