THE HISTORY OF OWAIN ap THOMAS
KNOWN AS OWAIN LAWGÔCH
PRINCE OF THE HOUSE OF GWYNEDD
An old legend tells of a cave, near the town of Llandybie, where sleeps an armoured knight surrounded by his men at arms. An inscription reads, " I am Owain Lawgôch, I will awake at my country’s hour of need."
As is true of many legends, this tale has an element of fact. Owain did exist, he was a mighty warrior, and on several occasions during the 14th century, he tried to liberate Wales from it's Plantagenet conquerors.
Owain was born about 1335, probably at his father's manor of Tatsfield in Surrey. Thomas his father was a nephew of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, the last native Prince of Wales.
Around the time of Owain's birth, Thomas's female cousins, Gwladys and Gwenllian, died in captivity, leaving Thomas as sole heir to the Royal House of Gwynedd. Probably to protect him from the Anglo-Norman authorities, the young Owain was sent to safety in France, where he was brought up and educated with the children of the Count of Alencon, brother to King Phillip VI of France. Owain would have been educated as a young nobleman and have learned the military skills necessary for him to progress through the ranks of chivalry, from page and squire to knighthood.
The first documented mention of Owain is in a military context. He was reported to have fought on the French side at the battle of Poitiers in 1356. After the defeat and capture of his patron. King John II, Owain joined a "free company" and went off to fight as a mercenary captain in Lombardy.
In May 1363 Owain's father died. The authorities in England being unaware of Owain's existence as heir, allocated his properties to various English nobles, hi time Owain heard of his father's death, and in 1365, travelled to England, where he successfully sued for the return of his inheritance. During this period Owain may have visited Wales for the first and only time, for by the Spring of 1366 he was back in France, destined never to return to the land of his ancestors.
It is important to note, that to retrieve his properties through an English court, Owain had to swear an oath of allegiance to King Edward III of England.
What Owain did in the next few years is unclear. He may have fought under the command of Bertrand du Guesclin in northern Spain, or spent time on the estate he was said to have had in the province of Maine.
But when the war between England and France broke out again in 1369, Owain took service with the French. When news of this reached England he was declared traitor and all his properties in Britain were confiscated.
In the early Summer of 1369 the French were preparing an invasion of Wales,
Owain was one of the commanders. News of this planned attack caused King Edward
to order the strengthening of defences and to replace Welshmen in positions of
strategic importance, with commanders who's loyalty was not in question.
In August the Duke of Lancaster began a raid across northern France which delayed the departure of the invasion force. The fleet eventually sailed from Harfleur in late December but a violent storm in the Channel forced it to return to port. Owain's first attempt to liberate Wales was called off.
The following year another English raid, this rime under Sir Robert Knollys, set out from Calais. The French, under du Guesclin, with Owain as one of his lieutenants, at first avoided battle. Then a mutiny split the English ranks and when the two armies eventually met , south of Le Mans, the French inflicted a heavy defeat. After "mopping up" the remaining English strongholds in the area, du Guesclin returned to Paris, leaving Owain in command at Saumur.
Owain's next task was to defend the city of Metz against the Duke of Lorraine and his allies. Having completed this contract, to the apparent satisfaction of the burgers of Metz, Owain and his men returned to Harfleur to supervise the fitting out of another fleet for the invasion of Wales.
On the 10th of May 1372 Owain issued a great proclamation. In it he set out out his grievances against the English crown, thanked King Charles of France for his help, and promised a perpetual treaty of alliance and friendship between the peoples of Wales and France.
A month later the fleet sailed. It first put in at the island of Guernsey, which fell to Owain's troops after some fierce fighting. During the battle Owain was believed to have been wounded in the hand, earning him the nickname "Lawgôch" (Redhand).
Meanwhile an English fleet, commanded by the Earl of Pembroke, had put to sea.
The ships carried money, supplies and reinforcements for the English army in
Aquitaine. On receiving news of this Reel, King Charles of France ordered Owain
south to assist a Castillian' fleet that was to intercept the English. Owain's
ships were too late to help the Castillians, who met and destroyed Pembroke's
force off La Rochelle on June 22nd, taking the Earl and a number of English
knights prisoner. The victorious Castillians made for Santander in northern
Spain where they were eventually joined by Owain's fleet; the invasion of Wales
being once more posponed. At Santander an angry Owain confronted Pembroke with
accusations that he, with other English nobles, had conspired to cause the death
of Owain's father. Owain swore to seek retribution on the battlefield, this was
never realised as Pembroke died in captivity in 1375.
Owain now asked the Castillians for help with his invasion plans. The Spanish knights were not keen on the venture, there was little prospect of booty in Wales! So a frustrated Owain returned to his fleet and sailed north to the blockade of La Rochelle.
By now du Guesclin had forced the English to surrender most of Poitou, Saintonge and Limousin. He pressed on, by land and sea, with the seige of La Rochelle, one of the most important ports on the Atlantic coast of France.
South of La Rochelle lay the strategically situated castle of La Soubise, held by an English garrison. The French laid seige to the castle with 300 men, but these were suprised by a relieving force of Gascons, who raised the seige. Owain, hearing of this, brought a party of 400 picked men up the estuary of the river Charente by barge and caught the battle weary Gascons by suprise in a night attack. The Gascon leader, the Captal de Buch, one of the most senior commanders on the Anglo-Gascon side, was captured and the fortress fell to Owain and his men. This victory was soon followed by the surrender of La Rochelle, on the 8th of September
In the Spring of 1373 rumours reached England that yet another invasion of Wales was being prepared. In fact Owain, with 6000 troops under his command, waited in the Basque ports for a fair wind. Once more Owain was to be denied his ambition, as yet again events conspired against him.
Defeated at sea, an English army of over 10000 men, under John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, set out from Calais that summer. Their aim was to relieve their hard pressed colleagues in Aquitaine. Unable to bring the French to battle, they endured the " scorched earth" policy and "hit and run" tactics employed by du Guesclin's shadowing force, which included Owain and his company. By the end of their long march across the length of France to Bordeaux, which they reached in December, the English were so weakened by hunger and disease, that they were no longer an effective fighting force. In January 1374 John of Gaunt was forced to make a truce.
The war continued in Brittany and Normandy. At the siege of St. Saveur le Vicompte Owain was witness to one of the first artillery barrages in history. He was also reported to have been active at sea, fighting in several naval engagements in the Channel. It is also possible that he was involved in raids on the south coast of England.
By the Summer of 1375 both sides, worn out by months of constant fighting , agreed to a truce, which was signed at Bruges on July the 1st Owain however, not one for inactivity, soon found alternative employment for his men and himself.
The Count of Soissons, Enguerrand de Coucy, was raising an army to march against the Duke of Austria. On the 14th of October 1375 Owain signed a contract with the Count for service, with his men, under the Count's command. Owain and his battle hardened veterans formed a large part of de Coucy's army which entered Switzerland later that month, looting and pillaging en route.
The Swiss resisted this invasion, and on the 19th of December, at Buttisholz,
they attacked and defeated a large contingent of Coucy's army, who they. called
Gurglers after the pointed hoods worn by the invaders. A few days later Owain
and his company were caught at night by a surprise attack on their camp in the
Abbey of Fraubrunnen. So effective was the surprise, that the Bernese claimed to
have killed 800 of Owain's men. Owain managed to escape the slaughter but de
Coucy's ambitions were thwarted and the
Owain returned, with what was left of his company, to France, to take up service for King Charles, once more under the command of his old comrade, in arms, Bertrand du Guesclin.
The war with England recommenced in the Summer of 1377. The French from their base at Toulouse, moved against Bergerac on the Dordogne, and by August had invested the town. An English army, under Sir Thomas Felton, left Bordeaux to relieve the siege. At Eymet, on the Dropt, the two armies clashed. Owain played a prominent part in the action, which resulted in the capture of Felton and a French victory. Bergerac soon opened it's gates to the French, who then proceeded to capture other smaller towns in the region, until only Bordeaux and some strategic castles were left in English hands.
On the banks of the river Gironde, 50 miles north of Bordeaux, controlling the sea approaches to the city, stood the fortress of Mortagne. Owain was ordered to go with a considerable force of men and equipment and take this vital castle, thereby completing the stranglehold the French were placing around Bordeaux.
The siege of Mortagne probably started in the Spring of 1378. Later that year Owain was approached by a certain John Lamb, who claimed to bring news from Wales. He asked for employment and an unwitting Owain took him on as his servant Lamb was in fact an agent, in the employ of the Duke of Lancaster. Lamb waited for an opportune moment, then, when Owain was alone and unarmed the assassin struck. Lamb stabbed Owain to death with a short spear that he had concealed on himself, and having completed the deed, took refuge within the walls of Mortagne, for he knew the password to gain entry to the castle. When Owain's men found their leader's body they buried it in the earthworks that had been constructed around his battle headquarters at the Chapel of St. Leger.
So ended the life of Owain ap Thomas ap Rhodri, known as Lawgôch, Prince of Gwynedd, Freebooter, Admiral, General and Chevalier of France.
Owain was said to have married, his name was linked with a Lady Elenore. He is believed to have had property at La Gravelle in the province of Maine, and he was certainly well connected at the French court.
As yet no knowledge of an heir has been discovered, but perhaps there is a record of what happened to the property at La Gravelle and therein clues to the existence and identity of any descendants he may have had.
More information about Owain, and the father history of the Royal House of Gwynedd, may be sleeping in a dusty French archive.