This Month in Celtic History
by Stephen Paul DeVillo

April 2001

Owain Glyn Dwr Sexcentenary 1401-2001

1 April 1401:   Conway Castle taken by Welsh rebels under William and Rhys ap Tudur.

The capture of Conway Castle, on the northern coast of Wales, by a band of some forty Welsh rebels on 1 April 1401 was, depending on your point of view, either a breach of chivalry, or an act of sacrilege, or the perfect April Fool’s joke.

The fighting in north Wales following Owain Glyn Dwr’s revolt the previous September had led the English to believe that they had suppressed the rebellion, even if they hadn’t captured its leader. But if Wales remained quiet through the winter, there were those waiting for an opportunity to rekindle the revolt. To do this they needed some grand gesture, the sort of thing that would wake everyone up and set them to talking.

Though the English found it easy to dismiss the Welsh as “barefoote Welsh dogges,” William and Rhys ap Tudur were no ragtag desperadoes. They were in fact men of substance in north Wales, experienced combat leaders, and kinsmen of Owain Glyn Dwr.

They did not choose their target at random. Conway Castle was one of the string of castles built years before by Edward I to secure the English domination of Wales, and it occupied a strategic location beside the northern coastal road that was one of the main entryways into Wales. Its capture would, at least for a time, shut the English out of Owain’s stronghold of north Wales, isolate the English base at Caernarfon Castle on the northwest coast, and buy the rebellion precious time with which it could spread to other parts of Wales. Conway was built to be impregnable, but the Tudur brothers knew it was impregnable only as long as the walls were manned and the gates kept shut.

Their opportunity came on Good Friday, 1 April 1401. In the Middle Ages, the so-called “Peace of God” was a more or less universally observed convention throughout Europe that forbade shedding blood on holy days. Feeling secure in that convention, the garrison commander marched most of his troops out of Conway Castle to attend Good Friday services in the adjacent town, leaving behind only two men to mind the open drawbridge. Once the garrison was safely tucked away in church, the Welsh rebels crept up and observed the Peace of God’s ban on bloodshed as best they could by strangling instead of stabbing the guards.

Hearing the cheers as the rest of the Welsh rebels rushed through the castle gate, the men of the garrison stumbled out of church just in time to see the drawbridge being drawn up in their faces.

News of the rebel success fanned new life into Owain’s revolt, but the renewed enthusiasm didn’t help the men who had taken Conway. Settling into their new home, the Tudurs found that the castle was not only undermanned, but underprovisioned as well. They held an impregnable castle, but had precious little food supplies with which to face the siege by the royal forces sent out to retake Conway.

The King’s men were led by Harry Percy, known by his Shakespearian nickname of “Hotspur.” As the two forces confronted each other, the Welsh knew they couldn’t hold out indefinitely. For his part, Hotspur was anxious to get out of Wales without a long and tedious siege to starve the Welsh out. The result was a deal done between Hotspur and the Tudurs. The English would get their castle back while the Welsh would be allowed to walk out unmolested except for twelve randomly chosen men who would be beheaded to satisfy King Henry.

Despite its sordid ending, the Conway Castle affair would have far reaching effects that would nearly bring Owain victory. As news spread of the Tudurs’ startling coup, the rebellion was fanned into new life throughout the country and the Welsh began once again to rally to the man they proclaimed the true Prince of Wales. Meanwhile Hotspur’s experiences in Wales left him pessimistic about the long-term prospects for defeating the Welsh, and soured him on King Henry. He would eventually re-enter our story as a rebel himself against King Henry and an erstwhile ally of Owain Glyn Dwr.

Subsequent events of the revolt of Owain Glyn Dwr will be covered in future installments of This Month in Celtic History.

For more stories of Owain Glyn Dwr, click the links below:

Owain Glyn Dwr Sexcentenary 1400-2000
Owain’s Victory at Bryn Glas
The Battle of Shrewsbury
Owain Glyn Dwr Sexcentenary 1404-2004

For more information on Wales, see the Wales Nation Page.

The stories in This Month in Celtic History are based on entries of the six Celtic nations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Mann whose dates appear on the Celtic League American Branch’s annual Celtic Calendar, now available.

For more stories, click the links below:

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