Why Did the Welsh Fight for Independence from England in the Glyndŵr Rising?

by JoHarrington

On September 18th, independence from England occupied many Celtic minds. But this wasn't Scotland 2014. It was Wales 1400 - the start of the Glyndŵr Rising.

I thought it was about a field. That's what we all still learn, if anyone bothers to tell us the tale at all. That Lord Reginald de Grey of Ruthin took a field from Owain Glyndŵr.

The half-wild Welshman then stirred up trouble, condemning thousands of his fellow country-men to death. His actions kick-started a poverty that lasted for centuries. We can still look upon the ruins of Welsh history, in all those castles that he destroyed, labelled now with reproving information boards.

All over a field.

Except it wasn't just a field, was it? The rest of Wales wouldn't have risen with him if it had been only that. Learn what the Glyndŵr Rising was really all about.

The Truth about the Field in the Glyndŵr Rising

A few facts and context should lead us nicely into understanding why that bit of land near Corwen caused such a fuss.

During the last decades of the 13th century, the English forces of Edward I ate away at the border territories of Wales, before completely over-running the country.

Then things really went downhill.

A strangle-hold of castles were constructed in a daisy chain around the Welsh coast, and in a few strategic positions within the interior too. Each one held a permanent cohort of English soldiers prepared to put down any rebellion fostered beneath their walls.

Every castle presided over a walled town or city, filled with English settlers. Nor did it end there. Out in the countryside, vast acres saw their Welsh inhabitants removed to make way for peasant communities from England.

For a century, resentment simmered out in the valleys and hillsides.

It was a military occupation from start to finish. Imposing English customs and law on a nation which neither understood it, nor wished to receive it. Weighted trials were held in the English language, which few but the Welsh aristocracy spoke. 

Those leaders were largely dispossessed, killed or languished in the Tower of London. Or else they accepted their submission to the English monarch, and helped to keep their own people from rebelling.

Some, like Owain Lawgoch, did lead risings of their own. The whole of the 14th century was punctuated with one after another, though none were quite as successful as that led by Owain Glyndŵr from 1400.

A new breed of powerful families entered the Welsh hierarchy, but they too were English. Families like the Greys, who had the money to buy from the Crown land taken from the Welsh. They sought to carve out autocratic realms, subjugating a peasantry which could not hope for redress from their overlords, just like the Marcher Lords of the past.

It wasn't just a field that Lord Grey of Ruthin took from Owain Glyndŵr. It was a massive swathe of upland bordering the English lord's own property.

This was Croesau, now called Bwlch-y-Groes, Bryneglwys, near Corwen. Though technically owned by Glyndŵr, he wasn't actually using it himself.  Croesau had long been allocated as common land for the local Welsh people to use as grazing for their livestock.

Nor did Glyndŵr automatically rush to take up arms, when Lord Grey appropriated the common for himself. He took his complaint to the first Parliament of Henry IV, a man who had just murdered his cousin Richard II and usurped his throne.

Two strikes against Owain Glyndŵr there. The first was that he was Welsh. That was generally a factor against any Cymric plaintiff in such legal systems, but at this time it was doubly so.

Henry IV had begun his uneasy reign in relative poverty. When Richard II had fled to Flint Castle, in a bid to save himself from his hostile cousin, he'd been betrayed by members of his own entourage. Those men had seized the baggage train containing all the royal wealth, and sought to carry it off into England as a gift to the future Henry IV. But they'd been intercepted and surrounded by the Welsh peasantry.

All those trunks, filled with the riches of an English king, should now have been with Henry IV. It should have been bank-rolling his consolidation of royal power. Instead, it was lost in the Welsh mountains, scattered across dozens of homes and hiding places.

So no, Henry IV didn't like the Welsh. More than usual for an English monarch, he really detested the Welsh. Especially here, at his first Parliament, where those who'd helped him secure his throne were all looking expectantly towards their rewards, and the nobility were anticipating something to ensure their ongoing loyalty.

The second strike against Owain Glyndŵr was that - as he argued his case with all the eloquence of a lawyer and life-long courtier - the counselor standing alongside Henry IV, advising him on his judgment, was Lord Grey of Ruthin.

Henry IV sneered out his verdict, "What care we for these barefoot Welsh doggis!"

Even then, Glyndŵr did not rise. The royal blood of Wales met in his veins - two ancient ruling families enjoined by the marriage of his parents rendering him the true Prince of Wales by birthright - but he grasped reality only too well. He knew the might that could crush him at the barest excuse. Thus he returned home and let it go.

He still had property, land and tenants aplenty, and for that reason, he was legally obliged to raise a militia force when King Henry gave the word. Weeks later, when a Scottish army invaded the north of England, such a decree went out. All over England and Wales, soldiers were raised for the king's cause, but not on Glyndŵr's estates.

He hadn't been given the message. Lord Grey made sure it was never passed on to him, in the full knowledge that his neighbor's no show would be viewed as treason, and his land and property would be forfeit. Grey himself had designs upon that.

When Owain Glyndŵr discovered what had been done to him, he knew that his life was already over. On a very personal level, he'd just lost all.  As soon as Henry returned from the north, the order would be given and that would be the end of everything.

In short, Lord Grey left the true Prince of Wales with nothing left to lose. That's why Owain Glyndŵr rose up, not at first for Welsh independence, though that's what his Rising became.

On September 16th 1400, he was crowned Owain IV, Prince of Wales, in a quiet ceremony at Glyndyfrdwy. Then rode into Corwen to publicly announce his fact, and to spread the word that all Welshmen who would rise with him should muster there.

Two days later, on September 18th, nearly three hundred people swarmed into Ruthin, looted its rich stores, then burned the town to the ground. The Glyndŵr Rising had begun.

History Books about Owain Glyndŵr

Sooooo much more than the story of an over-reaction about a 'field' being seized.

The Penal Laws (1402) Against the Welsh People

These laws were first drafted in the English Parliament of January 1401, with further additions/amendments taking place in a February session.

Image: Anti-Welsh Penal Laws 1402During the autumn of 1400, the Glyndŵr Rising had seen several English plantations attacked, looted and burned to the ground.

The Parliament at Westminster didn't react well.

Henry IV duly passed anti-Welsh Penal Laws, which applied to EVERYONE with Welsh blood, regardless of their personal loyalties. Plus anyone - male or female - who married a Welsh person.

At this point, there were probably only a few hundred people fighting with Owain Glyndŵr. The Penal Laws ensured that number turned into the tens of thousands.  I'll recount them, not verbatim, as the 15th century language is a bit long-winded, even by modern political standards.

  1. It is forbidden for any English person to marry a Welsh person. If they do, then they become Welsh by default and these laws apply to them too.
  2. If there is any breach of the peace, then all inhabitants of that district are held responsible, regardless of each individual's actual involvement.  This included all felonies, trespasses and robberies.
  3. No English person may be tried for a crime in a Welsh court, nor be heard by a Welsh judge, nor have a Welsh person in their jury.
  4. No 'rhymer or minstrel' (plus wasters, vagabonds etc) may be 'sustained' by the Welsh. In other words, stop giving gifts, board and lodgings to bards.
  5. The Welsh are prohibited from gathering together, at any place, to hear speeches, 'take counsel' etc. Unless their English overlord has given his license. (That got churches out of the frame.)
  6. No Welsh person may hold office. There was a whole list of these, but the summary is that they can't hold any position of authority (justice, chancellor, lieutenant, forester etc.), including keeping records on anything. A later amendment stated that any Welsh person already holding this office must train up their English replacement, at their own expense before they leave.
  7. No Welsh person may bear arms of any kind.
  8. No 'victual or armor' may be carried into Wales, unless it's for the castles or English towns in Wales, and the carrier has permission to do so.
  9. No Welsh person may live in a castle, fortress or any other kind of defended home. All keeps must be leveled. Nor can they live inside the walls of a fortified town.
  10. The Welsh are responsible for funding the maintenance and repairs on all English castles, gates and walls in their district, plus any refurbishment inside said constructions.
  11. Welsh children may not be educated, unless it's by an English person given permission from the overlord.

Proposed but not in the final draft:

  1. The banning of the Welsh language in Wales.  (This at a time when the majority were monoglot Welsh speakers.)  In reality Welsh only ended up banned in official places, like trials.
  2. The expulsion of all Welsh people living in England. (Parliament suddenly remembered all of the Welsh soldiers in the English army, plus they realized this would only swell Glyndŵr's ranks with disaffected returnees.)

Special city ordinances were added in 1403 for Chester:

  1. No-one may trade anything with the Welsh.  (This instantly caused a lucrative Black Market with goods swam across the River Dee.)
  2. No Welsh person may enter the City of Chester with any knife larger than that needed to cut meat during their meal.
  3. No Welsh person may be in Chester between sunset and sun-rise.

Needless to say everything listed here was on pain of death, with all property and possessions forfeit to the Crown. None of it left the Statute Books until the Stuart period, in 1624, though a few items remained.

Henry VII - the first Tudor king, who made soooo much of his Welsh ancestry and had won the Battle of Bosworth with an army mostly made up of Welsh people - made a huge profit by selling charters to individuals or neighborhoods, which made them exempt from the Penal Laws. And his son, Henry VIII, actually did attempt to enforce a nation-wide ban on the Welsh language.

Cymru am byth.

Owain Glyndŵr Historical Source Books

Much has been said about Glyndŵr since 1415, but what was being said at the time? Those are the most revealing of all.

Henry IV's Rampage: The Enslaving of Welsh Children

On September 18th 1401 (that date again!), King Henry mustered his English army for a 'peace-keeping' invasion into Wales. It didn't go well.

By autumn 1401, it was clear that the Penal Laws - not yet legal, but treated as if they were already in play - had not subdued the Welsh. Strangely, it had made them much more militant.

All over Wales, English castles were being besieged or falling into Welsh hands. In one notable example, Conwy was taken by subterfuge, after Gwilym Tudor dressed up as a craftsman and just walked in while everyone was at church.

Owain Glyndŵr's supporters were now popping up everywhere. So many more of them than they'd been before, say, the Penal Laws.

The response of the intellectually challenged Henry IV was to raise a huge army - calling upon over a dozen English counties - as a show of strength in a march through Wales. His aim was to terrify the Welsh into docility again, and to capture Glyndŵr et al.

As soon as Henry's vast army marched across the Welsh border, it started raining. It rained incessantly for the entire two weeks that they were there. Then stopped the second they trudged back into Shrewsbury again.

Which was a bit of a problem, when so many of them were wearing armor.

We can note with wry amusement that this became a theme of Henry IV's attempts to subdue Wales. Every time he went there, the Heavens opened. There was even a blasted tornado on September 7th 1402, during a second expedition. It ripped straight through the king's tent, toppling the thick, main wooden support and sending that crashing onto the bed where Henry IV lay. It was only the fact that he was paranoid enough to sleep in full armor that saved his life.

All of this earned Owain Glyndŵr a reputation for being a wizard, in possession of a magic raven's stone, which could control the weather. It terrified the English soldiers subjected to those elements. Moreover, this is the origin of the oft-quoted English conviction that it always rains in Wales.

However, I've been side-tracked. Back to the question of why so many Welsh people rose with Owain Glyndŵr during the early 15th century. That regal rampage, starting September 18th 1401, had much to do with it.

He didn't find Owain Glyndŵr, nor any prominent figure in the Rising. They'd received word about the size of the army, knew that they didn't stand a chance against it, so kept well out of the way.

What Henry IV did find was a multitude of Welsh peasants, who all swore on bended knee that they were loyal to the English Crown.

In fact, they were ALL so disengaged from the rebellion, that not one of them had heard so much as a rumor about where Glyndŵr was hiding out.

Except for Llewelyn ap Gruffydd Fychan, Lord of Caeo, who said that he did know. He led the entire English army on a grueling two day trek, through unforgiving terrain in a torrential downpour, before Henry IV finally realized that Llewelyn was a rebel and this was a wild goose chase. The Lord of Caeo was hanged, drawn and quartered at Llandovery, where the monument to his courage now stands.

The frustrated Henry IV wasn't taking any more Welsh protestations at face value. If he decided that someone, anyone, was probably a rebel, he ordered their homes burned to the ground and all of their children taken.

Over one thousand Welsh peasant children were escorted by the English army back to Shrewsbury. There they were distributed amongst the English ruling families, as 'surety' for the loyalty of their parents. None of the children would have been able to speak English. They were made useful as unpaid servants, or, as we like to call it today, slaves.

Also in the path of Henry's wrath were the holy houses of Wales.

At the time, the biggest and best Welsh abbey was Abaty Ystrad Fflur, or Strata Florida Abbey in English. Henry somehow got it into his head that the Cistercian Order were assisting Glyndŵr. In fairness, they probably were, or would be as soon as the news about Strata Florida got out.

The abbey's monks were rounded up and slaughtered, left lying in the flower fields which gave the place its name. The English army looted every bit of wealth from the abbey's precincts, smashing up what remained. Their horses were stabled at the High Altar. When Henry was ready to leave, he left the abbey ablaze.

In later years, after he'd calmed down and considered his immortal soul a little more, he used the royal coffers to rebuild Strata Florida, as a kind of 'Oops! Sorry!'  But the Cistercian monks remained antagonistic to the Lancastrian throne thereon.

The onlooking Welsh were horrified. Even those who hadn't lost their own homes and possessions, nor had their off-spring dragged away into slavery, were distressed about this vandalism. In highly Catholic Medieval Wales, attacking monasteries really wasn't the done thing.

Yet more joined the Glyndŵr Rising.

Greeting Cards Showing Sycharth - Home of Owain Glyndŵr

When sixteen year old Prince Henry turned up at Sycharth, he found Glyndŵr gone. So Henry burned down not only his home, but those of his tenants for miles around too.
It had all of the hallmarks of a real life quest; and I was shocked when I finally tracked the place down. Two things overwhelmed me - its beauty and its utter neglect.
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.

Was Richard II Still Alive?

Despite much evidence to the contrary, the Welsh had been traditionally loyal to their monarchs. If Richard II lived, then why were they being asked to support Henry IV?

In truth, this was probably the court of Robert III stirring the pot somewhat.

It was a little bit of Scottish support for the Welsh independence to go with the (unofficially sanctioned) ships that had been attacking English communities on the North Welsh coast since the start of the Glyndŵr Rising.

The Scots let it widely be known that Richard II was alive and well, and living in all due hospitality at the castle of the Duke of Albany.

Henry IV and his inner circle - who knew damn well that they'd starved Richard II to death and buried him in King's Langley - afforded no credence whatsoever to the claims. But for the common people, the truth wasn't so clear cut.

In Cheshire, the people of Ellesmere actually joined Hotspur's Rebellion in the belief that Richard II had returned to reclaim his throne, and Hotspur was his general.

And throughout Wales, people who had hitherto kept out of Glyndŵr's Rising suddenly saw it as a battle against a usurper. Particularly since Owain Glyndŵr quickly let it be known that his quarrel was with Henry IV, not the English Crown per se. If Richard II was to suddenly turn up, then Glyndŵr would instantly desist.

Glyndŵr must have whispered a quiet 'Tapadh leibh' into a north blowing breeze every time the Duke of Albany added more intrigue and details. Maybe even quite a loud Gaelic thank you, when letters penned by Richard II in exile appeared south of the border.

Because every time Scotland released such things, Glyndŵr's ranks swelled further still. Even if they enigmatically refused point blank to show King Richard, nor to hand him over to the English, though Henry IV kept on demanding that they did so.

It's unknown quite how many people joined the Glyndŵr Rising because of rumors that Richard II was alive. But enough for this final reason to be noted, as another major flashpoint for Welsh people to decide to fight for independence from England.

Four Lions Rampant - the Flag of Owain Glyndŵr

Originally, he'd marched under a golden dragon rampant. But after a public coronation, he opted for a flag combining the royal houses of Powys and Deheubarth instead.

The Glyndŵr Rising: Welsh Independence for Fifteen Years

There is not the scope here to describe the whole of the Glyndŵr Rising, but I'll give a quick summary in conclusion here.

As momentum grew, more and more people flocked to support the cause of independence. English plantations were taken back; castles stormed; battles fought, won and lost. By 1403, it was a national revolt.

By 1404, Glyndŵr was holding Parliaments and receiving ambassadors from across Europe. He'd reinstated Welsh Law in Wales and drafted plans for its two universities.

In 1407, Owain's army had penetrated England as far as Birmingham, but he had over-stretched himself. Henry, the English Prince of Wales, had landed in Anglesey and used it as a base to push into Wales.

When Prince Henry arrived at Aberystwyth Castle, Glyndŵr's steward panicked and just handed it over. It gave the English another base from which to fight back.

Owain's wife Marred, their daughter Catrin and Catrin's four children were captured in 1409. They were held in the Tower of London until 1413, when it became clear that Owain Glyndŵr had lost his dominance over the Welsh nation.

Catrin and her three daughters mysteriously died at the same time. Her son, Lionel, disappeared from the record and was never seen again. (A persistent rumor says that he was still in the Tower of London - now an old man - when the Tudors came to the throne in 1485. Then he was quietly killed.) Marred's death wasn't recorded, other than she was alive in the Tower in 1413, and dead in it by 1420.

After 1409, a war of attrition pretty much played out until about 1412. Welsh towns and cities had to decide whom they feared more - Henry or Owain. In the end, it was superior funding and the ability to pay for more soldiers full-time, that saw the English forces toppling regions bit by bit.

By 1412, Owain Glyndŵr had disappeared into the mountains and the dream of Welsh independence was over.

Though a bounty was placed on his head - large enough that the lowest in society would have been instantly elevated to the life-style of a lord - he was never found. No Welsh person ever gave so much as a clue to where he might have been hiding. Even today, you can enter remote parts of Wales and hear the local folklore of how Owain was smuggled over this pass, or hidden in such-and-such a farmhouse, or sneaked through a forest in the dead of night. But none of that was told to the English at the time.

Then in 1415, a friend announced that Glyndŵr was dead. His final years and grave were kept secret right up until 2002.

For all practical purposes, the Welsh may have been outwardly cowed. But they never betrayed the Prince of Wales, and the spirit of Glyndŵr lives on.

Owain Glyndŵr Posters

More about Wales and its History

The story behind 'Land of my Fathers' ('Mae Hen Wlad fy Nhadau') is one of poetry, bardic awen and the refusal to lay down and play dead.
Historians argue endlessly about the location of Camlan, where legend relates that Arthur and Modred were killed. The locals just know. You may visit Camlan battle site.
Medieval monks used to visit each church and landmark left by this ancient Welsh saint. You could follow in their footsteps on a pilgrimage to St Tydecho.
The Red Dragon of the Welsh is not just a symbol for a people. It's a defiant yell, a promise and a prophecy. Y Ddraig Goch is hope.
Updated: 11/21/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 11/21/2014

Frank - I'm glad that you thought so. It's a fascinating period in history. Heart-breaking too, on so many different levels. Not least because it's war, and such circumstances are always heart-breaking.

JoHarrington on 11/21/2014

Ember - Ultimately it was a Welsh lack of confidence in their long-term ability to hold out against the English, plus Prince Hal changing strategy. Instead of rushing around like a blue-arsed fly, he concentrated all of his forces on one particular area. Then moved on to the next, once it was subdued.

Hal also played a clever game, whereby he targeted weak links in the chain first. Glamorgan and Usk being a biggie, as that was mostly populated by Flemish and Anglo-Norman settlers. It had been for generations too, since Iestyn surrendered territory in return for Norman mercenaries in his fight against another Welsh prince. Idiot.

The Flemish had much more faith in the English than the Welsh, as culturally they were more akin to the latter. They'd only temporarily sided with Owain when he became so strong and it seemed France was supporting him. But the French were pretty much trolling.

If you want to see angry Welsh taking vengeance, don't look to the British Isles. Turn your attention to just a few years on at Agincourt. Look what the Welsh bowmen did there against French knights and soldiers, who'd pretty much sold them up the Severn during the Rising.

Anyway, the French wavered; the Flemish caved in; and Welsh cantrefs toppled like dominoes, as each found themselves on the new front line - their borders suddenly neighbouring England with all the danger that entailed. It all happened so fast, gathering speed as each one fell.

But yes, if certain informants hadn't gone rushing from Harlech to Hal, then he wouldn't have panicked quite so much and set this chain of events in motion. The longer Owain held onto his country, the better his change of securing European allies, and the harder it would have been for England to invade without continental consequences. Just like Scotland and the Auld Alliance with France, which held both nations in such good stead for so long.

frankbeswick on 11/18/2014

This was a detailed historical account that covers matters not widely known, and is thus very informative.

Ember on 11/18/2014

Yeah, I'll be waiting for it. I don't think it quite hit here so much as crossed my mind again, that this was probably a pretty close call in the end, especially as he really started to rally the people. Which I suppose poses the question what actually killed it in the end? If the people protected Owain, what actually just stopped an uprising of angry Welsh, regardless of whether they had a leader technically... Or maybe I'm not fully understanding what actually caused it to end? Though I know in a sense they never really did give up... I dunno, anyways.

This is the same one that had the spy amongst him when he made his announcement right? I got the impression that things would have gone massively different if even that had not happened. Or is that just one small aspect? Haha sorry I'll let you muse on the first question before I start asking a bunch of others XD

JoHarrington on 11/18/2014

I'd be very, very happy to take you to Harlech for Glyndwr Day. :)

Yep, it's quite mind-blowing to consider that not one person gave him up, even with such wealth on offer, and particularly in view of the fact that the Welsh were subject to the Penal Laws at the time. It speaks volumes doesn't it? Not only of the hope afforded by Owain, but by the hatred in which Henry IV and Prince Hal were held.

That latter is such a big question, with a lot of variables. I'm going to have to muse on it for a while before I answer, if that's ok?

Ember on 11/18/2014

Oh man, I'd love to return to Harlech for Owain Glyndwr day.

I'd picked up a lot of this history just hanging out in Wales with you. Finally read this though! The bit at the end, which you may have actually mentioned, hadn't really hit in realization. That he was in hiding and was never given up, no matter what it might've been worth, that's so amazing, I don't even know how to describe it really. Wow.

How close was he to actually winning the uprising by the way. It seems like he did really well in general, like he/Wales might've actually succeeded had it not been for a few factors... Do you think this is true?

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