Tretower Court and Castle/Llys a Chastell Tretwr

Chapter 3 : History

When William of Normandy invaded England in 1066, he was accompanied by adventurous knights from all over northern France, eager to win land and spoils. William himself did not show much interest in Wales, but many of his followers were eager to encroach upon it. In the last quarter of the eleventh century, the complex internecine warfare of the Welsh princes, together with pro-Saxon activity in the vicinity, enabled Bernard of Neufmarché (d c. 1121) to snatch what had once been the kingdom of Brycheiniog. His lands passed to his daughter, Sibyl, after Sibyl’s mother, Nest, granddaughter of the Welsh king, Guffydd ap Llywelyn, swore, presumably under pressure from Henry I of England, that Sibyl’s brother was the result of an affair, and not Bernard’s son. Conveniently, this made Sibyl’s husband, Milo Fitzwalter, an ally of Henry I’s, rich at someone else’s expense – a thoroughly satisfactory outcome in Henry I’s view.

Bernard had his own hangers-on, amongst whom was a man named Picard, who was granted the commote of Ystrad Yw, anglicised to Stradewy. There, on the banks of a tributary of the Rhiangoll, itself a tributary of the river Usk, Picard built himself a castle, in around 1100. About sixty years later, the original earthenworks and timber motte and bailey were replaced by stone.

The first half of the thirteenth century saw regular incursions into Wales of the English kings, determined to subjugate the Welsh. During these wars, Roger Picard II (d. 1248) was briefly imprisoned by the Welsh, led by Llywelyn ap Iorwerth of Gwynedd. In 1233, Tretower was destroyed by Llywelyn’s ally, Richard Marshal, Earl of Pembroke. Undaunted, Picard replaced the buildings with the round tower visible today, surrounded by stone walls. Over the following quarter century, Picard was involved in further wars, sometimes against his king, Henry III, and sometimes in support, as when he was obliged to lead fifty Welshmen from his lands to support Edward I in his wars in Gascony.

John Picard IV died in 1298, without a son. Tretower passed through his daughter, Amicia, to the Bloets of Rhaglan, and became a subsidiary property. Another female heir, Elizabeth Bloet or Bluett (d. 1420) took Tretower and Rhaglan into the ownership of Sir James Berkeley. This was at the time of the insurgency of Owain Glyndwr, and Berkeley was ordered to keep Tretower in a defensive state. Berkeley died in 1407, and Elizabeth married as her second husband, William ap Thomas (d. 1445). Like many of the men of South Wales, William had followed Henry V (born in nearby Monmouth) into battle in France, and used his significant loot after Agincourt to purchase Tretower and Rhaglan from Elizabeth’s children by Berkeley. After her death, he married again, this time to Gwladus Ddu, daughter of Dafydd Gam, another hero of Agincourt and opponent of Owain Glyndwr.

Gwladus (d. 1454) was the widow of Sir Roger Vaughan of Bredwardine (d. 1415). William and Gwladus’s son, another William (Gwilym Ddu, or Black Will in Welsh) used the surname Herbert, and became a stout supporter of Richard, Duke of York, and then of Richard’s son, later Edward IV. After Edward’s victory at Towton, Herbert was appointed as the guardian of the young Lancastrian, Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond. Gwladus’s son by her first marriage, Roger Vaughan, was, like his half-brother, a strong supporter of York. Following the Yorkist victory at Mortimer’s Cross, Roger was responsible for the execution of Owain Tudor, stepfather of King Henry VI. Granted the earldom of Pembroke, Black Will flourished under Edward IV, until he was killed by the Earl of Warwick, following the Battle of Edgecote as was Roger’s full brother, Thomas (more on Wales and the Wars of the Roses).

By a family arrangement, Roger had been granted Tretower, and spent considerable sums building most of what can be seen today. In the manner of the medieval Welsh gentry, he kept a lavish court, and patronised bards, whose main role was to extol their patrons virtues and to remember convoluted genealogies tracing their lords back to Adam and Eve, or at least to the Trojan, Brutus. But despite his growing power and prestige, Roger’s illicit execution of Owain Tudor came back to haunt him – captured by Owain’s son, Jasper, near Chepstow, in 1471, he too, was beheaded.

Roger’s son, Thomas, inherited Tretower, along with his father and uncle’s Yorkist loyalty. He was knighted by Richard III, and initially refused to accept Henry VII as king. After a brief bout of rebellion, he was pardoned in 1487 and continued in the family tradition of lavish hospitality and patronage.

By the sixteenth century, the Vaughans and their cousins, the Herberts, were reconciled to the Tudor regime. The Herberts went on to intermarry with the extended royal family, whilst the Vaughans success was more modest: senior positions in the county, including that of high sheriff of Breconshire in 1547, 1591, 1621, and 1635, with places on the various councils for Wales and the Marches. Thomas was succeed by Henry Vaughan, who in turn had a son, Christopher and so on for eight generations, until in 1700, the family ceased to live in Tretower, letting it to Thomas William Parry, whose son eventually purchased it from Charles Vaughan (d. 1804). The Parrys, too, eventually abandoned Tretower, letting it to tenant farmers, and the property gradually fell into decline.

In the 1930s, the buildings were so ruinous that a public appeal was mounted, and funds were raised for the property to be taken into public ownership. There followed a forty-year period of renovation, with further works, including the restoration of the barn, being completed in about 2010.