By Gruffydd Aled Williams
British Academy Review, Issue 17 (2011)
Introduction: The earliest extent poetry relating to Owain Glyndwr leads me to recall an episode in Scottish history, one much impressed on contemporary and later Scottish consciousness. The early 1380s witnessed rising tensions between England and Scotland, and when the truce of 1369 expired in February 1384 the two nations edged towards open war. Scottish attacks on the English-occupied zone of southern Scotland prompted a retaliatory crossborder expedition from Berwick by John of Gaunt in April 1384, but the arrival in May 1385 of a substantial force of Scotland’s French allies under Jean de Vienne, admiral of France, was the cue for a much more serious English response. Issuing a general feudal levy for a force to advance, according to the summons ‘against the said Scots, to restrain manfully and powerfully, their rebellion, perfidy and evil’, Richard II, at 19 years of age exercising his first command and eager to impress, mustered one of the largest English armies of the 14th century, a total of almost 14,000 men. Advancing from Newcastle and crossing into Scotland on 6 August in three battle formations – each member of the force according to the king’s ordinances of war bearing the arms of St George before and behind – the English army advanced in a destructive swathe, a medieval equivalent of ‘shock and awe’. The Westminster chronicler wrote of the army ‘giving free and uninterrupted play to slaughter, rapine, and fire-raising all along a six-mile front and leaving the entire countryside in ruins behind them’; Walter Bower, drawing later on bruised Scottish memories in his Scotichronicon, referred to ‘an arrogant host, destroying everything on all sides and saving nothing.’ Having laid waste to Lothian, the English reached Edinburgh and destroyed it by fire, not sparing the church of St Giles. The abbeys of Melrose, Dryburgh and Newbattle were also burned and destroyed during this punitive campaign, which ended with the return of the English army to Newcastle after a fortnight’s ravaging in Scotland.
In the absence of a native polity, it was in English armies fighting in France and Scotland that the nobility of post-conquest Wales – with few dissident exceptions – found an outlet for military action. Owain Glyndwr’s own grandfather had been summoned to campaign in English armies ‘contra Scotos inimicos et rebelles nostros’ in 1333 and 1334. And it was in connection with the events just recalled that his grandson served his military apprenticeship. Muster rolls show him – together with his brother Tudur and Crach Ffinnant, his ‘prophet’ in 1400 – serving in the English garrison of Berwick in 1384 under the command of a veteran Welsh captain, Sir Gregory Sais (his surname means ‘Englishman’, denoting one of English inclinations or of English tongue). And Owain’s deposition in 1386 – ‘aged twenty-seven years and more’ – in connection with the Scrope/Grosvenor dispute before the Court of Chivalry confirms his presence in the royal army which devastated Scotland in 1385. Further confirmation of this occurs in a Iolo Goch poem addressed to Glyndwr, probably in early July 1385, as he set off for the war in Scotland, probably in the retinue of the earl of Arundel, whose lands in the Welsh march bordered on those of Owain.