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Glendower or Glyndwr? Shakespeare and the last Welsh Prince of Wales

sycarth copy

Borders separate them from us. They are frequently places of blood. Ancient animosities linger. Offa’s Dyke runs through Bronygarth, dividing England from Wales and Edward I’s Marcher fortress at Chirk dominates our part of the valley, symbol of English overlordship. In a field below our house, Henry II’s army was defeated by a small Welsh force that appeared out of the mist, fought with frenzy and then disappeared into the hills. A dip in the road up to where the castle now stands was piled with corpses and a nearby tree is still known as the Oak at the Gates of the Dead.

When a plaque commemorating the encounter was unveiled a few years ago, civic dignitaries, flag wavers, a band, people dressed in period costume and a crowd of others turned up to celebrate victory over the English – even though Henry was French and his army composed of mercenaries from all over Europe. The Battle of Crogen was fought in 1165, Roger Mortimer began building the castle in 1295 while the Welsh were still resisting the English one hundred years later, this time led by Owain Glyndwr – his stronghold at  Sycharth Castle about ten miles away.

Glyndwr was one of the principal rebel leaders opposing Henry IV and it was partly his failure to appear at the Battle of Shrewsbury that led to Hotspur’s defeat. He features briefly in Henry IV Part 1, though with his name anglicized to Owen Glendower, the way Llywellyn’s is to Fluellen in Henry V.

As the last native born Welshman to assume the title Prince of Wales, it is also questionable whether he would have seen himself as a rebel. A descendant of the Princes of Powys, it is more likely he would have considered himself, in modern terms at least, a freedom fighter or liberator. Yet his depiction in 1. Henry IV itself reflects an English stereotype of the Welsh and in the opening scene he’s described by Westmoreland as ‘irregular and wild Glendower’. He goes on to say that after Sir Edmund Mortimer’s capture at the Battle of Bryn Glas by Glyndwr’s ‘rude hands’, the dead were subject to ‘beastly shameless transformation’ by ‘those Welshwomen… as may not be/Without much shame retold or spoken of.’

To be Welsh, in other words, was to be uncivilized – ‘irregular’, ‘wild’, ‘rude’, ‘beastly’ and ‘shameless’. Colonizers necessarily disparage the peoples they colonize. It is, after all, easier to justify butchering someone you consider savage, having stolen their land, than to recognize they were doing perfectly well without your interference.

Glyndwr himself was part of the Anglo-Welsh Marcher establishment, his family seat at Sycharth a motte and bailey castle built by the Normans. Born around 1350, it is likely that he studied law for several years in London before entering military service under Richard II in 1384. During this period he fought with John of Gaunt in Scotland in 1386 and was present at the destruction of the Franco-Spanish-Flemish fleet in 1387.

Although not named as such, it’s likely he appears as the ‘Welsh captain’ in Richard II. In a short speech he explains the withdrawal of Welsh forces saying,

‘Meteors fright the fixed stars of heaven;
The pale-faced moon looks bloody on the earth
And lean-look’d prophets whisper fearful change…
These signs forerun the death or fall of kings.’

This association of the Welsh with mystical prognostications is equally characteristic of Glendower’s portrayal in 1.Henry IV –described by Henry as that ‘great magician’ and as a man who claims that at his birth, ‘the front of heaven was full of fiery shapes/Of burning cressets’ and that ‘the frame and huge foundation of the earth/Shaked like a coward.’

Hotspur is unimpressed by this information, arguing the tremor had nothing to do with him having been born and would have shaken had ‘your mother’s cat but kittened’. And to Glendower’s assertion that ‘I can call spirits from the vasty deep’ he responds, ‘So can any man/But will they come when you do call for them?’

Although in alliance against Henry, Hotspur is the voice of England disdaining Wales. When Glendower says he was ‘trained up in the English court’ and ‘framed to the harp/Many an English ditty lovely well’ Hotspur responds that nothing sets his teeth on edge so much as ‘mincing poetry’.

Having dismissed Glendower’s musical and literary accomplishments as well as his Celtic mysticism and earth magic, he later attacks him as a windbag, complaining to Mortimer that he can’t stand being told ‘of the mouldwarp and the ant/Of the dreamer Merlin and his prophecies… And such a deal of skimble-skamble stuff/As puts me from my faith.’

Getting worked up, he complains he had to listen for ‘at least nine hours’ to Glendower’s nonsense and continues,

‘He is as tedious
As a tired horse, a railing wife… I had rather live
With cheese and garlic in a windmill, far,
Than feed on cates and have him talk to me
In any summer-house in Christendom.’

He’s equally harsh when Glendower’s daughter sings in Welsh, saying he would prefer to listen to his ‘brach (dog) howl in Irish’ – thus managing to insult two Celtic minorities for the price of one.

Glendower is defended by his son-in-law, Sir Edmund Mortimer, who protests that he is a ‘worthy gentleman’, ‘exceedingly well read’, ‘valiant as a lion’, ‘wondrous affable’ and ‘bountiful.’ Having been taken prisoner by Glyndwr at Bryn Glas, Sir Edmund switched sides as Henry had refused to pay his ransom on the understandable grounds that Sir E’s nephew, also Edmund Mortimer, had a better claim to the English throne than he did and wanted the Mortimers out of the way. A relation of Roger Mortimer who built Chirk Castle, the younger Edmund’s title to kingship was through his grandfather Edward III and his father, another Roger Mortimer, had been Richard II’s heir. On Roger’s death in Ireland, that title fell to Edmund and after his capture the older Edmund declared his young kinsman the rightful king. All clear?

Having formed an alliance with Glyndwr, Edmund married his daughter, Catrin (she of the singing voice) so it’s not surprising he should have a defended his father-in-law. He was justified, for Owain Glyndwr was a far more impressive character than the buffoonish Owen Glendower.

After a series of provocations, Owain had led a small band against Henry IV’s authority in 1400. The king sent Hotspur to suppress the uprising, but support for Glyndwr grew, especially after 1402 when the English Parliament passed penal laws against Wales designed to enforce English power.

By 1403 men had joined him from all over Wales and with this strength he joined with Edmund Mortimer and Hotspur, now also in rebellion against Henry. Together they agreed a tripartite division of England and Wales and arranged to gather their forces at Shrewsbury – as depicted in Act 3 Scene 1. As events transpired, however, Glyndwr was on campaign in West Wales when Hotspur fought Henry in July and his absence may well have ensured the king’s victory.

Despite that defeat, he remained strong and in 1404 Glyndwr established a Welsh parliament in Machynlleth where he was crowned Prince of Wales and proclaimed Wales an independent state with a separate church and two national universities – one each in the north and south. He also signed a treaty with France and an informal alliance with Scotland – and French and Scottish shipping proved a key part of his continuing resistance. English presence in Wales was reduced to a few castles only.

Things began to change in 1406 when France withdrew its fleet. Prince Hal was then able to begin a new strategy of economic blockade and slowly cut Welsh trade and supplies of arms. Even though Owain’s forces pushed as far into England as Birmingham in 1407, he increasingly had to withdraw. Aberystwyth Castle was lost that year and Harlech two years later.  1409 saw the death in battle of Edmund Mortimer and the capture of Owain’s wife, two of his daughters and three grandchildren, all of whom were to die in the Tower of London.

Glyndwr himself was never taken prisoner. He fought a last successful battle against the English at Brecon in 1412, but after that wasn’t again seen alive by his enemies. He was never betrayed by his countrymen, despite rewards offered for his head and he ignored all offers of pardon. It seems likeliest that he retired to live with one of his daughters in Herefordshire but the precise date of his death, believed to be in 1414, is unknown.

All that remains of Sycharth Castle is a grassy mound. The place had been destroyed by the English Prince of Wales in May 1403. Writing to his father about the event, Hal informed the king, ‘we took our people and went to a place of the said Oweyn, well built, which was his principal mansion called Saghern, where we supposed that we should have found him… but upon our arrival we found no one; hence we caused the whole place and many of his other houses of his tenants in the neighbourhood to be burnt.’

In 2012, the Bronygarth Social Committee organized an oral history project, After Offa, which created a picture of life along Offa’s Dyke between Chirk and Scycharth castles. One man, born in 1932, told how at his father’s school any child speaking Welsh was forced to where a board tied round his neck. If a second child was heard using the language the board was passed to him and so on –
and at the end of the day whoever was wearing it was caned.

Another person, born in 1928, told of her sadness that pupils hadn’t been taught any Welsh history, even though Sycharth was less than a mile from her school. She supposed it was because the teachers were English. Given everything that has occurred, it is perhaps not surprising that resentments persist. Perhaps we should be grateful so much has been forgiven.

Many thanks to Bob Guy for permission to use his engraving of Sycharth as an illustration. To see more of Bob’s work, visit: www.bobguy-printmaker.co.uk

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