On April Fool’s Day in 1401, one of Britain’s most secure castles, at Conwy, was seized by rebels. It was an embarrassment to the new King of England, Henry IV, and set the tone for his relationship with Wales for years to follow.
Owain Glyndŵr’s rebellion
Henry IV had taken the throne from his cousin, Richard II, in September 1399. A year later, on 16 September 1400, a violent rebellion erupted in Wales that would last more than a decade. Owain Glyndwr, who was descended from the old Welsh royal blood of Powys and Deheubarth, had a long-standing rivalry with Reginald Grey, Lord of Ruthin that sparked the conflict.
After the initial round of rebellion, which saw Ruthin and other towns burned, Henry used the last day of Parliament on 10 March 1401 to issue a general pardon. He fatefully excluded just three men: Owain himself, and the brother Rhys and Gwilym ap Tudur of Anglesey.
Taking the castle
Welsh tradition meant that surnames were derived from a father, much as Icelandic names are today. Rhys and Gwilym were the sons of Tudur ap Goronwy. They set about trying to secure a pardon for themselves and their gaze settled on Conwy Castle on the north coast of Wales, not far from Anglesey.
They selected April 1st not because it was April Fool’s Day, but because it was Good Friday. That presented the opportunity to avoid a direct assault on the castle because most of the garrison was at a service in the church in town. The chronicler Ada of Usk explains that a carpenter made his way to the castle and told the couple of guards left within that he had come to finish some work. Once they opened the gate, 40 men swarmed in, led by Gilym ap Tudur. The guards were killed and the castle taken in a flash.
Negotiating a pardon
Conwy had been built in the 1280s as part of Edward I’s Ring of Iron, designed to make his conquest of Wales permanent. It was considered impregnable, and it caused the new king serious embarrassment to see it lost to trickery. Henry ‘Hotspur’ Percy was sent to get it back, but four weeks later his siege had made no progress and he was joined by the king’s oldest son Prince Henry, the future Henry V.
Negotiations had probably already begun for the return of the castle. The Tudur brothers insisted on their pardon and by the end of May, agreement had been reached and the castle was handed back in return for full pardons. It came with a grizzly condition, though. Nine of Tudur’s men were to be handed over for punishment. Adam of Usk describes them being bound ‘by stealth as they slept after the night watches’ and handed over to the English. They were immediately ‘drawn, hanged, disembowelled, beheaded, and quartered’.
The Tudur brothers won their pardons, but obtained them ‘through the cowardice of themselves and the treason of their comrades’. They had sacrificed nine of their men to gain their own lives.
The Tudur brothers had done nothing to seek a pardon for Owain Glyndŵr despite being his cousins. It is possible they viewed themselves as potential rival leaders of the revolt in Wales rather than Owain’s comrades. Henry IV had been displeased at the negotiated outcome, fearing such comparative leniency would encourage others. He was proven correct when Owain relaunched his revolt.
Whether he did this in an effort to secure his own pardon or to reassert his position in Wales, it would lead to years of rebellion that saw Owain proclaimed Prince of Wales. Henry IV’s troubles with Wales lasted for the remainder of his reign, which ended in 1413. Owain was never captured and his fate remains a mystery.
The Tudor legacy
The Tudur brothers had shown daring and cunning that had allowed them to capture an apparently unassailable fortress with ease. The law was used to punish the Welsh, deny them rights and exclude them from power as a result of this and Owain’s wider rebellion. Rhys was executed in 1412 after being outlawed again in 1406. Gwilym was pardoned again after his brother’s execution, dying the following year.
Their youngest brother, Maredudd ap Tudur, did not become involved in their revolts. His son, Owain, was sent to London to seek out a new life, effectively a political and economic migrant from the oppression of the Welsh people. He Anglicised his name to Owen and took the surname Tudor.
In a glittering turn of events, he would marry Henry V’s widow, Catherine of Valois. Their oldest son, Edmund, was father to Henry Tudor, who became King of England in 1485. Within a century of his great-great-uncles seizing Conwy Castle, Henry had completed the transformation of the family’s fortunes from oppressed rebels to crowned king.