On the northern bank of the Afon Dyfi, on the southern border of Gwynedd, lies Pennal: a church, a school, a pub and a few houses.

What marks out this tiny hamlet from hundreds of similar Welsh settlements is the role it played in birthing what Dr Rhun Emlyn, a mediaeval historian at the University of Aberystwyth, has called ‘one of the most striking documents produced in Wales during the Middle Ages’.

That document was a letter, written in Latin on the 31st March 1406, by a man whose name echoes down the centuries – a byword for Welsh rebellion and dreams of independence.

Owain Glyndŵr. The first and last native Welshman to hold the title Tywysog Cymru, Prince of Wales. Guerilla warrior and convenor of the final Welsh Parliament before 1999.

Glyndŵr’s revolt ran for fifteen years from September 1400 – and in a historical twist that has provided much fuel to the unquenchable fire of Glyndŵr’s legend, there is no reliable evidence for the man’s whereabouts after 1412.

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Theories abound about the circumstances of his disappearance or death. Despite several huge rewards placed on his head, and a royal pardon issued by the new English king Henry V, Glyndŵr was never captured or betrayed. 

It is rumoured the prince took refuge with a prominent family called the Scudamores in the border region of Herefordshire. Glyndŵr’s daughter Alys had secretly married Sir John Scudamore and it is feasible that Owain’s final years were sheltered as he disguised himself as the family’s chaplain or private tutor.

The National Wales: The statue of Owain Glyndŵr in Corwen by Colin Spofforth. Photo: Siriol GriffithsThe statue of Owain Glyndŵr in Corwen by Colin Spofforth. Photo: Siriol Griffiths

But Glyndŵr was much more than the mythical figure of the Welsh popular imagination.

As Dr Emlyn explains in a blog post for the National Library of Wales, the Pennal letter ‘reveals a confident Wales that played an important part in European politics at the beginning of the fifteenth century’. 

Glyndŵr’s rebellion is often retold as a straightforward tale of plucky Welsh upstarts rising up against the might of a powerful English foe, but that is only part of the story.

The whole period of Glyndŵr’s ascendancy in Wales must be understood in a European context, and against the backdrop of a major religious upheaval that had split the continent. 

The National Wales: A map of the Western Schism 1378 - 1417A map of the Western Schism 1378 - 1417

The Western Schism was a split in the Catholic Church that saw two competing popes elected, based in Avignon and Rome respectively. This dispute lasted from 1378-1417, a period that coincides with the entirety of Glyndŵr’s adulthood. 

The second half of the fourteenth and first half of the fifteenth centuries were also dominated by the Hundred Years War, a series of armed conflicts between England and France. The warring kingdoms backed opposing popes, England supporting the Roman pope and France supporting the so-called ‘antipope’, Benedict XIII.

The National Wales: The village of Pennal, Gwynedd. Parish Church St Peter ad Vincula. Royal Chapel of the Prince Owain Glyndŵr. Photo: Llywelyn2000/Wikimedia CC-BY-SA 3.0The village of Pennal, Gwynedd. Parish Church St Peter ad Vincula. Royal Chapel of the Prince Owain Glyndŵr. Photo: Llywelyn2000/Wikimedia CC-BY-SA 3.0

Glyndŵr’s letter, sent from Pennal on the banks of the Dyfi to the French king Charles VI, also recognised Benedict of Avignon as Pope – an intelligent piece of statecraft by the Welshman.

That the Pennal letter was composed during an event that served as both synod and parliament demonstrates just how entwined religion and politics were in the middle ages. Glyndŵr’s request for a military alliance with Charles VI of France is predicated on a religious alignment.

But the document remains an inspiration to advocates of Welsh independence today not for its contribution to a somewhat archaic ecclesiastical dispute – but because its vision for an independent Wales is in many respects thoroughly modern.

The National Wales: Banner adopted by Owain Glyndŵr, thought to be derived from the counter-charged arms of the princely Houses of Mathrafal and Dinefwr; currently in use by the National Eisteddfod for Wales, Cymdeithas yr Iaith and widely amongst independentist groups. Photo: PerhelionCC-BY-SA 3.0Banner adopted by Owain Glyndŵr, thought to be derived from the counter-charged arms of the princely Houses of Mathrafal and Dinefwr; currently in use by the National Eisteddfod for Wales, Cymdeithas yr Iaith and widely amongst independentist groups. Photo: PerhelionCC-BY-SA 3.0

As well as an independent church for Wales – a ‘prophecy’ that finally came to pass in the Welsh Church Act 1914, with the disestablishment of the Church in Wales from the Church of England – Glyndŵr sets out a plan to raise two Welsh universities, one in the north and one in the south, whose function would be to train the clergy.

Glyndŵr’s idea was to move the seat of ecclesiastical power from Canterbury to St David’s, and he also advocated for a Welsh-speaking clergy – to counteract the then common practice of parachuting bishops in from England. Crucially, he also argues for church revenue raised in Wales to stay in Wales.

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Many would argue that by remaining part of the United Kingdom, Wales and its institutions – religious and secular – remain subject to the same extractive economic forces as in 1406. 

It is certainly clear from the banners flown at marches for Welsh independence, and against the proliferation of second homes that Glyndŵr’s standard remains a powerful symbol of resistance to Wales being subject to rules made beyond its borders.

As Dr Rhun Emlyn concludes in his blog about the Pennal letter: ‘This vision wasn’t fulfilled in Glyndŵr’s day, but modern-day Wales – with its parliament, universities, national institutions and emphasis on the importance of the Welsh language – in many ways resembles the vision outlined by Glyndŵr in the Pennal Letter.’

If that interpretation elides six centuries of complicated history to provide a neat through-line from Glyndŵr and the Pennal letter to the present day, it is certainly true to say there is a growing desire to join those dots.

In 2009, then Heritage Minster Alun Ffred Jones presented limited edition facsimiles of the Pennal letter – created on parchment using specialist ageing techniques, with the seal of Glyndŵr recast from moulds of the original –  to six Welsh institutions.

The National Wales: A copy of the Pennal Letter which is held at Canolfan & Senedd-dŷ Owain Glyndŵr in Machynlleth. Photo: Siriol GriffithsA copy of the Pennal Letter which is held at Canolfan & Senedd-dŷ Owain Glyndŵr in Machynlleth. Photo: Siriol Griffiths

These are now held at St Peter ad Vincula Church in Pennal, the Owain Glyndŵr Centre in Machynlleth, the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth, Glyndŵr University in Wrexham, and two locations in Cardiff: Amgueddfa Cymru and the Senedd.

The fact that the original is held at the Archives Nationales in Paris has previously led Adrien Jones, of the Owain Glyndŵr Society, to call the letter ‘Wales’ Elgin Marbles’, a reference to the Parthenon statues held at the British Museum despite continued Greek protests.

The National Wales: The plaque outside Owain Glyndŵr's Senedd-dŷ / Parliament House. Photo: Siriol GriffithsThe plaque outside Owain Glyndŵr's Senedd-dŷ / Parliament House. Photo: Siriol Griffiths

Speaking to WalesOnline about Glyndŵr’s famous parliament at the time of the facsimiles’ production, Jones said: ‘Owain gathered all the squires in Machynlleth. He was the father of democracy here.’

And while that description might not quite stand up in the full glare of twenty-first century scrutiny, there is no doubting that the Pennal letter proves Cymru’s favourite warrior-prince was a forward-thinking nation builder as well as a canny statesman.

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