No name is so frequently invoked on Wales as that of Owain Glyndŵr (c. 1349-1416), a potent figurehead of Welsh nationalism ever since he rose up against the occupying English in the first few years of the fifteenth century. Little is known about the man described in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I as ‘not in the roll of common men’. There seems little doubt that the charismatic Owain fulfilled many of the mystical medieval prophecies about the rising up of the red dragon. He was of aristocratic stock and had a conventional upbringing, part of it in England of all places. His blue blood furthered his claim as Prince of Wales, being directly descended from the Princes of Powys and Cyfeiliog, and as a result of his status, he learned English, studied in London and became a loyal, and distinguished, soldier of the English king, before returning to Wales and marrying.
Glyndŵr was a member of the dynasty of northern Powys and, on his mother’s side, descended from that of Deheubarth in the south. The family had fought for Llewelyn ap Gruffydd in the last war and regained their lands in north-east Wales only through a calculated association with the powerful Marcher lords of Chirk, Bromfield and Yale and the lesser family of Lestrange.
In the late 1390s, a series of events occurred that began to push Owain towards rebellion, in what was later to be called the Welsh Revolt, the Glyndŵr Rising or the Last War of Independence. His neighbour, Baron Grey de Ruthyn, had seized control of some land, for which Glyndŵr appealed to the English Parliament. In 1400, Lord Grey informed Glyndŵr too late of a royal command to levy feudal troops for Scottish border service, thus being able to call the Welshman a traitor in London court circles. Lord Grey was a personal crony of the recently usurping King Henry IV. Glyndŵr lost the legal case, and was under personal threat. The deposed king, Richard II, had support in Wales, and in January 1400, serious civil disorder broke out in the English border city of Chester, after the public execution of an officer of Richard II.
These events led to Owain being proclaimed Prince of Wales on 16 September 1400, by a small band of followers which included his eldest son, his brothers-in-law, and the Dean of St Asaph in the town of Corwen, possibly in the church of SS Mael & Sulien.
After a number of initial confrontations between King Henry IV and Owain’s followers in September and October 1400, the revolt began to spread in 1401. Much of northern and central Wales went over to Owain. Henry IV appointed Henry Percy – the famous ‘Hotspur’ – to bring the country to order. Hotspur issued an amnesty in March which applied to all rebels with the exception of Owain and his cousins, Rhys ap Tudur and Gwilym ap Tudur, sons of Tudur ap Gronw (forefather of King Henry VII of England). Both the Tudurs were pardoned after their capture of Edward I’s great castle at Conwy.
Wales in the late 14th century was a turbulent place. The brutal savaging of Llewelyn the Last and Edward I’s stringent policies of subordinating Wales had left a discontented, cowed nation where any signs of rebellion were sure to attract support. In 1399-1400 Glyndwr ran up against his powerful neighbour, Reginald de Grey, Lord of Ruthin, an intimate of the new king, Henry IV. The quarrel was over common land which Grey had stolen. Glyndwr could get no justice from the king or parliament. This proud man, over forty and grey-haired, was visited with insult and malice. There are indications that Glyndwr made an effort to contact other disaffected Welshmen, and when he raised his standard outside Ruthin on 16 September 1400, his followers from the very beginning proclaimed him Prince of Wales.
The response was startling and may have even startled Glyndwr himself. Supported by the Hanmers, other Norman-Welsh Marchers and the Dean of St Asaph, he attacked Ruthin with several hundred men and went on to savage every town on north-east Wales including Flint. There was an immediate response from Oxford, where Welsh scholars at once dropped their books and flocked home. Even more dramatic was the news that Welsh labourers in England were downing their tools and heading for home. The English Parliament at once rushed ferociously anti-Welsh legislation on to the books. Henry IV marched a big army right across North Wales, burning and looting without mercy.
Whole populations scrambled to make their peace. Over the Winter, Glyndwr, with only seven men, took to the hills. But in the spring of 1401 as the Tudors snatched Conway Castle by a trick, Owain’s little band moved into the centre and the south. Once more, popular insurrection broke around them, and hundreds ran to join the rebellion. It was during 1401 that Glyndwr became aware of the growing power of the rebellion as men of higher rank began to defect to the cause. In his letters to South Wales he declared himself the liberator appointed by God to deliver the Welsh race from their oppressors.