The Brut y Tywysogion the Welsh Chronicle of the Princes recorded for the year 1175 what came to be regarded as one of the most notorious and brutal series of killings, even for an age where random and violent death was common. As the Brut explained;
Seisyll ap Dyfnwal was slain through treachery in the castle of Abergavenny by the Lord of Brycheiniog. And along with him Geoffrey, his son, and the best men of Gwent were slain. And thus the French made for Seisyll's court; and after seizing Gwladus his wife, they slew Cadwaladr his son. And on that day there befell a pitiful massacre in Gwent. And from that time forth, after that treachery, none of the Welsh dared place trust in the French.
At the time Brycheiniog or Brecon was a Marcher Lordship in the possession of the de Braose family whose extensive territories included not only Brecon but Abergavenny, which covered much of upper Gwent 1. The head of the family was a William de Braose senior; but it is generally supposed that it was not he that was responsible for the Abergavenny murders, but rather his son, William de Braose junior, to whom he had earlier placed in authority in Brecon and Agergavenny 2.
It is this second William de Braose who has therefore earned the name of the 'Ogre of Abergavenny' in honour of his responsibility for the murders. An epithet which many would argue that he deserved, as the killings were not only in violation of all the medieval ideas of hospitality, but also stood to be condemned as Cadwaladr was only seven years old at the time, and even within the turbulent world of Marcher politics, the killing of children was regarded as reprehensible.
The subject of his murderous assaults, Seisyll ap Dyfnwal was the Welsh lord of upper Gwent. Earlier that same year, he had one of a number of the "the princes of Wales who had incurred the king's displeasures" and who had therefore travelled to Gloucester to make their peace with the Henry II on the feast of Saint James the Apostle (that is the 25th July). It was in this spirit of reconciliation that the chieftains of Gwent were invited to attend the feast at Abergavenny Castle, and similarly re-establish amicable relations with their Norman neighbours.
But according to Raphael Holinshed, things turned out a little differently than intended as William de Braose;
proposed this ordinance to be received of them with a corporall oth, 'That no traveller by the waie amongst them should beare any bow, or other unlawful weapon,' which oth, when they refused to take, because they would not stand to that ordinance, he condemned them all to death.
and further provided the motive for the crime as "This deceit he used towards them, in revenge of the death of his uncle Henrie of Hereford
This 'Henrie of Hereford' was brother to Bertha of Gloucester, William's mother, and Earl of Hereford at the time as it happens, whom it appears had died at the hands of Seisyll ap Dyfnwal earlier in 1166, during the course of some earlier dispute. Some sources refer to the 'murder' of Henry by Seisyll, but this seems unlikely, and was most likely as result of some border conflict. But whatever the facts of the original killing, it seemed sufficient cause to spark off a further series of killings in retribution.3
This might well be the end of the story were it not for the fact that one of William's contemporaries was the cleric Gerald of Wales. In the year 1188 this Gerald went on a grand tour of Wales with Baldwin, Archbishop of Canterbury, drumming up support for the crusades. Gerald was to publish an account of these travels in his 'Itinerary of Archbishop Baldwin through Wales' and in which he made reference to the Abergavenny murders.
Whilst Gerald initially went along with excepted version of the story, in later editions of his work he changed his story and produced a quite different account of events. Namely that;
Henry II was the true author, and Ranulf Poer, sheriff of Hereford, the instrument, of the enormous cruelties and slaughter perpetrated here in our days
further excusing his previous silence on the matter with the explanation "which I thought better to omit, lest bad men should be induced to follow the example
According to Gerald not only was William de Broase not the perpetrator of these crimes, but "while the murderous bands were fulfilling the orders they had received", William "was precipitated into a deep foss", which is to say the castle moat, in order to ensure that he could not interfere with the work of Ranulf Poer and his men, and later "being taken by the enemy, was drawn forth, and only by a sudden effort of his own troops, and by divine mercy, escaped uninjured".
Of course Gerald was not the most unbiased source of information regarding these events; he held the office of Archdeacon of Brecon at the time, was well acquainted with both William and his wife and was rather over lavish in his praise for them. This might well suggest that we should disregard Gerald's testimony if it were not for evidence of later events.
William de Braose was later to fall foul of king John, being outlawed in 1208 and fleeing to Ireland with his family. There were ample opportunities for the native Welsh to have exacted revenge on William for his crimes at Abergavenny, but they seem rather to have joined in with his rebellion, and kept his young grandson (and eventual heir) John de Braose hidden in Gower until the storm had passed.
It was a different matter as far as Ranulf Poer was concerned. In the year 1182, Ranulf Poer together with a small army from Hereford went to Dingestow near Monmouth in Gwent where they began building a castle. At dawn one day, he was surprised by an attack by some "young men from Gwent" and Ranulf together with nine of his chief followers and many others were killed.
It might well therefore be reasonable to conclude that many people have simply got it wrong. The true 'Ogre of Abergavenny' was not William de Braose, 4th Lord of Bamber but rather Ranulf Poer, the Sheriff of Hereford.
1 And also Builth and Radnor, estates in Herefordshire and the West Country as well as the rape of Bamber in Sussex.
2 We distinguish between these two Williams by referring to the elder as William de Braose, 3rd Lord of Bamber and the younger as William de Braose, 4th Lord of Bamber .
3 It has to be said that if had not been for the untimely death of Henry then perhaps the de Braoses would never have got their hands on Brecon and Abergavenny in the first place, as their were both properties that passed into their hands though the extinction of the male line in Henry's family.