The history of Wales predates Roman settlements to a Celtic people who called themselves the Cymry. It was a society as much rooted in warfare as it was in bardic tradition. Although the Welsh as a society were autonomous from England for many centuries, the proximity of the two countries and the ancient Welsh customs of fostering out sons and dividing inheritances among male heirs destabilized the region by perpetuating territorial feuds. English kings used this lack of unity to their utmost advantage. When Edward I came to the throne of England in 1272, he made absolutely certain that his power base in Wales was secure by employing the genius of the master architect from Savoy, James of St. George, who designed and oversaw the building of several castles, including: Aberystwyth, Rhuddlan, Flint, Conwy, Harlech, Caernarfon and Beaumaris. Edward’s scheme worked splendidly, as it not only imposed peace upon Wales, but it also introduced a level of newfound prosperity for the Welsh towns that grew up around these castles. For over a century, Wales remained obeisant.
Owain Glyndwr the Country Squire
Born in 1359 to Gruffydd Fychan and Helen Goch (the great-great-granddaughter of Llewelyn the Last), Owain Glyndwr could claim descent from both the princes of Powys and Gwynedd. At the age of thirteen, Owain became a ward of the Earl of Arundel and soon after began his military training. The earl also recognized Owain’s gift for learning and later Owain was sent to study law in London at the Inns of Court. He also possessed a gift for languages, speaking Welsh, English, French and Latin. In 1380, he married Margaret Hanmer, the daughter of Sir David Hanmer, a justice of the King’s Bench. They had eleven children and divided their time between their homes of Sycharth and Glyndyfrdwy in northeast Wales.
Not only was Owain a scholar of law and languages, but a promising soldier, as well. In 1385 during a military campaign in Scotland, King Richard II of England, the great-great-grandson of Edward I, was impressed by the bravery of his Welsh retainer, Owain Glyndwr (or Owen Glendower, as the English would refer to him). Owain also served Richard in France as his shield-bearer and it appears there may well have been a certain affinity between the two men.
The Downfall of Richard II
In the spring of 1399 while in Ireland, King Richard II of England learned that his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, the Earl of Derby, whom he had disinherited and exiled in retaliation for quarrels long past, had landed in England to reclaim his inheritance. Dissent against Richard was already high among his barons. Aware that his reign was in peril, he sought refuge in Wales, where he believed support for him to be strongest. Alas, the tide had already turned in Henry’s favor. Richard was ambushed while riding from Conwy Castle and taken prisoner by Henry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland. Forced to abdicate, he was imprisoned in the north of England at Pontefract Castle. Very swiftly, Henry was crowned King Henry IV of England. By January the following year, Richard had died a mysterious, but convenient death.
Up until that time, Owain Glyndwrhad little to complain about regarding his treatment from the English. His existence throughout his forty years had been one of comfort and privilege. But a few small events were to markedly change not only his life, but the annals of Welsh history as well. Lord Reginald de Grey of Ruthin, Owain’s neighbor, seized a piece of land called Croesau that had been in Owain’s family for generations. Despite Owain’s appeals to the English parliament, his eloquent pleas fell on deaf ears. Henry, being viewed as a usurper by the Welsh, was direly in need of Grey’s support in the region, and thus he did nothing to intervene in the affair. To add further insult, Lord Grey delayed delivering a summons to Owain to attend King Henry on campaign in Scotland. Owain had no time to prepare. When Grey arrived in Scotland, his version of the story was that Owain had outright refused to come. King Henry summarily declared the Welshman a traitor. Grey was sent to deal with him. A meeting to resolve the matter was arranged by Lord Grey under supposedly amicable pretenses, but his bard, Iolo Goch, alerted him that an armed detachment of Grey’s men was fast approaching to ambush them. Owain and his men narrowly escaped.
This incident, however minor it may have seemed at the time, was the impetus to Owain’s rebellion and the beginning of the Welsh War of Independence which was to last for over a decade. Read about this Owain and this war in Uneasy Lies the Crown.
N. Gemini Sasson, December 10, 2012