Maelgwn was one of the many sons of Rhys ap Gruffudd, ruler of Deheubarth, born around the year 1170 and who first comes to our attention in the year 1187 when the Brut y Tywysogion records that he "ravaged the town of Tenby and burned it". Maelgwn clearly made an impression on his contemporaries as at this, the first mention of his name, the anonymous chronicler of the Brut launches into a brisk eulogy, stating that,
He was of the brightest fame and beloved of all, and comely of face, though he was of a moderately sized body; harsh to his enemies, and genial and kind towards his comrades, ready with gifts; in his home meek, in war a victor; all his neighbours dreaded him; like a lion was he in his actions, and like a lion's whelp roaring in chase; the man who frequently slew the Flemings and who drove them to flight many a time.
Despite all these fundamentally laudable qualities, Maelgwn appears to have quarrelled with his father and in 1189 he was seized and imprisoned (The Brut
refers to him being held in the "prison of the lord of Brycheiniog") and there he remained until he managed to effect his escape in 1192.
Once free by 1193 he had gathered together a group of followers and "manfully breached the castle of Ystrad Meurig" and the following year conspired with some of his similarly disaffected brothers to seize hold of his father Rhys and made him a prisoner at Nevern Castle. However another brother, Hywel Sais intervened and secured the release of his father.
After the Death of the Lord Rhys
What of course, what Maelgwn and his siblings objected to was the fact that their father favoured their older brother Gruffudd ap Rhys and seemed intent that the succession should pass to him alone. The infighting between the years 1189 and 1193 represented a jockeying for position whilst everyone waited for the inevitable.
In the year 1197 the inevitable happened and Rhys ap Gruffudd died; his eldest son, Gruffudd ap Rhys did indeed attempt to take Deheubarth into his own hands but Maelgwn and his younger brother Rhys Gryg1 had other ideas. Within a year Maelgwn seized the castles of Cardigan and Ystrad Meurig and in 1199 took Dinierth "which Gruffudd had built". Deheubarth was therefore subject to a minor civil war as the sons of Rhys disputed the succession.
For the year 1200 the Brut y Tywysogion recorded that;
Maelgwn ap Rhys, for fear and also in hatred of Gruffudd, his brother, sold to the English the lock and stay of all Wales, the castle of Cardigan, for a small and worthless price.
The "small and worthless price" is said to been "a little weight in gold and the curses of all the clergy and layfolk of Wales", although it was actually 200 marks and a guarantee of royal protection. Of course from Maelgwn's point of view, selling Cardigan Castle to the king of England was likely the best way of securing his position.
In the following year his elder brother Gruffudd died and Maelgwn was able to consolidate his control of Ceredigion whilst his brother and ally Rhys Gryg took possession of Ystrad Tywi. It might have seemed as if Maelgwn was on the verge of establishing himself as ruler of Deheubarth in much the same way as his father, but in reality there was a wide array of forces prepared to frustrate this ambition.
In Powys there was Gwenwynwyn ab Owain 2 who fancied himself as the leader of the native Welsh and had ambitions to control Ceredigion as well. In 1203 Gwenwynwyn came and took the castles of Llandovery and Llangadog and drove Maelgwn away. Although Maelgwn was able to recover Llandovery Castle this intervention was still a blow to his prestige and he faced a challenge from his nephews Rhys Ieuanc ap Gruffudd and Owain ap Gruffudd, who regarded themselves as the true heirs to Deheubarth.
In 1204 his nephews struck,
And Maelgwn ap Rhys lost as it were the bolts and stays of all his territory and all else he had to his name, to wit the castles of Llandovery and Dinefwr to the sons of Gruffudd, his brother
Maelgwn retaliated by arranging for the death of his brother Hywel
at the hands of the Normans of Cemais and in 1205 he "caused a certain Irishman to slay with a battle-axe Cedifor ap Gruffudd, a praiseworthy man, gracious, strong and generous, by treachery and unjustly, him and his four sons, after they had been seized
All this infighting provided the opportunity for the Norman lords of Dyfed to recover the ground lost to Rhys ap Gruffudd and in 1204 Cilgerran Castle was taken by William Marshal the Earl of Pembroke, a loss that symbolised the re-establishment of Norman control over Dyfed.
It was in this manner that Deheubarth fell apart after the death of Rhys ap Gruffudd; his sons and grandsons fought and killed each other whilst the previously overawed Norman lords quietly reclaimed territory and imposed their authority in place of the squabbling progeny of the Lord Rhys.
The rise of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth
In the year 1208 Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, ruler of Gwynedd, flexed his muscles and moved against Gwenwynwyn ab Owain and in less than a fortnight drove him from his kingdom. When Maelgwn heard of this, for fear of Llywelyn he razed the castle of Ystrad Meurig to the ground and burned Dineirth and Aberystwyth, in an attempt to prevent them from falling into Llywelyn's hands.
Not that these actions made the slightest bit of difference as Llywelyn still came and simply rebuilt Aberystwyth Castle and occupied Ceredigion. The northenmost cantref of Penweddig he "gained for himself" whereas "the other portion, between the Dyfi and the Aeron", he gave to the sons of Gruffudd ap Rhys.
Maelgwn's personal realm had now been reduced to the single cantref of Ceredigion Is Aeron, the territory between the rivers Aeron and the Teifi and he was required by Llywelyn to swear an oath to respect the lands of his nephews Rhys Ieuanc ap Gruffudd and Owain ap Gruffudd.
In Alliance with King John
As we have seen, in 1200 Maelgwn had sought an accord with king John of England to bolster his authority, although it might well be argued that Maelgwn ultimately gained but little from the deal and John was later to be found dallying with Llywelyn ap Iorwerth. John had married his illegitimate daughter to Llywelyn, and Llywelyn had been at his side during his Scottish campaign of 1209, seemingly a trusted ally of the English king. But John later changed his tune during 1210 and came to the conclusion that Llywelyn now represented a threat to royal authority that needed to be contained.
John had been campaigning in Ireland and returned by way of Fishguard, which is where he met with Maelgwn ap Rhys on the 26th August in the year 1210. It seems very likely that John and Maelgwn reached some kind of understanding at Fishguard and that Maelgwn was drawn into a conspiracy directed against the upstart prince of Gwynedd. On the 8th September 1210 Rhys Gryg launched an attack against Llandovery Castle, which remained in the hands of his nephews and allies of Llywelyn; by the November of that year Gwenwynwyn ab Owain had recovered his land with the support John and as the Brut y Tywysogion put it;
Maelgwn ap Rhys was joyful because of that, and he made a mutual pledge with the king. And forthwith ... he gathered a mighty host of French and Welsh; and ... attacked the cantref of Penweddig.
Unfortunately for Maelgwn his nephews were ready for him as,
Rhys and Owain and their war-band fell on the host by night, and killed some and captured others, and drove the others to flight. And Maelgwn shamefully fled on foot by night and escaped
Maelgwn just managed to escape but his nephew Cynan ap Hywel
and advisor Gruffudd ap Cadwgan
were captured and most of his men killed in the ambush.
King John was however determined to bring Llywelyn ap Iorwerth under control and with the failure of Maelgwn's expedition he sent Falkes of Breaute to Wales who came and built a new castle at Aberystwyth and proceeded to take control of Ceredigion. Perhaps Maelgwn expected better treatment at the hands of the king of England, but like many of king John's allies he was to be disappointed. Presumably annoyed that 'his' territory of Ceredigion had now been occupied by the king himself, he turned against John. In the autumn of 1211 Maelgwn and his brother Rhys Gryg, attacked the new castle at Aberystwyth, burnt it and slaughtered the defendants.
In Alliance with Llywelyn ap Iorwerth
These events appear to have persuaded Maelgwn to come to terms with Llywelyn ap Iorwerth as in 1212 he is one of the "princes of Wales" named by the Brut as entering into a solemn pact with Llywelyn ap Iorwerth against king John, and together with Llywelyn and Gwenwynwyn was one of the three princes absolved from their oaths of allegiance to John by Pope Innocent III.
Thereafter Maelgwn appears as one of Llywelyn's loyal liuetenants and supported Llywelyn ap Iorwerth in his campaigns of 1215 and 1216 which resulted in the capture of much territory in the south, reversing much of the gains the Normans had made in the years after the death of Rhys ap Gruffudd, whilst king John was of course, pre-occupied with problems in England.
In 1216 Llywelyn ap Iorwerth held a Welsh 'parliament' in Aberdyfi at which he shared out these re-conquered territories of the south. Maelgwn was granted various territories in Dyfed, Ceredigion and Ystrad Tywi, as was his brother Rhys Gryg and his two nephews Rhys Ieuanc and Owain. But these territories they received not as independent princes of Deheubarth but as vassals of the Llywelyn the Great. So the last vestiges of the ancient kingdom of Deheubarth crumbled away.
Maelgwn the peacable
Thereafter Maelgwn remained a loyal ally of this Prince of North Wales and made no objection when Llywelyn decreed a new partition of lands between the various descendants of the Lord Rhys in 1225. Perhaps old age had caught up with him and mellowed the aggression of his youth, as the remainder of his life was passed quietly outside the glare of history.
Although the Brut first described him as "the shield and bulwark of all Wales" and as a "a second Gawain" his death in the year 1231 was recorded with a simple recitation of the facts that he "died at Llanerch Aeron; and he was buried at Ystrad Fflur in the chapter-house".
Although Maelgwn was perhaps the most capable and agressive of the sons of Rhys ap Gruffudd, he was unable to recreate the same kind of hegemony over the south as had his father, or indeed to even hold together the political unity of Deheubarth in the face of pressures from both inside and outside the kingdom.
His authority was never sufficient for him to be accorded the status of a ruler of Deheubarth, although he was perhaps the last of the royal house of Deheubarth to have any kind of national stature. After his death Deheubarth became a land of minor lords, both Norman and Welsh who variously paid homage to the rulers of Gwynedd or England as the tenor of the times dicated.
1 Rhys Gryg, that is 'Rhys the Hoarse' otherwise he would be 'Rhys ap Rhys'.
2 Gwenwynwyn ab Owain ruler of the southern portion of Powys known as Powys Wenwynwyn in his honour.
3 Cedifor or Cydifor Gruffudd was another of his nephews, son of Gruffudd ap Rhys.
Brut y Tywysogion
John Davies A History of Wales (Allen Lane, 1993)
Kari Mundi The Welsh Kings (Tempus, 2000)