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1200 - 1320 - The De Breos Years

This conflict wasn't as simple as Welsh vs. English. This was an age of constant political jostling, especially around the time of the Magna Carta.

Swansea Castle with ships c. 1797 © West Glamorgan Archive Service
Arms of Breos (Camden Roll 1280) © Doug Thompson
View of the Great Hall
The Great Hall
Swansea Castle with ships c. 1797 © West Glamorgan Archive Service
Arms of Breos (Camden Roll 1280) © Doug Thompson
View of the Great Hall
The Great Hall

The Marcher Lords made alliances with their former enemies the Welsh princes and noblemen, and they then all combined against King John.

William de Breos I, a favourite of King John, was granted the Lordship of Gower in 1203 as a reward for his support. When he fell out of favour he fled and went into exile in France, where he died in 1211. His wife and eldest son were sent to Windsor Castle where they starved to death!

The castle was in the hands of King John when Rhys Grug, son of The Lord Rhys, attacked and burnt Swansea in 1212. It had been returned to de Breos hands in 1215 but in 1217 Rhys Grug again swept into Gower to "expel all the English population that was in that land without hope of their ever coming back again, taking much as he pleased of their chattels and placing Welshmen to dwell in their lands."

Peace, when it came, was remembered in a poem by the Welsh poet Llwyarch ap Llewelyn:

And Abertawe town of war
Broken Towers
And today there is truly peace.

After a brief period in Welsh hands John de Breos, whose father had died in Windsor Castle, reclaimed the Lordship in 1220 and went on to repair the now stone castle. On his death in 1232 the Lordship passed to William de Breos II, but as he was a minor it reverted to royal custody until he came of age in 1241. He held the Lordship of Gower for almost 50 years during a period of continual conflict with the Welsh princes. However, the strongest challenge to his power came from William Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, who claimed the castle of Swansea and the land of Gower by descent. Although the legal proceedings found in favour of de Breos, it started a debate about the lineage of the Lordship which took many years to settle.

In the1280s William de Breos II started work on the "new" castle, the walls of which you can see today. He wanted to provide more comfortable accommodation for the De Breos family, constructing a self-contained suite of rooms, a great hall for entertaining, a private room for the family called the solar, with cellars below and linked to a square tower.

Murder and Medieval Miracles

Despite these domestic improvements, the Castle and Lordship of Gower were still the focus of attacks by the Welsh. In 1287 the Welsh launched a surprise assault, burning the town and capturing nearby Oystermouth Castle. One Welsh warrior caught up in the bloodbath was William Cragh, known as 'William the Scabby' or William ap Rhys. He fought alongside Rhys ap Maredudd, great grandson of the Prince of Deheubarth. William was captured in 1290, held at Swansea Castle, found guilty of murdering 13 men and sentenced to death. Welsh law allowed William to pay compensation to his victims but the one hundred cows his family offered to William de Breos II were refused. He was clearly a wanted man.

Cragh and another prisoner, Trahaearn ap Hywel, were taken from the castle on an autumn day to the gallows on Gibbet Hill above Swansea. They were strung up on either side of the gallows but the middle beam snapped. As Cragh was not dead William de Breos II ordered that Cragh be hanged again - and this time he was left until sunset. His body was taken down by friends and transported to a  house in Swansea were witnesses described "he had a totally black face, and with bloodied or blood encrusted parts, and the eyes of William himself had popped out of their place, hanging down outside the eyelids of the said eyes, and the hollows of the eyes themselves were filled with blood."

And then a miracle happened. Lady Mary de Breos, the third wife of William de Breos II, prayed for William Cragh to live "That man was hanged twice and had a great punishment. I pray to God and St Thomas of Cantilupe to give him life, and if they give him life we will bring him to praise". During the night William Cragh started to breathe; his return to life was declared a miracle and he went on to live for another 18 years!

We know a great deal about this because in 1307 Pope Clement V sent representatives to interview witnesses about a number of miracles attributed to Thomas Cantilupe, the former Bishop of Hereford. The witness statements are still part of the Vatican's archive and have recently been translated as part of the Medieval Swansea project. You can discover the full detail of the Cragh Miracle at new window

A Castle for a show off?

William De Breos III, who became Lord of Gower in 1291, continued his father's improvements, adding an indoor loo (garderobe) and window seats to enjoy the views out across the river and bay. He seems to have been more interested in showing off his wealth and importance and was described by Thomas Walsingham as 'an improvident man who wasted away a rich inheritance'. Following years of dispute he granted Charters to the burgesses of Swansea and Gower, as a way of appeasing his opponents.


Deheubarth CADW logoFOLLOW THE STORY of the Princes of Deheubarth by visiting....

Oystermouth Castle - captured in 1287 by the Welsh princes and Welsh freedom fighters including William Cragh.

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