“I am the heir of all of Wales, and I ought to rule it and I will rule it,” proclaimed Edward ap David ap Rhys in a strong, lilting Welsh slurred by a long night of drinking. He spoke to a small group of men, but the news that an obscure member of the lower gentry claimed authority over all of Wales traveled all the way to King Henry VIII.
Henry VIII had agents throughout the kingdom on high alert for signs of dissent. The Marches of Wales were an especially ungovernable, fractious stretch of countryside where the king wanted to assert his power. As it stood, the king’s own court needed extensive retinues of guards to travel through the Marches safely. The King’s representative in the Marches, Bishop Rowland Lee, questioned the witnesses to Edward’s brash speech and wrote to Thomas Cromwell, the king’s chief minister and one of the most powerful men in Europe, about the incident. The Bishop had Edward questioned. He admitted to what he had said although he was just as quick to distance himself from his words. He begged Henry VIII’s pardon, explaining that he had been drunk to reason and “away with ale by reason of a great wound upon his head.”
Edward had some power locally through his post in local government, but nationally, he was a nobody. He came from an illustrious family who boasted Welsh kings in its lineage, but like his father before him, he had a small estate and never enough money to maintain it. His centuries-long pedigree outshone his diminished circumstances. Still, his words were potentially treasonous, and treason was not to be taken lightly.
Edward served the massively wealthy 3rd Earl of Derby as rhyngyll, a position that gave him influence over local land transactions. The Earl of Derby was at the very center of power. He was raised by Henry VIII and became a close, life-long ally of the king. He was among the commissioners who informed the pope that the king would divorce Katherine of Aragon even if that meant breaking with Rome.
In Tudor Wales, there was tension between the king, the lords who owned vast swaths of land, and the officials like Edward who helped them govern their territory. Henry VIII was consolidating the Crown’s central authority, reorganizing the laws of Wales to limit the power of land-holding lords, and consequently, their officials. For centuries, England had been plagued by wars and feuding lords, and by consolidating power Henry VIII hoped to bring stability to England and longevity to the ruling family. Henry VIII instituted a series of laws called the Acts of Union to limit how much arbitrary power men like the Earl of Derby had over their tenants in Wales. The new laws impeded the Earl, but also men like Edward who derived status from their positions under the earl.
The earl’s father had died young and he inherited when he was still a child, and so the officials of the lordship—like Edward—had the run of his sprawling estates. They could govern as they liked, and enrich themselves wherever they could. The earl strove to reassert his authority when he came of age. He resented the men whom he believed had deprived him of his rightful income by slowing and hindering his flow of rents. Just a week before Edward’s drunken outburst, the earl had ordered him and several other officials to force 12 men out of their houses, draw a cross on their doors, and order them never to enter again. The earl had the power to seize men’s homes, and Edward had no authority to object. Perhaps, as historian Shaun Evans suggests, this incident fueled the resentment that spilled over once Edward was drunk in the company of his friends.
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