Rhys ap Gruffudd (1131/2-1197)

The Lord Rhys

Rhys ap Gruffudd carving
Lord Rhys was the founder of the first National Eisteddfod in 1176 and this idealised sculpture was made for the National Eisteddfod when it came to Llandeilo in 1996. It now resides in the offices of Carmarthenshire County Council in Llandeilo.

By far the greatest figure to have come from the Llandeilo area was the medieval warrior-prince Rhys ap Gruffudd, or the lord Rhys, as he is often called. In the late twelfth century he was the most powerful of the several native princes ruling the Welsh-speaking area west of Offa's dyke, and he was responsible for the building of Dinefwr Castle high on a crag above the river Tywi at Llandeilo. His rule extended over the Princedom of Deheubarth, the area of south-west Wales approximating to modern Carmarthenshire, Pembrokeshire and Cardiganshire, over which he was the last native prince to exercise unitary rule . Wales was never unified under one Welsh King for more than a few years but was divided into several warring principalities whose various rulers vied with each other for supremacy. Not even the threat of the Normans after 1066, or the English before that, could ever unite these quarrelsome Welsh magnates against a common enemy, making the Normans' task of conquest eventually much easier. Still, it took the successors of William the Conqueror over two hundred years to finally overrun and subdue the whole of Wales.

By the twelfth century much of southern Wales had already been conquered and colonised by the Normans but Rhys was one of the very few native princes to recover land from them after 1155. It's common to call these invaders the English, but the anonymous scribes who wrote the series of medieval Welsh histories known as Brut y Tywysogion (The Chronicles of the Princes) usually referred to them as the French, which is exactly what they were. It wouldn't be until 1399 that an English King, Henry IV, would swear his oath of allegiance in English, and all the early so-called English kings after the Conquest never spoke that language at all.

Such was the chaotic political situation in medieval Wales that Rhys ap Gruffudd was to spend much of his reign fighting other Welsh princes (including his own relatives) as well as the Anglo-Normans. A world in which Rhys was imprisoned by his own sons (and imprisoned them in turn) was considered quite normal for the time, as was Rhys's excommunication for an assault on the Bishop of St David's. Rhys even fought on the side of the English King Henry II in a world where all allegiances were temporary, all allies untrustworthy, and where expediency and self-survival were the only virtues that counted for anything.

This disunity and constant in-fighting amongst the native Welsh rulers would eventually contribute to the final defeat of Wales by Edward I in 1282, after which colonisation followed with an inevitability that was as ruthless and brutal as it was swift. Here, then, is a brief history of the Lord Rhys in which the confused world of medieval politics is revealed in all its murky and tangled glory.

Early Career

Rhys ap Gruffudd, prince of Deheubarth, was the fourth and youngest son of Gruffudd ap Rhys (died 1137) and Gwenllian (died 1136), daughter of Gruffudd ap Cynan.

Rhys became sole ruler of Deheubarth in 1155 but before this he and his elder brothers Cadell and Maredudd had already made their mark in warfare against both the Normans in Dyfed and their own kinsman Hywel ab Owain Gwynedd in Ceredigion (modern Cardiganshire). In 1146 the three brothers captured Llansteffan castle and then in 1150/51 Rhys participated in campaigns that saw the recovery of almost the whole of Ceredigion from the Anglo-Norman occupiers. In 1153 Rhys and Maredudd completed the conquest of Ceredigion and even attacked the Normans at Aberavon, and Cyfeiliog in Powys. When Maredudd died aged 25 in 1155 Rhys succeeded to a kingdom that consisted of Ceredigion, the Tywi valley and Dyfed. The maintenance and consolidation of this restored kingdom of Deheubarth was the principal objective of his long reign.

Relations with Henry II (1156–1171)

To show that warfare in medieval Wales wasn't just about the Welsh versus the English, in 1156 Rhys built a castle at Aberdyfi to defend the northern border of Ceredigion against his own uncle Owain Gwynedd (died 1170). But the real threat that year was the accession of a new King, Henry II, to the throne of England. Henry was determined to support the marcher (ie Norman) lords who'd lost their lands in Deheubarth to Rhys. Rhys''s initial response was a show of defiance against Henry in 1157 but he was forced to submit to the new King the next year, giving homage for Cantref Mawr with its castle of Dinefwr and even surrendering Ceredigion, and Cantref Bach with its caput of Llandovery. Dinefwr, according to late-12th century sources, was the ''principal seat'' of the kingdom of Deheubarth.

Some lands were temporarily won back by Rhys, including Llandovery castle in 1158, but Henry II led a further expedition to south Wales to secure Rhys's submission once more, before departing for the continent in August 1158. Llandovery again fell to Rhys in 1162, but the prince submitted to the king at Pencader and was taken as a prisoner to England where, together with Owain Gwynedd and Malcolm IV of Scotland, he formally submitted to Henry at Woodstock on 1 July 1163.

Rhys was not one to give up, however, and this setback was overturned when Rhys recovered nearly all of Ceredigion in 1164 in revenge for the killing the previous year of his nephew Einion ab Anarawd. Then, in the words of the Welsh chronicle Brut y Tywysogyon, all the Welsh made a pact to drive out the garrisons of the French (Brut: Hergest, 145). In 1165 Rhys joined other Welsh princes to resist Henry II's last campaign against them, which ended in disaster for the king who was forced to retreat to England. Later the same year Rhys completed his conquest of Ceredigion, capturing Cardigan and Cilgerran castles and the prince kept Ceredigion for the rest of his reign. Rhys's military activities were not confined to Deheubarth, though, and in 1166-7 he joined Owain Gwynedd in campaigns that led to the conquest of territories in north-east Wales.

Cordial relations with Henry II (1171–1189)

Until 1171 Rhys's relations with Henry II were marked by defiance and warfare, punctuated by short periods of reluctant submission brought about by threatened or actual military force. But from 1171 Henry's policy changed and he recognised Rhys instead who by now had become the most powerful native Welsh ruler. Rhys's position had been further strengthened when the marcher lords and their knights left the region for Ireland in 1169-1170 to assist Diarmid mac Murchada in the recovery of his kingdom of Leinster. Where military power had failed, Henry's policy of detente succeeded, and the stability it brought lasted for the rest of his reign. On his way to assert his authority over the Anglo-Normans in Ireland in October 1171 Henry met Rhys at Pembroke, confirmed him in possession of Ceredigion and the rest of Deheubarth, and released his son, Hywel Sais, whom he had held hostage. On his return from Ireland after Easter 1172 the king met Rhys again, at Laugharne, and according to Brut y Tywysogyon appointed him 'justice in all south Wales' ( iustus yn holl deheubarth ; Brut: Hergest , 158), thereby probably delegating all authority to Rhys.

As a result of the agreements of 1171-2 it appears that Henry committed himself to uphold Rhys's territorial gains in return for a recognition of his overlordship. This did not come without a price however, as Rhys was expected to defend English royal and marcher lands from Welsh rulers to his east. Rhys appears to have been a willing collaborator, even sending his son, Hywel Sais, to assist the king in France during the revolt of 1173-4, and by Rhys leading a force of his own on behalf of Henry at Tutbury in 1174. On other occasions Rhys appeared at the head of delegations of other Welsh princes to pledge their allegiance to the English king, and was awarded Meirionydd by Henry for this loyalty.

But if this period was one of largely uninterrupted peace with the English crown and the marcher lords of south Wales which lasted for almost twenty years, the other Welsh princes weren't so compliant. In 1184 Rhys sought peace for himself at Worcester and later at Gloucester following two years of Welsh attacks on royal lands - including a revolt in 1183 led by the prince's nephew, Morgan ap Caradog, native ruler of upland Glamorgan, and Ranulf de Glanville was sent to restore peace between Rhys (and other Welsh rulers) and the people of Herefordshire and Cheshire late in 1186. The détente with Henry II held despite these tensions, and in Lent 1188 Rhys met Glanville together with Baldwin, archbishop of Canterbury, at Radnor at the start of the latter's journey round Wales to persuade the Welsh to join the third crusade, and later welcomed the archbishop again at Cardigan.

Interestingly for us today, sexual values in the middle ages appear to have been radically different from those today, at least among the upper classes. As the Dictionary of National Biography notes:

…the prince returned to Wales to continue his assaults on marcher lordships in Dyfed, capturing St Clears by Christmas 1189. In the same year Rhys imprisoned his eldest but illegitimate son, Maelgwn ap Rhys (d. 1231), afterwards transferring him to the custody of William (II) de Briouze whose prisoner he remained until 1192. Further attacks followed: for example, Rhys took Nevern Castle from his son-in-law William fitz Martin in 1191, and the castles of Llawhaden (belonging to the bishop of St David's), Swansea, and Wiston fell to him the following year. In 1194 the prince rebuilt the castle of Rhaeadr (which he had first erected in 1177), but later in the year was himself captured by his sons Maelgwn and Hywel Sais, and briefly imprisoned in Nevern Castle. In 1195 Rhys suffered further setbacks, as Roger Mortimer of Wigmore conquered Maelienydd, the Flemings recaptured Wiston Castle, and William de Briouze took St Clears. However, the prince succeeded in capturing his sons, Hywel and Maredudd, who had established themselves at Dinefwr and Llandovery respectively, and in 1196 led his last major campaign, in which he burnt Carmarthen, defeated Roger Mortimer, and captured Briouze's castle at Painscastle. Rhys died, aged sixty-five, on 28 April 1197. He was buried in St David's Cathedral after penance had been administered on his corpse to absolve him from a sentence of excommunication incurred for his complicity in an assault on Peter de Leia, bishop of St David's, shortly before his death

Religious endowments and historical reputation

Despite his physical assault on Bishop Peter during the last years of his life Rhys's relations with the church were largely amicable, and the prince patronized a wide variety of religious houses in Deheubarth. He was almost certainly the first native Welsh ruler to patronize the Cistercians and played a crucial role in encouraging the spread of the order in native Welsh society. In 1165 he acquired the patronage of Strata Florida Abbey and endowed it generously. He likewise made benefactions to Whitland Abbey, and established a Cistercian nunnery at Llanllŷr. In addition the prince founded the Premonstratensian abbey of Talley in 1184-9. Rhys was also generous to poets, and Brut y Tywysogyon (The Chronicle of the Princes) describes a festival of music and poetry, often regarded as the first recorded eisteddfod, held by the prince in 1176. The venue was Cardigan Castle which Rhys had rebuilt in stone in 1171 and diplomatically, north Wales were awarded the chief prize for poetry while the south took away the honours in music:

1176- And the Lord Rhys held a grand festival at the castle of Aberteifi [ie Cardigan] wherein he appointed two sorts of contention; one between the bards and poets, and the other between the harpers, fiddlers, pipers and various performers of instrumental music; and he assigned two chairs for the victors in the contentions; and these he enriched with vast gifts. A young man of his own court, son of Cibon the fiddler, obtained the victory in instrumental song; and the men of Gwynedd obtained the victory in vocal song (ie poetry); and all the other minstrels obtained from the Lord Rhys as much as they asked for, so that there was no one excluded. And that festival was proclaimed a year before it was held, throughout Wales and England and Prydyn and Ireland and many other countries.

From the entry for 1176 in Brut y Tywysgogion (The Chronicle of the Princes). Published by the Lords Commissioners of Her Majesty's Treasury under the direction of the Master of the Rolls, 1860. Quoted in: Insurrection in Wales: the rebellion of the Welsh led by Owen Glyn Dwr, Appendix IV, D. Helen Allday, 1981, page 174

Naturally, his military successes throughout his life made a favourable assessment of him inevitable - winners get all the accolades after all while oblivion usually awaits the losers:

Surviving contemporary opinion of Rhys is almost entirely favourable: Gerald of Wales praised him for his generosity, energy, and wit, and his skill and success in warfare were hailed in both the Welsh and the Latin poetry composed in his honour - a Latin elegy on Rhys calls him the glory of Wales and a second Alexander, no less. A Latin prose lament of the later thirteenth-century likewise praises his martial exploits as 'the unconquered head of Wales'. From the early modern period onwards historians have stressed Rhys's pivotal role in restoring and defending the kingdom of Deheubarth, over which he was the last native prince to exercise unitary rule. In addition twentieth-century scholars have suggested, on the basis of later evidence, that the prince organized an administrative reform of his lands and have highlighted his readiness to imitate Anglo-Norman fashions in castle building and religious patronage.
Dictionary of National Biography, 2004


Effigy of Rhys ap Gruffudd
Tomb effigy in St David's Cathedral said to be Rhys ap Gruffudd

The passage of 800 years makes it quite easy to arrive at a generous judgement of an important historical figure like Rhys ap Gruffydd, but we shouldn't allow time (or nationalism) to obscure the fact that neither the Welsh nor English nobility of the middle ages were in any way noble except in name. They lived solely for power and often died for it too; they waded through blood and trampled on corpses to secure the source of all power and wealth at that time - land. Qualities we are taught to admire today like patriotism and loyalty were alien concepts which they seldom, if ever, allowed to get in the way of their objectives.

Dinefwr castle in Llandeilo is one of Rhys's creations which has survived down to our times, allowing us to stand there today and imagine, if we wish, the hordes of stonemasons and labourers who raised its formidable ramparts on a crag three hundred feet above the Towy flood plain. And possibly imagine, too, the groans and screams of those unfortunate souls, Welsh and English alike, who got in the way of his relentless march to supreme power in the kingdom of Deheubarth.


Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004)