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15: Owen Glendower

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The English baron in Wales tried to add to his possessions by encroaching on the lands of the Welsh freemen. His estate always remained the same, because it all went to the eldest son, according to what is called primogeniture; their lands, on the other hand, were divided between the sons according to what is called gavelkind. He also, by laws they did not understand, took the waste land—forest and mountain. As one man can more easily watch his interest than many, the baron succeeded; but the freemen felt that they were being robbed.

The tenants of the barons were restless and rebellious; they said they were free, that they would not work as serfs, that they would not bring food rents, but that they would pay a fixed rent for every acre they held.

At Ruthin, in the Vale of Clwyd, there was a baron called Lord Grey; and in the valley of the Dee there was a Welsh squire called Owen Glendower. Their lands met, and Grey took part of Owen's sheep walk. Owen had been a law student at Westminster, and he had served Henry of Lancaster. In 1399 Richard II. had been dethroned, and the barons had made Henry of Lancaster king as Henry IV. Owen saw, however, that the king was too weak to curb his lawless barons, and in 1400 he attacked Lord Grey, and burnt Ruthin.

The rebellion that had long been smouldering burst into a flame all over the country. Owen was at once welcomed by the bard, the friar, and the peasant. The bard hailed his star as that of the heir of the princes, who had come to deliver his country. The friar welcomed him as the friend of the poor and of learning; and unruly students from Oxford, then the centre of a great intellectual awakening, flocked home to march under his banner. The peasant welcomed him as his protector against the steward of his lord. The main strength of the movement was the peasant revolt; and Welsh poets, like the English ones, sang the praises of the ploughman and of the plough.

Owen's success was most rapid, so rapid that it was put down to magic. In four years the whole of Wales recognised him as its prince. Henry IV. and Prince Henry came to Wales, made rapid marches and retook castles, punished the friars of Llan Vaes and the monks of Strata Florida. But their victories led to nothing, and the storms fought against them. Owen's victories were used to the full—that of the Vyrnwy was followed by an agreement with Grey of Ruthin, that of Bryn Glas by an alliance with the Mortimers. His marches were nearly all triumphant; he was welcomed along the whole line of the marches by the peasants to the furthest corners of Gwent.

Owen was wise enough to see that no abiding power can be based on a popular rising. He tried to establish a government that the King of England could not overthrow. He had three institutions in mind—an independent Wales, governed by him as Prince in a Parliament of representatives of the commotes; an independent Welsh Church, with an Archbishop of St David's at its head; and an independent system of learning and civilisation, guided by two Universities, one in North Wales and one in South Wales.

The new Wales was to he safeguarded by four alliances—with the English barons, with the Pope, with Scotland, and with France. He failed to save the Percies from their defeat at Shrewsbury in 1403; but he based all his plans on an alliance with the Mortimers, the enemies of Lancaster and the Percies. The head of the Mortimer family had died in Ireland in 1398, and had left four young children. They were the real heirs to the crown, and Owen meant to win their throne for them. Their uncle, Edmund Mortimer, married Glendower's daughter. But the young Earl of March, the elder of the Mortimer boys, had no ambition, and a plot to bring him and his brother to Owen failed.

The Papacy had always proved to be a broken reed for Welsh princes; but Owen's alliance with Peter de Luna, the anti-Pope Benedict XIII., gave a certain amount of prestige to his title. The alliance with Scotland, based on common kinship, could bring him no help at that time: because it was torn between two factions during the reign of the weak Robert III.; and the next king, the poet James I., was captured at sea and put into an English prison.

The French alliance was much more promising; it would give what Owen wanted most—siege engines, a fleet, and an army of trained soldiers. Charles VI. of France, the father-in-law of the deposed Richard, refused to make peace with the usurper Henry; his fleet protected the Welsh coast, and in 1405 a French army of 2,800 men landed at Milford.

Owen struggled on, with waning power, until his death in 1415. He came too soon for success, while the power of the House of Lancaster was increasing.

Of all figures in the history of Wales, that of Owen Glendower is the most striking and the most popular. The place of his grave is unknown, his lineage and the date of his death a matter of conjecture; there is much mystery about even his most brilliant years. But his majestic figure, his wisdom, and his ideals remained in the memory of his country. His ghost wandered, it was said, around Valle Crucis. His spirit, more than that of any hero of the past, seems to follow his people on their onward march. This is not on account of his political ideals, but because he was the champion of the peasant and of education.

<< 14: The Rise of the Peasant || 16: The Wars of the Roses >>