The Last Prince: the story of Owain Glyndŵr

Published 18 April 2013


When it comes to names, most long distance walks are named after such things as geography or location, rather than a person. Names such as the Dales Way, the Pennine Way, the South West Coast path for example. There are quite a few walks whose titles basically do little more than describe what the route is. The Coast to Coast fits in to that category, along with the endearingly named “Bog Dodgers Way” and several others.

In contrast there aren’t many walks named after people. There’s a couple: Rob Roy’s Way for example, or the Herriot Way after that Yorkshire vet. Although it should be noted that the Great Glen Way certainly wasn’t named after some unknown-yet-fabulous bloke from Scotland.

In fact the Glyndŵr’s Way is one of those few walks named after a person; in this case one Owain Glyndŵr.

Now unless you’re Welsh, chances are you’ll never have heard of Owain Glyndŵr. Why? Well it boils generally down to that age old matter of history being written by the winners, and in the end Owain turned out to be no winner.

In Wales it’s a different matter. His life and actions had a long lasting impact on Wales, although not all of it initially positive. He’s been credited by some as the father of Welsh nationalism, and in 2002 was celebrated as the number 23 in a poll of the 100 Greatest Britons. Not only that but he was the last native Welshman to bear the title “Prince of Wales”. Oh and, of course, he had a long distance walking route named after him as well.

How do you get to be the father of Welsh nationalism, I hear you cry? Ah, well the answer is obvious. You lead an uprising, attempting to seize your country back from the English crown. Although, in reality, the subjugation of Wales by the English was not started by an Englishman but by a Frenchman. William the Conqueror’s aims did not just stop at what is now England, but at Wales too. It took until the 13th century, but by the time that Owain was born in the middle of the 14th century, Wales was firmly in the grip of the English crown.

At the time Wales was essentially a series of semi-autonomous regions, managed by the feudal system with each ruled by a Marcher Lord who reported directly to the king himself. Glyndŵr was born into a prosperous family, part of the local gentry in the north east of Wales, and by 1383 had been established as the Squire of Sycharth and Glyndyfrdwy. Owain’s sworn allegiance was to the English crown, namely King Richard, and in 1394 he entered military service, fighting the Scots amongst others where he served in a number of campaigns and gained his key military experience.

So far, so loyal. But it would be events in the late 1390s that would see Owain lead what would later be called the Last War of Independence. What kicked it all off? Well a feud over some land with his neighbour, Baron Grey de Ruthyn. Grey claimed a piece of Glyndŵr’s land as his own, and as rowing neighbours have a wont for doing about a boundary dispute, Glyndŵr successfully appealed to the English parliament for a resolution.

Then King Richard II was deposed by his cousin, Henry IV. Baron Grey was a good friend of the new king, and used his influence to have the decision overturned. Owain’s appeal was rejected without even a hearing. Instead Glyndŵr was forced to make even more land concessions.

An Englishman, Grey was well known to have an anti-Welsh agenda and he went on to cause more trouble for Glyndŵr. In times of war Glyndŵr, like all nobles, was obliged to provide troops when requested, and indeed he had done so in the past. So when King Henry IV planned a new campaign against the Scots, a Royal Summons was issued, to be passed on locally by the Baron. However instead of passing on the King’s message, de Grey deliberately withheld the summons until it was too late for Glyndŵr to respond or explain his absence, yet alone provide troops. By failing to act according to a message he’d never had, Glyndŵr was found guilty of treason, declared a traitor and his estates forfeited.

Glyndŵr responded like anyone would in that situation; by heading into exile and starting an uprising. He began by attacking de Grey’s properties in the north of the country, and over the next few years several towns were burnt, and de Grey was even kidnapped and held to ransom. To top it all, with the help of French allies several humiliating defeats were inflicted on Henry IV as he sought to regain his control over Wales.

News of Owain’s victories spread, and supporters from across the country were all spurred on by the opportunity to throw out the harsh English rulers and retake control of Wales. By 1404 Glyndŵr had captured castles in Aberystwyth and Harlech, and had convened the first Welsh parliament in the town of Machynlleth, where Owain was crowned Prince of Wales.

The exterior of Parliament House at Machynlleth
Parliament House at Machynlleth

It was looking like the dream of Welsh independence could happen, and Owain was seen as the man to lead it but just a few years later things began to go wrong. Key battles in the south and east of Wales were lost, and in the summer of 1408 Aberystwyth castle was attacked by the English and laid siege to. Within months the castle’s occupants had run out of food, with no choice but to surrender. By 1409, famine and illness caused the occupants of Harlech castle to wave the white flag too; the castle’s occupants including Glyndŵr’s wife and daughters who had been living there. They were taken prisoner and taken to the Tower of London.

With things going less well French support faded away, and the resistance began to crumble. Still free, Owain and his supporters continued to fight using guerilla tactics, but the revolt had lost most of its steam and in 1410 a raid into Shropshire went wrong with many of the leading figures captured and executed. Owain was captured and ransomed in 1412 and after that everything got a bit hazy. Glyndŵr effectively disappeared, driven into hiding. Although some die-hards continued to fight, there was never to be Welsh independence and full control of the country was restored to the English crown. The country was punished by hefty fines and sanctions; castles were destroyed and not rebuilt. Wales’s citizens were treated as second class compared to the English.

For the rest of the century the English lords continued to rule over a land heavy with disorder and lawlessness, and it would take until the Acts of Union in the early 16th century for things to change. There were costs with union: English was made the default language and Welsh speakers barred from high office; and Wales itself was effectively annexed. However the unpopular Marcher Lordships were scrapped and the country given representation in the Westminster Parliament for the first time. English law would be spread to the country, and Welsh citizens made equal to the English.

As for Owain Glyndŵr, well no one really knows where he went, nor where or when he died. Some legends have him ending his days in Herefordshire; a horse always saddled in case he needed to make a fast escape. Others have him heading to the hills to quietly die. Wherever he went, the dream of independence went with him.

In recent years Wales itself has changed, with a resurgence in Welsh nationalism, a revival in the Welsh language and the devolution of many powers from Westminster to the new Assembly in Cardiff. And Glyndŵr has been a part of that. In 2000, 400 years after the start of his attempted revolution, a memorial was unveiled to him in Machynlleth where he’d held that first parliament and in the same year, proposals made by Powys Council to dedicate an official walking route to him were accepted; the following year the Glyndŵr’s Way National Trail officially opened for business providing 135 miles of walking through the countryside in the heart of Wales.

For many in Wales he remains a great Welsh hero, and a great figure who left the ultimate “what if” question. What if Owain Glyndŵr had been successful? What would have happened to Wales? Of course we’ll never know.

Next time: it’s time to head off out of Knighton and on with our journey

Get the whole Glyndŵr’s Way series for your e-reader! Walking with the Last Prince is available now for Kindle, iPhone and iPad, Nook and Kobo.


Andrew-Paul Shakespeare

18 October 2017 at 11:42 am

We very rarely receive an explanation of what Grey did to Glyndwr, just a vague “he stole land”. Thank you for providing this information.

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