‘A nation once again’: Owain Glyndŵr and the ‘Cymraec dream’ of Anglophone Welsh Victorian poets

The first in a new series by different authors, The Gregynog Papers, which began life at ‘In/Dependent Wales’, the recent conference of the Association for Welsh Writing in English at Gregynog Hall in Powys.



In 1895 Ernest Rhys, the London-born son of a Welsh theologian, later to win renown as the founding editor of the Everyman series of classic reprints, introduced his collection Welsh Ballads and Other Poems by telling the reader that while exploring the ruins of Castell Carreg Cennen he had come ‘to know what life was to our last native Prince and his people, and how imperishable were the ideas which centuries have not destroyed. Nor shall they diminish, but grow more in the light of modern things, till we find the sword itself reviving in a song.’[1] The sword which he duly revives in song in the poem placed first in the collection is Owain Glyndŵr’s. In ‘The Ballad of the Buried Sword’, the poet in a ‘winter’s dream’ follows the shadows of three early fifteenth-century soldiers across a wild moor to a lost grave:


Three swordsmen they were, out of Harry’s wars…

But they sang no longer of Agincourt,

When they came to a grave; for there lay Glyndŵr.

Said the one: ‘My sword, th’art rust, my dear:

I have brought thee home to break thee here!’

And the second: ‘Ay, here is the narrow home,

To which our tired hearts are come!’

Said the third: ‘We are all that’s left, Glyndŵr,

To guard thee now on Gamélyn moor!’[2]


These three ‘shadows’ evidently fought on Glyndŵr’s side in his Wars of Independence, and subsequently redeemed themselves in English eyes by fighting for Henry V in France, but without losing their allegiance to their Welsh leader. Their loyal grief summons up Glyndŵr from the grave:


Straightway I saw the dead forth-stand,

His good sword bright in his right hand.


Awoken by the gleam of that sword a thousand Welsh soldiers arise from the dead to stand with Glyndŵr, before the dreamer’s vision fades, and the location of the grave is once again lost. Yet the sword still lights the horizon:


And still it shines, – a silver flame,

Across the dark night of the Norman shame.

Oh, bright it shines, and shall brighter gleam,

For all that believe in the Cymraec dream.[3]


Owain Glyndŵr
Owain Glyndwr
by A C Michael

Like the American dream in its first eighteenth-century incarnation, this ‘Cymraec dream’ is also one of freedom and national independence from the colonial yoke. Ernest Rhys was writing at the zenith of the late nineteenth-century Welsh Home Rule movement, Cymru Fydd, before its sudden collapse in 1896, and he clearly shares in its hopes. His poem illustrates the degree to which those ideas of Welsh independence ‘which centuries have not destroyed’ was in the late Victorian period associated with Glyndŵr; the ‘dream’ is his dream of a free Wales. But that was by no means the case at the beginning of the century; then the name of Glyndŵr appears to have carried little significance for English-language readers. When Enoch Robert Gibbon Salisbury, the Victorian collector who amassed the many volumes on Welsh history and culture in the Salisbury collection now housed at Cardiff University Library, tracked down and purchased in the 1870s a novel entitled Sir Owen Glendowr [sic] published in 1808 he was no doubt expecting an excitingly early example of Welsh rebellion fiction, but what he got for his pains was a contemporary, rather than historical, novel in which Sir Owen Glendowr is a nineteenth-century baronet with domestic problems living in a haunted mansion in Llantrisant. The unknown author of this fiction who wrote under the pseudonym Anthony Frederick Holstein appears to have known little more of Glyndŵr than the fact that his name suggested ‘Welsh gentry’; he is using it as other authors of his epoch used the names ‘Arthur’ or ‘Llewelyn’ to designate Welshness in English-language fictions, without realising that ‘Glyndŵr’ refers to a place – Glyndyfrdwy – and is not a family name. However ill-informed with regard to Welsh culture they may have been, it is very unlikely that later writers would have succumbed to the same error, so numerous do the English-language novels, poems, and plays portraying the historical Owen Glyndŵr become from 1850 on. Here I will focus on the poetry alone, but a similar pattern could have emerged from discussion of the relevant fiction too.


During the reign of Victoria, then, the image of Glyndŵr underwent a remarkable transition in the Welsh imagination, from little-known failed rebel to national icon. E. Wyn James in his recent study of the representations of the Glyndŵr’s Wars in Welsh-language literature suggests a number of reasons for this change, all of which are also very relevant to the English-language material. Firstly, the activity of the eighteenth-century antiquarians revived or indeed, for English-language readers, for the first time created an appetite among the reading public for medieval Celtic poetry, which of course included the oeuvre of Owain Glyndŵr’s household bard, Iolo Goch, singing of his master’s successes. The age of sensibility of the second half of the century also encouraged an enthusiasm for the picturesqueness of Wales’s landscape, and a market for such volumes as Thomas Pennant’s 1778 Tours in Wales, which included a detailed appendix describing Glyndŵr’s campaign. The growing significance of the concept of nationhood and the pan-European national struggles of the first half of the nineteenth century increased interest in earlier anti-imperial freedom fighters. The first person to use the name of Owain Glyndŵr in an anthem intended to arouse the Welsh to rebellion was, in fact, an activist not in a Welsh independence movement but an Irish one. Thomas Davis was born in Cork in 1814, but his father was a Welshman, and he had spent some time in Wales. In the journal he edited from 1842, The Nation, a journal dedicated to the cause of ‘raising Ireland and putting the sceptre of self-government in her hands’, he published a song for Wales, to be sung to the air ‘Men of Harlech’:

Once there was a Cymric nation;

Few its men but high its station –

Freedom is the soul’s creation,

            Not the work of hands.

Coward hearts are self-subduing;

Fetters last by slaves’ renewing –

Edward’s castles are in ruin,

Still his empire stands.

            Still the Saxon’s malice

Blights our beauteous valleys […]

Saxon speech and Saxon teachers

            Crush our Cymric tongue! […]

By the bloody day at Bangor!

By a thousand years of rancour!

By the wrongs that in us canker!

            Up! ye Cymric race –

Think of Old Llewellyn –

Owen’s trumpets swelling […]

Not his bone and sinew,

But his soul within you,

Prompt and true to plan and do, and firm as Monmouth iron

For our cause, though crafty laws and charging troops environ –


            Pass along the word![4]


When this battle cry first appeared in 1842, however, it was well in advance of any nationalist movement in Wales. In Welsh verse at this time references to Glyndŵr are few and when his name does surface, it evokes not so much a fighting spirit as grief for a lost opportunity. Thomas Pennant’s account of him in the Tours had detailed his exploits as a soldier, presenting him as an astute military hero, who only made one mistake, but that a direful one – his failure to attend the Battle of Shrewsbury of July 1403 in which Hotspur attempted to take the throne from Henry Bolingbroke. According to Pennant, Glyndŵr’s ‘great oversight had been the neglect of attacking Henry immediately after the battle, when the royal forces had sustained a vast loss, and were overcome with fatigue.’[5] As this is the only point at which Pennant finds anything critical to say of Glyndŵr, his comment has weight, reinforced as it must have been, of course, for nineteenth-century audiences, by Shakespeare’s well-known account of the battle in Henry IV, Part I. One Victorian who clearly brooded long on Glyndŵr’s part in this battle was the Brecon poet John Lloyd; his Glyndŵr is no iconic hero, but a tragic figure haunted by his recollections of Shrewsbury. Lloyd’s 1847 poem ‘Monnington’, Glyndwr’s daughter’s home in Herefordshire where it is supposed he ended his days, reads:


By the ivied tower of Monnington,

An aged man and grey,

Lonely as one who friends had none,

Walk’d forth for many a day […]

He thinks of the fight at Shrewsbury,

He thinks of the fatal plain,

Where Hotspur waited wistfully

For his promis’d aid in vain.[6]


In a similar vein, another of Lloyd’s poems portrays Glyndŵr as painfully attempting to excuse himself to the dead Hotspur:


‘Had yon sun in its course been some few hours younger

When thy messenger brought me the pledge of thy troth […]

Brave Hotspur with thine I had mingled my blood.’


The Welsh leader cannot shed his crippling sense of shame, according to Lloyd:


[W]hen back to his hills he departed […]

Though he struggled for years, twas as one broken-hearted,

And each struggle was strong thro’ the strength of despair.[7]


Given that many of Glyndŵr’s successes were still to come in 1403, this seems exaggerated.

The publication of the 1847 Report on Education in Wales, and the widespread national outrage it aroused, changed attitudes towards the image of its sole former rebel. One mid-Victorian poet who strongly resisted any attempt to represent Glyndŵr as unheroic was Rowland Williams, or Goronva Camlan, to give him his pseudonym, Vice-Principal of St David’s College, Lampeter, whose blank verse play Owen Glendower: A Dramatic Biography was published posthumously in 1870. In his account of the Battle of Shrewsbury, on the 21st of July 1403, Glyndŵr would have gone to Hotspur’s aid against Henry had it not been for the fact that Hotspur’s timing of his revolt, and the speed of Henry IV’s retaliatory march against him, made it quite impossible for the Welsh forces, at that time laying siege to Kidwely Castle in Carmarthenshire, to participate in it. To illustrate his case, Rowland Williams carefully dates the relevant sections of his play:


Scene v – Time: July 16, 1403. Henry at Burton-on-Trent

Henry: Hotspur, through Cheshire and the March of Wales

Lights the hot embers of conspiracy[…]

the third hour hence

Will see our ranks in march for Shrewsbury

…we march to quench this flame


Only afterwards does Glyndŵr in Kidwely receive messengers bringing information about Hotspur’s intended revolt:


Scene vi. Kidwely Castle

Mortimer: Near Lichfield was his [Hotspur’s] plan for rendezvous…

Hoping conjuncture with thy valiant arms […]

Had they but found us nearer to our home [i.e. in Glyndyfrdwy]

This fiery outbreak had been better timed.

Glendower: [W]e will march to join them speedily.


But it is already too late; three days after the battle, Owain’s army is still far from Shrewsbury according to Rowland Williams’ play:


Scene vii – Tents between Leominster and Hereford. Time: about July 24, 1403

Glendower: E’er since this march began, presentiment

Has flitted through our ranks: men were not brisk…

Their hearts at each step stamped the words Too late;

And still Too late has echoed on the wind.[8]


Rowland Williams wants to imprint upon the reader’s mind (it’s unlikely that this play was ever intended for dramatic performance), the idea that it would have been completely impossible for Glyndŵr to be anywhere near Shrewsbury at the time of the battle.

His Glyndŵr is no shamed, wrong-footed rebel but an anti-imperialist warrior, alive to the manner in which colonial rule in Wales has imperilled its traditions and its language. In his play, Glyndŵr, after sacking the town of Rhuthyn, returns the town’s keys to its mayor, telling him:


‘Good Mayor, take back thy keys; and in our name

See that thou render justice equally

To foreigner or native, by his right,

And not by favour to his birth or tongue.

We will not that the ancient melody

Which touched our mothers’ lips, and spoke our prayers,

[…] Should be proscribed and exiled from the Courts.’[9]


That is, the Welsh language, proscribed by Henry V’s laws, should be legalized again, and a Welshman’s word should be equal to an Englishman’s in the law-courts. Similarly, Glyndŵr castigates Bishop Young of Bangor for his oppressive behaviour in relation to the Welsh language:


Glendower: When did you preach to these poor natives last?

Bishop: I preach on feasts, as bidden by the Church.

Glendower: Aye, preached in Latin, or in English tongue,

Both to our people mere rude dissonance […]

Cans’t thou in Cambrian tongue discourse ten words?

Bishop: Welsh, Heaven forbid!

Glendower: What is thy office but a garrison

Which as an outpost serves our foes’ misrule…[10]


Later in the play, in response to the queries of the envoy sent from France to aid him in his campaign, Glyndŵr articulates in full his idea of the way a country should be ruled:


Hugueville: To what aspires your highness for your land?

Glendower: Aspire to root out trace of feudalism;

To break both baron’s sword and prelate’s scourge;

To give each heart, and soul, and tongue its right;

To bid the peasant look in face the lord,

With courtesy returned, or else not given.[11]


This vision of Glyndwr as the potential leader of a Wales more egalitarian and democratic in spirit than the state by which it was ruled is, from the 1870s on, echoed in a number of popular poems and ballads in which he now becomes an icon of national resurgence. Because he had once nearly succeeded in gaining independence for Wales and in making Wales one nation, Glyndŵr served to exemplify to the Welsh of that later date the possibility of historical change. What the poets are now stressing is that he could have won, and had he done so the long history of Wales’ subordination would have been quite other: that is, the provincialization of Wales, as an annexe to England, is not and never was a historical inevitability.

In William Llewelyn Williams’ 1894 ballad ‘For Country or For King’, for example, the key scene from Glyndŵr’s story is no longer the Battle of Shrewsbury but his calling together of a Parliament for Wales in Machynlleth in 1404. Llewelyn Williams was a campaigner for Cymru Fydd, the Liberal party’s Welsh Home Rule movement which flourished from the mid 1880s to 1890s. In describing the Machynlleth Parliament he emphasizes in particular the way in which it drew together the leaders of every part of Wales in peaceful concord:


The noblest chiefs of Cambria meet

In peaceful council hall,

At Glyndŵr’s side, on Dovey’s banks,

Freed from fell Henry’s thrall.

From Ystrad Tywi’s lordly halls

Dinefwr’s chieftains came;

And fair Glamorgan’s smiling fields

Sent many a glorious name.

From wild Eryri’s untamed steeps,

From Denbigh’s fertile plain, –

The men of Wales in council meet,

‘A Nation once again’.[12]


In that last line Williams is quoting directly from one of the Welsh-Irish nationalist Thomas Davis’s best known poems, ‘A Nation once Again’. From the days of his youth, Davies says,


I prayed I yet might see

            Our fetters rent in twain,

And Ireland, long a province, be

            A NATION ONCE AGAIN.[13]

Glyndŵr had the same dreams for his nation, and for a few short years realized them. The late nineteenth-century poets are intent on reanimating that Cymraec dream again, and making late Victorian Wales ‘a nation once again’.

Another Cymru Fydd supporter, R. J. Derfel, similarly published a ballad in which Glyndŵr figures as an emblem of hope for Wales’s future. The circumstances of his time aided him, Derfel says, as they would aid contemporary leaders too, could they but learn from his example. At the time of Glyndŵr’s rising,


The spirits of ancestors brave

            Inspired the very air […]

The atmosphere was alive

            With thoughts of Wales to be-

The hour and the man had come

            To make her great and free[…]

Glyndŵr may subsequently have failed, but he set the necessary precedence for future actions, and so must be remembered:


In words and deed true Britons should

Perpetuate his name;

Too long have we delayed to raise

Memorials of his fame […]


Write his life in song and stories,

Greater heroes yet to raise.[14]


Owain Glyndŵr
Great Seal of Owain Glyndwr

But Derfel’s emphasis on contemporary Wales’ need for ‘greater heroes’ than Glyndŵr was no empty phrase. Glyndŵr as the main ingredient of the ‘Cymraec dream’ had the one major drawback of inevitably linking that dream with medievalism as opposed to modernity; Wales, however, in the late 1890s was a strivingly industrialized modern country. In the event, the Cymru Fydd movement was dismissed by the Liberal leaders of south Wales, the majority of them coal magnates with international businesses, on the grounds that their cosmopolitan aspirations were not to be dictated to by the nostalgic out-moded ‘Welsh ideas’ of the north Walian peasantry, i.e. the young Lloyd George and T. E. Ellis, the leaders of Cymru Fydd.[15] The movement also failed sufficiently to capture the imagination of the already militant south Wales labour force, soon to elect Kier Hardie as the first Independent Labour Party MP, though not through lack of trying in the case of R. J. Derfel, at any rate. Derfel was a committed socialist, and his aspirations for Cymru Fydd, as expressed in an article he published in 1888, envisioned a Wales awakened from six centuries of torpor not only by a Glyndwr-inspired belief in the possibility of achieving Home Rule, but by the hope of making of that free modern Wales the first socialist nation:


O’r diwedd mae’r Cymry yn ymddeffroi. Wedi cysgu mor hir nes yr oeddynt agos a cholli gwasanaeth eu haelodau, maent yn agor eu llygaid ac yn canfod eu hunain mewn caethiwed […] Mae’r gweithwyr sydd yn gwneud yr holl olud eu hunain yn dlodion, tra yw’r segurwyr, y meistri, yn oludog […] Rhaid cenedleiddio’r tir a’i holl drysorau, er lles y bobl yn gyffredinol […] Rhaid cenedleiddio holl offerynnau gwaith […] Rhaid diddymu meistrolaeth yn llwyr ac am byth, meistrolaeth tir, a thai, a gwaith, a phob math o feistrolaeth sydd yn galluogi’r naill ddyn i gaethiwo dyn arall a’i ysbeilio o ffrwyth ei lafur, a’i ddiwyd-rwydd, a’i fedrusrwydd, o dan gochl yr hyn a elwir yn elw, rhent, a llog.


At last the Welsh are awakening. After sleeping so long that they nearly lost the service of their limbs, they are opening their eyes, and finding themselves imprisoned […] The workers who make all the wealth are themselves poor while the idle, the masters, are rich […] The land and all its treasures must be nationalised for the benefit of the people in general […] All instruments of work must be nationalized […] Mastery must be entirely and forever eradicated – mastery of the land, housing, work, and all manner of mastery which allows one man to imprison another and steal from him the fruit of his labour under the guise of that which is called profit, rent and interest.[16]


Few amongst the Cymru Fydd leaders shared Derfel’s Fabianism, however; the movement was a pressure group within the Liberal not Independent Labour party and, though its aims included progressive elements such as women’s emancipation, medieval freedom-fighters were its primary inspiration rather than nineteenth-century socialism. The story of Glyndwr’s resurgence in nineteenth-century Welsh culture constitutes an example of the way in which the past is continually reformulated to help shape the ever-changing consciousness of the present, but whether those reformulations succeed in projecting themselves forwards as possible patterns for the future depends on the degree to which they appeal to the mass of the population, as well as to its poets.




[1] Ernest Rhys, Welsh Ballads and Other Poems (London, Carmarthen and Bangor: David Nutt, W. Spurrell and Jarvis and Foster, 1895), p. x.

[2] Ernest Rhys, ‘The Ballad of the Buried Sword’, ibid., pp. 3-4.

[3] Ibid., p. 5

[4] Thomas Davis, ‘Cymric Rule and Cymric Rulers’, The Poems of Thomas Davis, now first collected (Dublin: James Duffy, 1846), pp. 14-15.

[5] Thomas Pennant, Tours in Wales, [1778-81], iii, ed. John Rhys (Caernarvon: J. J. Humphreys, 1883), pp. 326-7.

[6] John Lloyd, ‘Monnington’, Poems (London and Llandovery: Longman and W. Rees, 1847), pp. 23-4

[7] Lloyd, ‘On Reading Tyler’s Life of Henry V’, ibid., p. 77

[8] Rowland Williams [Goronva Camlan], Owen Glendower: A Dramatic Biography: being a Contribution to the Genuine History of Wales, and Other Poems (London: Williams and Norgate, 1870), pp. 136-141.

[9] Ibid., p. 43.

[10] Ibid., pp. 77-88.

[11] Ibid., pp. 168-9

[12] W. Llewelyn Williams, ‘For Country or for King – A Ballad’, Wales, i (1894), 293

[13] Thomas Davis, ‘A Nation Once Again’, The Poems of Thomas Davis, p. 73

[14] R. J. Derfel, Owen Glyndwr: with explanatory notes (Manchester : R. J. Derfel, n. d. [1898?]), pp. 4 and 9

[15] See Kenneth O. Morgan, Rebirth of a Nation: Wales 1880-1980 (Oxford and Cardiff: Clarendon Press and University of Wales Press, 1981), p. 118.

[16] R. J. Derfel, ‘Ein Rhagolygon a’n Gwaith’, [Our prospects and our work] Cymru Fydd, i, May 1888, 270-3 (my translation).

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis