The Lord Rhys

There are no contemporary images of Rhys ap Gruffudd. The effigy in St David’s Cathedral is of an unnamed knight of the 14th-15th century

Rhys ap Gruffudd was born in 1132, grandson of Rhys ap Tewdwr, the 11th century Prince of Deheubarth, one of two Welsh client kings appointed by William the Conqueror. Though family fortunes had waned, his father Gruffudd ap Rhys was one of the principal Welsh leaders at their victory at Crug Mawr in 1136. The family was in frequent conflict with both Welsh and Anglo-Norman lords as they sought to recover their ancestral lands and social position. This was accomplished, in part, because many of the Anglo-Norman lords were pre-occupied with the struggle for the English crown between Stephen and Matilda. After Gruffudd ap Rhys died in 1137, he was succeeded in turn by Rhys’s older half-brothers, first Anarawd, then Cadell and then Maredudd, by which time the family had retaken much of Deheubarth. From Maredudd’s death in 1155, Rhys became ruler of much of west Wales.
Rhys ap Gruffudd was one of the first Welsh leaders to build castles as a means of holding and controlling territory. Rhys surrendered territory to Henry II in 1158, but after Henry had been driven back from Wales in 1165, Rhys recaptured the lands of Deheubarth, and after reaching agreement with Henry in 1171-2, peace ensued until Henry’s death in 1189.
Between 1155-1197, Rhys was the most prominent lord in Wales and used the title ‘Prince of the South Welsh’ in several documents. He used mounted soldiers, castles, codified laws, towns and annual taxes— methods often associated with the Anglo-Normans—to capture, control and administer the lands and people of Deheubarth. However, he also promoted the Welsh language and culture, and respected Welsh traditions and social systems.

Read more about Rhys

Robert FitzMartin

Robert’s father, Martin de Tiron (de Turribus) was a knight in the retinue of William FitzOsbern, who came to England with William the Conqueror. When FitzOsbern was appointed Earl of Hereford in 1067, Martin was granted lordship of Tregrug (Llangybi) in Gwent. When Martin died, his wife Geva de Burci, an heiress in her own right, remarried another of the Norman invaders, William de Falaise.
By the time Robert FitzMartin came of age after 1102, he inherited property from his father Martin, his maternal grandfather Serlo de Burci, and his stepfather William. Thus he had lands in Somerset, Dorset and Devon, besides the lordship of Tregrug.

In the early 12th century, the Normans under King Henry I sought to annex Pembrokeshire to their lands, and Martin’s family was authorized to take Cemaes. It’s unclear whether Martin had already captured land there, or whether Robert began the invasion himself. The grant of the land may have been a wedding present from the King to Robert and his new wife Matilda (or Maud) Peverel.
At any rate, in 1108 Robert built a castle at Nevern as a base from which to enforce his rule over Cemais.
When Henry I granted Robert the Island of Caldy (off Tenby), he gave it to his mother, Geva, who passed it to the Tironian monks of St Dogmaels. By 1134, Robert had become a notable Anglo-Norman lord.
When Henry died in 1136, a long fight for the English throne ensued, a period known as The Anarchy. The contestants were Henry’s daughter, another Matilda (the Empress Maud), and her cousin Stephen. Robert supported Matilda and her son, who eventually became King Henry II. In1155, after the conflict was resolved, Henry II confirmed to Robert the lands of his grandfather, Serlo de Burci, with all their liberties.
By the reign of Henry II, Robert’s first wife had died, and he had married Alice de Nonant of Totnes, with whom he had had three children. Robert died in 1159 and was buried in Totnes Priory. His eldest son William FitzMartin remained a ward of the king until he came of age and inherited his father’s lands and titles.
Though Robert established the Anglo-Norman presence in Cemais, his subsequent attention to the area was limited by his involvement in the Anarchy and dealing with his other estates. However, when young William came of age, his claim to the cantref was actively supported by Henry II.

Matilda Peverel

Matilda Peverel’s family was long established with extensive lands in Normandy. They came over from France with the 1066 conquest, and gained lands in Devon and elsewhere in England. They must have spent much time commuting between and managing their holdings in Normandy, Devon and London, where they were prominent members of the court of King Henry I.

Matilda was born c.1080. She came over to Devon as a young woman, quite likely to help with the children of her cousin Alize. There she met a neighbour, Robert FitzMartin, a young knight of a similar background to herself, whose family had lands abroad and was favoured by King Henry. It’s thought likely that Henry’s wedding gift to the couple was the licence to establish themselves as landlords of Cemais.

All prominent landlords supported the Church, and this couple were no exception. Matilda, with her own means, made grants of lands to several abbeys, and established Carswell priory in Devon. At Matilda’s suggestion, the couple established St Dogmaels Abbey as a subsidiary of the monastery at Robert’s ancestral home of Tiron (Tours). The Tironesian monks emphasized the individual’s relationship with God as opposed to rule by the Roman papacy; and were perhaps better attuned to attitudes in Wales, where the Celtic church fought to keep its independence from Rome.

If Matilda had children, none of them survived. She died around 1140.

Matilda held 200 acres of demesne forest in Cemaes; a fact remembered in the place name “Moyle Grove”.

Rulers of England

Henry I

(b1068, reign 1100-1135)
Fourth son of William the Conqueror. He and his brothers had many battles over control of Normandy and England.
Supported Anglo-Saxon legal system, but introduced taxation and a system of circuit judges.

Only one legitimate child survived him, Matilda.

Before his death, Henry declared that Matilda should succeed him on the throne – a controversial decision that split allegiances among the powerful barons and churchmen.

Empress Matilda

(1102-1167) Henry I’s daughter, and a grandchild of William the Conqueror. Married to the Emperor of Germany when she was eight. He died, but she had two sons with her second husband.


(1092-1154) A son of Henry’s sister Adela and the Count of Blois. He was prominent in his uncle’s court, and on Henry’s death, he took the throne. The barons of England were divided, resulting in a civil war known as “The Anarchy.” Eventually, after Stephen’s son Eustace died, he acknowledged that Matilda’s son Henry should succeed him.

Henry II

(1133-1189) Son of Empress Matilda, and a great grandson of William the Conqueror. He acceded to control not only of England, but substantial parts of Ireland and France – partly through his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine. During his reign, he united England, extended his boundaries to all of western France, and strengthened control over Wales and Ireland. His sons included future kings Richard I and John (who managed to lose most of the lands abroad). As was the habit of the time, they all led armies against each other.

Gerald of Wales

Giraldus Cambrensis, Gerald of Wales, was the most notable author and scholar of his generation, as well as a churchman and diplomat. He is best known for his lively and fascinating books A Journey through Wales and The Description of Wales, based on his eventful tour of the country in 1188.
Born and raised in Manorbier Castle in south Pembrokeshire, Gerald was third son of the marcher lord William de Barri and his half-Welsh wife Angharad. He thus had family connections to many lords and princes of Wales as well as to major Marcher families. He was educated at St Peter’s Abbey in Gloucester and in Paris University where he later taught. In 1175 Giraldus became Archdeacon of Brecon and began a career in church politics and as a scholar. In 1184 he joined the court of Henry II as chaplain, where he acted as a diplomat, and was often employed as envoy between Henry and the Welsh lords and princes.
In 1188 he made a tour of Wales with Baldwin, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to recruit men to join the Third Crusade (in which Baldwin was eventually killed). Along the way, he observed ordinary life, landscape and lore and published them in two fascinating accounts.
In the written tradition of the time, Gerald is both over-generous and over-critical of his countrymen. He paints a detailed picture of the ordinary peasants of Wales. They had few possessions and lived by subsistence farming but had a love of warfare, talking and music. He says of them:

The Welsh value distinguished birth and noble descent more than anything else in the world. They would rather marry into a noble family than a rich one…. They do not live in towns, villages or castles, but lead a solitary existence deep in the woods. It is not their habit to build great palaces or vast towering structures of stone and cement. Instead they content themselves with wattled huts on the edges of forests, put up with little labour or expense, but strong enough to last a year or so….. They use oxen to pull their ploughs and carts…. Most of their land is used for pasture…. They plough the soil once in March and April for oats…. In this way the whole population lives almost entirely on oats and the produce of their herds, milk, cheese, and butter. They eat plenty of meat, but little bread. They pay no attention to commerce, shipping or industry, and their only preoccupation is military training.
Both men and women cut their hair short and shape it round the ears and eyes … the women cover their heads with a flowing white veil which sticks up in folds like a crown…. The men shave their beards, leaving only their moustaches…. Both sexes take great care of their teeth … they are constantly cleaning them with green hazel shoots and then rubbing them with woollen cloth until they shine like ivory…. The Welsh are given neither to gluttony nor to drunkenness. They spend little on food or clothes…. They go barefoot or else wear boots made of untanned leather roughly sewn together…. In the evening they eat a modest meal. If food is short or they have none at all, they wait patiently for the next evening…. In a Welsh house there are no tables, no tablecloths and no napkins. Everyone behaves quite naturally, with no attempt whatsoever at etiquette. You sit down in threes … and they put the food in front of you, all together on a single large trencher [wooden platter]…. Sometimes they serve the main dish on bread rolled out large and thin, and baked fresh every day…. Alongside one of the walls is placed a communal bed, stuffed with rushes, and not all that many of them. For sole covering there is a stiff harsh brychan [sheet]…. They all go to bed together. They keep on the same clothes which they have worn all day, a thin cloak and a tunic, which is all they have to keep the cold out. A fire is kept burning all night at their feet … and they get some warmth from the people sleeping next to them.
Everyone’s home is open to all. For the Welsh, generosity and hospitality are the greatest of all virtues…. When they play their instruments they charm and delight the ear with the sweetness of their music…. Nature has endowed [the Welsh] with great boldness in speaking and great confidence in answering, no matter what the circumstances may be…. They love sarcastic remarks and libellous allusions, plays on words, sly references, ambiguities and equivocal statements. Some of these are just for fun, but they can be very bitter.

Painting commissioned by CADW in 1988 to commemorate the 800th anniversary of Gerald’s tour