FINAL DAYS OF OWAIN GLYNDŴR
A review by the Owain Glyndŵr Society
'His grave is beside no church, neither under the shadow of any ancient yew. It is in a spot safer and more sacred still. Rain does not fall on it, hail nor sleet chill no sere sod above it. It is forever green with the green of eternal spring. Sunny the light on it; close and warm and dear it lies, sheltered from all storms, from all cold or grey oblivion. Time shall not touch it; decay shall not dishonour it; for that grave is in the heart of every true Cymro. There, for ever, from generation unto generation, grey Owen's heart lies dreaming on, dreaming on, safe for ever and for ever.'
Owen Rhoscomyl 1905
This year (2015) we commemorate the six-hundredth anniversary of the death of the most iconic figure in Welsh history, Owain Glyndŵr. Little is known with any degree of certainty about Glyndŵr's final years; even less is known about the circumstances surrounding his death. By 1412 he had lost control of most of the territory he had previously held. Although some areas were still defiant, these were not substantial or co-ordinated sufficiently to provide effective resistance. An exception to this general pattern was Meirionydd, where the English crown had difficulty in exerting its control, and resistance continued until Glyndŵr's death. The capture of Dafydd Gam by Glyndŵr's supporters in 1412 was the last major event of his campaign (he was Glyndŵr’s enemy and had organised an assassination attempt). Dafydd was eventually released after a substantial ransom had been paid. Henry V ascended the English throne in 1413 and offered Owain a pardon which was rejected, but Owain's only surviving son, Maredudd, did accept a pardon after Glyndŵr's death.
As with much of his late history, there are conflicting accounts of the year in which Owain died. Professor Glanmor Williams' view was that he died between 1415 and 1417 and the other records agree with his assessment. Some sources give the year 1416 but the majority opt for 1415.
A chronicle written only a few years after his death (Peniarth MS135) states:
'1415 Owain went into disappearance on St. Mathew's Day in harvest time and thereafter [his place of] disappearance was not known. A great many say that he died; the seers maintain he did not.'
Adam of Usk, Glyndŵr's contemporary, also records in his Chronicle for 1415:
'After four years in hiding from the king and the realm, Owain Glyndŵr died, and was buried by his supporters in the darkness of night. His grave was discovered by his enemies, however, so he had to be re-buried, though it is impossible to discover where he was laid.'
Although Adam was a contemporary, reputable historians regard his records with some suspicion. It seems strange, for example, that his body was not disinterred by his enemies and displayed to confirm his death and, by doing so, potentially bring the uprising to an end.
Thomas Pennant (1726 - 98) concluded that Owain died on September 20th, 1415 but other sources opt for September 21st. (St. Matthew's Day). A Welsh chronicle for the year 1415 published within a generation of his death however suggests a later date:
'Owain disappeared on the feast of St. Matthew in the autumn. No one knows after that where he hid. Many say that he died, but the prophets say that he did not die.'
A wide range of sources suggests the likely date/s for Owain's death to be 20/21 September 1415.
Glyndŵr's final years were shrouded in mystery. Some reports portray his existence as that of a miserable vagrant seeking shelter wherever he could, occasionally in caves. A number of locations for Owain's grave have been suggested including a claim, based on a manuscript of 1513, that Owain died on top of Lawton's Hope Hill, between Leominster and Hereford. Iolo Morgannwg's vision was of Owain, the nation's redeemer, asleep with his warriors in a cave waiting for the call to save Wales in its hour of need.
Most accounts, however, select the Golden Valley in Herefordshire as the area where he spent his last days. Two of his daughters lived in the area after marrying Herefordshire men (remarkably, three of Glyndŵr's daughters married men from Herefordshire). In those times, however, the residents of the Marches had divided loyalties with some supporting the Welsh, others the English.
Alice, Glyndŵr's eldest surviving daughter, married Sir John Scudamore of Kentchurch Court in the Golden Valley. The manor house has an impressive tower known as the Glyndŵr Tower. It has a room that is associated with Glyndŵr which is said to be haunted. When a camera crew from HTV accompanied officers of the Society to record a programme, a member of the camera crew refused to enter the room claiming to have detected a 'presence' there. Enquiries locally convinced us that there was still a strong tradition linking Glyndŵr with Kentchurch. An officer of the Society was told that the local tradition is that Glyndŵr spent his last days in Kentchurch and always had a saddled horse immediately below his window to ensure a quick escape should the military appear. Adrien Jones, President of the Owain Glyndŵr Society, was told by John Scudamore of Kentchurch Court (a direct descendant of the aforementioned Sir John Scudamore) that the family tradition was that Owain spent his final days in the Golden Valley, but was buried at Monnington Straddel some 7 miles away.
Hanging to this day in Kentchurch Court is a striking oil portrait of an old man. The subject's gaunt features and challenging stare have an immediate impact on the viewer. Some have claimed this to be a portrait of Glyndŵr in old age (see paragraph on Alex Gibbon below) but the family claim it to be a portrait of Siôn Cent, a poet who had a close association with the Scudamore family for some years. The Flemish style of the portrait has suggested to some that the portrait may be by Jan van Eyck but van Eyck's first appearance in the records is in 1422 and all the works confidently attributed to him are from the period 1432 - 39. These dates are too late to fit in with what is known of Owain's final years.
There is considerable confusion in the records between Monnington Straddel in the Golden Valley and Monnington-on-Wye (they are 9 miles apart by road). Glyndŵr's daughter Margaret was married to Sir Richard Monnington who owned Lawton's Hope and Sarnesfield. A third daughter, Janet, was married to Sir John Croft of Croft Castle. It is possible that Owain could have moved between his daughters' homes in his last years, but Kentchurch Court would be the most secure of the three. As Lawton's Hope Hill lies between Croft Castle and Kentchurch Court it is possible that Owain died there while travelling between the two.
Near Monnington Court in Monnington Straddel is a mound which is often referred to as the likeliest location for Owain's grave. This motte is scheduled and under English Heritage's protection. They describe it as follows:
'The motte is 3.4 metres high, oval in shape with its longer axis of 40 metres orientated north to south. A ditch remains on the west and north sides but elsewhere has been filled in. The motte lies on the east side of an almost square bailey surrounded by a now shallow ditch which has a stream running through it. It is possible that this supposed bailey is a natural feature created by the stream course and that if a bailey was constructed as part of the castle complex, it is more likely to be west of the motte below the standing buildings of Monnington Court. There is evidence for ridge and furrow in surrounding fields. Scheduled.'
John Scudamore took the Society's President, Adrien Jones, to the site. A visit by the Society's officers accompanied by the journalist and historian Collette Hume followed shortly and was given prominent coverage in the Western Mail. The Society commissioned a geophysical survey of the site in 2000 over a 400 square metre area, which was undertaken by TerraDat of Cardiff, who have made similar surveys for BBC archaeological programmes and for Channel 4. This survey was non-intrusive and did not involve any excavation. This revealed the remains of a stone rectangular building with metre-thick walls measuring10m. x 6m. in a north-south alignment just under the surface of the top of the motte. Some have speculated that this could be the foundation of a tower whose aboveground stonework was pillaged many years ago for use elsewhere. The survey revealed many metallic objects within the mound but could not identify these objects. The alignment of the building tells us that it would not have been a church. The Society is indebted to Tony Carter, who led this phase of our work.
Thomas Pennant wrote that: 'It is said that he (Owain Glyndŵr) was buried in the churchyard of Monnington [Monnington-on-Wye], but there is no monument, nor any memorial of the spot that contains his remains'.
The historian and cleric Thomas Thomas, writing about Monnington Church, Monnington-on-Wye in 1822 quoted document Harl.M.S.S.6832 as follows:
'About 1680, the church was rebuilt. In the church-yard stood the trunk of a sycamore, in height about nine foot, diameter two foot and a half; which being in the workmen's way was cut down. Directly under it, about a foot below the surface of the ground was laid a large grave-stone without any inscription; and that being removed, there was discovered at the bottom of a well-stoned grave the body (as 'tis supposed) of Owen Glyndŵr; which was whole and entire, and of goodly stature. But there were no tokens or remains of any coffin. Where any part of it was touched, it fell to ashes. After it had been exposed two days, Mr Tomkins ordered the stone to be placed over it again, and the earth to be cast upon it.'
Chris Barber, author of In Search of Owain Glyndŵr, refers to a local tradition that Owain died in Chapel Cottage, near Monnington Court. The name suggests that there was once a chapel nearby, and Barber speculates that this may have been a chapel of ease linked to the nearest Church at Vowchurch about two miles away. Dore Abbey, a Cistercian Abbey founded in 1147 and located in the heart of the Golden Valley, must also be a strong candidate, especially as the Abbey held extensive lands, including the land where the present Monnington Court stands. The chapel would, therefore, be more likely to be linked to Dore Abbey. Dr John Hughes, Treasurer/Membership Secretary of the Society, who has written a novel about Glyndŵr's daughter Gwenllian (Glyndŵr's Daughter) believes the location is probably near Cwmhir Abbey.
In his book The Mystery of Jack of Kent and the Fate of Owain Glyndŵr Alex Gibbon claims that Owain's body was taken from Herefordshire and buried at St. Cwrdaf's Church, Llanwrda, Carmarthenshire. He also claims, as others have done, that the oil painting hanging in Kentchurch Court is a portrait of Owain Glyndŵr rather than Siôn Cent and that Owain disguised himself as a Franciscan friar acting as family chaplain to the Scudamore family. Indeed, he suggests that Owain and Siôn Cent are the same person, arguing that impersonation would have protected Glyndŵr from his enemies in his final years.
The Society was privileged to commission a lecture on Glyndŵr from the late Professor Sir Rees Davies (then Chichelle Professor of Medieval History at All Souls College, Oxford) at the Bala National Eisteddfod. Following his lecture Professor Davies (the leading authority on Glyndŵr's history) told us that little was known of his final days, but his view was that he was probably buried somewhere in north Wales where his support was strongest. We know that Meirionydd resisted the domination of the English crown until (at least) the time of Owain's death, and it is reasonable to assume that he would have sought support amongst his most loyal supporters.
Dr Keith Ray, County Archaeologist of Herefordshire, met officers of the Society and expressed the view that Owain would almost certainly have been buried in consecrated ground and that there were at least four possible sites in Herefordshire that might be considered. He confirmed that some excavations had been undertaken in the past on the motte at Monnington Straddel but these had been by amateur archaeologists who were not scrupulous in recording their results.
Remains exhumed from below a car park in Leicester recently have been declared by forensic scientist to have a 99+% certainty to be those of Richard III (1452 - 1485). This has revealed the power of modern genetic analysis (especially of mitochondrial DNA) and suggests that, should remains claimed to be those of Glyndŵr be found, the analytical tools to resolve the mystery may be at hand. The controversial question we must all address, of course, is whether we should even attempt to solve the riddle.