Hydra’s Heads

Terence Hawkes

  • The Revolt of Owain Glyn Dŵr by R.R. Davies
    Oxford, 401 pp, £20.00, November 1995, ISBN 0 19 820508 2
  • The Prince’s Choice: A Personal Selection from Shakespeare
    Hodder, 137 pp, £12.99, November 1995, ISBN 0 340 66039 2

Princes of Wales have always been difficult to pin down. National heroes or terrorist thugs? Reasonable coves or domestic tyrants? Friends of the people or pals of Hitler? A sort of duplicity seems to go with the job. The exchange between Owain Glyn Dŵr and Hotspur in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part One –

Glyn Dŵr: I can call spirits from the vasty deep.

Hotspur: Why, so can I, or so can any man;
But will they come when you do call for them?

– strikes a deflationary note familiar enough from recent television interviews. It had a lot to do with the fact that in September 1400 the historical Glyn Dŵr had proclaimed himself Prince of Wales.

Some of Hotspur’s doubts about his new ally might well have sprung from a sense that there was rather a lot of him about. On the battlefield’s far side, for example, loomed an alternative, yet no less authentic-seeming incumbent: Henry of Monmouth, Shakespeare’s Hal, installed as Prince of Wales just 12 months before. Of course, ambiguity of this sort forms part of the play’s sly sifting of questions linking the acquisition of royal titles with the playing of dramatic roles. The coherence of the Lancastrian claim to the throne is at stake here, much as it was historically. But Hal’s actorly changes of face and function are crucial: they fuel the comedy, interrogate the politics, underlie even the battle scenes in which a proliferation of counterfeit kings loyally masquerade as the monarch in order to fool his enemies. ‘They grow like Hydra’s heads,’ cries an exasperated Scot.

Wales has always been a land obsessed by lineage and genealogy, blood-descent and complex, carefully nurtured family relations; its serpentine kinship structures seem destined – if not designed – to undermine linear English certainties. The major political upheaval of the 14th century had, after all, reached its climax in Wales. In the summer of 1399, the shattering deposition of Richard II, the ultimate de jure monarch of the old medieval order, removed the last king of Britain who ruled by undisputed hereditary right.

Enough princely blood ran in Glyn Dŵr’s veins to lend a certain legitimacy to his title and to the revolt mounted in its name. At one time an apprentice at law at Westminster, he was, above all else, a soldier, acquainted with Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland and his son, Hotspur. Shakespeare’s version of Hotspur’s encounter with Glyn Dŵr obviously locks onto traditional oppositions that caricature both the Welsh sensibility and the English. The one, dealing in mythology, magic and prophecy, duly rants, boasts and carries on in the face of the other’s hard-headed commitment to reason and common sense. But the play goes on to blur the edges of exactly those distinctions. That the concrete ‘lore’ of a way of life will always and necessarily impinge on its abstract ‘law’ is one aspect of a complex relationship: that the ‘lore’ enshrined in corrupted custom and practice can be an instrument for the manipulation of objectively formulated ‘law’ is its sinister shadow.

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