Giants of the North – Owain Glyndwr and Harlech Castle – The Pride of Wales
A flashback into the history of Harlech Castle produced fascinating information about a revered Welsh Hero: Owain Glyndwr (Owen Glendower)Via Magic Carpet Journals. Story and Photos by M. Maxine George
Who was Owain Glyndwr? As I travelled through Wales I kept hearing the name “Owain Glyndwr.”
Our first stop, upon arrival in Wales, had been an overnight at the Royal Oak Hotel in Welshpool, near the Welsh – English border. There I heard a story about Owain Glyndwr attacking the town, hot on the trail of the baggage train of Prince Henry, son of King Henry IV. This was the start of the snippets of information I began to hear about this man throughout Wales.
In Llangollen, we were told that Owain Glyndwr’s hereditary home, Sycharth was nearby. That was where a revolt started in 1400.
We were shown a set of mounting steps in the forecourt of Skirrid Inn, in Abergavenny, Monmouthshire. Legend has it that Owain Glyndwr rallied his troops for the march on Pontrilas from those steps.
In Conwy Castle, I heard about the Tudur brothers of Anglesey. They were cousins and supporters of Glyndwr. They captured the supposedly impregnable fortress on April 1, 1401. It didn’t seem possible that they could have held Conwy Castle for three months!
History tells us that Glyndwr and his followers invaded Caernarfon Castle and hoisted the flag of King Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon. Three hundred men were lost in that battle in November 1401.
At Harlech Castle I finally learned the real story of this hero of the Welsh people, for it was there that his star had shone the brightest.
Harlech Castle appears to be at one with the rock bluff it sits majestically atop. Its serene appearance conceals a turbulent past. The site was chosen, not just for the magnificent scenery, with the mountains of Snowdonia surrounding it to the east, but because the rock bluff was exceptionally defensible and quite awe-inspiring. From a steep cliff face, Harlech Castle looks out onto Tremadog Bay to the west, making access to the castle extremely difficult from the sea. It is believed access to the sea was once by a defended stairway plunging 200 ft. down the rock face to the water gate at the foot of the castle rock, near where the harbour was at that time. Anyone coming this way would have been under the watchful eye of those guarding the tower. The only other means of access was via the twin-towered gatehouse with two massive barred gates, arrow loops, and three portcullis gates, the spiked gates that could be dropped down to impale or imprison unwelcome intruders, or give others time to be identified before being allowed entry. The bay has receded considerably since construction of the castle, which was one of the formidable fortresses, built by King Edward I, seven hundred years ago, to inspire fear in the hearts of all Welshmen. For about a hundred years, it did just that, while deep-seated rebellion against the English king simmered amongst the Welsh population.
Approximately one-hundred years later the restless population fell in behind a charismatic but surprising leader, Owain Glyndwr. Glyndwr was a descendent of two of the great princely houses of Wales, the Powys princes through his father, and his mother was a granddaughter of Llewelyn ap Gruffydd. The family was part of the Anglo-Welsh culture who lived in the marsh country near the border between Wales and England. They were landed Welsh gentry. His father died while Owain was a young lad. He was then raised by David Hanmer, a lawyer who became justice of the King’s Bench. Hanmer made it possible for Owain to go to London as a young man, where he studied law, along with Hanmer’s sons. He later spent time in the service of King Richard II.
Glyndwr came home to Wales and married Margaret, the daughter of David Hanmer. He began to manage his hereditary family estates, Glyndyfrdwy and Sycharth, in north-east Wales, near the border. In 1399 the English King Richard II was captured and deposed by Henry Bolingbroke, who became King Henry IV. Shortly after, a land dispute with a neighbour, Reginald de Grey, who happened to be a strong supporter of the new king, incited Glyndwr’s ire. When the British court ruled in the neighbour’s favour, Owain Glyndwr began his revolt and others were quick to follow his lead. Soon after his followers proclaimed him to be the rightful ‘Prince of Wales.’ His followers included, along with others, his brothers-in-law, Gruffudd and Philip Hanmer, and his Tudur cousins, Rhys and Gwilym. They marched on Ruthin and neighbouring English settlements, burning and pillaging. His star rose rapidly.
A Comet that appeared in 1402 was believed to be a sign that Owain Glyndwr possessed near magical powers and would produce great things for Wales. The legions of his supporters grew.
The taking of Conwy Castle had rekindled the spirit of rebellion, Glyndwr and his mighty Welshmen quickly rallied other Welsh nobles to his cause. Knowledgeable about the hills and mountains of Wales, they developed guerilla tactics that served them well so that by the end of 1403 Owain Glyndwr controlled much of Wales.
In 1404 Glyndwr and his followers captured the English strongholds of Aberystwyth and Harlech. Harlech Castle became the residence of Owain Glyndwr, his family and followers. He began to govern Wales. He held court and parliaments at Harlech; at one, he was formally crowned as Prince of Wales, before envoys from Scotland, France and Spain. The seal of Owain Glyndwr proclaimed him to be Prince of Wales. He used the seal on letters written to the King of France, at least one of which exists today in France. He concluded a treaty with France’s King Charles, which secured valuable French military support. Unfortunately this alliance supported differing motives for each leader. The French saw this as a means of conquering England, but Owain was only interested in ruling Wales, without English interference. He had great ideas for an independent Welsh state; a separate Welsh church; and two universities, one in the north, another in the south. He also wanted a return to the traditional laws of Hywel Dda, an ancient Monarch and good leader of the Welsh people.
In 1408 and 1409 Harlech Castle came under siege by Harry of Monmouth, who later became King Henry V. This time extensive cannon fire was used in the sieges and other contemporary weapons were brought into play also. The cannon balls seen within the castle are thought to remain from those assaults. The dream of establishing a separate Welsh principality had been like a fire whose last embers were dying. Glyndwr’s wife Margaret, two of his daughters and three granddaughters were captured and taken to the Tower of London, where they all died before 1415. Owain retreated to the hills in his heartland. He became a hunted guerilla. He was last seen by his enemies in 1412, when he captured and ransomed a leading supporter of King Henry’s. Rumors persisted until 1414 that some of his followers still were in communication with him. Enormous rewards were offered for his capture. Interestingly enough he was never betrayed. Although other rebel leaders were captured and pardoned, he was never captured nor tempted by royal pardons. His final years, the place of his death and his burial remained a mystery.
The spirit of rebellion that had been rekindled, burnt fiercely, but not always brightly, before the flames were finally smothered by the English fourteen years later.
Who was Owain Glyndwr? It became obvious he was a historic figure, who is highly revered throughout the country to this day; in fact he is considered a national figure on a par with the famous King Arthur. The year 2000 was the 600th anniversary of the Glyndwr uprising. He was immortalized in England by Shakespeare as Owen Glendower, the English translation of his name. He was voted 23rd in a poll of the 100 Greatest Britons in 2002.
As for Harlech Castle, it has had a somewhat varied history. It was an English stronghold for the King’s garrison, then the bastion of power for a Welsh rebel leader, and the seat of the Welsh government, under the last native Welsh Prince of Wales. It survived five sieges, and was retaken by the English. Harlech was deserted, then was regarrisoned. It became the site of a pivotal battle in the War of the Roses where the garrison withstood a siege by, reportedly, 7,000 to 10,000 men for nearly a month. It had a well-loved and rousing Welsh march written in tribute to the brave soldiers who defended it, The Men of Harlech. Now it is a World Heritage Site inscribed as a ‘heritage site of outstanding universal value.’ I might also add that it is well worth a visit, not only for the castle but also to enjoy the fabulous view from its ramparts.
My flirtation with the story of Owain Glyndwr did not end in Wales, but rather in the small English border village of Welshampton. An interesting post script to this story came at the end of my tour through Wales, when I visited that English village. While there I discovered there is speculation that Owain Glyndwr was secretly buried under a yew tree at a place once known as Plas Beddowe(n), the historic name for one of the old farms in the area. Much research through ancient records in the vicinity, has given some valuable clues to this theory.
It is believed that Owain lived his final years with one of his daughter’s families (the husbands of either Alys or Catrin,) probably dying in 1415 or 1416. Strangely enough, both lived in England. The more probable home is thought to have been that of Alys, who had secretly married Sir John Scudmore, who had been appointed the King’s Sheriff of Herefordshire. Who would suspect the King’s sheriff would be harbouring the most wanted man in all the land? The Scudmore home was in Monnington Straddel, in west Herefordshire. It is also suspected that family members were hiding Owain’s eldest son, Meredudd. The last record of an offer for a royal pardon to Owain was in July 1415. An offer was made to Meredudd, with no mention of Owain Glyndwr, in February 1416. Meredudd had been with his father right from the start of the uprising in 1400. He may have been with his father right until Owain’s death.
The Chronicle of Adam of Usk, a contemporary and supporter of Owain Glyndwr, also a lawyer and monk, had this to say:
“After four years in hiding, from the king and the realm, Owen Glendower died, and was buried by his followers in the darkness of night. His grave was discovered by his enemies, however, so he had to be re-buried, though it is impossible to discover where he was laid.” This entry was made in 1415, so it is probable that Owain Glyndwr died during or after September 1415.
Obviously, if he was buried at the home of one of his immediate family and that site was found, then the next burial would have to have been either on property owned by close, but extended members of his family circle and/or very loyal and trusted followers. There were three Hanmer brothers, all brothers of Owain’s wife Margaret. The third brother, John had been appointed as one of Owain’s ambassadors to the King of France. He was captured in 1405 and paid the largest fine of the entire war for his freedom. This information certainly puts the Hanmer brothers at the top of his list of loyal and trusted supporters and members of the close family circle. Another member of the extended family of Owain Glyndwr was John Kynaston of Stocks in Welshampton, uncle of Margaret and the Hanmer brothers. He was known to have taken part in the revolt of 1400. There is a record of his having to obtain a royal pardon for later involvement with the rebellion too. After the revolt was put down, the estates of Gruffudd and Philip Hanmer were confiscated. John Hanmer and John Kynaston both recovered their estates.
Stocks, the estate of John Kynaston, was near the high hill known as “Old Hampton”, the site of the ancient village of Hampton. The Kynaston name comes up in old local records prior to 1404. Also beside that hill is a low-land meadow known as Bradenheath. Nearby Bradenheath there is a small hill atop which sits the estate once known as Plas Beddowe. Records show that Plas Beddowe was on an ancient Hanmer estate, home to members of the Hanmer family as least as early as 1404. Until the 1800’s the property was recorded as “Plas Beddowe.” Sometime after that the name was changed to ‘Bank Farm.’ Stocks, the Kynaston estate can be seen from Bank Farm even today. Research into 15th Century records, which still exist, establish ownership of these two properties at least as early as the aforementioned 1404. Here were two ajoining properties owned by two loyal and trusted followers of Owain Glyndwr, both relatives of his family. Family members could come and go without gathering suspicion. Those estates had both remained in the custody of their descendants for centuries after the time of Glyndwr’s death.
The ancient village of Hampton was sited on land now part of Bank Farm and a neighbouring farm, about half way to the current location of Welshampton. It is believed to have moved from the original site as a result of an infection of Plague. At some time over the years the village of Hampton became known as Welshampton. The exact reasons have been lost with time. It could have been because a majority of the residents of Hampton were of Welsh descent and spoke the language, or it could have had some connection to a secret burial. Who can say for certain?
As for the name Plas Beddowe, the Welsh translation would be ‘Beddow’s Mansion.’ How about Plas Beddowe(n)? Would it be much of a stretch to the imagination to consider this might have been a code name for Owain’s grave?
I visited Bank Farm with the retired owners of the property, James and Beryl Hall. The Halls, well known members of their community, moved to Bank Farm in 1956. ” Bank Farm,” according to Beryl, “is about 800 yards from the Welsh border today.” Jim remembers a yew tree on the property, and said that it was traditional to plant a yew tree where there was a burial in a churchyard or a burial ground. Yew trees are frequently found in churchyards in the U. K. He thought the original yew tree had been burnt, but that it had been replaced long ago. Although the Halls Sr. no longer live on the property, Jim told me, “I keep the yew tree clipped in the shape of a bird.” He added, “The suspicion may well have been true.” Their son Richard, who now owns Bank Farm, has a nineteenth century map of the property that shows a cross beside the house, “Which,” he said, “would indicate a burial had taken place there.” The site of Owain Glyndwr’s final resting place was never divulged by his descendants. It was a family secret for almost 600 years. After all those years, has the solution to the mystery of his burial been discovered? Owain Glyndwr may lie on an English hilltop, looking out over his beloved Wales.
Harlech is under the care of Cadw, which is a Welsh word meaning ‘to keep’ or ‘to protect.’
Story and Photos by M. Maxine George
Last Updated December 27 2020 by Matthew George – Webmaster