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  • Writer's pictureGraham Watkins

Rhys ap Thomas - Hero of Bosworth Field

Bosworth field site of the last battle of the Wars of the Roses
Battle of Bosworth

By the end of the 14th Century the Plantagenet dynasty had fragmented into Yorkist and Lancastrian factions. In 1399 Henry Bolingbroke deposed his cousin Richard II and became the first Lancastrian monarch. The house of Lancaster ruled England for the next sixty two years but it was not a peaceful period in the history of England. Yorkist and Lancastrian nobles argued over who should be king and in 1455 the dispute escalated into a bitter war. The Wars of the Roses, as they were known, would drag on for thirty years. By 1461, the Yorkists, whose heraldic symbol was a white rose, had won a series of battles and installed their man, King Edward IV. Edward was violently deposed in 1470 by Henry VI, a Lancastrian. Subsequently, Henry was murdered by the Yorkist faction and Edward restored to the throne. The fighting and plotting continued but Yorkist kings continued to reign until 1485 when Richard III became monarch.

According to the poet Guto’r Glyn, Rhys ap Thomas struck the blow that killed Richard III himself. He described Rhys and his men, ‘…like the stars of a shield with the spear in their midst on a great steed.’

Rhys ap Thomas was born in Carmarthenshire in 1449. His father came from Llandeilo and his mother was from Abermarlais. Her ancestor, also named Rhys, had fought at Crecy with Edward III. Rhys ap Thomas’ family supported the Lancastrian cause. His grandfather was killed at the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross, near the Welsh border, when Rhys was twelve years old. Following the battle the Lancastrians, including Rhys’ father, retreated to Carreg Cennen Castle where they were besieged by the Yorkist army. They surrendered in 1462 and the Yorkists destroyed the castle. Rhys’ family lands were confiscated and the family went into exile in Burgundy.

The family returned in 1467 and recovered some of their land during the brief reign of the Lancastrian King Henry VI, who had usurped Edward IV. After Henry was murdered and the Yorkist Edward re crowned, Rhys’ family managed to keep their lands. In 1474, Rhys’ father, Thomas, died and Rhys inherited the family estate.

Shortly after the Battle of Bosworth, the printer William Caxton, who was a Yorkist sympathiser, published Thomas Malory’s book ‘Le Morte d’Arthur’ - The Death of Arthur - likening the dead King Richard III to Arthur. It was an instant success and marked the start of a propaganda war that would be won by Shakespeare and the Tudor kings.

In 1483, Edward died, and his young son was proclaimed king. Richard, Duke of Gloucester was named as the boy’s Lord Protector. Richard had the twelve years old king and his younger brother moved to the Tower of London claiming the move was for their own protection. He then had the boys declared illegitimate, which thereby disqualified either of them any right to be king, and seized the crown for himself. After Richard was crowned, both royal princes were murdered. Richard III’s involvement was never proven but the boys were a serious threat to his legitimacy as king.

Rhys ap Thomas' coat of arms
Arms of Sir Rhys ap Thomas, KG

Richard III’s coronation triggered a new wave of Lancastrian activity. In Brecon, the Lancastrian Duke of Buckingham raised an army. It was part of a plot, planned by Jasper, Earl of Pembroke, to replace Richard with Henry Tudor. Buckingham’s army marched towards England. Suspecting that the revolt would fail, Rhys refused to join Buckingham’s force. When Buckingham’s soldiers reached the River Severn, it was in flood and impassable. Discontent spread through the ranks and many of his men deserted. Meanwhile Henry Tudor was attempting to return from Exile in France but storms made a safe landing impossible and he returned to the continent. The plot collapsed, Buckingham was betrayed and executed.

A purge of Lancastrian sympathisers in South Wales followed. Having declined to take part in the rebellion, Rhys was now regarded as someone the king might trust to serve him. Rhys was obliged to swear an oath of allegiance to the Yorkist King Richard and ordered to send his son to stay at the king’s court in Nottingham as a hostage to guarantee Rhys’ loyalty. In return Rhys was made the king’s lieutenant in South-west Wales and received an annual stipend of 40 marks.

Rhys prevaricated and instead of sending his son wrote to the king saying, ‘Whoever ill-affected to the state, shall dare to land in those parts of Wales where I have any employment under your majesty, must resolve with himself to make his entrance and irruption over my belly.’

King Richard was short of loyal supporters in Wales and let the matter drop. Two years later in 1485 Henry Tudor landed at Pembroke with a small force of retainers reinforced by French mercenaries. Jasper, Earl of Pembroke was there to meet his old friend. Instead of attacking Henry, as was Rhys’ duty, he joined the Lancastrians. This presented Rhys with a dilemma; what to do about the promise he had made to King Richard. Rhys consulted the Bishop of St. David’s for advice who suggested that the oath would be satisfied if Henry stepped over his body thereby passing over his belly. Rhys considered this proposal rather undignified but it gave him a better idea.

Mullock Bridge near Dale was chosen as the perfect site. Rhys stood underneath the bridge while Henry and his men crossed it. Rhys was satisfied that the promise he had made had been honoured and his conscience was clear. However, Mullock Bridge is a fun story but unlikely to be true. Henry divided his men into two forces, one led by himself and the second by Rhys ap Thomas. Henry travelled along the coast to Aberystwyth and then turned east across the mountains. Rhys’s journeyed across South Wales collecting more men as he went. The two armies joined forces at Welshpool. When they met Rhys’ force had grown by another 500 men and far outnumbered Henry Tudor’s.

William Shakespeare’s play Henry VI Part I, depicts rival Yorkist and Lancastrian supporters picking roses to decide what colour roses they would use as their emblems. The scene is fictitious. At the Battle of Bosworth Field the Lancastrian, Henry Tudor’s battle flag was a Welsh Red Dragon. After the battle his standard was carried in procession to St. Paul’s Cathedral. The green and white background on today’s Welsh national flag was added after the battle. Henry adopted the red and white Tudor Rose as a symbol after becoming king.

The combined Lancastrian army entered England and marched east. Yorkist spies warned Richard III of Henry’s return and the king called his men to arms. The opposing sides met on the 22nd August 1485 at Bosworth in Leicestershire. Richard had mustered about 10,000 men and arranged them along the top of a ridge. Henry had less than 5,000, most of them Welsh. A third army of 6,000 stood nearby commanded by Thomas Stanley. The Stanleys had always been Yorkist supporters but Richard had behaved badly towards them and their loyalty was doubtful. Suspecting trouble Richard kept Stanley’s son as hostage.

Fighting began when Henry’s men led by Rhys advanced on Richard’s position. Richard sent orders for Stanley to attack but there was no reaction from Stanley whose men stood firm, watching the battle. A furious Richard sent word that he would execute Stanley’s son. Stanley replied that he had other sons. Stanley was waiting to see who would win before taking sides. Richard ordered his hostage beheaded but in the heat of the battle the order was ignored.

The battle continued until Henry rode towards the Stanley position to ask for their help. Seeing that Henry Tudor was now in an exposed position, Richard and a group of knights charged towards Henry hoping to kill him and end the battle quickly. Richard and his men were quickly surrounded. It was the signal that Thomas Stanley had been waiting for and his men entered the battle on Henry’s side. Richard’s horse was killed but the king, now alone and on foot, fought on, surrounded by Welsh pike men. Finally, a Welshman cut him down with a poleaxe. The battle was won. Henry Tudor was crowned on the battlefield and Rhys knighted by his new king.

After the battle, Richard’s body was stripped naked, tied to a horse and taken to Leicester where it was thrown in an unmarked grave. The Stanley was rewarded with titles and estates. Rhys returned to Llandeilo as Justiciar of South Wales, Governor of all Wales and was later made a Knight of the Garter. He remained loyal to Henry and put down a Yorkist uprising in Brecon in 1486.

In September 2012, excavators dug up a municipal car park in Leicester and recovered a skeleton with a deformed back. Richard III was known to have one shoulder lower than the other. DNA testing proved that the skeleton belonged to King Richard. There were numerous wounds and part of the skull had been sliced off with a bladed weapon, suggesting that Richard was fighting without his helmet before he died. The remains have since been re-interred in Leicester Cathedral.

Rhys ap Thomas' tomb at St Peter's Church Carmarthen
Rhys ap Thomas' tomb at Carmarthen

Henry’s son, Henry VIII, had little interest in his Welsh heritage and valued Rhys’ loyalty less than his father had done. Rhys had a number of mistresses and several illegitimate children, and legitimate son Gruffydd ap Rhys ap Thomas died in 1521. Rhys himself died at Carmarthen Priory in 1525. After his death Rhys' estates, which he'd willed to his grandson also named Gruffydd, were confiscated by Henry VIII and given to a favourite courtier Lord Ferrers. Unsurprisingly, Rhys's grandson was enraged. He threatened Lord Ferrer and held a knife to his throat. It was a serious mistake. Henry VIII had a violent temper and was not a man to be crossed. He had Gruffydd convicted of treason and beheaded. The theft of Rhys’ land and the news of Gruffydd's brutal execution were badly received in Carmarthenshire. Rhys had been buried at Carmarthen Priory but later, after Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, his tomb was moved to St. Peter’s Church, Carmarthen. Rhys ap Gruffydd, a man who had done so much to establish the Tudor Dynasty, had been betrayed by his king.

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