Travel: In the footsteps of Owain Glyndwr

Next week is the anniversary of the 15th-century Welsh insurrection. Rob Stepney follows the trail of a nation's elusive hero
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The Independent Culture
Though mystery surrounds his death, Owain Glyndwr's life can be traced through sites of ruined castles and bloody battle. Few conflicts can have been more vicious than his 15-year campaign for Welsh independence from the English: civilians on both sides were put to the sword and entire garrisons hanged from castle walls.

Yet, on a sunny evening, swifts flew around the gap-toothed towers of Grosmont Castle while lads played football in its inner court.

The red sandstone walls, a bowshot over the Welsh border from Herefordshire, are still 40ft high and the ditch still 40ft deep. This fortress was built to resist; in an area used to wars of Balkan brutality, it needed to.

In 1405, the defenders of Grosmont expected no quarter if they gave in to the Welsh forces who had already laid waste the surrounding town. But the besiegers did not know that inside was the young Prince Henry, who was later to become the victor of Agincourt. English soldiers suddenly erupted from the castle and fell upon Glyndwr's men, leaving 800 dead.

From a scene of bloody Welsh defeat to a scene of bloody victory 40 miles away: Pilleth lies west of Presteigne, in the valley of the Lugg. Here, three years earlier, Glyndwr's archers had slaughtered a large force of English levies. Shakespeare later recorded that the body count was a thousand. The remains are buried on the hillside under a clump of pine trees, and in a simple mass grave in the churchyard.

Pilleth now is striking for its sense of peace. When I visited, a night of rain had left pools of water on the floor of the simple whitewashed church. There were tadpoles in the holy well fringed with hart's tongue fern, and cattle grazed the slope on which so many died.

Glyndwr's insurrection began on 16 September 1400, in the wooded valley of the river Dee near Llangollen where he raised his standard as the true Prince of Wales. Early success was patchy until 1402, when the appearance of a comet over Snowdonia seemed to confirm Glyndwr's supernatural powers.

The capture of Harlech, with the Rhinog mountains on one side and the Irish Sea on the other, was the most striking of Glyndwr's prizes. It is a medieval stronghold perfect in its romantic setting. But the achievement with most resonance today, and which still inspires Welsh patriots, was the meeting in Machynlleth of a parliament which unified the briefly independent Wales.

Machynlleth is set on the banks of the Dyfi river among hills as green as an annual rainfall of 80 inches suggests they should be.

Its parliament house, the Senedd Dy, is a large and austere building. Almost certainly, the present house is not old enough to be the one in which Glyndwr convened his national assembly.

But it stands on the site, and the museum here conveys an undeniable sense of history. On display are Glyndwr's banner of a gold dragon on white and portrayals of the man himself, one as a statesman drafting a letter to the French court.

This letter, which aimed to safeguard Welsh independence by European alliance, was in fact written in the nearby village of Pennal. During Lent 1406, this hamlet would have been the capital of Wales, the banks of the Dyfi lined with the pavilions of Welsh nobles and clergy.

Elfyn Rowlands was clipping his hedges when I arrived at his farmhouse of Cefn Caer near Pennal, which recent discoveries suggest was the place where Glyndwr himself stayed.

The sudden collapse of a ceiling has revealed wooden panelling from the period 1390-1410 - proof that the house existed when Glyndwr was framing his appeal to France.

The French knights came and went, without altering the outcome of the war, and the Welsh insurgents were worn down by forces far exceeding them.

By 1415, Glyndwr was virtually alone. We know that the English never managed to kill or capture him and that he refused all offers of pardon. But, for all the evidence of ruined castles left by his insurrection, Glyndwr's final days are of Arthurian elusiveness; and there are Celts today who believe he is not dead but resting.

One irony is that all the likely burial sites are in England; another is that they are all near Grosmont which in many ways marked his decisive defeat. One possible site is Kentchurch, home of John Scudamore, who married Glyndwr's daughter Alice in 1410. Here a portrait of a troubled man is thought to be of Glyndwr.

Though perhaps 20 generations separate the present John Scudamore from Glyndwr, he undoubtedly has some of the old warrior's blood in his veins.

For what this remote but direct connection is worth, John is sceptical about the Glyndwr portrait theory, favouring the view that the picture is of Sion Cent, Kentchurch stableboy turned sorcerer, who is reputed to have made pacts with the Devil.

Chris Barber, author of the recent book In Search of Glyndwr, argues that the burial place is an overgrown mound at the back of the farmhouse at Monnington Straddel, in the Golden Valley.

A dowser has reported the presence there of a body with sword and shield. "But," says Chris Barber, "only the unlikely event of an excavation is going to resolve this greatest of Welsh mysteries".

Fact File

GROSMONT CASTLE, on the B4347 south west of Hereford, is a Welsh Heritage monument. It is unstaffed and open at all reasonable times throughout the year. There is no admission charge.

Owain Glyndwr museum at the Senedd Dy in Machynlleth is open daily, 10am- 5pm, from Easter-end of September. During the winter months admission is by appointment only. Free entrance. Details from the Machynlleth tourist information centre: 01654 702401.

Two invaluable companions for any travel associated with the Welsh Insurrection are the novel Owen Glendower by John Cowper Powys, and In Search of Owain Glyndwr by Chris Barber, published in 1998 by Blorenge Books (01873 856114).