Glyndwr's Way - Wales - A Walker's Guidebook
From Knighton to Welshpool by Chris Catling, Ronnie Catling
A guidebook to walking Glyndwr's Way from Knighton to Welshpool to link with Offa's Dyke and create a 172-mile circular route on Wales’s third National Trail. Detailed historical references to Owain Glyndwr's rebellion against English rule. The route is split into 12 sections for a two-week trek. More...
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Glyndwr’s Way is named after Owain Glyndwr who led the Welsh in a rebellion against the English in the 15th century. The Way was opened in 1977 as a recreational trail through Powys, and adopted as the third National Trail in Wales in 2000, celebrating the 600 years anniversary since Glyndwr was declared Prince of Wales. The Way passes through farmland, forestry and open hill-land; it follows old Roman roads as well as drovers’ road and modern public rights of way. A link is made with Offa’s Dyke at Welshpool making a circular walk possible. The walk is full of interest with varied flora and fauna and geographical features. There are also many places of historical interest, many relating to Owain Glyndwr, which have legends and myths associated with them.
The area is sparsely populated even today which means walkers must be prepared to be independent of normal facilities such as shops and public transport on many of the sections.
Owain Glyndwr was descended from the royal lines of Powys and Deheubarth. He owned land at Glyndyfrdwy and Sycarth in the north-east of Wales, between the Tanat and Dee valleys. He turned what began as a border dispute with Lord Grey of Ruthin into a full scale rebellion against Henry VI. Glyndwr was able to unite various rivalries amongst the Welsh and had many successes during the uprising by using guerrilla tactics and practising a scorched earth policy. He was very nearly successful in achieving an independent and united Wales and his protest is the last sustained attempt made to achieve this through battle.
There are many myths, legends and stories told about Glyndwr, but it is certain that during the protest he and his supporters held on to this central part of Wales for most of the rebellion. The Welsh would have frequently crossed and recrossed mid-Wales during their many campaigns.
The opening chapter of the book gives a brief history of Owain Glyndwr and the Welsh Revolt and details a number of the prophecies, myths, legends and traditions surrounding him. The second chapter provides useful information on shopping, public transport and accommodation and a list of tourist information centres. The book then details 12 sections of the Way giving places of interest, facilities, such as shops, post offices and eating places, and directions, together with sketch maps. The route starts and finishes at Knighton; there is a diversion from the Way to take the walker out to Hyddgen to see the scene of a decisive battle below the Plynlimon hills. From Welshpool a stretch of Offa’s Dyke is taken to Knighton to complete the circuit.
The Welsh Revolt
Little is known of Owain Glyndwr prior to him declaring himself Prince of Wales in September 1400. He was probably born at Sycarth, possibly at Glyndyfrdwy, both estates owned by his father, or maybe at the home of an aunt in south Wales, sometime in the 1350s – the exact year or date is not known. He was descended from the Princes of Powys and Deheubarth and could claim to be indirectly descended from the Princes of Gwynedd.
Glyndwr had both a military and a legal education as many minor squires’ sons had at the time. Owain’s father died at an early age and Sir David Hanmer was appointed his guardian. Owain spent several years at the Inns of Law in London and later followed a military career. Owain married Margaret, the daughter of his guardian. It seems that they lived a peaceful and idyllic life at Sycarth and produced nine children; six sons and three daughters.
For the period prior to declaring himself Prince of Wales, Glyndwr would be little remembered except for a famous legal battle in 1386 between Richard Lord Scrope and Sir Robert Grosvenor, in which he acted as a witness. He also supported Richard II in his battles with the Scots, the French and, possibly, the Irish. He does not appear to have distinguished himself sufficiently to be rewarded with a knighthood and eventually retired to his estates, a middle-aged country gentleman surrounded by his family. But his life was soon to change.
A brief outline of the political and military events leading up to and during the Welsh Revolt headed by Owain Glyndwr follows. For more detailed sources see the bibliography.
There was already a general feeling of unrest amongst the Welsh prior to 1400. The English aristocracy were taxing the Welsh very heavily with many thousands of pounds pouring from Wales into English coffers. Richard II’s mysterious disappearance aggravated the situation. The Welsh people were as loyal to him as they had been to his father, the Black Prince. Many Englishmen were given high appointments throughout Wales, overlooking native candidates for bishoprics or stewardships. Glyndwr’s own failure to be knighted after serving his king is one example of Welsh services going unrewarded. Hopcyn ap Tomas, a scribe of the time, described the Welsh as ‘suffering pain and deprivation and exile... of such resentments are the ingredients of revolt assembled’.
The oppression of the Welsh people may have continued if quarrels had not arisen between Owain Glyndwr and his neighbour at Glyndyfrdwy, the English Lord Grey of Ruthin. Two reasons are given for this dispute, either or both may be true. The first reason was a simple boundary dispute between the two landowners in which Parliament and, more importantly, Henry IV refused to support a Welshman against an English lord. The second reason given is that Lord Grey was commissioned to deliver a summons to Glyndwr requiring him to join the proposed royal expedition to Scotland. Grey delayed the delivery of the message for several days, leaving it too late for Glyndwr to be able to accept the invitation. Reginald Grey reported back to Henry IV in a detrimental manner. This appears to have been the turning point for Owain.
Whatever the particular reason, or reasons, that sparked off Glyndwr taking action, it seems he was destined to lead the Welsh people. The Welsh paid great attention to their ancestors and Glyndwr’s were impeccable, descended as he was from the Welsh princes; besides, the bards had been preparing Glyndwr for this eventuality. He satisfied many of the traditions handed down from Merlin and Taliesin of a Welsh saviour in time of need and that time seemed to have come.
Glyndwr met with a small band of supporters, which included his eldest son, his brothers-in-law, and the dean of St Asaph at Glyndyfrdwy on 16 September 1400 and declared himself Prince of Wales. This marked the start of the rebellion. Throughout the rebellion this declaration never seems to have been questioned. At no time was there a struggle for leadership, although many areas appear to have conducted affairs on their own behalf under the banner of Glyndwr. Two days after the declaration a small army attacked Ruthin Castle and various English castles and estates in the north-east of Wales were assaulted over the next five days. From then onwards the revolt escalated, with Owain Glyndwr as its leader. It was the signal for all Welshmen to flock together.
Most of the action was of a hit and run, guerrilla type, taking places in many parts of Wales, led by many different local supporters. In 1401 Glyndwr and his men hid out in the mountains of Wales. There were various localised skirmishes throughout the country, including the taking of Conway Castle. The most important battle of the year took place at Hyddgen. This site, on the slopes of Plynlimon, is where Glyndwr had a large camp in the early years of the rebellion, now under the Nant-y-moch Reservoir. Glyndwr and his men were attacked here by Flemings, who had been brought to south Wales by Henry I to work in the woollen craft industry. Owain and his men were caught by surprise by an army three times their number. The Flemings’ onslaught was, however, defeated and they took flight. This event inspired large numbers of Welshmen from all over Wales and, also, those living and working in England, to join in the rebellion. Years later two white stones were placed in the valley to honour this first real battle and major success.
In 1402 the Welshmen again attacked and this time took Ruthin Castle, taking Reginald Grey prisoner. A ransom was demanded and paid leaving Earl Grey to spend the rest of his life in poverty. This success was the impetus required and the rebels entered Gwent, Glamorgan and threatened Usk, Newport and Cardiff. A battle at Pilleth was a momentous moment in the revolt. Owain and his men overwhelmed an English army on a hill at Bryn Glas, close to the English border, proving that the Welsh were a force to be reckoned with. Edmund Mortimer, who was the uncle to the 10 year-old Earl of March, was captured at Pilleth. A ransom demanded for his release was not paid by Henry IV as the Earl of March was the direct lineal heir to the crown. (Henry IV had seized the throne from Richard II. The Earl of March was Richard II’s named heir so Henry thought his position would be safer if Edmund Mortimer was kept a prisoner by Glyndwr, especially as the Welsh people had been supporters of Richard II.) Mortimer joined the rebel cause and married Catherine (one of Glyndwr’s daughters) later in the year, a diplomatic success likened to the milary success of Pilleth. It is thought that Glyndwr used Mortimer to try to negotiate a settlement with the English at this time. However, these negotiations were unsuccessful.
There does not seem to have been a deliberate plan to the attacks, although a scorched earth policy was practiced by both the Welsh and the English. Both sides thought that by either using all the crops and food available in an area or destroying what could not be carried away, they would weaken the strength of the enemy. Throughout the revolt Glyndwr and his armies were able to travel freely across Wales, appearing and disappearing at ease.
During 1402 Henry IV sent three armies into Wales, led respectively by himself, the English Prince of Wales and the Earl of Stafford, in an attempt to kerb the rebellion. Glyndwr and his men evaded these armies while the atrocious weather drove the English back across the border after only three weeks.
Glyndwr now negotiated support from the Percys, a discontented Northumbrian family. In July 1403 the Percys, headed by Henry Hotspur, joined the revolt at Chester. The King, on his way to Scotland, was unaware of this. When he found out, he made a hurried journey to meet Hotspur a few miles from Shrewsbury. Glyndwr with his ‘8000 lancers’ was delayed by successful actions in south and west Wales and was unable to support Hotspur in time. Hotspur’s father and his men, who were due to join Hotspur, had not yet left Northumberland. Hotspur was slain in battle and his men defeated. Had this battle been successful Welsh history would have been different.
However, the Welsh rebels continued with their guerrilla tactics throughout Wales from the north to the Bristol Channel. During August and September Glyndwr was said to have invaded Shropshire, Chester and as far north as the Wirral and skirmishes were reported all along the border between Wales and England.
In September the King again headed an expedition into Wales. The campaign was short lived, partly because of the difficulties of supplying a large army with food and equipment. He retreated to Hereford in October having encountered little opposition. During the last three months of 1403, Glyndwr and his armies were engaged in events throughout Wales and were now receiving help from the French.
By 1404 the revolt was gathering pace and was not going to be the nine-day wonder Henry IV had thought it would be. Glyndwr took both Harlech and Aberystwyth castles in the spring of the year, installing his family at Harlech, which gave him a base and complete control of central Wales. He turned to statesmanship declaring a parliament at Machynlleth, which was in the centre of the area that was under his absolute control. Tradition says that Owain Glyndwr was crowned Princes of Wales at this parliament with emissaries from Scotland, France and Spain attending. In May John Hanmer, Owain Glyndwr’s brother-in-law, and Gruffydd Young, his chancellor, went to France to negotiate with Charles VI. Glyndwr sent a letter (the Pennal Letter) to the French king requesting help and, for the first time in writing, used the title ‘Prince of Wales’. A document was signed in July uniting France and Wales against ‘Henry of Lancaster’ (Henry IV).
Successful attacks continued in south Wales throughout the summer. Archenfield, Abergavenny, Craig-y-Dorth, Monmouth and Glamorgan all succumbed to the Welsh – although the Welsh were defeated by the Earl of Warwick at Campstone. In July a French fleet was reported cruising in the Bristol Channel, but the French never landed.
The year 1404 was one in which Glyndwr strengthened his position. He now had to gain and maintain his hold over all of Wales, not just the central region.
Owain Glyndwr continued to have small successes during 1405, but so did the English Prince of Wales to whom Henry IV had given sole responsibility for the Welsh problem early in 1404. In February 1405 Glyndwr, Lord Percy and Edmund Mortimer agreed on an alliance, which they named the Tripartite Indenture. The Tripartite Indenture divided England in two – a part each for Percy and Mortimer, and slightly extended the border of Wales into England for Glyndwr and the Welsh – it was never the intention of the Welsh rebels to claim the throne of England. Glyndwr then, later in the year, held a second parliament, at Harlech. He also invited both the French and the Irish to help him free Wales for the Welsh.
The first Welsh defeat of the year occurred at Grosmont. This was followed by a major loss in May at Usk when Glyndwr’s brother, Tudur, was ‘put to the sword in front of the castle’. Glyndwr’s eldest son, Gruffydd, was also captured. He was sent to the Tower of London and after six years died in prison. Henry IV planned another foray into Wales and successfully retook Beaumaris Castle on Anglesey.
The French now joined the fray, landing at Milford Haven, and, together with Glyndwr’s men, an army said to number 10,000 attacked Haverford West, Tenby, Camarthen and Cardigan before heading west into Herefordshire and Worcestershire where Henry’s men met the combined forces of the Welsh and the French. There was no decisive battle, each side had minor skirmishes until Glyndwr had to retire into Wales as he was unable to obtain supplies for his men. Never again were the Welsh given a similar chance to defeat the English. It was the beginning of the end of Welsh hopes for an independent and free Wales. However, all was not yet over. Many of the French force stayed on to face the winter in Wales. Gloucester and Hereford supported the Welsh with supplies, while Pembroke offered a truce.
In the late winter of 1406 the French left the country. Scotland too had its own problems and the English defeated the Welsh in a battle on St George’s Day. The Gower and Anglesey abandoned the rebellion and submitted to the English. Throughout the year, however, Glyndwr was able to maintain his position in central Wales with Harlech and Aberystwyth Castles under his control. There was little change on either side, although Prince Henry made a bold attempt to recapture Aberystwyth Castle, but underestimated Glyndwr’s determination.
During 1407 events in France produced a truce between the English and the French from which the Welsh were excluded. Glyndwr could not count on the French for any further support. The rebellion was wavering and Glyndwr was finding it difficult to find troops. It became increasingly impossible to maintain the ground he had gained.
Harlech and Aberystwyth Castles fell to the English. The loss of Harlech Castle was a heavy blow to Owain as his wife, two daughters and three of Edmund Mortimer’s children were captured and taken to London. Mortimer himself died during the siege, together with many other loyal supporters. Glyndwr had now lost control of a large part of western Wales and he could no longer maintain his role as the ruling prince. He was once again a guerrilla leader. However, Glyndwr himself eluded capture and, with his only surviving son, Maredudd, disappeared into central Wales. The Welsh did not make any great attacks throughout the next two years, merely harrying the English as and when they could.
In 1408 and 1409 events in the north of England and elsewhere left Glyndwr with still fewer allies. The rebellion was gradually dying away. The rebels still had control of large parts of central and north-eastern Wales and in 1412 Glyndwr made a huge effort to turn events to his advantage once again by heading an attack into Shropshire. However, he and his army did not get any further then Welshpool where three of his strongest supporters were taken prisoner. He did not give up hope as much of central Wales was loyal to the cause. However, as time went on, little was heard of the rebels apart from minor skirmishes and successes. By 1413 no one knew where Glyndwr was and he was heard of no more. Prince Henry became Henry V early that year and offered a pardon to Owain Glyndwr, which was never accepted. The offer was made again and again to both Glyndwr and his supporters through Glyndwr’s son, Maredudd. However, even as late as 1415 Glyndwr’s supporters continued to try to negotiate help from the French.
Glyndwr’s legacy remains; J E Lloyd wrote in his Owain Glyndwr that Glyndwr’s ‘...courage and high spirit have never been impugned and it is clear testimony to the loyalty and affection which he inspired that not even in his darkest hour was any one found to betray him to his foes... For the Welshmen of all subsequent ages, Glyndwr has been a national hero, the first, indeed, in the country’s history to command the willing support alike of north and south, east and west, Gwynedd and Powys, Deheubarth and Morgannwg.’
When Henry Tudor won the battle of Bosworth on 22 August 1485 the Venetian Ambassador to the English remarked ‘The Welsh may now be said to have recovered their former independence, for the most wise and fortunate Henry VII is a Welshman.’