‘Kill or be killed’: Gentry retinues in early modern Wales

We are pleased to introduce the latest post in the Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover, by Sadie Jarrett. Sadie is currently the Economic History Society Postan Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research where she works on gentry culture and society. Find her on Twitter at @pastdeeds.

Eighteen-year-old Erasmus Griffith definitely wasn’t involved in the murder of the Justice of the Peace. In fact, he was only in the farmhouse to return a shirt he’d borrowed from his acquaintance, John ap Robert ap Hywel. Thomas ap David wasn’t even supposed to be in the house; he’d been accompanying his friend John Lloyd Maylor on the road to Burton, but heavy snow forced him to take shelter at the farm. Hugh Salesbury might have been at the farm, but he left before any altercations took place. Yes, they were familiar with the gentlemen involved in the dispute, but they were not retained by any of them. It was mere coincidence that they were all at the farmhouse together and none of them swore an oath to defend it to their deaths. There may or may not have been a mastiff dog present.

These servants and labourers gave their account of the circumstances which led to the death of a JP called Robert Lloyd in a 1574 Star Chamber case.[1] It’s a rare insight into the murky business of gentry retinues in early modern Wales, collections of servants, tenants, and labourers who supported their leader in disputes with rival families.

John Salesbury’s estate at Bachymbyd, Denbighshire. Thomas Pennant, A Tour in Wales, Vol. 6, (1781) p. 58/2 [National Library of Wales].

The suit was brought to Star Chamber by Robert Lloyd’s brother and it centred on a farmhouse in Burton, Denbighshire, which belonged to a local gentleman called Ellis Powell. The previous owner of the farm, Roger Roydon, had died a few years earlier, leaving it to his four daughters. After marrying one of the daughters in 1569, Powell had claimed the property for himself. This caused friction with the husbands of his new wife’s sisters, and perhaps the sisters themselves. In the intensely claustrophobic world of the early modern Denbighshire gentry, the tension simmered between the rival factions embroiled in the dispute.  

Fortunately, the gentry didn’t need to resort to violence because they had access to the law. In fact, on 12 February 1572, the Court of Great Sessions at Denbigh settled the matter and decreed that the parties should meet together and resolve the issue through the mediation of their friends. Accordingly, the rival gentlemen and their friends met on a bridge at Gresford, near Wrexham. However, they couldn’t reach an agreement and so they all departed, either peacefully or threatening ‘many a broke heade’ over the issue, depending on who you asked. At this point (or sooner), Ellis Powell decided to fortify his farm in expectation of an attack. He turned to his loyal friend, John Salesbury, who offered to send his own men to defend it. Salesbury said in his deposition that he would do anything for Ellis Powell, albeit, of course, within the boundaries of the law. When the men were assembled at the farm, John supplied them with food and told them that ‘they should either kill or be killed’.

By 22 February 1572, the dispute had reached the ear of the relevant authority, the Council in the Marches. They sent a commission to compel the men in the farmhouse to stand down. When the commissioners arrived with their own armed followers and told the inhabitants of the farmhouse to depart, there was some sort of altercation. In the ensuing melee, one of the commissioners, Robert Lloyd, a local JP, was struck on the head and later died. No one in the suit denied that Lloyd was killed. Actually, by the time the suit reached Star Chamber two years after the event, it had already been heard in numerous local courts and three men, John ap Robert ap Hywel, John Lloyd Maylor, and William ap William, had already been found guilty of manslaughter. They claimed benefit of clergy and escaped any significant punishment.

Early modern Welsh gentry society was riven with factionalism. Gentry families were interlinked through marriage or other kinship ties, and they inhabited a world where honour and reputation needed to be protected. The lawsuit over the farmhouse at Burton shows that disputes between gentlemen also encompassed their servants and tenants. John Salesbury had an obligation to aid his friend, Ellis Powell, so Salesbury sent his retinue to protect Powell’s farm. Retinues were illegal and so all the men involved in the lawsuit naturally denied being part of one or keeping one. However, retinues, or pleidiau in Welsh, were an important feature of Welsh gentry society. In medieval Wales, possession of a plaid helped to demonstrate that a gentleman was a man of importance in his local community. Pleidiau were also practical because they could use violence to enforce a gentleman’s will and fight the pleidiau of rival families. Early modern Wales was less violent and more litigious than in previous centuries, but old habits die hard and gentry culture still valued the support of a plaid.

A plaid was also intensely loyal to their lord. The men at Burton farm were yeomen, servants, and labourers who made their living on John Salesbury’s estates. They claimed that they were willing to die for John Salesbury, which suggests a considerable imbalance in their relationship. However, the ideal Welsh gentleman was the lynchpin of his local community and he had a duty to look after his tenants and servants. A gentleman and his plaid had mutual obligations to each other which reflected their respective positions in the hierarchy of Welsh society.

The plaid would kill or be killed, and the gentleman would protect them in a court of law. The plaid would defend their lord’s interests and the gentleman would remember them in his last will and testament. Except at Burton, where there was no plaid, just the men who happened to be in the farmhouse when Robert Lloyd was killed.

Further reading

John Gwynfor Jones, The Welsh Gentry, 1536–1642: Images of Status, Honour and Authority (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2016).

A. D. Carr, The Gentry of North Wales in the Later Middle Ages (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2017).


[1] The National Archives, STAC 5/L21/24; 5/L23/2; 5/L48/7; 7/4/2. All quotations are from these documents.

2 thoughts on “‘Kill or be killed’: Gentry retinues in early modern Wales

  1. Very interesting piece (though many-headed monster might want to add to the word “English” in its self-description in the light of it!) Would you beat all interested in the Welsh Legal History Society, welshlegalhistory.org ? If so (there’s no pressure!) feel free to contact me.

  2. Pingback: Sadie Jarrett Continues Her Work On Researching The Salesburys Of Rhug | Rhug Estate

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