Monday, 21 November 2016

Owain Glyn Dwr: an unlikely hero?

The young man
    Although we may think of Owain Glyn Dwr as a rebellious warrior, his early life was peaceful and prosperous. His name, Owen of the Glen of Water, derives from one of two main family estates, Glyndyfrdwy, the Glen of the Water of Dee. The main family residence was at Sycharth, destroyed by Prince Henry (later Henry V.) Both sides of the family could claim to be descended from Welsh princes but the date of his birth is uncertain as are details of his childhood.
   He probably spent 7 years at the Inns of Court in London, as an "apprentice of the law" and trained as a squire and soldier. He passed a period in the home of Sir David Hanmer, a knight and one of the principal lawyers of Edward III, who introduced the young man to the affluent world of landowners and to his daughter, whom Owain married. Margaret was described by a poet as "the best of wives" and together the couple reared 6 sons and 3 daughters, a "beautiful nest of chieftains."
   They were comfortably settled at Sycherth with an annual income of £200 (multiply by 2-300 for modern equilvalence) making Owain extremely wealthy and able to maintain a house described by poets as "frequented by bards, the best place in the world," with a moat, a gatehouse, richly-filled private chambers and stained glass windows, surrounded by "smiling green meadows", stables, pigeon-house, deer-park, orchards etc. The poets, Iolo Goch and Gruffudd Llwyd, found in Owain qualities derived from impeccable birth, breeding and leadership: aristocratic hospitality, generosity to the vulnerable and ferocity towards his enemies. Why then, did he, in prosperous middle age, forsake all these advantages to lead a rebellion against mighty forces and royal power?

Why rebel? Why then?
   One of the causes lies in what we have already noted: the influence of bards and poets. They extolled a time when the forefathers of the Welsh had ruled over a great empire before sinking to present lowliness and there was a sense that a much-needed new leader was due to appear after the deaths of Llewelyn ap Iorwerth (the Great, 1194-1240), Llewelyn ap Gruffudd (the Last, 1247-1282) and his brother, Dafydd who was captured and executed. Edward I had hammered North Wales, built huge castles and established English boroughs around them, although he did not suppress Welsh literature nor the language.
   Owain may have also felt personally disappointed in aspects of his career: 3 men who might have furthered his promotion because of his early service to the crown had not done so: Richard II, Henry of Lancaster and Thomas, Earl of Arundel had failed to help him to the knighthood he might have expected. He had also been humiliated by Henry IV in a land dispute with Lord Grey of Ruthin. Yet he had support for rebellion from the church, the uchelwyr, (the great and the good) and ordinary people - Welsh students came from Oxford and Cambridge to join him and farmers left farms in England to enlist.
   The Welsh Marches had never been fully subjugated and England was in a state of weak control because of the insecure position of Henry IV, whose right to the throne was disputed. The climate had deteriorated causing famines, the 100 Years' War had started with consequent heavy taxation and the waves of plague, the Black Death, had ravaged the populations of Europe. Wales suffered perhaps more than many other areas from these unsettling, even catastrophic events. The anti-Welsh Penal Laws were passed in 1401 and 1402. Conditions were ripe for attention to bards who proclaimed the coming of a Welsh deliverer, possibly, some maintained, called Owain. Economic circumstances combined with prophecies and a folk-memory of Merlin to welcome an otherwise unlikely rebel.

The war

   This section will have to be summarised even more than the previous ones because of its complexity and because otherwise you would have to come to grips with names such as Dafydd ap Hywel Fychan ap Hywel ap Dafydd when you would prefer to be eating CAKE.
  Owain was victorious for several years against huge odds and was a thorn in the flesh of Henry IV and an enormous expense to him. He used mostly guerrilla tactics but there were 3 main battles, excluding the Battle of Shrewsbury when Henry intercepted the forces of Henry Percy (Hotspur), Owain's partner, before he could arrive. These were: Bryn Glas in 1402 when Owain scored a notable victory and Edmund Mortimer was captured - his nephew of the same name had a claim to the throne; Grosmont, where 800-1000 of Owain's men were killed and Pwll Melyn, near Usk, where Owain's forces were heavily defeated under the command of his son who was captured and imprisoned. At Llandovery, on 9th October 1401, Llewelyn ap Gruffudd Fychan of Caeo was executed in front of the king for his part and a superb statue commemorates his bravery.

   The years 1405-6 were the climax of Owain's powers with a Tripartite Indenture drawn up giving him not only Wales but parts of England, the French army on its way and the Pennal letter sent to France which would transfer loyalty to the Pope at Avignon and free the Church in Wales from English control as well as creating universities. He had been enthroned as Prince of Wales (very annoying to the English who called their heir to the throne by that title), he had his own great seal and was holding tournaments to show his influence.
  During the next 5 years he lost his position: England began to recover with Henry IV's victory over the Percy family; the French army went home; maintaining guerrilla war was costly and he had gained few castles; the men of the lordships of Caerleon and Usk ceased to support him and there was a terrible winter in 1407-8. He held Harlech Castle and Aberystwyth for a while but they were low on provisions. Prince Hal attacked Aberystwyth and, finally, Owain became an outlaw and bandit and his wife was taken prisoner with his daughters and 3 granddaughters. The 6 sons had joined the rebellion and died childless No-one knows where he is buried and this led to a belief in some quarters that he had not died and would return.

   - yet not so as I find this whole uprising and the character of Owain so complex and fascinating that I will write another post analysing the issue and doubtless causing controversy and much discussion over CAKE.
Avoid saying "Ll" as you eat!
   If you are not Welsh-speaking you may like to know that "ap" means "son of" (which accounts for the way names build up into strings) and that you can pronounce "ll" convincingly by voicing this phoneme with your tongue curled up behind your top gum/palate. The "dd" in names is pronounced "th" and the "ch" is hard and formed at the back of the throat.There should be a circumflex on the "w" of Glyndwr but my technical skills fall short here.
  If you prefer simply to visit the places connected with the narrative without twisting your tongue you could start with Usk Castle and nearby Pwll Melyn and move on to Abergavenny where scorch marks from his arson have been found in the Tithe Barn. His legacy spreads throughout Wales and as you ride your bus in the Marches, you are never far from scenes of skirmish or major destruction.

For an appraisal of his rebellion and its effects click here. To read more about the castles involved, use the search button on the top right of this blog post.

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