Episode 3: Owain Glyn Dwr And The Battle For Wales
A look at the Battle for Wales in 1403 and the leader of the Welsh rebellion, Owain Glyndwr.
Battlefield Britain - Owain Glyn Dwr And The Battle For Wales
By Corinne Field
24 September 2004
The BBC series Battlefield Britain spans 2000 years and tells the story of eight key battles fought on and over British soil. See the spoils of war and discover the story behind these violent clashes at a museum or historic site with our 24 Hour Museum trails.
The Battle for Wales
According to Rees Davies, Professor of Medieval History at All Souls College, Oxford and author of The Revolt Against Owain Glyn Dwr, the people of Wales believed that one day a man called 'The Deliverer' would come and free them. Many Welshmen during the early 15th century believed that Owain Glyn Dwr was this man.
Owain Glyn Dwr, arguably the most famous figure in Welsh history, dreamt of an independent Wales. His revolt (1400–1409) was the last major rebellion against English rule. Descended from Welsh princes and with military training in English armies, Glyn Dwr was the perfect rebel leader.
"He became a hero almost immediately after his death. He is a hero throughout Wales, not just a localized hero," says Professor Davies. "He has captured the imagination and has established himself as the icon of Welsh nationhood."
By contemporary Welsh standards Glyn Dwr was pretty flush. Prior to the revolt he lived in Sycharth, North East Wales where he had a lavish home, described in a poem by court poet Iolo Goch. If the poem is to be believed it was a moated residence with a chimney and all the latest mod cons. Excavated in the 1960s and again in 2003, today evidence of buildings can be seen on the site.
Another of his residences is believed to have been near Corwen, which boasts a life-sized statue of the rebel leader. Legend has it that it was here in mid-September 1400 that Glyn Dwr raised the Golden Dragon Banner on the summit of Caer Drewyn, the site of an Iron Age hillfort. It was here, it is said, he was proclaimed the true Prince of Wales.
By 1400 England had occupied Wales for over a century. Although they had the same government and parliament the Welsh were second class citizens, treated differently under the law. The Welsh had to pay some taxes that the English didn’t. There were restrictions on landownership meaning they could not own land within 10 miles of a town. And if they wanted weapons they had to swear allegiance to the King.
The Welsh were kept in check by an 'iron ring' of castles built by Edward I in the latter part of the 13th century. Manned by English garrisons, it was their job was to uphold the law and contain the Welsh. To this day there are more castles per square mile in Wales than anywhere else in the world.
Conwy Castle was constructed by Edward I between 1283 and 1289 and was one of the key fortresses in this 'iron ring'. It is a gritty, dark-stoned fortress perched on a rock above Conwy Estuary. Beaumaris Castle on the Island of Anglesey is the great unfinished masterpiece. Designed by the king’s military architect, James of St George, money and supplies ran out before the fortifications reached their full height. Begun in 1295, Beaumaris is regarded by many as the finest of all the great Edwardian castles in Wales although it was also the last.
It was amidst this 'iron ring' that the Welsh rebellion took hold. On St Matthew’s Day, September 25, 1400 Glyn Dwr’s rebels looted and set fire to Ruthin, an English garrison town. What started as a land dispute between Glyn Dwr and Lord Grey of Ruthin escalated into a revolt when Henry IV, the Lancastrian king who had seized the English throne in 1399, a year before the Welsh uprisings, awarded Grey the land.
After Glyn Dwr’s attack only three buildings, including the castle, were left standing. Today a hotel stands on the site of the castle and only its ruins and dungeons remain. As a result Henry IV declared war on the Welsh rebels and led an army into Wales. The King’s army was better equipped but Glyn Dwr’s men knew the territory and staged a series of guerilla attacks, ambushing Henry’s men and eventually forcing the king to retreat to London.
According to Professor Davies this is what characterizes the Battle for Wales. He says, "There were no great set piece battles. It was more a case of guerilla warfare, sieges and counter sieges." He adds, "The royal campaigns were like the Grand Old Duke of York – they marched in and marched out again."
Henry responded to being driven out of Wales by introducing even more draconian legislation. The Welsh were no longer allowed to hold public office, mixed Welsh/English marriage was not tolerated and they were not even allowed to have overnight guests.
The increased oppression fuelled the rebellion
By 1402, after two years of rebellion, Wales was becoming ungovernable so Henry IV sent Edmund Mortimer to put down the revolt. Mortimer met the Welsh at Pilleth, near Whitton in Central Wales.
The Battle of Bryn Glas, which took place in Pilleth on June 22 is the most famous Welsh victory of all the battles of the period. Glyn Dwr’s army totally destroyed the English forces and captured Mortimer. It was a bloody battle that ended, if rumours are to be believed, in Welsh women mutilating the dead English soldiers. According to the Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust’s Sites and Monuments Record the battle is traditionally believed to have taken place on the left bank of the river Lugg near Bleddfa. Four mounds are said to mark burials associated with the battle.
However it is also said it took place at an alternative site in Pilleth. Here six Redwood trees mark the site where the bones of the dead were buried. The trees were planted in the 19th century during drainage of the area, which uncovered a number of bodies thought to be associated with the battle. The bodies were eventually re-interred in the churchyard of St Mary’s, Pilleth where an unmarked gravestone is said to mark the burial site.
Neither the site of the battlefield nor the burial sites have been corroborated. In fact the only thing for certain is that during the period a church stood where St Mary’s stands today. Glyn Dwr is said to have burnt down the original during the battle. Today only the 15th century tower remains and boasts the original medieval bell frame.
Following the Battle of Bryn Glas the King refused to pay the ransom for Mortimer who then decided to throw in his lot with Glyn Dwr and went on to marry the Welsh rebel’s daughter. Mortimer was well connected. His sister was married to Sir Henry Percy of Northumberland (Hotspur), who hated the King. The three men plotted to bring down Henry IV. Hotspur raised an army of some 10,000 English and Welsh men. Their first target was Shrewsbury, the home of the King’s son, the 16-year-old Henry, Prince of Wales.
How the archers of Henry IV's army might have looked. The longbow was the medieval Weapon of Mass Destruction. Courtesy: National Museum and Gallery, Cardiff. On July 21, 1403 a brutal battle took place, which lasted all day - best known by many as the climax of Shakespeare’s play Henry IV part I. It was the first time English bowmen had faced each other and it culminated in Hotspur’s death. Henry IV was victorious.
The National Museum, Cardiff boasts a recreation of an archer, typical of the period and of those that took part in the battle of Shrewsbury. Based on the museum’s collection, which includes a 15th century dagger and buckler (small shield) as well as fragments of shoes from the period, curator of archaeology, Dr Mark Redknapp believes it is a very realistic model.
The museum also boasts Owain Glyn Dwr’s seal and a heraldic mount found at Harlech Castle decorated with the arms of Owain Glyn Dwr as the Prince of Wales. The Royal Armouries, Leeds holds the national collection of arms and armour and they have a small collection dating from the early 15th century on display in their War Gallery. But, according to curator Thom Richardson, very little is of English and Welsh provenance.
Shrewsbury battlefield is signposted off the A49 north of Shrewsbury. The site is open daily and there is an interpretive leaflet available from the Tourist Information Centre based at the Music Hall in the town.
Footpaths lead from the viewing mound to the Church of St Mary Magdalene, the original chapel built on the battlefield in 1406 as a memorial to those fallen in battle. According to Mike Stokes, Shrewsbury Museum’s archaeologist, it is the only surviving example in the country of a memorial chapel on the actual site of the battle it marks. It features an effigy of Henry IV at the east end of the church.
To find out more about the Battle of Shrewsbury visit www.battleofshrewsbury.org, a website set up by the museum service on July 21, 2003 to mark the 600th anniversary of the battle. There is also a small historical display about the battle at Shrewsbury Museum.
Three miles northeast of Shrewsbury is Haughmond Abbey, a ruined 12th century Augustinian Abbey with an exhibition marking 600 years since the Battle of Shrewsbury. On September 4 and 5 there will be living history and craft displays featuring Melford Hys Mummers.
Following the Battle of Shrewsbury Henry IV ordered Sir Henry Percy’s body dismembered and displayed around the country. His head was put on show at Micklegate Bar or Traitors Gate in York, one of the favourite places to display the heads of traitors in the city during medieval times. Micklegate Bar Museum, York has a replica of Percy’s head on show.
Despite defeat at Shrewsbury, a battle at which it is believed Glyn Dwr did not turn up to fight, the Welsh leader was not deterred. With his 8,000-strong army he stormed through Wales, taking towns and castles along the way. During 1404 a number of castles fell to the Welsh including Aberystwyth, once ranked among the finest castles in Wales. Today Aberystwyth is little more than a ruin but worth a visit because of its spectacular location only yards from the sea.
Cardiff Castle also fell. Virtually rebuilt in the 19th century, only the keep dates back to the days of Owain Glyn Dwr. However it was nearby Harlech Castle that the rebel leader made his home and headquarters and on August 21 and 22 it will play host to a living history display by re-enactors. In May 1404 Glyn Dwr summoned a parliament at Machynlleth where he was crowned Prince of Wales and where he is supposed to have formalised his alliance with King Charles VI of France. Two years later in 1406, Glyn Dwr sent a letter, written in Latin, to Charles VI asking for his military assistance against King Henry IV of England. The original letter is part of the Archives Nationales in Paris and was lent to the National Library of Wales in 2000 where it became the star attraction at its exhibition about Owain Glyn Dwr.
A scaled-down version of the exhibition is now on show at Machynlleth’s Parliament House, which includes a copy of the letter and illustrations by Margaret Jones, commissioned for the 2000 exhibition. In just five years Glyn Dwr had gone from rebel leader to head of an independent Wales. He was recognized by Scotland, Ireland and France but of course - not by England’s king.
So in 1405, with the help of France, Glyn Dwr invaded England. He met the English forces two miles north of Worcester. The two armies faced each other on opposing hills, the English on Abberley Hill and the combined Welsh/French forces on Woodbury Hill.
The armies never engaged in battle and with their supply routes blocked, the Welsh began to starve. Henry stood down his army and the Welsh headed home. The Welsh revolt raged for four more years until the rebel's money and foreign backing began to dry up and the rebellion was finally suppressed. It had lasted nearly 10 years and had brought England almost to its knees.
In 1409 Harlech castle fell to the English and Glyn Dwr's wife, daughters and granddaughters were captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Glyn Dwr himself evaded capture, disappearing into the mists of history and Welsh legend.
With thanks to Sian Ifan, Chief Executive of Embassy Glyndwr, which has been established to promote knowledge of Owain Glyn Dwr, his life and times, and of the Great War of Welsh Independence 1400 - 1416.