Robert Fitzmartin was a powerful Norman lord, with estates in the West Country. In approximately 1108 he appears to have taken possession of the barony of Cemais and created Nevern as his caput with the establishment of a borough of 18 burgages complete with its own court. He is credited with the early 12th century features of the castle, including the wooden tower which once stood on top of the motte.
He became more powerful and in 1113 he brought 13 monks from Tiron, France to found a priory at St Dogmaels. This was later raised to the status of an abbey in 1118.
In 1136 the Normans were defeated by the Welsh at the battle of Crug Mawr, near Cardigan, and it is likely that Robert Fitzmartin lost control of Nevern.
Robert died in 1159 and his son William became Lord.
William was the son of Robert Fitzmartin. When the Normans were defeated at the battle of Crug mawr in 1136 it is likely that Nevern returned to Welsh control. Rhys ap Gruffudd (the Lord Rhys) was in control at Nevern and William married his daughter Angharad. The Fitzmartins regained control of Nevern through this marriage and by virtue of the fact that when Rhys ap Gruffudd became the Lord Rhys he was ordered to return Welsh captured lands to their legal Norman Lords.
In 1159 Robert Fitzmartin died and William became Lord. It is not known whether William made the many alterations to the early 12th century castle, such as building a stone tower on top of the motte, to replace the timber structure built by his father, or whether these were made later by Rhys. In 1191, Lord Rhys besieged and recaptured Nevern Castle from his son in law, William. This may have happened while William was away on crusade. William later abandoned Nevern (or was evicted) and moved a few miles southwest to Newport, where he founded Hen Castell, the Old Castle, adjacent to the estuary. By 1204 he was once again in control of the lordship of Cemais.
Rhys ap Gruffud – the Lord Rhys
Rhys ap Gruffudd is regarded as one of the most important rulers of pre-conquest Wales. Territorial and ambitious, he was involved in acts of treachery and loyalty and is widely credited with structural and strategic developments at Nevern Castle from the mid to late 12th century. The dominant Welsh leader in the southern half of Wales from 1156 – 1194. He was made ‘Justiciar’ of the area by King Henry II in 1172, giving him the title, the Lord Rhys. In return for this, he was ordered to return Welsh captured lands to their legal Norman lords. At this time Rhys’ daughter Angharad, married William Fitzmartin.
During Rhys’ reign he is credited with building a series of six stone castles – Cardigan, Dinefwr, llandovery, Rhyader, Ystradmeurig and Nevern. At this stage it is unclear whether Rhys made the stone alterations to Nevern or whether they had been done previously by William Fitzmartin.
Following the death of Henry II, the Lord Rhys reclaimed Nevern Castle from his Norman son in law. A tremendous family feud ensued, resulting in Rhys’ imprisonment at the hands of his own sons. He was later released from captivity, but had lost much of his power and territory. He died in 1197, and an effigy, supposedly of the Lord Rhys, can be seen in St Davids Cathedral.
For more information about Rhys and his escapades visit the links page.