Owain Glyndŵr: The last Welsh prince of wales
It’s fair to say the Welsh and the English don’t exactly see eye to eye on… well, many things. Most things. Possibly all conceivable things, ever. So what exactly is the source of this friendly (and not so friendly) animosity? In Al Murray: Why Does Everyone Hate the English?, the comedian meets up with Welsh funnyman Elis James to rummage through the reasons.
As it turns out, one source of irritation is the whole “Prince of Wales” thing. Why is Prince Charles, a man not renowned for his Welshness, the designated overlord of Wales? Why, indeed, is it a convention that the heirs to the throne have the title Prince of Wales? This seemingly innocuous question leads us back into the surprisingly bloody and hateful history of Welsh-English relations, and to the last real Welshman to hold the title: Owain Glyndŵr, the William Wallace of Wales.
The Iron Ring
The monarch who created the convention of naming heirs the 'Prince of Wales' was Edward I, aka Edward Longshanks, aka the bad guy from Braveheart. Yes, as well as being the 'Hammer of the Scots', Edward was also the nemesis of the Welsh, conquering the ancient lands in the late 13th Century and bringing the territories of the original Welsh princes under his own control.
A network, or 'iron ring', of castles were built to cement English rule in Wales. Fortified towns also sprang up, where the English effectively lived as contemptuous colonialists. When droves of tourists come to admire these castles today, most are blissfully unaware that – technically speaking – they are hateful symbols of English oppression during a period of medieval apartheid.
Having conquered Wales, Edward then conferred the title 'Prince of Wales' on his son, who would become Edward II. This set the precedent for heirs to the throne being called Prince of Wales. But, just over a century later, one man would rise up to challenge this tradition and unite the Welsh against their oppressors.
The Unlikely Rebel
Owain Glyndŵr, who would be hailed by none other than Fidel Castro as 'the world’s first guerrilla leader', was actually a very well-off, highly respected member of the gentry. A descendant of Welsh princes from the old territory of Powys, he studied law in London, married the daughter of a high-ranking legal scholar, and generally carried on like your typical lord of the manor.
All of that changed in 1400, when what initially seemed like a petty land dispute with a neighbouring aristocrat escalated rapidly. Enraged and indignant at his treatment by the English ruling classes, Owain Glyndŵr rose up against them, amassing a group of followers who hailed him as the true Prince of Wales.
Glyndŵr, and his warriors would strike hard and without warning, rampaging through English-controlled towns, lay them waste and then vanish back into the mountains, where the forces of King Henry IV couldn’t find them. The English soldiers sent after Glyndŵr didn’t just have geography against them – there was also the dreadful weather, which slowed their progress and made many believe Glyndŵr was some kind of Celtic sorcerer with powers to control the very heavens.
Many of the archers in the English army were actually Welsh, and defected midway through the battle
Glyndŵr didn’t just excel at guerrilla warfare. He also presided over stunning victories over the English in full-scale confrontations like the Battle of Bryn Glas. Despite being outnumbered, Glyndŵr came out on top – partly because many of the archers in the English army were actually Welsh, and defected midway through the battle, literally turning around and firing arrows on their own side. Not only did Glyndŵr win, but the Welsh rebel took the leader of the English forces captive and had him marry his daughter, forging a startling alliance with his former enemy.
Such victories excited and inspired Welsh people everywhere – there are stories of Welsh students at Oxford dropping their books and charging back to the old country to join the rebellion. Things took an even more triumphant turn when Glyndŵr captured Harlech Castle, a major English stronghold. This would become Owain’s own Camelot, the seat of power where he drew up plans for a Welsh parliament and envisioned a brave new future for an independent Wales, complete with its own church.
An Enigmatic End
Sadly for the Welsh rebels, this glorious new era would never come. The tide turned against their uprising, with English forces – overseen by the future Henry V – regaining control of Welsh territory. Eventually, Harlech Castle fell back into English hands, with Owain’s wife and extended family being carted off to the Tower of London.
Glyndŵr, having had a taste of real power as the Prince of Wales, was reduced once again to the status of a fugitive guerrilla fighter, conducting raids here and there with his dwindling and probably exhausted band of men. And yet, this brazen rebel who challenged the might of the English throne was never captured or punished. He vanishes from the historical record in 1412, and as far as we know he was never betrayed or apprehended, living out his remaining years incognito.
Everyone has a different theory on what became of him, and where he was eventually buried. Some even like to imagine that, like King Arthur, he will someday return to take his rightful place as the Prince of Wales again. It’s a testament to the exploits and influence of this Welsh hero, who in Shakespeare’s words was “that great magician” whose very birth was marked by a fiery sky and the shaking of the Earth, and who was “not in the roll of common men”.