14th-century Welsh leader Owain Glyndŵr deserves to be remembered as one of the great rebels of history
This St David’s Day I’d like to recall one of the great guerrilla fighters of all time, and surely the greatest Welsh historical figure - Owain Glyndŵr. From Scotland, William Wallace got the Hollywood film, Braveheart, and is better known, but Glyndŵr deserves equal recognition, if not more. Among those, reputedly, to praise his abilities as a guerrilla leader was Fidel Castro.
We are talking about a figure from the late 14th, early 15th century, from a country with a population then of around just 300,000, which had been under English rule for just over a century since its conquest by Edward 1, since when it had been run as what, we would call, a colony.
For a decade and a half Glyndŵr led a rebellion against the might of English rule and for a few years ruled most of the country, ensuring, in the long run, Wales survival as a nation. Unlike Wallace, he was never captured or betrayed, and as the sands ran out on his rebellion he slipped away to, probably, find shelter and to die at the home of one of his daughters, across the border in Herefordshire.
Unlike Castro, when he fought in his 20s in the mountains of the Sierra Maestra, Glyndŵr was in his 40s when he took the field against English rule, and had years of discomfort ahead as he fought his guerilla war, with a few when he was able to hold court at Harlech Castle.
When William Wallace began his rebellion in 1297 he was doing so in the name of King John Balliol, deposed by Edward 1 of England. While Scotland was under English rule it had long been an independent kingdom and it had a native, though rapacious and self- seeking, aristocracy. Wales, the last redoubt of the native British population resisting the Anglo-Saxon conquest, had been a patchwork of separate kingdoms, except for brief periods when one particularly strong ruler could take control of the bulk of the country.
Following Edward 1’s conquest, the native aristocracy had lost virtually all their lands, and thus power. Those who survived, Glyndŵr, was one, had small estates, though they maintained Welsh laws and customs, giving court to bards and poets.
Glyndŵr was also operating more than a century after Wallace and things had changed substantially in medieval Europe. The succession of plagues known as the Black Death had devastated a population which had grown over centuries as agricultural yields had increased, but not sufficiently to meet this growth. That had severe economic consequences for the nobility who responded by trying to turn the screw on their serfs, the unfree labourers tied to their lands and required to do work for their lord in return for being able to work their strips of land. But labour shortages meant serfs could move to pastures new and till the land as free labourers. Peasant rebellions grew across Europe, with a famous one in England in 1381, while nobles rebelled seeking new estates and kings fought each other to increase their realm. Western Europe was in turmoil.
The King of England from 1377 to 1399 was Richard 11 who provoked strong opposition from the powerful House of Lancaster who felt their claim to the throne was greater. When he went on a military expedition to Ireland, the Lancastrian Henry of Bolingbroke invaded England, faced little opposition and eventually captured Richard on his return from Ireland and had him killed.
Yet that was not the end of the matter. Henry 1V faced rival claimants to the throne, his coffers were empty and the wars England had been fighting in France for a century had ended with the loss of land, although the English still held Calais and Bordeaux.
Those wars had provided a way nobles and lesser nobility could gain booty. From the poorer society of Wales, men flocked to join English armies, among them a minor Welsh, and Welsh speaking, noble, Owain Glyndŵr. He served in the garrison at Berwick Upon Tweed and in an expedition which burnt and looted its way to the outskirts of Edinburgh and then in a great English naval victory over the French.
Glyndŵr was not even regarded as a knight, simply an esquire, by the English, but his family held three estates, two in North East Wales and one in the South West, and he was lauded by Welsh poets as being not simply of royal stock but the man with the best claim to be Prince of Wales. That royal line had been destroyed by Edward 1 in three military campaigns.
The stronghold of the last Welsh Princes was in the mountains of Snowdonia and the North West. Edward understood he needed to strangle their resistance by enforcing an economic blockade using his greater military power and technology. Key to that was building a chain of castles, state of the art, dominating the land.
But in a feudal society royal power had its limits and along the English-Welsh border and in the south along the coast of the Bristol Channel security was placed in the hands of great noble families who enforced their own law and order – the Marcher Lords. But by the beginning of the 15tht century, they were unreliable allies for a weak English king, with their own ambitions.
In addition, a series of market towns, burghs, were created from which the Welsh were excluded except to come to buy and sell. The idea was they would control the surrounding rural economy. English settlers and Welsh natives were supposed to live separately and obey different laws – matters were not quite so simple. The towns were sickly children living in fear of the Welsh around them.
The Black Death had hit Wales badly and by 1400 peasant unrest and brigandage were growing. For ambitious men the weakness of the English crown and internal divisions provided opportunities. Owain Glyndŵr was in dispute with his neighbour and overlord, Baron Grey of Ruthin, and when he lost that case responded by declaring himself Prince of Wales and leading his followers on attacks on the English populated towns of North East Wales. He was joined by his cousins Gwilym ap Tudur and Rhys ap Tudur, who rose on Anglesey.
Henry 1V en route back from a campaign in Scotland marched into North Wales but was largely foiled by bad weather and by the rebels refusing to face him in pitched battle. As winter set in, however, it seemed the rebellion was flickering out. But it received new impetus the following Spring, when the Tudur brothers captured Conway Castle, one of Edward 1’s most might fortifications, climbing in and capturing it while the garrison were at Sunday service.
The rebellion began to spread into central Wales. Henry organised another expedition, burning welsh villages, farms and religious houses, But Glyndŵr would not give battle, instead, carrying out hit and run attacks on the King’s supply lines and on his baggage train.
By 1402 the revolt was nationwide. As in any guerilla campaign, all could seem normal then suddenly a rebel force would strike and withdraw. All might seem to return to normal bit nothing did because English power was undermined and peasants began withholding rents and services. Glyndŵr captured his enemy, Baron Grey, and held him hostage for a year until a huge ransom was paid, with the King having to chip in.
Then Glyndŵr did fight a pitch battle at Bryn Glas in Central Wales, defeating an English army under the powerful Marcher Lord, Sir Edmund Mortimer, who was captured. Henry 1V refused to help towards his ransom because he saw him as a rival for the crown. Mortimer joined Glyndŵr, marrying his daughter.
This all strengthened Glyndŵr’s hand, allowing him to intervene in the affairs of England. In North Wales, the English commander was Henry "Hotspur" Percy – the son of the powerful Earl of Northumberland. They too felt they had a claim to the throne and having supported Henry felt little rewarded by him. Hotspur, Mortimer and Glyndŵr entered into an alliance carving up England between them, so Wales would be extended eastwards into Cheshire, Herefordshire and Worcester.
Hotspur did not wait for Welsh support but rose to be defeated at Shrewsbury by the King’s son, Prince Henry, who was badly wounded in the battle.
But this defeat did not daunt Glyndŵr. The capture of Harlech Castle gave him a suitable venue for a royal court and from there he was able to summon a Welsh Parliament.
He was also able to broker a deal with the French King, warfare had broken out with England once more, and he sent an army to help Glyndŵr. In 1404 it seemed he might succeed. With French troops in the field, he seemed unstoppable. But for the French, Wales was the back door in the war with England. The front door, where the main thrust had to be made, was against English territories in France itself. When the French King decided the time was right to broker peace with Henry his troops were withdrawn from Wales.
The end of the war with France allowed Henry to concentrate his forces on crushing the Welsh revolt and the end to the drain on his exchequer of the war across the Channel meant he had more cash to spend.
While Glyndŵr’s forces were able to capture Aberystwyth and Harlech Castles without artillery and siege engines it was difficult to capture defended castles, especially if they could be supplied and reinforced by sea or easily by land. The Welsh rebels also had no navy which allowed English warships control of the Irish Sea and the Bristol Channel. Naval landings enabled Henry’s forces to eventually reconquer Anglesey.
Up to now, Henry had launched large-scale expeditions which were blighted by bad weather and by the withdrawal of Glyndŵr and his followers into the mountains. Now Henry revived Edward 1’s strategy of reinforcing the ring of castles with stronger garrisons, enforcing an economic blockade and carrying out punishment expeditions to burn the homes of rebels and hang those they could catch. The loss of Anglesey meant Glyndŵr lost a key source of grain.
English forces were able to recapture Aberystwyth and Harlech Castles. The last meant much of Glyndŵr’s family were captured, and taken to the Tower of London where they died, and his son in law, Sir Edmund Mortimer was killed by a cannonball.
Glyndŵr was forced back into hit and run attacks but the English forces reduced his operations to the mountainous North West and former rebels surrendered having been promised pardon.
Eventually, in 1414, the guerilla attacks petered out and Glyndŵr slips out of history, but not legend. Nevertheless, his remaining son did not accept an English pardon until 1421.
The crushing of the rising saw more draconian anti-Welsh laws passed trying to maintain separate English and Welsh communities. Wales was seen as being essentially party of England and was not represented on the royal coat of arms, Scotland and Ireland would be as was France!
While Glyndŵr’s folk memory survived in Wales it is a tribute to the fright he gave the English crown that he appeared in English literature – notably in Shakespeare’s Henry 1V. His portrayal is interesting, Glyndŵr is both the wild and tempestuous Welshman, the usual English caricature, but also a man of knowledge and ability. The playwright had to take into account not just English racist attitudes to Wales but also the fact that Elizabeth 1 was a Tudor, a descendant of those Tudur brothers who’d captured Conway Castle.
English or British nationalist historians have often sought solace in arguing claims for Welsh home rule or independence could not be taken seriously because there never was one, united independent country of Wales. This rather overlooks that until recent times there were not nation-states in Europe but kingdoms, where loyalty was to a monarch rather than defined by borders. Until the 19th century, Germany and Italy were geographical expressions, not kingdoms or states. Spain was only unified in 1715 with the conquest of Catalonia and the ending of its self-rule (even then parts of the Basque Country were autonomous).
In Wales, until the 19th century, Welsh identity was maintained through the language, the celebration of heroes, mythical like King Arthur and Merlin or real like Glyndŵr, and a bardic tradition. That changed in the course of the 19th century as Welsh nationalism began to emerge, safe at that time within the confines of the British Empire. Its supreme representative was David Lloyd George, the radical Liberal turned war leader who talked much of Welsh home rule but delivered little or nothing. Nevertheless, it was Lloyd George who unveiled the statute of Glyndŵr in Cardiff City Hall and who recalled his name as he built his career in his native land.
A more radical and hard-line Welsh nationalism would develop in the 20thcentury, in response to the long, slow decline of the UK post-1918, and the catastrophic slump which hit the coal and steel industries in the interwar period. Glyndŵr began to be subject of serious histories, but the relative weakness of Welsh nationalism in contrast to Scots means he was not able to match the profile of Wallace or Robert the Bruce.
Yet he remains someone we can take inspiration from in the resistance he mounted to English rule and the successes he scored. He was, of course, not a socialist or a democrat, who was in the Middle Ages? His vision of Wales was one where native Princes, bishops and aristocrats ruled and the peasantry knew its place. But his rebellion relied on the lower orders and serfdom was on its last legs.
There was something forward thinking in his vision of Wales. He called not one but two Welsh Parliaments and wanted to create two Welsh universities and to have a Welsh Church controlled by Welsh bishops. Until then, with the compliance of the Vatican, English Kings appointed Bishops for Wales, English speaking not Welsh.
But above all, I like Glyndŵr because he was a rebel. And that’s the best thing to be.
Wales was never a single, independent state. Neither was Germany, Spain, Italy or most of today’s European states.
Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.
More articles from this author
- Ernie O'Malley's On Another Man's Wound: books that made me a socialist
- The violence of the Spanish state
- VE Day: a struggle for the future
- Neil Davidson (1957-2020)
- A People Betrayed - book review
- The Fall and Rise of the British Left - book review
- The Irish election: the centre has not held and the left can win