the noble Mortimer,
Leading the men of Herefordshire to fight,
Against the wild and irregular Glendower,
Was by the rude hand of that Welshman taken,
A thousand of his people butchered
William Shakespeare in Henry IV, Part 1
On this day in 1402 a Welsh army under Owain Glyndŵr won a significant victory over a larger English force at the Battle of Bryn Glas, near the towns of Knighton and Presteigne in Powys. The English were there to crush the war of independence that was being waged by Glyndŵr and his supporters. However, instead of bringing the rising to an end it renewed Welsh enthusiasm in the cause while also inflicting a destabilising blow upon English politics, from which it would take years to recover.
Glyndŵr had declared himself the true Prince of Wales and raised the banner of rebellion in 1400 after Reginald Grey, 3rd Baron Grey de Ruthyn, had unlawfully seized some of his lands and falsely caused charges of treason to be brought against him. In England, Richard II had just been overthrown by Henry Bolingbroke, the Duke of Lancaster, who became Henry IV of England, leaving the kingdom in a precarious position. Most of the nobility in Wales and the Welsh Marches were supporters of Richard, so the opportunity for insurrection was very much alive.
Despite leading a punitive expedition into north Wales, which initially appeared to have suppressed the revolt, Henry had not been able to deal a killing blow. Then in 1401 the Welsh captured Conwy Castle and won a victory at the Battle of Mynydd Hyddgen, boosting the resolve of the Welsh.
Early in 1402, Glyndwr's men ambushed and captured Grey de Ruthyn and held him for ransom. Then in June, Glyndwr moved his men towards Knighton and within 12 miles of Leominster, then an important English garrison and market town in the Welsh Marches.
There he was met by "almost all the militia of Herefordshire" under the command of Sir Edmund Mortimer. Mortimer was uncle to the young Edmund de Mortimer, 5th Earl of March, who both had a better hereditary claims to be King of England than Henry. However, Sir Edmund had so far loyally supported the new king. In any case, as a substantial holder of lands in Wales and on the borders, Mortimer had already suffered from the depredations of Glyndŵr's rebels and appeared to have much to lose should the revolt continue.
It's estimated that Mortimer had around 2,000 men under his command and so he sought to face Glyndŵr's smaller force in a decisive battle. Although the location was only just inside Wales, Glyndŵr undoubtedly had many local informants and sympathisers, and was therefore able to hatch a plan that would counter these odds. He had also probably been able to summon reinforcements from other parts of Wales, which moved rapidly over hill tracks, and was therefore far stronger than Mortimer realised. It's estimated that Glyndŵr was able to deploy around 1,500 men on the day.
Though always a risky tactic, Glyndŵr divided his army. Part of the army, including many archers armed with the powerful longbow, was placed on the slopes of the hill. The remainder were concealed in a valley to the left of the hill, camouflaged by thick foliage.
Mortimer's army formed up and advanced up the slope, against the Welsh archers clearly in view. With the advantage of height, Glyndwr's archers outranged Mortimer's (themselves armed with longbows). As Mortimer's men-at-arms tried to close with Glyndwr's archers, the Welsh troops who had been concealed in the valley emerged to attack Mortimer's right flank and rear.
At some stage, contingents of Welsh archers in Mortimer's army defected, and loosed arrows against their former comrades. It's not known whether their defection was planned in advance, or whether they chose to back Glyndŵr in the middle of the battle as the likely winner. Their action contributed to the confusion of Mortimer's army which, attacked from the steep slopes above, and from their flank and rear, was destroyed. The slaughter was said to be horrendous, and accounts put the numbers killed at between 200 and 1,100. Among those killed were Sir Walter Devereaux of Weobley, and Sir Robert Whitney, who was Henry IV's Knight-Marshal.
The outcome was one of the greatest Welsh victories against an English army in the open field; an English county levy had been utterly overwhelmed by the Welsh. News of it brought many Welshmen who had hitherto been undecided to openly support Glyndŵr. On the English side, it resulted in some panicked appointments of officers and hasty reinforcements of garrisons all over Wales.
Mortimer was captured in the battle. Henry, who was in financial difficulties, made no effort to ransom him. Mortimer subsequently renounced his allegiance to King Henry IV, put forward his nephew's claim to the throne of England and married Glyndŵr's daughter Catrin.
It was claimed by contemporary accounts that immediately after the battle, many English corpses were mutilated by Welsh women camp followers in revenge for the punitive expeditions of Henry IV in the previous years, which had been marked by many acts of brutality and rape. Whether these mutilations took place remains open to debate, as some historians suggest it was a story perpetrated by the English parliament to portray the Welsh as savages. According to the historian Philip Warner, the English dead lay unburied, and the stench caused the area to be avoided for months.
This scene was created by Dan Harris as part of a series of models on Welsh history. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see them first.
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