By Mary John

It can surely be argued that the last decades of the eleventh and the early years of the twelfth centuries must have been among the most turbulent times ever experienced in Pembrokeshire. Norman knights arriving around 1093 took control of the south, driving many of the native Welsh out of the lush lands below the Haven into the harsher, more forested uplands and less than twenty years later hundreds more continental folk swept into parts of the territory that was then known as Dyfed.

Since the Middle Ages chroniclers have commented on this invasion of Flemish settlers but few have been able to assess the extreme impact this must have had on the culture and living conditions of the indigenous people. One is tempted to imagine that these incomers were ultimately absorbed peacefully into local communities. However, to recognise that this area of Wales assimilated, relatively early, more non-Welsh characteristics than most other parts of the country is to acknowledge a profound adjustment in the society here. It can be claimed that along with colonists from England and France they ‘totally and permanently transformed the character of parts of western Dyfed.’ 1  There can be little doubt that there were attacks on people and communities by both Normans and Flemings, forcible removal, violent appropriation of buildings and land, refugees, retaliation, burning, death and subjugation. Ordericus Vitalis in 1134 was to describe the Welsh as ‘grievously oppressed’ by the Flemish intruders ‘by whom they were butchered like dogs, without any regard for humanity whenever they could track them out in the woods and caves in which they lurked.’ 2

The Brut y Tywysogyon , The Chronicle of the Princes  was to complain that  ‘…there was nothing that could be more ill-starred for the land and for the whole of Wales than that counsel, that is, to allow into Dyfed various peoples, Flemings and French and Saxons…’ 3    Given their impact on the locality and that their presence must have been bitterly resented it is surprising both how little we know about the activities of the Flemish people here in the Middle Ages, and perhaps more intriguingly, what evidence remains of them in our county today. Richard Fenton, researching the Flemings in the late 1700s, was to write,

‘I found the material to be so scanty as to be compressed in the compass of a dozen lines…’ 4

So, who were the Flemings and why did they come to settle in such a distant part of Britain? These were people from an area known to us as Flanders, a low-lying area in northern Belgium, its western seaboard a mere thirty miles off the east coast of England. Flemish people today, Dutch speaking and largely Roman Catholic, inhabitants of what was for centuries one of the most important regions in Europe, still cherish the cultural and linguistic separateness they assert within their nation. Their heritage, built on great cities like Bruges and Ghent, their artists, Bosch, Brueghel, van Eyck, Rubens and others, and their resplendent tapestries, still resonates throughout Europe. Medieval Flanders was renowned for sheep rearing and weaving and had close commercial ties with England, being the chief importer of its wool. Even closer ties came in the form of marriages between royal households. Matilda, the wife of William the Conqueror was Flemish and there were a number of Flemish warriors in his invading army.

The County of Flanders, one of the territories of the Low Countries, at various times in the Middle Ages spread out over Belgium, France and the Netherlands. It derived its name from the Dutch Vlaanderen and Vlaams, deduced from the Germanic Flâm, meaning flooded area, and particularly in the Middle Ages it was regularly inundated by the waters of the North Sea. It would appear that with the cessation of the Viking menace came population growth and economic expansion resulting in large scale deforestation and the creation of ‘wastines’ or ‘heathlands’. 5 Prosperous and heavily populated by the twelfth century, its flourishing towns made it one of the most urbanised and important areas of Europe. However, disastrous flooding drove many of its people to seek homes elsewhere. Unsurprisingly, they looked to their allies across a short stretch of Channel and made their appeal to Henry I, king of England.
Caradoc of Llancarfan sneeringly reported that they:

‘…desired him to give them a void place to remain in, who being very liberal of that which was not his own, gave them the land of Rhos in Dyfed.’ 6

We now understand that most of the Flemings who came to Pembrokeshire around the year 1107 at the invitation of Henry I did not come directly from the continent. They were, in fact, already settled by the English king to strengthen his border with Scotland in pockets of Northumbria and Yorkshire and possibly Scotland itself.  Lauran Toorians, in his article on Flemish settlement in Pembrokeshire, tends to dismiss inundation of the Low Countries as the main reason for emigration of its people and talks of their leaders (locators) being required to resettle a number of them in this part of Wales and this was for a specific purpose.  7

The Brut y Tywysogyon  records the following:

‘…a certain folk of strange origin and customs, I know not where they had lain concealed in the island for such a length of years, were sent by King Henry to the land of Dyfed. And that folk seized the whole cantref of Rhos near the estuary of the river called Cleddyf, (sic) after having completely driven hence the inhabitants.’ 8

William of Malmesbury, writing in the twelfth century, said of the Norman king, Henry I:
‘As if he were pouring them into a common sink he settled them with their goods and chattels in Ros, thus relieving the English and restraining the stupid ferocity (brutum temeritatem) of the Welsh.’  9

It is known that migration of peoples often over long distances throughout Europe was common during these centuries but it is evident that the Flemings did not come here for peaceful purposes. Indeed, their role in these islands had already proved to be decidedly militaristic. Roger Turvey reminds us of the ‘tentativeness’ and ‘precariousness’ of the Norman settlement in western Dyfed and the ‘fragile relationships’ that persisted with at least five major offensives launched by the Welsh in the twelfth century. This was ‘a frontier society, its complex structure shaped by the ebb and flow of conquest and colonization.’ 10   However, somewhat ironically, it was the power base built up at Pembroke by a rebellious Montgomery faction of Norman barons that appears to have persuaded Henry I to take the lordship under his own protection in 1102. It is evident that to buttress this royal lordship against the Welsh he flooded its frontiers with formidable troops from Flanders and used their skills to assist with the rapid building and garrisoning of earth and timber fortresses at strategic points such as Carew, Manorbier, Wiston and Haverfordwest .

The twelfth century writer, Gervase of Canterbury was to describe them as ‘Lupi Flandrenses’, ‘Flemish Wolves’. Since arriving as mercenaries at the Conquest they frequently fought alongside the Normans. They joined in the Crusades and were to be used a hundred years or more after their arrival on British shores by King John as a fighting force in campaigns against both the Welsh and the Irish. That King Stephen employed a large bodyguard of Flemings under William of Ypres was apparently hateful to both Normans and Saxons alike and his successor, Henry II, was to waste no time in sending them back to the continent, although George Owen of Henllys would have it that that he sent some of them to join their cousins in Pembrokeshire. 11

We do not know how many Flemings were finally settled in Pembrokeshire. T.R.Dawes, writing in the Western Mail in 1902, speculated that the population of Pembrokeshire in the twelfth century amounted to around nine thousand and that one thousand Flemings came here.  Certainly their number must have been sufficient to drive people from their homes and to establish new settlements in what are now described by historians and archaeologists as ‘planted towns’. We must also assume that, while eventual intermarriage would come about, some merceneries would have brought families with them, particularly those relocating from the north of England. If we are to believe Florence of Worcester (d.1118) they were transferred into Wales ‘cum tota supellectili’, complete with bag and baggage.

An analysis of post-Conquest settlements by Kissock indicates that many communities in the cantrefi of Rhos and Daugleddau were planted villages, their structure being linear in character rather than the nucleated development typical of local villages over centuries before the Conquest. 12   It may be time to give more consideration to whether these were settlements established rapidly and specifically for the Flemish incomers. Early fourteenth century Llawhaden, whose burgesses are listed in the Black Book of St Davids, is evidently an example of a planted town with tofts fronting in an orderly fashion either side of a single main street running directly from the castle. Names of the occupants appear to be predominantly continental in origin, among them Gaunt, Raynold, Haspald and Montayne and others suggestive of weaving, such as Textor, le Webbe and le Taillour. The fact that this borough, which grew in significance in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, was not fortified with a wall may indicate a resolutely confident group of aliens amongst the native Welsh.

Historians traditionally recognise Wiston as a village founded by Wizo the Fleming, a powerful princeps and ‘locator’ who apparently took possession of land in both northern England and Daugleddau where he settled his own people. Toorians, with the help of charters from both Worcester and Gloucester cathedrals appears to have established that Wizo may have arrived in west Wales before 1112 and that both he and his son, Walter fitzWizo, were benefactors to both those sees as well as to the Knights Hospitallers at Slebech. 13  Thus, in spite of the violence and bloodshed of their enforced settlement, they had it in mind to secure favours in the next world. The Chronicle of the Princes reminds us that in 1193 Wizo’s descendent, Philip fitzWizo, together with his wife and sons, were captured by Hywel Sais, the son of the Lord Rhys, and that there were sufficient Flemings in the area of Wiston and Llawhaden to retaliate, slaying many of the Welsh and driving others to flight, albeit temporarily.14
The same chronicle seem to imply that in 1216 Llewelyn ap Iorwerth of Gwynedd led troops successfully into Dyfed specifically against the Flemish who, because they were inclined to renege on treaties, were obliged to hand over to the Welsh a number of high powered hostages. Llewelyn returned to attack again in 1220, burning their castles and towns at Narberth and Wiston and moving on to destroy Haverfordwest up to the castle gates. The chronicle tells us that after five days of burnings and great slaughter across Rhos and Daugleddau the Welsh came to a truce with the Flemings.14

The Fleming, Letard, known as ‘Little King’, is reputed to have founded Letterston and was killed a few decades after the Flemish arrival by the Welsh who rejoiced that the world was rid of a man, ‘both an enemy to God and St David’, who had intruded on lands belonging to the church.15  His name is also reflected in a piece of land recorded in the fourteenth century in the barony of Llawhaden although little is known about him. Even less can be discovered regarding Tancard, the supposed founder of Tancredston, now a backwater at the very edge of Rhos. One is tempted to ask what evidence exists to prove that Tancard was indeed a Fleming when men bearing that name were knights leading Norman troops invading the continent of  Europe. However, tradition has it that Tancard (or Tancred) was Flemish and his family connections extended into other areas of Pembrokeshire. For all the limitations to his research Fenton clearly saw Haverfordwest as the capital of the Flemings. 16  Richard Tancard was castellan there shortly after their arrival in the area. He died in 1130 leaving his son Richard fitzTancard as first lord of the town. The Schedule of Haverfordwest Records reveals a number of names of burgesses which appear to be of Flemish origin, Letard and Tancard among them, a name which crops up with some frequency in the records through to the fifteenth century. Hugh le Fleming was involved in the affairs of the town in 1288 and Thomas Flemyng in 1411. In these same records a Haverfodwest tenement is intriguingly described as being in ‘Brugestret’. 17 The Tancards were to continue as a significant family in Pembrokeshire for a number of centuries. They are recorded as property owners in the Camrose area in the Visitations of Lewis Dwnn in the late fifteen hundreds and were connected by marriage to the Philipps family of Picton and also the Scourfield family.

While their main settlement was in the cantref of Rhos, with incursions into Dungleddy, it would appear that the Flemings soon established themselves in areas such as Castlemartin, Narberth and Tenby, south of the Haven where the Normans already held sway.  Dr Henry Owen made the point that ‘Flemington’ in St Florence and derivatives such as ‘Flimston’ near Castlemartin and ‘Flimstone’ north of Narberth indicate distinct communities with inhabitants of Flemish origin. Whereas such place-names were not necessary in areas such as the cantref of Rhos where the Flemish were populous.18 Toorians expands on this, suggesting conversely that places with names prefixed by the word ‘Welsh’ (such as Welsh Hook?) may suggest native communities among largely Flemish settlements. He considers the use of  hook,  which in Dutch means corner, in a number of Pembrokeshire place names although B.G. Charles prefers to consider this to be of Old English derivation. 19

Tenby, like Haverfordwest, would seem to have owed its subsequent prosperity to the Flemings and their weaving industry. St Catherine’s Island, (The patroness of weavers?) Woolhouse Bay and records of woollen factories might suggest this influence. Local people have hinted that extensive hearths in some of the older buildings of the town may be associated with the need for rooms big enough to accommodate Flemish weaving looms. There has also been the suggestion that the more substantial buildings with larger stone features were originally owned by the more successful business people of the town, the Flemings. The Tudor Merchant’s House was once known as the ‘Old Flemish House’ due to its large hearths and there has been much debate concerning ‘Flemish Chimneys’ in Pembrokeshire.  A number of antiquarians and artists have enlivened discussion on this myth, not least Charles Norris with his Etchings of Tenby, who was to be later accused by Edward Laws of having ‘evolved the Flemish chimney out of his own consciousness.’ 20    Writing in the Tenby and County News in 1920, E. H. Leach was clear that ‘Nothing resembling the ‘Flemish Chimneys’ exists in the Low Countries’’ putting such ‘capacious’ chimneys down to the local availability of large blocks of stone. Nevertheless, in some quarters the traditional view persists.

One local chronicler, well known to us, appears to consider his Flemish contemporaries as a distinctly separate community. Giraldus Cambrensis, the Norman-Welsh aristocrat born a de Barri in Manorbier, expressed his views on them some eighty years after their arrival when writing about his journey through Wales in 1188, (Itinerarium Kambriae):

‘They are a brave and robust people, but very hostile to the Welsh and in a perpetual state of conflict with them. They are highly skilled in the wool trade, ready to work hard and to face danger by land or sea in the pursuit of gain, and as time and opportunity offer, prompt to turn their hand to the sword or the ploughshare.’ 21

As he so often does when he describes life in Wales, Gerald chooses to focus on the bizarre customs of the Flemings. He is intrigued by their ‘occult prognostications’ using the boiled right shoulder-blades of rams. It is claimed that by close inspection of the ‘little indents and protuberances, they prophesy with complete confidence periods of peace and outbreaks of war, murders and conflagrations… ’. Gerald tells us that it was by this means the incomers foretold the retaliation of the native Welsh upon them when their benefactor Henry I died. 22

In spite of the hostility between the various communities struggling to exist in west Wales Gerald de Barri, as high-minded cleric and archdeacon of Brecon, was determined to rigorously enforce church rules, among them the payment of local tithes. The Flemings refused to pay tithes on their flourishing wool trade, claiming they had an understanding with Henry I who had enticed them here, and there was a period of considerable conflict between community leaders at this time. It appears that Gerald had to resort to threats of excommunication as well as pressure from his powerful Norman connections to enforce these payments.23   This reluctance to conform would have further alienated the Flemings with their ever increasing wealth and influence. Indeed, throughout Britain they continued to be regarded with great suspicion for many decades and it was Flemish merchants who were held largely responsible for the fraud of coin clipping. Matthew Paris writing in the thirteenth century was keen to expound on the deceit and lies of the Flemings and described how ‘…money was so intolerably debased by money clippers and forgers that neither the inhabitants nor even foreigners could contemplate it with a serene eye or an even temper.’ 24

Professor R.R. Davies, writes that the Flemish settlers ‘… retained their racial and linguistic identity until the early thirteenth century …’ 25  To this day native Pembrokeshire people hold forth on the Flemish origins of their dialect. One can mention ‘dropple’ (a doorstep?),  ‘slop’ (a hole in a hedge) dystal (thistle) drang (alley) and others .26 In addition, as Toorians is keen to acknowledge, it is almost impossible to identify whether places such as Jordanston, Jeffreyston, Herbrandston or Gumfreston were named after Flemish, English or perhaps Scandinavian settlers. 27 The simple fact is that in the Middle Ages the language of western Flanders was somewhat akin to the English of the Anglo Saxons who also came in considerable numbers to trade and settle in south-western parts of Wales. Regarding this one can quote Ranulph Higden’s Polychronicon from as late as the fourteenth century,

‘The Flemmynges that wereth in the weste side of Wales haveth y-left her straunge speche and speketh Saxonliche y-now.’28

George Owen, writing of the Flemish in Pembrokeshire in 1603 rather wistfully mentions, ‘For if any of their progeny be remaining yet is the memory thereof with their language quite forgotten but I am persuaded that diverse of the common people, swains and labourers of the county, are descended of those Flemings…’. 29   However, we learn from Toorians that a certain Lucas D’Heere from Ghent who visited Pembrokeshire in the sixteenth century was able to converse in Flemish with some locals. 30   Camden in Brittania  (1586) was to remark that the so-called English spoken at that time in Pembrokeshire (Anglia Transwallia) was like Dutch.

The nineteenth century gentleman scholar, Edward Laws, was given to romance about the Flemings in Pembrokeshire and liked to muse upon, ‘certain fair haired, light eyed women’ seen in local markets ‘…many of them have a complexion of strawberries and cream, and might have come direct from Antwerp, or… stepped out of a picture drawn by Peter Paul Rubens.’31

It would seem that the Flemings who came here nine hundred years ago have left an alien, albeit flimsy, legacy in this county that will continue to intrigue us. Like the people of Tenby or Llangwm we may take some pleasure in claiming tenuous descent. Perhaps however, we could ask ourselves what good they did us? Did they not help to set us apart from the rest of Wales? Perhaps the last words should go to George Owen of Henllys describing the Fleming’s Way (Via Flandrensica) across the Presely Mountains some five hundred years after the Flemish invasion.

‘This does greatly confirm the opinion touching the coming of the Flemings here in Pembrokeshire, and well they might make this unusual way for their passage, for that passing along the top of the highest hill they might better decry the privy ambushes of the country people which might in straits and woods annoy them.’ 32


1.    R. R. Davies, The Age of Conquest: Wales 1063-1415, (Oxford, 1991), 99.
2.    Orderic Vitalis, Historia Ecclesiastica, ed. and M.Chibnall, 6 vols., (Oxford, 1969-80).
3.    T. Jones (ed.), Brut y Tywysogyon or The Chronicle of the Princes, (Cardiff, 1955), 55.
4.    Richard Fenton, A Historical Tour Through Pembrokeshire, (1811), reprinted by Dyfed County Council Cultural Services Dept.
5.    A. De Vries, Flanders: a cultural  history, (Oxford, 2007).
6.    Caradog of Llancarfan, The History of Cambria written in the British Language, trans. by Lloyd, ed. by Powell.
7.    L. Toorians, Wizo Flandrensis and the Flemish Settlement in Pembrokeshire, in Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies, 20, (Cambridge,1990), 99-118.
8.    T. Jones, op. cit., 53.
9.    William of Malmesbury (1095-1143) Chronicle of the Kings of England, trans. by J. Sharpe, ed. by J. A. Giles, (London, 1904).
10.    R. Turvey, Pembrokeshire: The Concise History, (Cardiff, 2007), 39-41.
11.    George Owen, (1603) The Description of Pembrokeshire, ed. by Dillwyn Miles, (Llandysul, 1994), 19.
12.    J. Kissock, ‘God Made Nature and Men Made Towns’: Post-Conquest and Pre-Conquest Villages in Pembrokeshire, in Edwards, N. (ed.) Landscape and Settlement in Medieval Wales, (Oxford, 1997), 123-137.
13.    L.Toorians, op. cit., 100-101.
14.    T. Jones, op. cit., 221.
15.    David Salmon, The Flemings in Pembrokeshire, in the Pembrokeshire Telegraph, April16 and 30, 1925, also D/SAL/183 in Pembrokeshire Record Office.
16.    Richard Fenton, op. cit., 114.
17.    B.G. Charles, (ed.) Schedule of Haverfordwest Records, prepared for NLW, (Aberystwyth, 1960).
18.    Henry Owen, The Flemings in Pembrokeshire, in Archaeologia Cambrensis, Vol. XII, Fifth Series, (London, 1895), 96-106.
19.    L. Toorians, op. cit., 113.  B.G. Charles, Place Names of Pembrokeshire, (Aberystwyth, 1992).
20.    Edward Laws, The History of Little England Beyond Wales, (London, 1888), 116.
21.    Gerald of Wales, The Journey through Wales and the Description of Wales, trans. by Lewis Thorpe, (London, 1978), 141-142.
22.    Ibid, 145.
23.    R. Bartlett, Gerald of Wales, A Voice of the Middle Ages, (Stroud, 2006), 145-147.
24.    N. Watkins, (ed.) The Illustrated Chronicles of Matthew Paris, Observations of Thirteenth Century Life, (Stroud, 1993), 32, 60.
25.    R. R. Davies, op. cit., 99.
26.    Edward Laws, op. cit., 118, who made comparisons between  Pembrokeshire dialect and Dutch words.
27.    L.Toorians, op. cit., 113-114.
28.     Ranulph Higden, Polychronicum, ed. by C. Babington and H. Lumby, (9 vols. 1865-1886).
29.    George Owen, op. cit., 39.
30.    L.Toorians, op. cit., 115.
31.    Edward Laws, op. cit., 119.
32.    George Owen, op. cit., 107.