Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

The Rise and Fall of Owain Glyn Dŵr – a review of Gideon Brough’s recent publication

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I am not an historian. I’m an historical fiction writer. There is a difference. For although I’m pretty pedantic about getting details right, I am primarily driven by narrative. Which is fortunate, because in researching, my current project, a novel from the viewpoint of Owain Glyn Dŵr’s wife, there is precious little historical detail to go on. We know she was born, Margaret Hanmer, that her father was David Hanmer, Justice of the King’s Bench under Richard II. She married Owain Glyn Dŵr at some point, gave birth to an unspecified number of children and as a consequence of her husband’s revolt, died in the Tower of London. If she had not married Owain Glyn Dŵr, she’d probably have died in peaceful old age. Her name lost forever to history. However, she did marry Glyn Dŵr. The decision (most likely that of her parents) had an undeniable impact on her life. Therefore, to novelise Margaret, I must begin with the man himself.

Until recently, the most comprehensive work on Owain Glyn Dŵr was The Revolt of Owain Glyn Dŵr by R. R. Davies. Now, I am not an historian, remember. I’m attuned to narrative and, no matter how erudite and comprehensive and well researched I found Davies work, I couldn’t help noticing his narrative had holes. Which is why I’ve been hanging out for the publication of The Rise and Fall of Owain Glyn Dŵr by Gideon Brough.

I’d listened to a podcast by Dr. Brough and noticed he had a slightly different take on the outbreak of the Glyn Dŵr’s revolt. One that promised a more credible version of events. As it turned out, the book had a great deal to offer, on a number of levels. But let’s start with the outbreak.

By general consensus, Owain Glyn Dŵr was the son of a disinherited Welsh princely house, after the death of both parents he became a state ward, he studied at the Inns of Court in London, held lands in Cynllaith, Merioneth and Cardiganshire, married the daughter of a minor Anglo-welsh landowner and took part in a number of English military campaigns. After which, in 1388, he disappeared from the historical record. We next hear of him in September 1400 when he lead a cavalry raid against a number of English boroughs. Although, it can not be fully substantiated, the general consensus is that the raid was sparked by a border dispute with his neighbour Reginald Grey and that, prior to setting out on the above raid, Glyn Dŵr  was declared Prince of Wales.

In narrative terms, there a is a huge leap between a young man who appeared to be living a conventional, upper-class life and the same man declaring himself Prince of Wales. In an attempt to leap this chasm, Davies had his own go at storytelling — theorising that Glyn Dŵr rebelled in September 1400 because he had not been knighted on a military campaign in 1387. He had allegedly gone home from that campaign, sulked for ten years and finally decided that the remedy was to declare himself Prince of Wales. Then a year later when, it looked the Prince of Wales thing wasn’t going to fly, he tried to negotiate his way out of the situation. Apart from the fact that this is a singularly unattractive narrative, there is also no evidence for the sulky, failed-knight theory. As far as I can’t tell, only three Welsh men had been knighted between the conquest of Wales and 1388. Three in over a hundred years. None of them Welsh barons, like Glyn Dŵr, who were descendants of the Welsh princes and the natural leaders of their people. So, why would Glyn Dŵr have expected it?

So what does Brough make of the outbreak? For a start, he questions the veracity of Glyn Dŵr starting a national revolt in September 1400. This makes sense to me, seeing as the primary evidence we have for this claim comes from two hysterical English legal proceedings in which Glyn Dŵr was said to be:

Plotting, conspiring, and intending the death and disinheriting of the said lord king and the everlasting extinction of the crown and regality of himself and of all his successors, the kings of England; the death of Henry, Prince of Wales, the first born son of our said king, of all the magnates and nobles of England; and also the death destruction and everlasting distinction of the whole English language.

If Glyn Dŵr truly did set out to do all those things he was a Froot Loop. End of story. Presuming he wasn’t (and most evidence points to him being well-educated, sensible and amenable), then it is not unreasonable to assume that he may not have been declared Prince of Wales in September 1400 either. In support of this theory, Brough points out that Glyn Dŵr did not style himself as Prince of Wales in the early letters he wrote to leaders in Scotland and Ireland, or in the letter he wrote to Henry Dwn in 1403. During Glyn Dŵr’s parleys with crown officials in late 1401, it appears the reinstatement of his lands was all he sought. The theory being that, through the aforementioned border dispute with his neighbour, Glyn Dŵr had been unjustly dispossessed of his inheritance and, having failed to remedy the situation by legal means, had been forced into rebellion.

In addition to the above, Brough argues that Glyn Dŵr wasn’t the first to arms in 1400, that there were a number of other unrelated uprisings occurring in the region at the time. However, as the harsh response to the revolt pushed the disaffected Welsh into further rebellion and Glyn Dŵr’s parleying failed to bear fruit, he had no choice but to take on the national cause. At which point the disparate Welsh groups coalesced under his leadership.

Now, that, is narrative I can work with.

In addition to this original thinking on the outbreak of the revolt, The Rise and Fall of Owain Glyn Dŵr has a number of additional strengths. Far too many to discuss in full on this blog. However, one of the ways in which it stands out from earlier works, is the way in which it sets the revolt in the context of the Hundred Years War. Davies and before him, J. E. Lloyd, made little of this connection. However, Glyn Dŵr’s alliance with France, the subsequent treaties, declarations, military aid and even the eventual failure of the revolt are all inextricably linked to the long running conflict between England and France and indeed the schism within Christendom. Even the stand off between the Welsh/French and English armies outside Worcester cannot be adequately explained unless you take the regional tensions into account. In light of these manoeuvrings, Brough’s theory of what actually happened at Worcester and the possible ensuing treaty are a refreshing addition to the previously vague analysis of this part of the revolt. As is his description of the diplomatic manoeuvring that paved the way for an eventual English military victory.

A final strength, and perhaps one I am ill-equipped to judge in any measurable sense, is the book’s authority on military matters. I’ve read a number of books on Welsh soldiers and English military campaigns in relation to this era. They all made sense in a dry, academic, yes-I-suppose-that’s-what-happened kind of way. However, when reading The Rise and Fall of Owain Glyn Dŵr I had a sense of the author’s authority. Whether it was discussing how many boroughs could realistically have been attacked in September 1400, how fast troops could be moved, the explanation of what terms like ‘a thousand lances’ actually meant, evidence of troop movements on the landscape, prisoner exchanges, negotiations, parleys, the assaults on castles, the muster letters sent out in 1403, even the analysis of Owain’s letters to France, Scotland and Ireland show evidence of a trained military mind. This is not an element of the book that can be endorsed definitively by one as non-military minded as myself. But it made me sit up and notice.

So what am I left with? A woman who married a man who was unjustly treated by the government of his day and became the leader of a national rebellion. How did she feel about that rebellion? What contribution did she make to his efforts? How did she respond to the loss of her home, her lands and, eventually her liberty? No one knows the answers to those questions, at least not in a way that can be historically verified. The novelist’s job is to fill in the gaps in a way that is true to the human heart and hopefully also the era in which the story is set. At least now I have a portrait of Glyn Dŵr I can work with.

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4 Comments

  1. Hi Liz, What a great find for your exploration of Margaret. As I’ve discovered with my work, having a workable historical structure of events or motivations helps enormously with, as you call it, ‘the novelist’s job’. All the best. Cheers, Earl

    • Elizabeth Jane Corbett

      The book has been enormously helpful, as has the writer of the book in answering my many foolish questions. 🙂

  2. Fabulous article you’ve written Liz. I can’t wait to read about this woman.

    • Elizabeth Jane Corbett

      I’m enjoying getting to know her. Though, at times, the required research feels like a well without a bottom. I could,stay down there forever. But I’ve got scenes jostling round in my head.

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