Skimble-skamble stuff

Wyvern rampant: a red wyvern is attributed to Owain Glyndŵr as the crest to his coat of arms

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 device adopted by Owain Glyndŵr for his banner and shield

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

The Mole or Mouldwarp

24 thoughts on “Skimble-skamble stuff

    1. The popular opinion was that Owain was a kind of magician, which Shakespeare refers to; and while Henry IV calls him “damned Glendower” Hotspur more admiringly terms him “great Glendower”.
      A helpful summary, reinforcing the little I remembered from my youth, is here:
      Shakespeare William. Henry IV, First Part. University Society. New York: USP, 1901. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. (accessed today)


    1. Happy to be of service, Johanna! The mole or ‘mouldwarp’ (earth-turner or -burrower) is not often given such symbolic significance, I don’t think, but China Mieville’s Railsea (reviewed here: does a wonderful job resurrecting the ‘mouldiwarp’ term, creatively combined with a kind of Moby Dick meme (perhaps the term echoed the whale’s name). Do Scandinavian languages have a similar kenning for the mole?


      1. Not that I know of, but we would say “blind as a mole” rather than “blind as a bat” (blind som en mullvad). Not commonly used though and I’m not sure how old that idiom is.

        Railsea sounds interesting, I’ll see if I can get it from my local library.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. You might find the library copy in Young Adult if not in the fantasy section.

          We had moles (as evidenced by their ‘hills’) when we lived in the Pembrokeshire countryside, and once found a dead mole on the track where it might have died from old age as opposed to predation or poisoning (though we never used poison). They are strangely human-like with their pink ‘hands’ and feet. I have a hazy memory as a kid of seeing some dead moles strung up on a wire fence as a sort of sympathetic magic (though it’s hard to be sure whether I witnessed it or saw it illustrated I fancy I actually stroked one or two).

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I don’t think it’s been translated and the Fiction in English section at my local library is tiny so it would have to be an inter-library loan.

            I’ve seen plenty of mole hills, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a mole, dead or alive, in nature. I expect that I have seen stuffed specimens in exhibitions though.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. The fur is so soft, and in the past was used for clothing such as capes, coats and top hats (modern ‘moleskin’ is cotton designed to reproduce that feel and texture). In this summer’s unprecedented heat UK moles have apparently been decimated from lack of available worms and from predation when, hungry, they came to the surface for food.

              Liked by 1 person

  1. Huh, and now it’s plain for all to see where Martin got his ideas for The Song of Ice and Fire 😉 Not that I doubted, but the prophecy is a delightful find indeed, Chris! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Not got into GRR Martin — yet — but I was vaguely away of animal symbolism in the series (wolves mainly, isn’t it?) so the ‘wolf from the west’ raises its head again!

      Still, prophecies generally (Nostradamus, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Merlin) and classical traditions of augury (the way geese fly, the entrails of sacrifices) all feed into the mix, don’t they? And not forgetting Native American totems and Celtic tribal animal affiliations… 😁

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, true, true – yet Martin basically based his series on the history and geography of the British Isles – mainly the War of the Roses and Hadrian’s Wall, but also less known events such as Red Wedding, etc., only slightly alternating them and introducing magic. The main houses’ sigils were wolf, dragon and lion, and I guess a mole was not overly presentable, so there’s a stag in its stead.. 😉

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Party politics aside, Brexit if it comes about will increase the pressure for the regions to demand more control over what they get — after all, Brexiters (I refuse to call them Brexiteers, too romantic a label) claimed we’d be ‘taking back control’. Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales, the North — all are getting a raw deal from the current occupants of 10 Downing Street.

      Liked by 1 person

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