BELIEVE it or not but Llandeilo was once the capital of its very own kingdom, called Deheubarth, which comprised modern-day Carmarthenshire, Cardiganshire and Pembroke.
By far the greatest figure to have come from the Llandeilo area was the medieval warrior-prince Rhys ap Gruffudd (1130-1197), or the Lord Rhys, as he is often called.
In the late twelfth century he was the most powerful of the several native princes ruling Welsh-speaking Wales, and he was responsible for the building of Dinefwr Castle high on a crag above the river Towy at Llandeilo. He was also one of the few native princes to regain land from English kings.
Wales was never unified under one Welsh King for more than a few years but was divided into several warring principalities whose various rulers fought violently with each other for supremacy.
Not even the threat of the Normans after 1066, or the English before that, could ever unite these quarrelsome Welsh magnates against a common enemy, making the Normans' task of conquest eventually much easier. Still, it took the successors of William the Conqueror over two hundred years to finally overrun and subdue the whole of Wales (it took William less than twenty years to conquer England).
Rhys became sole ruler of Deheubarth in 1155 after having made his mark in warfare against the English in Dyfed. Rhys and his brothers participated in campaigns that saw the recovery of almost the whole of Ceredigion and much of the Towy valley from the Anglo-Norman occupiers. By 1155 Rhys was ruler of a kingdom that consisted of the whole of south-west Wales. The maintenance and consolidation of this restored kingdom of Deheubarth was the principal objective of his long reign.
_That he succeeded against the English King Henry II is a tribute to his political as well as military skills, because he alternated between alliances with Henry and open warfare against him, often going to battle on Henry’s side against other Welsh princes. But this tolerance of Henry was not extended to Henry’s son Richard. When Henry II died in 1189 the rest of Rhys’s life was characterized by open warfare against the new king, Richard I, the one history has chosen to call Richard the Lionheart.
Rhys was also one of the very few native Welsh princes to build stone castles. Cardigan castle, now almost completely vanished, and Dinefwr castle in Llandeilo were his work.
The lasting legacy for us today is Dinefwr castle in Dinefwr Park. Built initially by Rhys it was added to and strengthened by his sons and grandsons. Then, after the English in the form of Edward I finally conquered Wales in 1282, it became an English stronghold.
In addition Lord Rhys founded Talley abbey in 1184-89, which soon eclipsed Llandeilo abbey in importance. Rhys was also generous to poets, and the Welsh Chronicle of the Princes describes a festival of music and poetry, often regarded as the first recorded eisteddfod, held by the prince in 1176.
The venue was Cardigan castle which Rhys had rebuilt in stone in 1171 and diplomatically north Wales were awarded the chief prize for poetry while the south took away the honours in music.
Naturally, his military successes throughout his life made a favourable assessment of him inevitable—winners get all the accolades after all while oblivion usually awaits the losers.
The passage of 800 years makes it quite easy to arrive at a generous judgement of an important historical figure like Rhys ap Gruffydd, but we shouldn't allow time (or nationalism) to obscure the fact that neither the Welsh nor English nobility of the middle ages were in any way noble except in name.
They lived solely for power and often died for it too; they waded through blood and trampled on corpses to secure the source of all power and wealth at that time—land. The peasants who worked the land to create their wealth weren’t free; they were slaves (serfs), who were literally owned by their lords. Qualities we are taught to admire today like patriotism and loyalty were alien concepts which they seldom, if ever, allowed to get in the way of their objectives.
Dinefwr castle in Llandeilo is one of Rhys's creations which has survived down to our times, allowing us to stand there today and imagine, if we wish, the hordes of stonemasons and labourers who raised its formidable ramparts on a crag three hundred feet above the Towy flood plain. And possibly imagine, too, the groans and screams of those unfortunate souls, Welsh and English alike, who got in the way of his relentless march to supreme power in the kingdom of Deheubarth.
*Terry Norman’s Llandeilo website address is llandeilo.org