Rhys ap Thomas (1448-1525)

Soldier, knight, landowner, king-maker

Tomb of Rhys ap Thomas
The tomb of Rhys ap Thomas (1448-1525) in St. Peter's Church, Carmarthen, with Rhys lying in effigy on top.

After the Lord Rhys (Rhys ap Gruffudd, 1132-1197) Llandeilo's next most famous son is Sir Rhys ap Thomas (1448-1525). Not many towns can boast a citizen who killed a king of England in battle (if 'boast' is the appropriate word in this context) but Llandeilo can, because that is exactly what Rhys ap Thomas is supposed to have done on Bosworth field on August 22nd, 1485. Then, if one Welsh poet (Guto'r Glyn) is to believed, he dispatched King Richard III to the next world.

In the process his kinsman Henry Tudor became Henry VII and inaugurated the golden age of the Tudor dynasty. Plain Rhys ap Thomas became Sir Rhys ap Thomas just three days after this battle and under the patronage of both Henry VII and his more infamous son Henry VIII he became the most powerful man in south Wales. The modern Dynevor peerage can trace its ancestry directly back to this warrior knight, the most influential native Welshman in south Wales since the great Lord Rhys three hundred years earlier.

The story of a Llandeilo landowner's rise to kingmaker and then Welsh top-dog is outlined in detail by Ralph A Griffiths in Sir Rhys ap Thomas and his Family (University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 1993), to which this article is much indebted. The article on Rhys ap Thomas in the 60 volume Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004) supplies other material.

Summary of life and career

Rhys, Sir, ap Thomas (1448/9-1525), soldier and landowner , was the youngest legitimate son of Thomas ap Gruffudd ap Nicolas (died around 1474) of Newton, Llandeilo, Carmarthenshire, and Elizabeth, daughter of Sir John Gruffudd ( d . 1471) of Abermarlais, Carmarthenshire.

From 1485 to 1525 Rhys was the principal lieutenant in south Wales to two kings, Henry VII and Henry VIII. Rhys's biography was written in the 1620s by his descendant Henry Rice and it states that he accompanied his father into exile at the Burgundian court after the Yorkist victory in 1461.

When the civil war that later historians call the Wars of the Roses broke out in 1455 the family of Rhys ap Thomas supported the Lancastrian faction of the reigning king, Henry VI. But 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 Rhys's grandfather Gruffydd ap Nicholas 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 in the Tywi valley. (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.)

Henry VI briefly regained his throne in 1470 but promptly lost it again in 1471 when he, along with his son and heir to the throne, were killed in his last battle, and Edward IV was now secure on the throne, or as secure as it was possible to be during this period of utter chaos. When Rhys ap Thomas returned to Wales, probably early in the 1470s, his family was still eclipsed during Edward IV's restored regime.

In 1483 Henry Stafford, duke of Buckingham and lord of Brecon, rose up in rebellion against the newly enthroned Yorkist Richard III but Rhys declined to join in on the side of Stafford, wisely as it turns out, as the rebellion was crushed. Richard III made an annuity of 40 marks to Rhys in order to buy his support, but this may not have prevented him from communicating with Henry Tudor, who was in exile in Brittany, perhaps even promising to support Henry's invasion in 1485. His biography states that Richard III demanded the surrender of Rhys's only legitimate son, Gruffudd, as a guarantee of his loyalty. The Life also claims that Rhys welcomed Henry Tudor on arrival in Pembrokeshire on 7 August 1485, but he is likely to have been cautious initially about declaring for the insurgents, and there was uncertainty about his attitude while he shadowed Henry's advance through mid-Wales.

The combined forces of Rhys, Henry Tudor and others joined outside Welshpool around 16 August, marching to Bosworth in Leicestershire which they reached on 22 August. Even before they met, Henry seems to have indicated that Rhys would be his chief lieutenant in Wales if Richard III were defeated. Henry's favour to Rhys immediately after Bosworth, and their intimate relationship throughout Henry VII's reign, suggest that their collaboration in 1485 was well prepared. Rhys served King Henry primarily as a powerful landowner in south Wales and a skilled soldier.

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

Only three months after the success of Bosworth, Rhys was appointed for life the king's lieutenant and steward of Brecon, steward of Builth, and chamberlain of south Wales, all highly lucrative positions. A biography of Rhys written in the early 17th century by a descendent of his, one Henry Rice, lists Rhys's full 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.]

He was a strong-arm man for both Henry VII and Henry VIII and helped suppress the Brecon rising of 1486, Simnel's rebellion in 1487, the Cornish rising of 1497, and Perkin Warbeck's rebellion of October 1497. He also accompanied Henry VII on his French expedition in October 1492 and fought for Henry VIII in France in 1513, aged 65. Rhy's son, Gruffudd ap Rhys, was also the close friend of Henry VIII's son, Prince Arthur, though both children died before their fathers.

Rhys ap Thomas owned several households and estates throughout west Wales, the most sumptuous being Carew Castle near Pembroke. The family home at Newton, Llandeilo, was at that time a rather small manor house which was enlarged several times by later descendants. He had half a dozen mistresses and at least a dozen children, who were married into gentry houses of south Wales.

Rhys ap Thomas 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, ironically as a result of the dissolution of Carmarthen Priory by the same Henry VIII whom he had served so loyally in life. The remains of Henry VIII's own grandfather, Edmund Tudor, also had to be removed from Carmarthen priory to St David's cathedral.

But the great estates, wealth and prestige that Rhys had built up in his lifetime weren't to last very long after his passing; just six years, in fact, was all it took for his grandson Rhys ap Gruffudd (1509-1531), to lose the lot. In 1531 Rhys ap Gruffudd, was beheaded by Henry VIII for treason and with his head went all the family's lands and estates, confiscated by the crown (ie, Henry).

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. Although the family recovered some of the land in subsequent generations they were never to achieve such political power again as Rhys ap Thomas had exercised before them.

But not everyone mourned the passing of this dynastic family who, for more than a century, were the law in those lands under their control. 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 Gruffudd, and had been present when he'd been hauled before a London court for 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, with Rhys ap Thomas being especially singled out for censure:

And indeed many men regarded his death [ie Rhys ap Gruffydd] 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, Ralph A Griffiths, pages 72-73.


  • Sir Rhys ap Thomas and his Family , Ralph A Griffiths, University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 1993.
  • Oxford Dictionary of Welsh Biography (2004).

Note on Welsh surnames

Until the sixteenth century the Welsh never used the method of surnames practised by the English. Instead, they employed a system of patronymics (from the Latin 'pater', father) whereby a son would carry his father's Christian name after his own, with the word 'ab' or 'ap' (from the Welsh 'mab', son). Thus Rhys ap Thomas means Rhys, son of Thomas. Rhys's own son Gruffudd was thus Gruffudd ap Rhys, though Gruffudd confuses matters for us today by calling his son Rhys, who thus became Rhys ap Gruffudd (1509-1531) in the process, not to be confused with another Rhys ap Gruffudd (1132/1197) who was the ruler of the south Wales kingdom of Deheubarth. Medieval Welsh history is thus littered with people of the same, or reversed, names, often making the study of the subject even more confusing than usual.

With the accession of the Welsh Tudors to the throne of England, many status-seeking Welshmen anglicised their patronymics into English-style surnames which have come down to us today. Thus ab Owen (son of Owen) became Bowen; ab Evan, Bevan; ab Einon, Beynon; ap Harry, Parry; ap Huw, Pugh; ap Rhys, Preece and Price; ap Richard, Prichard; ap Henry, Penry; and ap Robert, Probert. Others in time adopted the English style of surnames, giving rise to the bewildering number of people in Wales named Jones, Evans, Davies, Williams, Thomas, Griffiths, Rees, Jenkins and the rest.