William Herbert, otherwise ‘Black William’ was born in 1423, the son of Sir William ap Thomas ‘the Blue Knight of Gwent’ and Gwladys ferch Dafydd Gam the ‘Star of Abergavenny’. His main claim to fame is that he was the first Welshman to become an earl in the peerage of England, except for Henry VI’s “Tudor” half-brothers. How Welsh was he? Well, considerably more so than Henry Tudor.
Three of his grandparents were undeniably Welsh and the fourth Maud Morley was the daughter of Sir John Morley. On the basis of heraldic evidence, it appears Sir John was one of the Norfolk Morleys (although this has been disputed.) However, he had settled in Wales at Llansantffraed Court near Raglan. His wife, Maud’s mother, was Matilda Barri, of Barry in Glamorgan and if her family were not Welsh they were certainly Anglo-Welsh at the least.
William was also the grandson of the famous Dafydd Gam, who gave his life for Henry V at Agincourt and had been a persistent enemy of Owain Glyndŵr. He adopted the surname ‘Herbert’ because of alleged descent from one of William the Conquerer‘s companions of that name, a descent that was quite bogus but useful when aspiring to ‘nobility’ in English terms.
William’s family had acquired Raglan Castle from the Berkeleys and he and his father extended and modernised it to a huge extent, a demonstration of their wealth and power. When complete, it was surely as fine a fortified residence as any in the kingdom, with the possible exception of one or two royal castles. Although heavily damaged in the Civil War, its ruins are still extraordinarily impressive and well worth a visit. Not even the 17th-century engineers and their gunpowder could make much of an impression on the Yellow Tower of Gwent, a fortress within a fortress built by William’s father.
William served in the French wars and was unfortunate enough to be captured in 1450. However, it appears he was quite quickly released and there is no evidence that whatever ransom he had to pay caused him any undue impoverishment. Like his father before him, he was a member part of the Duke of York‘s affinity. (Raglan, it should be noted, lay within York’s Lordship of Usk, a former Mortimer property.)
By 1453 he was Warwick‘s Sheriff of Glamorgan, and also in receipt of an annuity from Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond. Clearly, he was already influential in much of Wales. In 1455, he, with his father-in-law, Devereaux and an army of around 2000 captured Carmarthen Castle (and with it, Edmund Tudor) and Aberystwyth in York’s interest. he was later ‘marauding in Glamorgan, Abergavenny, Usk, and Caerleon’ but eventually had to draw his horns in and accept a pardon from Henry VI because of the temporary eclipse of his patron.
His true allegiance was clear, and in 1461 he fought in the army of Edward of York at Mortimer’s Cross. After that, he was a consistent supporter of Edward and was rewarded lavishly, becoming eventually the most powerful individual in the whole of Wales, and effectively Edward’s deputy in that country, much as Richard of Gloucester was later to be in the North.
He had captured Pembroke Castle in 1461, and in the next year was granted its lordship as well as the wardship and marriage of a certain Henry Tudor, for which he paid £1000. Almost certainly, he planned that Henry should marry one of his daughters and it was probably envisaged that the Tudor would eventually inherit his mother’s lands at the least, perhaps more.
William was created Lord Herbert and made a Knight of the Garter. After he had captured the last Lancastrian stronghold in Wales, Harlech, in 1468, Edward made him Earl of Pembroke. Given William’s loyal support in a difficult area of the realm, and his great success in bringing it under Edward’s control, this honour was surely deserved, if such honours ever are.
The Earl of Warwick, however, resented Herbert’s growing power, one of several developments he perceived as a threat to his position. Quite apart from the power Herbert enjoyed as either lord or principal official in almost every part of Wales, he had married his eldest son to one of the Queen’s sisters and was thus seen by Warwick as one of the Woodville circle of influence.
In 1469, he raised a Welsh army to support Edward IV against ‘Robin of Redesdale’ and, as it turned out, Warwick and Clarence. He met an allied army under Stafford of Southwick, Earl of Devon, but unfortunately, the two men quarrelled and divided their forces. At Edgcote on July 24, William and his brother were defeated and captured by the forces of ‘Robin’. They were taken to Northampton, where Warwick had them summarily executed.
By William’s marriage to Anne Devereaux, there were at least ten children, and he also had illegitimate offspring. One of the illegitimate sons was grandfather to the first of the Tudor Herbert earls of Pembroke, a new creation.
Sources: Readers interested in more detail are urged to read the excellent account by R.A. Griffiths in the Oxford Directory of National Biography.
Also online, The Dictionary of Welsh Biography.
H. T. Evans, Wales and the Wars of the Roses, new edition (1995)
John O. Morley The Origins of the Morleys in England and their Early
Appearance in Wales Annals of Genealogical Research, Vol 1, no. 9, 2013.