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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.

  • Everyday Life in Tudor London by Stephen Porter

    Life in the City of Thomas Cromwell, William Shakespeare & Anne Boleyn

    London in the late fifteenth century looking west; a painting by John Fulleylove based upon a contemporary illustration. (Author's collection, Everyday Life in Tudor London, Amberley Publishing)

    Tudor London was a large and vibrant city holding an unrivalled position within England as the centre of government, political life and the law; the focus of power and patronage; the hub of overseas and inland trade, with a diverse and flourishing economy. Its wealth and the opportunities which it offered drew aspiring incomers from across the country and attracted a significant inflow of people from abroad, together with new ideas and practices, as London’s overseas trade expanded into new trading regions. Its contacts developed, centred on the commercial world of the City, the court’s artistic interests and patronage, and the humanist intelligentsia’s networks.

    Visitors were aware that the city was inhabited by craftsmen and was not dominated by the aristocracy. Shops lined many of the streets, including the one which crossed the bridge connecting the city with Southwark; an impressive structure which was greatly admired. Cheapside attracted attention for the wealth of its goldsmiths’ and silversmiths’ shops and Watling Street was dominated by wealthy drapers dealing in all sorts of woollen cloth. The houses of the merchants and wealthy craftsmen were impressive but not showy and the streets themselves gave an unfavourable impression, for they were narrow and lined with tall buildings, and so were rather dismal. And their surfaces were foul, because they were badly paved and often wet and muddy, and that carried into the houses. London’s environment was a smelly one, both indoors and out.

    The entrance to Staple Inn, Holborn, erected in 1586, painted by E. W. Haslehust around 1924. The inn was the largest of the Inns of Chancery. (Author's collection, Everyday Life in Tudor London, Amberley Publishing)

    Within the city were more than a hundred parish churches, the great cathedral of St Paul’s and over 30 monastic houses, all of varying sizes. The monastic orders owned many houses across the city and after they were dissolved, in the 1530s, not only were the sites of the monasteries sold, but so too were their properties, and so the mid-century saw a considerable transfer of ownership of property.

    Londoners enjoyed a good and varied diet, with mutton and beef, and plenty of fish, and they were particularly fond of young swans, rabbits, deer, and seabirds. Markets were held along the streets. The principal one was in Cheapside and the names of the adjacent streets indicate their specialities: Honey Lane, Bread Street, Milk Street and Wood Street. A fish market was held in Friday Street on Fridays, although the biggest fish market was at Billingsgate. The poultry dealers traded in the eastwards extension of Cheapside, known as Poultry; at its western end a corn market was held in a churchyard, and beyond that Newgate Street was used by butchers for their slaughter-houses and stalls.

    The Swan playhouse on Bankside, erected in 1595 and sketched by Johannes de Witt in the following year. His sketch was copied and that copy is the only surviving contemporary illustration of a theatre of Shakespeare's time. (Author's collection, Everyday Life in Tudor London, Amberley Publishing)

    To supply the Londoners’ needs, goods, fuel and produce were brought by road, along the Thames and in seagoing and coastal vessels. The carts which supplied the city and those which transported goods from the quaysides along the Thames caused traffic congestion, which worsened during the sixteenth century, as London’s population grew and as the aristocracy, gentry and wealthier merchants took to travelling by coach. Congestion of pedestrians and vehicles was a characteristic and frustrating feature of life in the city. The number of vessels on the river also increased and visitors were impressed by the sheer amount of shipping in the Thames.

    As well as the seagoing vessels and river barges, the Thames seemed to be full of small passenger boats taking two passengers and known as wherries; by the end of the century there were said to be 3,000 of them. They were convenient for theatre-goers who attended performances in the new playhouses on Bankside; others were built in Shoreditch. The late sixteenth century saw the birth of the modern theatre as plays emerged from the court and aristocratic mansions onto a genuinely public stage, where a wide-ranging and constantly expanding repertoire could be enjoyed by everyone for a small charge. But the playhouses were viewed with suspicion, as places which attracted ne’er-do-wells, and the magistrates occasionally tried to suppress them, on moral grounds, and during outbreaks of plague, to deter people from crowding together, which was thought likely to help spread the disease.

    St James's Palace was built by Henry VIII in the 1530s; the Tudor gatehouse survives and was painted by E. W. Haslehust in the early 1920s. (Author's collection, Everyday Life in Tudor London, Amberley Publishing)

    Londoners had a range of other recreations to choose from. That was the period when the Lord Mayor’s show developed into a truly impressive day-long spectacle, with hundreds taking part and thousands lining the route. Bowling alleys, gaming-houses and alehouses were all popular, although the magistrates tried to control the numbers, partly because they were thought to be the resort of idle people who should have been at work. But alehouses were lively meeting places for music and conviviality, with ballads pasted on the walls to encourage communal singing. Inns, taverns and beer gardens were scattered about the city and were used by women as well as men. Women and men mixed freely in Tudor London and travellers commented on the practice of kissing as a greeting, with callers expected to kiss the hostess and her whole household both when they arrived and when they left.

    Tudor London, with its overlapping communities, was a complex, lively and rewarding city in which to live. By the time that the dynasty came to an end in 1603 its population had reached 200,000, having increased fourfold since Henry VII’s accession in 1485. That was just one reflection of how dominant the city was within England, in terms of its economic, social, political, legal and cultural influence. And it had gained a far wider international reach, as its merchants traded with an expanding range of ports across much of the world, and the greater volume and ever-widening variety of fine goods that were imported. Many of them reached London’s myriad shops and households; the congestion in the streets and on the river reflected the city’s industrious and prospering society. Problems remained, for growth brought overcrowding and bad living conditions for the poor, and epidemic diseases could not be prevented, but the rapid recovery from the sporadic outbreaks demonstrated London’s social and economic resilience. A French visitor in 1578 was so enthused by the city that he wrote that ‘rumours of the greatness, prosperity, singularities and splendours of London fly and run to the ends of the whole world’.

    Stephen Porter's new paperback edition of Everyday Life in Tudor London: Life in the City of Thomas Cromwell, William Shakespeare & Anne Boleyn is available for purchase now.

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