‘Great magician, damned Glendower'(Part 1.)

‘Great magician, damned Glendower’ is how Shakespeare makes Henry IV refer to his elusive Welsh adversary. Of course, we all know that Shakespeare was principally a dramatist and a great distorter of historical truth. Nonetheless, it’s likely that this quote accurately reflects Bolngbroke’s feelings of frustration as he struggled to deal with Owain ap Gruffudd Fychan or Owain Glyndŵr as he should correctly be known. (Owen Glendower is an English simplification of his name, one of several. Government clerks almost always struggled with Welsh names and mangled them most mercilessly.)

It is impossible to do full justice to so great a man in a mere blog post, but it may be useful to sketch his background. He is generally believed to have been born about 1359, so was already a mature man when he rose to prominence – in medieval terms, he was well into middle age, given that the average age of the population was nearer to 20.

He was part of the Anglo-Welsh gentry who had retained significant lands and took a full part in both English and Welsh society, a type of person, indeed, who becomes very familiar in Tudor times. Welsh by culture (and to a very large degree by ancestry) and yet perfectly at home at the English court, or holding important offices either under the crown or under the auspices of one of the Marcher lords. He owned Glyndyfrdwy in the Dee Valley – a very beautiful location – and had another house at Sycharth, which is alleged to be his birthplace. Both these locations were within easy reach of the English border, and both were quickly burnt by Henry’s forces when conflict broke out.

Owain, it should be noted, was descended from the Welsh princely houses of Powys, Deheubarth and Gwynedd. So were other people, of course, but his claim to be Prince of Wales was probably more justified by hereditary right than that of Henry Tudor to the English throne. It is unlikely though, that a young Owain thought in these terms. He was a prosperous esquire in the society of his time, and with any fortune might well have become a knight. That he was ambitious for more than that is improbable.

He married Margaret Hamner (alternatively Marred ferch Dafydd) the daughter of Sir David Hamner of Hamner, a Judge of the King’s Bench. Owain himself studied the law, and may well have been what we now call a barrister – in those days the term was Apprentice- at-law until one was promoted to Serjeant-at-law, the equivalent of a QC. Of course, it was quite common for landed gentlemen to study law – they did not necessarily practise. When Hamner died in 1387 – not long after he had been knighted by King Richard II – Owain acted as a trustee of his estate.

The bard Iolo Goch says this of Margaret:

And the best of wives,
Blessed am I in her wine and mead!
A fine lady of knightly line,
Most generous by nature;
Her children come in two by two,
A beautiful nest of chieftains.

As implied in the poem Owain and Margaret had several children together, and Owain also had children outside marriage. It’s easy to imagine the household at Sycharth or Glyndfrydwy, with numerous children running about, generous hospitality for guests and patronage for bards. Who could have predicted their future?



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