‘Great magician, damned Glendower'(Part 4.)

It is not my purpose to describe the Glyndŵr Rising in detail. The story is far too complex to be contained within a blog post. The reader who is interested in the full tale would do well to consult (for example) The Revolt Of Owain Glyn Dŵr by R.R Davies, an excellent work.

The initial rising was snuffed out quickly, with Owain forced to flee to the hills. However, he was soon launching new attacks on towns and calling himself Prince of Wales. It must have quickly become obvious to Henry IV that this was no mere flash-in-the-pan.

Wales had huge military potential. It was full of skilled archers and spearmen, many with long experience in the service of the English king and his lords. Of course, not all of them flocked to Owain. Many, in fact, remained loyal to Henry and the establishment throughout. Loyalty to a lord, at this time, was frequently as powerful a motive as loyalty to a nation.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Owain received strong support, not just from Welsh gentlemen like himself but from whole communities and even from English dissidents. Slowly but surely he gained ground, his opponents often finding themselves confined to their castles under perpetual siege.

There should be no romantic illusions. This was a vicious war with atrocities committed on both sides, and the devastation caused by it was such that the economic effect was felt for generations.

Henry IV had opponents at home as well as in Wales. His kingship was in question because many saw him as a usurper. Some thought King Richard was still alive in Scotland (or claimed to believe it) while others supported the claim of the young Earl of March, who was, if you counted inheritance through a female, senior heir to King Richard.

The Percy family were the most potent of these opponents. The Earl of Northumberland, his son, Henry Hotspur, and his brother, Thomas Percy, Earl of Worcester, had all initially supported Bolingbroke, but all of them, and particularly Worcester, had previously been moderate supporters of King Richard. Now they decided to change sides again. One factor was certainly that Hotspur’s wife, Elizabeth Mortimer, was March’s aunt.

In 1402, Owain made two important captures. First, his old enemy, Grey de Ruthin. Grey was released after payment of a large ransom. Then, after the Welsh victory at the Battle of Pilleth, Sir Edmund Mortimer, March’s uncle. This time Henry IV refused to pay the ransom, thus deepening the discontent of the Percy family, given that Mortimer was Hotspur’s brother-in-law. Mortimer reacted by defecting to Glyndŵr, urging his family’s tenants to do the same and sealing the bargain by marrying Owain’s youngest daughter, Catrin.

Hotspur rose in arms in 1403 supported by the men of Cheshire and many Welsh from Flint and the surrounding districts. He was killed at the Battle of Shrewsbury, but the battle was a close-run affair. Had he received reinforcements from Glyndŵr or from his own father, he would almost certainly have won. Did he die hoping for Owain to appear, in the style of the Prussians at Waterloo? We can never know, but Owain was at that time days away, campaigning in south-west Wales. In retrospect, it was a missed opportunity.

Nevertheless, in Wales itself, Owain’s power was growing from strength to strength. He had negotiated a treaty with France, and in the same year as Shrewsbury the first few French reinforcements arrived. Several attempts by Henry to lead substantial armies into Wales had failed miserably. By 1404 Owain held almost all of the country and felt secure enough to hold a national parliament, one which had a significant agenda, including the establishment of two Welsh universities.

Early in 1405, Constance of York, Lady Despenser, also attempted to defect to Owain, taking with her the young Earl of March and his brother. They were captured near Cheltenham, dangerously close to areas that Glyndŵr now controlled. The failure of this plot seems to have led to the famous Tripartite Indenture by which Owain, Northumberland and Edmund Mortimer agreed to divide the whole kingdom between them – presumably ignoring March’s claim.

Owain, now with significant French support, advanced to the gates of Worcester. Bolingbroke met him there, and the two armies stared at each other for a time, neither willing to engage. Eventually, Owain withdrew. The northern English rising of Archbishop Scrope and Northumberland was defeated, Scrope was executed and Northumberland was forced to flee to Scotland. It was the effective end of English opposition to Henry.

Owain soon suffered two significant defeats in the south of Wales, in one of which his brother was killed. As the months and years went by, more and more areas of Wales gave up the struggle and accepted pardons. (The defeated rebels faced communal fines and the payment of arrears of rent, but they had little choice.) The loss of Anglesey, which produced so much of the Welsh arable harvest, was a particular blow.

In 1409, Owain lost his last stronghold, Harlech Castle. He himself contrived to escape, but his son-in-law, Mortimer was either killed or starved to death, while his wife was captured along with Catrin and her Mortimer children. All went to the Tower, from which none came out alive.

Glyndŵr was now reduced to the status of leader of a band of outlaws. They still struck some blows, but it must have been clear to all that the days of glory were over. Owain rejected more than one offer of pardon, refused to surrender, and was never betrayed, though anyone who had given him up would surely have been richly rewarded. It is thought he died about 1415 and he is probably buried somewhere on the estates of his son-in-law, Sir John Scudamore. Some claim to know where, but it is a guarded secret to this day.

Only one of Owain’s sons, Maredudd, survived the war. He accepted a pardon in 1421 and probably ended his days as a paid soldier of Henry V. The family lands were never restored.

As for Owain he is, and will surely remain, an icon of the Welsh people.



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