If you’re Welsh, you know Owain Glyndwr like you know Sosban Fach. If you’re not Welsh, you probably know him, if at all, as “Owen Glendower,” a character from Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I, and think, “Who was he?” It’s extraordinary that such a legend of one country can be so forgotten in the neighbouring country, despite having been such a scourge that their greatest author devoted an entire play to the topic.
He wasn’t from the north-west, where most of the Welsh rebel leaders originated. He wasn’t a great welsh patriot, having distinguished himself in battle against the Scots in the name of England and Richard II. He had built up a good fortune, having married well. One of his estates boasted four chimneys, which would be impressive even today. In his forties, the autumn of medieval life, he probably looked forward to a comfortable and companionable retirement, and his hospitality was noted.
But a troublesome neighbour could make life difficult in 1399 just as much as today. Glyndwr’s neighbour from hell was Reginald de Grey, lord of Ruthin, who had been agitating to steal Glyndwr’s land for years. The law had always upheld Glyndwr’s claim, but now that Richard II had been replaced by a personal friend of Reginald de Grey’s, Henry Bolingbroke, now Henry IV, Glyndwr found he couldn’t even get a hearing. He wouldn’t have been the first person, goaded beyond endurance, to have resorted to extreme action. To angrily but meekly submit and mutter in poverty about injustice all the rest of his days (which is what de Grey no doubt expected to happen) was not much of an alternative. And even if it’s what most people would do, Glyndwr was, as Shakespeare put in, “not in the roll of common men.”
Glyndwr raised a banner in the village of Corwen, which hosts a statue of him in its square. As word spread among the subjugated Welsh, everybody in the valleys about who had a grievance — and Edward I’s oppressive and flagrantly discriminatory laws ensured there were many such — flocked to his cause.
What did they expect to achieve? At this point, probably little more than giving the English a metaphorical kick in the goolies; a release of frustration; a sense of finally getting one back. 9th September, 1400 was market day in Ruthin. 250 Welsh mingled with the crowds of English, waiting for the prearranged signal, then pulled weapons from underneath their capes and commenced slaughtering the screaming, defenceless English around them. A touch of torch was enough to send the thatched roofs up in flames. Within minutes, the piles of corpses were being roasted by the conflagration.
The rebellion would probably have fizzled out at that point, but for one thing. April 1st 1401 was Good Friday, and almost the entire garrison of Conwy Castle was at mass in the parish church, leaving the castle defended by just two gate keepers. They were familiar with the castle’s carpenter, a regular visitor who approached with a couple of assistants, insisting on the necessity of completing an outstanding task. Once inside, the assistants whipped out daggers and stabbed the gatekeepers, then admitted forty Welshmen under the command of Glyndwr’s distant cousin, Gwilim ap Tewdwr. The bewildered garrison emerged from church to find their castle bolted and barred against them, and Tewdwr’s men making obscene gestures from the ramparts.
In fact, the siege turned into a disaster for the Welsh. The same complacency that had left the castle so poorly defended during a rebellion also meant much of the food stores were rotten, the weapons defective, and there was little ammunition. Holding out for three months, to the point of starvation, Gwilim ap Tewdwr eventually negotiated a surrender and was permitted to flee to the hills. But the effect of capturing a royal castle, one of immense prestige that had hosted both Edward I and Richard II, electrified Wales and breathed new life into Glyndwr’s movement.
Glyndwr now raised his banner in the mountains outside Aberystwyth, the junction between north and south Wales, the “two nations united by a common rivalry.” Again, hundreds of disgruntled Welsh arrived with a chip on their shoulder and a billhook in their hand. This was partly Parliament’s fault. Over the winter, it had passed a new raft of vindictive, anti-Welsh legislation intended to reduce the Welsh to the status of peasants with no prospect of advancement. The effect was to eliminate the middle ground between king and Glyndwr. Welshmen seeing their livelihoods evaporate were left with a choice between ruin, and Glyndwr.
Henry had the previous year led a military expedition across north Wales, intended to shut down the rebellion with brutality aforethought. It had turned into a farce, bogged down by winter storms and achieving little beyond making the king look weak. Fear of Glyndwr now reaching the Gower peninsula, near Swansea, a Flemish trading colony now sought to protect its interests with a preemptive strike. Gathering what weapons they had, they would surprise Glyndwr in his mountain fastness, and cut down the rebels before they had a chance to move south.
That, at least, was the plan; and presumably the colonists were all tough guys imaging that war was a big brawl. They did indeed surprise the Welsh at Mynnydd Hyddgen, who weren’t vaguely perturbed. Hundreds of archers experienced in wars against the Scots and the french poured arrows upon the Flemish who, lacking armour, crumpled in heaps in the valley below. Within minutes, bodies everywhere, the ground hedgehogged with spikes, and still more darts raining upon them by the thousand, piling bodies upon bodies, the ardour of the macho men died; they dropped their weapons and ran for their lives. The Welsh leapt upon their horses, gave chase, and cut them down as they fled.
Unimpeded, through the summer, Glyndwr swept through the centre and south of waels, pillaging all — Welsh and English — whose support he deemed suspect. Even religious institutions were not spared, the silver and gold of melted-down chalices flowing freely.
Henry IV, trying to look magisterial and less impotent than he was, pushed another expedition into south Wales, pillaging those regions as yet unpillaged by Glyndwr, all the way to Strata Florida abbey in Ceredigion. The weather held for a time, but inevitably, the rains came to bog down the army again.
Time and again, Henry tried to lure Glyndwr into battle. Every time, Glyndwr slipped away, but Henry’s spirits were lifted when a man of Cayo, Llewelyn ap Gruffudd Fychan, promised to lead them to Glyndwr’s hideout.
Day after day, the army struggled, hungry and frozen, after him, through the sucking quagmires and swollen torrents, through gales and downpours, through sudden flurries of arrows and small parties appearing from nowhere to stab a dozen soldiers and then vanish again, until suspicious Henry confronted Llewelyn.
Llewelyn replied that he had two sons serving with Glyndwr, and stretched forth his neck for decapitation. The apoplectic king had him quartered as well.
With little left to ransack in Wales, Glyndwr’s forces — or at least, bandits claiming to be operating in Glyndwr’s name, with or without his authority — were routinely raiding deep across the English borders. Perhaps no longer trusting his own abilities, Henry instructed the Earl of March, Edmund Mortimer, to lead the next expedition into Wales, where Mortimer attacked a smaller welsh force at Bryn Glas. Little did he know that the Welsh at the summit of the hill were only the archers. As the English slogged up the gradient through a hail of arrows, a hidden body of Welsh swordsmen popped up out of hiding behind them and charged into their rear.
Confused and unable to focus on a threat from one direction, the English were massacred. Their wounded received no mercy from the women who gathered in the twilight to rob the corpses: such was the seething between nations, they were castrated as they pleaded for help.
Now it was the turn of the south-eastern regions of Wales: Gwent and Glamorgan. Always Wales’ most anglicized regions, and half-hearted supporters at best, Glyndwr fell upon them with especial savagery, sacking Abergavenny, Usk, Caerphilly, Newport, Cardiff, Llandaff Cathedral and the bishop’s palace. The Grey Friars of Cardiff alone he spared, deeming them supporters, though when they requested the return of their books and sacred vessels that they had stored in Cardiff Castle, Glyndwr replied that they should have kept them in their priory with them. When he captured the castle, he captured its contents, he reasoned.
The uprising had reached stalemate: Glyndwr was lord of the country, although that was mostly cinders by now; Henry king of the castles. Periodically, the king launched yet another expedition into Wales. Every time, the weather, rather than Glyndwr, defeated them. But by 1405, things were beginning to go wrong for Glyndwr. An attempt to storm Usk castle, in particular, had ended with a rout and a massive slaughter of 1500 Welshmen at Pwll Melyn, seriously damaging Glyndwr’s reputation for invincibility.
It was clear to all that if Glyndwr wanted to be taken seriously as Prince of Wales — as he styled himself — he needed resources he didn’t have. To taht end, a fleet of 14 ships left Brest packed with as many as 5000 French knights and men-at-arms to land at Tenby, and joining with 10,000 Welsh to march into Worcestershire.
It was outside the village of Great Witley that the cause of Welsh independence ground to a halt. ON what ia still known locally as Owen’s Hill, the Franco-Welsh army stopped awed by the sight of Henry massive army in full battle array, one mile away on the neighbouring Abberley Hill. The valley between them was ideal for a medieval battle between clashing armies, but Henry was determined to prove a point to the English, the French, and above all, the Welsh: that Glyndwr was little more than a glorified bandit. He’d done well pillaging poorly defended civilian communities and attacking the rear of rain-lashed columns. He’d even done well in a couple of minor defensive battles like Hyddgen. But he didn’t dare take on the full might of Henry’s armies.
So for eight days, the two armies faced off on opposite sides of the valley, both waiting for the other to take the initiative, until Glyndwr’s rations were depleted. Still not daring to attack, Glyndwr turned his army around, and marched home.
Following so public an humiliation, Glyndwr must have realised that it was al over. Certainly, his French did, and promptly sailed back across the Bristol Channel. For the first time, Welsh people started surrendering, accepting the king’s pardon in return for an oath of loyalty. Regions fell to a final English expedition that, with the benefit of hard experience, was rather better organised than the previous ones. When even Glyndwr’s wife and children were captured following the fall of his stronghold at Harlech, and sent to the Tower of London, never to be heard of again, Glyndwr was reduced to the status of an outlaw, wandering the mountains of Snowdonia.
Rumours and legends abound of his wanderings, but little is known for certain. The most that can be said is that he is thought to have died between 1415 and 1421. Among the as-yet-unborn, the name of Owain Glyndwr would become legend: a star of folklore, a name for pubs and hotels, an invocation of historic grievance among the disaffected. But in his trime, he was cursed by all, English and Welsh alike.
He had left his country ravaged, burnt and ruined. Farmers and villagers were out of business by the thousand, having lost everything. Anti-Welsh legislation had been made considerably harsher, and would not be relieved for another two generations. The social welfare system — the alms, the hospitals, the the schools — had been destroyed with the abbeys that provided them.
In return, the Welsh had gained nothing. within five years, they were marching with Henry V and distinguishing themselves in the name of the king of England at Agincourt against their erstwhile French allies. So wary were they of Welsh rebels that when another Welshman, Henry Tudor — descendant of the Tewdwr who captured Conwy Castle — launched his rebellion at Milford Haven in 1485, few welsh ran to his cause. They were not old enough to remember Glyndwr, but their parents had told them all about it.
The diffeence was that, at the battle of Bosworth, unlike Glyndwr at teh non-battle of Great Witley, Henry Tudor dared take the initiative with his inferior force. As a result, he won.