Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Tag: British Library

The wrap up – affirmation, extreme generosity and the Welsh language

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Over the last two months, I have stayed in London, Bowness-on-Windermere, Caernarfon, Corris, Llangollen, Y Bont Faen, Llandysul and Y Borth. I have worked in the British Library, the National Archives and Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru. I’ve received so much help and affirmation. I have also crossed the line which all Welsh learners yearn to cross – having friends with whom I relate solely in the Welsh language. But how to sum it all up?

Let’s start with the generosity.

I caught an inkling, Mared, wife of Owain Glyn Dwr, would be the subject of my next novel while living in Wales. My friend Aran lamented that there had not been a major film about Owain Glyn Dwr.  I read some books, realized he’d had a wife, and thought, what would it have been like to be that woman? The idea for a novel was born. I set about reading everything I could get my hands on. I also wrote to academics. One of them, Dr Gideon Brough, was particularly encouraging.

At the time, his affirmation was massively important. See, back then, I wasn’t sure I had a right to tell Mared’s story. This uncertainty has been borne out during a number of my recent meetings. From people tentatively asking: so, Liz, what made you want to write about Mared? Er…you do realize this is a contentious topic? Or simply the startled faces of people who have recently moved to Wales: Oh, God, what barrow is she trying to push here? 

I get this tension. When a country has been conquered, annexed and incorporated, when it’s language is fighting for its life, when academics drop in for flying visits and act like they know everything, when Owain’s name has been hijacked by various political causes, or when you’ve simply moved to Wales and want to feel welcome, the idea of an Aussie interloper coming in and stirring the pot is alarming. Yet, Gideon, never once questioned my right to tell the story. He simply said: go for it! This project is long overdue. He also spent a whole day of his kids’ half term holiday (like all day) answering my lame questions.

The day I spent with archaeologist Spencer Gavin Smith and his wife Megan (also an archaeologist) was similarly incredible. I wrote asking a for information and ended up being given a full guided tour of the Glyn Dwr sites (during which I asked an alternate string of lame questions). Because of Spencer, I spent my last day in the library trawling through the Transactions of the Denbighshire Historical Society, unearthing all manner of articles by Derek Pratt. I braved English roads and drove to Lower Brockhampton so that I could see the type of home in which Mared would have lived. I also faced octopus-on-steroids roundabouts in South Wales and learned that SatNav’s work best when you are paying attention – not when you are re-writing story scenes in your head. But that is another story…

In Llandysul, I spent a day and a half with Dr John Davies, a man with an impressive beard, an even more incredible library, and a keen interest in Owain Glyn Dwr’s mother’s family. John drove me around the borders of Owain’s southern estates, answered multiple questions, gave me CDs and memory sticks bursting with information. He also gave me the precious gift of assuming my Welsh was up to the task of discussing history – which it was. An incredible milestone.

Add to the above, the countless people who made time to catch up with me – too many to list but you know who you are – my friend Lorraine who listened to me ‘think aloud’ for a week in Llangollen and, of course, the incredible Veronica Calarco who, through setting up Stiwdio Maelor, has made it possible for me to spend extended periods in Wales. I stayed overnight with my friend Carolyn in Y Borth more times than was polite, took my brand new friend Anne up on her offer of accommodation in South Wales, had the fascinated company of Dee and Iestyn on the John Davies’ magical history tour, got shown around the Senedd Dy by Neil McEvoy and met up with an amazing group of SSiWer’s in the Mochyn Du.

On top of all this, my friend Aled in Australia suggested I catch up with Carys Davies (wife of the late Sir Rhys Davies, author of the incredible The Revolt of Owain Glyn Dwr) and Gruffudd Aled Williams (author of Dyddiau Olaf Owain Glyn Dwr). I felt nervous about phoning the above. I hate cold calling people – especially in Welsh. Added to which, this was Cymru Cymraeg and all the old doubts about my right to tell this story came flooding back. But I took a deep breath, dialed their numbers (rather than confess a lack of courage to Aled), and, as a consequence, enjoyed two lovely dinners in Caffi Pen Dinas. With Carys, I chatted about my mother’s family, how I’d learned Welsh, and my recent Say Something in Welsh Bootcamp. Before long, we were chuckling over the pictures of me clambering onto that pillar on top of Twt Hill (thanks Aran). After lunch, we attended a lecture in the Drwm where I was introduced to people as, Liz, who is writing a novel from the point-of-view of Owain Glyn Dwr’s wife. I thought: okay, maybe, this is going to be alright.

While having lunch with Gruffudd Aled Williams a few weeks later, we discussed history and winced over some of Glyn Dwr’s more anachronistic portrayals – like taking tea with his family in the fourteenth century and Iolo Goch drinking blood from a skull. At some point, I don’t know when, I decided it was safe to share the outline of my story. It is a fragile thing, a story concept, without the build up you put into developing it on the page, and not easily shared but, for some reason, it all came tumbling out. In Welsh. But strangely I didn’t need  language to understand Gruffudd’s response. I saw it in his eyes, the way he smiled, leaning back in his chair. O, hyfryd…

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Longing is a woman’s song – in search of Marred Glyn Dwr

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The idea of writing a novel from Marred Glyn Dwr’s viewpoint came to me early one morning. I woke to the impression of a woman alone in a tower room looking back over her life. I heard her voice that morning, knew she had a story to tell. The aim of the last three days in London has been to forge a tactile connection with Marred and the people in her life.

Public Records Office

My pressing dilemma (because I’m ready to write the scenes) is to determine how long Glyn Dwr served under Gregory Sais at Berwick in the year 1384. It has been pointed out to me that this was possibly not the highpoint of Owain’s military career. That is true. But guess what? This isn’t about Owain! Marred, his young wife, would have been sixteen years old at the time (possibly younger) and newly married. This would have been the first time she’d managed her husband’s household in his absence. The first time she sent him off on campaign. She’d have been homesick, heartsick, perhaps even morning sick. She would have been counting down the days until his return.

There are two entries for Glyn Dwr in the Medieval Soldiers database for 1384 – 24th January and 1st of March. Both are from Muster Rolls. From my reading I had gathered that men undertook to serve on a campaign some months prior mustering. In my mind, the above dates represented the day Glyn Dwr signed up and the day he actually turned up. I’ve since been told this wasn’t the case. I hoped therefore to gain some clarity from the Muster Rolls. A naive assumption, as it turns out. But well worth the effort. See it turns out the Muster Rolls were real, fourteenth century lists enscribed on vellum. Like real. As in six hundred years old real. Faded, barely legible and, of course,  written in no form I could decipher. I am as a consequence no closer to knowing how long Glyn Dwr served at Berwick. But I saw his name on Muster Rolls for 1384, 1387 and 1388. Which gave me a tangible frisson of excitement (even if it isn’t all about Owain).

British Library

I applied for a British Library Readers Ticket online, prior to leaving Australia, and ordered items in advance. There is a system to using both the British Library and National Archives – no pens or pocket knives, multiple security checks, free lockers and large clear plastic bags provided for your research essentials. I particularly wanted to see the Exchequer Rolls in which the evidence of Marred’s imprisonment are to be found. Fortunately, these were not six hundred years old. A historian had been there before me, translating them and publishing them in an easily readable form. But it was thrilling and more than a little sobering to see the black and white paper trail of her final days.

Tower of London
Marred’s son, Gruffudd, was captured and imprisoned around 1405. Since most of Glyn Dwr’s men were executed upon capture, we can only assume that Gruffudd’s imprionment in the Tower was intended to force his father’s surrender. Owain never surrendered. Gruffudd died (possibly from the plague) sometime during 1409. The fall of Harlech gave the king a fresh new set of hostages. I didn’t visit the Crown Jewels while at the Tower or buy an ice cream, or visit the Tudor Armoury, or peruse the Fussilier’s Museum. I simply wandered the grounds trying to envisage the Tower as it would have been in 1409. A palace, a fortress, and a prison. From the £30 spent on their upkeep, we can guess the Glyn Dwr women were initially kept in a degree of comfort. They would have been allowed out into the castle ward under guard and perhaps to worship in the church on Sundays. But the siege of Harlech had been harsh and protracted, during one of the longest, coldest winters on record. Catrin had lost her husband during the siege. Marred most likely knew she would never see Owain again. Starved and heartsick, the women and children faced a long journey to London, whereupon they were imprissoned in a forbidding stone fortress surrounded by a foetid moat. As Catrin’s infant son had a distant claim to the throne of England (stronger than the usurper Henry IV’s) his demise would not have been unwelcome. As it became clear Glyn Dwr wasn’t going to surrender, the women would have become an encumbrance.

We do not know how Marred ended her days. But Catrin and her remaining daughters died in 1413 under suspicious circumstances. They were not buried among the headless bodies of traitors at the Tower, nor in the cemetery set aside for the working community. They were buried in St Swithin’s Churchyard, a brisk twenty-five minute walk away. Why, St Swithin’s? That is a mystery yet to be solved. Though a pamphlet in the British Library hints at a list of St Swithin’s rectors dating back to 1237. Maybe that will hold a clue? St Swithin’s was under the advowson of the Earls of Arundel prior to being assigned to the prior and convent of Tortington in 1367. So that is another possible link. We also know there was a chapel to St Catherine and St Margaret in the church complex. The church was bombed during the Blitz and never rebuilt. Today all that remains is a memorial garden, surrounded by office blocks, builders scaffolding, and the persistent whine of pneumatic drills. A not unfitting resting place for these forgotten women of history. Once I’d found them, I found it strangely moving to be in their presence.

 

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