The Bell At Caerleon

No name is so frequently invoked in Wales as that of Owain Glyndwr (May 28th 1349 - September 20th 1415), a potent figurehead of Welsh nationalism ever since he rose against the occupying English in the first few years of the fifteenth century. Little is known about the man described in Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part I as "not in the roll of common men." There seems little doubt that the charismatic Owain fulfilled many of the mystical medieval prophecies about the rising up of the red dragon. He was of aristocratic stock and had a conventional upbringing, part of it in England of all places. His blue blood furthered his claim as Prince of Wales, being directly descended from the princes of Powys and Cyfeiliog, and as a result of his status, he learned English, studied law in London and became the loyal and distinguished, shield-bearer to the English king Richard II, who had knighted him Sir Owen de Glendower. He later returned to Wales marrying Lady Margaret Hanmer:

"His wife the best of wives!
Happy am I in her wine and mead.
Eminent dame of knightly lineage,
Honourable, beneficent, noble!
Her children came in pairs,
A beautiful nest of chieftains."

(Iolo Goch - translation)

Glyndwr was a member of the dynasty of northern Powys and, on his mother's side, descended from that of Deheubarth in the south. The family had fought for Llywelyn ap Gruffydd in the last war and regained their lands in north-east Wales only through a calculated association with the powerful Marcher lords of Chirk, Bromfield and Yale and the lesser family of Lestrange. They thus rooted themselves in the Welsh official class in the March and figured among its lesser nobility.

Glyndwr was comfortably placed. He held the lordships of Glyn Dyfrdwy and Cynllaith Owain near the Dee, directly of the king by Welsh Barony. He had an income of some L200 a year and a fine moated mansion at Sycharth with tiles and chimneyed roofs, a deer park, heronry, fishpond and mill, being described by Iolo Goch, his family bard, as "this mansion of generosity". He was a complete Marcher gentleman and had put in his term at the Inns of Court. Lady Margaret was the daughter of Sir David Hanmer, a distinguished lawyer who had himself served under Edward III and Richard II. Glyndwr had served in the wars and retinues of Henry of Lancaster and the Earl of Arundel, and served with distinction in France, Ireland and the Scottish campaign of 1385.

But he was more than a Marcher. He was one of the living representatives of the old royal houses of Wales, an heir to Cadwaladr, in a Wales strewn with the rubble of such dynasties. Wales in the late 14th century was a turbulent place. The brutal and treacherous savaging of Llywelyn the Last and Edward I's stringent policies of subordinating Wales had left a discontented, cowed nation where any signs of rebellion were sure to attract support.
In 1399-1400 Richard II, on returning from Ireland, was imprisoned and murdered in Pontefract Castle by the usurper Henry of Lancaster (Bolingbroke). Glyndwr, who had returned with him, then ran up against his powerful neighbour, Reginald de Grey, Lord of Ruthin, an intimate of the new king, Henry IV. The quarrel was over common land which de Grey had stolen, probably at the behest of Bolingbroke, who would have now regarded Glyndwr as a threat. Glyndwr could get no justice from the king or parliament. This proud, grey-haired man of fifty years was visited with insult and malice. There are indications that Glyndwr made an effort to contact other disaffected Welshmen, and when he raised his standard on 16 September 1400, his followers from the very beginning proclaimed him Tywysog Cymru (Prince of Wales) at a gathering in the majestic Castell Bran overlooking the sacred River Dee.

The response was startling and may have even startled Glyndwr himself. Supported by the Hanmers, other Norman-Welsh Marchers and the Dean of St Asaph, he attacked Ruthin with several hundred men and went on to savage every town in north-east Wales. There was an immediate response from Oxford, where Welsh scholars at once dropped their books and flocked home. Even more dramatic was the news that Welsh labourers in England were downing their tools and heading for home. The English Parliament at once rushed ferociously anti-Welsh legislation on to the books. Henry IV marched a large army across north Wales, burning and looting without mercy. Whole populations scrambled to make their peace. Over the winter, Glyndwr, with only seven men, took to the hills.

But in the spring of 1401, as the Tudors snatched Conwy Castle by a trick, Owain's war band moved into mid and south Wales. Once more, popular insurrection broke around them, and hundreds ran to join the rebellion. It was during 1401 that Glyndwr became aware of the growing power of the rebellion as men of higher rank began to defect to the cause. In his letters to south Wales he declared himself the liberator appointed by God to deliver the Welsh race from their oppressors. The English king, Henry IV, despatched troops and rapidly drew up a range of severely punitive laws against the Welsh, even outlawing Welsh-language bards and singers in England. Battles continued to rage. Heavily outnumbered the Welshmen first defeated Henry at Hyddgen and then Glyndwr captured Edmund Mortimer, the Earl of March, in a stunning victory at Bryn Glas (Pilleth) in June 1402. Soon after his General, Rhys Gethin, entered south Wales taking Cardiff, Llandaff, Abergavenny, Caerphilly, Newport, Caerleon and Usk castles. By the end of 1403, Glyndwr controlled most of Wales and had negotiated a carve-up of England with Henry's enemies the Perceys and the true heirs to the throne of England, the Mortimers. Edmund Mortimer had married Glyndwr's daughter Catrin a year earlier. In July 1403 Hotspur de Percey openly declared himself a rebel and attacked Henry IV at Shrewsbury, believing that he would defeat Henry without Glyndwr's help. Alas it was not to be. Hotspur was killed and Thomas de Percey, Earl of Worcester, captured and executed. Henry's son, Prince Hal, later to be crowned Henry V, narrowly escaped death suffering a severe facial wound.

In 1404, Glyndwr assembled a parliament of four men from every commot in Wales at Machynlleth, drawing up mutual recognition treaties with France, Castille, Scotland and Brittany. At Machynlleth, he was also crowned king of a free Wales. A second parliament in Harlech took place a year later, with Glyndwr drawing up the Tripartite Indenture: Mortimer would take the south of England, Thomas de Percey, Earl of Northumberland, would have the north, and himself Wales, the Marches and the Midlands as far east as the sources of the Trent and the Mersey. The English army, however, concentrated with increased vigour on destroying the Welsh uprising, and the Tripartite Indenture was never realized.

In 1405 Glyndwr suffered set-backs. Rhys Gethin, having retaken most of the castles of south east Wales that had been regained by the English, was defeated at Grosmont. Shortly after, Glyndwr's brother Tudor was killed and his son Gruffydd ap Owain taken prisoner at Pwll Melyn near Usk, only to die of plague in the Tower in 1410.

Glyndwr now pinned his hopes on his alliances with Brittany and France. In late July 1405 an army of 3,000 Bretons and Frenchmen landed at Milford Haven, though the omens were not good. The fleet had been becalmed for two weeks and their war-horses were dead from lack of water. The combined armies then crossed south Wales. By 22nd August they were just 10 miles from Worcester and had set up camp in an ancient British fort at Woodbury Hill in the parish of Whitley, still known as Owen's Hill. Henry's forces, sustained by a huge wagon-train of provisions, set up camp a mile to the north on Abberley Hill. Glyndwr, however, had neither expected nor wanted a lengthy campaign and was eventually forced to withdraw: Henry had no reason to risk defeat by attacking Glyndwr's army and Glyndwr assessed the risk too great in attacking the English up a heavily-defended hillside.

Within two years Glyndwr's last chance of overthrowing Henry had gone: in November 1407 Glyndwr's ally the Duke of Orleans was assassinated by John, Duke of Burgundy, and soon after France signed a truce with England. Then a few months later Northumberland was killed at Bramham Moor, breaking the Percey dynasty.

Inevitably disaster again struck in late 1408 when the castles of Aberystwyth and Harlech fell to the forces of the king, and Glyndwr's family was taken prisoner to die in the Tower in 1413. The Welsh nation that had existed for four years took once more to the woods with its prince once more an outlaw. Owain, with his son Meredudd, and a handful of his best captains, together with Scots and French allies, were at large throughout 1409, devastating wherever they went. No one knows what happened to Glyndwr, but, like Arthur, he could not die; he would come again. Even as late as 1412 Glyndwr captured and ransomed his arch-enemy the traitorous Welshman Dafydd Gam, Prince Hal's General.

Prince Hal, born in Monmouth, succeeded his father in 1413 and as Henry V, twice offered Glyndwr a pardon, but the old man was apparently too proud to accept. Henry also invoked huge taxation to fund castle re-building across Wales, though as late as 1415 crown officers refused to collect taxes for fear of ambush and murder.

What is more remarkable than the war that the revolt inevitably became, is the passion, loyalty and vision which came to sustain it. Glyndwr's men put an end to payments to the lords and the crown; they could raise enough money to carry on from the parliaments they called, attended by delegates from all over Wales - the first and last Welsh parliaments in Welsh history. From ordinary people by the thousands came a loyalty through times often unspeakably harsh which enabled this old man to lead a divided people one-twelfth the size of the English against two kings and a dozen armies. Owain Glyndwr was one Welsh prince who was never betrayed by his own people, not even in the darkest days when many of them could have saved their skins by doing so. There is no parallel in the history of Wales.
It is believed that Glyndwr passed away on September 20th 1415 at his daughter's home in Monnington Straddel, Golden Valley, Herefordshire. Many of Glyndwr's feared longbow men and guerrilla fighters then served as mercenaries in Henry V's army and just one month later on 25th October were instrumental in Henry's victory at Agincourt. Ironically Dafydd Gam and his son Robert Vaughn were both knighted as they lay dieing on the fields of Agincourt, having fought alongside Glyndwr's warriors against the French.

The draconian anti-Welsh laws stayed in place until the accession to the English throne of Henry Tudor, a Welshman, in 1485, however Wales soon became subsumed into English custom law and Glyndwr's uprising became an increasingly powerful symbol of frustrated Welsh independence.

Folk tale in the village of Monnington Straddel 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.

"His 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 nor 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, for ever, from generation unto generation, grey Owen's heart lies dreaming on, dreaming on, safe for ever and for ever."
Owen Rhoscomyl 1905.

Largely based on Gwyn A. Williams's, When Was Wales,1985 with references to Chris Barber's In Search of Owain Glyndwr and Gideon Brough's Glyndwr's War.

The Glyndwr Hoard