Nevern before the Normans

Dr Rhiannon Comeau

In the area around Nevern Castle, the estates of Robert FitzMartin’s knights very likely originate in the pre-Conquest lands of Nevern church. Dr Rhiannon Comeau investigated Bayvil as part of her PhD research into pre-Norman Cemais.

The Celtic cross outside St Brynach's Church, Nevern
10th/11th century high cross at Nevern church. (Photo by R. Comeau)

Nevern Castle was built on land that, before the Norman arrival, probably belonged to Nevern church. This church, dedicated to St Brynach, was a ‘clas’ church like many other pre-Norman churches in Wales: It was served not by monks but by a group of ‘claswyr’ (sometimes referred to as ‘canons’ or ‘prebends’). These claswyr, from the evidence elsewhere, were probably married and held hereditary roles. They lived on small estates belonging to their church, supported by the work of bondmen (unfree workers). Few records of Nevern church’s pre-Conquest landholdings have survived, but they were probably similar to the ‘atria’ and supporting ‘villae’ recorded for 11th century Llancarfan (Glamorgan) in the Life of St Cadog.

The Welsh clas churches (which are sometimes called ‘mother churches’) were institutions whose families produced some of the bishops of St Davids, as well as the writers of the Lives of St David and of St Cadog.

The Normans, however, had little respect for them: with their married, hereditary clergy they were very different to the ecclesiastical institutions of Normandy. Norman knights seized clas lands for themselves or gave them to favoured Anglo-Norman churches and monasteries.

From church lands to knights’ estates

In the area around Nevern Castle, the estates of Robert FitzMartin’s knights very likely originate in the pre-Conquest clas lands of Nevern church. They form a distinct group amidst the Nevern valley lands of powerful Welsh freeholders (‘uchelwyr’ or ‘brehyrion’) who – according to 16th century traditions – had negotiated with the invading Normans and retained their personal estates.

In the 12th century these Anglo-Norman knights’ estates comprised: the land of the Peverel family at Tregaman, Rhos Bayvil and at the vanished site of Pentellech/Pantyllech in Bayvil parish; the land of the de Hode family at Ricardston/Trereikart and Jordanston/Trewrdan which they had been given by FitzMartin in compensation for land previously held at Bury; and the land of the Cole family at Llwyngwair and Tredrissy/Bremelton.

The estates of Robert FitzMartin’s knights around Nevern, with glebe lands at Glastir shown in purple. (Base map: Ordnance Survey Surveyor’s Drawing of 1814, British Library)

Next to the Tregaman lands of the Peverels, and the Ricardston and Jordanston lands of the Hodes, there was a landholding which formed the glebe of the priest of the Anglo-Norman period church at Nevern, and bore a name that indicated its origin: Glastir or Clastir (‘Clas land’), a name recorded in 1343 and associated – according to a 15th century papal record – with an extended right of sanctuary called ‘noddfa’ which is characteristic of clas churches.

The Life of St Brynach mentions one of the small estates of the pre-Conquest clas church, the land of a ‘monk’ called Thelych. This Life was written in the 12th century in response, probably, to the threatened or actual Norman appropriation of church property. Its target may have been the Peverels (the family of Robert FitzMartin’s first wife, Matilda) whose Tregaman and Rhos Bayvil lands lay around the source of Brynach’s holy and miracle-giving river Caman, and must once have constituted a significant church estate. Their Pentellech/Pantyllech landholding, which lay on a hilltop in the Bayvil area and disappears from records after 1612, may perhaps be the ‘land of Thelych’ to which the Life makes claim.

The pre-Norman llys

The pre-Norman secular centre of Cemais was at Bayvil, a mile or so from Nevern. Here a range of evidence points to the presence of a royal ‘llys’ or court which would have been used by the Prince of Deheubarth / Dyfed on his periodic visits to the cantref. In the prince’s absence the cantref was administered by his ‘maer’ or steward. According to tradition, the maer at the time of the Norman Conquest was Cuhelyn, son of Gwynfardd Dyfed, whose descendants served the Anglo-Norman Lords of Cemais and retained extensive estates in the Nevern valley until modern times.

Place-names are our main source of evidence for this llys, since no other records of it survive, and as yet no archaeological evidence of it has been identified. A large number of place-names containing the element ‘Henllys’, meaning ‘old or former court’, are recorded from 1345 onwards in the area around between the modern Henllys farm and Castell Henllys, and suggest the former presence here of the llys. Bayvil also has 16th century records of bond tenancies which indicate the pre-Norman presence of royal bondmen, who supported the llys and lived in hamlets called ‘maerdrefi’ – Wales had no towns before the Normans arrived.

A 13th century llys as recreated at St Fagans National Museum of History. (Photo © Sean Kisby)

After the Conquest, Bayvil became one of the demesne manors of the Anglo-Norman Lord of Cemais. It covered a much larger area than the modern parish of Bayvil and included the Crugiau quarter of Nevern parish. A royal charter of 1338 records a weekly market and an annual three-day fair of St.Peter and St.Paul at the end of June, with the latter perhaps developing from a Feast of Translation of St Brynach on 26th June which is recorded in a 12th century calendar of Welsh saints.

The polyfocal structure of pre-Norman Bayvil and Nevern. Records of bond tenancies do not survive for the Nevern area. (Base map: Ordnance Survey Surveyor’s Drawing of 1814, British Library)

The pre-Norman landscape

The pre-Norman landscape of Bayvil, as reconstructed from later records, place-names and archaeological evidence,  was made up of a number of different foci – a royal court, various small hamlets, a market/ assembly area, and three cemeteries – interspersed with open (arable) fields and areas of shared pasture.

Two of the cemeteries had stone-lined burials of characteristically early medieval ‘long cist’ type (Felindre Farchog and Caer Bayvil, the latter having a 7th-9th century radiocarbon date).

The third, at Crugiau Cemais, had a square-ditched burial of high status post-Roman type. Crugiau Cemais (the ‘barrows or mounds of Cemais’, a name first recorded in 1349) is also distinctive for its late prehistoric enclosure with characteristic multiple defensive ramparts; and for its group of Bronze Age round barrows. Its ‘Cemais’ place-name suggests a site of regional significance.

Elsewhere in Bayvil, some of the 15th and 16th century names of (mostly lost) round barrows or mounds hint at gathering-places: Knokybayvil – hillock or knoll of Bayvil; Crugegwyr – mound of the (heroic) men or valiant warriors; and Crig y Bigelydd  – mound of the herdsmen.

The Bronze Age round barrows of Crugiau Cemais on the skyline, seen from the Henllys area. (Photo by R. Comeau)

These different elements were spread out across the agricultural landscape, often half a mile or so apart from each other. This particular patterning of sites is called a ‘polyfocal central zone’, and is found in many other pre-urban areas of early medieval north-west Europe. Archaeological records for prehistoric sites in Bayvil show equivalent hotspots of polyfocal activity, suggesting that its significance has deep roots.


Bayvil’s place-name, first recorded in 1273 as ‘Baivil(l)’, may itself be an indicator of its pre-Norman status. Although George Owen, in the 16th century, said that it derived from the Norman-French name ‘Beauville’ (‘beautiful town’), its pronunciation argues against this: the first element is not pronounced ‘beeoow’ (as happens in the Anglo-Norman place-names Beaumaris and Beaulieu) but as ‘bay’ (rhyming with ‘may’). In addition, there is no alternative Welsh name, which would be expected with an Norman re-naming (e.g. Moylgrove/Trewyddel and Newport/Trefdraeth). It is possible, therefore, that it is actually a modified Welsh name, with the first part of it perhaps incorporating a form of the Welsh word ‘pau’ , which also appears as ‘beu’. This is pronounced ‘pay’ or ‘bay’ and has meanings that include ‘cantref’ or ‘region’, suggesting a place of cantref-level importance.

The Nevern (Nanhyfer) place-name has a related meaning. First recorded in 865 as ‘Nant nimer’ / ‘Nant niver’, it indicates the ‘nant’ (river valley) of the ‘nifer’, a term which means ‘host, company, troop or retinue’ and is used in the Mabinogion to refer to the royal household troop of a Welsh prince: a very appropriate name given the indications of a pre-Norman royal centre at Bayvil.

Find out more

Dr Rhiannon Comeau investigated Bayvil as part of her PhD research into pre-Norman Cemais. You can find out more about her work at the links below.

Dr Rhiannon Comeau’s talk on ‘Pre-Norman focal zones and seasonality: a cantref-level case study’, given to the Cambrian Archaeological Association’s Darganfod conference on 10 April 2021

R. Comeau, ‘Bayvil in Cemais: an early medieval assembly site in south-west Wales?’ Medieval Archaeology 58 (2014), 270-284

R. Comeau, ‘Crop processing and early medieval settlement: the evidence for Bayvil, Pembrokeshire’. Medieval Settlement Research 36 (2021), 61-67.

R. Comeau, ‘Land, People and Power in Early Medieval Wales: the cantref of Cemais in comparative perspective (University College London PhD thesis 2019, published in 2020 by British Archaeological Reports (British Series B659) )