Sir Rhys ap Thomas: the most powerful man in Wales

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For 40 years he was one of the most powerful men in Britain. People cowered away in fear when he rode past and nobody would ever think of contradicting or arguing with him.


He was Sir Rhys ap Thomas and he could justifiably be said to be Henry VII's 'main man' in Wales – in effect, lord of all he surveyed.


And yet Sir Rhys owed his position and his power to an act of treachery. This was the man who had sworn his allegiance to King Richard III and had made the rash statement that any invader who tried to enter the kingdom through west Wales would have to do so over his belly.


Mullock Bridge


Yet within three years Rhys ap Thomas had welcomed Henry Tudor with open arms and had, according to legend, lain under Mullock Bridge in Pembrokeshire so that Henry and his small army of mercenaries could, indeed, march into the country over his belly. 


The Wars of the Roses


Rhys was born in 1449, the son of Thomas ap Gruffydd of Llandeilo, and from a young age found himself embroiled in that vast series of dynastic wars and campaigns that we now call the Wars of the Roses. Most Welsh landowners supported the Lancastrian king, Henry VI. They had, in the main, received their lands and their titles from the king's father or grandfather  – Rhys and his father were no different.


Forced into exile

When the Yorkist Edward IV claimed the throne in 1461 it brought, for the first time in many years, a degree of peace to England – but not to Wales. Thomas ap Gruffydd continued to oppose the new king, found himself besieged in Carreg Cennen Castle and, in 1462, was forced into exile on the continent. The young Rhys went with him.


They did return to reclaim their land when Henry VI was briefly restored to the throne and, more importantly, managed to retain it when Edward IV came back to power after a few short months.


Rhys succeeds Thomas ap Gruffydd

When Thomas ap Gruffydd died, Rhys succeeded to the estates and to ownership of the family lands. He was now a very rich and powerful man.


On the death of king Edward IV in 1483 his brother Richard of Gloucester became regent, as the new king, Edward V, was a minor.


Soon, however, in a desperate attempt to keep the country from falling once more into wasting and violent civil wars, he usurped the throne, becoming King Richard III. Rhys ap Thomas, anxious to keep his newly reclaimed lands, pledged him his loyalty.


He was supposed to send his son Gruffydd to Richard's court, as a hostage, but refused, saying that his word of honour was bond enough for any man. Richard might well have taken heed of this but, in the event, decided to trust the Welshman.


It was a foolish thing to do as Rhys was already in contact with the only real remaining Lancastrian claimant to the throne. The young Henry Tudor, as Rhys and his father had once been, was languishing in exile in Burgundy.


Rhys joins with Henry Tudor


When Henry landed on the shores of Milford Haven in August 1485, Rhys quickly joined his army on its march through Wales to meet king Richard at Bosworth Field. It is possible that Rhys actually struck the blow that killed the king - if it was not him it was almost certainly one of his retainers. After the battle, on 22 August, Henry - now King Henry VII - showed his appreciation by knighting his new friend.


And that was just the start. Although nominally a Welshman, Henry had little love or care for Wales and soon passed on the running of the country to Sir Rhys ap Thomas. The king knew that Sir Rhys would 'shield his back' and that Wales – the very country that had given him his chance of power – was safe in his hands.


Privy Councillor and Knight of the Garter

Within a few years Sir Rhys was Chamberlain of South Wales and, quite literally, the governor of the whole country. He became a privy councillor and in 1505 was made a Knight of the Garter. Sir Rhys celebrated this appointment two years later by holding an enormous tournament – the last event of its kind in Britain – at Carew Castle in Pembrokeshire. It was a sumptuous affair, befitting a nobleman of Sir Rhys' class and power.


A potential hotbed of revolt and discontent


Throughout Henry Tudor's reign Sir Rhys kept Wales – always a potential hotbed of revolt and discontent – secure and supportive. He did it through a mixture of strong arm tactics and careful diplomacy and tact.


He played an active role in defeating the two most dangerous 'pretenders' to Henry's throne, Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck, and was always ready to lend Henry his strong sword arm whenever it was needed.


Sir Rhys ap Thomas died in 1525, at Carmarthen Priory, and his estates – and position – passed to his grandson Rhys ap Gruffydd. Sadly, Rhys had none of his grandfather's political acumen and within a few years had alienated the new king, Henry VIII. He was accused of treason and executed, like so many others in that violent and bloody reign.


Sir Rhys ap Thomas was one of the most powerful Welshmen who ever lived. It can be argued that he held, not just Wales but the whole of Britain in the palm of his hand. Henry Tudor was lucky to have such a friend and supporter. 

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