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A Remote Island Where 
Modern Britain Was Born

By Richard Jones

One of the ironies of Wales is that its people are anything but Welsh. They are the ancient Briton’s, the original occupants of what is now the United Kingdom, who were driven westward by Saxon invaders. The Saxon’s, both unable and unwilling to understand the language of those whose lands they had taken, dismissed them as “Welsh” – their word for foreigner.

As this vanquished people, settled into their mountain fastness, they dreamt of the day when they would return to reclaim what was rightfully theirs. They called themselves Cymry, meaning “comrades,” and the rugged wilds of their mountainous domain, they named Cymru, meaning “for their land”. Their hopes and dreams were kept alive by bards, minstrels and storytellers who had an abundance of saints, heroes, beautiful maidens and treacherous villains to inspire them. But the most potent belief, and the one that kept the flame of Welsh nationalism burning for centuries, was the belief that the greatest folk hero of them all, King Arthur, lay sleeping at a secret location somewhere in Wales, awaiting the day when he would be called forth to lead his countrymen to victory and, as had been predicted by the wizard Merlin, place one of their own upon the throne of England.


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As it transpired it was not Arthur who finally led the Welsh to Victory, but Henry Tudor, who having defeated Richard 111 at the battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, was crowned King Henry V11 of England. Yet the story of the Tudor dynasty began not in some grand court, palace or castle, but rather in a remote corner of the Isle of Anglesey, which is situated off the Northern tip of Wales.

Just before the road from Llangefni, on the Isle of Anglesey, begins the climb into Penmynydd, a rough track heads off through the lush countryside and passes by a remote huddle of buildings that surround a sturdy grey house. It is an anonymous mass of old and new stone with nothing to suggest that upon this isolated spot, five hundred or so years ago, Owen Tudor, grandfather of Henry V11, was born. His story is both inspirational and romantic, encompassing as it does one of the most astonishing love affairs of medieval history. For, from humble beginnings, Owen Tudor rose to a reasonably influential position in Royal circles, and, by becoming the secret lover of a King's widow, he sowed the seed which flowered into the Tudor dynasty.

When Henry V died suddenly in 1422, he left behind a beautiful widow, Katherine of Valois, and a baby son whose reign as Henry V1 would witness the most acute phase of the Wars of the Roses. Owen Tudor, who had shown gallant service for the dead King at the battle of Agincourt, had been made a squire of the royal bodyguard and, in the months that followed Henry’s death, attended Katherine at Windsor Castle. There is a story that one day, whilst on guard duty, he was asked to dance for the Queen and, determined to make a good impression, he attempted an over ambitious pirouette and fell, heavily into Katherine’s lap! The manner with which she excused his faux pas, did not go unnoticed by her ladies in waiting who are said to have rebuked her, pointing out that she “lowered herself by paying any attention to a person [that] belonged to a barbarous clan of savages, reckoned inferior to the lowest English yeoman”. Katherine claimed that, being a French woman she was unaware of “any difference in race in the British island”. But it was evident that the young queen was enamored of the thirty seven year old Welshman and, soon afterwards, the two became lovers.

By the sixth year of her infant son’s reign, his guardian’s and the powers that were, worried by the prospect of Katharine’s re-marrying, passed a law threatening dire consequences for any man who dared “to marry a queen dowager, or any lady who held lands of the Crown, without the consent of the King and his council”. But Owen and Katherine had already married in secret. How they ever managed to keep their intrigue hidden from the prying eyes of the Royal court is one of the great mysteries of English history, but keep it hidden they did and, over the next fourteen years, she would bear him three sons, Edmund, Jasper and Owen.

Then, in the late summer of 1436, things began to go wrong. Katherine gave birth to a baby daughter who died after only two days. The loss, coupled with the strain of her secret marriage, proved too much for her constitution. She fell ill and entered Bermondsey Abbey to be nursed. Meanwhile, news of the marriage had leaked out and Owen Tudor was arrested and confined to Newgate Prison. Their three sons were taken from her and placed under the care of Katherine de la Pole, the Abbes of Barking.

Katherine of Valois died in February 1437 and was buried, as befitted a lady of her standing, in Westminster Abbey. Later that year, Owen Tudor managed to escape and went to ground somewhere in Daventry. King Henry issued a summons willing that he “the which dwelled with his mother, should come into his presence”. But Owen Tudor stayed away. Then one day, learning that the king was being influenced by evil gossip about him, he suddenly appeared before the Privy Council, where he defended himself with such verbal dexterity that Henry V1 set him free. Following another bout of imprisonment and another daring escape, Owen fled to Wales.

Years later, in the general Euphoria that followed the birth of a son to Henry and his wife, Margaret of Anjou, Owen Tudor was summoned to London, granted an annuity of £40 and made “keeper of our parks in Denbigh Wales” by the King. Furthermore, his two sons were declared legitimate and accepted into the ranks of the nobility. Edmund was created Earl of Richmond, and Jasper became the Earl of Pembroke. It was through the influence of his half-brother – King Henry V1- that Edmund Tudor married Margaret Beaufort, the thirteen-year old heiress to the house of Somerset. On June 26th 1457, she gave birth to a son at Pembroke Castle. That boy – the grandson of Owen Tudor and Katherine of Valois – was destined to ascend the throne of England as King Henry V11.

In 1461, at the age of seventy-six, Owen Tudor was captured after having fought against the Yorkist forces at the battle of Mortimer’s Cross. He was beheaded in Hereford market and his final words are said to have been “That head shall lie on the block that was wont to lie on Queen Katharine’s lap.”

Almost six hundred years have passed since the Tudor's farmed the land around Penmynydd. Today even those who live in the immediate vicinity of the old house where Owen Tudor was born remain unaware of its historical significance. "Owen who?" was the response I most frequently got as I searched for his birthplace.

Yet when I eventually found my way down the muddy, hidden track and gazed upon the building's fusion of old and new stone, I found myself genuinely moved by the experience. As I traipsed back to my car, thin wisps of blue gray smoke were curling up from the house's old chimneys, cattle were lowing in the the fields around me, and I felt sure that the landscape could have hardly changed since the teenage Owen Tudor, red faced, lusty and determined strode along its lanes and set out to take his place in history.

Richard Jones is an internationally published travel writer whose books include Myths and Legends of Britain and Ireland and Haunted Britain and Ireland. He regularly appears on both the History and Discovery Channels and conducts regular London Walks as well as tours of historic Britain and Ireland.

Extracts from this article may be used but full acknowledgement must be given to Richard Jones as the originating author and all usage must include a link to his website at http://www.london-walks.co.uk

 

Copyright 2005 All Rights Reserved

  

 

 


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