Sunday, 30 November 2008

Owain Glyn Dwr

Little is known about Owain as a man. He was descended from the princely houses of Powys and Deheubarth, but his landed estate is reckoned by R R Davies to be worth £70 a year at most, which in England would have had him rated as an important member of the gentry, qualifying for knighthood, but nothing more. To put it in perspective, remember that Bolingbroke drew an income of around £1500 from the lordship of Brecon alone.

Owain was around 40 in 1400, which was well beyond youth in the 14th century - given that the average age of the population was nearer 20. He appears to have served the Arundel family in various roles, and he fought in Richard II's Scottish campaign of 1385. In terms of relationships he was connected to other Welsh gentry families, to people who might be called Anglo-Welsh, like his wife's people, the Hamners, and to English gentry such as his brother-in-law, Robert Puleston.

The spark for his rising appears to have been a quarrel with his neighbour, Lord Grey de Ruthin, who lived just over the hill from Owain. Some say it was a dispute over land, others that Grey held back a summons from Henry IV for Owain to join the king's invasion of Scotland. My impression of Grey is that he was an aggressive bully, and not particularly bright, but unfortunately (from Owain's point of view) he was also a close associate of the King. (I'm reluctant to say 'friend' as I think even Bolingbroke had better taste.)

Either way between 18th and 23rd September 1400, Owain's supporters attacked Ruthin, Denbigh, Flint, Holt and Oswestry. Henry's response was rapid (he had an army available, having just attacked Scotland) and after eight of those involved in the attack on Ruthin were executed the government felt strong enough to start issuing pardons to those involved and during October to disband most of the forces assembled to deal with the revolt.

Owain and a few supporters made off for the hills, neither pardoned nor reconciled. It must have seemed to Henry IV that this was just a minor local difficulty that had been sorted. His next parliament (otherwise busy with attainting Richard II's supporters) re-enacted penal statutes against the Welsh and added a few bells and whistles for good measure, just to show who was boss. To some extent at least this was prompted by the English minority communities in Wales, who had just had a very nasty scare. But it was scarcely an enlightened piece of statecraft, and it probably served as a wonderful recruitment sergeant for Owain. He was to be back.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Catherine Mortimer Memorial

Mention of Catherine Mortimer (aka Catrin ferch Owain Glyn Dwr) reminds me that there's a monument to her and her children in London. A picture is linked here. I can't honestly say that it appeals to my personal taste, but then modern art rarely, if ever, does.

The monument is on the site of St.Swithin's Church, where they were buried, and is also supposed to represent the suffering of women and children in warfare, which is a noble enough aim.

Catrin was buried with her daughters at the expense of Henry V's government, four years after her capture at the fall of Harlech. The cost was a massive £1, apparently. What happened to her son, Lionel, is unknown. He simply disappeared. Many people conveniently 'disappeared' while in Tower custody over the years, notably during Henry VIII's time, but, with two exceptions, this tends to get overlooked.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Wales and the Mortimers - Heirs of Llywelyn?

It's possible that the early death of Roger Mortimer, Earl of March, in 1398 was a factor in the Glyn Dwr revolt, because the Welsh had had high hopes of Roger. He became the first English earl to have an ode addressed to him by a Welsh bard, Iolo Goch, who was subsequently Owain's household bard.

From what little is known about Earl Roger, it appears he was both generous and popular. Indeed it was alleged that the reception he received from the common people at the time of the Shrewsbury Parliament was a factor in turning Richard II against him. Whether this is so or not, it is a fact that soon after Richard recalled him from Ireland, substituting Thomas Holland, Duke of Surrey as Lieutenant of Ireland. Mortimer was killed (in somewhat mysterious circumstances) before this decision could be put into effect.

From the point of view of the Welsh, the most significant fact about Mortimer (apart from the trivial detail that he owned around a third of the country!) was his descent from Llywelyn the Great (Llywelyn Fawr) through Llywelyn's daughter, Gwladus Ddu. In the 1390s it was quite reasonable for the Welsh to look forward to the possible crowning of a King of England with this lineage. (As an aside Adam of Usk claimed that Gwladus's mother was Joan, daughter of King John. This has sometimes been questioned, but it seems to me that Usk is as good a source as any other.)

The death of March and the accession of Bolingbroke killed this dream stone dead. However, as many of you will be aware, the descent from Gwladus was eventually transferred to the House of York in the person of Richard, the third Duke, through his mother Anne Mortimer. This blood descent from the House of Gwynedd was not overlooked in early Yorkist propaganda and was used in an attempt to attach Welsh support to Edward IV, with somewhat mixed success. This is rather ironic in the light of later history, and the Tudors making so much of their Welsh origins, which were, when properly examined, rather less impressive than blood succession to the great Llywelyn.

As far as I am aware Richard III made no attempt to highlight his Welsh ancestry, and in that regard at least he may have missed a trick.

Monday, 10 November 2008

An Unknown Welshman by Jean Stubbs

This historical novel was published in 1972, and I got my (hardback) copy several years later for 25p. It's unusual it that it tells the story of the Wars of the Roses from a Lancastrian point of view. (Or from a Tudor point of view if you like - I find it hard to make much connection between the Lancastrian dynasty and Henry Tudor.) I think I'm right in saying that only a handful of such novels have been published in the last fifty years. The couple that spring to mind have Margaret of Anjou as heroine.

Anyway, Jean Stubbs deserves at least some credit for taking the unpromising character of Henry Tudor and centring the tale on him. I don't think it's exactly a secret that I'm no great fan of Henry VII, in fact I think he's one of our more horrid sovereigns, albeit several lengths behind his son in those stakes. Apparently the inspiration for the novel was that someone mentioned that Mr Tudor had an interesting early life, and, almost like The Adventures of Alianore Audley, the action more or less starts with his birth. There's a fair segment about his boyhood and youth, but nevertheless half the book covers the reign of Richard III.

There's a fair bit of description in here, and indeed odd pages read a little like a guide to Yorkist-era social history and customs, but the story is reasonably paced. One very obvious source used is The Song of the Lady Bessy and when the dialogue grows a tad clunky in places I suspect it's where the author has followed her sources a little too closely.

Most people with an interest in the era will enjoy this novel - the ones who won't will be those who cannot stomach the Tudor viewpoint! Personally I think that looking at history from different angles is a Good Thing, whatever your own opinion on an era may be.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

The Glyn Dwr Rising - background

You may not think that the Owain Glyn Dwr rising had much to do with the House of York. However, Edward of York, the second Duke, was heavily involved in suppressing it, it had a major impact on his sister, Constance, and its effect on Wales was to play its part in influencing Welsh opinion during the Wars of the Roses. Given that Henry IV was responsible for the most brutal repression of the Welsh since Edward I was at his worst, including passing legislation that made the ethnic Welsh definitively second-class citizens in their own country, it seems a little odd that Wales became predominantly Lancastrian territory. But so, oddly enough, it was to be.

First, it's important to realise that Wales at this time was not a unified whole, more a geographical and cultural expression. It was divided into a large number of marcher territories, each of which was in effect a small kingdom with its own customs. These lordships did not have representation in Parliament, nor did they pay central taxes or receive visits from the King's justices. The King's writ did not run there. The royal territories in Wales were organised in a similar fashion, under local (usually English but sometimes Welsh) officers.

In the 1390s the marcher lords had become extremely efficient at squeezing money out of their tenants and at the same time tended to be absentee landlords who lived on their English manors.Though, as mentioned above, the Welsh did not have to pay parliamentary taxes, they were far more heavily burdened than their equivalents in England. Between 25% and 80% of the lord's income arose from the proceeds of justice - or what passed for it. The remainder came from various levies - for example communal fines, 'aids' raised when a lord entered his inheritance, and a sort of protection money paid by criminals immigrating from other lordships. Bolingbroke's relatively modest lordship of Brecon produced an income of £1500 a year on this basis. (For comparison the qualification for an earldom at this time was, theoretically, an income of about £667.)

The men of Wales often 'went as soldiers' and Richard II's peace policies created unemployment among this pool of men, and probably added to the discontent. In addition, at the turn of the century, many of the lordships underwent regular changes of ownership as their lords were forfeited, restored, or, as in the important case of the Earl of March, died a natural death. The effect was further disruption of a society that was already far from stable.

It was a case of tinder awaiting a spark, and that spark was soon to be struck.

Source - The most useful single source is The Revolt of Owain Glyn Dwr by R.R. Davies. A very highly recommended book.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Why Henry IV faced a credit crunch...

Given that Henry IV had i) half the de Bohun lands plus the incredibly vast Lancastrian inheritance, plus all the crown lands that Richard II had enjoyed, ii) the proceeds of 'treason' that were significant even after he had doled our relief to widows and dependants, iii) the contents of a well-stocked treasury including vast amounts of gold stacked up in Holt Castle - it seems incredible that within a very short time he did not have the proverbial pot. His subjects were bewildered, and it's one of the reasons he became so remarkably unpopular in fairly short order.

So what went wrong?

1.) He picked a number of officers who, if not actually inept, were certainly very far from being ept. These were largely former Lancastrian retinue people with no prior knowledge of running a government and its finances. (c.f Richard III and his use of northerners he could trust. Henry did the same sort of thing eighty years earlier.) It took him years to get the right men into place.

2.) Probably to seem as different from Richard II as possible, he started wars on several fronts. Scotland was invaded early in the reign, and thereafter was a running sore. Wales rose under Owain Glyndwr, and kept on rising until after Henry's death. Ireland continued in chaos - no great change there, but it still needed treasure, blood and toil. Fighting with France and Brittany, much of it unofficial, much at sea, became endemic.

3.) He personally retained vast numbers of men - as mentioned in an earlier post, he was soon spending more on his retinue than Richard II. (However this was not a Bad Thing, apparently, as historians never criticise this spending, though they give Richard hell for spending a lesser sum on his personal retainers.)

4.) He gave a ridiculously large dower to his wife, Joanna of Navarre.

5.) He faced a regular programme of domestic uprisings, right through to 1408. Considering what a lousy king Richard II was supposed to be, and how unpopular, it's amazing how many people (ranging from ploughman to princess, pauper to prelate) were willing to risk their lives and property to avenge his memory. Had Henry died at Shrewsbury in 1403 (as he very nearly did) one wonders what history would have said about him. Tyrant and regicide perhaps? Maybe Shakespeare would have given him a hunchback.

Financial crisis was to become the leitmotif of the Lancastrian dynasty - they were never able to square the circle of an ambitious foreign policy and an inadequate financial base. Private individuals may have grown rich on the French wars of Henry V and Henry VI, but for the national treasury, and for taxpayers, these wars were a disaster. It was no plucking of roses in a garden that brought down the dynasty, nor yet the ambitions of Richard of York and Richard Neville. It was the 15th century credit crunch, with its roots in the dire financial management of Henry Bolingbroke's government.