Monday 12 March 2018

151 William de Breos

151 William de Breos
Parc le Breos takes its name from the Norman de Breos family, of whom there are various spellings such as Braose, Brewys, Breuse, and even Bruce on the sign by Giant’s Grave.  The de Breos family came to Britain with the conquering Normans, were based first at Bramber Castle in Sussex, and became Lords of Gower during medieval times, with a reputation for tyranny and ruthlessness - though surprisingly one de Breos was a bishop of Llandaff from 1266 to 1287.  Several of these Lords of Gower were named William, but can be differentiated by the year that each one died, or be numbered like British monarchs. 
During the reign of King John in 1203 the Lordship of Gower was granted to a William de Breos who died in 1212.  Of particular interest is his grandson, a William de Breos who was born in Brecon around 1197, and who succeeded his father Reginald de Breos (after whom Reynoldston is named) to the Lordship in 1227.  This de Breos was particularly detested by the Welsh, being called Gwilym Ddu, or Black William.  He was captured near Montgomery in mid Wales in 1228, by the Welsh forces of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth (Llywelyn Fawr), ruler of Gwynedd, and ransomed for the huge amount of £2,000.  Although de Breos made an alliance with Llywelyn during his captivity, the Norman evidently had an affair with Llywelyn’s wife, Princess Joan (Siwan in Welsh), an illegitimate daughter of King John.  As happened in those times, she had been given in marriage at the age of ten to seal a treaty, marrying the 32-year-old prince of Gwynedd in Chester Abbey in 1204.  Siwan later became an able intercessor for her husband with her half-brother, King Henry III.
The entry in 1230 for the Chronicle of Ystrad Fflur (Strata Florida, the abbey in Cardiganshire) states: “In this year William de Breos the Younger, lord of Brycheiniog, was hanged by the Lord Llywelyn in Gwynedd, after he had been caught in Llywelyn's chamber with the king of England's daughter, Llywelyn's wife."  This probably took place at Llywelyn’s residence at Abergwyngregyn in north-east Gwynedd.  The Abbot of Vaundey recorded: “On 2nd of May…. he was hanged on a tree, and this not privily or in the night time, but openly and in the broad daylight, in the presence of more than 800 men assembled to behold the piteous and melancholy spectacle.”  To hang a nobleman as if he were a common thief was a particular insult which threatened to bring the English king’s wrath down upon the Welsh.  Siwan herself died seven years later and was buried in Llanfaes Friary, near present-day Beaumaris in Anglesey.
These events form the basis of “Siwan”, the major 1956 dramatic poem in Welsh by playwright Saunders Lewis, who lived in Hanover Street and in Newton, and it is arguably his finest play.  It may have caught his attention when Saunders Lewis was Welsh lecturer at University College of Wales, Swansea, from 1922 to 1936, for a field near Parc le Breos is called Cae Gwilym Ddu - Black William’s Field.  There is a tradition that de Breos’s body was brought back from North Wales and buried there.  However, Nigel Jenkins points out that there are similarly named fields in other parts of Wales, and he doubts whether in those days a body would be brought to Gower from North Wales: so the tradition is tenuous. 
Pennard Castle may have built by another William de Breos who died in 1290, while one who died in 1326 gave Hunts Farm to his huntsman William de Hunde in 1317, and another ordered a rebel Gwilym (William) Cragh from Llanrhidian to be hung - yet Cragh, known as “the hanged man”, miraculously survived. 
Thankfully historians Gerald Gabb and Derek Draisey have studied the maze of persons named William de Breos, and are well equipped to handle enquiries about that family.

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