The deposition of Robert ap Hugh of Brymbo "taken at the dwelling house of William Langford called the Swan in Ruthin...on Wednesday the foureteenth day of January in the second yeare of their Majestyes raigne King William and Queene Mary"

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, it can be difficult to get much sense of the intimate detail of people’s lives before the 19th century. Most people left few records behind them and those that remain tend to be weighted towards the more wealthy or landowning classes. Nevertheless, it is sometimes possible to locate documents that help to fill in some of the missing detail.

Brymbo in the late 17th century was still a largely rural township, although coal mining was already well under way. The political and religious upheavals of the Civil War were still – just – within living memory, but it must by then have been a rather quiet place: the first stirrings of the industrial future were still several generations away. In the meantime its farmers and labourers would have continued much as they had done for the previous few hundred years, working to keep their livestock fed and barns full through the tough winters of the period sometimes called the “Little Ice Age”.

One of the township’s residents in this period was a man called Griffith Thomas. Thanks to an exchequer case concerning his will, some documents relating to which remain in the National Archives, we can uncover not only a surprising number of details about him, but also about his relatives, neighbours, and other people in the area, and about their day to day lives.

Thomas was in some respects a typical rural yeoman, tending animals on his own land and conducting business in the market, but he seems to have been of a ‘good’ family: he styles himself ‘gent’ in his will, which by the standards of the time meant that he could probably trace his family back to the Powys nobility. His father was called Thomas ap Edward ap Madoc, and his mother Elizabeth; she had held land in Brymbo in her own right, possibly from her own mother, referred to only as “Mrs Griffith” (this may imply some connection with the Griffith family of Brymbo). His father and mother were both long dead, as were two of his three sisters, though the youngest sister Magdalen still lived in Cheshire with her husband William Weaver. Griffith Thomas lived, most likely, in the small corner of Brymbo township near the Glascoed and adjoining the Ffrith, where the valley of the stream from Glascoed ends and joins the Cegidog at Ffrith Hall. Some of his neighbours – Robert ap Hugh of Brymbo, the smith Edward Jones, and John Williams, a yeoman of Uwchmynydd, had been present on 1st April 1689 when his will was drawn up, dictated to a local clerk (another Edward Jones). In it Thomas left small sums to several relatives, and even a shilling for the smith and for his neighbour Humphrey Roberts, but his land and house went to his niece Rose Edwards, who had been living with him for a year before his death.

However, it wasn’t long before Thomas’s sister Magdalen, and her husband, took legal action against both Rose Edwards and the witness Robert ap Hugh. By the Weavers’ account, Griffith Thomas was not all the bare facts of his existence would suggest: he was, in the words of deponent Daniel Jones of Stansty, Gent, “a sort of a moyder’d man and a troubled man in his head”. It seems that some time around fourteen years before, Thomas had suffered some kind of episode, a “fitt of distraction”, and since then had his sanity doubted by some. The Weavers claimed they had taken the burden of caring for him for many years, partly as a result of a formal agreement made with Rose Edwards’ parents. It was this question of whether he was of sound mind at the time his will was drawn up that was behind the Weavers’ legal case; Magdalen had believed she was entitled to his property, or at least to more than the will provided. Indeed, there were dark hints that Griffith had not even been present while the will was being signed: it was suggested that he had at the time been running around barefoot outside, very far from being of sound mind.

Much of the evidence in the case consists of references to Griffith Thomas’s land in Brymbo (unfortunately without a clear description of where it was) and who had title to it and to the identity of his parents, siblings and grandparent – details easily lost, it seems, in a time before modern record keeping. Luckily many of these were remembered by the deponent William ffennah, butcher, of Uwchmynydd, aged over sixty. He was, he explained, the nephew of Thomas’s father, Thomas ap Edward ap Madoc, had known Thomas’s parents, and had been acquainted with the complainants for twenty years and the equally elderly defendant Robert ap Hugh “from his infancy”.

ffennah tells the story of how around the time of Thomas’s first episode of ‘distraction’, William Weaver, on receipt of a letter from Thomas’s neighbour Humphrey Roberts,1 had gone to obtain a warrant to take Thomas into his care.  Thomas had refused to leave his own house, and indeed for some time only allowed ffennah to come near it, but nevertheless, he says, the Weavers had continued to be very kind to him, bringing him food and clothes and lending him a “melch Cow“. Ultimately, ffennah suggests, his relation Thomas “being a passionate man” sometimes differed with the Weavers, but otherwise “manifested his Affection” to them and if of sound mind would not have given away his estate from his sister.

Several of the deponents bought in to support the Weavers’ case give evidence of their consideration to their unfortunate relative. Elizabeth Roberts of Gresford said that Thomas dropped by several months before his death and had said how kind his sister had been to him. She added that the Weavers had gone with two horses “in the extremity of cold weather” with food for Thomas, “soe that their haire of theire heads were frozen” (sic).

Richard Lloyd, of Hope Medachied, gives evidence largely as to why he believed Magdalene to be the rightful heir of the land in Brymbo formerly belonging to her mother. However, he also confirms that Thomas, after his “discomposure […] went about in an unusuall manner or like a Maddman“, and did not believe that he would, if sane, have made a will leaving little to the sister who had supported him “during the time of his distraction“. John Roberts of Gresford testified that a “Chirurgeon” who had treated Thomas with a spot of blood-letting said that the latter had shouted at him and seemed “farr outof his senses. Another deponent, Evan Anthony of Caegwrle, yeoman, said he had heard Griffith Thomas was not of sound memory “and believes hee was soe for that he did lay the lyme bags which he carried on his horses contrary to other mens way of Loading them and often went abt. the Country covered only with a Blankett”. This curious touch about the lime bags is repeated by seventeen year old William ffennah the younger – who felt that riding behind the lime on a horse was a clear sign of madness – along with accusations that Thomas often went to market “sometimes with a sheet over his shoulders”, sometimes with one round his waist, and shouted at the neighbours. The fact that Thomas was once observed cooking some bread and milk for breakfast and then throwing a large handful of salt in it is mentioned. Daniel Jones also mentions Griffith Thomas’ sheet-wearing, saying that he called the sheet “his mantle“. Lastly, and more sensational still, Jones includes a piece of local gossip, saying that “on Tuesday last” while discussing the case with John ap John Roberts of Brymbo, the latter had revealed to him “that he once met upon the road the sd. Griffith Thomas as naked as he came into the world”.

Edward ap John ap Rees, husbandman of Uwchmynydd, said he knew few of the people involved, though he was familiar with Robert ap Hugh, being a neighbour (Uwchmynydd was the township on the other side of Nant-y-Ffrith). He had known Thomas a little, saying he always seemed sensible, but then added an amusing touch: he had been a day-labourer at the house next to Thomas’s and “often heard him knock at unseasonable time and in the nights and thereupon the neighbours would say there Griffith keeps his Garrison”.

So far, it seems as if Magdalen and William Weaver had a point: their relative Griffith Thomas had perhaps not been in his right mind when he dictated his will, if he dictated it at all. That’s not all of it either: in a particularly startling accusation, William ffennah adds that “the sd Complt. William [Weaver] being there at the said Griffith’s funeral hee was sore beaten by the Deft. Robert ap Hugh Edward Jones Thomas Jones and others as he believes”. But other deponents tell quite a different story. A number of residents of Brymbo go on record to describe Thomas as a shrewd and sensible person quite capable of looking after himself, and indeed often employed by locals to assist them in dealings at market. One goes so far to call him “as crafty a man as any in the parish“.

Some of the most interesting evidence comes from Edward Parry, yeoman of Brymbo, aged about 54, who says he had been “petty constable” of Brymbo about thirteen years before (and another long-forgotten piece of the social jigsaw falls into place). He was a neighbour and longstanding acquaintance of Griffith Thomas, and adds that the latter in his knowledge was a man of good judgement – a particularly good judge of horses, and had once helped him to buy a horse. Although, Parry adds, he saw “no violence” committed by the complainants against Thomas, he tells a story which throws a slightly different light on their dealings with them.

One Sunday, William Weaver had bought Edward Parry, in his capacity as constable, a warrant to bring Thomas “before Mr Edisbury a justice of Denbighshire” and had asked Parry to meet him at Thomas’s house the following day. The next day they went together to see Thomas: when Parry served him with the warrant he exclaimed (perhaps with some irony) “God Blesse the King!” Thomas then addressed his neighbour, Humphrey Roberts (who having sent the letter that started the whole business off, had presumably come over to see what the fuss was about) “in these words”:

“Did you see me pass by your house every day? Did ever I do any hurt to you or your wife or children or any of your cattle goods or chickens” and then he sayd “my brother in law” meaning the plaintiff William Weaver “would have me goe with him to Cheshire and there will make much of me for two or three dayes and then knocke me in the head with a Wythin stake”

Moreover, Parry is not the only one to suggest that Griffith Thomas was not very keen to spend time with his relatives. One of the last documents in the bundle is the evidence of the accused Robert ap Hugh, yeoman of Brymbo, “aged threescore and five years or thereabouts”. He was most likely the same Robert ap Hugh who owned Penycoed, overlooking the Glascoed valley, and was one of the township’s more substantial farmers (Palmer said these particular Hugheses were also of gentry stock). His answers have an air of an assured man confidently dimissing any doubts – or perhaps trying to give that impression. He had known Griffith Thomas, he said, “for the space of about forty years” and he was always a man of good understanding, “by neighbourly repute a very knowing dealer in marquetts”. He had heard a rumour that Thomas had suffered “fitts of distraction”, but had never seen any sign of it “and doth not believe that he had any”. Furthermore, Robert ap Hugh continued, he had gone to visit Thomas at the time of his last illness, and “discoursing with him about his lands he always told this deponent that he intended them for noe body else but for his eldest sisters children”, that is for Rose Edwards. Robert ap Hugh confirmed that the will was accurate, and had been dictated (in Welsh) to the clerk Jones and witnessed by him, Edward Jones the smith and John Williams. He had set his mark to it as a witness (he had not signed, he said, “for want of spectacles” which he had left at home). However, as mentioned, he also revealed more about Thomas’s relationship with the plaintiffs:

This Deponent sayth that he asked the decd. when in life and health why he did not goe and live with the plts. in Cheshire, his answere was “what to doe there?” to be thrown into a roome and there a crust and thin fleetings to be thrown him or to be knocked in the head with a willow stake or words to that purpose slighting their kindnesse.

It certainly sounds as if Thomas had some argument with his sister and brother in  law. As to what Robert ap Hugh did to Weaver at Griffith Thomas’ funeral, he does not say.

Most damning of all, if true, is the accusation put forward by John Williams of Uwchmynydd, one of the men present when the will was signed. He was at the smithy of Edward Jones in Ffrith – Edward Jones “the younger”, not the man present at the signing of the will – when William Weaver came in:

shaked hands with [Williams]& asked him if he knew that the decd. Griffith Thomas was not of sense to make a will when he made his last will this Deponent answered him that he did not know that he was so nor was he there at the makeing of his last will then said the said plaintiff William and put his hand in his pockett I will give you five pounds if you will sweare that he was not in sense then…

This story is partly corroborated by Edward Jones the younger, who said that Weaver had offered money to Williams and to Robert John ap Rees at the smithy, but he did not know “for what”.

Frustratingly, there is no record of a judgement among the papers. In any case it’s very difficult to say whether, on the one hand, we have the case of a man being protected from his grasping, cruel relatives by his neighbours (if you believe the defendants) or of a troubled individual whose will was manipulated by his neighbours and niece (if you believe the plaintiffs). There are many unanswered questions. Did Weaver really try and bribe John Williams and young Edward Jones at the Ffrith smithy? Was John Williams really living – as man and wife – with Rose Edwards, as one deponent alleges? Would the spectacle-wearing, sixty-five year old Robert ap Hugh, the elder Edward Jones and others have been able to give Weaver a severe beating at Griffith Thomas’ funeral? Did Thomas genuinely walk around in a sheet, or even naked, or was this just malicious local gossip? If he did, did it matter? A man who appeared mad to his contemporaries simply because he dressed in an eccentric manner, swore at a doctor performing blood-letting on him, liked oversalted food and carried sacks of lime in an unconventional way does not seem particularly strange today, but standards then were different. Perhaps Thomas did have some breakdown or other episode in the past: mental illness was then not well (or even at all) understood, but he may have been more or less recovered. Either way, his determination to live an independent existence seems very strong, even after all this time – and this is exactly why records like this are still full of interest. Robert ap Hugh, William ffennah, Magdalen Weaver and Edward Parry have all been dead for three hundred years or more: elsewhere they are simply names in tax assessments or similar documents, but reading these papers brings a sense that they have only just stepped outside the room leaving the clerk’s pen hanging over the next entry. The everyday concerns of rural Welsh life in the seventeenth century are bought into sharp focus, and they are not all that different to ours.

Footnotes

Back to post. 1.Humphrey Roberts is a rather interesting character. The court papers say that he was also by that time dead, but one deponent, Charles Lloyd, “gent”, said he had known Mr Roberts well and that the latter had once been a clerk in the “office of the Exchequer in Westminster”. Roberts’ signature, in the strong hand of a practised scribe, appears on the 1665 will of Samuel Powell of Gyfynys, and his name appears alongside that of Griffith Thomas on the hearth tax assessments. It would be interesting to know what had bought him to Brymbo.