The Choices of Llanrwst: The Town Which Opted Out of a War and Into a Cave

by JoHarrington

What if you laid on a war and nobody came to fight? The people of Llanrwst declined all kind invitations to become cannon fodder during the Glyndŵr Rising.

When all of the world seems to be pressurizing you to choose between two unwelcome outcomes, it takes great intelligence to think outside the box.

Most take as their only options those presented as such by authority figures and other powerful people. Mostly there are no choices apparent in the process, particularly when a nation is at war.

You do as your government directs, even if that way seems deadly, demanding sacrifice as standard. All history, tradition and peer pressure colludes against your right to survive. Media, clerics and other sources of information encourage your assent; justifications shifting according to epoch and location.

It requires tremendous wit to see past such an onslaught and discern further choices beyond the given. Then great courage and self-possession to follow through, selecting one of them instead.

That's true today. For peasants in the Middle Ages, the psychological shift seemed to rail against all reality; endangering immortal souls through lack of obedience to their ruler's will, when social class was viewed as divinely ordained.

Yet, a whole town once did just that - thwarting the will of not one, but two monarchs, and an heir apparent too. These erstwhile serfs were supposed to stand and die as cannon fodder in somebody else's war. Selecting only which side for which they might declare.

The beleaguered population of Llanrwst chose self-preservation instead. Then engineered acceptance for their decision so brilliantly, that even said royals were forced to comply.

Llanrwst in a Time of War and Plague

There is nothing special about Llanrwst. It's an ordinary town, full of regular people, nestled between two mountains in Wales. Which is why it's so special.

War is rarely the story of ordinary people kicking off. We hear battlefield tales from the point of view of leaders and generals, like they were the only ones there.

Their armies are reduced to statistics. The (usually) men comprising them become important only in the number who become casualties.

Wherever those armies went, there was pressure on the landowners to take one side or another. But not the population. Usually.

This is particularly true of the Middle Ages, when there were no standing armies. Just militia made up of people compelled to leave the fields to fight for their Lord and Master. Which leads us beautifully to what happened in Llanrwst - an anomaly not only in the Glyndŵr Rising, but perhaps all war everywhere.

Llanrwst was (and is) an important town in North Wales, sitting strategically in the long valley between Conwy and Betws-y-Coed. The town held a market charter, which meant that the economy of an entire region rested on all that was bought and sold there.

Fifty years before the Rising, Black Death swept across the world. An estimated two thirds of the population of Europe died of plague during those dark days.

In 1350, it reached Llanrwst. There were no survivors.

But dead people leave wills, especially those running successful businesses in a market town. Llanrwst's plague pits might have been filled, and nature reclaiming its once vibrant center, yet out in the world were those with documentation to say that they now owned property there.

Sons and daughters, distant relatives and other survivors, who had left Llanrwst before the devastation, began to return in the aftermath of the Black Death. It wasn't instant. Nothing messes with the administration of a nation like most of its population succumbing to plague, and much of the rest not being where they should be.

Flee or die had been a strong mantra.

Sooner or later though, even the displaced have to attempt to rebuild their lives. They send word home. They learn what happened and make inquiries about their inheritance. Crown officials track them down. The descendents of Llanrwst's destroyed denizens came back to raise their town from the ruins, make their fortunes and - almost incidentally - rebuild the shattered economy of Denbighshire and Conwy.

Llanrwst's Location Marked on a Map

You may visit the town, still there and thriving in the Conwy Valley of North Wales.

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Rebuilding Llanrwst in the Black Death's Aftermath

The potential for fortune and prosperity was here, but only if the town could rise like a phoenix from ashes wrought by plague.

It was hard work. The entire town's buildings had been abandoned for years, sometimes decades. Such neglect will always be exploited by the natural world, undermining walls, roofs and foundations, plus these places had been the site of so much death.

It was usually easier to pull down each edifice and start again. Llanrwst became one big construction site, with materials needing to be sourced, people requiring sustenance while they built.

Psychologically too, these were people seeing their own history destroyed. Their childhood homes in ruins. Their future residing in some intangible legacy and dreams.

How often did they return to find family members still in situ?  Skeletal remains, dangerous artifacts of plague surrounding, all needing to be deposed before anything could spring up anew. Their parents' possessions consigned to fire with all the emotional turmoil that sparked, coupled with a determination to continue.

Then there were business matters. Suppliers sought out, so many gone to the same terrible epidemic. Customers alerted that it was safe to emerge from the mountains. People needing confidence to forsake their rural isolation in order to return to market, entering again a bustling epicenter whose very vibrancy had allowed plague to pass and flourish.

It must have felt cursed. Yet the Llanrwst people slowly built their town into a blessing. They still had the charter. That document alone spelled economic survival for this region.

Vintage Poster Print of Llanrwst, North Wales

Medieval Market Forces at Llanrwst

It's all well and good building, but will they come? Those putting their heart and soul into Llanrwst's market charter could only hope.

The people came, but it was a pittance that they spent here. Nevertheless, it was a start.

Bit by bit, the market gradually mushroomed into once again becoming the economic mainstay of the region.

Courage enticed more customers; suppliers began to bring their wares; sheer determination and pure hard work created a viable trading center of Llanrwst once more.

Yet those fragile foundations couldn't hold without bigger contracts; networks of supply and demand stretching ever further afield; stability in the market.

There was so little wealth in Wales back then. The campaigns of Edward I and his heirs, over the past century, had seen to that.  What riches remained post-conquest resided in the garrisons of their conquerors. It was to them that the merchants of Llanrwst now looked.

Each merchant alone couldn't hope to secure business amongst the English communities - so many here as plantation settlers, in walled cities presided over by a daisy chain of intimidating Norman castles, all along the North Welsh coast - but a federation of Llanrwst retailers might just pull it off.

The Llanrwst merchants worked together. A consortium of them bravely approached the garrisons, making their proposals, negotiating terms.

Back home, the rest of the town knew this was make or break time. Decades had now passed. There was no returning to the lives they'd given up in the wake of plague.  The older people were about to learn if their hard work and sacrifice had been worth it; if they could now justify fulfilling the tenets of their own parents' wills, or if they'd condemned their off-spring to poverty and a lost cause.

Hope held the market square, all eyes upon the road to Llanrwst from the garrison at Conwy.

Prayers, whispered from tense lips in snatched moments, must have gathered pace in desperation, as their representatives were spotted on the pass.

All of Llanrwst gathered to watch. Their select group of merchants, drew closer - clutches of documentation waved aloft in response.

They'd done it!  Contracts to supply the English garrisoned at Conwy had been secured. Llanrwst could thrive.

Decades of hope, faith and work rendered worth it. Relief, as a palpable thing, flooded so many emotions, chasing tension from the town.

Not everyone had a contract, but that didn't matter. So used now to working together - solidarity in feeding newcomers, raising homes and stores, building businesses and passing on custom being the only way for Llanrwst to have returned from the ruins - it was understood from the onset that those traders with contracts would assist those without.

This was just the beginning; a springboard from which other lucrative business opportunities would arise. It would be no good if some traders closed their shops and left now, just because they weren't favored in the first round of negotiation. Not if the market town needed to retain that veneer of vibrancy, which injected confidence for their customers.

There would be more opportunities. For now, the celebrations could be felt across the town. The whole of Llanrwst would benefit. Finally it was going to be alright.

But they'd been looking in the wrong direction. Waiting for messages upon the wrong road. Facing north, instead of turning south to see what was occurring just the other side of the mountain.

Books about Owain Glyndŵr: Histories and Novels

The Glyndŵr Rising was a fascinating moment in Welsh history, even if Llanrwst could well have done without such fascination.

Llanrwst at the Start of the Glyndŵr Rising

Y Mab Darogan - the Foretold Son - he might have been, but for one small Welsh town the advent of Owain Glyndŵr spelled disaster.

This was September 1400. 

While the ink dried on Llanrwst's English garrison contracts, twenty miles away - as the bird flies - the Glyndŵr Rising was kicking off in Corwen.

As the uprising's first target, English Lord Grey's stronghold of Ruthin fell in flames. A rival market town to Llanrwst, it was situated in the very next valley.

Glyndŵr's forces swept across north and east Wales, attacking any settlement wherein the Welsh facilitated their conqueror's presence in the country.

A month previously, Llanrwst wouldn't have made the list. News about its business deals with the English reached Owain Glyndŵr after his rebellion had already begun.

It ensured that his sights were set firmly upon Llanrwst now.

His ever growing makeshift army circled back around, hurtling up the road from Betws-y-Coed and into the market town. He was ruthless in his precision. Any merchant with an English contract saw stock and property reduced to ashes. Left standing between each inferno were those who'd thought themselves so unlucky just weeks before.

Glyndŵr's message was clear. Support the English - sustain them in their Occupation - and be utterly ruined. Then he and his rebel army left.

Every market town in Wales would have a decision to make - Glyndŵr or the English.

Located in the Glyndŵr Rising's heartland, the timing was all out for Llanrwst's recovery. Its choices had to be made during the rebellion's earliest days.

But too many decades had gone into turning this thing around.

No-one was prepared to just give up now, even if this particular set-back seemed wholly unfair and more unlucky than most encountered thus far. They could wait it out. There was no telling how long the Rising would last.

But in the meantime, it would be safer to renege on those deals with the Conwy garrison. Just until things settled.

Those businesses still standing sustained the town; all banded together to house the dispossessed, rebuilding homes and stores. Stock and supplies were shared, practically communally, between retailers. The quicker Llanrwst could seem safe and vibrant, the better. All of their livelihoods depended upon that.

By now, news of the Glyndŵr Rising had long since reached the English garrisons. It was downright occupying every thought and venture, as commanders rushed to put it down.

In Conwy Castle, the pressure was on to seek out Glyndŵr's stongholds, and to suppress all Welsh towns and villages deemed hotbeds of rebellion. Amidst the missives of intelligence about his movements - and where sympathies for his cause were rife - came another from Llanrwst, cancelling all contracts so recently drawn up and signed.

Heard loud and clear, the signal: Llanrwst was a nest of rebel sympathizers; a center for dissent.

Image: Llanrwst During the Glyndwr Rising
Image: Llanrwst During the Glyndwr Rising

Llanrwst on the Wrong Side of History

The town might have proclaimed its own neutrality, but as far as Henry IV and his Anglo-Norman nobles were concerned, its very presence was an affront.

Nevertheless, the English bided their time - overwhelmed by other concerns in the same campaign - so two years passed without retribution against Llanrwst's supposed sympathies.

For the merchants and their families, it had seemed that they were beneath the radar. Neutral ground, neither supporting nor supplying either side in this Welsh War of Independence. Though self-preservation saw no questions about political affiliation asked of their customers.

The last of their rebuilding work was just being completed during the autumn of 1402. Every business restored; the finishing touches in progress on all construction work in Llanrwst's market square.

Hope settling again upon grim determination. It was a struggle, but their infrastructure was in place, and custom continued steadily growing.

That's when Henry IV descended in all due vengeance upon the nation. Mustering a vast English force at Shrewsbury, the monarch chased Glyndŵr's shadow all over Wales before marching into Llanrwst.

Furious with frustration, the English king arrived Hell bent upon teaching the rebellious Welsh a lesson that they'd never forget.

As far as he was concerned, Llanrwst's loyalty was demonstrably with Glyndŵr. It had been since the start, as testified by letters sent from local garrisons two years before. Moreover, a strike there would send ripples of economic destitution throughout the entire region.

Fabulous! Because this was where support for Glyndŵr was supposed strongest, so close to where the Rising had begun.

Llanrwst's market charter enshrined its status as an independent town. Yet no Anglo-Norman mind could conceive of townsfolk living outside the influence of their local squire. Especially then - a period of tumultuous social change, with the Feudal system, irrevocably destabilized by the Black Death, collapsing about the ears of the ruling elite - when hierarchy was such a hot topic.

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Amongst the Anglo-Norman nobles riding alongside King Henry, there were those ready to crush any peasant town claiming self-governance devoid of any aristocratic allegiance. Llanrwst could shove its charter where the sun didn't shine.

The English majority, if they contemplated the Charter at all, dismissed its implications as irrelevant. Casting around for the nearest person perceived to be of gentle birth, that individual's political affiliation was assumed to speak for all else in their vicinity.

Hywel Coetmor - scion of the Princes of Gwynedd - held Cwn Llanerch and Gwydir Castle just down the Betws road. Living so close to Llanrwst and known to worship in its church, the Welsh nobleman's stance was deemed indicative of where the whole town's loyalties lay.

And there were plenty of rumors that Coetmor had aligned with Glyndŵr.

Bridge Over the Afon Conwy in Llanrwst Mousepad

The Annihilation of Llanrwst During the Glyndŵr Rising

Henry IV was there to wreak vengeance upon Llanrwst for its supposed own sake, but the market town also bore the brunt of English fury over broader issues.

There were no holds barred in the destruction of Llanrwst. Strict rules, underscoring so much in Medieval warfare, were set aside.

Chivalry was only meant to protect the upper classes anyway. These people were not only peasants, but Welsh. Barely human, certainly not civilized, in the worldview of many bearing down upon them now.

No building was left standing throughout the whole of Llanrwst. There was no telling where the market square had been, nor even most of its streets.

Businesses and homes alike lost to the inferno.

Their harvest - recently brought in and carefully stockpiled for winter - was obliterated. As much as could be carried away filled English sacks and wagons. The rest was burnt or otherwise despoiled, a scorched earth policy saw the countryside blackened and stripped.

All potential sustenance gone with their shelter.

Other stores were plundered for anything of worth, then taken as the spoils of war. The rest destroyed, along with all personal possessions. There was nothing left to sell in the market of Llanrwst. There was nothing left in Llanrwst. Nothing left of Llanrwst.

Except its people.

Some of them were killed in the melee; struck down whilst engaged in futile attempts to defend all that they'd built or been bequeathed, or protecting those they loved. Captured women were raped.

Welsh children falling into English clutches were kept back. Marched out with thousands more youngsters snatched during Henry's progress across the whole country, each one supposed - upon a whim or the most tenuous of evidence - to be the off-spring of known rebels. In theory, they were retained indefinitely as surety for their parents' good behavior.

In practice, they were destined to spend the rest of their lives in some great English home; worked as servants without pay, acquiring the status of chattels when passed between ruling Anglo-Norman families. Those Llanrwst children caught that day were effectively sold into slavery.

But most of Llanrwst's population had fled at the first sign of English soldiers coming. They watched their town's annihilation from the safety of a mountain-side perch. They survived the carnage that ensued, their children held fast beside them.

Henry IV didn't worry too much about them. He wanted some of Llanrwst's people to survive, in order that they might rebuild the market town. After all, he anticipated that Wales would soon be under his dominion again. This region's thriving would ultimately then be his responsibility.

Only now they knew to fear him more than Glyndŵr.  The English king's garrisons - limping on or rebuilt - could expect to be supplied.

Llanrwst Welsh T-Shirt

Llanrwst UK T-Shirt

Which Side Should Llanrwst Have Chosen in 1402?

Glyndŵr or Plantagenet - both monarchs had proved themselves capable of applying 'might is right' to pressurize Llanrwst into compliance.
  Display results
Thank you for voting. Don't you hate just having the two options laid out for you? Like those are all that's available from which to select a course from which your whole life may ensue.

Llanrwst and the Third Way

This wasn't amongst the available options, as presented to the people of Llanrwst. They inserted it themselves, then took it against all expectations.

Llanrwst's survivors had indeed learned their lessons. Though none which Owain Glyndŵr nor Henry Plantagenet had intended them to extract. 

The people of Llanrwst were about to do something astounding. They said no to all available options, then found a third way.

Those who'd taken to the mountain-side had survived the onslaught of the English.

On the mountain-side above Llanrwst sits a very large cave. A single pathway constitutes its only access point. It's highly defensible. Just one or two people could effectively guard it.

Anyone ascending has to do so practically scrambling on all fours, vulnerable to those standing above. Should an army even attempt it, soldiers would have to come single-file. It would be - and proved to be - a death trap for their enemies.

The entire town took to the cave. They took their charter with them.  Forming a human chain to convey up there anything else which could be salvaged from the destruction wrought below. These meager possessions, they held in common.

There were no individual dwellings up there. Just sections of that vast cave claimed by various families, each living in full view of their community. Each counting safety worth the price of privacy; enforcing their own neutrality in the Welsh War of Independence by taking their persons out of reach for both sides.

Llanrwst's biggest lessons had been learned in solidarity. Twice rebuilding their town and its market from scratch, working in tandem for the good of all, bonding in mutual respect.

Now that united front forged an opportunity for their most precious commodity - the people and their community -  to live on.

The Llanrwst people sat out the war in safety, awaiting a time when they could emerge to rebuild their market town again.

They did something practically unprecedented in any annals of war. They retained control over their own destiny, thwarting all who sought to impose their will.

Their choices were soon justified.

Prince Hal returned a year later, expecting to find Llanrwst rebuilt. Under suspicion that the market town was still supplying Glyndŵr, he'd already issued orders to his army that the place be once again burned to the ground. Now the sixteen year old war chief was humiliated, his lack of accurate information laid stark before his men. The prince was made to look like he was making it up as he went along.

Quickly ascertaining where the townsfolk were, Prince Hal set off up the mountain side with his men. Some reports suggest it was to snatch their charter. Others to enact a massacre.

But he didn't succeed in either. That easily defensible route upwards was easily defended. Llanrwst forced the English prince and his army to flee for safety back into the valley, out of range of the missiles pummeling them from above.  A few more abortive attempts later, Prince Hal left and never did come back.

Llanrwst Coffee Mugs

Owain Glyndŵr tried another way. Cognizant of the region's economic downturn, unalleviated by Llanrwst's refusal to construct its market, he asked Hywel Coetmor to intercede on his behalf. The Welsh prince knew these people. They apparently trusted him too and/or welcomed his custom in times gone by.

Loyal to Glyndŵr's coronation and cause, Coetmor nonetheless refused. He respected the people of Llanrwst more. Though a frequent visitor to their cave, he never once asked them to join the Rising. Not when Owain was winning, nor even as he held the rest of Wales, nearly in its modern entirety.

Llanrwst remained independent. Hywel Coetmor saw to it that no Welsh challenge to that status ever arose again.

Years, then decades passed with the community still entrenched in their cave above Llanrwst. Some were born there, others died of natural causes. Some lived and died without ever knowing the town they were there to protect. Peace time finally did persuade the townsfolk to rebuild. The market was eventually reinstated.

Yet a century on, there were still a handful of Llanrwst people living in the cave. Remaining above of their own volition, including those too elderly to risk the steep trek down, often counting that communal living as all they knew and wished to forever retain.

Llanrwst went on.

Y Cyrff: Cymru, Lloegr a Llanrwst

Y Cyrff have a song about Llanrwst, though I'm not 100% sure whether it's about the story told above. The title translates as 'Talking about Wales, England and Llanrwst'.

Visit Llanrwst Today

Now you know some of Llanrwst's long, rich history, it will be worth a visit to the Welsh market town. I'd recommend it, even if you didn't know its stories!
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Updated: 01/13/2015, JoHarrington
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


Veronica on 06/14/2015

A superbly written piece of history, a great accessible style. There's a lot to take in here, lots of excellent information and well worth a re-read.

JoHarrington on 12/27/2014

I thought this was fabulous! I'm planning to visit Llanrwst in the New Year and find that cave. It's a great way for them to step out of their design for life.

NateB11 on 12/15/2014

That is known as taking higher ground. Great story. Smart people.

JoHarrington on 11/26/2014

Son amdan Cymru, Lloegr a Llanrwst.... I should add that YouTube video into this Wizzle. (Edit: And I've done just that! Thanks for the Reddit link, and to ap Cunedda too for the heads up on the song.)

Ember on 11/25/2014

yeah it was r/historywales :) It has had upvotes but I think it is a smaller sub so discussion might be slow to take off ^_^

(edit* except that after posting this comment I went and checked and there's been a youtube video of a song posted about it! XD)

JoHarrington on 11/24/2014

I've spoken with her and given her blanket permission to use any of my articles. I consider it such an honour when she does.

Thank you so much for sharing this on Reddit. Was it r/historywales? Did they like it?

Ember on 11/22/2014

Yep yep!

Frey frey is looking for other stories by you to read out, since your other one went well, and you're able to give her permission to use them (lol).... Do you think this'd be a good one to use?

I shared this on reddit by the way! In history Wales

JoHarrington on 11/22/2014

It's fleshed out a great deal from the version that I told you the other day! But recounting it there is what inspired me to tell it here in more detail.

I also think it best that they didn't chose a side.

Ember on 11/22/2014

This is really a very interesting story.

I answered your poll, but to tell you the truth, I think it is best that they didn't chose a side.

JoHarrington on 11/22/2014

I'm glad that you thought so, and thank you for reading it.

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