We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Feature essay

The rising of Owain Glyn Dŵr

The personality of Owain Glyn Dŵr (or Owen Glendower), who led the last and the greatest Welsh revolt against English rule, towers over other medieval heroes of Wales, and not even the thirteenth-century princes—Llywelyn ab Iorwerth (c.1173–1240) and Llywelyn ap Gruffudd (d. 1282)—can compete with his stature and reputation among Welsh men and women. A larger-than-life figure, thanks to Shakespeare's portrayal of him as a man who could ‘call spirits from the vasty deep’ and to the legends that gathered around him in common remembrance, he has also dominated the rebellion which bears his name, in popular and scholarly studies alike. Modern historical scholarship, however, while not in the least seeking to diminish the role of Glyn Dŵr as a leader and visionary, has tended to view the rising of 1400 less as a nation's response to Glyn Dŵr's call to arms, than as the work of a man who was able to gather together the disparate strands of discontent and to weave them into a rebellion of mighty dimensions.

Wales and her troubles

  Owain Glyn Dŵr (c.1359–c.1416) seal [as prince of Wales] Owain Glyn Dŵr (c.1359–c.1416) seal [as prince of Wales]
Probably born during the late 1350s, Owain Glyn Dŵr would have grown to manhood in a period of social and economic dislocations arising from plague, when English military activities in France and in Scotland had been resumed, and when many Welshmen were suffering from disabling distinctions made by the crown and the marcher lords between their Welsh tenants and the English residing in Wales. How far Glyn Dŵr himself was conscious of these difficulties is hard to judge. His own concerns were those of a landowner of comfortable, but relatively modest, means. The poet Iolo Goch, in a cywydd undoubtedly fashioned before the rising of 1400, provides an enchanting portrait of Owain's fine modern dwelling at Sycharth in Cynllaith, a few miles west of Oswestry, complete with the accoutrements of lordship (cyfreidiau cyfar)—his mill and dovecot, his demesne lands and serfs, his peacocks and his warrens. Ties of patronage had drawn the squires of Sycharth into the nexus of marcher power controlled by the enormously wealthy Richard (II) Fitzalan, third earl of Arundel, who was lord of Oswestry, Chirk, and Bromfield and Yale, while Owain's legal training and his marriage to Margaret Hanmer gave him links to government and élite society in England.

This pattern was replicated in numerous Welsh families of comparable status to Glyn Dŵr's. The war with France attracted hundreds of Welshmen into royal and baronial service, and the careers of men like Sir Rhys ap Gruffudd, a soldier and administrator lauded for his remarkable exploits at Crécy, helped to inculcate feelings of common purpose and mutual confidence linking the Welsh and their English masters. Sir Dafydd Gam of the lordship of Brecon furnishes a later example. By his impeccable record of service to Henry Bolingbroke as both lord and king, Dafydd maintained connections forged by his family over many generations with the Bohun and Lancaster lords of the march, to whose power Bolingbroke was heir by descent and marriage. Similarly in the ecclesiastical sphere, the maverick Adam Usk owed his entry into the world of learning and into the church to the early attentions of Edmund (III) Mortimer, third earl of March and lord of Usk. Yet the benisons of good lordship were not bestowed upon all who aspired to power and leadership within their localities, and ties which had once been created might be easily severed, especially in a region as politically volatile as the march of Wales, and in a reign as divisive and fractious as that of King Richard II. Frustrated, footloose, and beholden to no one, many vigorous and thrusting members of the Welsh élite families (the uchelwyr) might form a formidable cadre of opponents when opportunities were ripe.

Resentment within Welsh society was also fostered by the distinctions of law and the constraints on professional advancement experienced by many ambitious Welshmen after the conquest of 1282. Such divisive attitudes were not articulated throughout the whole of Wales, nor were people of Welsh status and condition universally demeaned. But in a colonial environment where privilege was perceived as the monopoly of the English residing in Wales, feelings of disenfranchisement were easily aroused. Although it remained possible for Welshmen to receive promotion in the ecclesiastical hierarchy (for instance the Oxford-educated John Trevor, later Glyn Dŵr's staunch supporter, was elevated to the see of St Asaph in 1395), there was still a festering resentment among the higher clergy of Wales at the intrusion of royal nominees into Welsh benefices. The lower clergy (who supported Glyn Dŵr in large numbers) shared many of the concerns of the peasant communities which they served, and though it would be wrong to portray the rising as a peasant revolt, it would be equally perverse to discount the substantial peasant support that the rebels commanded. The assiduous exploitation of their Welsh estates by great marcher barons like Reynold Grey, third Baron Grey of Ruthin, helped to ensure that the rising was in part a protest against a lordship which had become increasingly unbending and grasping, for local officials as well as peasants. In the case of Reynold Grey, there was also bitter personal enmity between him and Glyn Dŵr.

The dramatic life and death of Owen of Wales, a mercenary in the pay of Charles V of France, and a striking figure in European literary tradition (he was also known as Yvain de Galles), furnish another part of the context for the rising of 1400. By birth the only surviving member of the princely dynasty of Gwynedd (brought to an end in 1282), he played a significant part in the Anglo-French wars of the 1360s and 1370s. Although it is unlikely that Owen had ever lived within Wales, his use of the Welsh patronymic, his display of the arms of the princes of Gwynedd, and his claim to the land of Wales ‘by right’, denote a sharp consciousness of his lineage and status. Indeed, it has been suggested that he did not lack support within Wales, for he was addressed in prophetic terms by the poet Gruffudd ap Maredudd ap Dafydd, a circumstance which helps to explain Owen's murder by an English agent in 1378. Owain Glyn Dŵr was himself acutely attuned to the uses of prophecy in furthering his cause. He was attended by a man described as ‘his prophet’ at the start of the rising, and apparently consulted one Hopcyn ap Tomas ab Einion of Gower, a ‘maister of Brut’, before one of his battles. But Hopcyn was also renowned as a scholar, a patron, and a major collector of manuscripts. It is in a manuscript known to have been in his possession that one of the most poignant articulations of the disillusions of fourteenth-century society in Wales is to be found, lamenting the ‘pain, deprivation and exile suffered to this day’ (poen ac achenoctit ac alltuded) by the scribe's compatriots ‘in the land of their birth’ (yn eu ganedic dayar) . Such sentiments were surely widely felt within Welsh society on the eve of Glyn Dŵr's rising.

Rebellion

  Henry Percy (1341–1408) manuscript painting, c.1400–25 [standing at horse's head] Henry Percy (1341–1408) manuscript painting, c.1400–25 [standing at horse's head]
The first tocsin of revolt was sounded on 16 September 1400, at Glyn Dŵr's estate at Glyndyfrdwy in Edeirnion, on the River Dee between Corwen and Llangollen. According to a contemporary account, a group of conspirators who included Hywel Cyffin, dean of St Asaph, and several small landowners, many of whom were kin to Glyn Dŵr, proclaimed Owain as prince of Wales. In the ensuing days, fortified by a peasant army, the rebels proceeded to harry some of the marcher towns of the neighbourhood, including Ruthin, the prosperous centre of Lord Grey's rich agricultural lordship of Dyffryn Clwyd, the Arundel stronghold of Oswestry, and the borough of Welshpool, a valuable property of the Charlton family. There was considerable turmoil, too, in the north-west. The initial rising was rapidly quashed, however, and the chief protagonists scattered. Their quick initial defeat probably explains the failure of Henry Bolingbroke, now king as Henry IV, to appreciate the importance of these events in Wales. But it may be surmised that Glyn Dŵr and his allies remained active during the bleak period before their rebellion sprang back to life in the early summer of 1401. In an astonishing bravura performance Rhys ap Tudur and his brother Gwilym ap Tudur, cousins of Glyn Dŵr and formerly annuitants and servants of Richard II, had already captured and briefly held Conwy Castle on Good Friday 1401, an act virtually unprecedented in the annals of Edward I's castles in Wales. It is also possible that understandings were now reached with some of the lesser landowners, the squirearchy of Wales, beyond the orbit of the initial rising. These were the men who sustained the rebellion thereafter and formed its backbone. When allies from beyond the borders of Wales failed to deliver, and when local communities, dispirited, perhaps, by the devastations of war, were lured into returning to former allegiances by offers of royal and seigniorial pardons (albeit at a price), it was these men, together with Glyn Dŵr's clerical supporters, who ultimately determined the success or failure of the enterprise.

Owain Glyn Dŵr forged two major alliances outside Wales, with the French and with the Percys. Dispatching his chancellor, the cleric Gruffudd Young, and his own brother-in-law John Hanmer to the court of Charles VI, a treaty was concluded in 1404 which in its language, and its ceremonial etiquette, was as promising as ‘the magnificent and mighty Owain, Prince of Wales’, could expect. But although 2500 troops landed in 1405, French support was never as wholehearted as Owain might have hoped. The support of the Percys, great magnates on England's northern borders, might have appeared more promising. Supporters of Henry IV at the time of his usurpation in 1399, Henry Percy the elder, earl of Northumberland, his son Henry Percy, known as Hotspur, and his brother Thomas Percy, earl of Worcester, had received grants of lands and offices which made them powerful figures in Wales. Their break with the king, a dispute in which the prosecution of the Welsh war played a part, was brought to a head at the battle of Shrewsbury in 1403, where Hotspur met his death and Thomas Percy was executed. Renewed resistance by Northumberland in 1405, a conspiracy which also drew in Thomas Bardolf, fifth Baron Bardolf, an East Anglian landowner, maintained Glyn Dŵr's northern connections, and it is possible that emissaries were sent northwards to co-ordinate policy between the Welsh prince and the earl.

The connection allegedly culminated in the ‘tripartite indenture’, a document of uncertain authenticity which provided not only for an alliance between Glyn Dŵr, Northumberland, and Sir Edmund (IV) Mortimer (Hotspur's brother-in-law, who had been earlier captured by Glyn Dŵr and wedded to his daughter), but also for the division of the entire kingdom of England and the land of Wales between the three parties. Redolent of the language of prophecy and mythology, it is difficult to envisage the fulfilment of an arrangement of such grandiose pretensions. The French and the northern alliances, together with the attempts to generate support within the kingdom of Scotland and in Ireland, may have brought Glyn Dŵr a measure of status and notoriety in domestic and international politics and enabled his officers to promote an image of a nascent Welsh state. But little of any practical advantage was achieved. It is tempting to apply to the rebellion of Owain Glyn Dŵr the words of the author of the Life of Edward II. Commenting on the failure of an earlier rebellion in Wales, that of Llywelyn Bren in Glamorgan in 1316, he wrote that although the Welsh frequently rebelled, ‘because they do not know the appointed time, they are often deceived and their labour is in vain’.

The end of the revolt: legend and scholarship

Sir  John Wynn (1553–1627) by unknown artist, 1619Sir John Wynn (1553–1627) by unknown artist, 1619
At the same time as ambitious schemes were under way, Glyn Dŵr's rising was falling apart from within. Like many rebellions, that of 1400 displays all the properties of a civil war, as family fought against family and even the bonds of kinship failed to encourage a common stance. In his early seventeenth-century family memoirs, Sir John Wynn of Gwydir recorded how two brothers among his numerous ancestors had taken ‘a clean contrary course’. Gwilym and Rhys ap Tudur supported Glyn Dŵr, and Rhys paid for his loyalty with his life. But their kinsman Gwilym ap Gruffudd made a timely return to the king's allegiance and profited hugely thereby, laying foundations for the prosperity of the house of Penrhyn in generations to come. Yet others, like Sir Dafydd Gam, were consistently and implacably hostile to the rising and did sterling service for the crown during the war in Wales. Increasingly, operations against Glyn Dŵr were directed by the young Prince Henry, the future Henry V, whose painful apprenticeship in war was largely served in the inhospitable terrain of Wales. Under his leadership, marcher magnates like Richard Grey, fourth Baron Grey of Codnor, who was active in the south of the country, Thomas Fitzalan, fifth earl of Arundel, whose interests took him further north, and John Talbot of Goodrich and Blakemere, later first earl of Shrewsbury, responded to the destruction of their estates and their income by bestirring themselves to effective retaliation.

1405 proved both the high spot and the turning point in Glyn Dŵr's fortunes. With both the French and the Percys thereafter proving broken reeds, superior English resources slowly prevailed. Anglesey, lost to English rule in that year, was recovered twelve months later. Other castles and lordships followed, notably Aberystwyth and Harlech about the end of 1408. The destruction was immense, in both towns and countryside, and was particularly detrimental to the Welsh church. Thomas Peverel, bishop of Llandaff, was forced to leave his diocese, while John Trevor of St Asaph, reduced to poverty by the burning of his cathedral and his lands, joined the rebels. Owain's rising became increasingly a series of guerrilla campaigns, his own appearances in the records ever vaguer and more intermittent, until he disappeared from sight entirely, although the exact date and place of his death are unknown. By 1415 the heartlands of the rising had long been lost, and when Henry V fought at Agincourt it was in the full knowledge that, despite continuing resistance in Merioneth, Wales was largely secure. Indeed, some of the men who had opposed one another during the rebellion now served side by side against the French.

  Thomas Pennant (1726–1798) by John Keyse Sherwin, 1778 (after Thomas Gainsborough, 1776?) Thomas Pennant (1726–1798) by John Keyse Sherwin, 1778 (after Thomas Gainsborough, 1776?)
The mystery of his last years helped to ensure that Glyn Dŵr became a figure of legend as well as of more sober history. From an early date he and his rising were topics of keen interest to writers. In the late sixteenth century his deeds attracted the attention of the Pembrokeshire antiquary George Owen, while nearly two centuries later Thomas Pennant, in his Tours in Wales (1778–83), collected numerous folk tales recording Glyn Dŵr's exploits. But it was the nineteenth century that showed a new sensitivity to the significance of the revolt. Glyn Dŵr now emerged as the avatar of the nineteenth-century patriot, concerned for the organs of democracy and for education, and with a vision of a native Welsh church. For the scholar and educationist Sir Owen Morgan Edwards, writing as a ‘people's historian’ in the years on either side of 1900, Glyn Dŵr was a people's prince, the champion of a ‘self-educated, self-governing peasantry’. Sir John Edward Lloyd, by contrast, writing in 1931, portrayed Owain as a prince in the tradition of those earlier rulers whose aspirations Lloyd had charted in his History of Wales of 1911. That great work had been brought to a close with the extinction of the dynasty of Gwynedd in 1282, and when twenty years later Lloyd resumed his narrative with the birth of Glyn Dŵr, he analysed Owain's ‘great qualities’ and the ‘forces which drove him into revolt’. However, those forces, in Lloyd's study, did not include the concerns of a wider society, although these had been emphasized in the pioneering book by William Rees, the significantly titled South Wales and the March, 1284–1415: a Social and Agrarian Study, which had appeared in 1924. Only in 1995, with the publication of Rees Davies's The Revolt of Owain Glyn Dŵr, with its penetrating analysis of the roots of revolt, was the context of rebellion set out in depth, presenting the rising not only as the achievement of Glyn Dŵr, but also as the protest of a broad swathe of the people of Wales.

Click here for more about the Oxford DNB subjects mentioned, but not highlighted in this article: Bardolf, Thomas, fifth Baron Bardolf (1369–1408); Fitzalan, Richard (II), third earl of Arundel and eighth earl of Surrey (c.1313–1376); Fitzalan, Thomas, fifth earl of Arundel and tenth earl of Surrey (1381–1415); Grey, Richard, fourth Baron Grey of Codnor (c.1371–1418); Llywelyn ab Iorwerth (c.1173–1240); Llywelyn ap Gruffudd (d. 1282); Llywelyn Bren (d. 1318); Mortimer, Edmund (III), third earl of March and earl of Ulster (1352–1381); Talbot, John, first earl of Shrewsbury and first earl of Waterford (c.1387–1453)

Llinos Smith

Likenesses  

manuscript painting, c.1400–1425, BL, Harley MS 1319; Henry Percy, first earl of Northumberland [see illus.] · oils, 1619, priv. coll.; Sir John Wynn, first baronet [see illus.] · J. K. Sherwin, line engraving, 1778 (after T. Gainsborough, 1776?), NPG; Thomas Pennant [see illus.] · seal, NMG Wales; Owain Glyn Dŵr [see illus.]