The islands were, from the earliest times, included in the township of Cornwy, nowadays called Llanfairynghornwy [‘The Church of St. Mary in Cornwy’], in the commote of Talybolion, Anglesey. Whether, as Sir J. E. Lloyd thought, the name is derived from the Cornovii, a tribe inhabiting in Roman times what is now the North-east of Wales, or instead, as Lewis Morris believed, it commemorates an important watercourse in the region, as the suffix -wy often implies in Anglesey place-names, is very difficult to say. As for Cornovii it is now generally taken to mean ‘people living in a peninusula or promontory’ - corn = ‘horn’.
By the 13th century, the two adjacent manors of Cornwy Llys and Cornwy Llan formed, respectively, part of the Lord Prince’s estates and part of the temporalities of the Bishop of Bangor. After the Edwardian conquest, Cornwy Llys was granted in its entirety on 22nd October 1284 to the Cistercian order, in part-compensation for the enforced removal of their Abbey from Conwy to a new site at Maenan, some miles up the Conwy valley. Henceforth Cornwy Llys became the site of a valuable Grange of Aberconwy Abbey, described in 1291 as comprising three carucates of arable land.
The Skerries were part of the Bishop of Bangor’s manor of Cornwy Llan. For this reason they were sometimes called Saint Deiniol’s Islands especially by English clerics in preference to the native Welsh name Ynysoedd y Moelrhoniad - Islands of Seals! The Record of Caernarvon mentions them several times in legal contexts. Prof. Glanville R. Jones argued that there is evidence for agricultural activity on the islands in the Middle Ages.
Marginal coastal districts were settled as is indicated by the expansion from Cornwyllan into the western portions of Holy Island and from Dronwy and Carneddor into the Skerries; expansion of this order bespeaks a more intensive occupation of mediaeval Anglesey than has hitherto been suggested. That offshoots of 4 mainland gwelyau centred on Dronwy and Carneddor should be represented on the Skerries, alone serves to indicate a growing pressure of population on the relatively limited areas of land suitable for cultivation under the technical conditions of husbandry which prevailed in the Middle Ages .
However, Prof. A. D. Carr has cast doubt on this interpretation, and in his view the references in the Record of Caernarvon are more likely to be to fishing rights than land tenure. The best-documented mediaeval fisheries in Anglesey are those belonging to the Bishop of Bangor. In 1306 the most profitable of the Bishop’s fishing interests was that on the north-west coast of Anglesey around the Skerries, part of the episcopal township of 'Cornwy Lan'. Fish and seals were caught there - there are 3 references to the poaching of seals in 1349, 1352 and 1466 and 19 seals taken in 1466 were described as belonging to William Griffith of Penrhyn who had bought the rights of the various heirs of local Talybolion families in the fishery. A list of his shares in the Skerries is printed in the Record of Caemarvon. This list and other documents which follow it, have generally been taken to refer to shares in land and have been used to argue for extreme population pressure on the mainland, since they concern gwelyau in Cornwy, Dronwy and Clwchdyrnog. But Prof. Carr states
… there could not possibly be room for so many landed interests on the Skerries and it therefore seems more likely that these shares, many of which were acquired by Ieuan Chwerw of Bodafon in Twrcelyn, a prominent local figure in the second half of the 14th century, were an important and profitable fishery .
Prof. Carr has also noted elsewhere that a deed of transfer dated 1361 pertaining to fishing rights on the Skerries was witnessed by, among others, the Anglesey poet Gruffydd ap Maredudd ap Dafydd, who later filled the office of rhaglaw in the commote of Talybolion in 1373-74.
This is not the only early poetical association with the Skerries. Sir Ifor Williams observed that Llywelyn Foelron ap Dafydd Foel, the grandson of the great bard Dafydd Benfras of Cornwy, was called Foelrhon because he owned holdings in the islands. Llywelyn flourished in the late 13th and early 14th century. As a man of standing in Anglesey, he had been taken hostage in 1295 after Madog’s rebellion and was imprisoned first at Shrewsbury and then St. Briavel’s castle. He was restored to liberty on 25th August that year. His name again appears involved in litigation in 1305. His granddaughter Eva was one of those whose sale of her titles to Ieuan Wherowe (Chwerw) are also recorded in the Record of Caernarvon.
Not the least remarkable episode in the early history of the islands is the ‘Battle of the Skerries’ which took place at the end of the 15th century. This episode has sometimes been retold very inaccurately, as when the C18th topographical writer John Price included the following passage in his short section dealing with Holyhead
From this hill [Holyhead mountain] appears the island of Skerries ... this island is about three leagues N.N.W. of Holyhead and half a league from the main land. It is called in old British Ynit y Moelrhoniad from the great number of seals on it. It once belonged to the see of Bangor, and being unjustly detained by Henry VIII was recovered by bishop Denys with a party of soldiers .
However, the Skerries are N. N. E of Holyhead, Ynit should be Ynys, and the distances are wrong. Price’s reference to Bishop Denys and his supposed brush with Henry VIII also cannot be correct. The records of the Bishops of Bangor show that Bishop Henry Dean, not Denys, held office from 1496 until 1500 and Henry VIII only came to the throne in 1509. Nevertheless, the story is basically true. A much more correct version of Bishop Dean’s adventure was given by Thomas Pennant , who attempted to visit the Skerries while staying with John Griffith Esq at the latter’s Anglesey seat of Carreglwyd in Llanfaethlu, in the 1770s.
From thence I made an attempt to sail to the Skerries, called in Welsh Ynys y Moel Rhoniad, or the isle of Seals, distant about a league from this place, and about half a league from the nearest part of Anglesey: a turbulent sea made us return with speed. The island is very rocky, but affords food for a few Sheep, Rabbits, and Puffins ... Fish sport about the rocky sides in most amazing multitudes and appear even crowding their backs above water; these are chiefly the Cole-fish and Whiting Pollacks: Cod-fish lurk beneath in abundance, and the beautiful Wrasses, &c are frequently caught. This isle formerly belonged to the cathedral of Bangor, which claimed an exclusive right of fishing on it. The right of the prelates of that see had been by some neglect, invaded; and the Griffiths of Penrhyn had usurped the privilege, by having in the isle what was called a Wele, a bed or small possession. About 1498 , Bishop Dean exerted himself and in person resumed the fishery, and on the 8th of October took twenty eight fishis called Grapas; when Sir William Griffith sent his son and heire apparente, with dyvers men in harnes, wiche ryteowsely in the seid countie of Anglesey, within the seid bishope’s diocese, took the seid fishis from the servants of the seid bishope. But the honeste prelate caused him to make restitution, and established to right as lord of the fisheries of the island..
Pennant cites Browne Willis’s Survey of Bangor Cathedral as his authority for his account of Bishop Dean. This work is one of the principal sources on which later C18th writers drew for their descriptions of the Skerries. The confusion of compilers like Price is puzzling. ‘VIII’ might seem to be a slip for ‘VII’ except that Willis’s book, presumably readily available to him, states categorically that
he [Dean] did King Henry VII signal Service; who on that Account translated him Anno 1500, to Salisbury and afterwards, Anno 1501, to the Archiepiscopal See of Canterbury, where he died in less than two years and was buried .
The situation described by Price et al is therefore impossible under Henry VIII. Browne Willis mentions that Bishop Dean
took great Pains in recovering to this See divers Parcels of Land that (for want of looking to, by Reason that his Predecessors had laid from it a long Time, having some other Spiritual Promotion in Comendam) were won from the Bishoprik, particularly the Island of Seals, between Holyhead and Anglesey.
Prof. Carr remarks in Medieval Anglesey that reference to William Griffith is a reminder of the dispute with the Bishop over fishing rights, not resolved until the 16th century. In 1498 Bishop Henry Dean stated the position, that the fishing rights belonged to the Bishop though they had not been exercised for a long time because of the non-residence of successive bishops and the Griffith family had moved in. When Dean, with the agreement of his tenants, had gone to the islands to assert his rights there was a clash. Lawsuits were pending but all the other tenants acknowledged the bishop’s rights and had released their titles in the fishery to him in order to keep Griffith out  .
The legal complexities of the situation are illustrated by the existence, in the University of Wales Bangor Baron Hill MSS, of a Grant of Confirmation dated 14th September 1497 whereby one Angharad verch [daughter of] Gwilym Tudor, a free tenant of the Bishop of Bangor in the commote of Talybolion, Anglesey, confers all her lands and tenements on an island called Ynys y Molronyed to Richard Bulkeley, Clerk. In the light of Prof. Carr’s views, the question of what exactly was meant by tenements is not without interest in connection with the question of whether any early buildings ever existed on the Skerries.
Bishop Dean’s specification of Seals Island, showing it as belonging to the Bishoprick, is reproduced below.
It is to have in Mynde, that wher as the Reverende Father in God Henry Bishope of Bangor, Lord of the Township of Cornowylan in the Countie of Anglesey, and of an Isle in the See called Seynt Danyell’s Isle, otherwise called Ennys Moylronyon, to reduce the auncient right of fishynge in the said Isle, apperteynyng to hym and to the Cathedrall Churche of Bangor, whiche by the nonresidence in the Contrey of the Predecessors of the seyd Bishope hath not bene yerly continued; the vijth Day of Octobre last passed by thassent of all his tenannts of the seyd Lordship, except of William Griffyth, Kt. entred in his proper Peron the seyd Ifle, and fyshid the seyd Isle as his own demaigne Lord, in the ryght of his Churche of Bangor; so that no tennante of the seid Township eny fyshinge or other Pleasure ther in should have but at the Will of the Bifhope and his Successors. It is so that thafor named Sir William Griffyth, Knyght, wiche hath no tytle in right to fyshe the seyd Isle but as one of the Tennants of the seyd Township, how be it he and his Father of ther extorte Power have otherwisse used to fyshe the seyd Isle in the absence of the Predecessors of the seid now Bifhope. And the seid vijth Day of Octobre, after that the seyd Reverend Father had fyshed the seid Isle, and takyn xxviij fyshis callid grapas, sent his son and heire aparante with dyvers men in harnes, wiche ryetowsely in the seid Countie of Anglesey within the seid Bishope’s Diocese, tooke the seid fishis from the Servant of the said Bishope. And after the seid Sir William Griffithe restored them to the seid Reverende Father ageyn, albeyt upon the premisses gret variance by byll of compaynte dependith between them before our Lord Prynces Counsell, We Tennants to the seyd Reverende Father of the seyd Township afor seyd, namede in dyverse releasses for that itt shulde be opynlye knowyn that we will in no wisse bee of thassentee that the seyd Reverende Father by us nor noone in our nam be prejudised of any thynge appertayninge to the ryght of his Churche by eny Colour that the seyd Sir William or his Father, have usid in our nam or our auncestors in fyshinge of the seyd Isle, at eny tyme befor, by our wrytyings under Seales here unto annexed, have Remysed and Releassed from us and our heires for ever unto the seid Reverende Father, Dean and Chapetre of the Cathedrall Churche of Bangor forsaid and ther Successors all our ryght or Tytle that we or eney of our Auncestors in the fyshinge off the said Isle at any tyme here befor have had; so thatt itt is our verey mynd that the Right of the Reverend Father, and of the Cathedrall Churche of Bangor forseid by us shall not be hurt, but have the seid fyshinge in Senoraltye, nor that the said Sir William Griffyth shall by our Tytle in any manner wisse make any claim to use any fyshynge in the seyd Isle at eney tyme here after. Notefyeing to all manner People, that we do this for the discharge of our Conscience. And that we will not hurte the [Desunt caetera].
One of the actual documents by which these loyal tenants made over their rights to Bishop Dean is preserved in the Baron Hill MSS at University of Wales Bangor. It reads
Release and quitclaim by Rees ap Meredith ap Tudur to all the lands and tenements of Meredith ap Tudur lying in a wele called Gwely Trahaiarn ap Bleddyn in the ‘lordship’ of Cornwylan and by Gwiliym ap Griffith ap Ieuan ap Llewelyn, heir to all the lands of Griffith ap Ieuan ap Llewelyn lying in two weles called Gwely de la More and Gwely de la Conus in the same lordship, to Henry Bishop of Bangor, of their right and title to an island called St. Daniel Isle alias Ynys Moelronyn [sic] lying in the sea near Cornwylan .
It is not certain how these negotiations with the Bishop relate to those between Angharad verch Gwilym and Bulkeley mentioned earlier. As Dr Thomas Richards laconically remarks in his catalogue entry for this document ‘Browne Willis refers to this very transaction [but] it is another matter to square this document with [BH 1500]’.
Was this the end of the Penrhyn family’s designs on the islands? In his paper An Episode in the History of Clynnog Church Edward Owen notes another letter from Sir Richard Bulkeley to Thomas Cromwell dated 8th May 1537 where Bulkeley writes.
Edward Gruffith holdeth both fysh yards and quarrels where sclates be goten, and also an ile within the see where grapas be goten.
Owen adds in a footnote that ‘the allusion must be to Bardsey’ but the reference could well be to the Skerries. Bardsey Island with its demesne is recorded as being leased to Ralph Body and Thomas Jones, gentlemen of London, in May 1537, and a recent study by Mary Chitty of the history of that island makes no mention of Gruffydd.
In the 16th century Bishop of Bangor Nicholas Robinson (d.1585) alienated the Skerries out of the temporalities of his see into the private possession of his family and this may be taken as the end of the mediaeval Skerries story.
1. D. H. Williams The Welsh Cistercians Tenby 1984 Vol. 2 p.355;
2. Lloyd A History of Wales 2 vols. Longman, London 2nd Ed . 1912 p.73. This tribe, also referred to as the Cornavii, had its main centre at U(t)riconium Cornoviorum, or Viroconium, present-day Wroxeter.
3. See Gwilym T. Jones The Rivers of Anglesey UCNW Bangor 1989 p.94
4. W. E. Lunt The Valuation of Norwich Oxford 1926 p.196, where under the See’s possessions in Dindahuy (Deanery of Dindaethwy and Twrcelyn), Lanweyt (Llanfair) is valued in 1254 at 27 shillings and 10 pence.
5. Neither the 1292 Account of Sheriff Roger de Pulesdon, nor the 1352 Extent of Anglesey compiled under the direction of John de Delves make mention of any royal holdings in Cornwy Llys; see J. Griffiths ‘Two early ministers accounts for North Wales’ Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies (B.B.C.S.) vol.9 p.63 and Prof. A. D. Carr Transactions of the Anglesey Antiquarian Society 1972
6. Carr Mediaeval Anglesey Anglesey Antiquarian Society 1980 p.271. The name of the famous old farm of Mynachdy [Eng. ‘grange’ reflects this fact to the present day]. The family of Bishop Nicholas Robinson of Bangor (1566-85) purchased the land after the Dissolution of the Monasteries of 1535, including the Skerries.
7.Taxation of Pope Nicholas IV 1291 includes in the list of temporalities of the Abbey of Aberconwy ‘Item habet Manerium de Cornoles [Cornwy Llys] tres carucates terrae, cum reddita et molendino et alias commoditatibus’ valued at £15 - 10s. A carucate was as much land as a team of oxen could plough in a season [ Lat. Carucata = ‘ploughland’].
8. A number of MS copies exist of this important mediaeval source. The best, and almost certainly the original, is U.W.B. Bangor Baron Hill MS 6714. It was also printed for the Record Commission in 1838 as a large folio book The Record of Caernarvon, from two inferior C16th texts viz. British Museum Harleian MSS 696 and 4776, under the editorship of Sir Henry Ellis, Principal Librarian of the British Museum. References below to Record of Caernarfon are to this printed edition.
9.Transactions of Anglesey Antiquarian Society 1955 p.47-8
10. Carr op. cit. p.111
11. A. D. Carr ‘ Rhai beirdd ym Môn’ in B B.C.S. vol.28 1980 p.599
12. Sir Ifor Williams B.B.C.S. vol.10 pt.3 1940 p.242
13. Fry List of Welsh Entries in the Memoranda Rolls 1282-1343 Cardiff 1974 p.13 (under E.368/68 24-25 Edw. 1 1296-7 No. 98 m.47)
14. See Record of Caernarvon p.216
15. ibid p.253
16. John Price Bibliotheca Topographica Britannica No. X - A short account of Holyhead in the Isle of Anglesey. Actually X should be IX, as the numbering has a hiatus
17. Bishop Henry Dean or Denny, d.1503. Educated at Oxford, Prior of Llanthony 1466, elected Bishop May 31 1496. He was also Lord Justice and Lord Chancellor of Ireland from 1498.
18. Thomas Pennant 1726-98 of Downing, Flints. British zoologist and antiquary. Author of Journey to Snowdon London 1781and A Tour in Wales 1773 London 1783-4 as well as British Zoology, History of Quadrupeds, Genera of Birds etc
19. grampus - presumably dolphins and porpoises, but possibly seals; Chambers Dictionary suggests the earlier form grapays ‘one who puffs’ with related O.Fr. graspeis
20. Pennant A Tour in North Wales vol. ii p.284
21. Browne Willis A Survey of the Cathedral Church of Bangor London 1721
22. ibid p.95
23. ibid p.95
24. Carr op. cit. p.112
25. U.W.B. Baron Hill MS 1500
26. National Library of Wales Church in Wales Records B / Misc. vol.27 p.194 and Browne Willis op. cit. p.244-45
27. U.W.B. Baron Hill MS 1501
28.Y Cymmrodor 1906 p.77
29. Mary Chitty The Monks of Enlli Part 2 1252-1537 Aberdaron 2000 p.61