Owain Glyndwr (c.1359 – 1417) is Denbighshire’s most renowned hero. Taking his name from his estates around Glyndyfrdwy – between Corwen and Llangollen – he led the last great Welsh rising against English rule, and very nearly made Wales an independent nation. A wealthy middle-aged landowner, educated in London and with a distinguished service record in English armies and fleets, Glyndwr seemed an unlikely rebel leader. But he was also the descendant of three Welsh princely dynasties, identified by bards as the prophesied saviour of his people.
When his neighbour Lord Grey of Ruthin seized part of his estate, Owain appealed for redress to King Henry IV and his own establishment contacts in Parliament – only to be contemptuously rebuffed. He reacted with striking suddenness, declaring himself Prince of Wales on 16th September 1400 – traditionally at the site of Owain Glyndwr’s mound (Site 15). Next he set out with a small but determined force to raid and burn Ruthin (Site 1) – crowded with visitors to an annual fair – moving on to ravage the English settlements of Denbigh (Site 32), Rhuddlan (Site 36), Flint, Hawarden, Holt, Oswestry and Welshpool, all within a week. Then he was crushingly defeated by an English levy, retiring into the hills with only a handful of followers.
Apparently so soon extinguished, Glyndwr’s rising had in fact scarcely begun. News of it spread quickly through Wales and into England, drawing Welsh students at Oxford and Welsh emigrant labourers home to join his banner. Meanwhile the English government enacted sternly anti-Welsh laws – which only served to increase support for Glyndwr. During the next two years he struck unexpectedly in many parts of Wales, melting away before superior English forces to appear again at the other end of the country. In 1402 he achieved two spectacular coups – heralded, it was believed, by a blazing comet. In April, near Ruthin, he ambushed and took his arch-enemy Lord Grey – later ransomed for a huge sum – and in June he routed an English army at Pilleth in Radnorshire, capturing their leader Edmund Mortimer. Moreover, when three avenging English expeditions advanced against Owain, they were driven back by appalling weather. The King’s own pavilion was demolished by a sudden storm. Such disasters, it was thought, could only be explained by Owain’s skill in wizardry – a legend recalled by Shakespeare in his play Henry IV Part I.
In May 1403, the King’s young son Prince Henry – later Henry V – began to emerge as Glyndwr’s most formidable opponent, ravaging his Denbighshire lands in a destructive lightning raid. But this setback was more than redressed by successes in south-west Wales, where Owain took fortress after fortress, and by the acquisition of powerful new allies – including the captured Mortimer (who married Glyndwr’s daughter) and Mortimer’s famous brother-in-law ‘Harry Hotspur’.
The years 1404 and 1405 saw the zenith of Glyndwr’s fortunes. He already dominated much of Wales, and when the strong English castles of Harlech and Aberystwyth surrendered to him he ruled undisputed from Cardigan to Caernarfon. Now therefore he began to act as an acknowledged sovereign prince, summoning Welsh Parliaments at Machynlleth and Harlech and drawing up a programme for an independent Welsh church and two Welsh universities. As ‘Owen, but the Grace of God Prince of Wales’, he also negotiated a treaty with England’s opponent the King of France.
This bore temporarily hopeful fruit when a Franco-Welsh expedition advanced to within eight
miles of Worcester – only to retire again after an indecisive stand-off with an English army.
Thereafter, Owain’s star gradually waned. Under energetic pressure from Prince Henry, outlying parts of his domain began to capitulate to the English. Aberystwyth Castle fell in 1408, and Harlech – after a bombardment by English heavy cannon – in 1409, leaving Owain’s wife and daughters in English hands and his prestige greatly reduced. Denbighshire apparently remained loyal to him, and from there he launched his last major raid on the Shropshire borders in 1410: it failed disastrously, and the rising was now a spent force.
Glyndwr nevertheless remained at large, rejecting a reconciliation and pardon offered in 1415 by his erstwhile opponent, now King Henry V. Soon afterwards he simply disappeared. He was probably dead by 1417, and perhaps lies buried near his daughter’s home in Hertfordshire. But we do not know for sure, and some contemporary Welshmen believed he never died at all. Whether or not (like King Arthur) he still lies sleeping until his country’s greatest need, his memory certainly still lives on: nowhere more so than in his ancestral lands around Corwen (Site 13).
Owain Glyndwr’s Great Seal (reverse). By permission of the National Museum of Wales
Monument to Owain Glyndwr’s great grandfather, Valle Crucis Abbey
Gilt bronze harness mounting bearing the arms of Owain Glyndwr, foudn at Harlech Castle. By permission of the National Museum of Wales