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  • Owen Tudor by Terry Breverton

    Founding Father of the Tudor Dynasty

    An Alternative Britain

    Over the last two decades there have been many books positing an alternative history of Britain, if a fictional event had occurred, e.g. if Hitler had invaded, if the Cold War had boiled over, and the like. But do we need these scenarios? For instance, with the surfacing of the obscure Owain ap Maredudd ap Tudur after centuries of Welsh rebellion, we see an almost fictional turn of events leading to the nation’s conversion to Protestantism.

    The coat of arms of Owen Tudor (c. 1400-1461) is almost identical to that of Ednyfed Fychan, but probably included martlets (heraldic swallows), like the arms of his son Jasper. (Courtesy of Sodacon, Owen Tudor, Amberley Publishing)

    His first biography discovers one of the longest and strangest stories in British history, and accounts for the success of his grandson in gaining the throne of England. The tale begins with the Roman departure from Britain around 410, when it seems that the Christianised British expelled their officials – interpretations vary on this matter. The British were constantly attacked by pagan Irish, Scandinavian and Germanic peoples. Eventually, Saxons, Angles and Jutes pushed the British westwards into Strathclyde, Cumbria, what is now Wales and the West Country. Many escaped to Brittany [Bretagne], where the Breton language is very similar to Welsh, and which explains the origin of the term Grande Bretagne, Great Britain.

    Slowly the British parts of England were taken over, with Cornwall, where the British/Welsh language survived until the late eighteenth century, being the last to succumb. The remaining British, in Wales and Brittany, fought off many attempts at invasion. Their hope for a mab darogan, a son of prophecy, to retake England from the Saes [Saxons] with their pagan language [Saesneg], was never extinguished, perpetuated by generations of bards. To add insult to injury, ‘Wales’ and ‘Welsh’ are Germanic terms from this time, meaning foreign. The real names are Cymru and Cymraeg. The British/Welsh were named ‘foreigners’ in their own land. From 1066 the Franco-Danish Normans, led by William the Bastard, quickly took over England, but Wales held its border. Many of the border counties, the English Marches, had large Welsh-speaking populations up to the late fifteenth century, and many of their population supported the Glyndŵr War of 1400-1415.

    Cymru [Wales] struggled to retain independence against a succession of French kings of England, with many invasions into the land, destroying churches, burning crops and taking slaves. Resentment grew, spurred on by the bards, alongside hopes of a promised deliverer to take back British lands and throw the invaders out. In 1282, however, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, Prince of Wales, was lured into a trap by the Mortimers, killed and his army slaughtered after they surrendered. His successor, his brother Dafydd, was captured in 1283 and Edward I personally invented his gruesome torture of hanging, drawing and quartering while alive. Previously victims had been hung until dead and then disembowelled and quartered, with the parts being despatched for display. Edward I borrowed heavily for foreign troops and to build the Iron Ring of castles around Gwynedd, reneging upon his massive debts to Italian bankers.

    Catherine de Valois, widow of Henry V, mother of Henry VI (1421-71), who secretly married Owen Tudor and was the grandmother of Henry VII. (Author's collection, Owen Tudor, Amberley Publishing)

    However, there was still constant revolt across Wales, with a succession of meibion darogan [sons of prophecy]. In 1400, an English army was sent across North Wales to deal with the Tudur brothers of Anglesey. They belonged to one of the noble houses of Wales, directly descended from Llywelyn the Great’s seneschal Ednyfed Fychan. They rose in favour of their employer, the deposed Richard II against his murderer Henry IV. Their rising came to be led by a new ‘son of prophecy’, their relation Owain Glyndŵr, and the Welsh fought off ten armies in six invasions of Wales from 1400-1415. The Welsh even invaded England as far as Worcester once, with French help. Ednyfed Fychan’s line had fought the English for centuries, but three of the Tudur brothers were killed, one by hanging, drawing and quartering. Maredudd ap Tudur left a son Owain, born at the start of the war, in 1400. He was probably brought up by the Scudamores of Kentchurch, kinsmen of Philip Scudamore of Troy, who was executed for his part in supporting Glyndŵr.

    Somehow, now known as Owen Meredith, Owain joined the retinue of Baron Hungerford, Steward of the King’s Household in 1420-1421. Nearly all his direct ancestors had fought the English. He may well have fought at Agincourt in 1415, and certainly, growing to manhood during the Glyndŵr War, will have been experienced in arms. In 1422 Owen was appointed as the head of household for Henry V’s 21-year-old widow Catherine of Valois. There is a detailed description in the book of the queen’s upbringing and her brief marriage to Henry V, a man in part of unheroic tendencies. Being not allowed to marry, Catherine clandestinely married Owen in 1428. In secrecy, at the bishops’ palaces of Much Hadham and Hatfield, Catherine gave birth to Edmund Tudor in 1430 and Jasper in 1431. Another son became a monk, but Catherine died in childbirth in 1437. Owen was thrown into prison, escaped, and was captured again.

    However, in 1439 he was released, pardoned by his stepson Henry VI, granted a pension and a place at court and his lands restored. Catherine’s young son Henry VI had no immediate family and ennobled his half-brothers Edmund and Jasper as the earls of Richmond and Pembroke in 1452. Owen Tudor served his stepson Henry VI as a captain in the defence of Normandy, before fighting with his sons on the Lancastrian side in the Wars of the Roses [1455-1487 – they did not end at Bosworth]. Edmund Tudor was captured and died in 1456, and his son Henry was born a few months later to Margaret Beaufort. His father and brother fought on, but at the battle of Mortimer’s Cross in 1461, Owen and Jasper were defeated by Edward, Duke of York. Jasper escaped to fight again but Owen was captured and executed.

    The impressive Carreg Cennen Castle stands on a rocky crag in Carmarthenshire, and was taken by Owen's son Edmund, Earl of Richmond, from the Yorkists in 1456. (Author's Collection, Owen Tudor, Amberley Publishing)

    As well as this first biography of Owen Tudor, I also wrote the first biography of Jasper, a man who fought from the first to the last battle of the Wars of the Roses, 32 years in total, without whom Henry Tudor could never have taken the crown. Which neatly brings us back to alternative histories. Edmund and Jasper Tudor were successively great hopes for the British-Welsh, lauded as inheritors of the age-old prophecy that the Welsh would drive the English back out of the country. Upon Henry Tudor’s adulthood, spent in Brittany and France to escape death by Yorkists, Henry assumed the mantle of mab darogan.

    Henry and Jasper invaded through Wales, support growing all the way, and many, many of Edward IV’s Yorkist followers joined him [including most of the late king’s bodyguard]. Richard III was deserted by nearly all the English nobility at Bosworth in 1485. The mother and sister of the princes he killed [Edward IV’s sons] threw their support behind Henry, which led to Henry marring Elizabeth of York, beginning the Tudor Dynasty. [My books on Richard III and Henry VII make the case for a cathedral interment of Richard’s bones as being quite astounding]. And here we come to ‘real’ alternative history – a man from a long line of nationalists secretly marries the queen of one of England’s greatest heroes. His son fights through the Wars of the Roses. The other son posthumously has a son who takes the crown of England. In turn, his son Henry VIII and granddaughter Elizabeth I turn England and Wales away from Catholicism. And, of course, without Owain’s intervention in history, we would have no Gunpowder Treason Day, which became Guy Fawkes’ Night. Who needs historical fiction when facts are much more interesting?

    Terry Breverton's new paperback edition of Owen Tudor: Founding Father of the Tudor Dynasty is available for purchase now.

  • Brexit, King Charles I and Henrietta Maria by Dominic Pearce

    When I look for something in history that is like Brexit, I find the Scottish prayer-book rebellion against Charles I.

    Charles I - poised and withdrawn. Daniel Mytens. (c. Private collection, Henrietta Maria, Amberley Publishing)

    In summer 1637 the Scots in their thousands rejected the religious liturgy which the king wanted to impose on them. The year before he had introduced new Canons (church law) and now asked his northern kingdom to accept and use a new prayer-book. It was drafted largely by Englishmen under the guidance of Archbishop William Laud of Canterbury. The Scots had not objected to the Canons. They said no to the prayer-book.

    On 28 February 1638 the rebel Scottish leaders produced their manifesto: the National Covenant. It was signed throughout Scotland and is one of the great documents of history. The Covenant proclaimed loyalty to the king but said no to the changes he wanted.

    This was the Brexit moment. A nationalist response to foreign imposition. That was then, this is now. The National Covenant of 1638 was an agreement not only with the other subscribers but with God.

    The prayer-book rebellion was not secession. Scotland was a separate and independent country. It just happened to have the same king as England. The Scots had their own Privy Council, their own parliament, their own laws, their own church (the Kirk). They wanted to keep it that way.

    On the path to war

    It began with a riot in church after the congregation pelted the Dean of Edinburgh, when he started to read from the new prayer-book, with whatever came to hand, including the stools on which they sat (23 July 1637). According to legend the first to attack was Jenny Geddes who rose to her feet yelling ‘Daur ye say Masse in my lug (ear)?’ To Jenny the project seemed ‘Romisch superstition.’ The Bishop of Edinburgh was attacked in the street after the service (but survived).

    The Covenanting movement led to war. First the two Bishops Wars of 1639 and 1640, between the Scots and their monarch.

    They were Bishops Wars because the Scots wanted to get rid, not just of the new prayer-book, but of their bishops. In the first Bishops War not a blow was struck. In the second, contrary to the king’s plan, a Scottish army invaded northern England and occupied Newcastle. Incidentally this army was led for a time by the subject of the book I am now writing, James Graham, first Marquis of Montrose.

    More dramatically the Scottish prayer-book rebellion led to the outbreak of civil war in England. There are a hundred twists and turns on the way. But there is no doubt that it was trouble in Scotland that opened the floodgates in England (also in Ireland, the third Stuart kingdom).

    Henriette Marie and Charles I. Engraving by Robert van Voerst, 1634. (c. Rijksmuseum, Henrietta Maria, Amberley Publishing)

    Fast and loose…

    My feeling, when I wrote my biography of Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I, was that Henrietta Maria would have made a better king than her husband, and it remains my feeling. She certainly did what she could for Charles I and the Stuart family, including literally standing in the line of parliamentary fire. As thing were, could she have prevented the Scottish collapse? It seems unlikely.

    Not that I wish to deny the king’s qualities. He was an admirable person, much more so than some of his predecessors and successors on the throne. He was energetic, high-principled, a devoted family man, aesthetically discerning, a stickler for the law up to a point. His eleven years of personal rule in England (1630-1641), the period when he dispensed with parliaments, were unpopular with many influential people. But they were years of legalistic government.

    Still one cannot deny that Charles I played fast and loose with that delicate animal, the English constitution. He imprisoned a number of the men who refused to pay or assist in the collection of his forced loan of 1628. He imprisoned Members of Parliament after undignified scenes in the House of Commons in the last days of the 1628-1629 parliament. One, Sir John Eliot, died in the Tower.

    Those undignified scenes included physical assault. The Speaker, Sir John Finch, when he tried to adjourn the session by leaving the House, was wrestled and held in his chair by Denzil Holles and Benjamin Valentine. Finch was held down to allow a protestation to be read (by Sir John Eliot) against royal policy in religion and finance.

    Charles I, at St Margaret's Westminster. (c. Author's collection, Henrietta Maria, Amberley Publishing)

    The nature of the king

    Scholars have gone almost mad trying to pin down what went wrong in the seventeenth century. It is hard to exaggerate the importance of the Civil War. It scared the life out of the ruling classes of the later seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries and led to the parliamentary system which distinguishes British history.

    In the nineteenth century the Civil War became a romantic dream of cavaliers and roundheads. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries Scottish nationalism was reborn and is growing up fast helped by the Brexit vote of 2016. This blog is not the time to explore the history of Ireland but that country above all bears the marks of those struggles four centuries ago.

    On the whole historians agree that the character of Charles I was at the heart of the matter. If he was dealt a difficult hand, he played the wrong cards. However it is hard to challenge the proposal that the king, if perhaps he succeeded as a martyr, was a failure as king.

    The failure of Charles I was not the iron fist of autocracy. His failure was political clumsiness. He could not read minds. He could not, until very late in the day, read situations. He did not judge loyalty well. Unlike his father and his eldest son he could not see that even a king must embrace, from time to time, the art of compromise, perhaps a king most of all. And, far from being his wife’s lapdog, as his enemies proclaimed, it could be said he did not listen to her enough.

    Dominic Pearce's new paperback edition of Henrietta Maria is available for purchase now.

  • Zealots by Oliver Thomson

    How a Group of Scottish Conspirators unleashed half a Century of War in Britain

    The entrance to Dunfermline Palace in Fife where ironically Charles I was born within a few miles of the men who were to initiate his downfall. (Zealots, Amberley Publishing)

    When I first thought of this book a couple of years ago I was going to call it Scottish Jihad, for Islamic Jihads were all in the news and I was curious to see how religious fanatics in 17th century Britain compared with those in Al Qaeda. The key difference was that AQ jihadists were mainly indoctrinated to accept the likelihood of a swift death, whereas the rebellious Scots in 1639 had to face the probability of torture and an unpleasant form of execution.

    Thus the Scottish Presbyterians who felt so strongly about getting rid of bishops were actually tasking a slightly bigger risk than the present day jihadists.

    Nor could we describe the Scots as radicalised or even indoctrinated for they were for the most part comfortably off ordinary men and women made angry by a dictatorial religious regime dictated from Canterbury. Both sides in the argument were of course Christian and Protestant, so the war they were starting was to be the most serious between two branches of Protestantism and to modern eyes the religious differences might seem quite petty.

    Charles I. (Zealots, Amberley Publishing)

    What makes it all the more significant is that it was this grouping of Scots Presbyterians who fired the first shots in what became the English Civil War or the Wars of Three Kingdoms. While much is made of the grievances of the English Parliament against the stubborn Charles I, none of the so-called Roundheads took up arms against the king till well after the Scots had done so first. It was these piously angry Scots who, by sending an army over the Border into England, demonstrated that the king’s troops were far from invincible. A gap of more than three years during which the Scots had taken huge risks, humiliated the royal army and made it much easier for the parliamentarians to start recruiting an army of their own.

    Having spent some time researching the psychology of the horrendous religious wars after the Reformation, the Catholic against Protestant wars in France, Holland and Germany, I was still interested in how this compared with 21st century jihads and the tragic fact that religious differences should lead to so much violence.

    It was after this that I was on a short walking holiday on the magnificent Fife coastal path that I began to notice how many of the main conspirators who had organised the two Bishops Wars were actually based in Fife and lived so close to each other. So I researched this further. The small Fife ports, particularly Crail, had been heavily involved in transporting ambitious young Fifers across the North Sea to fight as mercenaries in Germany during the Thirty Years War. Many of these men had been remarkably successful, especially the Leslie family which had produced a field marshal, a general and half a dozen colonels, all of them now ready to return home since the Thirty Years War was drawing to a close.

    The Battle of Bothwell Bridge. (Zealots, Amberley Publishing)

    Meanwhile the senior member of the Leslie clan, John Earl of Rothes, based in what is now Glenrothes, was taking the lead in a plot to start a rebellion against the religious policies of Charles I. He was thus perfectly placed for recruiting his own relations to form an army and bring in their other ex-colleagues, many of them Fifers, from Germany. The Earl also had a team of extremely able church ministers working with congregations along the Fife coast, all keen to start a rebellion and all well able to motivate the local population. Thus in 1639 Fife had a combination of military muscle, aristocratic support, fanatical churchmen and money that could not be matched anywhere else in Britain. It was thus the Fife Conspiracy that launched Scotland into a series of nine wars and England into three.

    Once the Scottish religious rebellion, the two Bishops Wars, had created the spark for the English Civil War, the affair south of the border became for a time more political than religious. But for the Scots it was still religious which accounts for the fact that in 1648 they changed sides from Roundhead to Royalist with disastrous results. The overall cost in lives for Scotland is reckoned as about 60,000, not counting plague deaths resulting from troop concentrations and harvest trashing. While I was looking at the casualties I accidentally found one that became quite personal. In 1679 Charles II sent an army to crush the Scottish Covenanters in the Battle of Bothwell Bridge on the Clyde. It was a rout and the survivors were marched to Edinburgh from which several hundred were to be transported to the colonies as indentured labour. Their prison ship the Crown of London was hit by a storm off the Orkneys and to avoid prisoners surviving the captain locked them in the hold. Only a few did survive and of those only four avoided recapture. One of those four seems almost certainly to have been an ancestor of my wife, hence the dedication of this book. It’s a small world.

    Oliver Thomson's new book Zealots: How a Group of Scottish Conspirators Unleashed Half a Century of War in Britain is available for purchase now.

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