known universally as Yr Arglwydd Rhys, 'The Lord Rhys'
but sometimes also known as Rhys Mwynfawr, 'Rhys the Generous'
Ruler of Deheubarth 1155-1197
Born 1129 Died 1197
The Rebuilding of Deheubarth
After the death of Gruffudd ap Rhys ap Tewdwr in 1137 his four sons, Anarawd, Cadell, Maredudd and Rhys worked together to try and achieve what their father could not; the re-establishment of the kingdom of Deheubarth which had been under Norman control since the death of their grandfather Rhys ap Tewdwr in 1093.
Circumstances where now much more favourable to a Welsh revival than before. Their father had been faced with the rather effective Henry I as king of England, they only had to contend with Stephen whose hold on the throne was disputed by Henry's daughter Matilda. The only significant disadvantage they faced was that Norman power was firmly entrenched in the south of Dyfed where a plantation of Flemish colonists had been placed by Henry I and defended by a series of castles.
Initially they operated with the support and encouragement of Owain Gwynedd, king of Gwynedd, raiding and attacking Norman strongholds in the south-west but in 1151 they broke free, took advantage of internal feuding within the Owain's family, and took control of Cerdigion for themselves. Having established themselves in Ceredigion they struck south into Ystrad Tywi and against the Flemish in Dyfed.
Unfortunately all this warfare took its toll on the brothers as well; Anarawd died at the hands of Cadwaladr ap Gruffudd of Gwynedd in 1143, Cadell was severely wounded in 1153 and effectively retired after that date and Maredudd died in 1155. By then the brothers had succceeded in establishing control over all ofCeredigion and Ystrad Tywi as well as much of Dyfed but it was the surviving brother Rhys who ended up as the sole ruler of a recreated Deheubarth.
All this amounted to a significant challenge to Owain Gwynedd who had his own claims to overlordship over the whole of Wales and in 1157 Owain came south with an army. Direct confrontation was however avoided; the two rulers wisely decided not to fight one another and save their energies for the new threat - Henry II was now king of England and eager to set his mark on Wales.
The struggle against Henry I
In this year after all of the princes of Wales save Rhys ap Gruffudd had made peace with the king, Rhys on his own carried on war against the king. And after taking counsel of his leading men, and against his will he made peace with the king.
Rhys was reluctant to make peace for the simple reason that he had more to lose, the Clares and the Cliffords and the like that had lost out to Rhys and his brothers during Stephen's reign wanted their land back and Rhys was under heavy pressure from Henry II to do just that.
After reluctantly accepting Henry's terms in 1158 Rhys was left with only Cantref Mawr after handing back Ceredigion to the Clares and Cantref Bychan to the Cliffords. But it didn't last and the very next year Rhys was destroying Norman castles in Dyfed. Henry sent an army under Reynold Fitz Roy with "a vast multitude of French and Saxons and Flemings and Welsh" which once again offered Rhys a truce. But of course once the army had gone home Rhys went back on the offensive once more.
In 1163 Henry II himself led an army into south Wales and met with Rhys at Pencader, took the usual hostages and imposed another truce, but the very next year Rhys rebelled again and gained possession of all Ceredigion and inflicted repeated slaughters and despoilings upon the Flemings and drove out the Cliffords from Cantref Bychan for good measure.
And thereupon all the Welsh united together to throw off the rule of the French.
Fed up with the defiance of the Welsh kings in general and Rhys in particular, in 1165 Henry II invaded Wales with a large army intent on imposing his will once and for all. But things didn't quite work out as planned for Henry; for once the various rulers of Wales joined together to resist him, concentrated on harrying his advancing columns in the Berwyn mountains without committing themselves to battle and waited for the rain to so the rest. Henry was forced to abandon his invasion and vented his anger on his hostages.
Rhys was therefore left free to carry on where he'd left off and by the end of 1166 he was back where he was ten years before, master of Ceredigion, Ystrad Tywi and northern Dyfed. The next year he felt sufficiently confident to join with Owain Gwynedd and co-operate in the destruction of the castle of Rhuddlan.
Rhys and Ireland
One of the results of Rhys' successes was that he captured a number of the leaders of the Normans in south Wales, prominent amongst which was one Robert Fitz Stephen.
Rhys was loath to simply set them free and naturally reluctant to execute them for fear of the reaction it might provoke. In any case, despite being Norman in outlook, many of these men were relations of his, and could similarly trace their descent from his illustrious grandfather, Rhys ap Tewdwr.
It so happened that at that time, the Irish king of Leinster Dermot MacMurrough had appealed for assistance in the recovery of his kingdom. Rhys released his prisoners on the proviso that they agreed to go to Ireland and thus began the Cambro-Norman invasion of Ireland and the beginning of the long entanglement of both England and Wales in the affairs of Ireland.
Chief Justiciar of South Wales
Now Madog ap Maredudd (the king of Powys) had earlier died in 1160 after which Powys split in two and in 1170 Owain Gwynedd died, and his sons started fighting over Gwynedd. Which left Rhys as the undisputed leader of the Welsh in Wales and when Henry II came to Wales in 1170 enroute to Ireland an odd thing happened, as the Brut put it Rhys made friends with the king and made peace with him.
Henry and Rhys met twice, once in the Forest of Dean and again at Pembroke and it was agreed that Rhys was allowed to keep all the territory he had seized. On his return from Ireland Henry met him again at Talaharn and following the pattern set by his predecessor William I, who had promoted and recognised Rhys ap Tewdwr as effectively his agent in Wales, Henry II now cast his stamp of approval his grandson, Rhys ap Gruffudd and appointed him 'Chief Justiciar of South Wales'.
So what had changed? By 1171 Henry II had other problems that were demanding his attention; his escalating dispute with the Church (Thomas a Becket was murdered in 1170), challenges to his hold on Normandy, but most relevant was the question of Ireland.
The activities of those very Cambro-Norman adventurers released by Rhys had forced Henry's hand in respect of Ireland and left him no choice other than to claim Ireland for himself. If any king of England wanted to control Ireland he needed secure lines of supply and communication with Ireland, and those lines all ran through Wales. And since Rhys was the only ruler in Wales of any stature at the time, Henry had to do business with Rhys.
It is clear that Rhys and Henry II never quite became the best of friends but they each recognised that they had something to gain from the relationship,
Henry II wanted stability in Wales and Rhys was able to exploit his position to extend his authority.
In the year 1189 Henry II died and his successor Richard I showed little interest in Wales. With no advantage to be gained from co-operation with the English king, Rhys went on the offensive once more.
Rhys took Cydwelli in 1190, Cemais in 1191 and in 1193 he captured Wiston Castle. In 1196 Rhys burnt the town of Carmarthen and took control of Buellt before destroying the castle of Radnor; Roger Mortimer and Hugh of Sai tried to provide some resistence but Rhys put them to flight and took Painscastle in Elfael.
Unfortunately Rhys had a number of sons but unlike the previous generation they had little regard for one another. His conquests were interupted in 1194 when Rhys was imprisoned by some of his sons led by Maelgwn ap Rhys before being released by another Hywel Sais. In 1195 two of his other sons Rhys Gryg and Maredudd rebelled and Rhys was forced to put them under lock and key.
For the time being Rhys was able keep control of his progeny but time was running out for him. Rhys ap Gruffudd died on 28 April 1197 and the Brut y Tywysogion recorded his death with one its more fulsome eulogies;
And, on the fourth day from the calends of May, died Rhys ap Gruffudd, prince of Deheubarth and the unconquered head of all Wales. Alas for the glory of battles and the shield of knights, the defender of his land, the splendour of arms, the arm of prowess, the hand of generosity, the eye and lustre of worthiness, the summit of majesty, the light of reason, the magnanimity of Hercules!
He is almost universally known as Yr Argwlydd Rhys
, 'The Lord Rhys' although there is no evidence that he used the title himself and there is a
suggestion that it was bestowed upon him by later Venedotian
propogandists to emphasise the lower status of the line of Deheubarth
. If this was the intention, in the long run it has had rather the reverse effect, as to modern ears 'The Lord Rhys'
He is chiefly remembered for two things.
Firstly he helped the Cistercians found their abbey at Ystrad Fflur or Strata Florida in 1165 -And through the will of God and at the instigation of the Holy Spirit, and with the help of Rhys ap Gruffudd, a community of monks came to Ystrad Fflur. and further endowed their order with land.
The foundation of Strata Florida turned out to of great significance for it was the monks of Stata Florida became the unofficial record keepers of Welsh Wales and would apply their talents to the compilation of the Brut y Tywysogion the very 'Chronicle of the Princes' on which so much reliance is placed for the history of the period.
Secondly Rhys rebuilt Cardigan castle in stone as a tangible symbol of his power and in the Christmas of 1176 he held court there in great splendour at his new castle and as the Brut recorded;
he set two kinds of contest there: one beteen bards and poets, another between harpists and crowders and pipers and various classes of music-craft. And he had two chairs set for the victors
This event has been accorded the status of the first Eisteddfod
and whilst it is unlikely that it was the first such event of its kind it has retained a great symbolic significance in Welsh culture
. When the National Eisteddfod
was held in Carmarthen
in 1996, an eight foot high statue was commissioned in tribute to 'The Lord Rhys' to celebrate his role in the foundation of the tradition of a competitive arts festival.
His one great failing was one he had in common with so many of his fellow Welsh rulers; he failed to secure the succession to the kingdom. He produced a large number of sons all of whom felt that they deserved at least some small part of Deheubarth for themselves. The infighting that plagued the last few years of his reign was only a foretaste of what was to come. After he died Deheubarth disintegrated into civil war, and was broken up into a series of minor lordships.
It never recovered, Deheubarth died with Rhys.
1 There was a fifth son Morgan ap Gruffudd who was killed fighting Maurice of London in 1136.
2 Which was why Rhys was never quite able to entirely complete the reconquest of Dyfed itself.
3 Robert Fitz Stephen was a grandson of Rhys ap Tewdwr through his mother Nest.
4 Almost a fundamental consideration in the later history of Wales hence the investment poured into Wales by the English government to establish communication lines across Wales, north to Holyhead and south to Pembroke - the roads to Ireland.
5 Hywel Sais that is 'Hywel the Englishman' so called because of his time spent at the court of Henry II and his consequent command of the English language.