Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Last Lord of Deheubarth - Rhys ap Maredudd

by Judith Arnopp

Rhys was the son of Maredudd ap Rhys Gryg (d. 1271), Lord of Dryslwyn and Isabel, daughter of William (II) Marshal, Earl of Pembroke.

The gatehouse at Newcastle Emlyn
Judith Arnopp

The ruins of Newcastle Emlyn sit quietly on a pretty grassy hill on the edge of the market town. Surrounded by a loop in the river Teifi, fringed by trees, it is a favourite spot for picnickers, tourists and local teenagers. The flat land below that once rang with the sounds of battle is now the haunt of children, lovers, and dog walkers.

I have finished my lunch; I tidy away the wrappers, screw the lid back on to my flask and observe the other visitors to the castle mound. How many pause in their day to read the bright boards that tell the tale of the castle’s birth, the desperate battles that took place here for territory and control?

A few stop to read them, cast a quick eye across the landscape but only a minority detect the cries of battle, feel the fear, the strain of the trebuchet, the crash of stone on stone, steel on steel. The past is all around us, if you take the time you can still see it, you can hear it, you can almost feel it.

View from the castle: Stephen McKay
CC-BY-SA-2.0 (
Wikimedia Commons

Newcastle Emlyn: Judith Arnopp
In 920 when Hywel Dda combined the former kingdoms of Dyfed and Seisyllwg under one rule, the kingdom of Deheubarth was born. After the Normans conquered Deheubarth in 1093 the descendants of the Welsh ruling family were allowed to hold some authority over Cantref Mawr and Ystrad Tywi, a truncated portion of the former kingdom. But in the 12th century, during the time of Maredudd ap Gruffydd and Lord Rhys, Deheubarth briefly re-emerged.

In 1240 (or thereabouts) the king divided the lands around Emlyn and put them in the control of Maredudd ap Rhys Gryg and the Earl of Pembroke. The land to the west was to be controlled by the Earl from his castle at Cilgerran and, to defend his own territory, a ‘new’ castle was erected at Emlyn. Maredudd chose a good site on a steep sided hill where a loop in the river Teifi provided defence on three sides, access to the castle being a narrow strip of land from what is now the modern town of Newcastle Emlyn.

Unrest between the Welsh and supporters of the English crown continued to blight the area. Maredudd’s alliance with the English brought him into conflict with his fellow Welshmen, and in 1259 he was accused of treason against Llewellyn and imprisoned in Criccieth Castle for a time. After his death in 1271 the castle, along with Dryslwyn estates, passed to his son Rhys.

The gatehouse: Judith Arnopp

In 1277 Rhys submitted to King Edward, surrendering the castle of Dinefwr, but maintaining his control of Dryslwyn. In 1282 when Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffydd put forward ‘grievances’ on Rhys's behalf against the royal officers in West Wales, Rhys himself took no part in the revolt but gave assistance to Edward instead, collaborating on an attack on Llanbadarn and patrolling Ceredigion for the king. In return he was granted the homage of Welsh chieftains in north Carmarthenshire, but the peace was flimsy and not to last.

In June 1287 his relationship with the English soured and he revolted against King Edward. Rhys’ army ran amok, ravaging much territory in the west of Wales as far as Llanbadarn. In retaliation the English royal troops converged upon Rhys' other castle at Dryslwyn which quickly fell to them along with the new castle at Emlyn, but Rhys remained at large, harrying the English. Then, in a matter of months, in a surprise counter attack, he fell upon the 'new' castle and regained his hold on it.

Dryslywn Castle: Clare West
CC-BY-SA-2.0 (
 Wikimedia Commons

The English swiftly assembled a large army at Dryslwyn and marched on the castle at Emlyn bringing with them a huge siege machine, a trebuchet hauled by sixty oxen. They also carried with them a supply of beach stones to hurl at the castle and bring it into submission. A siege ensued, but by the time they’d battered their way inside Rhys had fled and remained at large in the Welsh countryside for several years. He was finally captured and taken before the king at York where he was hung in 1292, ending native rule in Deheubarth forever.

The castle at Emlyn passed to the English crown and much of the surviving structure was erected in the early fourteenth century. Further improvements were made, including the addition of large windows by Rhys ap Thomas when the castle (along with many others) was gifted to him by Henry VII when he took the throne at Bosworth in 1485.


Judith is the author of eight historical novels. Her early works Peaceweaver and The Song of Heledd are set in medieval Wales. She also writes novels set in the court of Henry VIII. For more information visit her webpage:

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