Wales & the Wars of the Roses

Chapter 2 : Annexation by England

As may be imagined, the inheritance structure often created disputes, and English interference was often welcomed by one or other party to gain advantage over brothers or cousins. With hindsight, involving the English Crown can be seen as suicidal, but, presumably, it worked for men whose primary ambition was personal or familial, rather than national.

Thus when Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, who styled himself Prince of Aberffraw and Lord of Snowdon (effectively north and mid-Wales), achieved a measure of hegemony, his efforts at unification were undermined by Gwenwynwyn, Prince of Powys, who allied with Edward I. This opened the door to the enemy, and by 1282, Edward, probably the most ruthless man ever to sit on the English throne, had annihilated Wales as an independent state, imposing, under the Statutes of Rhuddlan, English rule and English law in many areas (although not in inheritance, with the exception of excluding illegitimate sons. It no doubt suited Edward to keep the old system alive, to minimise the chances of a new strong leader arising).

Edward built a string of castles to surround Llywelyn’s heartland of Gwynedd, including Denbigh, Rhuddlan, Conwy, Beaumaris, Caernarfon and Harlech, all enabling access by sea. Today, they are wonderful examples of the best mediaeval military architecture, but for some two hundred years, they were, for the Welsh, a symbol of oppression. Welshmen were not permitted to reside in the new towns that surrounded the castles.

In the late 1300s, the Welsh rose up under Owain Glyndwr (c. 1359 – c. 1415), a descendant of the Lord Rhys, Prince of Deheubarth. Glyndwr, from north-east Wales, was an established figure in the local gentry – mixing with the English marcher lords, as much as with his own Welsh kin. It is likely he was trained as a lawyer in England as well as fighting in the English army in Scotland.

Following a dispute with his arch-enemy, Lord Grey of Rhuthin, who arranged for Glyndwr to miss a summons for military service, making him, technically, a traitor to England, Glyndwr claimed his title as Prince of Powys. This began a war that would last nine years and that had widespread support not just throughout Wales, but from Welshmen settled in England, who returned home in great numbers.

In 1402, in an attempt at retaliation, the Penal Laws against Wales were passed by the English Parliament. Welshmen could not hold senior Crown offices, bear arms, or buy property in English towns (including those in Wales that had been established by Edward I). Education of Welsh children was restricted, and no public assemblies were permitted. These laws also applied to Englishmen who married Welsh women.

During the war, Glyndwr allied with Scotland, with France, and with the Mortimer earls of March (disgruntled because Richard II, who had named Edmund Mortimer as his heir, had been deposed by Henry IV of Lancaster). In 1404,Glyndwr called a Parliament at Machynlleth in mid-Wales, re-establishing Welsh law, and being crowned as Prince of Wales.

But Wales had insufficient men, money or armaments to effectively expel the English over the long term. By 1405, Glyndwr’s French allies had retreated, and in 1409, Edmund Mortimer, married to Glyndwr’s daughter, Catrin, was killed in the last battle of the war, at Harlech Castle. Owain’s wife and two of his daughters were imprisoned in the Tower of London, and never released.

Despite this set-back, Owain fought on, but disappeared from view in 1415. Never captured, his memory was kept alive by the bards who travelled between the courts of the Welsh gentry, reciting his glories, but also encouraging the Welsh to be ready to support a new Welsh leader.

The British kings of myth and legend – Cadwallader and Arthur – were now joined by a new hero, Glyndwr, and the bards sang that one of them would come again in the hour of greatest need and drive the Saxons out of Britain. The Welsh were therefore being primed to look for the ‘mab darogan’, the son of prophesy, and it was into this dream that the Tudors would tap to take Henry Tudor to the throne.