This article was first published in the Christmas 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine
On Thursday 16 September 1400, a group of Welshmen gathered at Glyndyfrdwy, an estate named after the nearby river Dee (Welsh: Dyfrdwy) to perform a dramatic act of defiance against the English crown: the proclamation of Owain of Glyndyfrdwy, lord of the estate, as Prince of Wales.
The elevation of Owain Glyndwr, as he is better known, marked the beginning of a rising that in a few years had engulfed virtually the whole of Wales, and threatened to reverse Edward I’s conquest of the country in 1282–84. For the meeting at Glyndyfrdwy was more than an act of bravado. Over the following week forces loyal to Owain instilled terror through a series of raids in north-east Wales and the borders, similar to the chévauchées of English armies against the French in the Hundred Years’ War. They pillaged and burned a swathe of towns including Ruthin, Denbigh and Welshpool.
Small wonder that the townspeople of Oswestry, another victim of these attacks, later claimed that Owain and his followers had launched a treacherous conspiracy aimed at nothing less than the death of Henry IV of England, his son Henry, all magnates and nobles in England, the destruction of the English monarchy and “the everlasting extinction of the whole English language” (that is, the English people). While this report was overblown, the Welsh rising under Owain Glyndwr certainly unleashed considerable violence and destruction.
The English authorities, and later English historians in the early modern period, branded the prince a rebel and a traitor (though Shakespeare’s portrayal of ‘Owen Glendower’ was more sympathetic). And, after the collapse of the rising, Welsh attitudes tended to be ambivalent at best. It was only in the 19th century that Glyndˆwr began to be widely hailed in Wales as a national hero.
These posthumous images of Glyndwr offer fascinating insights into the ideals projected on to him by later generations. However, simply to paint him as a hero or villain would be to miss his significance in the context of his own time.
Before 1400 there had been little to indicate that Owain would rise against the crown. Like many other Welsh gentry of the period, he had shown himself ready to accommodate himself to the regime established by Edward I’s conquest. He had studied law at the Inns of Court in London and served in royal armies in England, Scotland and France. He had married Margaret Hanmer, from a notable border family, whose father had been a judge in the Court of King’s Bench.
Yet that was only part of the picture. Within Welsh society Owain occupied a special place thanks to his descent, through his father, from the princes of northern Powys, and, through his mother, those of Deheubarth. After Owain Lawgoch (Owain of the Red Hand), the last male descendant of the dynasty of Gwynedd and a would-be Prince of Wales, had been assassinated by an English agent in France in 1378, Owain Glyndwr had the strongest ties to the princely dynasties of the era before the conquest of 1282. Moreover, even before 1400, leading Welsh poets of the day, notably Iolo Goch, took pains to remind Glyndwr of his distinguished pedigree that made him “sole head of Wales”.
Ties of loyalty
A feeling of resentment that his status had not been sufficiently recognised, particularly through the granting of a knighthood, may have contributed to Owain’s decision to rise against the crown. So too may the disruption to established ties of loyalty caused by changes in the pattern of lordship during the final crisis years of Richard II’s reign, which ended with the usurpation of Henry IV in 1399. The weakness of the new Lancastrian dynasty may also have helped tip the scales in favour of the decision to revolt. Possibly the immediate catalyst was a territorial dispute with Reginald Grey, Lord of Ruthin.
Yet the recognition of Owain as Prince of Wales in September 1400 was not simply an impetuous response to a sense of personal slight. The meeting at Glyndyfrdwy was a stage-managed occasion that deliberately evoked the past in order to challenge the foundations of English rule in Wales. The message was simple: Owain Glyndwr, not Henry IV’s son Prince Henry, was the true successor of the native princes of Wales whose power had been destroyed by Edward I more than a century before.
Owain drove the message home on his great seal. This not only styled him “Owain by the grace of God Prince of Wales” but also, by depicting the arms (four lions rampant) of the princes of Gwynedd, presented him as the successor of the last Welsh rulers to have borne the title Prince of Wales. Likewise Owain referred to “our forefathers the Princes of Wales” in a letter to King Charles VI of France. As so often in the Middle Ages, revolutionary change was presented as the restoration of a more authentic past.
In agreeing to be proclaimed prince, Owain must have been confident of receiving support. That support depended on his countrymen recognising the legitimacy of his claim – conferred on him by his ancestry and the tradition of princely rule he sought to resurrect. This enabled him to attract the loyalty of his fellow gentry – including their relatives among the clergy, who were frustrated by the restricted opportunities for advancement – as well as Welsh students at Oxford and Cambridge. In addition, in February 1401 the commons in parliament complained that Welsh agricultural labourers in England “had suddenly fled the said realm for their same country of Wales, and had strongly equipped themselves with arms, bows, arrows and swords and other weapons of war, such as they had not done at any time since the conquest of Wales”.
However, support was also contingent on military success. The best evidence for Glyndwr’s wide appeal is the spread of the revolt from its origins in the north-east across most of Wales. In April 1401 the prince’s cousins Gwilym ap Tudur and Rhys ap Tudur (ancestors of Henry VII) tricked their way into Conwy Castle and held it for two months, while in the summer Glyndwr moved west into Cardiganshire and defeated the English at the battle of Hyddgen. By June 1402 his forces were deployed in mid-Wales, near the English border, where he defeated and captured Sir Edmund Mortimer at the battle of Bryn Glas.
This victory had more than military significance, as by the end of the year Mortimer had defected to Glyndˆwr and married his daughter Catrin. Meanwhile, Owain’s appearance in Glamorgan was greeted with a rising in his support. By summer 1403 the momentum of the revolt seemed unstoppable, as Owain led his forces to the Tywi valley and received the surrender of Carmarthen, the centre of English royal authority in south Wales for three centuries.
True, everything did not go the prince’s way. He suffered several defeats, and on 21 July his allies Henry Percy (Hotspur) and Thomas Percy were killed by royal forces at the battle of Shrewsbury. Yet Owain was determined to stamp his authority on Wales. In 1404, Harlech and Aberystwyth castles fell to him, as did the town of Cardiff. He held his first parliament in Machynlleth, thereby signalling an aspiration to build on military successes by creating political institutions.
Glyndwr also tried to internationalise the conflict. In July 1404 his representatives concluded a formal treaty in Paris with King Charles VI of France. As a result, a large French force landed at Milford Haven 12 months later and marched through south Wales, possibly reaching the outskirts of Worcester. Earlier in 1405, Owain had made an agreement, known as the Tripartite Indenture, with Edmund Mortimer and Henry Percy to depose Henry IV and divide the kingdom between them, with Owain receiving an expanded Wales as his share.
Yet despite the attempts to secure help from outside Wales, Owain suffered increasing setbacks from 1405. His brother was killed and his son captured at the battle of Pwll Melyn near Usk in May 1405, and after about two months the French army retreated without a major confrontation with Henry IV’s forces.
A letter Owain sent from Pennal in Merioneth in March 1406 – which attempted to reinforce the French alliance by declaring the allegiance of Wales to the Avignon papacy, and called for an independent Welsh church and two universities – is often quoted as evidence of the prince’s political vision. However, the need to make this approach, as well as its failure to secure further French aid, reflected Owain’s growing vulnerability, as an increasingly effective response by the English crown – including economic sanctions as well as military campaigns – led to the surrender of communities across Wales.
In 1408 any hopes vested in the Tripartite Indenture were dashed by the defeat of Henry Percy at the battle of Bramham Moor in Yorkshire, and by the following year the English had recaptured Aberystwyth and Harlech castles. Although sporadic attacks continued for some years, Glyndwr was now an outlaw on the run rather than a national leader attracting loyalty, and inspiring fear, across the length and breadth of Wales. However, unlike some other Welsh princes earlier in the Middle Ages, he was never betrayed by his own people or captured.
Despite his uprising’s ultimate failure, it would be rash to dismiss Owain Glyndwr as a romantic dreamer. For one thing, we have hints of a vision of Wales as a modern state with parliaments and a bureaucracy trained in its own universities (even if the evidence is too fragmentary to deduce whether, or how far, Owain and his advisers devised a blueprint for the future of his principality – including its constitutional relationship with England).
In seeking to realise his vision, Glyndwr combined a readiness to exploit opportunities to form alliances beyond Wales with a shrewd ability to mobilise widespread support by tapping into Welsh political culture. Thus Owain not only presented himself as the successor of the princes whose rule had ended in 1282 but also became identified with the centuries-old prophetic tradition of a Welsh deliverer. This foretold the expulsion of the Saxons from the island of Britain and the restoration of the Britons’ descendants, the Welsh, to the sovereignty they had allegedly enjoyed before the Anglo-Saxon conquests.
That Owain deliberately identified himself with this prophetic tradition is suggested by the presence of Crach Ffinnant, described as a ‘prophet’, at his proclamation as Prince of Wales. Likewise, in 1403 Glyndˆwr sought advice on his future prospects from Hopcyn ap Thomas of Ynysforgan, who enjoyed a reputation as a ‘master of brud (prophecy)’.
Adherence to this mythic view of the past and future is also apparent in the prince’s strongly anti-English rhetoric. For example, in seeking the support of Henry Don (Dwn), a powerful landholder in Kidwelly in south Wales, Owain announced that he hoped, “by God’s help and yours, to deliver the Welsh race from the captivity of our English enemies, who, already for a long time now elapsed, have oppressed us and our ancestors”. He also complained to Charles VI of France that Wales had long been oppressed by “the fury of the barbarous Saxons”.
The punitive statutes passed against the Welsh show that the English parliament and crown also saw the rising essentially in terms of a conflict between two peoples: both Glyndˆwr and the royal authorities stoked further ethnic tensions.
For several years, then, Owain Glyndwr posed a major challenge to Henry IV’s new Lancastrian regime. However, what makes him significant is not so much the dramatic successes he achieved in overthrowing the political order established by the Edwardian conquest of Wales. Rather, the support he garnered for his attempt to renew the tradition of Welsh princely rule throws light on the tensions and aspirations of the Wales of his day. Above all, Glyndˆwr’s rising exposes the continuing salience of a political culture that conquest had failed to eradicate.
Huw Pryce is professor of Welsh history at Bangor University. He has published widely on the history of medieval Wales and on Welsh history writing