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  • Writer's pictureGraham Watkins

Owain Glyndwr

These signs have mark’d me extraordinary; And all the courses of my life do show I am not in the roll of common men.

King Henry IV - William Shakespeare

The start of the 15th Century saw an uprising against the English that resulted in the first and only Welsh-speaking parliament. The leader of the rebellion, Owain Glyndwr, was descended from the Princes of Powys and Cyfeiliog in the north and, on his mother’s side, the kingdom of Deheubarth in the south. His royal lineage gave him a strong claim to the Welsh throne.

Glyndwr was educated in England, trained as a soldier, serving with distinction for the English King before returning to Wales wealthy and ready to marry. The Wales he came back to was in turmoil. The murder of Llywelyn the Last at Cilmeri and the harsh treatment of the Welsh by Edward I had left the people smouldering with resentment. The Welsh people were cowed and there was no justice in the law. They wanted a leader - and charismatic Glyndwr was the man of the hour. He found himself drawn into a quarrel with Reginald de Grey, Lord of Ruthin who had stolen some land. De Grey was close to the King and their private argument quickly developed into feudal warfare.

Glyndwr gathered loyal supporters around him and established an army at Ruthin. He raised his battle flag on the 16th September 1400 and started to drive out the English. Glyndwr was 51 years old. Ruthin fell and Glyndwr followed up with attacks throughout North Wales. He claimed the title Prince of Wales and Welshmen throughout the British Isles threw down their tools and hurried back to Wales to join him. Welsh archers deserted the English to join Glyndwr. University students abandoned their studies at Oxford and returned to Wales eager to fight. The English response was brutal and effective. They levied a large army and marched across North Wales sacking and burning everything. The Welsh language was suppressed and penal laws were introduced to break the rebellion, the effect of which was to drive more Welshmen to take up arms. Glyndwr and his men hid in the mountains for the winter emerging the following year with a renewed campaign. They seized castles including Harlech, Conwy and Aberystwyth. By 1403 the rebels operated freely throughout Wales. A Parliament was established at Machynlleth and Glyndwr was crowned King of Wales. Treaties were made with France and Spain whose ambassadors attended the court. Glyndwr made a triple alliance with Edmund Mortimer, The Earl of March and Thomas Percy, The Earl of Northumberland. Plans were made to invade England and divide the country between them. French troops arrived to help the revolution and Scottish privateers raided English towns on the Llyn Peninsula. French ships landed Welsh troops in Devon and attacked Dartmouth. Glyndwr petitioned Pope Benedict XIII for support.

The English quickly reacted. The English army was the largest, and most effective in Europe, as the French discovered later at Agincourt. Henry IV sent army after army into Wales, killing everyone as they went. Castles were lost and retaken many times but slowly the strength of the English forces wore down the Welsh. In 1408, eight years after he had raised his standard, Glyndwr suffered a major defeat when the castles at Aberystwyth and Harlech were lost. Personal tragedy followed when Henry’s forces captured Glyndwr’s family. His wife, Margaret, two daughters and three granddaughters were imprisoned in the Tower of London. They were all dead within seven years.

The English changed their strategy by blockading Wales. They cut off trade routes and arms supplies to squeeze the rebels and many Welshmen started to ask for terms of surrender. The revolt struggled on but the crushing superiority of the English was taking a dreadful toll and only a few rebels remained, conducting a guerrilla campaign. Glyndwr became an outlaw. The English army seized prominent landowners and executed them, attempting to discover where Glyndwr was hiding. After more than twelve years of warfare the revolt finally petered out when pardons were offered to the last rebels. The Welsh had had enough. Having won, the English built a ring of castles across Wales to tighten their grip. Henry V replaced his father as King in 1413 and softened the English position on Wales helping the last of the rebellion to peter out. In 1485 English laws and customs were adopted across Wales when Henry VII was crowned King of England. He was a Welshman.

Glyndwr never surrendered to the English and was never pardoned. Instead, in September 1415, he quietly disappeared into obscurity, protected by the silence of the Welsh people. One of Glyndwr’s daughters, Alys had married and lived in Kentchurch and there have been claims that he spent the rest of his life living with her family in Herfordshire, passing himself off as an elderly Franciscan Friar employed as the family tutor. The family kept his secret for nearly 600 years. A more fanciful claim is that he became ‘Jack of Kent' a folk hero living in that part of the world.

In 1808 the Royal Navy launched the frigate HMS. Owen Glendower. She served on the West Coast of Africa, capturing slave ships and helping to end that evil trade, a fitting tribute to an extraordinary man. Today, Owain Glyndwr remains a potent symbol of Welsh independence and patriotism, invoked whenever Wales needs to remember a hero.

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