The Lordship of Neath
The Gatehouse of Neath Castle
This month’s speaker was WEA lecturer Mr Steve David. Despite the windy and inclement weather brought to Wales by depression Imogen, a large audience came to hear Mr David speak about the Lordship of Neath between 1130 and 1542.
The Lordship of Neath was roughly congruent with the borders of the Borough of Neath which disappeared in the last local government reshuffle in 1995. Its derivation was a mixture of the old Welsh cwmwd or commote, which was part of a cantref (literally a hundred settlements) of the princedom of Gwenhwysig , which included Morgannwg ( Glamorgan), Gwent Uchaf and Is-goed. It existed from around 830 AD. The river Tawe was seen as the boundary.
Mr David spoke of the rivalry between the Deheubarth princedom of West Wales and Gwenhwysig when raiding parties would raid each other. The coming of the Normans and the Marcher Lords confused the issue further, and though it is an over simplification to say that south Wales was conquered by “Twelve Knights”, by the time of William the Second (Rufus) the Normans had a grip on things and had killed Rhys ap Tewdwr, ruler of Deheubarth in 1093, a fact which is recalled in “Brut y Tywysogion”. Robert Fitzhamon came to Cardiff and conquered as far as the River Ogwr and built some 14 castles. Richard de Glanville, crossed from North Devon and headed for the estuary of the river Neath and built a ‘motte and bailey’, castle in the proximity of the fore-runner of Neath Abbey around 1129, and so began the lordship. By his death in 1148, the frontier territory of Neath Ultra and Sutra had been established . Crucially, this included the fording and bridging point to the uplands “Blaenau Morgannwg”, and to west Wales. Surprisingly, the area around the Afan valley stayed in Welsh control and proved a bulwark against the expansion of the Normans. However, not everything went the way of the Normans and in 1148 the Lord Rhys of Deheubarth descended on the town of Neath and burned it to the ground. This led in its turn to the establishment of a larger stone castle at Neath.
By 1170, Neath had a population of 104 burgesses and a total rent of £26 per annum. The Abbey itself was a rival trade centre and produced 24 sacks ( two tons) of wool from 4,000 sheep on their granges including that at Resolven which was given to the Abbey at Margam around this time. This reflected badly on Neath and its gross rent take fell to a very low level. The monks themselves were hated by the townspeople who regarded them as both lazy and rich, even using their own serfs to do their work.
In 1299, Gilbert de Clare, built the present castle. He also appointed a Constable of Neath Castle ( a post held by the Mayor of Neath today Ed.) with a garrison of four professional soldiers and eight crossbowmen. This however did not stop the Welsh hero Ifor Bach of Senghennydd from storming and destroying the castle forcing the Normans to rebuild and adding the gatehouse which is still prominent in Neath today. Interestingly, the law which kept order in Neath was an admixture of the Welsh law of Hywel Dda and that of the Marcher Lords, the English laws of Edward 1 did not apply.
By 1389, the town had a population of 680 people and had become a centre of Welsh writing and bardic traditions. Indeed much of the prophecies regarding a “mab darogan”, or returning King came from the Neath area. Interestingly however, the town did not rise when the eponymous Owain Glyndwr raised his standard in 1400.
Following this the Borough of Neath entered a long decline both in terms of wealth and fertility. This may have been due to climatic change with the end of the medieval warm period, but agricultural production slowed with even attendance at Neath Fair showing a decline. The 1536 Act of Union between England and Wales largely spelled an end to the Lordship which vanished in 1542. Economic industrail prosperity would have to wait until the arrival of the Mackworths some two centuries later.
Mr Gwyn Thomas thanked Mr David for a very enjoyable talk and remarked how the speaker had not used any notes or illustrative material on what was a very complicated subject.