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Owain Lawgoch

...one last hero?

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Jeff Thomas 1996

Llywelyn Fawr (Llywelyn the Great) was the father of two ambitious sons, both of whom were destined to become intertwined in the 13th-century dynastic struggles between Wales and England. Gruffydd ap Llywelyn was his father's natural son and the eldest, while Dafydd was the son of Llywelyn's wife Joan, herself the natural daughter of King John. Both sons were apparently determined to succeed their father and carry forward the country's struggle against their Norman would-be conquerors.

At Llywelyn's death in 1240, contrary Welsh law and custom, Gwynedd passed to his legitimate son Dafydd, rather than being divided equally between Dafydd and his brother Gruffydd. It is thought that Llywelyn saw the practice of divided inheritance as a threat to the survival of Gwynedd, and he took extraordinary measures to ensure that Dafydd was recognized as his sole heir. As a consequence, Gruffydd spent much his life as a prisoner of his father, then his brother and later the English king, until his tragic death during an attempted escape from the Tower of London in 1244 (depicted right).

Despite Llywelyn's precautions, Dafydd's reign was tragically short and he died without heirs in 1246. Soon most of Wales was back under the control of the English king and his barons. Despite this tremendous setback, in less than 10 years Gruffydd's son Llywelyn, known to history as Llywelyn the Last, had managed to reclaim the dynasty of Gwynedd, gaining unprecedented recognition as "Prince of Wales" before his tragic downfall and death in 1282. With his death, and the death of his older brother Owain the same year, and his younger brother Dafydd the following year, the House of Gwynedd ended almost 500 years of rule over most of northern Wales. The princely line of Gwynedd had finally run out, extinguished forever by the ruthless King Edward I. Or had it?

Little remembered is Llywelyn's youngest brother Rhodri ap Gruffydd. He apparently played no part in the dynastic struggles of the 13th century, and lived most of his life in relative obscurity and peace outside Wales, reportedly dying on his English manor c1315. Yet it was one of his descendants who was destined to make Gwynedd's final claim to the title "Prince of Wales." That person was Rhodri's grandson, Owain Lawgoch.

Owain ap Thomas ap Rhodri, known to history as Owain Lawgoch (Owain of the red hand) and to the French as Yvain de Galles, like his father, was born and grew up in England and had no direct associations with Wales. He received his military training as a young man in France, and gained fame as the flamboyant leader of a band mercenary soldiers, many of whom were recruited from Wales. He led successful military campaigns in Spain and France, where he acquired a formidable reputation.

After being deprived of his English estates in 1369, he boldly laid claim to the inheritance of Gwynedd by virtue of his descent from Llywelyn the Great and his family's association with Llywelyn the Last. The French king Charles V apparently saw some value in supporting Owain's claims, at least on the surface, agreeing initially to finance a fleet of ships Owain was preparing to launch for a campaign in Wales in 1372. However, at the last minute the French king recalled the rebel leader, perhaps a good indication that Owain was more of a political pawn than a real threat to English control in Wales.

Although the French may not have been serious about actually supporting Owain, the perceived threat posed by this would-be successor to the house of Gwynedd was real enough. In Wales, the mention of his name gave heart to many who still courted thoughts of rebellion against their English overlords, while in England the crown saw the threat as real enough to take certain "preventative" measures.

Five years after his first aborted invasion, Owain was again making plans to raise an army for a campaign in Wales. But this time, John Lamb, a Scot in English pay, was dispatched to assassinate the rebel leader. He infiltrated Owain's Welsh mercenaries and murdered him during the siege of Mortagne-sur-Mer (France) in 1378 (depicted in a medieval manuscript below). Thus ended the flamboyant career of the last direct descendant of Llywelyn the Great to lay claim to the ancient kingdom of Gwynedd.

Historians debate the political significance of Owain Lawgoch, and most feel he posed no real threat to English control in Wales. Some see him as simply an enterprising rebel who, in claiming his grandfather's inheritance, saw a chance to further his own fortunes. Nevertheless, while he lived, he provided a glimmer of hope to a Welsh population suffering brutal oppression during the process of English assimilation. His main legacy may be that he attempted to raise the standard of revolt at all, years after many assumed such a rebellion was no longer possible in Wales. In that respect, he kept alive the flame of Welsh resistance throughout the difficult years of the 14th century, passing the torch a generation later to a man who is perhaps the most famous of all the Welsh patriots, Owain Glyndwr.


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Copyright © 2009 by Jeffrey L. Thomas