Rhys ap Thomas was born the third son of Thomas ap Gruffydd, and would die the most powerful man in Wales.
Neither birth order nor family would have predicted Rhys’s rise to greatness. His paternal grandfather, Gruffydd ap Nicolas, had earned the family fortune, but the family was made more respectable by marriage when Rhys’s father, Thomas ap Gruffydd, married the daughter of Sir John Gruffydd of Abermarlais. Through his mother, Rhys could thus claim descent from the Welsh princes. Rhys’s paternal family had also gained status by proving themselves able warriors while fighting for the Lancastrians during the Wars of the Roses.
According to lore, when Rhys was born there was some discussion of promising the baby to the Church. However, when Lewis of Caerleon cast the boy’s horoscope (and Lewis of Caerleon did do work for the family so the legend is plausible), the stars foretold that he was destined to achieve greatness and high honors. In expectation of this future, the young Rhys was was trained to be a knight instead.
The fortunes of Rhys’s family waxed and waned along with the Lancastrians. After Rhys’s grandfather was killed at the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross (the same Yorkist victory that resulted in the beheading of Henry Tudor’s grandfather, Owen Tudor), his father and uncle, Owain ap Gruffydd, continued to resist the Yorkists in Wales. Thomas and Owain defended Carreg Cennen Castle for several months until they were overwhelmed by siege. King Edward IV ordered Carreh Cennen razed to the ground to prevent it being used for further rebellion against him, and confiscated the Thomas ap Gruffydd’s lands.
Thomas, like many defeated Lancastrians, took his family and fled to France. Rhys therefore spent several years in the court of Philip the Good, the Duke of Burgundy, before the Readeption of Henry VI, allowed them to regain some of their lands and return to Wales. Rhys was the only one of Thomas’s sons left alive, so he inherited all of his father’s lands after Thomas died in 1474. Since the Lancastrian cause was all but gone, Rhys bowed to the inevitable and acknowledged Edward IV as his liege.
Things changed, though, after Richard of Gloucester usurped the throne from his nephews, Edward V, King of England and Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York – especially when the boys mysteriously disappeared shortly after their uncle became King Richard III. Now the Yorkist position on the throne was tenuous, and lacked popular support. Although Rhys did not take part in Buckingham’s Rebellion in October of 1483 (perhaps it was not a sure enough venture?) there is “little doubt” he had gotten in contact with Henry Tudor and the remnants of the Lancastrians in France.
Nonetheless, Richard III rewarded Rhys for not rising against him. Rhys was appointed “principal lieutenant in south west Wales and granted .. an annuity for life of 40 marks.” Richard did not fully trust Rhys, however, and demanded that Rhys give his 5 year old son, Gruffydd ap Rhys ap Thomas, into the king’s custody as a hostage for Rhys’s continued loyalty. Rhys supposedly claimed there was no need to send his son, because “nothing could bind him to his duty more strongly than his conscience.” He is also reported to have promised that any enemy of Richard’s “must resolve with himself to make his entrance and irruption over my belly” into Wales.
Supposedly Rhys stood under Mullock Bridge while Henry Tudor and his landing party marched over it, thereby fulfilling his promise that Richard’s enemies must walk over him to get into Wales.
Rhys, as both a Lancastrian and a Welshman, naturally joined Henry Tudor’s attempt to take the throne from King Richard III. His support was crucial to the success of the invasion, and during the Battle of Bosworth it was Rhys and his men that broke the attack by Richard’s supporter, John Howard, 1st Duke of Norfolk. Legendary Welsh bard Guto’r Glyn wrote that Rhys was “like the stars of a shield with the spear in their midst on a great steed” (“A Syr Rys mal sŷr aesaw, Â’r gwayw’n eu mysg ar gnyw mawr”) and that Rhys was the man who struck the blow that killed Richard III — “killed the boar, shaved his head” (“Lladd y baedd, eilliodd ei ben”.
Rhys ap Thomas was well rewarded for his loyalty to his new king, Henry VII. He was knighted on the field of Bosworth, and was soon after granted the offices of “Constable and Lieutenant of Breconshire, Chamberlain of Carmarthenshire and Cardiganshire, Seneschall and Chancellor of Haverfordwest, Rouse and Builth, Justiciar of South Wales, and Governor of all Wales.” In short, Rhys was so powerful in Wales he was the Tywysog Cymru in all but name. King Henry VII also made him a Privy Councilor, and when the royal heir arrived, Rhys’s son Gruffydd joined the household of Prince Arthur, becoming one of the prince’s closest companions.
Rhys stayed loyal to his Tudor king for the rest of his life. He commanded a cavalry troop against the forces of the pretender, Lambert Simnel, at the Battle of Stoke in the summer of 1487, and fought in later campaigns against another imposter, Perkin Warbeck. He also captured Lord Audeley, the leader of the Cornish Rebellion of 1497, and was made a Knight Banneret for his efforts.
With the riches he accrued during his services to Henry VI, Rhys mortgaged Carew Castle from the de Carew family and turned it into his family seat in Wales. He added several apartments, a gatehouse, and paned-glass windows. To mark the occasion of Arthur Tudor’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Rhys had the inner doorway of the castle decorated with the coat of arms of Henry VII, Arthur, and the prince’s new bride. When Rhys was made a Knight of the Garter in 1505, Rhys celebrated with a great tournament at Carew Castle that was attended by nearly every prominent family in Wales and the Welsh Marches.
Rhys’s only legitimate son was also favored. Not only did Gruffydd (who had his name Anglicized to Griffith Ryce or Rice in the records) have a privileged position as the Master of Horse in the household of Arthur, Prince of Wales, he was made a Knight of the Garter in 1501. Gruffydd was one of the young men who got to attend Arthur on his wedding day, and to hear Arthur boast that he had been “in the midst of Spain” after his wedding night. Gruffydd also went with Arthur and Catherine when they moved to Ludlow shortly after the wedding, and was there when Arthur tragically died there at age 15 on 2 April 1502.
As one of the young prince’s closest friends, Gruffydd “accompanied the Prince’s body from Ludlow to its final resting place in Worcester … “in mourning habit, rode next before the leading horse on a courser trapped with black, bearing the Prince’s banner.” He also carried Arthur’s “rich embroidered banner” during the funeral service itself.
Gruffydd remained in the Tudor court, and in 1507 he married Catherine St. John, great-granddaughter of Sir Oliver St. John and Margaret Beauchamp of Bletso. Margaret Beauchamp’s second husband was John Beaufort, 1st Duke of Somerset, and their daughter was Henry VII’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort. Thus, Gruffydd’s wife was a half-cousin of the king and and the king’s highly influential mother. A Victorian brass plaque on Gruffydd and Catherine’s tomb indicates that the couple had 11 children, 4 sons and 7 daughters who survived to adulthood, but there is a clear historical record of only one son, Rhys ap Gruffydd, born c. 1508.
When Henry VIII became king in 1509, Gruffydd was an important member of the new monarch’s court. Gruffydd would have been old enough to advise the new king, especially as a long-term friend of the family, but not so old as too be regulated to the fusty fuddy-duddies who would spoil Henry’s fun. Upon Henry VIII’s ascent to the throne, Gruffydd was named Chamberlain of South Wales and became an active member of the Council of the Marches. He was also one of the courtiers with Henry during the famous Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520.
On 12 March 1514 Gruffydd (and no doubt his sire) secured a marriage contract between Rhys ap Gruffydd and Catherine Howard, a daughter of Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk’s second wife, Agnes Tilney. It was agreed that the youngsters would marry in 1521, when the groom would be 14 years old. Unfortunately, Gruffydd ap Rhys died on 29 September of 1521, so he was never able to see the union between his son Rhys and Katherine Howard bear fruit. Gruffydd’s will stipulated that he be interred near his never-forgotten friend and liege, Arthur, Prince of Wales, in the crypts of Worchester Cathedral.
Young Rhys was now Rhys ap Thomas’s heir, and when his grandfather passed away at Carmarthen Priory in 1525, the teenaged Rhys was left one of the richest men in the kingdom. He was not, however, given his grandfather’s offices. Instead, Walter Devereux, Lord Ferrers, was created “Chief Justice of South Wales (22 Aug. 1525); High Steward of Builth (22 Aug. 1525); and Chamberlain of South Wales, Carmarthen and Cardigan (25 May 1526).” Worse, the positions were theoretically given to Devereux for life. Rhys was exceedingly angry about this.
Cardinal Thomas Wolsey would later be accused of getting Henry VIII to deliberately slight Rhys in order to take some of the wind out of the sails of an ‘over-mighty’ family, but this is improbable. If anything, Wolsey favored Rhys, who served in his household and would accompany him on diplomatic missions. The more likely explanation is that the king was trying to prevent Rhys from becoming the de facto sovereign of Wales as his grandfather had been. Henry VIII clearly wanted Wales to be brought more fully into the legal system of England, rendering Wales less into a semi-separate state and more into a part of the larger nation. Like Cornwall, Wales would retain its identity, but as a piece of England rather than distinct from it. The king was steadily whittling away at the authority of the Marcher lords and the Welsh magnates. He even curtailed some of the agency of his best friend, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, who had purchased the wardships of John Carew and Roger Corbet in 1513 and 1514, and used their Welsh estates to build a power base in the west. The last thing the king would have wanted was to have Rhys ap Gruffydd become as potent as his grandfather had been.
Rhys’s youth would have been a ready made excuse to deny him his grandfather’s posts. His replacement, Devereux, was 20 years older than Rhys and had held several high offices, in all of which he performed in an exemplary manner. He had been High Steward of Tamworth from 1510, joint Constable of Warwick Castle with Sir Edward Belknap since 1511, Joint Steward of the Manor of Warwick in 1512, became Keeper of Netherwood Park and a Councilor of Wales and the Marches in 1513, and the High Steward of Hereford in 1514. Not only that, he had proven himself in battle during the War of the League of Cambrai (1508–1516) and the Italian War of 1521-1526. By 1523 he had become a Knight of the Garter for “his gallantry in the sea battle off Le Conquet (Brittany)” and given the post of Captain of the English Army against France. Devereux was the king’s man through and through, and beholden to Henry for his authority in a way Rhys would not be.
Added to Rhys’s insult was the fact he had almost certainly been cheated of some of his inheritance via the thefts committed by some of his grandfather’s trusted men – Thomas Brein, John ap Dafydd ap Rhydderan, and Lewis ap Thomas ap John. John ap Dafydd ap Rhydderan had even been busted stealing silks and other valuables. All of these men transferred their allegiance to Devereux, hoping to get away with it because Devereux was now effectively in charge of the appeals court in Wales. For his part, Devereux was glad to help them, because he was determined to make the most of the powers he’d been given and to prevent them from being taken away and given back Rhys ap Gruffydd. Anything that lessened Rhys’s wealth (and therefore lessened Rhys’s ability to pay bribes and hire men at arms) was a boon for Devereux.
Rhys hoped Cardinal Wolsey could help him, but the Cardinal’s influence was deteriorating as he failed to secure the king the annulment from his first queen that Henry wanted. Rhys then made the error of turning against Anne Boleyn, whom he saw as the source of the Cardinal’s woes. This did not, of course, win him any points with Henry. Rhys would have been wiser to curry favor with Anne, who was his wife’s first cousin and at the height of her influence over the king.
The situation soon devolved to the point where Rhys’s retainers were having minor skirmishes Devereux’s retainers throughout the Welsh countryside. The presidency of the Council of the Marches, Bishop John Vesey, was worse than useless in this matter, preferring to send letters promising that Wales was in “great quietness” when the reality was very different.
The conflict continued to escalate. On 30 June 1528 Rhys and two of his men, Hugh and William Mores, were attacked on Devereux’s orders and imprisoned in Oxford Castle, just as Bishop Veysey was writing to London to assure everyone that the “matter between Lord Ferrers and young Mr Rhys is pacified”. Rhys and his men were released when Wolsey found out about their capture, but there is no evidence Devereux was reprimanded for his actions. Nor did things improve after December of that year when King Henry authorized both Rhys and Devereux to hire more retainers than was legal for other lords. Whether this was an asinine lack of foresight or an attempt to let both men keep each other in check, I cannot tell. The result was near chaos, though.
Initially, the common people of Wales, according to contemporary chroniclers, were firmly on Team Rhys. This not only made Devereux “envious and jealous”, it gave Henry VIII a good reason not to let Rhys have the plum Welsh offices back. Why would any king set up a courtier to potentially rival him for supremacy in Wales? Rhys squandered his early support, however, by trying impose illicit authority where he could and often to enrich his own coffers, alienating his Welsh supporters in the possess. He also made a tactical error when he attempted to bully the mayor and burgess in Tenby to deport Irish rebel immigrants, whom the Welsh sympathized with. When the leaders of Tenby refused to do as they were bid and lodged a formal complaint against him, Rhys had to get Wolsey to help him force the citizens of Tenby to obey him, which naturally vexed the locals. Rhys also manipulated legal matters in Pembrokeshire several time in order to further enrich himself, much to the anger of the local gentry.
At least a part of Rhys’s rash behavior had to have come from the resentment of knowing the king was denying him what he considered to be his ‘rightful’ inheritance — the governance of Wales. Since he didn’t dare challenge the king about it directly, it was Devereux who was the main target of Rhys’s ire. Possibly even worse, Rhys had to see Devereux in what Rhys considered his place and wielding his power. It stuck in Rhys’s craw, and the fact that Devereux, like most Tudor men, flaunted his positions did nothing to curb Rhys’s growing rage. Both men were surpassingly touchy about their status, and in June of 1529 things came to head during the preparations for the annual Court of Great Sessions in Carmarthen.
Both Rhys and Devereux were determined to get the ‘best’ lodging for themselves and their entourages in Carmathen. Rhys would later claim that Devereux had deliberately ignored the reservations on certain buildings and moved into them in order to spite and insult Rhys, while Devereux would claim that Rhys had deliberately tried to call dibs on buildings already reserved for Devereux’s party. Men loyal to both sides got into fisticuffs over the issue, but (with Devereux as final judge) ONLY Rhys’s men were arrested for it. One the evening of 15 June, Rhys and more than three dozen men at arms stormed into Devereux’s chamber at Carmarthen Castle so that Rhys could give Devereux a piece of his mind. The ‘argument’ grew so heated that Rhys and Devereux had drawn daggers and were threatening to gut each other before Rhys’s men were overwhelmed and Rhys himself arrested on Devereux’s authority.
Now the fat was truly in the fire. Rhys’s wife, Catherine Howard, rallied her husband’s supporters, who descended on Carmarthen. They warned Devereux that if he didn’t let Rhys go forthwith they’d burn Carmarthen Castle to the ground with Devereux still in it. Devereux released Rhys, and then wrote what can only be called a very pouty and hysterical letter to King Henry’s council, declaring that the Welsh were rebelling and that “there was not such an insurrection in Wales at any time that a man can remember.” In response, the council ordered both men to come to London (with witnesses) so the councilors could hear both sides of the tale. Before the journey to London could be made, though, Rhys’s usher and his falconer, Gruffyd ap Morgan and Gruffydd ap John, murdered Devereux’s justiciar, Reynold ap Morgan, on 6 August, creating even more bad blood between the Rhys and Devereux factions.
Wolsey heard both men out in when they came to London in September, but the Cardinal was up to his neck as one of the papal legates trying to straighten out the mess of Henry’s annulment and didn’t really have time for their shenanigans. Both men were given a 1000 bond and told to keep the peace until their case could be heard before the Star Chamber after Michaelmas. Furthermore, Rhys ap Gruffydd had to stay in London, and wasn’t allowed to return to Wales, where he could cause more trouble for the king’s representative. Rhys probably counted on his old friend Wolsey to find in his favor later, but unfortunately for them both the Cardinal fell dramatically out of favor shortly thereafter.
While Rhys remained confined to the capital, open warfare broke out between his family and Devereux in Wales. In the summer of 1530, Catherine Howard laid siege to some of Devereux’s castles in an attempt to ‘recover’ them for her husband’s or to punish Devereux, while Rhy’s cousin James ap Gruffydd ap Hywel refusing to relinquish one of Rhy’s castles in Emlyn to Devereux in spite of the fact it was on the king’s authority. Henry, already fratchty because his annulment was being blocked at every turn, was in no mood for further challenges to his authority and was quite irked by Rhys’s rebellion against the king’s representitive. Henry had Rhys arrested on 15 October 1530 and imprisoned in the Tower to cool his jets. Rhys, it seems, had to learn that the king decided what was permissible in Wales, whether Rhys liked it or not. Nonetheless, Rhys was still the grandson of the man who helped put Henry VII on the throne, so his life wasn’t truly in danger at this point. Rhys was released for ‘ill health’ in June of 1531, but he still wasn’t allowed to return to Wales.
He wouldn’t be free long.
Rhys was arrested again on 26 October 1531 and this time the charge was treason. His steward, William Wolf, had given a deposition that Rhys and co-conspiritor William Hughes plotted in league with James V of Scotland, who would invade from the North, depose and kill Henry VIII, and make Rhys ap Gruffydd ap Thomas the new Tywysog Cymru, Prince of Wales. Rhys had supposedly sent a man named Edward Llwyd to talk James ap Gruffydd ap Hywel into joining the insurrection. There was hpe among the conspirators that James V and Rhys were the “Red Hand and the Raven” or the that Rhys was the crow from the line of Dinefwr which had been prophesied to conquer England. Moreover, Rhys had allegedly changed his name and arms to Rhys ap Gruffydd fitz Urien, signifying his decent from King Urien of Rheged, one of the old Breton Kings of the North, and a vassal of King Arthur. Adding the name fitz Urien would have signaled that Rhys was royal, and thus fit to become ruler of Wales.
Many people of the Tudor era, and some modern historians, believe the charges against Rhys to have been trumped up by his enemies – with Devereux as the ringleader. Some believed (and still believe) it was an elaborate plot by Henry to remove a thorn from his side in Wales. I don’t know if the charges against Rhys were falsified or not, but the king seems to have believed the accusations against Rhys were true. This could have been more paranoia than percipience on the Henry’s part. By 1531 the king had begun to undergo an alteration in his personality, either due to frontal lobe damage of his brain from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or from the onset of McLeod’s syndrome. In Henry’s new frame of mind, he was inclined to believe even the most bizarre conspiracy theories regarding his crown, let alone one as plausible as an angry heir of Rhys ap Thomas attempting to regain control of Wales.
Rhys was found guilty of treason on 4 December 1531 and executed that same day on Tower Hill. In the same way Thomas More would be in spared in 1535, Rhys did not have to suffer being hanged, drawn, and quartered. This was a mark of favor to Rhys’s father and grandfather, men whom King Henry had respected and appreciated. William Hughes, in contrast, suffered the full traitor’s death within hours of his lord’s demise.
The mortal remains of Rhys ap Gruffydd ap Thomas fitz Urien were interred in Holy Cross Friary, near to the Tower, which was destroyed during the Reformation. His loving and fierce wife, Catherine, would make a hasty and prudent remarriage to Henry Daubeney, 2nd Baron Daubeney. She would return to court, and use her Howard connections to promote her children’s interests.
Rhys and Catherine’s eldest son, Gruffydd Rice, was made a ward of Richard Foxe, Bishop of Durham, and would regain some of the lost family lands under Queen Mary I, but promptly lost them again in 1557 when he was convicted of the murder of Mathew Walshe. He was pardoned by Queen Elizabeth I, but most of the former lands held by his father had been disposed of by then. Queen Elizabeth did:
return some of his mother’s lands in south Pembrokeshire and the Llandeilo and Iscennen (modern Llandybie) estates to Gruffydd in 1560, which amounted to about 1,000 acres in total, little more than today’s Dinefwr Park. But in 1623 the next member of the Rice dynasty, Gruffydd’s son Walter Rice (1562–1636) was granted the Tywi Valley estates in full by James I – but only if he conceded his mother’s Pembrokeshire lands … The Rices did increase their land holdings in later centuries, but by inheritances and judicious marriages such as that into the wealthy Hobby family of Neath Abbey about 1700 and the Talbot family in 1756 … It was Sir Walter’s son, Sir Henry Rice (1590–1651), who wrote the biography of Sir Rhys ap Thomas and his family, sometime in the 1620s, in an attempt to rehabilitate the family name, though it was not published until 1796.
The Rice family remained important in the Carmarthenshire area, notwithstanding their prior disenfranchisement, becoming mayors and sherriffs and other officials. One of Gruffydd Rice’s descendants, Edward Rice, was M.P. for the county in 1722, and his son, George Rice, was also an M.P. Additionally, was George Rice was “made Lord Lieutenant of Carmarthenshire in May 1755 (reappointed 23 June 1761), and … Chamberlain of Brecon and of Breconshire, Glamorgan, and Radnorshire in 1765, and was sworn in mayor of Carmarthen on 5 June 1767.” He would eventually rise to Treasurer of the Chamber for King George III. George’s wife was Cecil de Cardonnel, 2nd Baroness Dynevor (Anglicized spelling of Dinefwr), heir of one of the people who had been given the Rice family’s estates in the previous century, so George’s eldest son, George Talbot-Rice, became 3rd Baron Dynevor (Dinefwr) and reunited the Rice name with the Dinefwr title.
The direct descendant of George Rice and Cecil Talbot, Walter Fitz Uryan Rice, 7th Baron Dynevor petitioned the crown to change the surname Rice back to Rhys in 1916. The current (and 10th) Baron Dynevor is Hugo Griffith Uryan Rhys, and the heir presumptive as the 11th Baron is Robert David Arthur Rhys, a great-grandson of Walter Rice, 7th Baron Dynevor, as well as the grandson of the 5th Duke of Wellington. The future 12th Baron was born in 2002.
The Dinefwr lands, however, are no longer in the Rhys family hands. The National Trust bought the deer park and the outer park at Dinefwr, as well as Newton House, the East Drive, and the Home Farm for 700 acres in total, which they now managed with the help of Cadw.