Friday, November 17, 2017

Lord Rhys; Welsh First, Henry’s Second

by Jean Gill

We all know something about King Henry II of England and Thomas Becket, but few have heard of another powerful man who sparked off the temper of that fiery king and then, against all odds, gained his trust: Lord Rhys.

When Henry died in 1189, Lord Rhys, the Welsh ruler of the kingdom of Deheubarth, had been the royal Justiciar of South Wales for seventeen years, an alliance arrived at through war, truce and stubbornness on both sides. At the peak of their conflict, frustrated in battle, Henry ordered that twenty-two Welsh hostages, including Rhys’ son, should have their eyes gouged out.

Yet the two rulers then became firm allies. How is that possible? How could a father accept such an alliance? The answer might lie in Rhys’ own style of leadership and his background. Maybe he accepted such an action in war because it’s exactly what he himself would have done.

Certainly, the alliance was politically expedient for both rulers as, although Rhys could never win against Henry’s superior manpower, Welsh guerilla warfare could harass and tire the slow, heavy English soldiers, ad infinitum. An alliance gave them both peace and a means to keep in check the greed of the Norman Marcher Lords. However, their truce held strong through later trials, when expediency for Rhys was not in loyalty to Henry, suggesting something deeper between the two men. For his part, there is no doubt that Henry felt respect for Rhys and his countrymen.

‘In one part of the island [of Britain] there is a race of people called the Welsh who are so brave and untamed that, though unarmed themselves, they do not hesitate to do battle with fully armed opponents’

King Henry II 1176

Lord Rhys 

Who was Rhys? His praise-singer described him as ‘golden’ and it might be that he was ‘fair’ like his mother Gwenllian, a princess of North Wales, who eloped with Gruffydd, Prince of Deheubarth to become a legend in her new kingdom. ‘Fair’ and ‘golden’ are compliments with many possible meanings: attractive, just, gifted, lucky, or, of course, blonde (no longer the compliment it once was!). The only other clues to his appearance are in a 14th century effigy on a tomb in St David’s Cathedral, thought to be of Lord Rhys, in which he sports a moustache worthy of a WW2 RAF pilot.

Nobody would have expected him to rule Deheubarth. Youngest of six brothers, he was four years old when his mother, Gwenllian the Warrior Princess, was betrayed by a Welshman and beheaded by the Norman, Maurice De Londres, on the battlefield now known as Maes Gwenllian. One brother, Morgan, died in the same battle and another, Maelgwyn, disappeared, never to be heard of again. Rhys’ father died a year later, of illness or grief.

The eldest surviving brother, Anarawd, then became leader until he was murdered in 1143 by order of his future brother-in-law, Cadwaladr of North Wales. The next brother, Cadell, was so badly injured by Normans from Tenby in 1151, when he was out hunting, that he renounced all worldly matters, retiring to a monastery after going on a pilgrimage.

The coat of arms of Deheubarth
Cadell left his two younger brothers, Maredudd and Rhys as joint rulers in his absence, which turned out to be permanent. Closeness between noble Welsh brothers was rare as they were usually fostered while young and competing for inheritance (with the support of their foster families) as they matured. Gelding and/or blinding were not uncommon ways of showing mercy to the loser while protecting an inheritance. However, Rhys and Maredudd, two years older, had never been fostered and had survived losses that were cruel even by the standard of the day. What little evidence remains suggests that they were close, that they rode together and fought together to win back the lands lost during their father’s time.

Wales 1153
1153, the year my fictional troubadours arrive in Gwalia (Wales), was indeed a golden year for Henry, who was named heir to the English throne by its incumbent Stephen, and also for Rhys and Maredudd. They were on a winning streak and continued to regain castles and land; Carmarthen, Llansteffan, Tenby and St Clears – a 21st birthday present for Rhys in his first sortie as Commander. They even regained Ceredigion, which the North Wales allies had helped them to defend, years earlier – and had then kept for their own, at the time Anarawd was murdered. Now there is a story begging to be told!

Both images are Llansteffan Castle © Jean Gill

I have reconstructed the taking of Tenby and St Clears from details of the building structures there in 1153, starting from the terse statement in the Brut y Tywysogion. ‘There was not much time afterwards before the sons of Rhys attacked the castle of Tenby, and by a night plot, after breaking the gate, they got possession of the castle, and delivered it into the [custody] of William, son of Gerald. And when that was accomplished, Rhys, son of Gruffudd, with an immense host, laid waste the castle of Ystrad Cyngen.

So, a night plot it was! Unfortunately, ‘an immense host’ seems to be poetic license, as on-the-spot research from Tenby sent me records showing the 12th century castle to be a small stronghold, little more than a watchtower, and St Clears (Ystrad Cyngen) was an even smaller motte and bailey.

This is why, in my version of events, my hero Dragonetz observes, ‘It’s smaller than I thought it would be,’ before the men lay siege. There is also some disagreement as to whether events took place in 1152 or 1153, a minor matter considering how little information there is on major events!

I can’t find any indication of how Maredudd died but it seems that this happened in 1155 and Rhys became sole ruler, Prince of Deheubarth, or ‘the Lord Rhys’, the title he’s known by nowadays. He continued to build his kingdom, and not just figuratively. He built castles in the Norman style, and as solidly expensive as theirs; Cardigan, Cilgerran, Dinefwr and Llandovery, among others.

According to the cleric and writer, Gerald of Wales, a relative who stayed as Rhys’ guest on his Journey Through Wales, Rhys was ‘kindly’ and ‘discreet’, a perfect host. He was highly cultured and drew poets and musicians to his court. You can imagine the harper playing in Rhys’ castle in Cardigan, as at King Henry’s court, where a Welsh harper was also employed. Steeped in this musical tradition, Lord Rhys is credited with hosting the first Eisteddfod, at Christmas in 1176.

He also started the codification of Welsh laws, later continued by Hywel Dda. I would argue that, when he did so, he had read The Usatges of Barcelona, laws that influenced law-making throughout Europe.

He founded Cistercian monasteries but hated bad clerics. Rhys was nicknamed ‘the Good’ and yet he died excommunicate for arguing with a bishop over a horse theft. His body had to be scourged before burial, in penance.

He was reputed to be charming, a man who loved many women, and this proved to be damaging for the succession in Deheubarth. Linked to Henry II in their life-times, Rhys faced the same problem; his children’s conflicts, with him and with each other. Rhys had at least nine children by various mothers and as legitimacy was not important in Welsh law, claims to Deheubarth were violently disputed.

Notwithstanding the conflicts, Rhys’ children played their own parts in history. Through one daughter named Gwenllian (there were several, just to add to the confusion), Rhys could claim ancestry to the Tudors, and from them to several of the ruling houses in Europe today, including the UK. Henry Tudor flew a Welsh dragon banner at Bosworth field to acknowledge his descent from this remarkable man, Rhys, Prince of Deheubarth.

Further reading/ Acknowledgements This is the version of Brut y Tywysogion translated by William ab Ithel in the 19th century.
The Lord Rhys – Roger Turvey
The Journey through Wales and The Description of Wales – Gerald of Wales

1) Effigy of Rhys ap Gruffydd in St David's Cathedral, Wales scanned from the 1810 engraving by John Conlon   
Credit: Rhion Pritchard 2/3/2006. Public Domain Image.

2) The coat of arms of Deheubarth
By AlexD (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

3) Map of Wales in 1153
Adapted from Map of Wales 986-99 (Maredudd ab Owain) courtesy of AlexD under the Creative Commons license

4 and 5 Llansteffan Castle © Jean Gill

6 Welsh dragon on plate © Jean Gill


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  1. As I'm writing a mystery set in Wales - present day with deep historical roots - this was a fascinating post. Thanks Jean. Off to check out your novel and website.

    1. Thank you, Roland! Wales lends itself to mythical adventures.


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