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The Legacy of Owain Glyndwr
A 15th century freedom fighter described by Shakespeare as being “not in the roll of common men”, Owain Glyndwr led a fierce military campaign against English rule, nearly succeeding in driving them out of Wales permanently, and convened the last independent Welsh parliament in 1404, for a time even declaring himself Prince of Wales. (It is believed that Glyndwr was genuinely descended from one or more of the pre-invasion Welsh Royal families, many of whose kingdom names survive as county names of modern Wales.) His red and yellow flag of four rampant lions is to this day the flag of the Prince of Wales (now the heir to the English throne). More recently, Fidel Castro has apparently cited Glyndwr’s military methods as an influence, and a shadowy organisation calling itself the Sons of Glyndwr claimed responsibility for a series of arsons of English-owned holiday homes and businessess in Wales – to this day some on the fringes of Welsh nationalism continue to consider the English as colonisers, despite the facts that Welsh people have long held precisely the same rights in law as the English (and indeed Scottish) citizens of the United Kingdom, that all government documents and the like are available in Wales in both Welsh and English, and that there is considerable Welsh language output in both print and broadcast media. Though as an Objectivist I do consider certain British laws to be oppressive, the Welsh do not suffer any particular oppression due purely to being Welsh. I emphasise this because there have been times in the past when various laws did place the Welsh as a people at a particular disadvantage – unlike Scotland, Wales was originally invaded by the English, and there were repeated government efforts over several centuries to eliminate the culture and use of the Welsh language. During or around Glyndwr’s time there were a multitude of restrictions on the Welsh, including a ban on the public use of the language and serious restraints onn trading and property rights. In addition most government offices were closed to most Welshmen, including nobles such as Glyndwr.
It goes without saying that Glyndwr, living in the 15th century and being an aristocrat, was not by any means a socialist. That alone of course doesn’t mean that Welsh nationalist socialists today can’t draw on his influence, but a brief examination of the facts surrounding Glyndwr and the revolt turns up a number of interesting issues. In my opinion (and I stress that this is no more than my personal opinion), there is much in Glyndwr’s legacy, properly understood, that lends itself to an individualist worldview. Any socialist Welsh nationalists who may come across this article will doubtless be less than impressed with this thesis, but my reasoning is as follows. First, Glyndwr was not only an aristocrat but a trained lawyer and for a time a highly praised warrior in the armies of the English crown. (This despite apparently being told by soothsayers that he was to be the prophesised liberator of Wales. I of course have little time for this bizarre mystical aspect of Glyndwr’s story.) At a time when the English were in fact an oppressive occupying force in Wales, Glyndwr was seemingly loyal to the English establishment and following his military service returned to a comfortable life in Wales (where as a nobleman he still held some considerable land).
One of the incidents which occurred around 1399 or 1400 that finally drove Glyndwr to rebel against the government he had served loyally for years amounts to an explicit case of the government failing to uphold Glyndwr’s property rights. In short, following Henry IV’s troubled accession to the English throne, a number of nobles who has supported his claim to the crown argued that they deserved to be given additional lands as reward. These included Lord Reginald de Grey of Ruthin, whose land neighboured Glyndwr’s in north-east Wales. He proceeded to seize several villages and land from Glyndwr’s estate. Glyndwr’s immediate reaction was to protest through official channels and he even journeyed to parliament to make a personal appeal. All of the few existing records of what transpired suggest that Glyndwr was treated very shabbily, his appeal being scornfully dismissed. To me, the fact that Glyndwr actually did hope to peacefully achieve justice via the English authorities is telling.
The trouble escalated when Grey was asked to deliver a message to Glyndwr from Henry IV, requesting the Welshman’s assistance in battle in Scotland. Grey withheld the message for some time, eventually delivering it with only three days to spare, far too short a time period for Glyndwr to fully prepare and travel to the required area. Despite his apologetic messages explaining that the summons had arrived very late, Glyndwr was condemned for this failure. Some sources suggest that Grey (presumably hoping to obtain more land) deliberately inflamed the situation by making out that Glyndwr intended a deliberate gesture of contempt to the crown. English political writers at the time apparently saw what was happening, though the king did not, and several sources seem to blame the entire incident on Grey and Henry IV. Coupled with the installation of a Frenchman as Prince of Wales, the feud with Grey and the abysmal failure of the authorities to reach a just resolution finally pushed Glyn Dwr to declare himself the rightful Prince of Wales and stage a coronation at his manor on 16th September 1400, unfurling the above-mentioned flag of four rampant lions (as mentioned, he could trace his ancestry to the old Welsh royal bloodlines, and so certainly had a far more legitimate claim to the land than Grey, or for that matter any Frenchman).
Two days later, the revolutionary campaign began as Glyndwr’s forces shot across north Wales, taking town after town from Grey’s armies in the space of a few days before briefly quietening down. Henry IV angrily moved a large number of additional soldiers into the Welsh castles, and shortly after this the revolution began in earnest.
This essay is not the place for a full account of the campaign, but that the initial targets were Grey’s lands is significant. Mystical prophesies aside, it was the taking of his personal lands and the damage to his reputation by Grey, coupled with the failure of the authorities he had loyally served to properly rectify matters that led to Glyndwr’s initial actions. I do not mean to suggest that any of the other oppressive anti-Welsh laws of the period were of no consequence, but it seems to me that in stark contrast to today’s socialists Glyndwr’s major gripes were property rights as well as justice.
As stated earlier, Wales today is no more or less oppressed than any other part of the UK. If Wales is to become fully independent then let it be on the basis of a constitution that recognises and enshrines property rights into law, and a legal system that treats each individual fairly and justly. As things stand, an independent Wales would likely promptly descend back into outright socialism. Many Welsh nationalists still moan about Lady Thatcher dragging Wales, along with the rest of the UK, towards a semi-capitalist system. A socialist Welsh government would also potentially ban property sales to non-Welsh - the idea is already being seriously floated by certain elements of Welsh nationalism, the irony of the fact that Welshmen’s trading rights were restricted by the English government in Glyn Dwr’s time apparently totally lost on them! A libertarian Welsh republic would have my full support, but if the choice is between a socialist Welsh republic and the present semi-free constitutional monarchy of Britain, then I must choose the latter.
I acknowledge Glyn Dwr's War by G. J. Brough as the source of some factual information presented in this article.
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