Discovering Wales and Welsh: first steps
Discovering Wales and Welsh: first steps

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Discovering Wales and Welsh: first steps

1.4 Llywelyn ap Gruffydd and Owain Glyndŵr: the birth of a nation

Although Owain Glyndŵr appears to have captured the imagination of the Welsh more firmly than any of his predecessors, his actions can be seen as part of an unfolding story of national ambition. The first attempt to establish an independent Welsh principality came when the ruler of the most powerful Welsh kingdom, Gwynedd, managed to secure the allegiance of the other Welsh princes. The English King John recognised the importance of Llwyelyn Fawr (Llewelyn the Great) by offering him the hand of his daughter Joan in marriage, and in 1218 John’s heir, Henry III, confirmed Llwelyn’s claim to the Principality of Wales in the Treaty of Worcester. Despite continuing unrest and conflict, Llywelyn managed to dominate Wales until his death in 1240.

Figure 4 The arms of Gwynedd – the first flag of Wales? The flag is also used in the present day by supporters of the Wales national football team

Llywelyn’s successors were less successful in holding Wales together. Gwynedd became a battleground between the claims of the Welsh and English thrones. Rivalries between and within each kingdom in Wales weakened the ability of the Welsh to resist English power, and after a series of uprisings and rebellions King Edward I was able to defeat the Welsh forces under the Prince of Wales, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd (Llywelyn the Last, or in Welsh, Llywelyn Ein Llyw Olaf (‘Llywelyn Our Last Leader’), who was killed in battle in 1282. Edward’s conquest of Wales meant that from then onwards the destinies of Wales and England were fused together, and hopes for an independent Welsh nation were suppressed. In Wales some have interpreted this as the beginning of a process of colonisation, in which Wales became the first of England’s colonial possessions.

Activity 2

Watch these two short videos on Llywelyn the Last and Owain Glyndŵr. How did Llywelyn and Owain Glyndŵr acquire the title of Prince of Wales? What were their motivations? How were their claims on the title and on the land justified? Why do you think Owain Glyndŵr has left more of a mark on Welsh imaginations than Llywelyn ap Gruffydd?

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Transcript: Video 1

One ruler from Gwynedd is the only Welshman who was ever recognised by England as Prince of Wales. He is Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, better known as Llywelyn the Last.
This story of Wales is all about discovery. I’m on a country lane above the village of Abergwyngregyn overlooking the Menai Straits, and I’m in search of a place that in all likelihood is one of the most significant sites in the history of Wales, and yet, it is relatively unknown. Here it is.
This is Pen y Bryn. It’s now privately owned. Archaeologists tell us that parts of this building date back to 1200, and there is a growing body of evidence now to suggest that at one stage this was the home of Llywelyn Fawr, Llywelyn the Great, who ruled for 46 years, and of his grandson, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd.
Llywelyn ap Gruffudd is a bold man, taking command of much of Wales and capturing land from English lords. His opponent, the English king Henry III, is a weak and unpopular monarch. After struggling with years of civil war in England, he is willing to listen to Llywelyn.
It’s late in the summer of 1267 when Henry’s men and Llywelyn’s men hold a summit meeting in Shrewsbury. It lasts for four days, and some of the most notable people of the time were present, including the Pope’s envoy, and what they’re after is a deal which defines Llywelyn’s power in Wales, and it turns out to be a very significant moment.
On the 29th of September 1267, King Henry and Llywelyn meet at a ford on the Welsh-English border, a formal meeting place to ratify the Treaty of Montgomery. King Henry recognises Llywelyn as the official Prince of Wales so long as Llywelyn swears allegiance to the English crown.
Llywelyn becomes the first Welsh ruler to be formally acknowledged as Prince of Wales by an English king, so it is a very significant moment, but this treaty isn’t really about Llywelyn’s relationship with Henry. It is more to do Llywelyn’s determination to legitimise his power over other Welsh princes and lords. It helps, of course, that he’s now backed by a powerful military machine.
It is Llywelyn’s hunger for power that creates the Principality of Wales. Llywelyn is ruler of 200,000 subjects from Gwynedd to Brecon. It is a new start for Wales, a time of peace to begin the business of building its own state, but this promising age would last only 10 years. The treaty Llywelyn has signed comes at a heavy price.
The price demanded of Llywelyn is painfully high, but he does agree to it. Not only does he pay homage to the king, he pays a lot of money too, and the first instalment is 5,000 marks. That’s around 3,000 pounds. It’s probably as much as the prince’s entire annual income.
As well as Llywelyn’s financial pressures, he loses his deal with the English when Henry dies. The new king, Edward I, is an imposing figure, fierce of temper and violent. He wants to crush this new Prince of Wales and win back power over all of Britain for himself.
Llywelyn’s problems start to multiply. He can’t bring himself to pay homage to King Edward, and he stops the system of regular payments that he’s agreed to make. The response to that is entirely predictable. The king judges him to be untrustworthy, unreliable, and he declares him a rebel.
In 1277, Edward gathers the biggest army seen in Britain since the Norman invasion. They force their way into Anglesey, the breadbasket of Wales, and confiscate the harvest, and then Edward redistributes Llywelyn’s land.
Llywelyn is cut off from most of his lands, and he has very few allies, so he’s forced to surrender, and in fact, he retreats here to the heart of Snowdonia. There’s more bad news for him, because a new treaty is signed where most of the Welsh lords declare their loyalty to the king and not to Llywelyn, so all the power that he’s built up over the past decade just fades away.
For the next five years, Llywelyn tries to patch up his relationship with King Edward. He even resumes payments, but on Palm Sunday in 1282, things go badly wrong.
Llywelyn’s brother decides to take his own initiative and attack an English castle without Llywelyn’s permission. It sparks a rebellion, and other Welsh lords join in. That gives Llywelyn an impossible dilemma. Does he stand aside, or does he join in too? What happens is that fate intervenes.
For several months, Llywelyn hesitates. He’s desperate to keep the vengeful English king at bay. But on the 12th of June 1282, his wife Eleanor dies while giving birth to their daughter. In mourning and with no male heir, he has nothing to lose. He joins his brother to attack the King of England. Edward retaliates, attacking Llywelyn from all sides, including from the sea.
Edward’s forces are closing in on Gwynedd, and the king has one principal demand. He wants Llywelyn to surrender Wales. Llywelyn’s advisors, the main figures here in Snowdonia, send an urgent appeal to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and they declare the prince should not throw aside his inheritance-
-and that of his ancestors in Wales and accept land in England, a country with whose language, way of life, laws, and customs he is unfamiliar.
The view of Llywelyn’s council is uncompromising. They declare that Wales is an ancient inheritance. It owes nothing to the King of England. And Llywelyn himself writes to the king, and he says that he will never abandon the people who’ve been protected by his ancestors since the days of Brutus. It really is a cry of defiance at a desperate time.
By summoning the legend of Brutus, the mythical ancestor of the Celts, Llywelyn lays claim to a much older connection to this land than the English ever can. But just a month later, Llywelyn, the last native Prince of Wales, will be dead.
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Transcript: Video 2

Into this turbulent world, steps the son of destiny, the man who emerges as the standard bearer for Welsh nationhood, his name, Owain Glyndŵr. And this mighty fortress of Harlech Castle, a prime symbol of English power, becomes for several years, a Welsh fortress, a Welsh seat of government, under a Welsh leader.
Owain Glyndŵr is an unlikely figure to inspire a fight for Welsh independence. A nobleman from north Wales, he’s also part of the English upper crust. He studies law in London and joins the English army, even taking part in an invasion of Scotland.
Not until his late 40s does Glyndŵr turn into a rebel with a cause.
So what is it that sparks Owain Glyndŵr’s anger and resentment? It seems to be a local dispute over land. An English squire called Reginald Grey takes possession of some of Glyndŵr’s territory. It’s a situation that spirals out of control and leads, eventually, to all-out rebellion.
In the first instance, Glyndŵr takes his complaint to parliament. He does want to play things by the book. But his case is rejected there in rather insulting terms, with one member referring to the Welsh as ‘those barefoot rascals’. Now if we add all that to the catalogue of injustice being suffered by so many Welsh people under English rule, we begin to realise why we now have the makings of an explosive situation.
Glyndŵr’s sense of Welsh identity comes to the fore. Supporters rally round. And on the 16th of September, 1400, they declare him Prince of Wales. As a direct descendant of the Welsh princes, it is a title to which he can lay good claim.
The self-proclaimed Prince of Wales, Owain Glyndŵr, makes the town of Ruthin the first target for his attack. He’s got new status, a new power. He wants to make a big impact.
And that’s exactly what he does. Before dawn, Glyndŵr and 200 men raid the town. They steal gold, silver, and livestock, and then burn Ruthin to the ground. Glyndŵr doesn’t stop there. He attacks more English strongholds, leaving a trail of burnt towns across North Wales.
As he gathers momentum, his support across Wales grows. Reports tell of Welsh students at Oxford abandoning their books, Welsh labourers leaving their English employers. All of them returning home to join the rebellion.
Glyndŵr and his men become famous for their guerrilla-style warfare. They ambush the enemy, and melt away into the landscape as quickly as they appeared. Glyndŵr is outwitting the English.
By 1403, the scale of Glyndŵr’s revolt is truly national. And the English are desperately trying to hang on to four power bases, including this one at Harlech. So Glyndŵr decides to lay siege to the castle, and starve them out.
And the tactic works. A few months later, Glyndŵr and his family are able to move in here and make Harlech Castle their home. He’s consolidating his hold on all of central Wales. And he’s moving a step closer to uniting all of the Welsh against the great enemy.
And for nearly two years, Glyndŵr has the help of French troops lent to him by the King of France, Charles the VI. At height of his power, Glyndŵr comes here to Machynlleth and assembles a parliament with representatives from all over Wales. And to add to the prestige, there are envoys from Spain, and Scotland, and France. This is no small time rebel leader. This is the Prince of Wales.
It’s significant that Wales’ first parliament is held in mid Wales at Machynlleth, a town that has no English castle. And Glyndŵr’s plans for his country are described in a letter he writes to the French king. It paints a vivid picture of a free and independent nation.
Glyndŵr’s vision of a vibrant Welsh state is dazzling in its ambition-- a powerful parliament, an independent Church, a university in the north and in the south. It is sophisticated, it’s forward-looking, and it fails.
Glyndŵr is still a rebel in the eyes of many. And his support in Wales is far from universal. And in 1406, France withdraws her troops. Weakened by these setbacks, Wales is quickly taken by England.
Glyndŵr fights on until he is cornered in Harlech in 1409. He escapes, but his wife, two daughters, and a grandchild are captured and imprisoned in London for the rest of their days.
Owain Glyndŵr becomes a wanted man, hunted by the forces of King Henry until he and his small band of supporters are no longer a threat. And the flames of Glyndŵr’s revolt, which once burned so brightly, are just embers and ashes.
In the aftermath, the Welsh are punished by the English. Cut off from trade, they faced poverty and starvation. While Owain Glyndŵr seems to vanish from history.
It is said that Owain, liked King Arthur, is asleep somewhere in these hills, awaiting the call to return to save his country. But 600 years after the revolt of Glyndŵr, his vision of a Senedd on Welsh soil has been fulfilled.
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Llywelyn ap Gruffydd is recognised as Prince of Wales by the English King Henry in 1267 as part of the Treaty of Montgomery, on the condition of swearing allegiance to the King, whereas Owain Glyndŵr was proclaimed Prince of Wales nearly 150 years later by his supporters, following a dispute over land. Llywelyn is motivated by a desire to be legitimised or recognised as a ruler, by his ‘hunger for power’. Note the price he agrees to pay for it. Glyndŵr, on the other hand, is ‘pushed’ into action because his effort to have the dispute solved by the English Parliament failed. Note that Glyndŵr studied law in London and came to rebellion late, in his forties. It is interesting to compare how they both justified their claim on the title and the land. Llywelyn invokes an ancestral obligation to protect the people and the land and, by calling on the legend of Brutus, claims a connection to the land that the English cannot. Similarly, with Glyndŵr, the claim on the title and the land is justified through ancestry as a descendant of Welsh princes. As with Llywelyn, reality and myth combine to make Glyndŵr a King Arthur-like figure. You will no doubt have your views as to why Owain Glyndŵr has left more of a mark on history than Llywelyn ap Gruffydd. Maybe Glyndŵr had an ambitious, inspiring and to some extent selfless vision for a Welsh state that Llywelyn did not?

Owain Glyndŵr’s rebellion was a serious, but short-lived, assertion of the right of Wales to an independent political existence which has echoed through subsequent centuries. Six hundred years later, in 2000, celebrations were held to commemorate the anniversary of the revolt. Although much about Owain Glyndŵr ’s life remains shadowy, he is widely praised as a natural, charismatic leader, an inspiration for Welsh national aspirations, and one of the most heroic figures in Welsh history.


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