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Rhys ap Gruffydd

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Above: tomb effigy at St. Davids said to be Rhys ap Gruffydd


n south Wales a major development in the 12th century was the establishment of Rhys ap Gruffydd - known as The Lord Rhys - as the ruler of a reinvigorated kingdom of Deheubarth. After Gruffydd's death in 1137 his four sons worked closely together to defend and consolidate their territory. Each son, Anarawd, Cadell, Maredudd and Rhys took the lead in succession, and there seems to have been no discord between them. Their raids extended from west Wales to the lordship of Glamorgan. Anarawd was assassinated by men from north Wales in 1143; Cadell and his younger brothers achieved the reconquest of Ceredigion, making it once more part of Deheubarth, before Cadell was wounded so severely by Normans from Tenby that he was effectively removed from the political scene. Maredudd died in 1155, leaving Rhys as ruler of the southern kingdom.

It was a remarkably peaceful and bloodless succession. Between 1158 and 1165 Rhys was under heavy pressure from Henry II. He was persuaded to submit, despite the loss of territory involved when Ceredigion and Cantref Bychan were restored to their Norman lords. Immediate retaliation by Rhys and his kinsmen, an attempt to take Carmarthen in 1159, and a successful attack on Llandovery in 1162 pointed for Henry II a recurrent danger: the Welsh prince would not accept an enhanced Anglo-Norman presence in West Wales. For Rhys, submission and defiance were part of the dynamic border conflict. In the late 1160s the political climate in south Wales changed and Henry had to reassess the place of the Welsh prince and the marcher lords in his polity.

The change sprang from Richard Strongbow's interest in Ireland. Ireland was a magnet for men from west Wales, and in particular for the sons and grandsons of Nest, daughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr. To check their independence in Ireland, Henry embarked on his own expedition in 1171; he and his successors retained a close interest in the Irish lands conquered by Anglo-Norman settlers, and royal officials played an important part in their affairs. In Wales, it was a valuable expedient for the king and the prince of Deheubarth to make common cause; how soon this was mooted is hard to say, but by the autumn of 1171 the terms of their rapprochement had been agreed. For Rhys, the first and most important result was the confirmation of his tenure of the lands he had conquered, Ceredigion, Cantref Bychan, Emlyn, and two commotes near Carmarthen. The final confirmation on his standing came with the style justiciar for south Wales; an English title which carried the clear delegation of royal authority was used to cover jurisdiction over Welsh leaders and communities which looked to Rhys from the lordships of Gwynllwg, Usk, Caerleon, Glamorgan, Elfael and Maelienydd.

While Henry lived, Rhys was a trusted agent and ally. For his part, Rhys was content to make the most of his relationship with the king, but he continued to think and act as an independent Welsh prince. He rebuilt Cardigan Castle for his own use, and he used marriage alliances to consolidate his position. As the 12th century drew to a close, Rhys was once again engaged in campaigning against the crown and the greater lords of the southern march, and at the same time he was deeply implicated in internal feuds among his kindred. These struggles presaged the decline of his dynasty and the eclipse of his kingdom. By the time of his death in 1197 he had been an active participant in war and politics for sixty years, and he had been the dominate ruling prince in Wales for more than forty years.

David Walker, Medieval Wales. Cambridge University Press, 1990.


Essay: The Last Campaign of Prince Rhys ap Gruffydd of Deheubarth
Genealogy of The Lord Rhys and the rulers of Deheubarth

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