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The Fall of Richard II
In the last decade of the 14th century, Richard II of England had launched a bold plan to consolidate his hold on his Kingdom and break the power of the magnates who constantly threatened his authority. As part of this plan, Richard began to shift his power base from the southeast and London toward the establishment of a new Principality around the County of Cheshire and systematically built up his power in nearby Wales. Wales was ruled through a patchwork of semi-autonomous feudal states, Bishoprics, shires, and territory under direct Royal rule. Richard eliminated his rivals and took their land or gave it to his favourites. As he did so, he raised an entire class of Welsh people to fill the new posts created in his new fiefdoms. For these people, the final years of the reign of Richard II were full of opportunities. In contrast, to his English magnates, it was a further sign that Richard was dangerously out of control.
In 1399, the exiled Henry Bolingbroke, heir to the Duchy of Lancaster, returned to reclaim his lands. Henry raised an army and marched to meet the King. Richard hurried back from Ireland to deal with Henry Bolingbroke. They met in Wales, at Conwy Castle, to discuss the restitution of Henry's lands. Whatever was intended, the meeting ended when Richard was arrested, deposed and imprisoned, first at Chester, then at Pontefract Castle in West Yorkshire. Parliament quickly made Henry Bolingbroke Regent and then King. Richard died under mysterious circumstances in Pontefract Castle, shortly after the failed Epiphany Rising of English Nobles, but his death was not generally known for some time. In Wales, people like Owain Glyndŵr were asked for the first time in their life to decide their loyalties. The Welsh were traditionally supporters of King Richard, who had succeeded his father, Edward, the Black Prince, as Prince of Wales. With Richard removed, the opportunities for advancement for Welsh people were suddenly severely limited. Many Welsh people seem to have been uncertain where this left them and their future.
For some time, supporters of the deposed king remained at large. On 10 January 1400 serious civil disorder broke out in the English border city of Chester. This was in reaction to the public execution of Piers Legh, captain of Richard II's archers, who had been apprehended disguised as a monk. An atmosphere of disorder was building along the Anglo-Welsh border.
The dispute between Owain Glyndŵr and de Grey
The revolt began as an argument with Owain Glyndŵr's English neighbour. Successive holders of the title Baron Grey de Ruthyn of Dyffryn Clwyd were English landowners in Wales with a reputation for being anti-Welsh. Glyndŵr had been engaged in a long-running land dispute with them. In 1399, he appealed to Parliament to resolve the issue and under King Richard the court found for him, he won. Reginald Grey, 3rd Baron Grey de Ruthyn — a good friend of the new king — used his influence to have that decision overturned. Owain Glyndŵr appealed. It was rejected without a hearing even being granted. Furthermore, de Grey deliberately withheld a Royal Summons for Glyndŵr to join the new King’s Scottish campaign. Technically, as a tenant-in-chief to the English King, Glyndŵr was obliged to provide troops, as he had done in the past. By not responding to the hidden summons he unwittingly committed treason. King Henry declared Glyndŵr a traitor, his estates forfeit. He urged de Grey to deal with Glyndŵr. De Grey broke personal assurances and used force, his intent clear, and left Owain Glyndŵr with no recourse other than flight, seemingly confirming his guilt, then open revolt.
The Welsh Revolt, 1400–08
On 16 September 1400, Owain acted, and was proclaimed Prince of Wales by a small band of followers which included his eldest son, his brothers-in-law, and the Dean of St Asaph. This was a revolutionary statement in itself. Owain’s men quickly spread through north-east Wales. By 19 September, the De Grey stronghold of Ruthin Castle was attacked and almost destroyed. Denbigh, Rhuddlan, Flint, Hawarden, and Holt followed quickly afterward. On 22 September the town of Oswestry was so badly damaged by Owain's raid that it had to be re-chartered. By the 24th Owain was moving south attacking Powis Castle and sacking Welshpool. Simultaneously, the Tudor brothers from Anglesey launched a guerrilla war against the English. The Tudors were a prominent Anglesey family who were closely associated with King Richard. Gwilym ap Tudur and Rhys ap Tudur had been Captains of Welsh archers in Richard's campaigns in Ireland. They quickly swore allegiance to their cousin, Owain Glyndŵr.
King Henry IV, on his way north to invade Scotland, turned his army around and by 26 September he was in Shrewsbury ready to invade Wales. In a lightning campaign, Henry led his army around North Wales. He was harassed constantly by bad weather and the attacks of Welsh guerrillas. By 15 October, he was back in Shrewsbury Castle with little to show for his efforts.
In 1401, the revolt began to spread. The whole of northern and central Wales went over to Owain. Multiple attacks were recorded on English towns, castles and manors throughout the North. Even in the south in Brecon and Gwent reports began to come in of banditry and lawlessness by groups calling themselves the Plant Owain – the Children of Owain. King Henry appointed Henry Percy – the famous ‘Hotspur’, legendary warrior son of the powerful Earl of Northumberland – 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 of Penmynydd (forefather of King Henry VII of England). Most of the country was mightily relieved and agreed to pay all the usual taxes, but the Tudors knew that they needed a bargaining chip if they were to lift the dire threat hanging over them. They decided to capture Edward I’s great castle at Conwy. Although the Conwy Castle garrison amounted to just fifteen men-at-arms and sixty archers, it was well stocked and easily reinforced from the sea; and in any case, the Tudors only had forty men. They needed a cunning plan. On Good Friday, which also happened to be 1 April – All Fool’s Day – all but five of the garrison were in the little church in the town when a carpenter appeared at the castle gate, who, according to Adam of Usk’s Chronicon, ‘feigned to come for his accustomed work’. Once inside, the Welsh carpenter attacked the two guards and threw open the gate to allow entry to the rebels. Although Hotspur arrived from Denbigh with 120 men-at-arms and 300 archers, he knew it would take a great deal more to get inside so formidable a fortress and, forced to negotiate, he finally gave the Tudors their pardon.
Owain also scored his first major victory in the field in mid-June, at Mynydd Hyddgen on Pumlumon. Owain and his army of four hundred were camped at the bottom of the Hyddgen Valley when fifteen hundred English and Flemish settlers from Pembrokeshire (little England beyond Wales), charged down on them. Owain rallied his army and fought back, killing 200 and making prisoners of the rest. The situation was sufficiently serious for the King to assemble another punitive expedition. This time he attacked through central Wales. From Shrewsbury and Hereford Castle, Henry IV's forces drove through Powys toward the Strata Florida Abbey. The Cistercian house was known to be sympathetic towards Owain and Henry intended to remind them of their loyalties and prevent the revolt from spreading any further south. After terrible weather and constant harassment by Owain's forces he reached Strata Florida. Henry was in no mood to be merciful. After a two-day drinking session, his army partially destroyed the abbey and executed monks suspected of pro-Owain loyalties. However, he failed to engage Owain's forces in any large numbers. Owain's forces harassed him and engaged in hit-and-run tactics on his supply chain but refused to fight in the open. Henry's army was forced to retreat. As he did so the weather turned. The army was nearly washed away in floods and Henry, sleeping in his armour, almost died when his tent was blown down. Wet, starving and dejected, they returned to Hereford Castle with nothing to claim for their efforts. The year came to end with the Battle of Tuthill, an inconclusive battle fought during Owain's siege of Caernarfon Castle in November 1401.
The English saw that if the revolt prospered it would inevitably attract disaffected supporters of the deposed King Richard. They were concerned about the potential for disaffection in Cheshire and were increasingly worried about the news from North Wales. Hotspur complained that he was not receiving sufficient support from the King and that the repressive policy of Henry was only encouraging revolt. He argued that negotiation and compromise could persuade Owain to end his revolt. In fact, as early as 1401, Hotspur may have been in secret negotiations with Owain and other leaders of the revolt to attempt to negotiate a settlement. The core Lancastrian supporters would have none of this. They struck back with anti-Welsh legislation designed to establish English dominance in Wales. The laws actually codified common practices that had been at work in Wales and along the Welsh Marches for many years. The laws included prohibiting any Welshman from buying land in England, from holding any senior public office in Wales, from bearing arms, from holding any castle or defending any house, no Welsh child was to be educated or apprenticed to any trade, no Englishman could be convicted in any suit brought by a Welshman, Welshmen were to be severely penalised when marrying an Englishwoman, any Englishman marrying a Welshwoman was disenfranchised and all public assembly was forbidden. These laws sent a message to any of those who were wavering that the English viewed all the Welsh with equal suspicion. Many Welshmen who had tried to further their careers in English service now felt pushed into the rebellion as the middle ground between Owain and Henry disappeared.
In the same year, 1402, Owain captured his arch enemy, Reynald or Reginald Grey, 3rd Baron Grey de Ruthyn in an ambush in January at Ruthin. He was to hold him for a year until he received a substantial ransom from King Henry. Paying back this debt effectively ruined de Grey financially. In June 1402 Owain's forces encountered an army led by Sir Edmund Mortimer, the uncle of the Earl of March, at Bryn Glas in central Wales. Mortimer's army was badly defeated and Mortimer was captured. It is reported that the Welsh women following Owain’s army, killed the wounded English soldiers and mutilated the bodies of the dead, supposedly in revenge for plundering and rape by the English soldiery the previous year. Glyndŵr offered to release Mortimer for a large ransom but, in sharp contrast to his attitude to de Grey, Henry IV refused to pay. Mortimer could be said to have had a greater claim to the English throne than himself so his speedy release was not an option. In response, Sir Edmund negotiated an alliance with Owain and married one of Owain's daughters, Catrin.
It is also in 1402, that mention of the French and Bretons helping Owain were first heard. The French were certainly hoping to use Wales as they had used Scotland as a base from which to fight the English. French privateers began to attack English ships in the Irish Sea and provide weapons to the Welsh. French and Breton freebooters were also active in Owain's attacks.
The Revolt Spreads
1403 marks the year when the revolt became truly national in Wales. Owain struck out to the west and the south. Recreating Llywelyn the Great's campaign in the west, Owain marched down the Tywi Valley. Village after village rose to join him. English manors and castles fell or their inhabitants surrendered. Finally, Carmarthen, one of the main English power-bases in the west, fell and was occupied by Owain. Owain then turned around and attacked Glamorgan and Gwent. Abergavenny Castle was attacked and the walled town burned. Owain pushed on down the valley of the River Usk to the coast, burning Usk and taking Cardiff Castle and Newport Castle. Royal officials report that Welsh students at Oxford University were leaving their studies for Owain and Welsh labourers and craftsmen were abandoning their employers in England and returning to Wales in droves. Owain could also draw on the seasoned troops from the English campaigns in France and Scotland. Hundreds of Welsh archers and experienced men-at-arms left English service to join the rebellion.
In the north of Wales, Owain's supporters launched a further attack on Caernarfon Castle (this time with French support) and almost captured it. In response, Henry of Monmouth (son of Henry IV and the future Henry V) attacked and burned Owain's homes at Glyndyfrdwy and Sycharth. Hotspur defected to Owain, raised his standard in revolt in Cheshire, a bastion of support for King Richard II, and challenged his cousin Henry's right to the throne. Henry of Monmouth, then only 16, turned to the north to meet Hotspur. On 21 July, Henry arrived in Shrewsbury just before Hotspur, forcing the rebel army to camp outside the town. Henry forced the battle before the Earl of Northumberland had also managed to reach Shrewsbury. Thus, Henry was able to fight before the full strength of the rebels was present and on ground of his own choosing. The battle lasted all day, Henry was badly wounded in the face by an arrow but continued to fight alongside his men. When the cry went out that Hotspur had fallen, the rebels' resistance began to falter and crumble. By the end of the day, Hotspur was dead and his rebellion was over. Over 300 knights had died and up to 20,000 men were killed or injured.
In 1404, Owain captured and garrisoned the great western castles of Harlech and Aberystwyth. Anxious to demonstrate his seriousness as a ruler, he held Court at Harlech and appointed the devious and brilliant Gruffydd Young as his Chancellor. Soon afterwards he called his first Parliament (or more properly a Cynulliad or "gathering") of all Wales at Machynlleth where he was crowned Prince of Wales and announced his national programme. He declared his vision of an independent Welsh state with a parliament and separate Welsh church. There would be two national universities (one in the south and one in the north) and return to the traditional law of Hywel Dda. Senior churchmen and important members of society flowed to his banner. English resistance was reduced to a few isolated castles, walled towns, and fortified manor houses.
Tripartite Indenture and the Year of the French
Owain demonstrated his new status by negotiating the "Tripartite Indenture" with Edmund Mortimer and the Earl of Northumberland. The Indenture agreed to divide England and Wales between the three of them. Wales would extend as far as the rivers Severn and Mersey including most of Cheshire, Shropshire, and Herefordshire. The Mortimer Lords of March would take all of southern and western England and Thomas Percy, 1st Earl of Worcester, would take the north of England. Most historians have dismissed the Indenture as a flight of fantasy. However, it must be remembered that in early 1404 things looked very positive for Owain. Local English communities in Shropshire, Herefordshire and Montgomeryshire had ceased active resistance and were making their own treaties with the rebels. It was rumoured that old allies of Richard II were sending money and arms to the Welsh and the Cistercians and Franciscans were funnelling funds to support the rebellion. Furthermore, the Percy rebellion was still viable; even after the defeat of the Percy Archbishop Scrope in May. In fact the Percy rebellion was not to end until 1408 when the Sheriff of Yorkshire defeated Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland at Bramham Moor. Thus, far from a flight of fantasy, Owain was capitalising on the political situation to make the best deal he possibly could.
Things were improving on the international front too. Although negotiations with the Scots and the Lords of Ireland were unsuccessful, Owain had reasons to hope that the French and Bretons might be more welcoming. Quickly Owain dispatched Gruffydd Young and his brother-in-law, John Hanmer, to France to negotiate a treaty with the French. The result was a formal treaty that promised French aid to Owain and the Welsh. The immediate effect seems to have been that joint Welsh and Franco-Breton forces attacked and laid siege to Kidwelly Castle. The Welsh could also count on semi-official fraternal aid from their fellow Celts in the then independent Brittany and Scotland. Scots and French privateers were operating around Wales throughout Owain’s war. Scots ships had raided English settlements on the Llyn Peninsula in 1400 and 1401. In 1403 a Breton squadron defeated the English in the Channel and devastated Jersey, Guernsey and Plymouth while the French made a landing on the Isle of Wight. By 1404 they were raiding the coast of England, with Welsh troops on board, setting fire to Dartmouth and devastating the coasts of Devon.
1405 was the "Year of the French" in Wales. On the continent the French pressed the English as the French army invaded English Aquitaine. Simultaneously, the French landed in force at Milford Haven in west Wales. They had left Brest in July with more than twenty-eight hundred knights and men-at-arms led by Jean de Rieux, Breton lord and Marshal of France. Unfortunately, they had not been provided with sufficient fresh water and many warhorses had died. They did though bring modern siege equipment. Joined by Owain's forces they marched inland and took the town of Haverfordwest but failed to take the castle. They then moved on and retook Carmarthen and laid siege to Tenby. The Franco-Welsh force then marched right across South Wales and invaded England. They marched through Herefordshire and on into Worcestershire. After suffering two setbacks with the losses at both Grosmont and Pwll Melyn, they met the English army west of Great Witley, just ten miles from Worcester, with Henry IV's army arrayed on Abberley Hill facing south towards Owains army facing north on the defensive Iron Age hill fort of Woodbury Hill, still known locally as Owain's Hill. The armies took up battle positions daily and viewed each other from a mile without any major action for eight days. Finally, after eight days, and with his supply lines stretched, Owain initiated battle. The battle lasted a full day, with the outcome ebbing and flowing for both sides. Finally, a push by the French knights proved decisive, breaking the English lines.
With the defeat of the English monarch on English soil by the combined Franco-Welsh force weakened the general English resolve in the war against the Welsh. The defeat also opened up the lands west of the Severn river to continued Welsh attacks.
The rebellion strengthens
By 1406, most French forces had withdrawn after politics shifted in Paris toward the peace party. However, by then the momentum within Wales was firmly in Owain’s favour. Owain's so-called "Pennal Letter", in which he promised Charles VI of France and Avignon Pope Benedict XIII to shift the allegiance of the Welsh Church from Rome to Avignon, produced no lasting effect but did continue to keep the Welsh issue in the view of the French court.
There were some setbacks however. Early in the year Owain’s forces suffered defeats at Grosmont and Usk at the Battle of Pwll Melyn. Although it is very difficult to understand what happened at these two battles, it appears that Henry of Monmouth or possibly Sir John Talbot defeated substantial Welsh raiding parties led by Rhys Gethin (“Swarthy Rhys”) and Owain’s eldest son, Gruffudd ab Owain Glyndŵr. The exact date and order of these battles is subject to dispute. However, they may have resulted in the death of Rhys Gethin at Grosmont and Owain's brother, Tudur, at Usk and the capture of Gruffudd. Gruffudd was sent to the Tower of London but was ransomed and returned to Owain. King Henry also showed that the English were engaged in more and more ruthless tactics. Adam of Usk says that after the Battle of Pwll Melyn near Usk, King Henry had three hundred prisoners beheaded in front of Usk Castle. John ap Hywel, Abbot of the nearby Llantarnam Cistercian monastery, was killed during the Battle of Usk as he ministered to the dying and wounded on both sides.
At the same time, the English were adopting a different strategy. Rather than focusing on punitive expeditions favoured by his father, the young Henry of Monmouth adopted a more conciliatory approach and Owain sent his chief minister, Gruffydd Young, to negotiate with the young prince. One major setback during 1406 was the death of Gruffydd ap Owain, the heir to the Welsh throne, leaving Owain with only one surviving son, Maredudd. 1407 was a year of hiatus. Whilst Young negotiated with Henry of Monmouth, Owain strengthened his grip on those parts of Wales and the marches he controlled, although Henry IV continued to wage war against him throughout the principality.
In 1408, John Hanmer, one of the Welsh negotiator and Owain’s brother in law, returned to Harlech with a draft treaty outlining the gains Owain had made, securing the territory ruled by Owain, and creating the Marcha Salopia as a neutral marcher buffer zone between the two realms. The terms of the treaty still left Owain as a vassal to the English crown, but crucially it also left him free to rule within the borders of his principality with impunity. One other vital part of the treaty was that Owains sole remaining male heir, Maredudd, was to be a ward of the English crown and act as guarantor of Owain’s loyalty to Henry. As a result of this the 18 year old Welsh heir would leave Wales, not to return until the accession of Henry V in 1415. After his return he would be called Maredudd Sais until his own accession to the Welsh throne.
Aftermath of the War
The primary result of the war was an independent Welsh principality covering almost the whole of Wales with the exception of Pembrokeshire and southern Carmarthenshire, along with certain key castles which remained in English hands. Importantly though, Herefordshire and parts of Gloucestershire were also now ruled from Harlech Castle and Shropshire was now a neutral Marcher lordship, technically free from control of either crown, and the Earldom of Chester was restored as a key military post in case of the need to invade North Wales.
Prince Owain would continue to rule Wales for another eleven years and although he continued to face challenges to his rule from families who had sided with the English during the war and from other families who seeked to restore their own families ancient freedoms and territories, he continued to rule the principality and managed to prevent the principality from fracturing upon his death with the sole legal heir, Maredudd, ascending the throne with no challengers.