1531: Rhys ap Gruffydd

Add comment December 4th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1531, a Welsh nobleman whose grandfather had been instrumental in raising the Tudor dynasty up caught the downswing of the Tudor dynasty’s axe.

Gruffydd ap Rhys ap Thomas (“son of Rhys, son of Thomas”) was the Welsh patriarch of an illustrious house who had taken the Lancastrian side during the English Wars of the Roses.

When the Lancastrians lost, he took the necessary oaths to the likes of Richard III but his reputed promise to defend Wales for his king with such ferocity that an invader must needs “make his entrance and irruption over my belly” was discharged in a ceremony equally literary and lawyerly — when he stood under a bridge while his invading ally, the Welsh-descended Henry Tudor, marched over it.


There’s always a loophole when one fails to insist on direct language.

Together the two would win the crown for Henry — and in a sense very much win it for Wales — at Bosworth Field, where Gruffydd is sometimes credited personally with the blow that felled King Richard.

He lived on to 1525, a loyal supporter of Henry VII and his son Henry VIII. But the reciprocal gratitude of the kings did not outlive Gruffydd’s passing, for the Welsh offices that he designed to pass to his grandson Rhys ap Gruffydd were instead foisted on Water Devereux, Baron Ferrers.*

The consequent hostility would set Rhys on his way to the block. In 1529, our man drew a blade on Devereux, and their respective bands of retainers skirmished violently with each other over succeeding months.

Attempting to elevate his frustrated political claim by assuming the name “Fitz Urien” — in reference to a half-legendary ancient Welsh king — finally got him clapped in the Tower. His subsequent trial on a fanciful charge of conspiring with Scotland to form a Celtic league against the English asserted the central royal authority against a noble loose cannon who also happened to be part of the Catholic, anti-Anne Boleyn faction; at a stretch it could arguably** be read to make him one of the earliest victims of the still-nascent English Reformation. Be that as it may, his countrymen did not much mourn the fall of a vaunting and greedy line, however spurious the grounds.

And indeed many men regarded his [Rhys’s] death as Divine retribution for the falsehoods of his ancestors, his grandfather, and great-grandfather, and for their oppressions and wrongs. They had many a deep curse from the poor people who were their neighbours, for depriving them of their homes, lands and riches. For I heard the conversations of folk from that part of the country that no common people owned land within twenty miles from the dwelling of Sir Rhys ap Thomas, that if he desired such lands, he would appropriate them without payment or thanks, and the disinherited doubtless cursed him, his children and his grandchildren, which curses in the opinion of many men fell on the family, according to the old proverb which says — the children of Lies are uprooted, and after oppression comes a long death to the oppressors. (Source)

* An ancestor of Elizabethan loverboy Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex.

** That argument is made by Ralph Griffiths in Sir Rhys ap Thomas and his Family: A Study in the Wars of the Roses and Early Tudor Politics.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Nobility,Power,Treason,Wales,Wrongful Executions

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1136: Gwenllian, the Welsh warrior woman

1 comment February 22nd, 2013 Headsman

On an uncertain date perhaps around February 1136, the Welsh princess Gwenllian (or Gwenlhian, or Gwenliana) lost a battle to a Norman lord, who had her summarily beheaded.

This execution occurred in the aftermath of the Norman conquest. Having taken England, those invaders had made inroads into its western neighbor, even temporarily occupying much of the country.

But Welsh lords pushed the Normans back, and we find those Normans at this moment in disarray over an internal succession crisis — a period known as “The Anarchy”.

Map of medieval Wales.

Seeing the opportunity, Wales’s constituent principalities rose in a “Great Revolt”.

Gwenllian, that hottie from history, was daughter of the ruler of Gwynedd, married in a political match to the ruler of Deheubarth.

While these two men in Gwenllian’s life met up with one another to plot their next moves, Norman raids on Deheubarth forced Gwenllian to lead a force into the field to fight them.

It was a sight “like the queen of the Amazons, and a second Penthesilea,” writes the chronicler. “Morgan, one of her sons, whom she had arrogantly brought with her in that expedition, was slain, and the other, Malgo, taken prisoner; and she, with many of her followers, was put to death.”

That was a bummer for Gwenllian — doomed to haunt the castle under whose walls she fought her fatal battle — but not only her, as her bereaved proceeded to mount a furious counterattackwith a vast destruction of churches, towns, growing crops, and cattle, the burning of castles and other fortified places, and the slaughter, dispersion, and sale into foreign parts, of innumerable men, both rich and poor.”

For centuries afterwards, Welsh armies took the field crying “Revenge for Gwenllian!” The field where the battle was fought is named in her honor, as is a spring there that’s reputed to have welled up at the spot where her head fell. She’s even been speculatively — maybe a bit hopefully — identified as a possible author of the Mabinogion, a Welsh literary classic, but she’s definitely the subject of a bardic lullaby

Sleep, Gwenllian, my heart’s delight
Sleep on through shivering spear and brand,
An apple rosy red within thy baby hand;
Thy pillowed cheeks a pair of roses bright,
Thy heart as happy day and night!
Mid all our woe, O vision rare!
Sweet little princess cradled there,
Thy apple in thy hand thy all of earthly care.
Thy brethren battle with the foe,
Thy sire’s red strokes around him sweep,
Whilst thou, his bonny babe, art smiling through thy sleep
All Gwalia shudders at the Norman blow!
What are the angels whispering low
Of thy father now
Bright babe, asleep upon my knee,
How many a Queen of high degree
Would cast away her crown to slumber thus like thee!

There’s obvious, as-yet-unrealized commercial potential here in this sacrificial princess (though she’s not to be confused with Gwenllian of Wales). Word is that a silver screen treatment of the Gwenllian legend is circulating in Hollywood studios looking to duplicate the success of Braveheart.

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Entry Filed under: 12th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,History,Martyrs,Myths,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Soldiers,Summary Executions,The Supernatural,Wales,Wartime Executions,Women

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