Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Tag: harlech

Dyddiau Olaf Owain Glyndŵr – the last days of Owain Gyndŵr

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?

History – a matter of perspective

I have started researching a new novel, set between the years 1383 and 1413. It will begin in the Tower of London and end in the Tower of London and range from Flintshire to Snowdonia before finally reaching its harrowing climax in Harlech Castle. That’s all I’m going to say at this point. Apart from the fact that (to my knowledge) there are no statues of my viewpoint character in Wales, hardly anything written about her. Why is that? I’m sure she played her part. Why do men’s exploits so dominate the pages of history?

Before we ponder that question, let us examine my suitability for the task.

I was raised in Australia. I did a project on beef cattle in grade four (for which I received a gold stars), heard a fair bit about convicts (despite SA where I grew up being colonised entirely by free settlers). I absorbed similar jaw cracking stories about the sailors from the good ship Corromandel who absconded in the Adelaide Hills, along with obligatory visits to pioneer village and old government house. I did a term of American history in year ten, focussing on slavery, a term on the Russian Revolution, another on the French, and similar units on the history of China and India. In my final school year, I studied the causes of the First and Second World Wars. I did an undergraduate history degree majoring in history (primarily Australian) and my urban history units touched on Europe. But there was no Welsh history in that mix, barely any English (apart from those horrible old judges who sent innocent convicts to the antipodes for stealing handkerchiefs).

So, on paper, hmm… not so well qualified.

Fortunately, I’m a librarian <insert research junkie> and I have a slight (cough) interest in Wales. I’ve made it my business to do a spot of reading on the side and, now, thanks to the recent referendum, I am able to buy second hand books far dirtier and cheaper than I could a month ago. I have started with an overview of the period. This entailed re-reading, Land of My Fathers’.

Land of My Fathers’ is an unashamedly partisan history of Wales. It’s author, Gwynfor Evans, was a Welsh hero, politician and statesmen who took on Maggie Thatcher and won (yep, that good). I believe every word of his history. I read parts of it every now and again to regain a true perspective on the world. However, despite the fact, that I share the author’s considerable biases, I thought it best to cast my research nets a little wider. Over the last few weeks I’ve also read, The Hollow Crown, Owain Glyndŵr: the story of the last prince of Wales, The Three Richards, The Revolt of Owain Glyn Dŵr, The Time Traveller’s guide to Medieval England, A History of Wales, and the Cambridge University Press title: Medieval Wales. 

Amazon tells me David Walker, the author of Medieval Wales was “born in or near Wilmington in or near, North Carolina, the son of a slave father and a free black mother (thus under the laws of slavery, he was born free).” These biographical details can’t be correct, as the book’s prefaces Walker as a former senior lecturer in Medieval studies at University College Swansea, a contemporary of Glanmore Williams (b. 1920) and R. R. Davies (b. 1938). I don’t know where he hailed from or what his background. Only that reading Medieval Wales felt like receiving a series of slaps in the face.

Here is what Walker had to say about the reign of Owain Glyn Dŵr, the last native Welshman to hold the title Prince of Wales.

In the literary record his prospects and his capacity as soldier and leader were, by well known convention, overstated. […] The records suggest that Glyn Dŵr had a sense of style and he knew the value of the outward trappings of power, but the limitations of his power were all too easily identifiable. […] Plunder and thinly disguised extortion provided (Glyn Dŵr with) short-term supplies but left a legacy of bitterness […] In one important sense the Pennal scheme was well based: an independent Welsh church was a sound ambition. In another sense, […] it implied a capacity to inflict a massive defeat on the English King which was far beyond Glyn Dŵr’s resources.

Now by English standards of wealth and power, Glyn Dŵr may not have been considered a great threat. But as I’ve mentioned before on this blog, there are two worlds in Wales – the English speaking and the Welsh speaking – and, my preliminary reading tells me, this phenomenon was active in fourteenth century Wales. In the Welsh speaking world, Glyn Dŵr was considered the pre-eminent claimant for the title. Under the surface of an outwardly subservient populace a powerful network of kinship alliances and aspirations was in operation. Added to which, the English crown was in disarray – the King having been usurped and starved to death by his own cousin.

The History of Wales was written by the late John Davies, an eminent Welsh historian who won the Owain Glyndŵr Award for his outstanding contribution to the arts. The tone of his work is less condescending than Walker’s. Here is what Davies had to say about Glyn Dŵr:

By 1400, Owain Glyndwr was a man with considerable experience of the ways of the world. In addition to the mass support which Owain received from the villeins and poorer clergy, he also won the allegiance of most of the members of the low ranks of the Welsh official class. By 1404 […] so great was the prince’s authority and so feeble the reaction of Henry IV that English officials, Marcher Lords and the inhabitants of the border counties were making their own local agreements with the new power that had arisen in Wales. At the same time, Owain was seeking an alliance with the Percy and Mortimer families. […] At the beginning of 1405, French soldiers (yes, he had secured the backing of the Pope and the French King) landed at Milford Haven.

History is a matter of perspective. And most often a male perspective.

Yet amidst these records of power bases, battles and alliances, there is another narrative. The story of a woman, all but forgotten by time, who lost her home as a result of her husband’s decisions, who watched many of her children die, who ended her days a prisoner of the English crown. A Welsh woman, of Norman descent, Marged ferch Dafydd, who lived, loved, laboured and no doubt played her part. Yet history simply remembers as the wife of Owain Glyn Dŵr.

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