The Glyndŵr rebellion

Monday 25 February 2013, 09:29

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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The one name from history that most Welsh people readily acknowledge is that of Owain Glyndŵr. In the early 15th century he rebelled and fought against the English monarchy, people will tell you, but apart from those simple facts he seems to have faded into a distant mix of fable, fact and fantasy.

Owain Glyndŵr, the last native Welshman to hold the title Prince of Wales, was, at least to begin with, a very reluctant rebel. Born in approximately 1349, he was a descendant through his father of the Princes of Powys and, through his mother, of the rulers of Deheubarth. So he did have real claims to the title Prince of Wales.

Memorial to Owain Glyndwr in the grounds of Plas Machynlleth Memorial to Owain Glyndwr in the grounds of Plas Machynlleth

His father died when Owain was still young and he may well have been fostered or brought up in the home of Sir David Hanmer, an Anglo-Welsh judge and lawyer from the Marches region of north east Wales. Certainly, Glyndŵr later married Hanmer's daughter and, if he did not live with him as a child or adolescent, he was certainly very close to the family.

The young Glyndŵr was sent to study law in London, spending seven years in the English capital. He was probably in the city during the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 but soon afterwards he returned to north Wales where he picked up life as a relatively prosperous country squire.

As was normal and expected of gentility at the time, he saw military service on behalf of the king, serving on the Scottish border during 1384 and, the following year, under John of Gaunt, again in the Scotland area. There is no proof but it is possible that Glyndwr also served as squire to Henry Bolingboke (later King Henry IV) during one military campaign.

After that, it was back to Wales where he spent a relaxed and relatively quiet 10 years. However, by the 1390s serious trouble was brewing between the Welsh and their English overlords who treated the native Welsh with disdain. Matters came to a head when Lord Reginald Grey of Ruthin seized land owned by Glyndŵr. Not wishing to act outside the law, Glyndŵr appealed for justice from the English parliament. He received neither justice nor help, not from the king nor from parliament.

At about the same time Lord Grey was happily parading around the capital, proclaiming that Glyndŵr - because he had failed to provide troops for the King's service on the Scottish borders - was nothing more than a traitor.

When Richard II was deposed in 1399 there was considerable unrest in Wales where the dethroned king had considerable support. Riots took place in Chester and, finally, pushed beyond endurance, Glyndŵr took back his lands from Lord Grey, seizing and sacking the town of Ruthin. On 16 September 1400 a group of his supporters declared him Prince of Wales and there was open rebellion in the country.

Initial success was soon succeeded by disaster when Henry IV led an army through the north to restore order to the region. Glyndŵr fled but his support remained strong and the rebellion flared up again in 1401 with the capture of Conwy Castle and Glyndwr's victory at Mynydd Hyddgen. The Penal Laws of 1402, passed by the English parliament to firm up English domination in Wales, succeeded only in pushing more and more Welshmen into Glyndŵr's camp.

By 1403 the revolt had spread all over Wales and there were tales of Welsh students leaving their studies in Oxford to return to their native country to fight alongside their new prince. The year 1404 saw the capture of Harlech Castle by Glyndŵr's forces and, more importantly, the calling of a Welsh parliament at Machynlleth.

At this gathering of his supporters Owain Glyndŵr was formally crowned Prince of Wales. Glyndwr's aims were simple and clear - an independent Wales, complete with its own parliament; a return to the laws of Hywel Dda; and the creation of two Welsh universities, one in the north, one in the south. But independence from England was the main aim.

A treaty of alliance was signed with France and a year later a French force landed in Wales, in support of the rebels. The English in the country were reduced to waiting inside the few castles that remained in their hands and it was from this time that Glyndŵr was suddenly imbued - at least in the eyes of his enemies - with miraculous and supernatural powers. It was something with which even Shakespeare later credited him.

Glyndŵr was now almost at the height of his powers and achievements. In 1405 he signed the Tripartite Indenture, an agreement between himself and the rebellious Earl of Northumberland (Hotspur as he was known) and Edmund Mortimer that would divide England and Wales between them. But it was already too late, the pendulum had begun to swing.

Henry IV's son, later Henry V, took command of the English armies. A more than adequate general, he was backed up by superior forces and plentiful resources which, given the war of attrition that Glyndŵr was now being forced to fight, could ultimately only result in English victory. If France had been able to offer greater help things might have been different. But it was not to be.

A party or faction believing in peace with England had come to power in the French court and the presence of a French force in Wales was now seen as something of an embarrassment. When the French forces were withdrawn that autumn - they had, in fact, done nothing of any note during their time in Wales - people began to submit once more to the English monarchy.

In 1408 Hotspur was defeated and killed at the Battle of Bramham Moor and when, a year later, Harlech Castle was captured, several members of Glyndŵr's family fell into English hands. There was one last raid on the border territories, one last sighting of Glyndŵr in 1412 and then the revolt just fizzled out. Glyndŵr simply disappeared from view.

Despite the offer of huge financial rewards to reveal his whereabouts, nobody ever betrayed Owain Glyndŵr and it was this simple act of disappearance that began to fuel the many myths surrounding the man. Like King Arthur, people said, he was sleeping quietly in the hills, waiting for the moment when his people would call on him once more for help.

In fact, Glyndŵr probably retired to the home of his daughter Alys Scudamore in Herefordshire where he might well have ended his days in about the year 1416 as the family chaplain. It was a peaceful but rather sad ending for the man who had once nearly given Wales the freedom and independence for which her people had craved.

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