Today celebrates Owen Glendower, or rather Owain Glyndŵr in Welsh. September 16 marks the anniversary of when, in 1400, he was proclaimed Prince of Wales in Ruthin, in opposition to the English crown’s domination of the principality. After fifteen years of warfare he disappeared to history, the last native Welshman to hold the title of Prince of Wales.
Paula Bardell-Hedley’s blog Book Jotter was the stimulus for this post with her reminder of Owain Glyndŵr Day here. Just now I want to give a little bit of background, some of which may be, as Shakespeare put it, skimble-skamble stuff.
The design for his banner may be derived from the counter-charged arms of the princely houses of Mathrafal (Powys) and Dinefwr (Deheubarth). They also appear on his coat of arms, described as quarterly or and gules, four lions rampant armed and langued azure counterchanged. (Put simply that means the shield is quartered in gold and red, each with red and gold lions in attack mode with blue tongues.) The crest is sometimes described as a dragon, but also as a wyvern, gules (red).
All this symbolism means that Glyndŵr was asserting his historical legitimacy to the principality. He claimed descent from the polities in the Welsh Marches (Powys) and southwest Wales (Deheubarth). The red dragon or two-legged wyvern was traditionally the symbol of the 7th-century Cadwaladr of Gwynedd in northwest Wales (as is outlined in a review here). Lions and dragons emphasised power and strength, all important when standing up to the English forces arranged against him.
Shakespeare refers to Owain as Owen Glendower in Henry IV Part 1. Henry IV was facing an alliance against him which was partly bolstered up by supposed prophecies made by Merlin (the so-called Prophecy of the Six Kings). Henry disparages the animal symbolism in the prophecy as skimble-skamble stuff — gibberish or hocus-pocus — especially as the mouldwarp or mole is sometimes supposed to refer to the king:
Of the mouldwarp and the ant,
Of the dreamer Merlin and his prophecies,
And of a dragon and a finless fish,
A clip-wing’d griffin and a moulten raven,
A couching lion and a ramping cat,
And such a deal of skimble-skamble stuff …
This is the text of the Prophecy:
A dragon shall rise up in the north which shall be full fierce and shall move war against the ‘moldewarp’ and shall give him battle upon a stone. This dragon shall gather again into his company a wolf that shall come out of the west that shall begin war against the moldewarp on his side, and so shall the dragon and he bind their tails together.
Then shall come a lion of of Ireland that shall fall in company with them, and then shall England tremble … the moldewarp shall flee for dread and the dragon, the lion and the wolf shall drive him away … and the land shall be partitioned in three parts; to the wolf to the dragon and to the lion, and so it shall be for evermore.
So who were these creatures, the dragon, the lion and the wolf? Percy Earl of Northumberland was the dragon from the north; Edmund Mortimer was the lion out of Ireland (Lionel Duke of Clarence, Edmund’s royal grandfather, was formerly governor of Ireland) and Owain Glyndŵr was the wolf from the west.
Other interpretations are available, I should point out.
These three together were the signatories to the Tripartite Indenture, an agreement to divide southern Britain between them, thus eliminating Henry. Percy would have the north, parts of the Midlands and Norfolk; Mortimer would take southern England from Cornwall to Suffolk, from Gloucestershire to Kent; this would leave Wales, Cheshire and the Marches to Owain. It never happened, of course.
Much of Owain’s allure comes from the mystery of his disappearance — he faded into obscurity just over 600 years ago, in 1416 — but there have been a handful of attempts to locate where he might have been buried, probably somewhere around the modern border between Wales and England where he survived for a while as a fugitive.
Like King Arthur and Merlin and one or two other figures from Welsh legend, his present location is unknown. But as a symbol of hope and a role model his return is still awaited. A reference in The Annals of Owain Glyndŵr (from the Panton Manuscripts in the National Library of Wales) has this cryptic entry for 1415:
Owain went into hiding on St Matthew’s Day [21 September], and thereafter his hiding place was unknown. Very many said that he died; the seers maintain he did not.
The legend of Owain Glyndŵr: some links