Sunday, 15 January 2017

Owain Glyn Dwr: an assessment

Owain Glyn Dwr: the mystery
   Why Owain Glyn Dwr led a revolt against the crown when he was advanced in age for such a risk and was happily married, father of several children in a beautiful home, is a question I have addressed in a previous post (link below). Bards who had the status of prophets spoke of the coming of a new leader after the deaths of the two great Princes who might have succeeded in forming a united Wales to endure for generations: Llywelyn ap Iorwerth (the Great) and Llywelyn ap Gruffudd (the Last.)
    Dissatisfaction with the status quo combined with fierce national pride produced an impetus towards rebellion in a country where - it must be admitted - various factions had warred against one another and failed to accept a single leader to maintain a strong and independent state.
   Histories have given the details of his guerrilla campaigns and fixed battles at first seeming to lead to triumph but then failing, leading to his defeat near Usk in May 1405, the turning point.
The downside.
   There seems little doubt that his rebellion caused widespread devastation in the country he hoped to make powerful. His invasion of Gwent in 1402 caused dislocation of economic life and the structures of society. No courts were held in 1402 and 1403 in Monmouth, White Castle, Grosmont and Dingestow nor could revenue be collected at Monmouth in 1405. Tenants protested that they could not sow crops for 3 years and rents were uncollected as late as 1411. Tenements were burned and destroyed and the value of properties fell continuously until, in 1410, the manor of Caerleon was worth as little as 16s 8d. In August 1403 Newport was laid waste by his followers, one of many towns to be attacked and ruined. Abergavenny was burned in that same year. Life in Gwent was on a war footing and civilian governance was replaced by a series of ad hoc military commands.
   The plague had earlier caused a massive decline in population which exacerbated the background situation. Works on sea defences had ceased and storm and winds increased pressure on them until 350 - 600 metres were lost. Grain prices rose and production decreased. These factors caused simmering amongst the population and law and order were breaking down. In August 1403 William Beauchamp reported himself all but ruined (his villeins had risen against him releasing 3 criminals) and claimed that his soldiers could not travel safely between Abergavenny and Hereford without being killed or captured.
   By 1410 the revolt was over but the effects were persistent and deep. Boroughs were in arrears and the Assize roll in Monmouth in 1413 recorded over 60 tenants fined for non-appearance. The lordships had been shaken but castles had had a new lease of life, having been repaired and fortified at vast expense although many suffered in the war. The countryside was hugely impoverished, the troops having burned, looted, ravaged crops, damaged mills and rustled cattle all as acts of reprisal against lordships by depriving them of income. It sounds like the infamous "Harrying of the North" by William I except that this was done, ironically, by would-be leaders to their own. In Usk "all the tenants had fled, certain of them had been killed" and the priories of Abergavenny and Usk pleaded poverty. Some towns were ghostly and the equilibrium of a frontier society was overturned.

The vision
   It may seem hard to balance this devastation with anything positive but hindsight casts a shadow. The rebellion might be viewed differently had Owain Glyn Dwr's forces won and his ideas been put into practice. We have some insight into his vision from the Pennal Letter of 31st March 1406, written in Latin on goatskin parchment after a "Senedd" or meeting of lords near Machynlleth in which the leading churchmen decided to switch allegiance to the Pope at Avignon.
   There would have been an alliance with the recipient, Charles VI of France, severance of the Welsh church from Canterbury, the creation of an archbishopric at St. David's and the foundation of 2 universities in Wales, one in the north and one in the south so that Wales could be spiritually and intellectually empowered to work out her own destiny. This is truly a prophetic mission, not a desire for personal aggrandisement.

    Perhaps Shakespeare hit the spot in Henry IV pt i. Although there is no historical evidence that the real Glyn Dwr boasted of strange events at his nativity and magical powers, such an aura surrounded him and added to his charismatic appeal. Mortimer puts the other view that he is a "worthy gentleman, exceedingly well read" whilst the lower orders complain of the rise in the price of oats and Falstaff, in a moment of seriousness, points out that "you may buy land now as cheap as stinking mackerel."  The great ones quarrel and the ordinary man and woman suffer.

 For my earlier post on Owain Glyn Dwr and an account of the battles, click here. I have also written about Usk Castle, White Castle and Monmouth Castle.

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