The great fighter for Welsh independence Owain Glyn Dŵr is thought to have written this letter to the king of France, setting out his plans for an independent Wales
Pennal Letter, 1406
Archives nationales de France, J//516/A/29 J//516/B/40
Copyright © Archives nationales de France. Used by permission
What was Wales's historical relationship with England?
William the Conqueror established a buffer zone between Wales and England, the Welsh Marches, controlled by the powerful Marcher Lords. They had almost complete authority to do as they wished, with their own laws. Wales was then composed of a number of small kingdoms, of variable power. Llywelyn the Great gained sufficient authority to rule all of Wales from 1210 to 1240, but only by acknowledging the English king as his overlord.
After Llywelyn's death, power in Wales crumbled. His grandsons, Llywelyn and Dafydd, were the last independent rulers of Wales and their rebellion against Edward failed. In March 1284, the Statute of Rhuddlan brought Wales under English control. Most of the Welsh princes were dispossessed and their lands passed to English barons. In 1301, Edward made his eldest son Prince of Wales and the title has remained with the heir to the English throne ever since.
The old laws of Hywel Dda, which had been part of Welsh justice since the 940s, were retained for cases dealing with land, but otherwise English law prevailed. English clerks took over most of the administration of Wales and English became the language of business. Edward established a ring of castles around Wales which still remain as evidence to the power of English domination.
Where did Owain Glyn Dŵr come in?
Despite Edward's castle, there were regular rebellions, the most significant being in 1400. It arose almost by chance from a land dispute between Owain Glyn Dŵr and his English neighbour who managed to have Glyn Dŵr falsely charged with treason. Glyn Dŵr, then in his forties, found himself on the run and gathered about him a growing army of supporters.
Despite punitive attacks by Henry IV, Glyn Dŵr had a series of successes and won over to his cause Edmund Mortimer, brother of the Earl of March, the most powerful landowner in Wales, and Henry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland. It was rumoured that they planned to overthrow Henry IV and split England and Wales between them.
Henry IV issued a series of severe Penal Laws against the Welsh (and any Englishman married to a Welsh woman), forbidding them meeting together, bearing arms, living in fortified towns or holding public office. Most Welsh were effectively outlawed.
Glyn Dŵr gained the support of the French. He grew sufficiently confident to summon Parliaments at Machynlleth and Harlech. However, at the height of his success his authority waned and he lost the support of Percy and Mortimer.
Where did the Pennal Letter come in?
In March 1406, Glyn Dŵr appealed to the French king for additional forces against the 'barbarous Saxons', who were trying to take over Wales. His request, known as the Pennal Letter (after the village of Pennal in Merioneth), set out in Latin his plan for Welsh greatness.
Glyn Dŵr proposed to re-establish St David's as a major archbishopric with authority over not only the three Welsh bishoprics but five English ones. He also proposed the creation of two universities to enhance Welsh learning and reputation.
What does it say?
An English translation (from Matthews, 1910) of the Latin text is:
Most serene prince, you have deemed it worthy on the humble recommendation sent, to learn how my nation, for many years now elapsed, has been oppressed by the fury of the barbarous Saxons; whence because they had the government over us, and indeed, on account of the fact itself, it seemed reasonable with them to trample upon us. But now, most serene prince, you have in many ways, from your innate goodness, informed me and my subjects very clearly and graciously concerning the recognition of the true Vicar of Christ. I, in truth, rejoice with a full heart on account of that information of your excellency, and because, inasmuch from this information, I understood that the lord Benedict, the supreme pontifex, intends to work for the promotion of an union in the Church of God with all his possible strength. Confident indeed in his right, and intending to agree with you as indeed as far as is possible for me, I recognize him as the true Vicar of Christ, on my own behalf, and on behalf of my subjects by these letters patent, foreseeing them by the bearer of their communications in your majesty's presence. And because, most excellent prince, the metropolitan church of St. David's was, as it appears, violently compelled by the barbarous fury of those reigning in this country, to obey the church of Canterbury, and de facto still remains in this subjection. Many other disabilities are known to have been suffered by the church of Wales through these barbarians, which for the greater part are set forth fully in the letters patent accompanying. I pray and sincerely beseech your majesty to have these letters sent to my lord, the supreme pontifex, that as you deemed worthy to raise us out of darkness into light, similarly you will wish to extirpate and remove violence and oppression from the church and from my subjects, as you are well able to. And may the Son of the Glorious Virgin long preserve your majesty in the promised prosperity. Dated at Pennal the last day of March (1406). Yours avowedly, Owen, Prince of Wales. Endorsement.— To the most serene and most illustrious prince, lord Charles, by the grace of God, King of France.
The request went unanswered. With dwindling support and with Henry IV regaining territory, Glyn Dŵr's grand scheme crumbled. Yet he held out against the English and eluded them to the end of his days. He was last heard of in 1415 and probably died soon after. He has remained a symbol of Welsh national feeling ever since.
What happened to the Penal Laws?
The Penal Laws remained in place and eventually became redundant following the Act of 1536, which was effectively an Act of Union, and which was imposed on Wales. It abolished the Welsh legal system and banned the Welsh language in courts of law, but it did otherwise grant a degree of equality between the Welsh and the English and allowed the Welsh to be represented in the English Parliament for the first time.