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The history of Wales has played an important part in the development of the Towy Valley. This account is designed to provide an insight into that role. It is not detailed, but links are provided for those requiring further information. 

Note: Spelling of the names of places and individuals varies, for example Llewelyn is often shown as Llewellyn and Gruffydd as Gruffudd. A son or daughter carried its father's christian name to identify him or her in Wales. Ap or ab, meaning son of, while for daughters it was ferch meaning daughter of. A number of Welsh surnames have evolved and become anglicised, so that "ap Hywel" became Powell "ap Huw"  became Pugh, and "ab Owen" became Bowen. For others, an "s" was added so David became Davies and John became Jones. 

Early History

The area has been inhabited for over 50,000 years and Britain as a whole has been the target of invaders from the east for much of that time. The Bronze Age saw the Beaker Folk settling through much of Britain from Western and Central Europe. They were the first inhabitants to work in metal, initially copper and gold and then bronze, giving the era (2500-600 B.C.) its name. This was the time of the building of stone circles including Stonehenge. The Celts who were the dominant peoples of Britain at the time of the Roman invasion came originally from central Europe, modern day Southern Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Hungary. As with later invasions, the existing population was not driven out, but came to adopt the ways and language of the invaders. This Celtic invasion coincided with the Iron Age (600 B.C. - 50 A.D.) The language of England and Wales was Brythonic and this survived though adopting Latin words (e.g. for bridge, fort, windows and rooms), eventually developing into what the Normans knew as the British Language and eventually Welsh. In South Wales the dominant tribes were the Dematae in Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire and the Silures occupied the land to the East as far as the Severn. The Towy marked the tribal boundary just as in later years it was the boundary of the Marcher Lordships.

Evidence of the pre Roman occupation can be seen at Garn Goch, South of Bethlehem, at Green Castle South of Carmarthen and at Merlin's Hill East of Carmarthen, with many more Iron Age forts topping the hills along the valley, though modern archaeologists believe that these were settlements rather than simply forts and although known as Iron Age, date from the Bronze Age.

The Romans eventually came to the Towy Valley at the end of the 1st century A.D., building forts at Llandovery, Llandeilo and Carmarthen as well as in the Cothi Valley near the gold mines that they established at Dolaucothi. There are remains of the Roman fort at Llandovery to the north of the town while at Carmarthen, (Moridunum) little remains of the Roman town, but there is the site of the Roman Amphitheatre off Priory street in the east of the town. This was only recognized as being one of just seven Roman Amphitheatres in Britain in 1944. It is possible to visit the gold mines at Dolaucothi, now in the hands of the National Trust. Again the age of the mines was not realized until the 1930s.

The Dark Ages

After the Romans left in the 5th century, written history disappeared and we are left in a land of Myths and Legends. Geoffrey of Monmouth writing in the 12th century identifies Carmarthen as being the birthplace of Merlin (the Welsh Caerfyrddin is translated as Merlin's fort) and there are other links and traditions, for example Merlin's Hill outside the town is held to be his final resting place. Merlin was a prophet or madman according to the earliest stories and it is only later that he is connected with the Arthurian Legend. That there was a leader on which the legend of King Arthur is based is almost certainly true, but he was probably a military leader in the Roman tradition rather than a King and was engaged in fighting against the incoming Saxons through much of what is now England and Wales. This was a time of small kingdoms and the rise of Celtic Christianity with the foundation of churches and cathedrals. It was also a time of raiding parties from Ireland, which is why churches were often tucked away in valleys. even St David's Cathedral is built on low lying land. Tradition has it that St Patrick was captured on one of these raids and spread Christianity to Ireland.

By 550 A.D. the Saxons controlled much of what is now England while in Wales  the kingdoms of Gwent, Morgannwg, Gwynedd, Deheubarth, Brycheiniog and Powys vied for supremacy . (Map)

A United Wales?

The advance of the Angles and Saxons continued but failed to conquer the mountains, a fact recognized by Offa, King of Mercia (Mercia was roughly equivalent to the English Midlands), who built his Dyke in 780 A.D.. Within a hundred years of the construction of Offa's Dyke, Wales had been largely united under Rhodri King of Gwynedd, but fell apart after his death in 877 A.D. to be revived under his grandson Hywel. 

Hywel became known as Hywel Dda, Hywel the Good, and adopted a conciliatory approach to the English. Under his rule Welsh laws were codified and remained in force until the Tudors. In Wales the law of inheritance was Gavelkind whereby possessions were divided among all the children, both legitimate and illegitimate, as opposed to the English practice Primogeniture, or inheritance by the first born male. This probably goes some way to explaining the relative weakness of Welsh royal families

 It was Hywel's great great grandson, Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, who united the whole of Wales by 1057. The south west was now known as Deheubarth. (Kings of Deheubarth). In character, Gruffydd ap Llewelyn was more aggressive and regained lands to the East of Offa's Dyke. This led to an invasion by Harold, Duke of Wessex in 1063 and the death of Gruffydd.

The Norman Conquest

Following the death of Gruffydd the throne of Deheubarth was taken by Maredudd ab Owain ab Edwin who ruled until 1072. The Norman invasion of Wales started during his reign, but Maredudd failed to counter the initial attacks on South East Wales. He was killed in battle in 1072 at Rhymni and was succeeeded by his brother, Rhys ab Owain. Despite the threat posed by the Normans, the Welsh continued to fight among themselves and Rhys was defeated in battle by Trahaearn ap Caradog of Gwynedd in 1078 and subsequently killed. He was succeeded by his second cousin, Rhys ap Tewdwr.

In 1081 the King of Gwent, Caradog ap Gruffydd invaded Deheubarth in an attempt to rule the whole of South Wales. After initial setbacks, Rhys joined Gruffydd ap Cynan who was seeking to regain the throne of Gwynedd and defeated the combined forces of Gwent and Gwynedd at the battle of Mynydd Carn, killing both Caradog ap Gruffydd and Trahaearn ap Caradog. Gruffydd ap Cynan had landed in Deheubarth with a force of Irish and Danes, joining Rhys ap Tewdwr at St David's. The battle took place a day's march to the north of St David's.

William the Conqueror made a rapid incursion into Wales in the same year and Rhys ap Tewdwr paid homage to William, securing his position in Deheubarth as far as the Normans were concerned, but he was to face two further attempts to depose him. In 1088 Cadwgan ap Bleddyn of Powys attacked and Rhys fled to Ireland, to return later in the same year with Irish support and defeated Cadwgan. In 1091, Gruffydd ap Maredudd, son of Maredudd ab Owain attempted to take the throne but was defeated and killed at the battle of Llandudoch. Rhys was eventually defeated and killed in 1093 at Brecon by the Norman Bernard de Neufmarche.

Rhys's son Gruffydd went to Ireland in exile. The Normans ruled Deheubarth. Rhys's daughter Nest was to become a legendary beauty and married Gerald of Pembroke in 1095, but was also a lover of Henry I and bore him a son, Henry Fitzroy in 1103. Among those claiming descent from Rhys were Owen Tudor, grandfather of Henry VII and the 20th President of the USA James A Garfield who was assassinated after just 199 days in office.

Gruffydd eventually made peace with Henry I and regained a small part of his father's kingdom, the Cantref Mawr, roughly the area between the Teifi and Towy rivers to the north east of the Gwili river. Gruffydd married Gwenllian, daughter of his father's ally, Gruffydd ap Cynan of Gwynedd. In 1136, with civil war breaking out between King Stephen and the Empress Maud in England, Hywel ap Maredudd of Brycheiniog invaded the Gower and defeated the Normans at the Battle of Llwchwr. Seeing an opportunity, Gruffydd ap Rhys travelled north to seek an alliance with his father in law. During his absence, Maurice of London led Norman attacks against Deheubarth and Gwenllian raised and led an army into battle at Kidwelly. She was defeated and beheaded. She was the only British woman other than Boudica to have led an army into battle.

Gruffydd and the sons of Gruffydd ap Cynan led a joint Deheubarth and Gwynedd force against the Normans at Crug Mawr, 2 miles from Cardigan at the end of September 1036. The Normans were routed. Many tried to escape over the bridge at Cardigan but were drowned when it collapsed. The town of Cardigan was taken but the castle under Robert Fitzstephen, an illegitimate nephew of Gruffydd by Nest, held out. In 1037 Gruffydd gained further lands in Dyfed but died later that year.

Gruffydd was succeeded in turn by his sons, Anarwd, Cadell, Maredydd and Rhys and for once the brothers worked together to reinstate the power of Deheubarth. Rhys became ruler in 1155 and in 1158 was forced to pay homage to Henry II. Henry invaded Deheubarth in 1163, and took Rhys prisoner, only to release him a few weeks later having confiscated most of his land. Rhys now made an alliance with his uncle, Owain Gwynedd, son of Gruffydd ap Cynan and by 1165 had reclaimed most of his land. In 1171 Rhys made peace with Henry II and became Justicar of South Wales, maintaining good relations with Henry until the latter's death in 1189.

The Lord Rhys, Rhys ap Gruffydd, was one of the most successful rulers, establishing castles at Dynevor and Carreg Cennen (both were subsequently rebuilt). His rule marked a renaissance of Welsh culture with the first Eisteddfod being held at Cardigan Castle in 1176. It was he who gave land for the abbeys of Strata Florida and Talley. He was attended by one of the Physicians of Myddfai. . Over the years Rhys captured the castles of Cardigan, Llandovery, Laugharne, and Llansteffan and attacked Carmarthen Castle. In later years he had difficulty with his feuding sons who at one time imprisoned him at Nevern Castle. After his death Deheubarth was riven by the warfare of his sons. Rhys had nine sons and eight daughters and three hundred years after his death, Henry Tudor could claim direct descent from the Lord Rhys and so gain the support of the Welsh in the overthrow of Richard III.


Llewelyn the Great

The power in Wales now passed to Llewelyn ap Gruffydd, of Gwynedd in the north.(Kings of Gwynedd) He married Joan, the illegitimate daughter of King John. Llewelyn, from his stronghold in the North expanded South, and when King John sent an army, Joan interceded to maintain peace. In 1215 however with John preoccupied by the barons' revolt that culminated in the signing of Magna Carta, Llewelyn captured a number of royal castles including Carmarthen. A year later Llewelyn was recognized as overlord of the Welsh rulers a position confirmed by the Treaty of Worcester in 1218, after which Llewelyn was known as "the Great": he died in 1240. It was during Llewelyn's reign that the stone castles at Dynevor and Dryslwyn were built. Carmarthen Castle was also rebuilt after being retaken by the Earl of Pembroke in 1223.

Llewelyn the Last

As ever in Wales the succession was a problem. Llewelyn and Joan wanted their legitimate son to be his heir and while this was accepted by Henry III and the Pope, Henry refused to acknowledge Dafydd's overlordship of Wales. In 1246 Dafydd died and power passed to the sons of Gruffydd, Llewelyn's illegitimate son. By 1256 Llewelyn was the acknowledged leader and from 1258 styled himself Prince of Wales. In 1263 Llewelyn advanced into the Marches and in 1264 allied himself with Simon de Montfort leader of the barons' revolt. In 1267 Henry recognized Llewelyn as Prince of Wales and Llewelyn in turn recognized the King of England as his suzerain in the Treaty of Montgomery.

Llewelyn's area of rule was to be much reduced after the accession of Edward I to the English throne. Edward feared Llewelyn's ambitions and his brother Dafydd defected to the King. In 1275 Edward kidnapped Llewelyn's wife, Elinor, daughter of Simon de Montfort and in 1276 declared Llewelyn a rebel. In 1277 Edward invaded Gwynedd and forced Llewelyn to submit in the Treaty of Aberconway and his rule was now restricted to the mountainous region of North West Wales.

In 1282 Dafydd, disillusioned with English rule, attacked Hawarden Castle. He was supported by many Welsh and eventually by Llewelyn. Edward I was determined to stamp out this rebellion and attacked. According to Caradog of Llancarfan, the last decisive battle was fought near Llandeilo in 1282 and Llewelyn was killed in December 1282 at Builth and Dafydd in April 1283, bringing to an end the rule of the Welsh princes. Edward now set about his castle building strategy and with the birth of his son in 1283 declared him Prince of Wales and in 1301 gave him six new counties, Flint, Anglesey, Caernarfon, Meirionnydd, Cardigan and Carmarthen. The rest of Wales remained with the Marcher Lords. The Towy became the boundary of the Principality in the South West.

While there were sporadic rebellions the status quo remained. Towns grew up around the castles and these were populated by the English.

Owain Glyndwr

1399 saw Henry IV take the throne from Richard II, a king who had been popular in Wales. Owain Glyndwr, a Welsh landowner who could trace descent from the lords of Powys and Deheubarth, had a dispute with the marcher lord of Ruthin and Henry failed to settle this in Owain's favour. A group of his friends proclaimed Owain Prince of Wales in September 1400. At Easter 1401 his supporters took Conway Castle and some months later Owain defeated an English army on Pumlumon. Henry had difficulty in engaging with a largely guerrilla army. By 1405 Glyndwr controlled virtually the whole of Wales. By 1409 however all had been lost and he became a fugitive thought to have died in 1416.

Griffith ap Nicholas, a descendant of the Lord Rhys held Dynevor and Cilgerran castles towards the end of the reign of Henry VI. His principal residence was Dynevor though he held large estates in the counties of Carmarthen and Cardigan. He held an eisteddfod at Carmarthen (Borrow in "Wild Wales" describes it as a congress of bards and literati). He had numerous disputes with his neighbours among whom were Humphrey, Duke of Buckingham, Richard Duke of York, Jasper Earl of Pembroke, son of Owen Tudor and half brother of the King and the Earl of Warwick. They accused Griffith of being in league with the thieves of the Marches and a warrant for his arrest was issued but never served. Civil war broke out and Griffith sided with the Yorkists but died in the Battle of Wakefield in 1460. 

Griffith's eldest son Thomas ap Griffith was killed in a duel and his son Sir Rhys ap Thomas (Knight of the Garter) sided with Henry Tudor. 

Owen Tudor was originally known as Owain ap Maredudd  ap Tudur  until 1459, when a clerk wrote his name as Owen Tudor and so gave us a Tudor rather than a Maredudd dynasty. Owen married Catherine de Valois, widow of Henry V and they had four children (whose half brothers were the King and Earl of Warwick), Edmund, Jasper Earl of Pembroke, Owain who became a monk, and a daughter Margaret who died young. Owen Tudor was executed in 1461. His son Edmund married Margaret Beaufort the illegitimate grand daughter of John of Gaunt and their son was Henry Tudor. Edmund died before his son was born. Hugh Fychan (founder of the Vaughan family at Golden Grove) was a cousin of Owen Tudor and therefore related to Henry Tudor. The landed families of the Towy valley were therefore well connected when the Tudors came to power.

The Tudors and the Acts of Union 1536 and 1543

Henry Tudor was born at Pembroke Castle in 1457 and it was at Pembroke that he landed in 1485 before defeating Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. The descendant of Lord Rhys of Dynevor, Rhys ap Thomas raised an army in support of Henry Tudor and indeed it is believed he personally killed Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. Henry Tudor, who also claimed descent from the Lord Rhys rewarded Rhys with a knighthood and restoration of his estates only for Henry VIII to take them back from Rhys ap Thomas's grandson following a charge of treason. Queen Mary restored some of the estates, but it was not until the reign of Charles I that the estates were restored in full.

Henry VII was sympathetic to the Welsh and indeed set up a commission to prove he was descended from British kings and Welsh princes, but it was his son Henry VIII who unified England and Wales in the Acts of 1536 and 1543, establishing the 13 Welsh counties, the English legal system and 26 Parliamentary constituencies in Wales. The Acts saw the introduction of the English practice of Primogeniture thereby ending many of the family feuds, the breakup of estates and establishing a landed gentry. While in theory the laws worked against the Welsh language, making English the language of the legal system there was no shortage of interpreters in the courts, even in London.

The survival of the Welsh language can be attributed to this period. Although Welsh was prohibited in the courts, Parliament decreed that a Bible in Welsh should be available in every parish church in Wales. The translation of the Bible into Welsh meant that a written standard for the language was in being.

The English Civil War

Apart from South Pembrokeshire and part of North East Wales, the Welsh supported the King during the Civil War. Many of the castles in the Towy valley suffered damage during the war as the conflict centred on control of the Northern and Southern coastal routes.


At the start of the 18th century Wales predominantly followed the Established Church. In 1716 there were just 70 chapels compared to nearly 1000 parish churches. First the Methodists and then the Baptists and Congregationalists gained increasing numbers of converts as the century developed. The 19th century with its great population explosion, especially in South East Wales saw increasing numbers of chapels many of which had to be rebuilt to cope with larger congregations. Today most Welsh towns and villages have three or four chapels to each parish church though many have fallen into disrepair, been demolished or converted into private homes or commercial premises.


Rebecca Riots

The major development affecting the population of the Towy valley over the coming centuries was the industrialisation of areas to the East leading to a depopulation of the area as more and more drifted to the coal fields and heavy industries of Glamorgan and Monmouthshire. This coincided with a gradual takeover of common land and the introduction of turnpike roads where users had to pay for their use during a period of economic depression in agriculture (this was the time of the potato famine in Ireland).  The toll gates  proved very unpopular and locals dressed in women's clothes and known as the Daughters of Rebecca destroyed a number including the gate for the bridge crossing the River Towy at Llandeilo. They also protested at the treatment of the poor in workhouses set up under the Poor Laws of 1834. The riots started in Pembrokeshire in 1839 and spread to Llandeilo in 1842. The riots came to an end in 1843 after the army was called in and the ringleaders were jailed. The tollgates were removed in 1844 by Act of Parliament though evidence of them can be seen in the form of the tollhouses that remain to this day.

The Riots were the subject of the 1992 film Rebecca's Daughters starring Peter O'Toole. The original screenplay was written in 1948 by Dylan Thomas. The film is in the Guinness Book of Records as being the longest interval between screenplay and film release.

The Towy Valley Today

The valley remains largely rural in nature. Apart from Carmarthen with its administrative, hospital and commercial centres the towns are small and are typified by local shops rather than the well known national chains. Even Carmarthen has a population of only 13000. Crime is low throughout the county and well below the national average with robbery , burglary and car theft less than a quarter of the national average.

Carmarthenshire has the highest number of Welsh speakers in the country, but English is spoken everywhere. The last twenty years has seen an increasing number of immigrants from England and South East Wales attracted by the rurality, slower pace of life and until the last five years, lower property prices.

Tourism plays an increasingly important part in the economy of the valley, but the area is never crowded and the visitor may have difficulty finding some of its gems. The rich history of the area has resulted in a treasure trove of places of interest set in a beautiful valley.


Site and Photographs Geoffrey Davies 2008-10  Contact info@enchantedtowy.co.uk