Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Category: history

Dyddiau Olaf Owain Glyndŵr – the last days of Owain Gyndŵr

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No one knows how Owain Glyndŵr spent his final days. He simply vanished. Some claim he died, his mortal remains interred in secret to prevent desecration by his enemies. But as always, when considering the ‘legendary’ life of Glyndŵr, there is much debate. My fictional character, his wife, will not, in fact, know how her husband’s fate. She would have been imprisoned in the Tower long before Glynŵr left the stage. But fiction is not real life. Meaning can be drawn by the writer without the conscious knowledge of the character. I therefore needed to know what people were saying about Glyndŵr’s exit from the world.

I wanted a scholarly book (trust me there are some wild theories out there), written by a writer who understood the poetic traditions surrounding the Glyndŵr and was keen to explore them in non-fanciful ways. Gruffudd Aled Williams appeared to be my man. He grew up in Glyn Dyfrydwy, Glyndŵr’s old stomping ground, and is a renowned scholar of Welsh medieval poetry. His book, Dyddiau Olaf Owain Glyndŵr was shortlisted for Wales Book of the Year in 2016. I placed an order and looked forward to the book wending its way across the world to my letter box.

‘Mam and Dad have read that book.’ One of my fellow Welsh tutors informed me one Tuesday evening. ‘They are in the same historical society as Gruffydd  Aled Williams.’ (like, is there anyone in Welsh speaking Wales that doesn’t know everybody?)

‘Was the book any good?’ I asked him.

‘Yes. But it wasn’t an easy read.’

Now, I can read Welsh. Of course, I can. I read I Botany Bay, didn’t I? And Fy mhobl i? And Blasu (sort of). But here’s the thing. My leaner’s Welsh is not as fluid as it was while living in Wales (sob). Added to which, when two first-language Welsh speakers who are living in Bala (the heart of Cymru Cymraeg) say the book was not an easy read, then you are facing a seriously difficult situation.

Fortunately, I live in a part of Melbourne that is densely populated with Welsh speakers. There are four of us living within two kilometres of each other. That’s right, practically a ghetto. One of them, my friend Ceri, is a Welsh woman from Harlech who studied Welsh at Aberystwyth University when Gruffudd Aled Williams was head of the Welsh Language Department (ditto, the comment about anyone and everyone). I asked Ceri whether she’d help me read the book. She took it home, perused the beginning and handed it back.

‘Have a go at reading the first chapters,’ she said, ‘then we can meet.’ (Did I also mention she trained as a teacher).

I read the first four chapters quite easily. They simply summarised aspects of the revolt I am now familiar with. But Aled’s parents were right. This was academic writing, with literary forms of verbs, multiple clauses and subtly wrought arguments. When Ceri texted, suggesting we meet in a cafe and tackle a couple of chapters together, I jumped at the offer.

We met at Padre and read aloud in tandem, not bothering to translate word for word, so much as paraphrase to confirm meaning. For example, on reading the following sentence:

O’r manna a gysylltir ȃ ddyddiau olaf Owain Glyndŵr, ei farwolaeth a’i glad – chai ohonynt a chanddynt well hawl i gael eu hystyried o ddifri na’i gilled – mae’n drawiadol cynifer ohonynta leolir yn Swydd Henfordd; one of us would say something like:

‘So, there are a few places in Herefordshire worth considering.’

‘Yr oedd rhai o’r mannau hyn o few terfynau’r sir felly bodolai yn ystod cyfnod   y gwrthryfel; daeth eraill, a leolid mewn arglwyddiaethau ar gyrion y sir, yn rhannau o Swydd Henfordd yn sgilDeddf Uno 1535-6.’

‘Because the borders were different before the Acts of Union.’

Every now and again, Ceri would insert unknown words to save me looking them up in the dictionary. Sometimes she would say, I know the meaning but I can’t think of the word in English. Still other times, we would be completely stumped and would have to consult multiple sources. I mean, we meet regular to speak Welsh in the ghetto but we don’t often discuss antiquarians (hynafiaethydd), chancels (canghellau), burial chambers (beddgellau), outlawry (herwriaeth), illegitimacy (anghyfreithlondeb) or, indeed, concubines (gordderchadon). When the cafe finally kicked us out at closing time, I felt like I’d been put through a heavily soiled washing machine cycle. I suspect Ceri felt the same. It was a sincere measure of her friendship that she offered to meet again the next week – and in the weeks following.

By week three, all sites, in Herefordshire had been thoroughly discussed. We were racing against the clock, meeting twice weekly in order to finish the book before Ceri returned to her university studies. To my profound relief, the discussion had crossed the border back into Wales. Look, I know the boundaries were different back then, that large parts of Herefordshire were in fact Welsh speaking. But hasn’t England taken enough, without adding Wales’ national hero to the body count? (yes, I take a cool-headed non-partisan approach to my research) 🙂

On the final coffee afternoon, we got kicked out of the cafe with only a few pages left to read. We sat on a sun-bright bench on Lygon Street reading about Glyndŵr’s final days with the metallic sgleen of tram-wheels in the background. It is a measure of the writer’s success that, by that point, we were reading fast and furious, desperate to reach his final conclusions. Which, although sombre, were, in the end, quite satisfying.

What’s that, I hear you say? Where was Glyndŵr finally buried?Buried! What kind of soft question is that? Glyndŵr didn’t die. He vanished. The poets all agree. He rests beneath the mountains surrounded by gold and jewels the likes of which man has never seen. When a bell tolls he will rise with a mighty army and drive our enemies beyond the sea. That’s how all good Welsh stories end. What were you thinking?

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Permission to create – or ditching the fear factor

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I’m a belt and braces kind of girl. Terrified of making mistakes. I’m not sure why. Hours of introspection and countless man-with-a-cardigan counselling sessions have not provided answers. But for a writer (or indeed anyone) a fear of ‘getting it wrong’ can be paralysing. I distinctly recall telling my writing group that I wanted to make sure my novel was perfect, so perfect that it wouldn’t be rejected. I still recall the silence that greeted this naive announcement.

‘Liz,’ one of them ventured gently. ‘No matter how good your work is, you are going to be rejected.’

They were right, of course. I’ve had my work rejected countless times. Sometimes more painfully than others. I’d like to say I’ve developed a thick skin. But I haven’t, not nearly thick enough. As evidenced by my fear-of-getting-it-wrong approach to my latest project.

Researching my first novel, I read countless diaries, nineteenth publications and more recent historical analyses in order to get my immigration facts straight. In terms of the Welsh fairy tales that run like a seam through the novel’s pages, well, I may have gone a little overboard. In fact, I learned a whole language. But although the conditions on board my nineteenth century emigrant vessel are as authentic as I could make them and, although my knowledge of fairy tales has grown exponentially, the voyage, the ship, characters were all fictitious. This gave me a degree of license.

Not so with my current project – a novel written from the viewpoint of Owain Glyn Dwr’s wife. You see, Marged Glyn Dwr was an historical figure, as was her husband (a national hero in fact). The revolt, the circumstances, all the supporting characters of my story, are historical. This makes the likelihood of receiving an irate letter from a Welsh nationalist informing me that I have misrepresented Wales noble history imminently possible.

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I’d like to say that I’m handling the pressure well, cool as  cucumber as I pore over tome after tome in the state library, that my bookshop is not groaning under the weight of newly acquired purchases, groaning so loudly that when I mentioned to my husband that I may have ordered a few books, he politely asked whether I had set a budget.

Budget, I gulped, yes, of course, I have a budget.

With these tight (cough) budget constraints in mind, you can imagine my frission of excitement to come across this paragraph when reading a library book about the non-judicial confinement of medieval women:

Margaret, the Wife of Owain Glyn Dwr, their daughter Catherine […] and an unclear number of her children, all of whom seemed to have been without personal culpability were taken at the capture of Harlech and were held in the Tower of London from 1409 until at least 1413, when the death of Catherine and her two daughters is the last that is heard of them. Their confinement can be interpreted as a ‘family guilt’ confinement, or as a quasi-hostagehood intended to put pressure on Owain who was still at large.

I wrote to the historian, Gwen Seabourne, outlining my project, and asked whether she could recommend the best sources of information concerning Marged Glyn Dwr. Her answer was disappointing. Or was it? Apparently, that paragraph is pretty much all anyone knows about the fate of Marged Glyn Dwr. Which means, as long as I thoroughly research of conditions in the Tower, my potential for making mistakes has just considerably diminished.

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Buoyed by the success of this contact-an-academic strategy. I contacted another. One whose book on The Rise and Fall of Owain Glyn Dwr is soon to be released (I have it on order – yes, part of my carefully worked out budget). I have read a number of titles on Glyn Dwr and no one seems to know why his military service terminated so abruptly in 1388. Or why he actually rose in revolt in September 1400 (apart from the perfidy already mentioned in earlier blog posts). Many theories have been posed. But none sit well with me. Least of all that he was disgruntled at not receiving a knighthood and sat wallowing in self pity until one morning, ten years later, he got up and declared himself Prince of Wales. Even if  that version was true, which I seriously doubt, you can’t develop a novel on such a vague premise. You have to give the characters conflict and believable motives. I asked this particular historian his opinion on the matter. He wrote back:

There does not appear to be any evidence which gives a firm indication at all of Owain’s feelings after the 1387 campaign, nor any reason to explain why he was not available for service in 1388. That means that there is nothing concrete to justify the notion that he was disgruntled but nothing to definitely refute it either. Effectively, you have carte blanche in that sphere.

The historian, Gideon Brough, whose work promises to be a great deal more nuanced than previous offerings, urged me to think differently to the received version of events, to “do something beautiful and creative with my carte blanche.”

Carte blanche? Did you hear that? There is a smattering of circumstantial evidence and a great deal of theorising going on, even among historians. Which means, as long as I do my research and make sure I understand the social and political issues of the time, I can add my own theories to the mix. Which just made the whole process a lot less scary in my opinion.

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Welsh Australians: an unashamedly biased account of Some notable Port Phillips’ pioneer

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My grandfather’s name was Hopkin James. On the basis of this extensive evidence I have always assumed Hopkins was a Welsh name. As it turns out, I wasn’t far wrong. Ancestry tells me that although the surname Hopkins is used throughout South England, it is most commonly found in South Wales. Perfect! Because today I want to tell you about Henry Hopkins, one of Port Phillip’s notable early settlers, and, although he was born in Deptford and listed as having English and Flemish ancestry, I am claiming him as one of ours.

That’s right, Welsh.

Hopkins was a merchant and philanthropist who, after emigrating, acquired extensive properties in Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania) and Port Phillip (Victoria) (Pardon the brackets – I’m catering for an extensive world wide readership). Hopkins was also a devout Congregationalist. My Deptford born, Lowland leaning, still undeniably Welsh, Henry Hopkins was responsible for bringing the first Congregationalist clergyman to Victoria, and for subsidising his salary. But his generosity did not stop there. It also extended to the Wesleyan, Presbytarian, and Anglican denominations. In an age without social welfare, this amounted to helping widows, orphans and the destitute.

Now for those of you who can’t tell a Congregationalist from a Wesleyan, the Congregationalists were a denomination that arose out of the religious battles of the sixteenth century. Their adherents believed in a democratic church structure and the autonomy of each individual congregation. They didn’t dance. Or use musical instruments in worship. Neither did they chant or sing anthems. They confined themselves to rousing, unaccompanied, renditions of Isaac Watt’s hymns.

Port Phillip’s first Congragationalist minister was Reverend William Wakefield, formerly of Wrexham, Wales. Now if you are thinking his address makes him Welsh, think again. The Australian Dictionary of Biography gives him English ancestry and, as Reverend Wakefiled seems to have been a bit of a pedant, we’re gonna let England keep him.

According to the 1836 Churches Act, all major Christian denominations in colonial Australia could apply for a land grant, assistance with their building funds and a subsidy towards their clergyman’s salary. Reverend Wakefield was suspicious of this arrangement. Perhaps, enough to make his hair stand on end? According to the Port Phillip Pioneers group, he was unwilling to greet visit passengers on newly arrived immigrant vessels or, indeed, anyone not from his congregation. He also resented Henry Hopkins financial assistance. Though it seems his congregation had no such scruples. When they sought government funding to build a school house, Wakefield resigned and took up residence in Van Dieman’s Land. Where he is, no doubt, someone’s beloved great, great grandfather and I will face legal action for slandering their heritage.

It seems the Congregationalists weren’t only Puritans in Port Phillip. Wesleyan Methodists also eschewed musical instruments in worship. However this was not the position of John Jones Peers, an energetic, red-headed Welshman who gave generous assistance to both the Congregationalists and Methodists causes. Peers built Melbourne’s first Wesleyan chapel. Under which roof he took great delight in leading a choir. He also assumed the cost of importing a pipe organ from Liverpool. On January 9th, 1843, this instrument was used for Melbourne’s first formal organ recital. The program included selections from Handel, Haydn and Mozart, which is no more than you would expect from one hailing from the Land of Song.

 

 

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Old Melbourne Town – some snippets from history

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One of the best parts about researching a historical era and location in which to set a novel is that you have to read everything. The sadest part is that you don’t get to use half of what you learn. At least, not consciously. But you don’t ever know what you’ll need. So you read.

This week have been reading Old Melbourne Town by Michael Cannon. l am always struck when reading about Victoria’s early settlers at how capricious they were – coming overland and across Bass Straight to occupy the district illegally, yet calling on British law to protect their squatting interests. Despoiling the land with nary a thought for its original inhabitants, living in tiny wattle and daub huts, enduring floods, fires, noxious odours and explosions, yet having the foresight to lay out botanical gardens, race courses and cricket clubs. What vision. What arrogance.

Here are some snippets I came across this week.

  • Punt Road is called Punt Road because – wait for it – there was a punt at that part of the river
  • Living ‘south of the Yarra’ was nothing to boast about initially.
  • The inhabitants of the south bank huts and clay pits were ‘social pariahs,’ said to be ‘terrors for drinking.’
  • Elizabeth Street was originally a creek bed
  • Small wooden bridges were constructed so that people could cross from the road to the shops
  • Commercial water carriers pumped water from the Yarra and delivered it to town inhabitants
  • Carcasses from the abattoirs below Batman’s Hill were thrown into the Yarra
  • The incoming tide washed them back towards the town
  • Some wondered whether this was causing ill health
  • A dam was constructed across the Yarra to help separate the fresh water from the incoming tidal waters
  • In July 1842, flood waters swept down the Yarra were balked at the dam and flooded the town
  • Brick makers huts and kilns were washed away
  • People drowned
  • This happened in 1842, 1843 and 1844
  • Old Melbourne gaol is in fact the fourth Melbourne gaol. Aboriginals burnt the first one down in 1838
  • The majority of Melbourne’s first constables (sent down from Sydney) were dismissed for drunkenness and corruption
  • Melbourne’ first Supreme Court Judge, John Walpole Willis’ stormy background included expulsion from school, removal as Equity Judge in Upper Canada, and constant conflict with his brother judges in Sydney.
  • Governor Gipps sent him to Melbourne to get rid of him.
  • Ditto Supreme Court Deputy Registrar James Denham Pinnock (also from Sydney) who as Emigration Agent had allowed ‘many scandals to continue.’
  • Are you picking up a theme here?
  • The first mail in the settlement was hand delivered by John Batman
  • Letters took five weeks to travel overland from Melbourne to Sydney
  • One poor horseman rode all the way to Yass and forgot to exchange the mail bags, returning months later with the original letters
  • I am thinking of taking up genealogy.
  • Seriously, I think he and I must be related
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The place for a village – some thoughts on Victoria’s early history

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Last week in the hiatus between my fevered consumption of fairy tale re-tellings and resuming serious manuscript edits, I started researching my next project. I say started, in reality, I have been reading about life in the early days of the Port Phillip District for years. Reading, without making notes or marking maps, leaving what next in the periphery of my head.


On Wednesday, I pulled down a pile of books and shifted gears.

For me, research is the prime stimulus for my creative process. I start with characters chattering in my head. I have a vague sense of where they lived and what their inner issues are. How I work out these issues – the nuts and bolts of events and scenarios – tends to spring from research.

My next novel will be set in the Port Phillip District of the then Colony of New South Wales. I therefore decided to ‘start’ my research by re-reading A history of the Port Phillip District: Victoria before separation.

In 1842, the Port Phillip settlement was ‘officially’ only about four years old. Two earlier attempts and been made to settle the region. One at a site close to modern day Sorrento. The other in Western Port. In between, sealers and whalers plyed the coast, various surveys and explorative expeditions were conducted and, ahead of the law, men started to transport sheep and cattle across the straight from Van Diemen’s land.

I am always amazed, post Mabo – the landmark High Court case in which indigenous land title was recognised – to read the attitudes of Australia’s early settlers. Here are some thoughts that struck me this week:

The colonisers saw the land entirely in terms of its usefulness to them. Consider this 1831 newspaper quote, written in relation to the Hume and Hovell expedition.

“…discovery of a vast range of country, invaluable for every purpose of grazing, and agriculture – watered by numerous fine streams, and presenting an easy inland water course extending from Port Phillip and Western Port to the settled district of Bathurst – thus refuting the previously adopted opinion, by which this line of country had been denounced as inhabitable and useless…”

Did anyone notice an omission in that passage? Like some kind of recognition that the land was already inhabited?

Many who did recognise the indigenous land title did so from their own agenda. There were no official treaties with Australia’s indigenous people – unlike those made with the Maori’s at Waitangi and by the Quaker William Penn with the ‘Indians’ of Pennsylvania – apart from a treaty made on behal of the Port Phillip Association, in which Batman claimed to have purchased 500,000 acres of land North of Melbourne in return for blankets, knives, tomahawks, scissors and mirrors (even as a child, I wondered at the ludicrousness of such an exchange).’

Setting aside the illegality of Batman’s processes and that clan land was non-transferable, held in trust for future generations, the treaty did seem to be recognising indigenous rights to the land. Indeed, the Association expressed a desire to found a colony on ‘principles of conciliation, civilisation, philanthropy, morality and temperance.’

However, when you take into account that Batman’s treaty was made on behalf of a group of capitalists who were seeking to appeal Governor Arthur, who had repeatedly urged a such treaty on the Colonial Office, and that, in Van Diemen’s land, Batman had a record of ‘much slaughter’, it becomes apparent that they were were merely dressing their actions in a ‘philanthropic disguise’ in order to gain the support of the humanitarian lobby in Britain.

In the end, Batman’s treaty was declared void.

It conflicted with the Imperial position that Australia was terra nullis – an unoccupied territory.

There were individuals who recognised aboriginal land rights from the outset. When discussing colonial attitude towards Australia’s indigenous people’s it is not uncommon to hear sentiments such as: ‘Oh, well, were men of their time.’ It is gratifying to note that, from the outset, there were individuals who recognised aboriginal land title. These men were not saints. They were active participators in the colonisation process. Like us they had personal lists of bigotries and short sightedness. But in this respect, they saw clearly. In A history of the Port Phillip District, Shaw lists them. It seems appropriate to acknowledge them here.

  • Bishop Broughton,
  • Quaker visitors James Backhouse and G.W. Walker,
  • The Wesleyan, Joseph Orton,
  • The Presbyterian, John Dunmore Lang
  • Surveyor, Charles Tyers
  • Aboriginal Protectors Robinson and Dredge (does anyone see the irony in the appointment of aboriginal protectors in an unoccupied territory)
  • Settlers like, Gideon Lang, William Howitt and William Westgarth
  • Pamphleteer and newspaper editor, George Arden
  • Soldier and author, Colonel William Mundy
  • Under-secretary James Stephen
  • And…finally, not until 150 years later the High Court of Australia

 

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