Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Historical Research and the dispelling of fondly held myths

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One of the disadvantages of of doing historical research is that you have to let go of fondly held myths. In this instance, the myth was learned at my mother’s knee. ‘When Edward conquered Wales,’ she told me. ‘He promised the Welsh a prince who could speak not a word of Welsh. ‘Then he tricked us by giving us his baby son.’

Now, I’ve always had an affection for this story. For although it did make the Welsh look a tad gullible it perfectly illustrated the perfidy of the conquerors. Turns out the story isn’t true. Born in 1294, Edward of Caernarfon was not crowned Prince of Wales until 1301. We have an Elizabethan historian to thank for my mother’s quaint version of history.

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Unfortunately, although the baby story was a fabrications the perfidy certainly wasn’t. After the conquest, Pura Wallai was turned into a series of royal shires. Local inhabitants were relocated, castles erected, and boroughs established in which English settlers held a number of closely guarded privileges. Welsh men were barred from holding important offices. Welsh population were governed by a mixture of English Common Law (much harsher than the Welsh) and traditional Welsh law. If the latter sounds benevolent, think again. The Welsh Laws were used to impose outmoded feudal taxes and obligations on the Welsh population – obligations to which the English settlers were not subjected. Things were no better in the March. Wales was a fragmented territory in which there were two levels of government and society.

Why am I telling you this? Because I am knee deep in research for a new project. A novel written from the perspective of Owain Glyn Dŵr’s wife. What is not discussed at length in the literature on the period, is that the decision to declare himself Prince of Wales ruined Margaret’s Glyn Dŵr’s life. She ended up in the Tower of London while only two of her children survived the revolt. The whole of Wales was laid to waste.

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What kind of man would make such a decision? And why? what were his aspirations?

One of my friends suggested he was probably a selfish, misogynistic sod (actually she used stronger words) who didn’t even consider his wife or family. But really? Would that make a good story? Besides, I don’t believe it is true. The above mentioned perfidy was as alive in Glyn Dŵr’s day as it was post conquest. He appears to have made an effort to adapt to the new social system, even when doors to advancement were closed against him. When a neighbour seized a tranche of his land he initially took the case to parliament. Where, his concerns, and the Welsh population in general were dubbed ‘bare foot rascals of no account.’

Still, you might say. Why go on a rampage? Destroy English towns?

I agree. It’s not my version of good citizenship. But it seems rampaging was a common medieval pastime. Barons often pursued their aims at the point of the sword. There were no elections or referendums. No true parliamentary representation. When a man fell out of favour, he could easily end up dead. Only a year prior to the Glyn Dŵr revolt, Richard II, the king of England, had been deposed by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke and starved to death at Pontefract Castle. It wasn’t good, or right. But it was the modus operandi in those days.

But declaring himself Prince of Wales? That’s a bit drastic, isn’t it?

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The jury is out on whether Glyn Dŵr actually envisaged a full scale national revolt from the outset. Or whether he was simply trying and force a negotiation. Indeed, whether he even proclaimed himself Prince of Wales in September 1400. But, due to the above mentioned perfidy, the situation quickly went viral (note to file: if you are going to conquer a country treat the local inhabitants well or they may resent the situation). For although he didn’t officially use the title Princeps Wallie until much later in the revolt and, although the only hard evidence we have for him claiming the title prior to this comes from hysterical English sources, there is an historical precedent. You see, in 1287, Rhys ap Maredudd of Dryslwyn had declared himself Prince of Wales. In 1294, Madog ap Llewelyn and Morgan ap Maredudd rose in revolt. In 1316, Llewelyn Bren also laid claim to the titles. In 1378, Owain Lawgoch was assassinated by the English Crown for daring to assert his claim to the throne. Glyn Dŵr’s response was not without precedent.

But enough of the man, how did his wife Margaret feel about the situation? Was she there at the fateful declaration? What was her feelings? What about later, when her husband’s lands were declared forfeit? Or when she lay besieged and starving in Harlech Castle?

No one knows the answer to those questions. I get to write my own version of history. My challenge being to let go of modern perceptions and try to enter her medieval mindset. Imagine how she might have felt as her world spiralled out of control, who she would have turned to in those early terrible weeks. Did she hitch herself to her husband’s star when it started to rise? Or try to work against him? And how did she feel at the end, trap or within those grey stone tower walls, while her husband was still at liberty?

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2 Comments

  1. Rob

    Neither of those Edwards would have spoken English anyway.

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