He was the son of Tewdwr ap Cadell and thus a descendant of the great tenth-century prince Hywel Dda, but no one from his direct male line had held the kingship since the tenth century. Rhys's rise to power benefitted from the stalled Norman advance into southern Wales after 1075 as well as the efforts of his distant cousin Caradog ap Gruffudd (lord of Gwent Uch Coed and Iscoed) to eliminate dynastic rivals in pursuit of his own claims. Brut y Tywysogyon dates the beginning of his rule circa 1078 without stating the bounds of his domain.
Rhys won a momentous victory in 1081 at the battle of Mynydd Carn where he allied with the Gwynedd lord Gruffudd ap Cynan who had recruited a mercenary force from Ireland. The laconic notice in the earliest (circa 1100) text of the Annales Cambriae states that Rhys and Gruffudd defeated Caradog together with his allies Trahaearn ap Caradog (lord of Arwystli, Ardudwy, and Meirionydd and the most powerful prince in northern Wales) and Meilyr ap Rhiwallon of Powys. A more elaborate account of uncertain objectivity comes from the History of Gruffudd ap Cynan where Gruffudd returns from exile in Ireland with a fleet provided by Diarmait son of Enna, a grandson of the great Diarmait mac Máel na mbó. He lands at Porthclais, near the Cathedral of St. Davids, and is met by Rhys, who claims that he was expelled from the kingship of Deheubarth and found sanctuary in the cathedral community. After acknowledging Gruffudd as his overlord and promising half his kingdom, the two men lead their supporters to victory in battle against Caradog ap Gruffudd, the men of Gwent, Glamorgan, the Normans, Meilyr ap Rhiwallon and Trahaearn of Arwystli. The alliance did not survive the triumph and Rhys departed secretly fearing treachery from Gruffudd who showed his displeasure by ravaging Deheubarth. Rhys's victory upset the Norman tactic of ‘divide and control’ in South Wales and probably was at least partly responsible for the famous ‘pilgrimage’ to St. David's by King William I of England in that year. Modern opinion believes that Rhys submitted to William, but no medieval record is aware of it, although the statement in the Herefordshire Domesday that Rhys rendered £40 in tax to William argues for some acquiescence.
Challenges to Rhys's rule revived following William's death. He was temporarily expelled from his kingdom in 1088 by three nobles from Powys: Madog, Cadwgan, and Rhirid, the sons of Bleddyn ap Cynfyn. Rhys fled to Ireland and recruited a mercenary force. Upon his return to Wales later that year, Rhys met his enemies at a place called variously Portlethern or Llech y crau, where he was victorious, killing Madog and Rhirid. Three years later Rhys defeated and killed a distant cousin named Gruffudd ap Maredudd (who had been living on his estates in Herefordshire) in a battle at Llandudoch (St. Dogmaels). His end came during Easter week 1093 when Rhys was attacked and killed by the Norman settlers in Brycheiniog led by Bernard de Neufmarché, who was the husband of Gruffudd ap Llywelyn's granddaughter Nest. Welsh and English chronicles claim that the death of Rhys opened Wales to the advancing Normans.
Rhys is also remembered because of his family connections. According to Achau Brenhinoedd a Thywysogion Cymru, Rhys's wife Gwladus was the daughter of Rhiwallon ap Cynfyn, thereby the cousin of his opponents in 1088. He had three known children: Gruffudd (died 1137) who succeeded his father in southern Wales after a lapse of two decades; Hywel; and a daughter named Nest. His descendants included the historian Gerald de Barri, better known as Gerald of Wales, and Rhys ap Gruffudd (‘the Lord Rhys’) who dominated Wales at the end of the twelfth century. Notwithstanding his slaughter of dynastic competitors, Rhys was remembered as a pious individual and the hermit Caradog of Rhos emerged from his court to begin a life of religious solitude.
Published date: 2016-07-07
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Grandson of Cadell ab Einion ab Owain ap Hywel Dda. In 1075 he took possession of Deheubarth on the death of his second-cousin, Rhys ab Owain ab Edwin. In 1081 he was dislodged by Caradog ap Gruffydd, but later in the year, with the help of Gruffudd ap Cynan, he was firmly reinstated after the historic battle of Mynydd Carn. In the same year William the Conqueror made a demonstration of power in South Wales, traversing the land as far as S. Davids; it is reasonably certain that during the visit the two kings came to an agreement as to their future good relations, which lasted to the end of William's reign. A few years later it is recorded that Rhys is paying the king £40 a year for Deheubarth, thereby becoming a vassal of the Norman Crown and establishing a precedent with lasting consequences on Anglo-Welsh relations.
Henceforth, with the exception of the closing tragedy of his career, Rhys had only to contend with the jealousies of his fellow princes. In 1088 he was attacked by the young rulers of Powys and was obliged to seek refuge in Ireland, but he soon returned and, with Danish help, decisively defeated his opponents Madog, Rhiryd, and Cadwgan ap Bleddyn. Again in 1091 he was opposed by a group of his own vassals in Dyfed, who sought to restore the kingship to the senior line of Hywel Dda in the person of Gruffydd ap Maredudd ab Owain. At Llandudoch (S. Dogmaels) on the Teifi the rebels were defeated and Gruffydd killed. Meanwhile the Norman conquest of the south had gathered a new momentum after William's death in 1087, and among the territories then being over-run was the old kingdom of Brycheiniog. It was while resisting the Norman advance in this all-important approach to his own dominions that Rhys was killed in uncertain circumstances near Aberhonddu (Brecon).
He was virtually the last of the ancient kings of Deheubarth, and it was in a different political setting that the power of the dynasty was eventually revived by his grandson — Rhys ap Gruffydd. He married Gwladus, daughter of Rhiwallon ap Cynfyn. He was survived by two sons, Gruffydd ap Rhys and Hywel, and by a daughter, Nest.
Published date: 1959
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