Abbot Rhys is the subject of poems 5–9, and he is also referred to in 30.37–8, 46 and in 115.25. No poems have survived to him by other poets, but reference is made to him in poems to his successors by Dafydd Nanmor (DN XXV.8, 64) and Ieuan Deulwyn (ID XXXI.4).
The only evidence for his genealogy are the references in Guto’s poems, where his father’s name is given as Dafydd ap Llywelyn (6.11–14; 8.37, 73). He is also called ŵyr Domas ‘grandson of Tomas’ (7.39), and this was probably his mother’s father (but see explanatory note 7.39).
Dafydd ap Llywelyn is described as [C]aeo lywydd glân ‘fair ruler of Caeo’ (6.12), and in the elegy the people of Caeo are said to have been deprived of their riches (9.6), a clear indication that Rhys belonged to a prominent noble family in the commote of Caeo in Carmarthenshire. Rhys himself cannot be located in P.C. Bartrum’s genealogies (WG1 and WG2), but it is possible, as Salisbury (2009: 61–2) has argued, that he was a grandson of the Llywelyn ap Gruffydd Fychan who was executed in Llandovery in 1401 for leading the king’s army astray instead of on the track of his two sons, who were in the company of Owain Glyndŵr (see Griffiths: 1972, 367, where Dafydd ap Llywelyn ap Gruffydd Fychan is noted to have held the post of beadle of Caeo in 1389–92 and deputy beadle in 1395–6 and 1400–1). No son named Dafydd is recorded for Llywelyn ap Gruffydd Fychan in WG1 ‘Selyf’ 6, but it is possible he was omitted from the genealogy because his only son was Rhys who had no children being a cleric. On the other hand, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd Fychan is said to have had a son called Morgan Foethus who was abbot of Strata Florida. Bartrum does not note his source for this, and there is no support for it in the lists of abbots, but there are gaps in the lists at the end of the fourteenth century and the beginning of the fifteenth. It is also possible that there was confusion between Morgan and Rhys because Rhys’s father had been omitted from the family genealogy.
The earliest reference to Rhys as abbot of Strata Florida is one dated 13 February 1433, which includes him in a list of noblemen who were responsible for ensuring the safety of the abbot of Whitland (CPR 1429–35, 295). But there is evidence that his abbacy started at least three years before that. A document dated 26 March 1442, in the time of Rhys’s successor, abbot William Morus, describes the condition of the abbey thus (CPR 1441–6, 95–6):
The abbot and convent of the house of St. Mary, Stratflure, South Wales, have shown the king that the said house is situated in desolate mountains and has been spoiled by Owen Gleyndour and his company at the time of the Welsh rebellion, the walls of the church excepted, and that it is not probable that the same can be repaired without the king’s aid, and that Richard, late abbot, was deputed as collector of a whole tenth granted to the king by the clergy of the province of Canterbury in his ninth year and to be levied from the untaxed benefices within the archdeaconry of Cardican, in the diocese of St. Davids, and collector of a fourth part of a moiety of a tenth granted by the same on 7 November in the twelfth year and to be levied within the same archdeaconry, and collector of a whole tenth granted by the same on 29 April in the fifteenth year to be levied within the same archdeaconry, and collector of another tenth granted by the same in the eighteenth year, to be levied within the same archdeaconry, and collector of a subsidy granted by the same in the eighth year and to be levied from all chaplains within the same archdeaconry, and that at the time of the levying of the tenth in the eighteenth year the said late abbot was committed to the prison within the castle of Kermerdyn by the king’s officers by reason of divers debts recovered against him and there died.
Rhys (or Richard as he is called here) is said to have collected a subsidy on behalf of the king in the eighth year of the reign of Henry VI, i.e. between 1 September 1429 and 31 August 1430. He is also said to have been imprisoned in Carmarthen castle for debt in the eighteenth year of the reign of Henry VI, i.e. 1439/40, and to have died there. In another record dated 18 February 1443 it is stated that his successor, William Morus, had been abbot for two years (ibid 151–2), so Rhys must have died towards the end of 1440 or early in 1441. The dates 1430–41 given for his abbacy by Williams (2001: 297) can therefore be accepted, assuming that Richard was used as an English form of Rhys, as seen in the above passage.
In the poem about Rhys’s illness, Guto encourages him to overcome his illness by reminding him that he succeeded in vanquishing opposition from both abbots and laymen (5.43–56). Reference is made to hawlwyr making claims against him, which might refer to the case in 1435 (28 May) when he was ordered to appear before the Court of Chancery to answer an accusation of despoiling the land and property of the Cistercian abbey of Vale Royal (Cheshire) in Llanbadarn Fawr (CCR; see Williams 1962: 241; Salisbury 2009: 67). Reference is also made in lines 47–8 to an attempt to deprive him of his income by [m]awrIal, probably the abbot of the Cistercian abbey of Valle Crucis in the commote of Yale. There is no record of any dispute between the abbots of Strata Florida and Valle Crucis during Rhys’s abbacy, but Siôn ap Rhys, the abbot of Aberconwy, is known to have caused damage to Strata Florida and to have taken goods worth £1,200 in 1428 (Robinson 2006: 269). As suggested by Salisbury (2009: 68), it is likely that Rhys himself was responsible for ousting Abbot Siôn and appointing a certain Dafydd in his place in Aberconwy, a daughter-abbey of Strata Florida, in 1431. It was doubtless authoritative actions such as these that Guto had in mind here.
According to Guto Rhys was a learned scholar (6.20), and poem 6 most likely refers to a visit he made to St Bernard’s College, established by the Cistercians in Oxford in 1437. As seen in the passage quoted above, Strata Florida abbey was seriously damaged during the Glyndŵr rebellion, and Guto testifies that Rhys paid for the repair of the buildings (8.16–18, 57–8). It may well have been this expenditure, as well as his general munificence, which was responsible for his debts by the end of his life, as Guto implies in the conclusion of his elegy (9.75–84).
Griffiths, R.A. (1972), The Principality of Wales in the Later Middle Ages: The Structure and Personnel of Government, i: South Wales 1277–1536 (Cardiff)
Salisbury, E. (2009), ‘ “Y traed ataw a redant”: Golwg ar ganu Guto’r Glyn i Rys, abad Ystrad-fflur’, LlCy 32: 58–84
Robinson, D. (2006), The Cistercians in Wales: Architecture and Archaeology 1130–1540 (London)
Williams, D.H. (2001), The Welsh Cistercians (Leominster)
Williams, G. (1962), The Welsh Church from Conquest to Reformation (Cardiff)