"Tumult at Rhiw"


Patrick Allely

The year 1558 was a troubled one in Britain. The year had started with Mary, the elder daughter of Henry 8th on the throne, but she was to die childless that same year on the 17th November, to be succeeded by her half-sister Elizabeth. Queen Mary was the wife of King Philip 2nd of Spain, and unusually, the legal documents of the period are headed - Philip and Mary by the grace of God King and Queen of England, Spain, France, the two Sicilies, Jerusalem and Ireland. Wales and Scotland were not considered to be separate countries from England although Ireland was.

It was also a troubled time in the further reaches of Wales, for on the Llŷn Peninsula in the village of Rhiw some 10 miles from Pwllheli, on the 24th May 1558 tumult broke out in this far from peaceful area.

At 10pm that very night one woman and 9 men, all armed, attacked the home of another, assaulted the tenant and threw him out of the property, of which they immediately took possession.

Why they should do this is not known, but from the evidence available from the Quarter Sessions Records of that period, it would appear to be some involved family dispute.

We know that the widow Sybil of Bryncelyn, together with her brothers Robert, Thomas, Rhys and Owen, all the children of Ieuan ap Rhys ap Meyrik, and all from Llandegwnning near Rhiw, together with Ieuan and his brother Richard, the sons of Meredydd ap Gruffydd both from Llwyndynfol near Rhiw, Robert ap Ieuan Dackyn of Llandegwnning, Ieuan ap David ap Ieuan ap David of Llandegwnning and Richard ap Sir David of Rhiw attacked Richard ap David. The term ap means ‘son of’.

It is stated in the indictment that the defendants were armed with swords, shields, lances, scythes and other weapons, although who was carrying what is not known. The fact that they were carrying swords, shields and lances is significant. Only the more wealthy and trained men would be able to afford and use military weapons, whilst the ordinary farm labourer would be more likely to use an agricultural tool as an offensive weapon. That all the defendants are described as yeoman is a clue to their status, as the term yeoman in this period describes a landowning countryman or alternately a landowner serving as a foot soldier. It was only the previous year 1557 that the British armies had fought in France loosing Calais to the French and could it be that some of these defendants had served in the English armies?

The house of the aggrieved person Richard ap David is named as Tuthyn y Croysiog and in a further document as Tuthyn y Criosog. As the spelling in the 16th century was arbitrary it is possible that this smallholding was called Tyddyn y Croesog, and although there is no house with this name in Rhiw today, there is a farmhouse named Ty Croes in the village, and although it is a modern house it is built on an ancient site.

The next information available on this matter is to be found in a Jury summons dated 2nd July 1558 when two Justices of the Peace - John Wyn ap Hugh and surprisingly a woman, Eliza Moris commanded the Sheriff of Caernarfonshire Sir Richard Bulkeley of Beaumaris, the Chamberlain of North Wales and an extremely wealthy landowner, to cause twenty-four free and lawful men from the neighbourhood of Rhiw, to come before the Justices to inquire whether Sybil ferch (daughter of) Ieuan ap Rhys, Richard ap Sir David and other malefactors forcible entered upon a tenement Tuthyn y Croisog in the possession of Richard ap David ap Hywel and dissiesed (ejected) him there from and hold and occupy the said tenement. An offence contrary to a statute passed in 1428 during the reign of Henry 6th.

Sir Richard Bulkeley replied that he had caused 24 men to come before the Justices as demanded and required John Smyth to act for him as deputy Clerk of the Peace. In actual fact, only 15 free and lawful men from Rhiw were available for jury service and Roland Bulkeley, the Under Sheriff, certified this fact, together with the list of names.

Unfortunately the records of the Great Sessions at Caernarfon do not survive to tell us what happened to the defendants, but we do have an insight into the way of life in the middle of the 16th century. From evidence gleamed from other similar court cases, the chances were that the accused would have been found not guilty, they were all landowners (yeomen) and would have had some influence with the higher authorities, indeed one was the son of a nobleman. The name of greatest interest in this saga is that of the injured party – Richard ap David ap Hywel, as his name may solve another mystery in the succession of owners of the National Trust property of Plas yn Rhiw. It is known from the published family tree of the Lewis family of Plas yn Rhiw that in the 15th and 16th centuries the line of descent was Illa – Dafydd – Hywel – Dafydd….. And that in July 1552 David ap Hywel ap David ap Illa of Rhiw, a yeoman, was indicted for trespass and was fined. The court records states Manucapitur iijs. iijd; ponitur., which can be translated as ‘he was bound in the sum of 3s and 4d and it was produced in court.

The absence of a fixed surname makes Welsh family trees apparently difficult to trace but the extensive use of patronymic names helps the situation and it would appear to be reasonable to assume that Richard ap David ap Hywel of Tuthyn y Croisog was the latest in the line from Illa. If that is indeed the case then it is not unreasonable to assume that what is now Plas yn Rhiw was then Tuthyn y Croisog or as it would spelt now, Tyddyn y Croesog, a small holding and not the manor house or plas. At this period the manor house of the region of Cymydmaen (Pen Llŷn) was Plas Neigwl some two miles from Rhiw and long since demolished.

The study of Court records shows how tightly organised was the legal system even in the remoter parts of Wales and how quickly a person could be brought before a court. The Great Sessions at Caernarfon called upon the great and not so great to be present to dispense justice and to act as court officials. On Pen Llŷn these included the steward of the lord king of the lands and tenements lately belonging to the Abbey of Bardsey, the two constables of the peace of Cymydmaen, the two bailiffs of Pwllheli and the bailiff of Cymydmaen. Each commote in the county produced an equal number of officials and there must have been much activity at each Great Sessions where indictments as varied as murder to unlawfully playing cards were heard and argued over. Although the common language was no doubt Welsh, the records were recorded both in English and a form of Latin.

Another point of interest is the names of the jurors, defendants and witnesses.

Invariably, when a jury was formed from the residents of the country area, the men chosen to form the panel would have Welsh patronymic names, but when a jury was picked from the towns such as Caernarfon the jurors had surnames such as we have today, although the spelling was somewhat varied. The Conway jury for Michaelmas 1541 who had to decide whether Thomas Hookes of Conway should be hanged or discharged were Thomas Salysbury, Richard Stodart, Bartholomew Porter, Henry Totty, Richard Mellures, Richard Taylior, Ralph Mellures, John Bromor, Henry Acton, Richard Lewys, Thomas Matthewe and Richard Joynor – all names, with the exception of Lewys, now associated as English names. It would appear that Thomas Hookes had made an assault on a John Hyde, a chaplain, and that John Hyde in a separate indictment was charged with making an armed assault on Thomas Hookes and did beat and maltreat him. Lucky Master Hookes appears to have been discharged by the pardon of the lord the king.

That justice was swift in those days is undeniable and that the sentences were cruel is also undeniable. That the fear of severe punishment was a deterrent is disputed; many people were literally starving to death or had no place to live and would risk everything to stay alive. The following two cases illustrate this well –

A miller, Gwalchmai ap Ieuan of Dwygyfylchi on the 20th December 1550, stole a coat, doublet, purse and a pair of shoes from a neighbour. He escaped but was caught the following day in Denbighshire. He confessed his crime (remember torture was common practice) and committed to gaol to await his trial. He was indicted at the Quarter Sessions on the 16th April 1551 and at the Great Sessions at Caernarfon on the 13th July 1551 he pleaded not guilty. The king’s attorney for North Wales prosecuted and the jury found him guilty of the felony and that he had no goods, chattels, lands or tenements. When asked why he should be put to death he oddly replied that he could read and asked for the Bible. He was given a Bible, his hand was then branded and he was later hanged.

On the 26th January 1552, Emmot the daughter of Benet of Caernarfon broke and entered the house of Richard Foxwist at Caernarfon and stole a small amount of malt barley. She appeared at the Quarter Sessions on the 26th January 1552, and tried at the Great Sessions at Caernarfon on the 11th July 1552. She stated that she could not deny the felony and theft. She received the relatively light sentence that she should be flogged in the market place of Caernarfon on two days. Strangely enough Richard Foxwist and his brother regularly appear as jury members for Caernarfon in this period.

Life in Caernarfonshire was hard in those days when compared to today, but no doubt the people of the 1550’s considered themselves well done to and that life for them was great deal better than it had been 100 years earlier, I wonder what historians of the future will think of our way of life? I do hope that we are considered favourably.

Thanks to Patrick Allely for this Article.


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