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The Greatest Welsh Hero - Owain Glyn Dŵr?

By David Ackerley

            Who do you regard as the greatest ever Welsh hero? Maybe Nye Bevan if you are politically minded. How about the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas? He's not to my taste I must admit, though many Welsh people hold him in reverential awe. If you are a keen supporter of Welsh Rugby you may well think  that Gareth Edwards, Phil Bennett or J.P.R. Williams, to name but a few, fit the bill,  but despite the undoubted claims of all such immortals, surely there is no one to compare with Owain Glyn Dŵr, the last native Welshman to be named Prince of Wales.

            Details of the early life of many famous people from the more remote times of our history are often scanty, and Owain is no exception. He was born around 665 years ago, though there is much doubt about the exact year and place of his birth. It is thought that he was born in 1349, though some say 1359, into a well-to-do Anglo-Welsh family based in the Welsh Marches.  His father, the Lord of Glyndyfrdwy, who owned estates at Sycharth near Llansilin, the Teifi Valley and near Glyndyfrdwy in the Dee valley near to Corwen, died when Owain was young and it is generally accepted that he was fostered by David Hanmer, a lawyer whose complicated family tree shows that his relatives, or some of them at any rate, came from around Knockin and English Maelor.

 Alternatively, there is a case to be made out for saying Owain was fostered by Richard FitzAlan, the 3rd Earl of Arundel. Owain spent about seven years studying law in London, but in 1383 returned to Wales and married  Margaret, the daughter of David Hanmer. Although David Hanmer became a notable senior Judge and an MP for Herefordshire, in the opinion of many, his greatest claim to fame is that he was Owain's father-in-law.

            After their marriage at the village of Hanmer's Church, Owain and Margaret set up home, dividing their time between Glyndyfrdwy in the Dee valley and Sycharth, near Llansilin in the hills to the west of Oswestry, whilst having a large family.  At both these places the sites of their homes are under the care of CADW.  The following description of the Glyndyfrdwy site (OS Grid ref: SJ 125 431) is from CADW:

            Near this spot at his manor of Glyndyfrdwy, Owain Glyn Dŵr proclaimed himself Prince of Wales on 16th Sept 1400, so beginning his 14 yr rebellion against English rule. This mount, known locally at Owain Glyndwr's Mount, is actually the remains of a 12th century castle motte built to command the route through the Dee Valley. Like the motte nearby at Sycharth, it may have continued in use until the late 14th Century but Owain's manor is likely to have been in the square moated area across the field. This would have been defended by a water filled moat, palisade and gate.

The Motte and Bailey at Sycharth. The centre tree is an absolutely magnificent example of an old oak tree and is well worth going to see.


 Owain Glyn Dwr's mount

           The site of Owain's considerable estate at Sycharth (OS Grid ref: SJ 205 258) now consists of a well kept motte and bailey on which his house would have stood, surrounded by a fish pond, dovecote, a mill, a farm and the buildings and hovels associated with his retainers. It is something of a mystery to me as to why he chose to live, at both sites, in a relatively modest type of wooden fortress-cum-home which was becoming outmoded even though Sycharth, in particular, was described as one of the best houses in NE Wales; remember we are talking of times when advanced stone built castles dominated Wales and other wealthy families lived in stone houses. Could he not afford a more prestigious dwelling? Did he choose the motte and bailey to show his regard for his fellow Welshmen most of whom were impoverished, partly it must be said as a result of his raids and depredations?

          Whatever his reasons behind his choice, the homes did not last long after the rebellion took hold. The future Henry V, he of Agincourt fame, razed both the manors of Glyndyfrdwy and Sycharth and their associated buildings to the ground in the spring of 1403. Because of this Owain's family, retainers and headquarters were based on Harlech Castle until that too was forced to surrender to the English forces. Thereafter Owain and his band of followers waged a guerrilla war in the countryside until the rebellion petered out in about 1415, after which Owain disappears from view.

          A brief description of English/Welsh history around the turn of the 14th century is necessary to understand the background of Owain's rebellion. At the end of the 14th century King Richard II began to consolidate his precarious hold on the English throne by trying to break the power of the Barons and other nobles including exiling Henry Bolingbroke, the future King Henry IV. He moved up to Cheshire which he used as a base to increase his power in north Wales. He did this by removing the incumbent, mostly English, local rulers and installing his Welsh friends in their place. This went down very well with the Welsh, including Owain and his family, but the same could not be said of the English barons, who became more convinced than ever that Richard II was a severe danger to their preferred way of life.

            In 1399 Henry Bolingbroke returned from exile wanting his lands back, and raised an army to back up his claims. Richard II and Bolingbroke met at Conwy castle to talk matters over, but whatever the intentions of the protagonists, the outcome of the meeting was disastrous for Richard II: he was arrested and deposed, and after being imprisoned at Chester and a spell in the Tower of London, he was moved to Pontefract, where he died in murky circumstances which are said to include the possibility that he starved himself to death. The Welsh were supporters of Richard II as his father was Edward, the Black Prince, a former Prince of Wales and they were definitely not fans of Henry IV, as Bolingbroke became.

            Although a proud Welsh patriot, Owain was regarded as a law abiding man who lived quietly and minded his own affairs. He began a military career in 1384 when he served on the English/Scottish border, and in the following year he fought for King Richard II in that monarch's Scottish war. For a long time there had been a simmering dispute between Owain's forebears and  Baron Grey de Ruthyn over  land in the area of Bryn Eglwys. Baron Grey, a friend of  King Henry IV, had seized some land which Owain claimed was common land, but his subsequent appeal to the King and the English Parliament was ignored. In 1400 Baron Grey deliberately failed to tell Owain of a Royal command that he was required to levy troops for service in Scotland. The result of this serious but contrived failing was that Owain was considered to be guilty of treason and therefore an outlaw.      

            The upshot of all this was that early in 1400, civil disorder broke out in Chester when an officer of the deposed Richard II was executed. As we have seen, Richard II had had considerable support in Wales, and in September 1400 Owain assumed the title of Prince of Wales in Corwen. (In 2007 a statue of him was erected in the town's square.) Thus commenced Owain's remarkable fourteen year rebellion against the English kings: most rebellions in medieval Europe of whatever sort usually lasted a few months at most. The revolt spread over all of North and Central Wales, becoming an all out war.  Henry IV put Henry Percy (Hotspur of Shakespearian fame) in charge of the punitive expedition to bring Owain to heel; this proved to be rather more difficult than expected, and Hotspur reluctantly issued an amnesty to all the rebels with the exception of Owain and his cousins, Rhys and Gwilym Tudor.   

            During the 1340-70s Wales, like the rest of Europe, had been grievously afflicted by the Black Death with over a third of the population dying from it. Allied to the slow recovery from the effects of the disease, the mayhem caused by the rebellion and the disruption to their precarious lives caused the rebellion to lose a lot of popular support. As a result, and to Owain's chagrin, most of Wales accepted the offer, so his cousins, the Tudors, needed some sort of a lever to bargain with the King. By means of trickery they captured Conwy Castle and Hotspur, realising it would be an enormous undertaking to recapture the castle, finally agreed that the Tudors should be pardoned.

            In June 1401 Owain scored his first big victory over the English forces at the battle of Mynyedd Hyddgen, some seven and a half miles to the south of Machynlleth as the crow flies. Once again we do not have a lot of reliable evidence about the battle save that it took place on the western slopes of Plynlimon at around 1200 ft, and close to the present Nant-y-Moch Reservoir. This remote and marshy upland area, with the hump of Plynlimon looming over it, is a wild and desolate place even in good weather, such as my family had when we drove up to the reservoir earlier this year. The reservoir, whose name translates as "The Pig Stream", is the first of three all connected by the river Rheidol and which generates electricity for Aberystwyth and the surrounding area for most of the year, while water stocks last so to speak. This is the largest Hydro-electric scheme in England and Wales.

 Site of the battle of Mynydd Hyddgen

             Some 1500 English and Flemish settlers from Pembrokeshire took exception to Owain's presence and set about his small army, which ranged in size from 120 to 500 according to who you believe. The result was an overwhelming victory for the Welsh archers over the lightly armed enemy infantry. In 1402 the Penal Laws against Wales were enacted by the English Parliament. These were designed to ensure English dominance but unsurprisingly had the effect of increasing the number of Welsh rebels. The following excerpt is taken from  the website of the Owain Glyndwr Society;

            After Hyddgen Henry marched into South Wales while Owain attacked castles in the borders and north. By 1402 the battle of Pilleth in Powys had been won and Owain was moving back and forth through the land. It was a brutal time in an often barbaric age, and the suffering it caused to local people and the many ruthless acts has not been completely forgotten, and a certain ambivalence still lingers in some country areas. He burnt the towns around many castles. The battle of Stalling Down (Near Cowbridge, Vale of Glamorgan) lasted eighteen hours when Owain with help from his French allies and men from the Glamorgan hills inflicted a terrible defeat on Henry and his army of many thousands. The armies met in a ravine and it was said that the blood was fetlock-deep.

            In 1404 he captured the key castles of Criccieth,  Harlech and Aberystwyth and held the first Welsh Parliament in Machynlleth, where he was also crowned Prince of Wales. He held two other Parliaments in Harlech and one in Dolgellau over the next two years, held an important conference in Dolgellau and signed a treaty with France. This was no minor revolt brought on by a local quarrel and for a short while it looked as if the Welsh dream of independence was within their grasp. Then the tide turned, battles in the south and east were lost, and in 1408 Aberystwyth castle was the first in Britain to be attacked by big guns and was eventually starved out. The winter of 1408-9 was terrible and many communities starved or froze to death. The heart went out of the resistance movement, the French allies sailed away and in 1409 Harlech castle, which was home for Owain’s family, surrendered because of famine and sickness. His wife, daughters and grandchildren were taken prisoner (Put in the Tower of London, they all died there) and Owain himself was without a base. He faded from history, probably to live in Monnington Court with one of his daughters. Certainly folk tale in the village says that a horse was kept saddled day and night in case he needed to get away quickly. Many historians believe he returned to his hills to die.

            Somewhat surprisingly the extract quoted above fails to mention the Pennal Letter in which Owain tried to get more help from the King Charles V1 of France in return for changing his allegiance from the Pope in Rome to the one in Avignon, Benedict X111. As a result of the Scottish and Northumbrian allies of the Welsh being defeated the rebellion was losing its impetus, so early in 1406 Owain called a conference of his supporters at Pennal (about 6 miles inland from Aberdyfi on the A493) to consider this drastic and provocative change, as to King Henry, a supporter of Rome, this would make the Welsh schismatic as well as rebellious. In a letter written to Charles VI King of France dated 31 March 1406 and kept in the Archives Nationales in Paris, Owain demanded "that in return for support, the Avignon Pope would grant authority of the Metropolitan Church of St David over the other dioceses of Wales (and over five in England); that appointments to benefices in Wales were to be restricted to clerics who "could speak our language"; that English monasteries and colleges would no longer take over Welsh churches; that two studia generalia (Universities) were to be established in Wales; that Henry of Lancaster was to be excommunicated; and that the insurgents were to receive full remission for any sins they might commit in their struggle against Henry. The emphasis on independence through the church and learning is known as The Pennal Policy.

The above section in italics is taken from Wikipedia.          

            The Pennal Letter, carried to France by Hywel Eddoyer and Maurice Kerry, is considered a momentous part of Welsh history. Although the National University of Wales did not come into being until 1893, and the Church in Wales was not established until 1920, the dream had been born in Pennal. The letter is too long to be quoted here but a copy of can be found in Pennal Church, or it is available on the internet at: http://www.canolfanglyndwr.org/pennal-letter.php.

            The Church in Pennal, St Peter Ad Vincula, (St Peter in Chains) contains plaques with details of Owain's family and earlier Princes of Wales,  as well as a small statue of Owain in the Heritage garden established in 2004 to coincide with the 600th anniversary of the Welsh Parliament held in Machynlleth. The French did promise to send another army to assist in the rebellion, but never kept to their word and without outside support the rebellion was doomed to fail.

            In 1412 Owain captured a leading supporter of the King at an ambush in Brecon, and this is the last time that he was seen by his enemies. The Welsh rebellion was now coming close to its end, though there continued to be raids by outlaws and robbers in the name of Welsh independence, especially in the Snowdonia region. Henry IV died in 1413 and his son, Henry IV began to treat the Welsh in a more conciliatory fashion. Royal Pardons were offered to the leaders of the dying rebellion, and King Richard II's body was reburied in Westminster Abbey as a gesture of reconciliation. Owain was offered a pardon in 1415 but turned it down. Where and when Owain lived and died after the rebellion collapsed is another of the many mysteries surrounding his life. A popular theory is that he lived with a daughter in Herefordshire disguised as a Monk, but  nothing is certain. Owain's son accepted his Royal Pardon in 1421 having previously refused one. This has been taken as evidence by some people that Owain died in 1420 or thereabouts. 

          Although many of his compatriots were ambivalent about the rebellion and despite enormous rewards being offered for information leading to his capture, the charismatic Owain was never betrayed to the English, which speaks volumes for his hold on his countrymen. At the end of it all, Wales was left a very impoverished country, with some Royal officials as late as 1492 saying that the untenanted lands made it impossible to collect the Royal taxes.

            Owain's grave is beside no church, neither under the shadow of any ancient yew. It is in a spot safer and more sacred still. Rain does not fall on it, hail nor sleet chill no sere sod above it. It is forever green with the green of eternal spring. Sunny the light on it; close and warm and dear it lies, sheltered from all storms, from all cold or grey oblivion. Time shall not touch it; decay shall not dishonour it; for that grave is in the heart of every true Cymro. There, forever, from generation unto generation, grey Owain's heart lies dreaming on, dreaming on, safe for ever and forever.

(Owen Rhoscomyl 1905, quoted by Chris Barber in his book “In Search of Owain Glyndŵr”.)

            Anyone who needs more information on Owain's life and his Rebellion should read the excellent little book "Owain Glyn Dwr, Prince of Wales" by R. R. Davies translated from the Welsh by Gerald Morgan. It is published by Y Llofa and its ISBN number is: 978-1847711274.