Wales was never a sovereign nation but rather a series of fiercely independent principalities that only paid homage to their more powerful English neighbour reluctantly, if at all. In 1283, Edward I used Welsh recalcitrance as an excuse to invade and despite stiff resistance it was to prove an uneven contest. In short order the Welsh were forced to yield and as they were soon to discover this was no war of plunder but one of colonisation. Edward was determined to create an English Plantagenet Empire in the British Isles and the Welsh were to be his victims as he set about destroying their culture, suppressing their language, and surrounding their land with a series of Castles that would serve as a permanent reminder as to who was now their Lord and Master. Should they be in any doubt that they were now a ruled people the Prince of Wales would in future be the eldest son of the King of England.
But Welsh independence lived on if only kept alive in song and verse, the oral history of the Balladeers, and the dreams of the imagination. One man however, would seek to make those dreams a reality, Owain Glyndwr, who would declare himself Prince of Wales, take up arms and lead the last great rebellion against English rule.
Yet it does not appear that he was a natural rebel, he had been educated in England and had studied to be a lawyer at the Inns of Court in Westminster. He was an attendant to the Duke of Arundel, was a regular presence at the Royal Court, and had fought loyally for the English King in his campaign against the Scots. Neither was he a particularly ambitious man and for ten years he quietly ran his estates in Wales avoiding politics and affairs of state. So there was little indication in his early life that he was to become the fulcrum of the greatest ever campaign for Welsh independence.
On 29 September 1499, King Richard II was deposed by Henry Bolingbroke and forced to abdicate. Glyndwr, who was seen as Richard’s man, was not entirely trusted by Bolingbroke especially as Wales was the one part of the country where the deposed King still remained popular.
But the soon to be crowned Henry IV with his reign yet to be validated and believing that discretion was the better part of valour did not move against Wales. Instead, the rebellion was sparked by a festering personal feud between Glyndwr and his English neighbours the Grey’s of Ruthin.
Owain Glyndwr was a Lord of the Glyndyrdwy land which bordered that of Sir Reginald Grey and in 1400 he had brought a case in the English Parliament against Grey for the seizure of some of this land. Grey, who had the ear of the King, told him that Glyndwr had ignored his royal command to provide troops for a military campaign in Scotland, when in fact it had been he who had failed to inform Glyndwr of the command. Henry, already suspicious of Glyndwr because of his previous loyal service to King Richard, was inclined to believe Grey and as a result ruled against him.
Glyndwr now feeling threatened by his enemies at the Royal Court absented himself and when a little later he was ordered by the King to attend believing he was about to be charged with treason refused to do so returning instead to Wales.
Many in Wales were uncomfortable with the new dynastic arrangement and unrest was spreading when a loyal official of the recently deposed Richard II was executed in the border town of Chester and what had begun as a protest soon became a riot, and then a rebellion against English rule but one without a leader.
On 16 September 1400, a delegation approached Glyndwr and begged him to take charge of events and he was in many respects the obvious man to do so as a leading Welsh noble and experienced military commander charismatic and personally popular. He was also no friend of this particular English King. Already estranged from the Royal Court in London he readily agreed to do so, and a little later in an act of open rebellion he was crowned Prince of Wales.
The always elusive Glyndwr was to lead a dazzling military campaign as one by one the great fortresses of Wales built by Edward I to buttress English dominance in Wales fell culminating in the capture of the supposedly impregnable Castle of Harlech. By the spring of 1401, he had overrun north Wales and captured the towns of Flint, Ruthin, Oswestry, and Welshpool.
In June, he defeated an English army at the Battle of Mynydd Hyddgen and by the winter he had captured his old enemy Lord Grey and the English Commander in Wales, Lord Mortimer. Glyndwr, who was by no means a cruel man and certainly not by the standards of his day, treated Grey well and was to later ransom him; Lord Mortimer whom he had invited to live in his household he later married off to his daughter.
Having conquered north Wales, Glyndwr now turned his attention south where allied with the powerful Twdr family who would later become the Tudors and the ruling dynasty of England he raided at will. It appeared that the English had no answer to him so much so that when in 1402 Parliament passed a series of penal anti-Welsh Laws, including a particularly harsh Poor Law, in an attempt to suppress the rebellion they had no power with which to impose the restrictions and they proved ineffective.
In truth the English presence in Wales had been reduced to a few small garrisons hiding in fortified buildings too terrified to show themselves and the anti-Welsh Laws only served to infuriate the natives even further as Welsh students left English Universities to return home, and Welsh workers downed tools to join the rebellion.
As the rebellion grew so did Glyndwr’s ambitions and he was by now intriguing with Sir Henry Percy (Shakespeare’s Hotspur) and the Duke of Northumberland to depose Henry IV, or at least create a unified separate Kingdom of Wales and northern England but his plans suffered a setback when on 21 September 1403, Percy was killed at the Battle of Shrewsbury.
Also at Shrewsbury that day was the sixteen year old Prince Henry, the future Henry V and victor of Agincourt, who was almost killed when an arrow struck him in the face disfiguring him for life which is why all portraits of the future King would show him only in profile.
As his ageing father sickened the young Henry would effectively take control of the English army opposing Glyndwr and he would prove a formidable opponent.
Despite the defeat of his allies at Shrewsbury, Glyndwr remained undeterred and was negotiating with the Irish and the French for support. The Irish negotiations came to nothing but his emissaries in France were more successful and in 1405 a treaty was signed in what became known as – The Year of the French.
A little later a French Army landed at Milford Haven whilst at the same time raiding parties attacked and pillaged Dartmouth, Plymouth, and the Isle of Wight.
With his new ally on side and confident in ultimate victory, Glyndwr now went some way to forming a Welsh Government. He established an independent Welsh Church and now formally declared for an independent Welsh State and to force the issue he would take the war into England itself but as preparations were being made for the invasion in the spring of 1405, a Welsh army went down to a catastrophic defeat at the Battle of Pwll Melyn in which Glyndwr’s son Gruffud was killed. This followed hard on the heels of an earlier defeat at nearby Grosmont.
Nevertheless, the invasion would go ahead.
In June 1405, the Welsh and English armies faced each other at Woodbury Hill in Worcestershire where for eight days they glared and hurled abuse at each other but refused to fight. Earlier defeats had slowed the momentum of Glyndwr’s rebellion and he was reluctant to risk another one. The English, cowed by his reputation as a battlefield commander, also remained circumspect and reluctant to engage.
There was a strong peace party at the French Court in Paris who had little enthusiasm for renewed hostilities with England and witnessing the events at Woodbury Hill they now began to doubt Glyndwr’s commitment and believing that the tide had turned in favour of the English made it clear that they would stand aside in any renewal of hostilities. By 1406, they had gone, and it would be French internal politics that would go a long way to determining Welsh history.
Glyndwr, aware that without the support of powerful allies his campaign for Welsh independence could not be fought on English soil decided to retreat with his army back to Wales.
Meanwhile, Prince Henry had adopted a new strategy to bring the Welsh rebels to heel. He would no longer seek a single decisive battlefield victory but would use greater English manpower and resources to squeeze the life from the rebellion. Welsh ports were blockaded, an economic embargo introduced, and in the spring of 1406 an English army landed at Anglesey.
Glyndwr would launch a series of punitive raids deep into the heart of England in an attempt to relieve the pressure on his forces in Wales but each time he did so he left himself more vulnerable at home.
His frequent absence was deeply felt and without his presence the rebellion lost traction and began to subside as one by one those Castles that had been taken from the English earlier in the campaign were recaptured.
Glyndwr was to continue his rebellion for another four years and though he was no longer able to put substantial forces into the field he was to prove himself just as adept as a guerrilla fighter. Even so, the much-cherished dream of an independent Wales free of English influence and dominance was fading.
In 1410, he made one last effort to revive the spirit of earlier years by invading Shropshire but he was unable to sustain the campaign.
Two years later he ambushed and defeated an English army at Brecon but it was to prove a final victory, a heroic farewell.
By the following year Prince Henry had succeeded his father as King becoming Henry V and he now adopted a policy of inducement buying off those Welsh nobles who had previously supported Glyndwr – the rebellion was as good as over.
Following his victory at Brecon Owain Glyndwr disappeared and what became of him remains a mystery; had he been killed it would most certainly have been made public, had he been captured the English no doubt would wanted to have made an example of him as they previously had William Wallace. Did he flee abroad? Did he become a monk and live quietly in cloisters? Did he dwell in secret with relatives? Or did he, as some have suggested, reinvent himself as the Welsh poet and balladeer Sion Cent, or Jack Kent? No one knows for sure.
The English, who certainly wanted him dead, circulated the rumour that he had died in Herefordshire in 1417 but that his burial had been secret.
What we do know of Owain Glyndwr is that that with his demise so ended also the dream of a free and independent Wales.