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The Tide Turns at Conwy: Welsh Rebels Seize a Symbol of English Tyranny

Conwy Castle: Bulwark of English Occupation

Conwy Castle, with its soaring curtain walls and eight massive towers sprawled over a rock outcropping, was built between 1283-1289 CE under the orders of King Edward I of England. The castle was the centerpiece of Edward‘s imposing "Iron Ring" of fortresses across North Wales, constructed in the aftermath of his conquest of the native Welsh princedoms.

Feature Description
Curtain walls Over 1.3 km long, 15 feet thick, 30 feet high
Towers 8 towers, each 70 feet tall
Inner ward Reinforced with 4 turrets and a great hall
Outer ward Walled garrison area of 1.4 acres

Edward spared no expense in making Conwy, along with the neighboring castles at Harlech, Beaumaris, and Caernarfon, "unassailable forever" according to an order to his master mason James of St. George. These castles were both strongholds securing Edward‘s grip on his new lands and symbolic monuments to the dominance of the English crown over the subdued Welsh people.

A Kingdom in Chaos: The Tudor Brothers‘ Fateful Decision

In 1400 CE, nearly 120 years after Edward I‘s conquest, his descendent King Henry IV sat unsteadily on the English throne, having recently usurped it from his cousin Richard II. Henry faced widespread challenges to his legitimacy, including a budding revolt in Wales led by the charismatic Owain Glyndwr.

It was in this tense political climate that Rhys ap Tudur and his younger brother Gwilym, scions of a noble Welsh family, made the bold decision to seize Conwy Castle on April 1, 1401. The Tudor brothers were cousins of Glyndwr and nursed their own resentments against English rule, particularly Reginald Grey, the Lord of Ruthun, with whom they had a bitter land dispute.

The Tudurs timed their attack for maximum advantage, striking on Good Friday when most of the castle‘s garrison was attending church services in the walled town of Conwy just outside the castle gates. Rhys and Gwilym, along with some 40-50 handpicked men, gained entry to the fortress by enlisting a sympathetic carpenter to trick the guards. Historian Adam Usk‘s chronicle describes how the rebels swiftly dispatched the sentries and occupied the castle:

"A carpenter presented himself on the pretext of carrying out some work he had already started…they killed the two watchmen and…Gwilym went in with his men up to a total of about forty, all of them skilled, reliable, and well armed."

Stalemate and Sacrifice: The Fate of Conwy Castle

King Henry reacted to news of Conwy‘s capture with fury, ordering his battle-tested commander Henry "Hotspur" Percy to immediately besiege the castle. When a month passed with no success in dislodging the defiant Welshmen, Henry sent his teenage son and namesake, the future King Henry V, to assume command of the siege.

Rhys and Gwilym found themselves in a precarious position – while their men controlled the mighty walls of Conwy, they lacked the supplies for a protracted defense and were vastly outnumbered by the English forces surrounding them. With Owain Glyndwr unable to muster reinforcements to break the siege, the Tudurs resorted to negotiating terms of surrender directly with the young Prince Henry.

In a fateful decision, Rhys and Gwilym prioritized their own interests over those of their comrades-in-arms and the wider rebellion. The brothers offered to relinquish Conwy and their claim to it in exchange for full pardons for themselves. Prince Henry agreed, with a cruel caveat – the Tudurs had to hand over nine of their own men to the English as sacrificial lambs. A chronicler describes the grim fate of these hostages:

"Nine of those who had served with him were to be handed over for execution, having been treacherously seized as they slept after their night watches. They were drawn, hanged, disembowelled, beheaded and quartered."

This betrayal forever tarnished the Tudur brothers‘ reputations among their fellow Welshmen. While they had struck a blow against the hated English occupation, their callous treatment of their followers would not be forgotten.

The Dragon Rises: Glyndwr‘s Rebellion Catches Fire

Although Conwy had been lost, its capture had a galvanizing effect on Owain Glyndwr‘s revolt against English rule. The humiliating inability of the powerful English crown to swiftly recapture one of their most imposing castles emboldened many Welsh who had been reluctant to join open rebellion.

Buoyed by popular support and alliances with discontented English lords and Scotland, Glyndwr would capture Conwy twice more in the coming years. His forces also seized Harlech Castle and sacked English settlements across North Wales and the borderlands. By 1404, Glyndwr had control over the majority of Wales and was crowned as Prince of Wales by a parliament at Machynlleth.

The high-water mark of Glyndwr‘s uprising came in 1405 when he allied with the powerful Earl of Northumberland and his son Henry "Hotspur" Percy in open rebellion against Henry IV. Although the Percys‘ defeat at Shrewsbury checked Glyndwr‘s advance, he remained a thorn in the English king‘s side until 1415. No peace treaty was ever signed and Glyndwr disappeared into the mists of Welsh legend.

From Rebels to Rulers: The Tudur Family‘s Remarkable Rise

Although Rhys ap Tudur would be captured and executed by the English in 1412, his family‘s fortunes were on the ascent. His youngest brother Maredudd had a son named Owain who anglicized his name to Owen Tudor and entered the service of the English king Henry V.

In a remarkable twist of fate, Owen Tudor caught the eye of Henry V‘s widow Catherine of Valois. The couple married in secret and had two sons. Their eldest, Edmund Tudor, was made Earl of Richmond. Edmund‘s son was Henry Tudor, who would claim the kingship of England in 1485 after defeating Richard III at Bosworth Field.

Henry VII‘s usurpation ended the Wars of the Roses and he shrewdly promoted his Welsh heritage to gain support in Wales. The Tudor dynasty that sprung from Henry would rule England for 118 years, a remarkable rise for a family that just a few generations prior led a scrappy band of Welsh rebels.

The Legacy of Conwy Castle

Conwy Castle was held as a key English fortress for centuries following Glyndwr‘s revolt but gradually declined in importance as Wales became integrated with England. By the 19th century, the castle was a picturesque ruin and inspired many Romantic artists and poets like J.M.W. Turner and William Wordsworth.

Following World War I, Conwy Castle was turned over to the care of the Ministry of Works, the predecessor of the modern Welsh heritage organization Cadw. Extensive restoration and archaeological work has continued at the castle since. It is now recognized as a Grade I listed building and a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with Edward I‘s other castles across the former Welsh principality.

Each year, over 200,000 visitors from across the world tour Conwy Castle‘s sprawling battlements and towers. While the castle is undoubtedly an impressive work of medieval engineering and military architecture, it also stands as a complex symbol of Wales‘ past.

To some, Conwy is a reminder of English conquest and oppression, the stone fist of an occupying power. But it is also a monument to Welsh resistance and resilience, where native rebels seized their own destiny against long odds, if only for a fleeting moment. In that light, the Tudor brothers‘ audacious capture of Conwy is echoed by the remarkable rise of their family from Welsh outlaws to English kings.

Works Cited

  • Ashbee, Jeremy. Conwy Castle. Cardiff: Cadw, 2007.
  • Davies, R.R. The Revolt of Owain Glyn Dŵr. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
  • Rees, David. The Son of Prophecy: Henry Tudor‘s Road to Bosworth. London: Black Raven Press, 1985.
  • Weir, Alison. Britain‘s Royal Family: A Complete Genealogy. London: Random House, 2011.