In June 1402 English forces once again faced an uprising in Wales and on 22 June the two sides met at the battle of Pilleth. The result would have significant impact on the reign of Henry IV. Dr Simon Payling, senior research fellow in our Commons 1461-1504 project, recounts the battle in our latest blog…
Parliament met on 20 January 1401 in a distinctly uncharitable mood. The Welsh rising of the previous autumn had, it seemed, been quickly quelled, but there were fears that the danger was not passed. The Commons’ solution to this problem was the stick rather than the carrot. In a series of petitions, largely accepted by the Crown, a series of harsh measures was proposed against the Welsh: they were to be excluded from the acquisition of land in England and the status of burgess even in the plantation towns of Wales; and they were not to hold major office or to carry arms in a town or on a highway. The Commons were not to be deflected from this course by warnings that such measures threatened to promote further rebellion. According to one chronicler, their answer to such a warning from John Trevor, bishop of St. Asaph, was that they cared nothing for the Welsh, whom they characterised as ‘barefooted buffoons’. This heedless attitude and the dangers it brought are reflected in the words of the Welsh cleric, Adam of Usk. He recalled that, on the morning of 10 March, the last day of the Parliament: ‘I heard it being urged that all sorts of rigorous measures ought to be decreed against the Welsh … And, as God is my witness, the previous night I was roused from my sleep by a voice ringing in my ears … as a result of which I awoke with a sense of foreboding’.
Trevor’s warning and Usk’s foreboding were both justified by events, and it is hard not to draw a very direct link between these measures and the intensification of the rebellion. Although, to a large extent, these new measures simply reinforced the disabilities under which the Welsh had laboured since the Edwardian conquest, those disabilities had not been systematically enforced. Indeed, discrimination had not prevented a significant degree of integration between the native Welsh uchelwyr (aristocracy) and the English landowners of the border shires. The Welsh leader, Owain Glyn Dŵr, stands as an example. His paternal grandmother had been a daughter of the Shropshire peer, John, Lord Strange of Knockin (d.1309); his father-in-law, Sir David Hanmer (d.1387), of Anglo-Welsh descent, had been a justice of the King’s bench; and, by the time of the rebellion, two of his daughters had been married, if sixteenth-century pedigrees are to be trusted, into the Herefordshire gentry families of Croft and Monnington. Such ties of kinship were reinforced by ties of service. Glyn Dŵr was typical of the leaders of Welsh society in enjoying the patronage of a great Marcher lord: his father had been Richard Fitzalan (d.1397), the earl of Arundel’s steward, in the lordships of Chirk and Oswestry, and it was natural that he himself should have enlisted in the earl’s military retinue in the 1380s. Yet, for all this integration, there existed a strong undercurrent of Welsh resentment, disseminated in a bardic tradition that contrasted a glorious past with an oppressed present. This tradition invested the hope of deliverance in the emergence of a triumphant leader from the ranks of the Welsh princes. It was this call that Glyn Dŵr answered in the autumn of 1400, and the anti-Welsh legislation of the Parliament of 1401 served to validate his action.
This was the background to his famous victory at the battle of Pilleth. No sooner had the Parliament dispersed, than the rebellion flared into life again and quickly gained a momentum it had not had at its outset. It soon had its greatest triumph. On 22 June 1402 Glyn Dŵr’s small army, travelling from Snowdonia to raid in the south, encountered the county levy of Herefordshire, raised in haste by Sir Edmund Mortimer. The battle was joined at Pilleth near Knighton. Although it is a largely hopeless task determining exactly what went on at any medieval battle, the outlines of the clash at Pilleth are fairly clear. The English had the advantage in mounts, arms and numbers, with about a thousand men; but the Welsh had the advantage of position, drawn up on the top of the hill of Bryn Glas (‘Blue Hill’). Mortimer, confident in the superiority of his forces, attacked up hill, either fearlessly or foolishly depending upon one’s point of view. One tradition has that, even with this disadvantage, he would have prevailed but for the defection of his own Welsh archers. This, however, may reflect, no more than the English chronicler’s tendency to attribute any Welsh success to treachery and deceit. Whatever, however, the reason, defeat was total. Three of the leaders of the English side, all formerly MPs for Herefordshire, were killed, including Sir Walter Devereux, who had represented it in the Parliament of 1401, and Mortimer himself was captured.
The Welsh victory had, in the short term, profound consequences. Beyond adding fuel to the rebellion, it widened existing divisions within the English elite. Henry IV’s failure to ransom Mortimer was a factor in driving Mortimer’s brother-in-law, Henry Hotspur, heir to the earldom of Northumberland, into his own rebellion. Mortimer himself, seeing an opportunity to forward the claim of his young nephew, the earl of March, to the English throne, defected to Glyn Dwr’s cause and married one of his daughters. It would not be going too far to say that the Welsh victory at Pilleth transformed a minor local rebellion into real threat to Henry IV’s kingship.
S J P
Owain Glyn Dŵr: A Casebook, ed. M. Livingstone and J.K. Bollard (Liverpool, 2013)
R.R. Davies, The Revolt of Owain Glyn Dŵr (Oxford, 1995)
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