Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Usk, Owain Glyndwr and The Hollow Crown

The gory battle
   This peaceful rural scene, Pwll Melyn (yellow pool) just outside Usk, is the place where Owain Glyndwr's army, led by his eldest son Gruffydd (one of 11 not counting illegitimates), was defeated in 1405. This loss severely damaged the Welsh rebel uprising against the English King, Henry IV.  One and a half thousand men died and Gruffydd was taken prisoner in Monkswood (where the rebels had taken refuge) and moved to the Tower of London where he died of the plague 6 years later. Of the 300 men who surrendered, most were executed in front of the Castle where some locals say they can still feel their ghostly presence. (Fred Hando wrote that scores of skeletons were found when a pond north east of the castle was drained in the 19th century). Previously they had had huge military successes throughout Wales and, in Usk, in 1402, had attacked the Castle, largely destroyed the town and massacred many inhabitants.

The man - the facts
   Owain Glyndwr was virtually a marcher lord of distinguished Welsh lineage, being squire to the future Henry IV and a student of law at the Inns of Court in London for 7 years. Wales was ready for an uprising and bards had sung of  'mab darogan', a son of prophecy, who would restore the country's former glory. This became almost a full-blown nationalist revolt. There was some support from the Percy's for Lord Mortimer as rightful wearer of the crown and, as he was married to Owain Glyndwr's daughter, Catrin, this gave Glyndwr a new relationship with Henry Percy, aka Hotspur.  All of them joined forces against Henry IV and nearly won. Glyndwr, rebel leader, became virtually a ruling prince and was the last native Welshman to be Prince of Wales.

The Bard's version
    This cultured and semi-aristocratic figure appears as Glendower in the second play of the tetralogy (group of four plays) presented by the BBC as the first part of The Hollow Crown. The drama, King Henry IV pt i, is one of Shakespeare's best plays with its wide range of memorable characters (including Falstaff), humour and rich language in prose and blank verse. Shakespeare presents Glendower as a wild Welshman, mocked by Hotspur, and the cause of a near split in the rebel alliance. He claims to have been born to the accompaniment of "fiery shapes of burning cressets" and earthquakes along with other strange manifestations.  
   This enrages Hotspur who retaliates in hostile but witty fashion to another boast of Glendower's:
      Glen: I can call spirits from the vasty deep
      Hots: Why, so can I, or so can any man,
             But will they come when you do call for them?
   When Hotspur tells him bluntly to "tell truth and shame the devil", Mortimer intervenes and later describes his father-in-law as "a worthy gentleman/Exceedingly well read ... valiant as a lion/And wondrous affable, and as bountiful/As mines of India."  This is much closer to the reality and one wonders why Shakespeare wrote as he did: it is possibly to show another level of irresponsibility and disharmony (apart from Prince Hal's dissolute tavern life) so that we realise that these men could not rule a kingdom. It was Hotspur who, at the beginning of this scene, in which they meet to divide the country between them, exclaims: " ... a plague upon it/I have forgot the map", surely one of the most human quotations in the canon. We note that Shakespeare has made Hotspur a much younger man to achieve sharper comparisons and contrasts to the heir apparent, Hal, both named Henry.

Visiting the site
   As you walk out of your bus stop in Twyn Square, Usk, you turn right and then left up towards the Castle which is clearly sign-posted. Stay on the path/road to the right where you have marvellous views, and, when you enter woodland, keep an eye open to the left for a little clearing where there is a blue Usk Civic Society plaque. After your stroll (about a couple of miles there and back, though you can continue and make a pleasant circular walk) you deserve a cuppa and large piece of delicious CAKE at one of Usk's many super cafes. (If you too have been a rebel and come by car - tut! tut! - there is the lovely Green Flute Cafe attached to the Rural life Museum in the free car park). Other suggestions for trips near Usk have links on the post about Alfred Russel Wallace who was born here.

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