About the year 1356, there lived at Llys Bronyfoel y Gest, a brave soldier called Hywel ab Einion ab Gruffydd. He was also known as Sir Hywel of the Axe, because it is said that he beheaded the horse of the King of France, during the Poictiers war, whilst serving under Edward, the Black Prince. The King of France was taken prisoner and Hywel was given a Knighthood on the battlefield. In addition, the King presented him with his Mills in Eifionydd and the tolls of Dyfr-dwy Mills in Chester and he was made Constable of Criccieth Castle. The King also gave orders that a feast was to be held annually in front of ‘The Axe’ for the enjoyment of Yeomen. This custom prevailed until the reign of Queen Elizabeth.
Sir Hywel was descended from the direct lineage of Collwyn ab Tangno, one of the fifteen tribes of Gwynedd (see The Brython vol.1860 page 288). Sir John Wynn in his “Hanes Teulu Gwydir” (History of the Gwydir Family) relates the many quarrels which took place in Eifionydd between the tw
o branches of the family i.e. the family of Bronyfoel and the Gesail Gyfarch family. There had been bad blood between them for some time. One day, the cousin of John ab Meredydd, namely Gruffydd ab John Goronwy of Gwynfryn (an anchester of H.J.Eliis Nanney, Esq) went with his manservant to Ystumllyn Lake to fish; the manservant was caught, the fish was taken from him and he was beaten on the instruction of Hywel ab Rhys of Bronyfoel, who owned the lake. Gruffydd ab John ab Goronwy took the episode so much to heart that he challenged Hywel ab Rhys to a duel, but the latter declined. Then Gruffydd ab John and his relatives attacked Bronyfoel in the same manner as they had seen done in the French wars. He set fire to the outhouses and attempted to burn the Hall, but Hywel ab Rhys espied him from one of the windows and shot him dead. Hywel ab Rhys was taken prisoner to Caernarvon Castle, but at the trial it was adjudged that he committed the act in defence of his life and home. However, he never returned to Bronyfoel and the house gradually became a ruin.
The Bettws, Treflys was the family Chapel and it is likely that the few surrounding farms were formed into a small parish. The Church was consecrated to Michael the Archangel. When the family built the mansion at Ystumllyn, they started also to build a family chapel on “Ynys y Capel” nearby; but they did not complete the chapel because they were given part of the chancel of Ynyscynhaiarn Church when that church was dissociated from Penmorfa and affiliated to Criccieth Parish.
The families of Hywel ab Rhys and the Wynns of Rhwngddwyryd and their lineage is fairly complete in the History of the Gwydir Family and in the “Brython” as already mentioned.
THE ARRIVAL OF THE BLACK BOY AT YSTUMLLYN
There is no certainty which member of the family brought the boy to Ystumllyn.* The account which was accepted as authentic 70 years ago is as follows. One of the family who had a yacht caught the boy in an African jungle and brought him home with him to Ystumllyn; it was thought that he was about 8 years old then. This same account was the one told to him by the author’s mother, who was born about the time that John Ystumllyn died. The family decided to have the lad christened and took him to either Criccieth or Ynyscynhaiarn Church where he was named John Ystumllyn. When he first arrived he was terrified of all strangers and spoke no proper language; he could only utter doglike howls and screams.
Some of his descendants claim that he was one of a number of black boys living in London and that Ellis Wynne’s sister who lived in London sent him to her brother as a gift. But John himself maintained that he was trying to catch a moor hen beside a small stream in the woods when white men came, caught him and carried him off in a ship. He said that his mother was watching and that she ran after them, uttering the most horrible cries. Some maintain that he was about 13 years old when he was captured, but as he could not speak and could only utter howling noises like an animal, it was difficult to determine his age. From the time he was brought to Ystumllyn and the date of his death, it can be assumed that he was about 16 years old in 1754 when his portrait was painted. It is probable that the first version (as told by my mother) is nearer to the truth i.e. that he was eight years old.
It took them a long time to civilize him and during this time he was not allowed out; but after much effort by the ladies, he learnt two languages and learned to write. Then he was taught gardening- a trade at which he became very proficient being a meticulous and skilful worker. He was adept at mastering almost everything he saw other doing, such as making model boats, wooden spoons, baskets etc. He was also very fond of flowers and very good at growing them.
JOHN YSUMLLYN GROWING TO MANHOOD
He became an active, healthy-looking youth and even though his skin was black, the local maidens used to dote on him and would compete for his favours.
* It is not definitely known which member of the Wynn family brought Jack Black to Ystumllyn. It is probable that it was Ellis Wynne, the elder, as Major Wynne was not born until 1757. It is said that Major Wynne was the first-class swordsman, he could cut a button off another’s shirt with his sword without the wearer’s knowledge, and perform other tricks and feats of valour.
EGLWYS ST. CYNHAIARNCHURCH
Black Boy Inn, Northgate Street, Caernarfon, Gwynedd, LL55 1RW Tel 01286 673604