THE LORDS OF AFAN; a revisionist survey


There are two main problems in researching and writing about medieval Wales. The first is the lack of source material. The various courts of the princes and other institutions undoubtedly kept records, but these have all too often been lost or deliberately destroyed. We know, for instance, that Edward I had a substantial amount of records sent off to the Tower of London from North Wales; in London they were apparently disposed of, just possibly because they had been kept in the Welsh language. (There are, of course, the English state records which provide information on English-Welsh interactions, but they are naturally one-sided.) The second problem is the fact that, partly, though not entirely, due to this loss, we generally see Wales and all things Welsh from an English point of view though Wales is quite firmly NOT England. At its worst this turns into a kind of Horrible Histories parody of the Nasty Normans and the Whimpering Welsh, but it is an attitude that lies behind all too many accounts of the history of Wales.

Until recently it never seems to have occurred to the natives that Aberafan Castle was built by anyone other than their own Caradoc ap Iestyn, first Lord of Afan. What remained of the castle was finally demolished c. 1895 and it had not been lived in for several centuries, but the ruins had had a central place in civic ceremonies up until then. However, the Tourist Board Year of the Castles back in the nineteen eighties inspired a number of accounts of the castles of Wales, past and present, and this was when a new story made its appearance. We have very little evidence about what actually happened in Aberafan. The only extant reference to the early castle is from 1153, when the original timber castle was attacked and burnt, not by the Normans, but by Rhys ap Gruffydd and his brother Maredudd who were uncles of Morgan ap Caradoc, the second Lord of Afan. From this came the new version that Aberafan had been a Norman castle, not a Welsh one, and Caradoc and his family had been ordered to build Kenfig Castle for Robert Fitzhamon, their overlord. In this version the lordship of Afan had been based, if at all, at Plas Baglan, a mile or so away. In fairness, this suggestion did not come entirely from the 1153 reference; it was also likely to have been suggested by the fact that Aberafan, commanding an important river crossing on the road to west Wales and Ireland, had remained in Welsh hands. The Lords of Afan were not tame Welshmen; they fought one another and the Normans whenever they needed to do so, and they continued to hold their lordship for another two centuries and more. Clearly things were more complicated than generally assumed.

It is, perhaps, worth taking a minute to analyse the reference in Brut y Tywysogion. Why were Maredudd and Rhys attacking Aberafan Castle at a time when their efforts were concentrated on regaining their own lands in West Wales? In The Castles of the Welsh Princes Paul Davis suggests that they were helping their kinsman, Morgan ap Caradoc, presumably against a Norman force that had occupied the castle. However, that seems unlikely, unless it was a very brief occuption. No Norman lord is associated with Aberafan in the way that, for example, the Turbervilles were associated with Coity, which would suggest that if they did hold Aberafan at any point, it was as a garrison rather than as the centre of a lordship. Then again, Rhys and Maredudd are said to have gone away with vast quantities of plunder, which seems unlikely. Was the reference an error, a confusion with somewhere else, perhaps in Ceredigion? Even if the attack was the result of a family quarrel, Aberafan was well away from Deheubarth, and with enemy territory in between the two places, not least Kidwelly, where Rhys and Maredudd had lost their mother and brothers.

Unfortunately, there appears to be no surviving picture of the castle there was a rumour that one existed somewhere in the town, but if so, it has never come to light. The 1876 Ordnance Survey map includes the site a rectangle with a surrounding ditch and a tump in the middle, just over the wall from St. Mary`s church. Surveys note it as `a small mound on an oblong moated platform` c. 160 feet by 180 feet (56x46m). The mound seems too small to be a motte, but it could have been a central keep. How substantial the castle actually was is difficult to judge. The lords of Afan moved away sometime between 1350 and 1373 when their estates had passed to Edward Despencer, Lord of Glamorgan, in exchange for lands in England and whether anyone lived in the castle after that is unknown, though the office of Constable of the castle continued till the late 19th century. Later visitors speak of it as `ruined` but the remains do seem to have been more than the odd heap of stones. In 1895, when the site was being levelled for the building of Castle Street `a mass of masonry, stones and mortar, extending about forty feet had to be removed to a depth of ten feet, which necessitated the making of cellars under the houses. Within living memory there remained above the mound a portion of wall about six feet high.` There is still a cellar, said to be part of the castle, under the first house at the top end of Castle Street, and part of the masonry was built into the houses in St. Mary`s Place (now demolished).

No-one other than Caradoc ap Iestyn and his descendants ever seems to have been associated with the castle. Its ghost, the traditional white lady, is said to be that of Lady Margaret, mother of Sir John, one of the last of the family to live in Aberafan, or else Jane, Sir John`s grand-daughter. The two legends attached to the site both refer to Welsh heroes. The first is admittedly a little doubtful, coming from the Iolo MSS; it tells of a certain Dafydd Ddu Gynllynwr, Black David the Wanderer, who took refuge from thirteen enemies in the `Castle hall door` and proceeded to slay eleven of them on the spot. He then pursued the other two and killed them. Martin Phillips, who recorded the other tale in the Transactions of the Aberafan and Margam Historical Society, gives no source, but had clearly picked up many local oral traditions for his article on local folklore. He says that Caradoc ap Iestyn, being pursued by his enemies, hid in a mound near the castle. The enemies searched the castle but found no sign of Caradoc; they would have searched the mound, but there were a number of doves there, happily cooing away, and they assumed that this meant the birds had not been disturbed by the fugitive, so the pursuers left the scene. Whether these men were Welsh or Norman is not stated. There is no date for this; it is just possible that this relates to the 1153 attack on the castle, though this is usually seen as happening in the time of Caradoc`s son, Morgan.

According to the Brut y Tywysogion Rhys and Maredudd ap Gruffydd attacked together, killing the garrison and burning the castle. `They brought from thence immense spoil and innumerable riches.` This sounds like the contents of a major castle like Cardiff or Chepstow, but no Norman lord seems to have been associated with Aberafan and the reference to `immense spoil` hardly sounds like a Norman garrison put there to hold the river crossing. There are two other suggestions that It was the native princes who held the lordship. One is Gerald of Wales`s description in 1188 of Morgan ap Caradoc as `the prince of that place`. Then, in 1199, the priest of St. Mary`s, Aberafan, the garrison church for the castle, who signed a document at Margam Abbey in that year, was called Wrgan not an Anglo-Norman name, though the monks at Margam Abbey were still largely incomers. Would a Norman lord have had a Welsh priest as his chaplain?

However, if the Lords of Afan were indeed in charge in their lordship, it suggests that the current picture of ruthless Normans marching in and taking over regardless, treating the native leaders as mere servants, is not quite correct, and it could be profitable to look more closely at the events and people involved


On October 14th, 1066, when he won the battle of Hastings, William of Normandy also ensured that he would have a clear run in his new kingdom. If Harold had survived, or if he had left an adult heir, then any resistance would have had a legitimate leader but Harold died on the battlefield and though there were those who objected to William`s takeover, there was no comparable figure to rally round.

Scotland was a separate and sizeable realm; it could be left for the moment. Wales, however, was a patchwork of smaller kingdoms, due as much as anything to the Welsh laws of inheritance which meant that when one ruler managed, by inheritance, marriage or conquest, to unite most of Wales under himself, on his death the kingdom would be available for all his heirs; primogeniture depended on one heir being strongest. (To some extent this was also the case with the Conqueror`s heirs William I gave England to William Rufus and Normandy to Robert, but when Rufus died, it was Henry, the youngest son, who took and held England.) The Welsh version is usually seen as a disadvantage, but in practice it may well be why England was captured in a day, where it took well over two centuries to conquer Wales and another two and a half before the Act of Union completed the process.

William I had enough to do in completing his conquest and confirming, via the Domesday Census, what he had won. He allowed some of his leading barons to set up what were to become Marcher Lordships Shrewsbury, Chester, Hereford but for the moment Wales was left to its own devices. It was William II, William Rufus, in whose reign the invasion of Wales really began.

The largest kingdom in the south of Wales was Deheubarth, which had been claimed by Rhys ap Tewdwr c. 1078, though his rule was under attack by other princes from time to time. In 1081 William I visited St. David`s; he came in some force and as a result Rhys came to an agreement with him, which included the payment of 40 a year to William. This would have been a treaty of mutual assistance as much as anything, since Rhys had enough enemies at home to make an alliance with a stronger power useful.

William I died in September 1087, having, as noted, left his Duchy of Normandy to his eldest son Robert, and England to William Rufus. Initially these two agreed to be each other`s heirs, but some of the barons preferred Robert as king, and in 1088 there was an unsuccessful attempt to put him on the throne of England. Among those involved in the rebellion were Robert Fitzhamon, a kinsman of the Conqueror, and Bernard de Neufmarche. Fitzhamon supported William and was given the feudal barony of Gloucester as a reward; de Neufmarche had been among the rebels, but seems to have been forgiven. He had been given lands in the Marches and his wife was the great-granddaughter of Gruffydd ap Llywelyn and Edith of Mercia. Now he was allowed encouraged? - to expand into Wales, to the kingdom of Brycheiniog. Fitzhamon too expanded into South Wales, in his case through Gwent and into the Vale of Glamorgan, where he presumably came into contact with Iestyn ap Gwrgan, the king of Glamorgan. This was smaller and less powerful than Deheubarth, but still a kingdom. Although Wales included a number of kingdoms, it could be said that it had just one royal family, so intricate were the relationships. Iestyn was a descendant of Rhodri Mawr, and so of the kings of Gwynedd, Powys and Ceredigion.

At this point things become confused because of a much later, largely fictitious account, the Tale of the Twelve Knights of Glamorgan. According to this, Iestyn ap Gwrgan was in conflict with Rhys ap Tewdwr. He looked for aid from one Einion ap Collwyn, who then in turn enlisted Fitzhamon and his knights.; Rhys was defeated, but then Iestyn refused to give Einion the promised reward his daughter`s hand in marriage. Einion duly called back Fitzhamon, who, having disposed of Iestyn, took over the kingdom. Whatever truth there might have been in this story, Rhys ap Tewdwr was not part of it; he died in battle near Brecon two years later, in 1093, possibly having gone to support Bleddyn ap Maenarch, king of Brycheiniog, against Bernard de Neufmarche. Deheubarth had already been under attack Pembroke Castle dates from 1093, founded by Arnulf de Montgomery, brother of the Earl of Shrewsbury; they had cut down into Deheubarth through mid-Wales. (Arnulf was another of those involved in the 1088 rebellion but pardoned. South Wales clearly offered a safe and useful solution for possibly disruptive elements: remove them from harm`s way and gain new territory at the same time.)

Rhys ap Tewdwr left three sons: one, Gruffydd ap Rhys, was still a child and he was smuggled away to Ireland; Hywel ap Rhys was at one point in the prison of Arnulf de Montgomery, from which he emerged badly maimed; and Goronwy ap Rhys died in the Tower of London in 1103. There were other sons and daughters who may or may not have been legitimate, and then there was Nest, perhaps the best-known of Rhys`s children. She was probably born c. 1085 and was still only a child when her father died. She and her mother were unlikely to have been on the battlefield, and were captured a little later, most probably at the family`s base at Llandeilo; however, it happened, she was sent as a hostage to the court of William Rufus.

In 1100 Prince Henry became King Henry I, and in November that year he married Matilda, the daughter of Malcolm Canmore, King of Scotland, and his wife, Margaret. Margaret, who was later canonised as St. Margaret, was a representative of the Anglo-Saxon royal line - her brother had been a possible candidate for the throne when Edward the Confessor died and the marriage enabled Henry to unite the two lines. Henry was a lusty king, to say the least; he had at least twenty-two illegitimate children but Matilda, who was an effective partner, seems to have taken these in her stride. Marriage, at their level, was a matter of politics and economics, not sentiment. Unfortunately, their marriage, though legitimate, proved much less fertile, and Henry`s second marriage to Adeliza of Louvain, produced no children at all (though Adeliza had children in her own second marriage.)

At this time in our history and, indeed, for many centuries after this accurate dates are often impossible to ascertain with any certainty. Dates for the reigns of kings, for battles, for deaths of prominent figures do generally survive, but dates of birth, for example, are all too often guesswork. Sometimes references do help to suggest a broad period when an event could have happened; the battle of Badon was fought forty-four years before Gildas the chronicler was born, but though we know roughly when he was writing, we do not know when he was born. One has to apply a fair degree of informed guesswork in this area.

If Nest was, as usually claimed, born in 1085, then she was only about eight years old when she was taken hostage and she was still only in her teens when in 1102/3 she bore a son to King Henry. According to many accounts she was also the mother of Robert of Gloucester, Henry`s oldest, though illegitimate, son, but as Robert was born in 1090, this is unlikely. On the other hand, Nest was a princess and would have had attendants was Robert`s still unidentified mother one of these? In any case, her child, Henry Fitzroy, was Robert of Gloucester`s half-brother. Whether Nest, a hostage in a foreign country, welcomed Henry`s attentions, we cannot know. Equally, while Matilda seems to have been complacent about dalliances with the daughters of ambitious barons, perhaps she was less so in this case. There is an illustration in one manuscript which apparently shows Henry and Nest naked in bed, both wearing crowns. At any rate Nest was soon married to Gerald of Windsor, Castellan of Pembroke Castle, and despatched to West Wales to live. There was a good reason for this, of course; quite apart from any romantic complications; as the daughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr Nest gave a certain legitimacy to the Norman establishment in Deheubarth. And

Gerald was a useful choice, loyal, a man of standing so that the match was appropriate, but not so distinguished as to make him a threat to Henry.

Gerald was perhaps ten years older than his bride. His family were castellans or constables of Windsor Castle for three generations, starting before the Conquest, and although Gerald had been based in Pembroke as Constable of the castle for some years, he may not have been a stranger to Nest. He was the lieutenant of Arnulf de Montgomery, and earlier, in 1096 he had successfully defended Pembroke Castle (then still only an earth and timber fortification) against a Welsh force. In 1102 Arnulf and others rebelled against the king. They were defeated and for a short time Pembroke Castle was given a new castellan, but he proved less than successful, and soon Gerald was back in charge. In the years that followed the pair had five children, three boys and two girls. Nest had brought Carew with her as part of her dowry, and now Gerald began the building of a castle on that site, which may have been one of the pre-Norman royal residences of Deheubarth. Later Gerald also began the building of a castle at Cenarth Bychan perhaps the present Cilgerran Castle - and it was in 1109, while the family was staying here that Owain ap Cadwgan came to call.

His visit launched the story of Nest as `the Helen of Wales`, a woman of great beauty, much run away with and the heroine of many romantic affairs. Owain was a distant cousin, and had, it was said, been intrigued by stories of Nest`s great beauty; when he saw her, he determined to carry her off. Gerald and Nest were in bed when Owain began to attack and burn Cenarth, but Nest, with commendable presence of mind, helped Gerald to escape down a latrine shaft and get safely away. She and the children, including an illegitimate son of Gerald, were taken prisoner, but she persuaded Owain to send the children back to their father.

Despite the romantic imaginings of later historians and novelists, there is no suggestion that Nest was a willing accomplice in any of this. Everyone was furious, from Henry I down, and including Owain`s father, and eventually Nest was returned to her husband, living quietly with him until Gerald`s death. (Gerald had later had the satisfaction of killing Owain when the latter was caught in an ambush.) After Gerald`s death Nest married again, this time Stephen, the Norman constable of Cardigan Castle, by whom she had a son, Robert.

In the meantime, Nest`s brother Gruffydd had returned from Ireland and begun the slow and uneven struggle to win back at least part of their father`s kingdom. At times he found refuge with Nest and Gerald; he allied himself with Gruffydd ap Cynan of Gwynedd and married Gruffydd`s daughter Gwenllian. It was their son, Rhys ap Gruffydd Yr Arglwydd Rhys who reconstituted a large part of the old realm of Deheubarth, though with difficulty and as a fief of the English crown, not a kingdom.


Back in east Wales, as has already been noted, Robert Fitzhamon, having gained the barony of Gloucester after the 1088 rebellion, had moved on into Gwent and Glamorgan, and seems to have conquered mainly the lowland area as far as the Ogmore river, though Kenfig Castle, possibly on the site of an earlier Welsh fortress, was also part of his lands. Fitzhamon was badly wounded in battle in 1105 and died in 1107, leaving his young daughter Mabilla as his heir, and Henry I duly organised her marriage to his eldest son, Robert of Gloucester. At that point Henry still had a legitimate male heir, but after the young prince drowned, Robert was created Earl of Gloucester. Although he had such a large illegitimate brood, Henry evidently took his responsibility as a father seriously, providing suitable matches for the children which, of course, also strengthened his own connections with his supporters. Nest`s son, also Henry, married Alice Walcher, the niece of the bishop of Durham, and had lands in Narberth and Pebidiog. His eldest son, Meilyr, became Lord Chief Justice of Ireland.

Robert Fitzhamon had established his base in the remains of the old Roman fort in Cardiff. His son-in-law now built the first stone castle there and his shell keep on its mound still dominates the site today. Other castles were built by Fitzhamon`s knights at Newcastle (Bridgend), Coity and Ogmore. Newcastle and Ogmore were built by William de Londres and Coity by Payn Turberville, all three dating from the last year or two of Fitzhamon`s life. There is a legend told about Coity that when Turberville arrived there he was greeted by the Welsh lord of the place who had a sword in one hand and his daughter`s hand in the other. He offered Turberville a choice marry the daughter and so inherit the place, or fight for it. The Norman very sensibly chose to marry the daughter. Whether William de Londres was offered a similar bargain is not known, but the Turbervilles later went on to intermarry with the Lords of Afan. There are two ways of colonising a country: one is by military force, as William the Conqueror did, or one can use the iron hand in the velvet glove method of working with the interests of the current owners as, for instance, the East India Company so often did in India and beyond.

One should remember too that medieval feudal society was a network of mutual obligations. Lesser powers acknowledged greater powers for their own protection, as Rhys ap Tewdwr had acknowledged William I in 1081 without necessarily seeing this as a weakening of his own authority. Both sides gained from the agreement. It was a hierarchy which included everyone from the king to the humblest serf, and in which the worst fate was to become quite literally an out-law, with every man`s hand against you.

Whatever the truth behind the legend of the Twelve Knights, Iestyn ap Gwrgan simply fades out of the picture. His date of death is given as 1093 though this may just echo the legend and his place of death is given as Llangernyw in North Wales. Perhaps, like Gruffydd ap Rhys, he headed for Gwynedd, still in Welsh hands. He left behind his son Caradoc; technically, if Iestyn was a king, then Caradoc and his brothers were princes, but this was the moment when such titles were dropped and instead Caradoc was Lord of Afan, the territory between the rivers Afan and Neath. Much of Afan Wallia was hill country, and the Normans had, of course, taken the Vale of Glamorgan with its rich agricultural land, and left the less fertile uplands to the native chieftains. However, the territory of Afan reached down to the sea and Aberafan, the base for the lordship, commanded an important river crossing two crossings, in fact, because the lordship also controlled the ferry at the mouth of the river Neath, as its name, Briton Ferry, makes clear. The Lords of Afan were not in any sense tame they regularly rebelled, spent time as prisoners in the Tower and elsewhere and yet they continued to hold their territory until at last, sometime after 1350 they surrendered it for lands elsewhere, supposedly in England. Tradition says that this was because the line ended in an heiress whose husband came from over the border.

As has been noted earlier, marriages at this point were political or economic alliances, strengthening a kingdom or a family network of support. Owain ap Cadwgan may or may not have been overcome by Nest`s beauty (and by then she was the mother of six children) but one suspects that it was her rank as Rhys ap Tewdwr`s daughter and Gerald`s wife that had at least as much to do with her abduction as her pretty smiles.

When Nest`s brother Gruffydd returned from Ireland he did regain part of his father`s kingdom, but it was his son Rhys Yr Arglwydd Rhys who did most to re-establish the family`s position. Gruffydd had married Gwenllian, the daughter of Gruffydd ap Cynan of Gwynedd, and their daughter Gwladys was the wife of Caradoc ap Iestyn, first Lord of Afan. Nest was her aunt and Henry Fitzroy was her first cousin; Robert of Gloucester was Henry`s half-brother. One can, of course, make too much of this, but it is the beginnings of a network.

Ironically, Henry I had only two surviving legitimate children, a boy and a girl, both from his first marriage. Initially that must have seemed enough; he had an heir and it was always possible that his second marriage would produce the necessary `spare`. Robert, his eldest son, was base-born, but promising and a valuable marriage was arranged for him. Whether the hinted-at family connection between Nest and Robert existed, or whether it just appeared a useful idea to put his son as a kind of viceroy for the new conquests in South Wales is not known, but Fitzhamon had left an heiress, Mabilla, and though she was still only a child when her father died in 1107, the match was agreed and the wedding took place in 1119.

William Adellin (Atheling), Henry`s heir, was born in 1103. He served as regent after his mother died in 1118, though since he was still c. fifteen, under careful supervision, and there was no reason to think that he would not have made an effective ruler. However, in November 1120 he drowned, and Henry was left with only a daughter, Matilda who was herself married to the Holy Roman Emperor and had as yet no children. This left Henry with several options. He might still himself have a son or Matilda might do so; he had a nephew, Stephen, and there was even the possibility that Robert could succeed his grandfather had, after all, been William the Bastard. Henry chose to promote Matilda, now back from Germany after her husband`s death, and got his barons to swear to support this, but when he died in 1135, the barons turned to Stephen, who was duly crowned king. Before he died, Henry had arranged a new match for his daughter, with Geoffrey of Anjou, several years younger than she was, and eventually that marriage produced a son, the future Henry II, but for the moment Matilda also claimed the throne and England entered the years of the Anarchy, `when God and His angels slept`. At first Robert accepted the barons` choice, but when it became clear that Matilda intended to claim the crown, he joined her and served her loyally until his death in 1147. Matilda was equally loyal. At one point she captured Stephen, but then exchanged him for Robert who had been captured by Stephen`s allies, thus losing what could have been her best hope of winning the war.

Robert had begun to take over some of his father-in-law`s offices quite early on. He became Constable of the chateau of Caen after the battle of Tinchebrai and also lord of the manor of Creuilly, both in 1106. He rebuilt Cardiff Castle, and later became the custodian of his uncle Robert of Normandy, who spent many years in prison in the castle and died there. However, Robert of Gloucester also had to spend much time in Normandy in support of his father., and must have had to leave many things to do with his Welsh estates in the hands of his constable, Sir Richard de Granville. It was de Granville who in 1129 founded Neath Abbey and also built the first castle at Neath. Both of these were on the western bank of the river Neath, though later the town and castle were re-established on the opposite bank. De Granville was associated in the founding of the abbey with his wife Constancia, who was Welsh some sources give her as either the widow or the daughter of Iestyn ap Gwrgan and the land as her inheritance. (It is often suggested that De Granville was the brother of Robert Fitzhamon, and therefore also part of this family linkage.)

This is relevant because the Lords of Afan supposedly held the land between the Afan and Neath rivers, and Neath in its present position represents a slice out of that holding. Briton Ferry was evidently part of the Afan lordship, and they were said to have built a castle there to command the crossing. (A fortified mound which may be the remains of this castle is visible in a painting by Ibbetson, c. 1790, on a promontory between the river Neath and Baglan Bay.) Resolven, too, belonged to Iestyn ap Gwrgan`s brother Rhys. In the latter part of the twelfth century Morgan ap Caradoc gave Resolven to Margam Abbey as part of the compensation arrangements for Canaythan, a hostage who had been blinded when Morgan rebelled against his overlord, William of Gloucester.

There were other family links too. Robert of Gloucester and Mabilla had seven children, and Robert also fathered four illegitimate children. One of these, another Mabilla, married Gruffydd, the son of Ifor Bach of Senghenydd; the pair gave land to Margam Abbey, which Robert had founded in 1147, just before his death, on condition that they were buried there. Gruffydd`s sister, Gwenllian, was the first wife of Morgan ap Caradoc.

In 1188 the Archbishop of Canterbury visited Wales, recruiting for the Crusades. He was accompanied by Giraldus Cambrensis Gerald the Welshman grandson of Nest and Gerald of Windsor, who later published an account of their journey. Although he does not mention his family connection to Morgan ap Caradoc - `the prince of these parts` - who supervised their crossing of the two rivers, he has much to say about local events more, surely, than he might have gathered from an overnight stay at the abbey.

There have been suggestions in the past that Margam Abbey might have been founded partly as a `no man`s land` protecting the Norman invaders to the east from the wild Welsh of Afan. However, if one looks at the details of the matter, one has to wonder whether in fact Margam and Neath abbeys were placed where they were partly as a barrier against the more rapacious Normans on either side. One has only to remember the de Braoses and the massacre of Abergavenny or the death of Caradoc ap Iestyn`s mother-in-law Gwenllian to know what could have happened. In the past historians have noted that as time went on, the Lords of Afan intermarried with their Norman neighbours and adopted their ways until one Leisan became Sir Leisan de Avene and c.1304 issued a charter for his borough of Aberafan, whose inhabitants included English traders brought in to support his native subjects in their business activities. In fact, this web of kinship seems to have existed from the beginning, and though Robert and his descendants were their overlords, Caradoc and his family seem to have been seen as part of the feudal establishment, rather than subjugated enemies.

By 1370 the Lords of Afan were gone to England? Possibly though cadet branches of the family have remained prominent in South Wales up to the present day. But though, like everyone else in the Middle Ages, they acknowledged the hierarchy in which they lived, they seem to have left a legacy of independence and a cultural richness which continues to this day.


Historians generally tend to ignore the family element in the periods they study, largely, no doubt, because we cannot know how our ancestors felt we know that life was hard and circumstances often brutal, brother murdered brother, whole towns were massacred. It is easy to assume that these men and women were simply callous historians of childhood sometimes suggest that no-one before about 1900 cared for their children because they so often lost them to disease and hunger. Yet we have the poems of Ieuan Gethin, of the cadet branch of the Lords of Afan, mourning his children after they died of plague, and he is not unique in his sorrow. Even in the political sphere, family was important, as Matilda knew when she ransomed her half-brother and risked her own succession.

Robert of Gloucester was not simply a Marcher lord; he was the king`s son, and he therefore is likely to have considered matters from a wider viewpoint than the average Norman baron, whose main concern was seizing and holding on to new territory. Although we do not know just how widely William I`s ambitions stretched, he and his successors would appear to have had some idea of adding Ireland to their empire, hence perhaps William`s pilgrimage to St. David`s in 1081. There were two possible starting points for an expedition to the sister island; Gwynedd was not practical at that date, but Pembrokeshire was soon in Norman hands. The high road to the west, the ancient Roman Via Julia Maritima, ran through the open farmlands of the Vale but then it came to a potential danger point, at the crossings of the Afan and Neath, where the hills, still held by the native Welsh, came down almost to the sea. If this was held by a Norman castle or castles, then it would be open to constant attack; equally, being held by a Norman would have been no guarantee that it might not be used by rebel barons against the king. But if it was held by the Lords of Afan, its natural owners and a family which was part of a Norman-Welsh family alliance, then there was less danger. (It would, of course, have been possible to cut across inland, as Arnulf de Montgomery had done when he seized Pembroke, but the advantage of the coastal route was that it could be reinforced by sea, either against the natives or insurgent Marcher lords.) Later in 1170, when the Normans did invade Ireland, under the leadership of Richard de Clare, better known as Strongbow, the sons of Nest and Gerald were among the leaders, and the Fitzgeralds became a leading Irish family in later centuries. Meanwhile, William FitzRobert, second Earl of Gloucester, left three daughters as his heirs, and the Earldom duly descended via Amicia, his second daughter, to the de Clare family. However, the de Clare connection goes back earlier than this, because in 1154 William of Gloucester made an alliance with Roger de Clare to defend each other against all men save the King, Henry II.

Assuming that the reference in Brut y Tywysogion is in fact correct, we have no way of knowing why Rhys and Maredudd ap Gruffydd burnt down their cousin`s castle at Aberafan in 1153 was it a family quarrel, or were they, perhaps, moving against William of Gloucester, newly succeeded to his father and trying to assert his rights over his cousin`s lordship? A few years later, in 1158 William and his family were captured in their own castle at Cardiff by Ifor Bach, Lord of Senghenydd, who was objecting to William having seized some of his lands; he held William in the woodlands until his complaint was resolved but appears to have suffered no consequent penalty for this. Ifor`s wife was Nest, sister of Gruffydd ap Rhys, and their son, as mentioned earlier was married to William`s half-sister. William could be brutal to those not part of his family, as the sad story of Canaythan, the hostage whom he had blinded when Morgan ap Caradoc rebelled, tells us. It seems that he even added the additional cruelty of sending Canaythan`s eyes back to his lord at Aberafan.

How far this kind of web of intermarriage was common has yet to be researched. However, though the Normans came into Wales as invaders, it was a different situation to that in England. As suggested earlier, there are two types of colonisation: firstly a straightforward military conquest like that of Bernard de Neufmarche, the kind twice suffered by England, by the Romans and then by the Normans; secondly the gradual assimilation of one country by another, as happened later in many of England`s own colonies in the Far East. In the latter case the native culture has a better chance of surviving and even of influencing the colonisers. Eventually in Wales the first method overtook the second, as Edward I marched into Gwynedd in 1282, but initially the process did allow for a degree of survival of native society and culture that one does not see in England. Who knows how far Brexit and the Leave campaign are at bottom the rebellion of England against its colonisers - ironically, with a direct descendant of William the Conqueror as its leader?




D. Rhys Phillips History of the Vale of Neath: Sections on The lords of Afan, Neath Abbey, Neath Castle

Biographies: Dictionary of Welsh Biography; Wikipedia entries; GENI website.

John Davies A History of Wales

A.L. Evans Margam Abbey

CADW: Carew Castle Guide; Cardiff Castle Guide; Pembroke Castle Guide; Chepstow Castle Guide

Giraldus Cambrensis Itinerary Through Wales

James O`Brien - Old Afan and Margam

Transactions of the Afan and Margam Historical Society, 1929

RCHM references





1. As has been suggested earlier, historians tend not to look at family networks in any detail. When I first began to look at the history of the Lords of Afan family details, particularly of their wives, were sparse. When these were later noted, it looked as if the Lords slowly began to intermarry and become assimilated to their Norman conquerors. However, a closer inspection suggests that at least in this area, they were from the beginning treated as people of standing, for whom diplomatic unions were in order, and likely to be more valuable than subjugation. In this Robert of Gloucester would have been following his father, whose marriage with an Anglo-Saxon princess was aimed to unite rulers and ruled not to mention its contribution to peace with Scotland. It must have been helpful too that illegitimacy was much less of a bar in Wales that it was in England. Being royal in earlier centuries was more than just being a figurehead `divine right` meant what it said. A king had to be perfect any imperfection debarred one from the throne, hence the number of blindings and other mutilations. Yet there was also a recognition of being part of an exclusive club. Even two or so centuries later, though some of Glyndwr`s sons died in battle, those who did not were not butchered, and Glyndwr himself, the arch rebel, was offered a pardon, as was his last surviving son Maredudd.


2. One of the motives of J.R.R. Tolkien in creating The Lord of The Rings was to provide England with a mythology of its own, something to sit alongside the sagas of other nations, like the Story of Roland, or the story of Troy. Although the nineteenth century antiquarians had discovered plenty of quaint customs, England had no real native heroic legend of its own Arthur, after all, was borrowed from the Welsh, and the great promoter of his story was himself named for Wales - Geoffrey of Monmouth. But Arthur too was colonised he became a Norman king, not the Welsh

war leader that he perhaps originally was, now with a retinue of knights and a kind of reverse imperial invasion of France. Tolkien went back and did indeed create a new mythology, based on Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Welsh, the languages as much as the history. In doing so, he reached deep into lost stories, hidden connections, and awoke memories that the people of England hardly knew they had.


Sally R. Jones