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The Welshness of the Tudors

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Without their Welsh connections, the Tudors could never have made good their rags-to-riches ascent to the English throne, argues Peter R. Roberts.

The fortunes of the Tudor dynasty were laid by the most romantic mésalliance in English history, the secret betrothal of a Welsh attendant at the Court of Henry VI to the dowager queen. How Owain ap Maredydd ap Tudur, member of a family implicated in the revolt of Owain Glyndwr, and perhaps named after the rebel himself, came to be employed in the royal household is one of the unsolved riddles of fifteenth-century history. Henry V, the hammer of the Welsh, had continued his father's proscription of the whole nation in punishment for the rebellion.

Owain's marriage to Katherine of Valois, although hubristic, was not annulled when discovered, and the fruit of its consummation, the two sons, Edmund and Jasper, were not declared illegitimate. Owain and his offspring were not, however, recognised as members of the royal family, and he was not granted denizenship to exempt him from the penal laws against his race until 1432. The children were treated as pawns in the dynastic power game from an early age. In 1436 the Regent Gloucester took them into custody and imprisoned their father in Newgate. After the death of Gloucester, and after several mishaps, they recovered favour under the indulgent protection of the young Henry VI. It was this King who really consolidated the family fortune in the second generation, when he created his half-brothers Edmund and Jasper Earls of Richmond and Pembroke respectively.

By this time the family name had been anglicised and standardised. The earliest extant official document in which 'Owen Tudor' is so described dates from 1459. Had he chosen his father's name, in preference to his grandfather's, England might eventually have had a Meredith dynasty. For all we know, the choice may have been made for him, though not necessarily by the crown, as Professor S.B. Chrimes has asserted. We assume that Owen was able to sign his own name, but we cannot be certain that he was fully literate (members of his class in Wales as in England were rarely lettered in this period): the conversion of the patronymic into a surname may well have been the decision of an uncomprehending clerk who, impatient of previous inconsistencies in the record, fixed the name in its simplest English form. To a certain extent, the exact Welsh patronymic had already been abandoned, for neither Edmund nor Jasper is noted in the English records as 'son of Owen'; like him, they are called 'ap Meredith ap Tydier'.

Henry VI bestowed the English honour of Richmond on Edmund, while the younger brother, Jasper, was endowed with a title and estates in Wales. It was he who, after Edmund died in 1456, looked after the latter's posthumous son, Henry, at the castle of Pembroke. The importance of Jasper's tutelage of his nephew has only recently been fully appreciated by historians. While Henry's mother, Margaret Beaufort, was an indispensable agent of his interests in England, Jasper was his political mentor in the years spent in exile. Between them, Margaret and Jasper nurtured Henry's rights, first to be restored to his lands and title, and then (after the death of Henry VI) as Lancastrian claimant to the crown. Henry VI had commissioned both his half-brothers to represent and defend the crown's interests in Wales against the Yorkist enemies, the Vaughans, the Herberts and the Earl of March, later Edward IV.

Historians have long since abandoned the old generalisation that the 'wars of the roses' were a series of private wars between the lords of the Welsh Marches, but it is still true to say that these lords played a pre- eminent part in the later stages of the conflict. Wales was divided in its allegiances, with the West largely Lancastrian and the East Yorkist in sympathies. As a landless exile, Jasper's most common point of con- tact continued to be Wales: most of his incursions during the reign of Edward IV, including raids and the abortive landings, were directed at the Welsh coast. In the western parts in particular there lingered a nostalgic loyalty to Jasper as the foremost Welsh nobleman before the Yorkist William Herbert supplanted him in the earldom of Pembroke. In the reign of Richard III, as events were to show, Wales and the Marches were the most vulnerable parts of his dominions.

The Welsh bards, with their declaimed verse, had been valuable publicists for both the Lancastrian and Yorkist factions. They usually followed the allegiance of their patrons, the uchelwyr or landed leaders of Welsh society. But beyond this partisanship the tradition of prophetic poetry in the fifteenth century had a nationalist bias that served to boost the morale of a proscribed nation after the defeat of the revolt of Glyndwr in 1400-01. The bards could represent the conflict between York and Lancaster as one between Welsh and English leaders and as a struggle for national liberation from English oppression. In the shadow of Glyndwr, even a marcher lord could be cast in the role of a hero of the nation, as long as he was known to be blessed with Welsh ancestry. The Yorkist William Herbert was hailed by the poet Guto'r Glyn as a potential unifier of Wales against English dominion. Edward IV himself, as a descendant through the Mortimer connection of Llywelyn Fawr (the Great), could be regarded by Guto'r Glyn and Lewis Glyn Cothi as the potential deliverer of the Welsh and the heir to the kings of Britain. Jasper Tudor, in his turn, was seen as 'mab darogan', the son of prophecy. He had been a patron of the bards since the 1450s, and was praised as a faithful supporter of Henry VI and as the man who would unite Wales under the Lancastrians. Behind the apparent opportunism, there was a consistent search for a hero who would rehabilitate Wales within the framework of English politics: only a few dared hope for another Owain Glyndwr, or a guerilla leader fighting for partition.

Although but the last of a series of acclaimed deliverers of the Welsh from oppression, Henry Tudor became the most credible candidate for the title of 'son of prophecy' once he became the Lancastrian claimant to the throne. From1483 and the usurpation of Richard III, this partisanship of the bards was unanimously in his favour and a potent force for the Lancastrian cause in Wales. Through their agency the Welsh were conditioned for the return of Henry Tudor as the realisation of a prophecy. This phase in the development of 'vaticinatory' poetry was represented by Dafydd Llwyd of Mathafarn, a well-born bard who was the most prolific advocate of Henry Tudor's cause. Dafydd denounced Richard for the murder of the princes in the Tower: 'Shame on the hang-lipped Saracen for slaying the angels of Christ...'. He predicted a victory for Henry as the last of the triumphant line of Brutus and Cadwalader, kings of the Britons.

Like the support of the bards, the shift in the pattern of politics in Wales was to Henry's advantage after 1483. The attempt to land on the Dorset coast in that year failed because of Richard III's vigilance and the lack of co-ordination with the rebellions raised in the names of Tudor and the Duke of Buckingham. The latter's failure to mobilise the Welsh Marches led to his capture and execution. This setback proved to be an eventual advantage for Henry, for it removed not only a potential rival candidate for the throne in the untrustworthy Buckingham, but an unreliable focus for rallying support in the Marches, where Buckingham was notoriously unpopular with his tenantry.

After the abortive invasion of 1483, no other direct attempt on England was possible. Richard had effectively neutralised the resistance to his rule in England, and most of Henry's leading English sympathisers had joined him in exile (there were few Welshmen in his entourage). In considering his next move, Henry had therefore little choice but to revert to a plan first mooted in 1483 to invade through Wales. The landing place was to be Milford Haven, in Jasper's former domain. The Tudors had calculated on an attachment to their cause in this corner of Wales, but the deciding factor was strategy, not sentiment. Jasper had been an assiduous patron of the bards as Earl of Pembroke, and as such perhaps a manipulator of propaganda for his family's interests. However, as Professor Ralph Griffiths has recently pointed out, this advance publicity could have availed them little in the English-speaking area of the lordship where the landing took place.

Messengers sent from Brittany had sounded out the native Welsh rulers as well as some of the lords of the Marches, and these had reported with sufficient assurances of a favourable reception before the expedition set out in 1485. The route of the march from Milford Haven avoided the south eastern Marches, which were dominated by the lords loyal to Richard III, and passed through areas where Henry could be joined by his known supporters and – so he hoped – the waverers. He had good reason to rely on the goodwill and active support of the Welsh rulers of the North and West. The one uncertainty in the calculation was Rhys ap Thomas of Dinefwr, in Camarthenshire, who did not declare himself until the army of invasion had reached mid-Wales. On crossing the Dyfi into the southern principality, Henry sent letters to the rulers of the North, in which be expressed 'the great confidence that we have to the nobles and commons of this our principality of Wales.' He presumed on their allegiance to him as King, requesting their aid in recovering his crown from the usurper Gloucester, and announced his intention to restore to the Welsh their former liberties, 'delivering them of such miserable servitudes as they have piteously long stand [sic] in.' In doing so he acknowledged the role of deliverer in which he had been cast by the bards.

Henry also promised the recipients of this summons his good lordship or patronage in return for services to be rendered in battle. With Rhys ap Thomas he may have struck a firmer bargain, assuring him of a prominent part in the future administration of his own region. The victory at Bosworth was not a foregone conclusion – the last-minute intervention by Sir William Stanley may well have been decisive – but without the advantages deriving from his Welsh connections, which he exploited at every stage, it is doubtful whether Henry could have made a successful landing or penetrated sufficiently far inland to challenge Richard near the heart of his kingdom. His Welshness was thus of crucial importance in easing Henry's path to the throne, for quite literally no other route was feasible than that which took him through Wales. It was also to be an essential ingredient in the success of Tudor policy in Wales.

How Welsh was Henry Tudor? In blood he was a quarter Welsh, a quarter French and half English (or at least Platagenet). In so far as place of birth and residence could determine his nationality, he was certainly Welsh. Born in Pembroke Castle, he had spent the formative first fourteen years of his life there and at Raglan Castle, in the charge respectively of his uncle Jasper and William Herbert, rival Earls of Pembroke. In this environment it would have been most unusual not to have acquired at least a smattering of the Welsh language. Unless he had been presented at Henry VI's court in his youth (and there is no evidence for this), Henry was a stranger to England before his ar6val at Shrewsbury on August 17th, 1485. Superimposed on these early influences were his experiences as an insecure pretender in exile, which would have imbued him with different priorities and perspectives from those of the nephew of a dispossessed marcher lord. Yet his consciousness of a Welsh identity was not mere sentimental attachment, heightened by a sense of political debts to be paid to Welshmen who had helped him to the throne. He was to make political capital out of the heritage of ancient British kingship that was transmitted through his Welsh affinity.

In his first proclamation, on August 25th, 1485, Henry announced his titles to be, besides King of England and of France, 'Prince of Wales and lord of Ireland'. This was the first time any King who had not himself been invested with the principality as heir apparent to a reigning monarch had appropriated the title to himself. It was an astute move, designed not only to prevent any other claimant from laying stake to the title, but to emphasise a special connection with Wales which none of his Yorkist or Lancastrian precursors had enjoyed. He was uniquely placed to heal the racial tension between the Welsh and the English, and he evidently set about this task as a deliberate policy. To what extent did he respond to the special claims made on him by the Welsh? Most historians accept that he went some way towards fulfilling their expectations. He rewarded his followers and supporters with suitable grants and appointments in his household and in Welsh government. Only one of those who had answered his summons for military aid on the march to Bosworth is reported to have resisted the attractions of the Court. His kinsman Richard ap Howel of Mostyn, Flintshire, according to family tradition, said 'I dwell among my own people.' Welsh suitors who flocked to London in search of preferment provoked, if not the jealousy of the English, at least the satire of the poet laureate John Skelton, though Henry did not pack his court with his fellow countrymen to anything like the same extent as James I was to do with his after 1603.

Henry is also considered to have been mindful of a debt of gratitude to whole communities of 'Welshry'. Whereas letters of denizenship conferred English status upon individuals, charters of privileges were granted between 1504 and 1508 to the ancient principality and five marcher lordships in North Wales, dispensing the inhabitants from various civic disabilities imposed by the penal laws of Henry IV and Henry V. These measures of enfranchisement were neither unprecedented nor truly acts of grace and favour. Each community seems to have negotiated its own terms and paid large sums into the royal coffers, even if the transactions do not furnish evidence of that 'rapacity' which some historians have detected in the King's financial policy in his last years. At the end of the reign the charters were challenged at law by the indignant English burgesses of the Edwardian boroughs of North Wales, who resented the encroachments of the 'Welshry', and they seem never to have been fully implemented. The King's generosity to the Welsh would therefore appear to have been limited rather than lavish.

Some of the bards, Lewys Glyn Cothi among them, expressed disappointment that Henry did not do more for his compatriots: in their naivety they had looked for a complete reversal of fortunes, and Welsh nationalist historians of the present century have echoed this sense of betrayal at an opportunity lost. Within a few years it was clear that the vision of the bards had outrun the more realistic ambitions of their patrons, the Welsh gentry, although this class was not to replace English officials in all parts of Wales. In his attitude to race relations, the King was concerned with reconciliation and not reparation. He entertained a narrower conception of 'servitude' and 'liberties' than those of contemporary bards and modern nationalists, and his values were shared by the vast majority of his Welsh subjects. The inhabitants of North Wales were released not only from the prohibitions of Lancastrian penal laws but from those of the Edwardian settlement of 1284, which had excluded the Welsh from the plantation boroughs. More than this, the charters' abolition of bond tenures and other native usages freed the more enterprising landowners from the burdens of surviving Welsh laws.

These Welshmen welcomed relief from the 'servitude' of their own laws, and were anxious to enjoy the 'liberties' or privileges of the King's English subjects, in England and Wales. The very fact of Henry's accession was considered by the Venetian ambassador to be a rehabilitation of the Welsh nation. At the turn of the century he wrote in his 'Relation' to the Council of Ten: 'The Welsh may now be said to have recovered their former independence [signoria] for the most wise and fortunate Henry VII is a Welshman.' For the King himself, the authority or dignity to be recovered was not perforce the 'independence' sought by Owain Glyndwr but the glories of ancient British kingship.

Henry Tudor's Welshness was more prominently displayed in the symbolism of his regality than in overt acts of favouritism. In heraldry, pageantry and court ceremonial, he was proclaimed the true heir of the line of British rulers, Brutus, Cadwalader and Arthur. At Bosworth Field the red banner of Cadwalader had been unfurled, and the red dragon was to become as powerful an emblem as the double rose, each reflecting different facets of the Tudor myth, in which Henry was depicted as the reconciler of divisions. Just as his marriage with Elizabeth of York united the two houses of York and Lancaster, so his naming his elder son Arthur presaged the restoration of British kingship. Henry's originality should not be exaggerated: in this, as in much else, he was eclectic and imitative of Yorkist models. Edward IV had used motifs from the British Legend in his court rituals and had fostered an Arthurian cult in celebration of his own descent from British kings and the princes of Gwynedd. Edward had named his bastard son Arthur (he was to be the last male Plantagenet, the ill-starred Lord Lisle who fell foul of Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell in the late 1530s). But it was one thing to confer this evocative name on an illegitimate son, quite another to bestow it on the heir to the throne, and this is what Henry did in 1486. Until the prince's death in 1502, the King's English and Welsh subjects lived in the full expectation that another King Arthur would eventually rule over them. Arthur was a venerable name in Europe and the new dynasty was consciously claiming for itself an antecedent as august as any continental monarchy. Though his grandfather 0wen was of aristocratic Welsh stock, Henry could not claim as distinguished a princely lineage as the Yorkist kings, for his family's fortunes had originally been established in Wales by Ednyfed Fychan, steward to Llywelyn the Great, whereas the Yorkists traced their descent from Llywelyn's daughter, Gwladys Ddu. By marrying Elizabeth, Henry thus enhanced his connection with British as well as English kingship, and their son and heir personified both traditions.

Richard III had referred disparagingly in two proclamations to the rebel 'Henry Tydder'; this may well have stung, so that the new King was all the more concerned to establish an honourable lineage for his family. A commission of Welsh genealogists was therefore set up to trace his pedigree. Only the report has survived, to show Henry's descent from medieval Welsh and British rulers. However fantastic its remoter claims, there is no sound reason to doubt its authenticity as an official document. Even Sir Edward Coke in his Fourth Institutes of the Laws of England (1644) accepted its validity and gave as his source for the original commission the patent rolls for Henry VII, though no-one else has found any trace of it there. (The great champion of the common law who set such store by precedents was notoriously careless in his scholarship.) Henry did not draw on this pedigree to confirm the legitimacy of his monarchy, only to embellish it. What was important for him was the historical associations with British, rather than Welsh, royalty. That these also proved to be flattering to the Welsh nation was an incidental and inexpensive form of propaganda.

Writers in Elizabethan Wales looked back on Henry Tudor's policy in Wales as inspired by his Welsh affinity. To George Owen, the historian of Pembrokeshire writing in the 1590s, Henry was 'a Prynce of our own Nation', a second Solomon and 'a Moses that delyvered us from bondage.' His beneficence was a distinct policy that culminated in Henry VIII's measure of incorporation of 1536-43. According to Owen, the first Tudor king 'gave in chardge as it is thought to his sonne Prynce Henry that he showld have a spetiall care for the benefit of his owne Nation and cuntray men the Welshmen', though Owen had difficulties in explaining why it took Henry VIII so long to make good his filial pledge. It would be nearer the mark to regard the first Tudor's rapport with the Welsh as having established a psychological union of the nations which did not lead inevitably to the so-called 'political union' of the next reign, but which facilitated that bond. In the last session of the Reformation Parliament, legislation was passed to introduce English common law and the shire system into the whole of Wales. This consolidated and elaborated upon a form of administration that had existed in its essentials in the principality of North Wales since Edward I's Statute of Wales of 1284. In Wales, if nowhere else in the realm, there was a real revolution in government – at least this was how it was represented by Welsh writers of the next generation. George Owen wrote in 'The Dialogue of the Government of Wales'. 'No country in England so flourished in one hundreth years as Wales hath done, since the government of Henry VII to this time... so altered is the cuntrey and cuntreymen, the people chaunged in hertt within and the land altered in hewe without, from evill to good, and from badd to better.'

Owen spoke for his own class of prosperous Protestant gentry, but the very fact that Welsh commentators thought of the extension of English law as a boon and an act of grace ensured the success of Tudor rule in Wales. The Tudors could afford to take the loyalty of the Welsh for granted: disorders were largely contained by a new apparatus of courts set up by the Henrician settlement, and there was to be no major insurrection in Wales for the rest of the century. There was no tacit acknowledgement of their Welsh identity by Henry VII's son and grandchildren – it was something claimed for them by the Welsh. There was enough psychological truth in it to help bring about an historic change, and to enable the Protestant Tudors to transform the society, administration and even the religious culture of Wales. The acquiescence of the majority of the Welsh in these changes testified to the power of this, perhaps the most formative feature of the Tudor myth.

Englishmen took little interest in the Welsh connection of their rulers. Early in 1600 a play entitled 'Owen Tudor' was commissioned by the London impressario Philip Henslowe, who paid an advance of £4 to the playwright Anthony Munday and three collaborators. It must have been a poor investment, for there is no trace of any performance. Owen Tudor was ignored by Shakespeare in his History plays: perhaps he judged it too indiscreet to dwell on the circumstances of the mésalliance. One Welsh writer certainly had no such compunction. In 1603 Hugh Holland published the first (and only) book of his Pancharis, which related the love between Owen Tudor and Katherine of Valois. Holland declared in his preface that the work had been 'long since intended to her Maiden maiestie' but her death had cheated him of that honour just as the book was going through the press. Nothing daunted, the resourceful author dedicated it instead to King James and his son Prince Henry, whom he addressed as the future Prince of Wales. The adaptation was plausible enough, in all senses of that word, for James, after all, was descended from Henry VII and his forebears, the Welsh Tudors; and with this reminder Holland's readers in Wales could the more readily transfer their loyalty to the Scottish Stuarts.

The family of monarchs who ruled England and Wales from 1485 to 1603 did indeed form a dynasty, but they do not seem to have called themselves the 'Tudor' dynasty: the only con- temporaries who regarded them as such were the Welsh. In foreign chronicles as in diplomatic correspondence the English monarchs were as often as not described as the House of Richmond, after the title of the honour held by the founder of the dynasty. In the next century Sir Edward Coke supplied a captious corrective to what he regarded as an invidious habit. To have given Elizabeth and her family the surname of Tudor was an error which, 'whether it were out of ignorance or malice some do question," if she had any surname at all it was Theodore and not Tudor, 'which is a nick or by-name.' (Coke was wrong in this, as in so much else.) In truth she had no surname at all, for her ancestor Owen had none, only a series of Christian names (his patronymic), and she could have been as properly called Elizabeth Owen, or Meredith, as Tudor or Theodore. But to prevent this bathos (Coke pronounced with a flourish) 'Almighty God would not suffer her to have a sirname, because by his grace and goodnesse she should deserve for her Imperial virtues to be called Elizabeth the Great.'

Peter Roberts is lecturer in history at the University of Kent.

Historical dictionary: Tudor dynasty


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