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.

R.R. Davies’s lively and authoritative account of the revolt of Owain Glyn Dŵr begins with exactly that point: that Wales inherits a duality of experience and commitment – a clash between ‘law’ and ‘lore’ – which makes it ungraspable as a single unified entity. Accordingly, he proposes two modes of entry into, or readings of, the Principality, and proceeds to chart its culture in terms of two quite different experiences of it: on the one hand, that of an intrepid English official, who feels himself – beyond the stepping-stones of towns and castles – alienated and at risk in a remote and unintelligibly foreign country, and on the other, that of a native Welsh-speaking poet (as it might be Iolo Goch, Glyn Dŵr’s household versifier) whose bardic role involves precisely the weaving together, using legend, myth and genealogy, of a reinforcing vision of national identity. These two worlds co-exist, but a kind of apartheid routinely keeps them distinct. Towns, and the law administered from them, may generate ‘oases of Englishness’, but another Wales of poets, minstrels and prophets ‘apprenticed in ancient lore’ lies well beyond the English ken.

Glyn Dŵr’s was a revolt of that Wales: a rising against law, in the name of lore. Fuelled and sustained by the prophecies of Merlin and Taliesin, as interpreted by the local ‘masters of Brut’ or professional prophets, it encouraged those Welsh who had felt exiles in their own land since the victories of Edward I to pursue claims made as the original ‘Britons’. Glyn Dŵr had little trouble in linking himself with the long line of Welsh messiahs, including Arthur, who offered to expel the English and regain control of the whole island of Britain.

The revolt effectively lasted from Glyn Dŵr’s assumption of the title of Prince in 1400 until the fall of Harlech Castle in 1409. Much more than mere guerrilla warfare was involved. At its height, an ‘awesome Welsh army’ was mustered in aid of a project designed, in Glyn Dŵr’s own words, to release Wales from ‘the madness of the English barbarians’. Whether or not this also meant, in the rather more hysterical terms of English propaganda, ‘the destruction of the kingdom and the English tongue’, the revolt seemed, in its early stages, more than capable of achieving such an object. The climax came on 22 June 1402 at Bryn Glas, a hill just west of Offa’s Dyke, where, at the head of his troops, Glyn Dŵr won a major victory over an English force led by Edmund Mortimer, uncle of the heir of the Earl of March. The bloodiness of the battle, in which Mortimer was captured, proved memorable. The story of Welsh women allegedly mutilating the bodies of the English dead gave it legendary status. On 30 November, in what amounted to a major public relations coup, the captured Mortimer defected and married Glyn Dŵr’s daughter.

Appalling weather hampered the forces of the avenging expedition, confirming English prejudices about the Welsh climate, as well as reinforcing myths concerning Glyn Dŵr’s contacts with the vasty deep. By 1404, English authority throughout Wales was in tatters. Glyn Dŵr held his first parliament in May and not only explored alliances with Scotland and Ireland, but sent diplomatic missions urgently to France. Within two months a Franco-Welsh Treaty was signed. In 1405 a French force landed at Milford Haven and, combining with Welsh forces, headed for and captured Carmarthen. It then marched through South Wales into Herefordshire and the Midlands, halting only at Woodbury Hill – so the story goes – a bare eight miles from Worcester.

Widespread opposition to the new Lancastrian monarchy helped Glyn Dŵr; his programme included provision for the restoration, ‘if he were alive’, of Richard II. In his absence, the Mortimer claim to the monarchy could hope to find a base within Wales. The support of the disaffected Percy family, including Hotspur, generated plans to revamp the entire power structure of Britain – a problematic document known as the Tripartite Indenture appears to unveil the rebels’ plans. In it, the ‘text’ of Britain is radically reread. Divided between Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, Edmund Mortimer (now Glyn Dŵr’s son-in-law) and Glyn Dŵr himself, ‘Greater Britain’ includes a massively expanded Wales, extending almost to Worcester in the east and then north to ‘the head or source of the river commonly known as the Mersey and so along that river to the sea’. Whatever its status, such a document confirms the extensive vision of a leader who planned an independent Welsh Church, a Welsh ecclesiastical province, and with characteristic princely zeal, not one Welsh university but two.

The spirits of the vasty deep remained nonetheless unmoved. In 1403, Henry IV defeated the Percies at the battle of Shrewsbury, where Hotspur was killed. By 1406 the tide had turned decisively. At the end of March, in an effort to placate the French, Glyn Dŵr transferred Wales’s spiritual allegiance from the Roman Pope (supported by the English) to the Pope at Avignon. But French support continued to dwindle. By 1408 the campaign had degenerated into a guerrilla war, and by early 1409 the self-proclaimed Prince of Wales was a desperate and hunted man.

The revolt destroyed what little trust existed between the English and the Welsh inhabitants of Wales, shattering any pretence of parity between them. Despite the fact that a number of the English living in the Principality had actually supported the uprising, the anti-Welsh legislation instituted after it fortified a long-standing pattern of repression. Like the Irish, the Welsh were to be excluded from the entire political, legal and fiscal structure of England. In their own land, they would continue to be second-class citizens. Penal statutes prohibited intermarriage between English men and Welsh women, restricted Welsh ownership of property in England, forbade assemblies and removed subsidies from bards. All Welshmen could now expect to be treated as potential rebels. The results were predictable: an increasing truculence and ‘a new and vindictive lease of life’ for past injuries.

These had always struck at the very basis of nationhood. As Prince of Wales, Glyn Dŵr had breathtakingly seized an appellation which Kings of England – ever since Edward’s conquest – had been pleased to bestow on their eldest sons. By contrast, Glyn Dŵr claimed his title ‘by the grace of God’. Punctilious sifting of genealogy had certainly managed to discern that in the complex relations linking him with Llywelyn ap Gruffudd (d. 1282), the last native Prince, but this by no means persuaded all the Welsh to see him plainly as their leader. The intrepid Dafydd Gam of Brecon, whose name commemorates a squint, gained legendary status as one of Glyn Dŵr’s most committed opponents. He died at Agincourt, among the many Welshmen serving in Henry V’s army, only to be immortalised as ‘Davy Gam, Esquire’, one of the ‘English dead’, in Shakespeare’s Henry V. Henry Gwyn, a supporter of Glyn Dŵr, died fighting on the French side in the same battle.

The legend of Glyn Dŵr as the heroic embodiment of Welsh aspirations was encouraged by two main factors. First, he was never captured, and the time, place and manner of his death remain a mystery. This made him easily enlistable into the ranks of those gory paragons smouldering in the changing rooms of national Valhallas who permanently await recall to the field. Second, perhaps as a condition of its ‘popular’ nature, the propaganda propelling the revolt eschewed muddying detail and drew extensively on mythology, legend and prophecy: potent detergents deployed by all cultures in the making of meaning.

As a result, whatever Glyn Dŵr’s revolt meant at the time is less significant than what it has come to mean. For Wales, as Professor Davies makes clear, it indicates nationhood, asserting in the face of an overweening Englishness the heady possibility of material difference; of a distinctive, coherent national identity, possessed of its own customs, practices, way of life. But a national identity conceived in oppugnancy must weave into its design at least the outline of the enemy against whom it is pitted. Glyn Dŵr’s revolt not only failed to ‘free’ Wales from the English yoke, it also effectively bound Wales to an adversary constructed as its polar opposite. Any version of Glyn Dŵr’s ‘Wales’ always risks becoming the creature of an imagined ‘England’.

The process works both ways, however. The Principality directly challenges the single vision of English certainties, and in one sense could be said to be the reason for them. Beyond Offa’s Dyke, an English Prince of Wales can find his title disputed by an unheimlich claimant; a pretender to the English Crown, Bolingbroke, may face the threat of a rival, Mortimer, who has gone native. Congruent with Glyn Dŵr’s proliferating vision, the University of Wales now crops up in at least six different locations. Finally, the language the English speak finds itself challenged in Wales by an alarmingly different tongue, which offers quite a different account of the island’s history and structure.

This sense of dealing with an alien, incomprehensibly multiform entity surely lies at the heart of the legend of the mutilation of the English dead by Welsh women at the battle of Bryn Glas. Such savagery strikes at – hacks off – a fundamental indicator of native manhood. The English perception of that outlandish, emasculating horde speaks tellingly of its irredeemable exclusion from civilisation as we know it, for the very word ‘Welsh’ derives from the Old English wælisc, meaning, brutally and dismissively, ‘foreign’. But maybe national identity depends on that kind of disparity. The foreigners we fight shape us. We are what we oppose. In this context, nothing seems more apt than that the Welshman who is the author of this scrupulous, incisive study should also be a professor of medieval history at All Souls College, Oxford, or that the major channel by which the story of Glyn Dŵr has entered the world’s consciousness should be the work of an English playwright.

Shakespeare’s carefully constructed version of an English past shares with Glyn Dŵr’s project a large commitment to the centrality of art and mythology in the manufacture of history. But, as part of the same process, his plays also frequently deny the certainties expected from them: they play the Welsh game. The scene in Henry IV Part One, in which Falstaff and Hal put on the little drama that has each alternately taking the roles of the Prince of Wales and the King, seems at first blush to underwrite Hal’s burgeoning authority. But it also generates no fewer than three Princes of Wales on the stage at the same time: Hal himself; Hal ‘as’ Hal; and Falstaff as Hal. The scene immediately following brings – in the figure of Owain Glyn Dŵr a disconcerting fourth. When our own Prince Charles single-mindedly takes on the role of Prince of Wales in the same scene in the recording accompanying The Prince’s Choice, the Welsh multiplier goes into overdrive and the stage becomes worryingly cluttered.

How much trust should a prince put in princes? Perhaps wrapping yourself in the national mythology works better at some times than at others. On 27 October 1916, a statue of Owain Glyn Dŵr was unveiled at Cardiff’s City Hall by David Lloyd George. A marble firmness of jaw, to say nothing of encomia that spoke of ‘splendid courage’ and ‘the advancement of the people’, hinted at a linked destiny. Within weeks, the leader of the whole island of Britain was a charismatic Welshman. A real (as they say in New York) prince, or mere (as they said in Westminster) magic goat? Predictably, ambiguity reigned.