The story of Twm Sion Cati is a well-documented legend told and retold by the Welsh over the years. Twm Sion Cati was a robber and an outlaw. Like the English Robin Hood he was hated by those he stole from and loved by those enjoyed hearing about his adventures. While there is no hard evidence that Robin Hood ever lived, Twm Sion Cati was no myth. He was a real outlaw.
Thomas Jones was born in 1530 at Porth y Ffynnon or Fountain Gate near Tregaron in Cardiganshire. His mother was Catherine, daughter of Meredydd ap Ieuen and his father John, son of David ap Madog ap Howel Motheu. These were lawless and violent times. Henry VIII was subjugating the Welsh and struggling to dominate Wales. A policy of terror was being used designed to destroy Welsh tradition and language. To complicate matters two legal systems were operating, one English and one Welsh, making it possible for robbers and thieves to live openly in different communities.
As he grew up Thomas Jones learned quickly. With his good looks he could blend in with the English gentry. At the same time he was able to mix freely and unnoticed with the common people. With no patron to encourage his promotion and coming from a poor family Thomas, like so many young men, looked for an easy way and turned to thieving and robbing.
Banditry was a common occupation but unlike most of his contemporaries Thomas Jones was not a violent man. He relied on his wits and cunning to trick his victims. His reputation soon spread and he became known throughout Wales and Twm Sion Cati or ‘Cathy’s son Tom’ in English.
Because of his height and good looks, most Welsh at that time were short and stocky, and the courtesy he showed when robbing people it was suggested that his real father was the noble Sir John Wynn of Gwydir. How else, they argued, would a poor boy have such manners and be so learned. It was true that Twm was educated so perhaps, as an act of repentance for a wrong done to Catherine, Sir John had the boy tutored at an early age.
Twm enjoyed acting the part of a gentleman. He was a showman and probably encouraged the idea that he had a highborn father. He may even have based himself on the legend of the noble outlaw Robin Hood. Twm however was not robbing the rich to give to the poor. His motives were less altruistic.
One morning Twm rode into Llandovery to buy a new iron pot for cooking porridge. He was not amused when the ironmonger showed him a poorly made pot and demanded a high price. He was the only ironmonger in Llandovery and expected a good profit from his well-dressed customer. Twm held the pot up and examined it carefully. ‘Look here. There is a hole in your pot,’ he exclaimed.
‘Where?’ asked the shopkeeper squinting up at the pot.
Twm pulled the iron pot down and jammed it over the shopkeeper’s head. As the man staggered about Twm selected several items including a more expensive cooking pot and went to the door.
‘If there is no hole in your pot how did your greedy head fit into it?’ he asked and went on his way.
On another occasion Twm set out, dressed as a poor farmer riding an old nag, to settle a score with a highwayman new to the area. Sure enough the highwayman holds him up armed with two pistols. Appearing to panic Twm throws two bulk bags into a pond by the track. Hearing the clinking of coins the highwayman quickly dismounts and wades into the pond to save the sinking bags. Quick as a flash Twm grabs the highwayman’s stallion by the reins and sneaks away. The highwayman retrieves the bags only to find them full of seashells while Twm has escaped with a good horse and a pannier containing all gold and jewels stolen by the highwayman.
Later Twm steals the prize bull of a wealthy yeoman farmer, known locally as a bully. He disguises the animal with dye and a false tail and takes it to the local market where he dupes the same farmer into buy his own animal. On the way home it rains and as the dye washes off the farmer realises what has happened. Armed with a pistol and sword he gallops to Twm’s house in Tregaron.
There is a beggar sitting outside the house. Dismounting the farmer thrust his reins and silver-riding crop at the beggar.
“Hold these he commanded,” cocked his pistol and ran into the house to take his revenge.
The beggar leapt onto the horse and raced away throwing off his shabby clothes as he went. It was Twm and he had been waiting for the farmer. He rode to his attackers farm and banged on the door. The farmer’s wife, a timid woman, answers the door.
‘Quick, there is no time to lose,’ exclaims Twm.
‘The farmer told me to fetch £50 guineas and take it to him. He leant me his horse and silver riding crop and told me to hurry.’
The farmer’s wife always obeyed her husband and did not want to anger him. Without questioning Twm she handed over a purse with 50 gold coins in it.
Twm knew that after this he had to get away. Every magistrate and justice would be after him so he took the horse, the silver handled riding crop and the 50 guineas and rode to London where he lived like a gentleman until his reputation started to catch up with him. To escape the law Twm moved to Geneva where he lived for several years. By the time he returned to Wales, Twm was tired of living by his wits. He wanted to settle down but he was still a wanted outlaw. On the run he met and instantly fell in love with Joan, daughter of Sir John Price and being very rich Joan was also known as the heiress of Ystradffin. Joan did not return his affections. Determined to win her, Twm hid in a cave high on Dinas Hill not far from Ystradffin. Every night he visited her and called to her until one night she opened the window and told him to go away and never bother her again.
‘Put out your hand and I will kiss you goodbye,’ he whispered.
Foolishly Joan did so and Twm grabbed hold of it. ‘Promise to marry me or I will hold your hand for ever.’
At first Joan refused but when Twm took out his dagger and threatened to cut her hand off and keep it she began to think again. When he drew blood from her arm with the end of the dagger Joan knew his point was made and agreed to Twm’s demand.
Joan kept her promise and after they were married she used her wealth to buy a pardon for Twm. She never allowed him to go thieving again and with her help Twm, or Thomas as he was now known became a leading member of society and a justice of the peace passing sentence on all the rascals and robbers bought before him. He never went back to his cave on Dinas Hill again.
Elizabeth I gave Thomas Jones a royal pardon on the 15th January 1559 when he was 29 years old. After being pardoned he became a historian and studied heraldry drawing up the lineage of many noble families. Some of his heraldry work still survives. Thomas also wrote poetry and there are examples of his work at the British library. It is said that he was a baird at the 1564 Llandaff Eisteddfod.
According to research Thomas married Joan in 1607 and would have been 77 at the time, rather old to be hiding in a cold damp cave and going wooing every night. It is more likely that he used the cave years earlier when he was an active outlaw and on the run. He died in 1609 aged 79 leaving behind a mixture of legend and truth, a complex man of his time. I leave you to separate the fact from the fiction.
If you enjoyed reading about Twm Sion Cati have a look at Welsh Legends and Myths which contains eighty different Welsh Legends collected from across Wales.